Lifeswap – Chapters 7- 9

Chapter 7

The next three days were painful and frustrating, for me at least. The one major consolation – and it really made it all worthwhile – was to see the lift in Laura’s spirits. The smile was back, the only shades of disquiet showing when she caught sight of me from time to time.

There was an oddness. I still thought of her as Laura, even though she was back in my body. Even though that was where we both wanted her to stay. I suppose I had spent a week getting back to being Jerry, and even after my most recent transformation I was still male. Maybe more than that. I was in denial over being stuck in Tony’s body, just as Laura had been, so to me this was an in-between phase with my mind-set still firmly ensconced in my most recent incarnation.

It made me all the more committed to bringing this to the conclusion we all wanted – with the exception of Tony of course. Sunday I sashayed about the house. Massively overdoing the girly actions, and drawing great gales of laughter from both Danny and Laura. I worked on softening my voice as well. It would never be feminine, but with care, I could raise the register a little and talk in a sort of sultry half-whisper that sounded like I was at least making an effort. By the end of the day, my feet were killing me and the blisters on my heels had grown large enough to burst.

Laura made me stop after that and I gratefully sat down in front of the telly with a glass of wine. I kept the dress on as I wanted to become as comfortable as possible in it – or more likely get as used to the discomfort as possible – before my debut in the big wide world on Wednesday.

The next day Laura headed out early to buy some blister plasters. There was a make she’d used before on the odd occasion she’d been stuck in painful shoes for too many days. They were expensive, but not only were they padded and anti-septic, but they incorporated a small amount of a local anaesthetic that took away all the tenderness of my damaged feet.

She bought a selection, so I was able to pre-empt similar blisters appearing on my toes and the balls of my feet. So comforted, I was able to get back to my practice and spent Monday and Tuesday walking about the house, mainly upstairs and out of view of curious eyes. Over the two days I gradually reduced the exaggeration of movement so that by the time Laura and Danny came back on the Tuesday with the means to make us a decent meal, they were quietly impressed with my more natural movements.

I did the cooking with Danny helping out. Laura has never been a great cook, and now that she was back to being me, she showed pretty much no interest. I don’t know if Danny was being affected by the hormones his body was producing, or if he was reasonably well domesticated through living with his mother. Either way, I was grateful for the help, and three quarters of an hour later, with an inward sigh of relief for the break from takeaway foods, we sat down to plates full of carbonara and salad along with a decent Chianti.

It was still early when we’d finished eating. It would have been a good idea to head for bed even so, as I had a couple of hours preparation to do the following morning before we could go anywhere, but we were all a bit jumpy and I doubt any of us would have slept.

“Call the guys,” I said to Laura. “Let’s give them another chance to use the bowl before we finish this once and for all.”

So she did, and half an hour later the shop van turned up in our driveway with our three co-workers inside.

The same as the others, they burst into gales of laughter at the sight of me. To be honest, I’d been wearing the dress so much over the past few days it almost felt natural, and I’d forgotten it might seem a little odd.

Initial reactions out of the way and beers and wines handed round to everyone who wanted, we sat them down in the lounge, and Laura went to fetch the bowl from the safe.

She placed it on the table between them and stepped back. They stared at it for several seconds then looked up at me expectantly.

“We know what you said about the idea of you three changing back the other week,” I started, “and we don’t want to try and push you guys one way or another. It’s just that after tomorrow, this bowl is going to be destroyed and any chance you three have of getting your old lives back will be gone. We thought it would be more real to you if the bowl was there in front of you. You know, the way it seems easy to spend several hundred quid by handing over a credit card, but if you had those several hundred quid in your hand, you’d probably be less likely to spend it?”

The three of them stared at the bowl for a long while, nobody saying anything. Eventually, after a long minute or two, Peter and Michael looked across at Randy and gave him the nod he’d been waiting for. Randy had been the spokesman for the trio for as long as they’d worked for us, so it wasn’t entirely surprising.

He took a while to put his thoughts in order, then he looked up at us and smiled a gentle smile.

“I won’t pretend that the change was something any of us particularly wanted. Pete, who used to be Mike, got my beer gut, Mike, who used to be Randy, ended up being shorter and weedier than he was in this body, and I ended up with Randy’s male pattern baldness. I guess you could say it was gains and losses all round, but for the most part it was just a mess.

“We were right royally pissed with Tony when it happened, especially when he told us the bowl had been broken and there was no way for us to change back. I doubt it’d surprise you that was when we parted company. I mean who’d work for an arsehole like that? We made sure everyone we knew steered clear of him as well, which made it harder for him to carry on with his schemes. You could say he had a reason to be annoyed with us, because once he was on his own, his business tanked.

“We had more reason to be fed up with him though. We all went through several weeks of denial, until one of us wised up enough to get us all together and talk things through.”

Mike and Pete both pointed at Randy, in case there was any doubt who’d taken the initiative. Randy held up his hands in surrender. No hope trying to be modest and self-effacing.

“We talked things through and decided what can’t be cured must be endured. If we had to live each other’s lives, we’d try and make it easy on each other. We’d only been sort of work colleagues before, but this made us friends. We each told the other what they needed to know to be the person they’d become. None of us was married or anything like that, so it wasn’t too big a deal.

“It turned out when we started focusing on the positives we actually started appreciating the changes. It was kind of a chance at a new start, and you know, there’s nothing like having your life fucked with – pardon my French – to make you realise the effect you have on other people when you fuck with them.

“We were complicit in trying to steal your wealth, and it wasn’t the first time we’d done something illegal. It was the first time something crap had happened to us though, and I guess, feeling as bad as we did over what had been done to us, we figured it was a good time to stop being arseholes ourselves.

“It was a surprise when you offered us jobs at your shop. You thought you were bailing us out after Tony went bust, but we hadn’t worked for the shit for some months. We hadn’t worked at much to be honest. You know, criminal activity isn’t the first thing you’d think of putting on a job application, and Tony wasn’t about to offer us references either. We were bloody grateful for the offer, and we all of us pretty much made up our minds you wouldn’t regret giving us the chance.”

“And we haven’t,” Laura said, perhaps a little unnecessarily.

“Anyway, we did discuss this a while back. On the whole I don’t think any of us lost anything in the change we can’t do without,” the other two were shaking their heads offering their agreement, “and we all feel that we’ve come out the other side as better people.” Nods now from Mike and Pete. “So if it’s all the same to you, and don’t get me wrong, we’re grateful for you offering us the opportunity to change back, we’ll stay as we are. It’s a daily reminder of who we used to be and the incentive we needed to change.

“Besides, we’re getting on with our lives now. Mike has a girlfriend, and Pete’s into all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily interest Mike and me. Changing back now would just be confusing.”

“Besides, who’d want to go through that whole freaky thing when the change happens?” Mike added in a rare contribution.

There didn’t seem anything else worth saying. The resolution on each of their faces was firm, so content that no-one was being coerced into a decision they didn’t want to make, Laura put the bowl back in its safe place.

We continued to talk into the night. Nothing of great interest; little bits of nothing about what the three of them were up to when they weren’t working, what plans Laura and I had for the shop when we were both back to being Jerry and me. It wiled away the time and we let the three of them go just before the witching hour, stifling yawns ourselves.

I still didn’t dare go too near the front door for fear of being spotted by the ever present police outside our gates, but Laura waved goodbye to them from the door with me standing just behind. We headed back to the kitchen where Danny had just put together three mugs of cocoa.

We thanked him, but he waved his hands at us.

“Nah, it’s me what’s gotta fank you,” he said. “You two really are the good guys ‘ere. It weren’t you’re fault this ‘appened to me, but you done your best by me and me mum. When it’s all done, wha’ever ‘appens next, you gotta know you can call on me any time.”

There didn’t seem to be much else to say after that, so we took our drinks upstairs and changed for bed.

With breast and hip enhancements still glued in place, I was limited in what I could actually wear to bed. None of my tee-shirts and boxers would fit comfortably over the bits glued to my body, so I made do with a rather shapeless nightdress Laura had bought me on the Monday. There was as always that awkwardness between Laura and myself as he looked at the face of the man who’d brought so much grief into our lives and struggled to find the woman he loved under the surface.

“Tomorrow things will be different,” I said, making a promise I hoped I could keep. I rolled away from him, feeling only slightly less awkward than he did. Despite my anxiety about the day to come, I fell asleep easily.

-oOo-

My alarm went off at six, and I stifled it as quickly as I could, hoping not to rouse Laura. As Jerry I’d been able to do early mornings, but always preferred not to. Laura, being back in my old body, murmured gently in her sleep but didn’t rouse.

I snuck into the en suite, started with a careful shave to get the least evidence of stubble off my face, then followed it with a good long shower which did away with the excess lather on my face and gave me a chance to scan this body I hoped I wouldn’t be wearing for much longer for any recalcitrant hairs that might have poked up while I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately I didn’t have to do too much work with the razor.

Once I’d dried off, I checked my prosthetics. Everything was reasonably secure, so I simply added a touch of foundation here and there to mask the joins and moved on to the next step. Oversized knickers and bra, still struggling to reach and contain all I had to offer. Tights came next, as luxuriant a feel as ever, especially with denuded legs, then a rather large corset which I strained to attach over Tony’s paunch, then strained further to tighten. I wasn’t going for a wasp waist here, just a little bit of shape, but it was a struggle even so, especially doing it on my own.

Next came the make-up. As Laura, I’d never needed to apply much, and found the overall effect was best served by keeping things to a minimum, but Tony’s face was a different matter. For one thing his facial hair was dark and grew back quite swiftly, so I needed a fairly thick plastering job to hide the five o’clock shadow that usually made its appearance about lunchtime in Tony’s case. Furthermore, he had what could only be described as rugged features, so again a fairly liberal amount of foundation was needed to smooth out many of the blemishes.

The rest of it – the blusher, the mascara and eye-shadow, the lip-gloss – all of it needed adding in reasonably copious quantities, but within the very narrow range that divided too little – looks like a man from too much – looks like a clown. This part of my preparations took most of my time, with numerous applications and wipings off until I had done the best I could. The last of it I did with the wig in place to make sure the overall effect worked well enough.

Back in the bedroom, the alarm clock read quarter past eight. The earliest visiting hours at the hospital started at nine-thirty, and we wanted to get in and get this done as soon as possible. I gave Laura a gentle tap on the leg before retrieving my dress from its hanger.

“Wake up sleepy-head,” I sung to him in the softest, most feminine voice I’d been able to manage with Tony’s vocal chords, and slipped my less than sylph-like figure into the acres of floral print I’d been wearing the past few days. I noticed a few creases in the skirt and stepped back out of it.

“My, don’t you look lovely today?” Laura grumped as she climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.

“You know I’m doing this for you, darling.” I called after her and headed downstairs in search of an iron.

Danny was up and making breakfast, as he had been the previous few days. She gave me a double-take as I opened the cupboard with the iron and ironing board in it.

“Bloody ‘ell mate. That’s no’ somefing anyone should ‘ave to see first fing in the morning.”

The ironing board was one of those built-in-to-the-cupboard sorts which folded out, so it was a matter of seconds before the iron was plugged in and I was sorting out my minor wardrobe malfunctions.

“What about Tony’s wife?” I asked. “Mary would have had to deal with this every day she was married to him.”

“No’ in tha’ gettup. It’s enough to make you want to puke.”

I gave him a glance as I flattened out the last crease. “What about people who are stuck like this for real? I’d have thought being stuck in a body that didn’t fit would have made you a bit more sympathetic.”

“Sympafy’s one fing, but, I don’t know, it’s a bit like when you see a fat bird in skin tight clothes and stuff. You know, there’s stuff you just don’t go around showing off in public.”

I stepped into the dress and struggled to do the zip up. Danny came to my rescue, handing me a cup of coffee and taking over with the zip and clip at the back of the dress.

“Why do they pu’ the zip where you can’t bloody reach i’?” Danny asked as he closed the catch.

“Women’s clothes are more about looks than convenience, so the fastenings are put in places where they can’t be seen so easily. Girls are also used to helping each other, so it doesn’t matter if that means they’re in awkward places. Girls tend to be more supple for one thing. For another, there’s usually someone else around to help do things up. It’s the same with women’s buttons. They’re on the opposite side to men’s because that makes it easier for someone else to do the fastening. Goes back to the days when women who wore dresses with buttons were wealthy enough to have servants. The men did as well, but they prefer to do their own dressing.”

“Fuck. How d’you know all tha’ shi’?”

“Vested interest I suppose. Remember, that’s my body you’re wearing at the moment, even if it wasn’t the one I was born into, it’s the one I feel at home in.”

“Yeah, well the sooner we get fings changed back, the better. Where’s your bloke?”

“Should be down in a minute. I left him heading for the bathroom five minutes ago.”

True to expectations, Laura made an appearance a few seconds later. Casually dressed in slacks and a loose polo-neck sweater, she looked just right. Danny had on a pair of tightish jeans and a shirt-like blouse, which meant that between the two of them, I felt just a trifle overdressed. Still it would fit with the sort of impression I was trying to make. Most men who manage to break through their inhibitions enough to go out in public in women’s clothes do so with a flamboyant exuberance, and I was anything but subtle.

“Don’t forget your glasses love,” Laura said as she passed me a pair of pink, large frame spectacles. The lenses were plain glass, but they went a long way to hiding Tony’s appearance.

Danny passed out plates of scrambled eggs and toast, and we dug in to a much needed breakfast. Dishes unwashed in the sink, coffee finished, we did a last inventory check.

Lauara collected the bowl from the safe and put it into the padded bag Tony had been carrying it around in. Danny took possession of Laura’s car keys, I held on to the ratty Toyota key, and gave Danny’s large bunch of house keys to Laura.

The day was grey with a low overcast, so it seemed natural that we should keep the top up on the Maserati. With the lid on, it was difficult to make out any details of who might be in the back, so I felt safe enough remaining seated as we pulled out of the drive.

Our watchdogs were a little more observant than we suspected though, and a few moments later, unbeknownst to us, an unmarked car pulled out behind us.

The Maserati was a nimble enough vehicle, and without either knowing or trying, we pulled ahead of our tail. It was also hard to miss in a crowd, so the following police officers were able to keep us in sight, despite the growing distance between us. We turned into the short term car park at the hospital – the more expensive one – and found ourselves a slot close to the main entrance.

I was attracting a lot of attention as we approached the main entrance. I hadn’t expected to feel as self-conscious as I did, and I found myself looking around nervously as the doors slid open. Which was when I caught sight of the police car. It was unmarked and with a couple of plain clothes coppers inside, but it was still crawling unnecessarily slowly past the car park. Then the driver pointed at the Maserati and stopped long enough for his colleague to jump out.

I swept the other two into the main entrance, still drawing pretty much everyone’s attention. We knew where we were going, so headed directly for the lifts, outraged eyes following my passage in particular. With every disdainful look that came my way, I simply smiled and walked on.

We reached the elevators as the first policeman appeared and made his way over to the reception. He handed over a photograph to the girl behind the desk, and looked around him. Incredibly, he looked directly at me, his face showing disgust but no recognition. He didn’t even seem to spot Danny and Laura before the receptionist handed him back the photograph with a shake of her head.

Following her negative response, he set about stopping everyone near him, showing them the picture. In that regard my disguise worked perfectly. Shocked as they had been by their encounter with a giant transvestite, none of them were able to connect the large balding man in the photograph with the large, bespectacled cross-dresser they had so recently seen. They all answered in the negative, and with no-one obvious to follow, the policeman settled to wait for his partner.

The lift doors opened behind us, and we made our escape unnoticed.

-oOo-

Tony was asleep when we arrived, or at least seemed to be. Apparently the doctor had been giving him something to keep him calm for some nights. He no longer wore any restraints, but between the doctor’s consideration that he needed some rest, and the expectation that he’d probably try and escape if left unchecked overnight, the sleeping pill seemed the best compromise.

We joined him in his room and put our paraphernalia together. Bowl out and each of us with keys ready, I looked at Tony. It felt like a change was possible. I raised an eyebrow at Danny who swallowed and nodded. Tony’s swap with Laura had taken place in the early hours of last Wednesday, and with Danny just an hour or so later, so we should both be several hours beyond the seven day restriction. I gave Laura a nod, and she placed Danny’s keys in Tony’s hand and shook his arm to wake him up.

“Wheurgh?” Either Tony wasn’t a morning person or the pills were still having some effect. Laura manoeuvred his hand till it was over the bowl and tapped it lightly. Dutifully he relaxed and Danny’s keys fell into the bowl with a loud clatter. It wasn’t much different from the way he’d tricked Laura into switching bodies with him, so we felt confident it would work.

The noise was enough to bring Tony out of his stupor. He shook his head and looked with blank incomprehension at the three of us.

Danny and I added our keys to the bowl in quick succession, then with a nudge of encouragement, Danny reached in and retrieved his large set of house keys. I went next, taking the ones with the VW fob.

We turned to the bewildered and befuddled Tony staring blankly back at the three of us.

Laura took the bowl and offered it to him, a victorious smile settling on her lips.

“What the fuck?”

Tony had gone from Laura’s face to Danny’s, the glimmerings of coherent thought sparking in the back of his eyes as he took in the faces of the two people he hated most in the world, then he turned to me and completely lost the plot.

I removed the glasses to give him a better chance of recognising his own face. It still took a while, but eventually comprehension dawned.

“Bugger me backwards. I always suspected you were a girl Jerry, but not enough to do something like this.”

“How else was I going to sneak your face into a place this public without being recognised.”

“Take the keys Tony,” Laura said pushing the bowl towards him again, “you know you don’t have a choice.”

He looked back and forth between the three of us, glancing every now and again at the one set of keys remaining in the bowl. We sat patiently waiting for the urge to pick them out to become undeniable. He held on, sweat beginning to bead his brow.

“I am not going to let you turn me into that!” he said, sweeping his hand in my general direction.

“Like I said,” Laura told him quietly, “you don’t have much choice.”

His hand moved towards the bowl, more or less involuntarily, shaking violently like a man with advanced Parkinson’s. His teeth were gritted as he fought for control.

“There… is… always… a… choice!”

The last word came out as a shout as he reversed his efforts, and instead of fighting against the magical urge with all his strength, he turned the motion into a violent smash of his fist.

The bowl spun out of Laura’s hand and we watched horrified as it arced gracefully across the room, beyond anyone’s reach, bounced off the wall and fell with a crack onto the hard, lino covered floor.

“No!”

It might have been me crying out had I not been so stunned by what had just happened. It should have been me. It was the voice I’d been expecting to use next, but instead it was a cry of unimaginable anguish that tore from Danny’s throat. Danny who was still stuck in Laura’s body. Danny who had only been able to hold things together by hanging on to the desperate hope of getting his body back today. Danny who was too much a man to be able to embrace life as a woman. Danny stared at the three fragments of bowl that were all that remained of his only chance of returning to his normal life, and gave in to fathomless, dark despair.

The nurses came running at the sound, as did a doctor, as did the two policemen who had been tailing us. The driver, through some means of superior detection, had managed to follow the three of us up to Tony’s ward, and now Danny’s screams had brought them running the rest of the way.

Tony was lying back with a triumphant smile of his own on his face. “Always a choice,” he muttered over and over, chuckling quietly to himself.

The nurses grabbed Danny and held him still while the doctor found a sedative and injected it into his arm. Probably her arm now as there was no longer any sense in believing he could ever be male again.

Laura was busy gathering the fragments of bowl, one of which still held Tony’s Toyota keys. She slipped them all into the padded bag we’d used to bring the bowl with us, but what was the point? This was the last of the bowls, and it was now as damaged as the rest.

I retreated as deep inside myself as I could. Part of me refused to accept what had just happened. I couldn’t be stuck as Tony. I couldn’t accept that this was my life now. That I’d go to jail for a crime I never committed, that I’d never see Laura – now forever Jerry – again. I refused to be a part of a world where that was my future, and my only alternative to facing harsh reality was to hide deep, deep inside myself.

I was only dimly aware of rough hands grabbing hold of me, smashing me against a wall, of cold steel being wrapped around my wrists, of some dim and distant voice droning on about my rights, of being marched away out the turbulent storm of faces Tony’s small room had become.

-oOo-

You can only hide from life for so long. Something has to give, and usually it’s you. I returned, ever so reluctantly, to the real world and its looming horrors.

I found myself in a holding cell. Ten feet by six with a bunk bed, a table and chair and fortunately no cell-mate. I was sitting in the chair, staring at the green, metal door, recessed into a gap in the grey concrete walls. I was still wearing the dress and wig, though things had become a little mussed in the confusion of my arrest.

The corner of the cell held a stainless steel toilet and small sink, with a small cabinet with mirror doors above it. A quick look in the mirror was all I needed to see what a disaster my makeup had turned into. I didn’t need the disguise anymore anyway. Where I was going it wouldn’t help at all for people to know how I’d been dressed when I was arrested.

I pulled off the wig and set about stripping off my clothes. I could just about reach the catch at the back of the dress, and to push the zip down an inch or two, but beyond that I was stuck. I tried reaching under and reaching over, I tried rubbing it against the bunk, but it wouldn’t budge any further. In the end a surge of anger rose from some hidden depth and I pulled at the dress until it gave at the seams. After that it was relatively easy, except that I was left with a pile of torn rags at my feet.

The corset, bra, tights and knickers came next, and with considerably less difficulty. I washed my face in the sink, scrubbing over and again until I couldn’t find even a hint of the makeup that had been there, then in the absence of a towel, I used one of the pillows to dry myself off.

The false boobs and hips were a problem. I’d used a special adhesive to attach them, and needed an equally special solvent to remove them. Something I’d put in my handbag before coming out today, but since said handbag had been taken from me when I was arrested, there wasn’t much I could do about them. With enough brute force and ignorance I could probably tear them apart, but it would hurt, and it probably wouldn’t help much anyway. There would likely be enough left over for people to guess the rest, or to confirm stories that would inevitably follow me.

Standing naked and hairless, it wasn’t long before the cold started to settle in. I stripped the sheet and blanket off the bottom bunk and wrapped them round me, more for warmth than decency, then settled back down on the chair to wait for whatever came next.

I tried to think of Laura and Danny, of what had gone so hopelessly wrong, but the memory and all it meant was too painful, and my mind shied away from it. Instead I allowed my thoughts to go blank and settled into the same fugue state I’d been in since my arrest.

The next thing I knew was the sound of a key in the lock and the cheerful, no-nonsense face of the duty sergeant appearing through the door.

“’Ello gorgeous,” he said with a smile that could have survived a nuclear explosion. “Your brief’s ‘ere, but you’ll ‘ave to put some clothes on if you want to see ‘im.”

I stared at him blankly until he shrugged. “You’re funeral mate. I’ll check back in ‘alf an hour. If you’re dressed I’ll take you to see ‘im.”

Half an hour passed in a timeless moment. I knew nothing of it except the sound of the key turning in the lock again and the sergeant’s frustrated sigh.

“Come on Tinkerbell. It’s your money you’re wasting, and it’s me who’s gonna get it if you don’t show a bit o’ willin’.” He stepped into the cell and stooped to pick up my dress. “Well you’ve fucked this up proper good, ain’tcha? Fine, I’ll get you something else.”

The door clanged closed again, the key turned again, I was left to my nothingness for another few minutes – or hours; who could tell? The door opened once more and the sergeant tossed me a lurid green and yellow jumpsuit. I let it fall to the floor without making any effort to grab it.

“Look, it’s your fault. If you didn’t want to wear one of these monkey suits, you shouldn’t o’ shredded your own clothes.”

He picked it up, tore open the Velcro fastening at the front and held it for me to climb into.

“Come on mate. It’ll be better for both our sakes.”

I let the bedclothes drop and stood up, giving him a clear view of my added extras. Ignoring his struggles to keep a straight face, I stepped into the jumpsuit, shrugging my way into the sleeves and pulling together the fastenings. Fortunately it was baggy enough to accommodate the bits of silicon attached to my body.

The sergeant led me out of the cell and down a bleak, grey corridor to a small room with a table and two chairs in the middle. Paul Burrows was sitting at one of them.

He rose as I stepped into the room and gave the sergeant an angry look.

“’S not my fault if ‘e wants to rip up his own clothes is it?”

Paul indicated the other seat and I obliged him by taking it. Another glare had the sergeant withdrawing and the door closed on us.

“I have no idea why I’m here,” he started. “Jerry Goodman called me up and said I needed to come down here and talk to you, but why he should be interested in you I don’t know. As far as I understand it, you’re accused, amongst other things, of breaking into his antiques shop a week or so ago. So why does he want me to defend you?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” My voice was the epitome of despondency.

“Well if you don’t tell me something, there’s not a lot I can do to help is there?”

“Fine. A man named Tony Ward did break into the shop. He did assault a couple of people, one of them an old lady. He did steal a priceless artefact from her. He did a number of other things as well, against which there is currently no law, simply because nobody knows there needs to be a law against things like it.

“The thing is I’m not Tony Ward. I’m actually Jerry Goodman, and just happen to be stuck inside Tony Ward’s body.”

“So who asked me to come and see you?”

“That would be Laura. The person in Laura’s body is a hulking great chap who goes by the name of Danny Morton, whose body is currently inhabited by Tony Ward, although he’s currently being held in hospital under the mental health act.”

“You expect me to believe all that?”

“No. I have no evidence of any of this, apart from the testimony of most of people just mentioned, and they’ll be able to convince you they’re crazy before they succeed in persuading you of the truth. The only physical proof of what I’m saying, the means by which we were able to switch bodies, is broken no longer works, so even if you were to believe me and get me out of here, I’d be stuck like this for the rest of my life, as would everyone else who affected.

“Right now, once they’ve had a look at the evidence associated with a number of open crimes, they’ll have irrefutable proof that I did them. I can either plead guilty and end up in prison, or I can prattle on at length about my inane version of the truth, and earn myself a straitjacket and a padded cell.

“I’m not too keen on either outcome, and frankly I’d rather not waste Laura’s money having you chase after the insanity defence, which is the only one that has a chance in court, so thanks for coming, but tell Laura this is where it ends. I’m sorry, but what happened at the hospital was our only shot at sorting this out, and right now I’m out of ideas as to how to make this right.”

“I’m not sure I understand half of what you just said. The only thing that made any real sense at all was in that last paragraph. Do I take it you’re going to plead guilty?”

I nodded my head.

“Then there’s not a lot I can do. I’m not even inclined to try and dissuade you. I’ll tell Jerry your decision shall I?”

“Why don’t you do that?” I stood and banged on the door. The sergeant reappeared and walked me back to my cell.

Sitting there in a yellow and green jumpsuit was marginally better than sitting there with bedding wrapped around me. While I’d been talking to Paul, someone had come into the cell and cleared it a bit. The bed was remade and the remnants of my clothes had been placed in a plastic bag and left on the table. I suspected it had been the duty sergeant, since he was the only one who knew about my enhancements, and somehow he’d found the solvent in my hand bag and left it in the cell for me.

I didn’t feel much like doing anything, but the breasts and hips felt uncomfortable in the jumpsuit, so I spent a few minutes applying the goo, and detached them as soon as I could; adding them to the pile of ruined clothes.

I went back to staring at the door.

Again time passed. Again I didn’t notice. Again there were keys in the door and the sergeant’s smiling face. He placed a tray of food in front of me and stepped back into the doorway. “Some lunch for ya. Your arraignment’s in about an hour.”

He disappeared with a clang of the heavy metal door and more sounds of large keys turning in locks.

I looked at the food. It looked surprisingly appetising, except that I really wasn’t in the mood for eating. My stomach growled at me angrily and the savoury smells caused certain autonomic responses which resulted in me picking up the fork and more or less absent-mindedly transferring some of what was there into my mouth.

I didn’t eat it all, in fact more than three quarters still remained when I zoned out once more. Once again the next thing I knew was the sound of the key turning in the lock.

The sergeant’s smile was showing signs of wear, looking frayed around the edges as he picked up the barely touched lunch tray.

“Come on my beautiful,” he said. “Time to go before the Beak; find out what they’re going to do with you.”

I followed him down stone corridors and up a plain, utilitarian stairwell. A couple of floors up, he opened a door and led me into a wood panelled corridor with lush carpeting that absorbed all the sound of our footfalls. A couple of twists and turns later and we were in a large courtroom. Oak featured heavily in the panels, in the furniture, in everything.

The courtroom was relatively empty. I didn’t much care for the feeling of antiquity about the place. There’s something about the ancient world that appeals to the imagination. I loved the ancient world and all the evidence it possessed of how we had grown into what we were now – I don’t suppose I’d have developed such a passion for antiques otherwise – but this was more of a relic of the past, a living fossil breathing its last, the final dodo about to breathe its last pathetic gasp.

Our country had been protected by some of the greatest laws ever written for so many centuries, but the legal system was rigid and uncompromising, and changing far too slowly to adapt to the modern world. It was about to fail me and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, except provide one more mouthful to the insatiable dinosaur.

I climbed into the dock and sat down to await my fate. The sergeant remained standing outside the box.

Over the next ten to fifteen minutes, the room filled with busy people, all of whom seemed to know exactly what they were doing, none of which seemed to have anything to do with me. The hustle and bustle died to a murmur as a fairly non-descript individual came in from the back of the room and stood silent and waiting.

“All rise this court is now in session. The honourable judge…” blah, blah, blah.

I climbed to my feet for the honourable blah blah, because it wasn’t worth the hassle of rocking the boat. When an institution becomes so consumed by its own self-importance; when the inflexibility of its traditions become so strong that it refuses to be criticised, refuses to adapt, to change, that’s the point when it loses my respect.

I was lost in my thoughts when it became apparent that the judge was directing his words towards me.

I returned to the surface.

“I’m sorry?” I asked, probably ruffling a few feathers, or at the very least ermine linings, by refusing to use his honorific, but I would get away with what I could.

The bewigged and sour-faced individual on the bench glowered at me for a moment.

“I said, ‘where is your defence council, sir?’”

“I waive the right to council,” I said. Or at least I tried to. The courtroom doors burst open and Paul Burrows marched in.

“Sorry I’m late your honour. I’ve been elected to speak on Mr Ward’s behalf. It seems there are some complications, which I was trying to sort out before coming here.”

“Very well Mr Burrows. Please try to be more punctual in future.”

“Yes your honour.”

“Mr bailiff, will you please read the charges.”

“Yes your honour. The prisoner will rise.”

I was already standing as I hadn’t sat down since proceedings began. The Bailiff cleared his throat and continued.

“Anthony David Ward, you are hereby accused of two counts of grievous bodily harm, two counts of breaking and entering and one count of theft. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty your honour,” Paul stood to his feet and spoke on my behalf.

“Your honour,” I said, talking over Paul. Best to play their game and get this over with as swiftly as possible. “Your honour, with the court’s indulgence, I did not ask for this man to represent me, and I do not see any point in wasting the court’s time over this matter. Tony West did assault one Michael Betts and one Doris Maxwell, he did break into the antiques shop owned by Jerry Goodman and Laura Townsend, and also into the house of Mrs Doris Maxwell, and he did steal a valuable antique bowl from Mrs Maxwell. If these are the crimes to which you refer, he is guilty as charged.”

“You plead guilty to all the crimes for which you are charged?”

“The evidence is overwhelming your honour, there would be no point contesting it.”

“Your honour,” Paul interrupted. “I’m currently negotiating with the people affected by these crimes, and I’m confident that all will withdraw their complaints.”

“Mr Burrows, these are criminal charges. It is the state that files them regardless of the wishes of those affected. Mr Ward, are you sure you wish to go on record as pleading guilty?”

I looked down at Paul. I couldn’t understand why he was so insistent on trying to defend me. Maybe he was doing it out of duty to a friend, but all he would be able to do was delay the inevitable. There wasn’t any point.

“I’m sure.”

“Then you leave me no choice sir. The nature and multitude of your crimes indicate to me that you are an habitual and violent criminal, and it would be a service to society to have you removed from the streets. This court hereby sentences you to a total of thirty-five years imprisonment, sentence to begin immediately.”

I looked out into the public gallery and caught sight of Laura – or Jerry rather. His eyes were wide with shock. I felt sorry, but there wasn’t much else to be done. We could never have a relationship as long as I was stuck like this, and the only way the police were going to let him alone to get on with his life would be if there were some closure to Tony’s activities. He’d have his hands full trying to help Danny – now Laura – come to terms with life. I hoped she could. There were worse things in the world than being a girl against your will. I knew full well as I was probably facing one of them.

The big thing was what would happen to Tony – now Danny – when the dust settled. I had no doubt that he’d use that extra weight he owned to push things too far, and before long he’d be inside with me. It would break his mother’s heart, but there wasn’t much I could do about it all. I had problems of my own to deal with now.

-oOo-

Sentencing having been passed, the process of having me incarcerated happened quite quickly. Later that afternoon I was transferred to a prison transport vehicle and taken out into the middle of nowhere to a formidable structure with a sense of Victorian permanence about it. The walls were high, the doors solid. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t going to try and escape.

I was issued standard prison fatigues in dingy grey-blue, along with a few other bits and led through to my cell. The place was overcrowded with three of us in a two man cell. The current occupants already had the two bunk beds allocated between them, which meant I got to sleep on a camp bed on the other side of the room. My companions were big and burly, more or less matching my current stature. I was taller than both of them, but despite my natural bulk, they both seemed to work out regularly, and where I had mainly flab, they had muscle.

My reputation came with me to the prison, that I had assaulted both a man considerably smaller than myself, and an old lady. It wasn’t something that went down well amongst the prison population. Low as their collective standards were, they didn’t stoop so low as to hurting the elderly. From the looks I was getting, I suspected I was a marked man, and in fact I fully expected my two cell-mates to take out their own pent up aggression in me the first night I was there.

I stayed awake long after lights out, long after two sets of breathing settled into a regular rhythm, and only allowed myself the luxury of sleep when I was certain they were asleep themselves.

I woke to find a turd under my nose.

The guy on the top bunk was looking at me with an amused expression on his face, while the other guy looked at me as if daring me to make something of it while he wiped his arse.

This was what life was going to be like unless I stood my ground. At least with Tony’s bulk I had a chance here.

I picked the thing up gingerly with the tips of my fingers – it was a fairly solid log, so didn’t leave much residue behind – and dropped it carefully onto the pillow of the lower bunk.

The guy on the toilet pulled up his trousers and squared up to me. I turned to face him, rather foolishly leaving my back to the guy on the top bunk, who dropped down and grabbed me by the arms.

Tony had given me enough muscle tone to stand up to the gut punches that came my way, but nothing could protect me much from the head shots. I tried to roll with the blows that came my way. I even managed to dodge one to the extent that it landed on the guy holding me. In the end my assailant took the turd of his pillow and rubbed it into my face.

This happened just before the screws came in and separated us. Minutes later we were standing in front of the governor, facing his questions, for which there was no answer. I knew enough about prison life that if you were going to start narking on your fellow inmates, you wouldn’t survive long, and apart from that, how else could I explain having my face smeared with human excrement.

After half an hour of silence he let us go with a warning, not having much else he could do. He sent me to the showers to get cleaned up, and by the time I made it back to my cell, I had a nickname.

“Hey Shitface, I hear you like beating up old ladies. Maybe I’ll show you what it’s like.”

“Hey Shitface, what’s this I hear about you being arrested in drag?”

“Hey Shitface.”

“Hey Shitface.”

I didn’t care about the moniker. It was going to be bad whatever it ended up being, but the amount I heard it that first morning proved to be a trial. Everyone was smirking at me as I passed, and the name would come whispered from every corner as I walked through the place.

The next incident happened at breakfast. I was hungry enough to eat by then, and had just collected a tray piled with as much as I could persuade the guys behind the counter to give me.

People shuffled to fill every available gap and I was left looking for somewhere to go. A second later, my tray flew out of my hand and I found myself facing a guy who made Danny seem small. He had at least four inches on me and I wouldn’t even want to guess how much weight.

“You beat up grandmothers, yeah?”

Time to walk away. I turned and headed for the exit.

“Hey, I was talking to you.”

I turned back towards him and found him in my space all over again. Yet again this wasn’t going to turn out well.

“You want to talk to me, you let me eat my breakfast first.”

I turned back towards the door but there were a couple of guys blocking it. Well if there was going to be a fight and I was going to get beaten up anyway, I might as well get something out of it.

I spun on my heels and punched as hard as I could into the stomach of this perambulatory mountain range. It was more effective than I’d imagined as he doubled over, winded. It was the only hit I got in though, as the next minute I was grabbed from behind by two strong arms. It turned out to be a good tactic even so, because Mega-mound only recovered enough to get a couple of blows in before the guards turned up and separated us again.

For the second time that morning I found myself in front of the governor. Again the questions, and again the silence. He wanted to know if I was going to be a problem, because it had been a while since a new prisoner had managed to get into two fights on his first day.

I kept my peace and eventually had my visitation right rescinded for a week, with a warning that my next fight would find me in solitary.

I tried to keep to myself after that. Not easy in an overcrowded prison, and doubly not easy when people were going out of their way to make things very nasty for me.

“Hey Shitface, you like taking it up the arse?”

I turned to see a guy with sufficiently large entourage to make the end of this next fight pretty much an end of me should it go that way. I looked around nervously for screws, and with some gratitude, noticed a couple not that far away.

There wasn’t anything useful I could say in response, so I kept walking, heading towards the two guards who were already looking in my direction.

“’Cos, you know, what’s with this I hear about you being arrested wearing a dress and stuff. I mean you want to be a woman or something?”

The guards were nearly in earshot.

“One of these days, Shitface, you and me gonna find ourselves together in a quiet place, then we gonna find out if you a virgin or not.”

His cronies laughed dutifully at their lord high master’s exquisite humour as I walked past the two guards and found myself in the clear once more.

The rest of the day passed without much in the way of incidents. Having discovered I couldn’t get by myself anywhere, and maybe even if I could it wouldn’t be such a great idea, I decided that the best thing to do was to hang around near the guards.

That wasn’t going to earn me any kind of worthwhile reputation either, but at least it afforded me some thinking time.

Lunch and dinner I survived by the simple expedient of eating my food while I was in the queue being served. By the time I reached the end of the line, my tray was more or less empty, so I added it to the stack of dirties and walked out of the canteen before anyone had a chance to react.

I came up with a plan. Not a great one, but the best I could manage given the stress and the time frame. It wouldn’t do to see what new torment my two cell mates could come up with for the following morning.

Come lights out, I waited until they were breathing steadily before setting things in motion. Step one was to remove the shoelaces from my companions’ shoes and tie them into a single length. This I then turned into a noose and very carefully wrapped it around Mr Topbunk’s neck. The loose end I then tied securely to the bedframe itself.

Step two was easier. I’d made sure I drank a lot that afternoon, in part to make up for the food I’d been missing out on, but mainly for the plan. I’d not been to the loo for some time and was quite urgently in need of relieving myself. I stood off from the bunk a little way, took careful aim and began urinating into the face of Mr Turd.

The overall effect couldn’t have been better. Mr Turd woke up spluttering and swinging blindly in my direction, making enough noise that Mr Topbunk woke and jerked upright, only to find himself being choked by the laces around his neck. Mr Turd made it to his feet, but was still struggling with a face – and possibly a mouth – full of piss. I took advantage of his incapacity and went in for the kill. For all his bulk, his stomach was softer than mine, and I managed to punch through enough to have him on his knees and winded. Next I gave him a knee in the face and he went down.

Mr Topbunk was still struggling with the lace, so I took advantage there and buried my fist in his face until he stopped struggling. I could hear noises from outside, so I slipped quietly into my camp bed and made as though I’d been asleep when the screws came in.

The governor wasn’t too pleased with being disturbed in the middle of the night, and ranted at us for a good fifteen minutes. I left it to his guards to inform him that they’d found me in bed while the other two had been as I’d left them.

Of course it didn’t take much detective work to figure out that they couldn’t have been having a fight if one of them had been tied to his bed around the neck, so I got my solitary – but only one day of it – while the other two spent a night in the infirmary, each with a broken nose.

I was hoping for something of a hard-nut reputation to come from all this. If they felt I was a little bit off my trolley, maybe they’d leave me alone. It didn’t work that way.

The day I was released from solitary, I was given the job of mopping out the showers. It was a job that suited me quite well since there was just me and nobody else about, or so I thought.

Halfway through, I heard the door shut and spun to find Mr Sodomite and a significant number of his followers circling me.

I brandished my mop and yelled at them, hopefully loud enough that the guards would hear.

No such luck.

“Hey ladies, we have a feisty one here.” Dutiful laughter from all round. More like giggling or tittering than actual laughter, and I began to suspect that I was facing this guy’s harem. “go on Shitface, scream all you like. No-one’s going to hear you today – they’ve been paid not to.”

They charged en masse, and before I knew it I’d been disarmed and was being held face against the wall and Mr Sodomite was reaching around me, slowly undoing my belt and sliding my trousers and underpants down around my ankles.

I felt something thick and hot trace its way down between my buttocks, and braced myself for what was to come.

Chapter 8

It was Jerry who started this story, and by rights it should remain his, but there are parts of it he wasn’t present to experience. What happened after he was arrested at the hospital you know from his point of view, but what happened elsewhere is mine to tell.

Besides, since he switched bodies with me earlier in the week, I suppose I’m as much Jerry now as he ever was, if not more so. On top of which, with all the body swapping and everything over the past year, it’s been like we’ve become more and more a part of each other, so in a way this is my story as well.

I didn’t realise how much I was tearing myself apart inside, being stuck in Tony’s body, until Jerry actually switched with me. Things were still bollixed up afterwards; I mean the woman I loved was stuck in the body of the man I hated, but Jerry had a plan to make things right, so for those days between Saturday and Wednesday morning, I actually felt buoyant and light headed. Things were going to come right after all. I couldn’t imagine how they could not, until Tony went and fucked things up.

After he knocked the bowl out of my hand, everything turned to shit. Danny started screaming hysterically, and attracted enough attention that, not only did we end up with pretty much every doctor and nurse within earshot coming into the room with us, but a couple of cops seemed to appear out of nowhere and grabbed hold of Jerry.

All I could think was that I needed to recover the bowl. It was in three pieces, which almost certainly made it as useless as the other two we owned, but I needed hope, and this was the only place I could find it; rusty glimmer that it was. Danny’s keys still sat in one of the pieces, and the Toyota key was lying nearby where it had fallen from Jerry’s slack fingers. He probably wasn’t even aware he had dropped it.

The ritual had stalled part way through. The magic had been working, so perhaps there was a way we could jump start things again. It wasn’t something we would know unless we tried. With the stampeding herd of medical staff in the room it’s a wonder the remains weren’t trampled underfoot, but I managed to gather them all together and put them back into the bag they’d come in.

There wasn’t much I could do for Jerry right now. Between the two of them, the police officers had him rammed against a wall, and were busy putting him in handcuffs while doing the whole ‘you have the right to remain silent’ routine. I couldn’t do much for Danny either. The injection the doctor had given him to calm him down had completely robbed him of consciousness and the nursing staff where gathered round him on the floor, working to ensure nothing worse happened to him.

For now, the best thing I could do would be to get away. I needed to talk to Paul Burrows and get him on Jerry’s case, and more importantly, I needed to get the bits of bowl to safety and talk to Doris. I headed for the door, seeking cover in all the confusion. Almost made it too.

“Mr Goodman?” One of the policemen broke off from his robust arrest of the person he thought was Tony Ward. “I wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions.”

Shit, this was going to be awkward.

“I’m sorry officer, I have some urgent business to take care of.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist sir.”

“Are you planning to arrest me?”

“I’d rather not Mr Goodman, but if you force my hand…”

“On what grounds?”

“Harbouring a known fugitive for one, although why you should want to help the person who’s been threatening you… Well that’s one of the questions I think we’d like answered if you wouldn’t mind.”

I looked for inspiration where I had so often found it recently, but Jerry’s face was as devoid of emotion as I’d ever seen it. We’d been in so many fucking scrapes over the time we’d shared, and he’d always held it together, always shone out that ray of hope; found that spark of an idea which would grow into a plan, which would always work. He’d helped me through the times when I couldn’t see the other end of the tunnel, but right now the light had gone out. He wouldn’t meet my gaze, and I had never seen him so lost.

He’d carried us this far, which meant it was my turn now to come up with the answers. And what did I have? Fuck bloody all.

Running away from the cops wasn’t going to do me much good, I knew that much. The thing is neither was the truth, so I had to come up with a plausible lie.

“Will you let me check on Laura before we go at least?”

The two policemen exchanged glances and shrugs before the articulate one turned back to me.

“As long as you keep it short, Mr Goodman, I don’t think we can object.”

It turned out not to be the greatest of ideas as the doctor had questions too.

“Can you tell us her name please?”

Okay, not all the questions were difficult. I told them along with a bunch of other administrative bollix that they wanted to know.

“Can you give us any idea why she was so upset?”

What was Jerry’s thing? Keep it as close to the truth as you can. He’s really that bloke over there, and since the bowl was broken… Hah!

“I imagine it was because of the bowl. As far as we know, it’s the last of its kind. Pretty much priceless; irreplaceable.”

“What happened to it, and why did you have it here of all places? And what’s with this, er, woman, and why are the police so interested in er, her?”

And back to the difficult questions. At least it gave me a chance to practice before talking to the police. Come on Laura, get your shit together.

“The bowl is supposed to have magical powers of sorts.” No harm in admitting to that. The worst they’ll think is that I’m gullible. “This lady here has done a lot of research into these sorts of artefact and knows more than most.” All true so far. “He told Laura he could help us with a ritual that would put everyone in their right mind, but Danny reacted badly to the whole thing and knocked the bowl out of my hand, and broke it.” Wow girl! You’re on fire!

Probably better stop referring to myself as girl though.

“I was taking the pieces of the bowl away to see what I could do about fixing them when the police asked to have a few words with me. They’ve given me a short while to see how Laura is, so would you mind?”

I hadn’t answered one of their questions. In truth I wasn’t sure I had an answer to that one just yet. I hoped they wouldn’t press it.

“The sedative I gave her was only supposed to calm her down; I wasn’t expecting her to lose consciousness. The fact that she did suggests she was going into shock. It’s hard to say, but… oh, it looks like she may be coming round.”

I turned to see Danny squirming fitfully on the floor with nursing staff reaching out to reassure her, and to try and prevent her from harming herself. I looked across at the doctor, raising my eyebrows to ask permission. He nodded.

“Laura? Laura, it’s me, Jerry.” She stopped moving and looked up at me, her eyes filled with unbearable anguish. “It’s alright Laura. It’s going to be alright. I’ll take the bowl to some people I know. They’ll know what to do.”

“Wha’ if they don’t?”

“We’ll face that if we come to it. No sense in making problems for ourselves. Listen, the doctor here’s a little worried about you, and so am I, so it’ll probably be best if you stay here with them and let them look after you, okay?”

She seemed unsure.

“Look, I’ll be back as soon as I can. The police want a word with me, and I need to see what I can do for…” I looked over at where a near catatonic Jerry stood between the two policemen, his hands cuffed, and his eyes staring sightlessly in front of him. “For him,” I finished a little lamely. “Look, as soon as I’m done with the police, I’ll come back and we’ll get you out of here, then we’ll see what can be done, okay?”

She nodded. A little hesitantly, a little reluctantly, but a nod nonetheless.

“Do you still have your key?”

Again a nod and a proffered hand. I held my own out and she dropped the VW key fob into it.

I stood and left with the policemen, allowing myself one last murderous look in Tony’s direction. He was lying back on his bed with that self-satisfied smirk on his face.

-oOo-

By the time we reached the front entrance, there was a patrol car waiting to take Jerry away. I was invited to ride in the back of the unmarked car with the two policemen who’d followed us here. They tried asking questions, but I still needed to come up with a story so I interrupted.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked.

“As I said before, not yet.”

“I’d still like my lawyer present before I answer any of your questions. I don’t know what I might say that could change your mind.”

The one in the passenger seat gave me a disapproving look, but I was pretty sure I was within my rights.

“What’s his name?”

I gave him Paul Burrows’ details and he radioed ahead to arrange for him to be at the police station when we arrived.

The rest of the ride passed in silence, relatively speaking. At least no more questions were aimed in my direction, and I was able to engage the creative side of my brain. It still wasn’t working wonderfully well, and needed a few kicks to get it going, but by the time we reached the station, I had the beginnings of a plan. Even so, I hoped Paul had some ideas too, otherwise we were well and truly buggered.

They led me to an interrogation room and left me on my own, apart from the uniformed policeman on the door. Five or ten minutes later, Paul Burrows arrived, looking worried.

“Hi Paul. How alone are we in here?”

He looked around and shrugged.

“Put it this way, if they are listening in, they can’t use anything you say in court.”

I gave him a dubious look.

He waved his arm around the room. “No cameras, no one way mirrors, I sincerely doubt any hidden microphones. Jerry you’ve been watching too many of those rubbish American films; they’ve made you paranoid. If the police were to try any of that nonsense here, they’d be legislated into early retirement without their pensions. Now would you mind telling me what’s going on?”

“I’m not sure how to start this. Paul, how much do you trust me?”

“Well, given that I’ve only known you for about a year, and in all that time, pretty much only in an occasional professional capacity, I’m not sure how much I have to go on. You seem like a pretty level-headed kind of bloke, but then I’ve had people surprise me before.”

“Fuck. I was hoping I could tell you the whole thing, but I doubt you’d believe it.”

“So tell me what you think I would believe.”

“You remember Tony from last year?”

“The arsehole who stole your girlfriend’s bowl then tried to get you locked up for stealing it back?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s he been up to now?”

“Would you believe me if I told you he’d been swapping bodies?”

“No. Is it something you’re likely to tell me?”

“I guess not. He’s accused of a number of bits of unpleasantness…”

“I fucking know. He’s been all over the news. Assault, possibly GBH, one of his victims an elderly lady, breaking and entering, theft.”

“Yes, but he’s been helping us a bit as well. I was hoping you’d represent him. I’ll pay for it.”

“Why would you want his help? He’s a shitload of trouble is what he is.”

“Just go and talk to him please. The guys who’re coming to interview me will be able to tell you where he’s being held.”

I gave him puppy dog eyes, which would probably have worked better if I’d still been in my original body, but it made him laugh nonetheless.

“Alright, since it’s you asking.” I nodded. “I’ll go and see him as soon as we’re done here. They’ll be holding him over at the magistrate’s court. We need to dig you out of your hole first though. You realise it’s a criminal offence to associate with a wanted felon?”

“It’s complicated.”

“It’s harbouring a fugitive at the very least is what it is. Where was he arrested?”

“In the hospital. A friend of ours has been sectioned. Tony had some ideas as to how we could help him out.”

“What? If I remember correctly, he’s an antiques dealer turned criminal. What the hell does he know about mental health?”

“It’s like I said, it’s complicated.”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you were caught with him, and that could be bad for you. How the hell did you get him into hospital? His face has been all over the telly.”

“He was in disguise.”

“Must have been some disguise.”

“Wait till you see him. Actually no. Let me show you.”

I pulled out my mobile and showed him a photograph I’d taken of Jerry sometime in the past few days.

“Bloody hell. How’d you get him in that get-up?”

“You’d be amazed what someone will do to keep out of sight with the Law after them.”

“Could we swing it that you didn’t recognise him?”

“I doubt it. He came into our shop a few days ago, just before he broke in.”

“Yeah, but he looks so different.”

“Our house has been under police surveillance, and he was in the car when we left home this morning.”

“Any way he could have come to you without the police knowing?”

“We did have Randy, Pete and Mike over last night.”

“Would they be alright being complicit with all this?”

“Well they knew Tony a lot better, so the chances of them not seeing through the disguise as a lot lower; which means they’d be in trouble for aiding and abetting wouldn’t it?”

“Do the police know it was your three co-workers?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what they can see from outside the gate. They’d know it was the shop van that drove up, then left about midnight.”

“We need something, and we need it to be soon. I’m not sure how I feel about covering for you in this matter, but I think I’m a pretty good judge of character and I’d put you as one of the good guys. I doubt we’re going to come up with anything good, but as long as we can make it believable.”

We toyed with ideas and filled in details for a few more minutes before noises at the door indicated that we were due to be interrupted.

“Let me do the talking,” Paul said.

Inspector Peters came through the door, followed by the brighter of the two officers who’d arrested Jerry earlier.

“So Mr Goodman, DS Franks here tells me that you’ve been consorting with Tony Ward. Would you care to explain?”

“If you’ll excuse me Inspector,” Paul interjected. “My client has asked me to speak for him. We have been discussing what happened, and I’d be glad to fill in the blanks.”

The inspector gave him a wary look and nodded. From what Paul had said, he didn’t have a lot of choice.

“It turns out that Mr Goodman and Miss Townsend have a friend in hospital: a Mr Danny Morton, who is currently being held under section two of the mental health act. They had a conference last night with all their staff to see if there was anything they could think to do about it. I believe phone calls were made and in the early hours of the morning, a rather formidable looking lady turned up at their front door claiming she could help.”

“At what time did she arrive?” Inspector Peters asked me.

I glanced at Paul who was ready with the answer.

“We discussed this as well Inspector. Mr Goodman doesn’t recall the exact time. It was early enough to rouse him from his bed, but not so early that it wasn’t light. Mr Goodman isn’t a morning person, so many of the events of the morning are a little unclear to him. Miss Townsend might be able to shed some more light on the matter, but she is currently being cared for at the hospital herself.

“Apparently this lady claimed to be able to help their friend, so they agreed to let her come along. From what I understand, what she had in mind involved a sort of alternative medicine mysticism thing and needed a valuable bowl my client had in his possession. It wasn’t until they reached the hospital that the lady tried to grab the bowl and escape with it. In the ensuing struggle, the bowl was damaged, which apparently was the cause of Miss Townsend’s breakdown as it belonged to someone else. A Mrs Doris Maxwell I believe.

“Mr Goodman managed to retrieve it earlier in the week from Mr Morton’s residence where it had been left, and was planning to return it to its rightful owner, but when the opportunity to use it to help Mr Morton came up, they thought it was worth trying. It wasn’t until after DS Franks and his partner recognised and apprehended Mr Ward that Mr Goodman saw through the disguise. The last thing he expected was to find a man like Tony Ward passing himself off as a woman, and quite successfully apparently. He was quite shocked when DS Franks suggested he’d been protecting Mr Ward, and only then saw through the disguise and decided to cooperate.

“He asked for me to represent him in this matter as criminal charges had been implied and he wanted my expertise to help explain the situation without implicating himself or any of his friends.”

“You’re trying to tell me you didn’t realise it was Tony Ward?” Inspector Peters evidently wasn’t convinced.

“It was a very good disguise, Inspector.”

“I have to admit it was, sir,” DS Franks said somewhat unexpectantly. “It took me a few seconds to see through it, and I’m not sure I’d have given him a second look if it hadn’t been for all hell breaking loose.”

“If we’re done inspector, I’m sure Mr Goodman has things he needs to do, and I’d very much like to get on to my next client.”

“We may have more questions for you later Mr Goodman, but we’re done for now.” He didn’t seem happy about it, but the law was the law, and this was what the law said was right. “Do you have the bowl with you?”

“I do inspector. I was planning on calling Mrs Maxwell to explain what happened to her bowl, and on returning it to her, along with any compensation she might think appropriate for the damage it suffered whilst in our care.”

He nodded, apparently pleased that I wasn’t going to get away scot free.

“See that you do Mr Goodman. I’ll be calling Mrs Maxwell later this week to check on her.”

“Inspector,” Paul interrupted all the sub-textual communication between the Inspector and myself. “Would you mind arranging for me to see Mr Ward? I suspect he’ll be in need of some council, and I’d like to see what I can do for him.”

“You really don’t mind who you represent, do you?”

“I believe our legal system is still based on the presumption of innocence. I don’t judge my clients before I’ve met them and had a chance to talk to them, and I would hope that a man in your position wouldn’t be inclined to deny him his right to a defence.”

The inspector grunted and pulled out his mobile. A short phone call later and Paul had his appointment with Jerry. That more or less concluded our business with the police and we were both permitted to leave.

-oOo-

“Mrs Maxwell? It’s Laura.”

“Oh hello dear. I take it everything went smoothly then?”

“Actually it didn’t. I’m afraid Tony knocked the bowl out of my hand rather than take the last set of keys. He did it with enough force that the bowl broke before the ritual was complete.”

“Oh dear. You’d better come to see me dear. Bring the bowls – all of them – and we’ll see what can be done.”

“I’ll try, but I may not get to you today. Danny’s in hospital and Jerry’s been arrested.”

“Oh no! Whatever for?”

“Well Danny had a fit of hysterics and collapsed, so the hospital staff decided he needed looking after. As for Jerry, he was arrested for looking like Tony Ward. He swapped places with me earlier in the week. This morning we were trying a three way switch. Tony and Danny into their original bodies and Jerry into my old one.”

“Well do what you can for them dear. Tomorrow will be soon enough. I’ll expect you late morning.”

Thank you Mrs Maxwell.”

“Doris, please.”

“Doris then. Thank you. You don’t know how much of a relief it is to be able to talk to someone about all this.”

“You’d be surprised dear.”

I hung up the phone, then looked around me for some clues as to where to go next. One thing about getting arrested, they’re happy enough to pick you up and take you fuck knows where, but when you’re done and allowed to go free, it’s up to you to make your own way back to where you started.

I thought about calling Randy to come pick me up, but I didn’t want to leave them short-handed at the shop. Besides it would take him a while to get here, and by the time you factored in the cost of diesel, the alternative wasn’t that much more expensive.

There was a public telephone in the corner of the room – an incongruity in this age of mobile phones, but, I supposed, a necessity for some of the characters who ended up in this place. Above was pinned a local bus timetable along with a handful of business cards from local taxi firms. I picked one I recognised and dialled.

Ten minutes later a people carrier appeared with the taxi company’s name and telephone number painted across its front and sides. Fifteen minutes more and I stood outside the main entrance to the hospital, my wallet substantially lighter.

Money wasn’t important, I reminded myself. Thanks to Jerry’s inheritance, there was a lot more where that had come from, but it still smarted to hand over so much for what seemed like such a small thing.

I headed up to the ward where Tony was being held, and asked about Danny – Laura that is from their point of view. They led me to a room where I found her lying quietly on a bed, still clothed. She gave me a weak smile as I entered.

“How are you holding up?” I asked.

“How’d ya fink?” She spoke the words with a soft, wry humour.

Female hormones maybe? It had always seemed easier to accept the inevitable when I was in that body. I’d always hated that about being Laura. Well not always. I hadn’t even realised I could be any different until the first time I switched places with a boy.

It hadn’t been my finest hour that one. It had been shortly after I’d inherited the bowl, and in truth I hadn’t been mature enough to handle it. I knew one of the lads at school fancied me and I wasn’t that interested, so I decided to play a trick on him. I invited him home while my parents were out and got him to put something of his into the bowl, a bit like how Tony had tricked Danny.

He’d screamed when the change happened, so it was just as well no-one was around. I’d had to slap him to shut him up, then I’d explained he was going to have to be me for a week before we changed back. It took him a while to get over that, but a couple of tearful hours later he was ready to accept the change.

I told him all he needed to know to survive the week with my parents, then I took the bowl – to stop him from doing something stupid with it – and headed round to his place.

What I hadn’t expected was the belligerence that testosterone brings. It woke me up. I made it through the week pretty well, but not without getting into a few fights at school. When the week was up, I changed back with him, and realised that while having man-juice in my system had more or less led me down rebellious routes, I could still choose to take them as Laura. It wasn’t as strong, just as I wasn’t as strong, which made standing up for my beliefs harder and more an act of determination on my part, but I found I had italicise that determination.

The times I’d been a man since, and certainly this last year had been amazing, because I could enter that single-minded never-give-up state of mind so much more readily and stay there. This was where I belonged.

Ironically it had been that same single-mindedness that had driven me to switch Jerry and myself back into our original bodies, but I didn’t regret that decision. Just all the fucking crap that had happened since Tony stuck his dick where it didn’t belong.

Danny was looking at me oddly and I realised I’d zoned out as my train of thought had taken me to Nostalgiaville.

I shook myself back into the here and now.

“So, are you ready to get out of here?”

“I guess.”

“Look Danny, it’s not over till the fat lady sings. Do you hear a fat lady singing?”

“Yeah, bu’ wha’ can we do?”

“I don’t know exactly. I’ve already talked to Mrs Maxwell – the lady this bowl belongs to. She knows a lot more about these things than I ever did, plus she and her friends know a bit about magic. She told me to bring all three bowls to her tomorrow, which is what I’m going to do. I’m not giving up on sorting this mess out until I’ve tried everything.”

She didn’t look convinced.

“Listen Danny, I know this isn’t great for you, but however bad you think you’ve got it, Jerry’s got it worse. Unless we can sort this mess out, he’s going to spend most of the rest of his life behind bars, with a rep for granny bashing. I am bloody well not going to let that happen if I can fucking help it alright? And if I’m fixing it for him, I’m fixing it for you too.”

The smile she offered me was a little more genuine. The hopelessness in her eyes had receded somewhat. It was as good as I was going to get. I took her hand and led her out of the hospital.

-oOo-

The Maserati was where I’d left it, with a considerably larger fee to get it out of the short-stay than I’d have liked, but then with the interview down at the police station and all the other bollocks, we’d been here a lot longer than originally anticipated.

I drove back to the shop and shared the bad news with the other three. They offered their commiserations, and I left them consoling Danny – who’d started crying again – while I put all three bowls into a bag, along with the three sets of keys. The bag went into the boot of the Maserati, ready for the following day.

I was just heading back in to check on Danny when my mobile rang.

“Jerry here.”

“Hi Jerry, it’s Paul. Can you come over to my office? There are a few things we need to discuss.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Not by a long way. Look, come over. This isn’t a conversation I want to have on the phone.”

“Fine, I’ll be with you in about fifteen minutes.”

I stuck my head in the shop briefly and told everyone where I was going. Danny decided to stay with the guys, so it was just me zipping across town. I might have bent a traffic law or two on the way over, so it was just as well there were no police around to catch me.

“So tell me what’s up.” I barged into Paul’s office without so much as knocking. He wasn’t that happy about it, but given the stressful day I’d had so far, he let it ride.

“Why would Tony tell me he was really Jerry Goodman?”

“Give us a second,” I said and nipped back downstairs and outside to fetch the bag from the car.

Back with Paul, I laid out the three bowls for him to look at.

“As far as we can tell, these predate history. The one with the chip in used to belong to Tony Ward. The one in two pieces was mine, and the one in three pieces was the only whole one left in the world, until Tony threw it against a wall in the hospital this morning.

“Have a close look at them. There’s something that defies logic about them. They’re made of a material that’s too hard to be easily worked with stone-age tools, and yet they’re perfectly round, perfectly smooth. They were magical, though I can’t prove it, because broken as they are, they’re nothing more than the petrified wood you see.

“You remember I asked you if you’d believe that Tony’s been swapping bodies?”

“I remember.” Neither his face nor his voice gave much of an indication as to what he thought of all this.

“That’s what the bowls did. A group of people put things in that belong to them, then pull out something that belongs to one of the others. When everyone’s done it, everyone in the group switches bodies with the person whose item they chose.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but in essence that’s what it’s about. The night you first met us, Tony had tricked Jerry into dropping his keys into that bowl,” I indicated the one that had been mine, “with a view to switching bodies with him and using his identity to ransack his bank. I – that is Laura – intervened, and while I managed to stop Tony from getting what he wanted, Jerry and I switched bodies and in the ensuing struggle, my bowl was broken.

“That’s why Jerry and I – Jerry and Laura from your point of view – were back at his place with Jerry’s wife so upset about it.

“It took us a year to find another bowl, and somehow Tony caught wind of it. His assault on the old lady was so that he could steal the bowl from her, and he’s been using it since to cause problems. He forced me – Laura – to switch with him, then he, in Laura’s body, switched with a guy called Danny Morton, who is this big, scary bruiser of a man.

“We managed to get the better of him, and get him admitted to hospital and sectioned, then earlier in the week Jerry switched with me, so now I’m back in his body and he’s in Tony’s. This morning was supposed to see an end of things with Tony, Danny and Jerry all switching back into their chosen bodies – Jerry and I have decided we’re better off as each other – but Tony, in Danny’s body, managed to break this last bowl,” I pointed at the three fragments, “before we could complete the ritual. Then a couple of cops turned up and arrested Jerry, who’s currently in Tony’s body.”

Paul was quiet for a nerve rackingly long time.

“Tony did say you’d be able to convince me you were crazy before I believed the truth. He wasn’t wrong.”

“You’ve spoken to Laura before, haven’t you?”

“You know I have.”

I pulled out my mobile and rang the shop.

“Put Danny on… Hi Danny, I’m going to pass you over to Paul, our solicitor. I’ve told him everything that’s happened. Just talk to him.”

I offered the phone to Paul, who took it reluctantly.

“Hello?”

“Yeah, ‘ello.”

“Laura?”

“Sor’ of. Me name’s really Danny. Danny Morton. I bin workin’ as a bouncer at the Pink Elephant till abou’ a week ago.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nah, it’s all fucked up, I don’t blame yer for no’ believin’. Even so, this ain’t my body. If you’d ‘a’ told me the same fing a week ago, I’d ‘a’ said it was all crap too. ‘Cept now it’s ‘appened to me I don’t ‘ave a choice but to accept it.”

Paul pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at me.

“What are you trying to pull here?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to convince you of what’s really been happening, because it’s the only way you’ll understand. I wish I had more proof to show you, but all I can do is get you to talk to people who know.

I retrieved the phone and spoke into it briefly.

“Thanks Danny, that’ll do.”

Turning back to Paul I raised the phone once more.

“The only other person who’ll tell you willingly what’s true is Doris Maxwell, the lady who was attacked and who had this bowl stolen from her. Would she be able to convince you?”

He stared at me across the desk and reached for his own phone; dialled a number.

“Inspector Peters please… Inspector Peters, it’s Paul Burrows. We met earlier this morning… Yes I’m trying to follow up on some information one of my clients has given me, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to put me in contact with Doris Maxwell… No that’ll be fine. Please tell her it’s on behalf of Jerry Goodman.”

He recited what I vaguely remembered as being his office number and put the phone down. We waited for a couple of minutes, each of us holding the other’s gaze, until both of us were startled by the ringing of his phone.

“Hello, Paul Burrows… Mrs Maxwell, thank you for calling. I have Jerry Goodman here and he’s told me a rather fantastic story about the bowl you had stolen… Yes… Yes… I see… You’re kidding… You’re not kidding… Yes… Yes… No… Yes… Okay, well thank you very much Mrs Maxwell, you’ve been most helpful… Yes I will. Thanks again… Goodbye.”

The stony expression on his face had crumbled with each passing moment. I would love to know what Doris told him to convince him, but convince him she did. By the time he was done and the phone back on its cradle, he looked very shaken indeed. He looked at his watch and swallowed.

“Tony – that is Jerry I suppose – told me he didn’t want to waste your money on defending him. He said to tell you this is where it ends. He’s sorry; he’s out of ideas as to how to make this right.”

“When’s he being arraigned?”

“Pretty much anytime now.”

“Shit, you’ve got to help him Paul. Get over there and try and get him to see reason. If we can put in a plea of not guilty, it’ll go to trial, and with any luck I’ll be able to bail him out. I need him out of there Paul.”

He didn’t need any more incentive. He jumped up, grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and sprinted for the door, with me close behind. The courtroom was just across the road, and we had cars braking hard and blaring their horns at us as we ran across without paying much attention.

Paul headed for a set of double doors and barged through them, calling out his apology to the bewigged official sitting at the far end. I entered quietly in his wake and settled into one of the public seats. There were a lot to choose from as it seemed I was the only spectator there.

Paul’s apology was accepted with a gentle admonishment, the charges were read and a plea requested. Paul stood and called out not guilty, but Jerry wasn’t ready to let that ride. He spoke louder, stating that he didn’t want Paul to represent him, then he listed all the crimes he knew Tony had committed, and stated that if those were the charges the court was bringing forward, that Tony was guilty as charged.

It sounded like Tony was referring to himself in the third person, and that’s how the judge took it. He asked for confirmation of the guilty plea, and Jerry said there would be no point in saying otherwise.

Paul tried one last argument but it fell on deaf ears. The judge passed sentence and the last I saw of Jerry was as he was led away. He looked up at me briefly, and I have never seen such depths of despondency in all my life.

-oOo-

I wasted hours waiting to find out which prison Jerry was being taken to, and a half hour more waiting for details of who I should call to arrange visitation. The moment I had the number, I called it, but was told I’d need to call back the next day after Mr Ward had been processed into the prison population properly.

I cursed the intransigence of British bureaucracy and looked around for something to punch. Paul was waiting nearby, but he didn’t deserve it, so I bottled up the rage for the next time I had a worthy target.

“What can we do?” I asked him.

“Nothing much. There is no appeal against a guilty plea. We could argue he wasn’t in his right mind, but that might create more complications than it resolves.”

“There has to be something.”

“For now there isn’t much. Look, I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but for the moment all you can do is go home and let this simmer down, or boil over – whatever will help you get back into a right state of mind. There is nothing useful we can do right now. The wheels of the judicial system turn slowly and will only be after they’ve turned enough that we’ll have a chance to do anything. Until then the best you can do is try and let this all go.”

“I can’t. I love him – her. She doesn’t deserve to be locked up like this, and certainly not as Tony Ward. I hate to think what’ll happen to him inside.”

“So what are you going to do? Get hold of a couple of illegal weapons? Break him out of the prison transport? Go on the run? What good would that do?”

People were staring, but evidently they were used to Paul as no-one came across to arrest us. His methods worked too. The absurdity of what he was saying – disturbingly close to the ideas that had been going through my head – made it through to me and brought me back down to earth, more or less. He took me by the arm and led me back to his office.

He poured out a generous measure of the single malt I’d sent him last Christmas and handed it to me. I didn’t feel like it, but he stood waiting until I took the glass and upended it. He poured me a second before filling a glass for himself.

The whiskey settled my mood. If anything it made me more in control than less, though I didn’t fancy driving the Maserati with more than just the one in me. He raised his glass.

“To unexpected miracles.”

Well, we certainly needed one of those. I raised my glass and took another swig. Before long we were halfway down the bottle and neither of us in any condition to drive.

I had enough presence of mind to call through to the shop and ask Randy to look after Danny for a day or so. I had miracles to arrange – I hoped.

Paul cancelled his appointments for the afternoon, and we spent the rest of the day finishing the one bottle and making a serious dent in a second. For all that part of me knew I wasn’t acting in the most responsible manner, getting pissed was a good move. I felt the anger and frustration draining out of me, even as I realised I wasn’t going to be much use to anyone if I stayed in this state.

Being as neither of us were in a fit state to drive, Paul dug some sheets and blankets out of somewhere and we made up a couple of makeshift beds on the sofas in his reception area. We were barely fit to hold a conversation between us, so once the cleaner had been through the place, we turned out the lights and got horizontal. Thanks largely to the booze, I was unconscious within minutes.

-oOo-

Early night meant early morning. I woke with the sun penetrating my closed eyelids. I made the mistake of opening them and was rewarded with a stabbing pain that seemed to go through my eyes, right to the back of my skull. I groaned, but that only aggravated my misery.

There was a clunk on the table beside me and I risked opening my eyes enough to see what it was. It took a few seconds to focus on the glass of water in front of me.

“Get that down you. Coffee’s brewing, then we’ll head downstairs for breakfast.”

How could he sound so normal? He’d had as much to drink as me the previous night and here he was sounding like nothing had happened. I decided I hated him worse than anyone in the world as I levered myself upright, accompanied by an increase in the jack-hammer activity in my head.

My mouth felt like something small and furry had crawled in there to die, and mention of breakfast had set my stomach growling. I reached for the water, with the vague idea that if I could sluice whatever manky corpse inhabited my mouth down into my stomach, the angry bear down there would have something to dig its teeth into until more palatable food was available.

I’m not sure if the idea had any merit, but the pint of water did clear my mind a little. Enough to spot the two white tablets on the table next to where the water had been.

“Paracetamol,” my host explained cheerfully while he waited for the filter to stop dripping. “I don’t have any milk I’m afraid. Do you mind it black?”

“Nyrgh” evidently meant no in his vocabulary of the drunk, as he plonked a mug of steaming hot, black aromatic paradise where the water glass had been a moment ago.

I used the last of the water to down the two tablets, and switched to the coffee mug. It was too hot to drink yet, but the fumes were enough to encourage reluctant neurons into life.

“What time is it?” I croaked, then coughed to clear my throat.

“Six-thirty,” Mr Sunshine chirped. “I thought I’d let you lie in a bit.”

I decided not to wait for things to cool down and sucked in a mouthful of coffee. It seemed to have a scouring effect on the hairs and flavour of decay that my tongue had retained, even if it did scald the roof of my mouth a little. Caffeine diffused into my bloodstream and made its rapid way to my brain. The Paracetamols were doing something as well. Between them they were returning sentience to me by increasing degrees.

“How come you’re so bright and chipper?”

“You forget I’m a lawyer. If you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, you might as well get your money’s worth.”

“Not funny. Shouldn’t joke about things like that.”

“Fair enough. I’ve had more binge sessions like this than you’d care to imagine. I’m developing something of an immunity.”

“I envy you.”

“Tell me that again when the doctor tells me I have cirrhosis. There’s a café just down the street that opens at seven; caters to the early morning starters and workaholics around here. Their coffee’s not as good as mine, but they do a decent cooked breakfast.”

The bear in my stomach told me in no uncertain terms what it planned to do with any greasy food I sent its way. Paul noticed the green cast to my skin.

“They also do waffles or pancakes or a number of other things for such poor souls as can’t handle real men’s fare.”

There was a downside to being male – all these pissing contests.

“Real men eat quiche.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just something I read somewhere.”

“Well if you ask nicely, they might be able to find you some.”

We headed down to the promised food. The coffee was actually better than Paul’s, in my humble opinion. For one thing it had milk in it. For another it wasn’t quite as strong. For breakfast I settled on waffles with syrup, and tried to turn a blind eye to the plateful of grease and cholesterol Paul was wolfing down.

The bear seemed content with what I fed it, and the injection of sugar brought me the rest of the way to consciousness.

“My mouth still tastes like a Greek wrestler’s jock strap,” I told my companion.

“In the habit of sucking on those are you?”

I gave him a sour look. Sense of humour evidently still misfiring.

“Sorry I can’t help you there. I have a toothbrush back at the office, but I doubt you’d want to share, and I don’t have a spare.”

“It’s alright. I’ll head home and get properly cleaned up.”

“Have a good long puff in this first,” he said holding out something that looked a little like a mobile phone with a tube sticking out the side.

After a moment’s hesitation with Paul waving me on with what he assumed was an encouraging gesture, I put my lips around the tube and blew.

A few seconds later it beeped once to tell me to stop blowing, then made rather nerve-grating alarm noises.

Paul retrieved it from me and pressed the relevant button to stop it making a noise.

“Forty-two micrograms. Not too bad. I was expecting worse the way you were putting it away last night. Give it an hour and you can try again.”

“What’s that about?”

“You remember last year after we got your soon to be ex-wife to agree to almost nothing in the divorce?”

I remembered. That had been a good feeling, right up until Paul had driven me home and Jerry had been standing there with crossed arms and tapping feet. I smiled at the memory and nodded.

“I was all over the road on the way home. Somehow managed to park reasonably well outside my house, then sat in the car thinking about how much of a tit I’d been. A few minutes later a patrol car came cruising past and stopped just in front of me.

“An officer got out and came up to my window. He tapped on it, so I wound it down.

“’Have we been drinking sir?’ he asked.

“’Just a little,’ I replied.

“’Been driving at all, have we?’

“My brain kicked in then and I decided that a lie was called for. ‘No officer,’ I said. ‘I was thinking about it though. Not sure if it’s such a great idea though.’

“’Would you step out of the car for me please, sir?’

“I did as he asked, and blew into his contraption. Came up as ninety micrograms – nearly three times the limit.

“He put his hand on the bonnet of my car and asked me why it was warm, so I told him I’d had the engine running for a while before I decided going for a drive wasn’t such a great idea.

“I doubt he believed me, but he had no proof otherwise. I tried to think about the route I’d taken and whether or not I might appear on any traffic cameras. I sincerely hoped he didn’t plan to check.

“In the end he let me off with a caution. Just sitting behind the steering wheel in that state was enough that he could have caused me some trouble. I thanked him, locked up and went indoors.

“That was my wakeup call. I still get pissed, as you found out last night, but I never get behind the wheel when I’m over the limit; not any more. I won’t allow my friends to do so either.”

“I did wonder why we crashed at your office. Kind of glad we did given our state, but even so.”

“Well if you want to get home, might I suggest going for a walk. Exercise increases metabolism, and the fresh air should help clear your mind a bit. There’s a park down that way. When you’re ready, come back to my office and I’ll give you your keys back, as well as your bowls.”

I did as he suggested and took the time to call Randy to see how Danny was. It was actually Danny who answered the phone. She sounded quite despondent; wanted to know when I was coming to pick her up. I told her to stay with Randy for the day and I’d drop by late afternoon or evening.

Eight o’clock, back at Paul’s, I passed the breath test with three micrograms to spare. Paul, true to his word, handed me the Maserati keys and the bag with the bowls and keys in it and ushered me out. We made vague plans to touch base in a day or so to look at possible options regarding Jerry, but for now there wasn’t much either of us could do.

Traffic was heavy heading into the city, but heading out was fairly easy. Fifteen minutes saw me back home and a further half hour saw me through essential ablutionary measures such as brushing teeth, showering, shaving and so on. I allowed myself a coffee before taking to the road, and used the time to call through to the prison.

Yes Mr Ward had been processed. No I couldn’t arrange a visit. Mr Ward, so it seemed, had been involved in two fights that morning and his visitation rights had been revoked for a week. Would I please call back in seven days?

It was worrying. If Jerry had been in two fights already, how long would he last in there? It didn’t surprise me that the inmates weren’t looking on him too kindly given the nature of his crimes, but it was just as likely that the some of the guards might be inclined to turn a blind eye for the same reason. I had to do something.

I hit the road and headed for Mrs Maxwell’s cottage. Two hours never seemed so long, even in my nippy Italian sports car, but eventually I arrived outside the familiar well-tended garden, grabbed the bag off the seat beside me and all but ran up the short path.

-oOo-

“Hello dear,” Doris said as she opened the door to me. “You’re just in time for a cup of tea. You may remember my friend Millie from when you came to visit me in the hospital, but I don’t think you were introduced. Millie, this is Laura who used to own one of the bowls.”

I shook hands with the grey-haired woman in Doris’s living room. She seemed older than my hostess, but she obviously wasn’t a stranger to the matter in hand as she didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the introduction I’d been given.

Old people live at a slower pace to the rest of the world. Years of experience in the antiques trade had taught me that the quickest way to get things done was to slow down and match it. Despite my impatience to have an answer, I managed to sit still through a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake – something that seemed to be a favourite of Mrs Maxwell’s.

After nearly an hour of infuriatingly banal chatter, Doris turned to me.

“You’ve been very patient my dear; thank you so much. Perhaps we could have a look at the bowls. I imagine you’ve brought them with you.”

With an almost audible sigh of relief, I reached for my bag and removed them.

“I’m sorry for what happened to yours, Doris, I should have taken better care of it.”

“Oh don’t worry about that dear. You know I was planning to destroy it as soon as you were done with it. I’m only sorry that you couldn’t resolve your problems before this happened. What do you think Millie? Is there anything that can be done?”

The other woman examined the bowls one by one, starting with Doris’s. She held each piece in place and examined the cracks. One satisfied nod later, she went on to mine. Consisting of only two pieces, she took less time over the examination before once more nodding positively and putting it back down. Finally she picked up Tony’s bowl and fingered the chip in its side. Her face turned grave and she shook her head.

“I’m sorry dear, there’s nothing we can do.”

Chapter 9

“What do you mean there’s nothing you can do? There has to be something!” It felt like there was a great gaping hole opening up beneath me. Panic rushed in and I could feel myself cracking apart. This couldn’t be happening! We’d faced worse than this! And here was the final obstacle. Why could we not get over it?

“I am really so very sorry dear one. We have two complete bowls. Yours and Doris’s are fine. Well not fine obviously; they’re broken, but they are all there at least. This one isn’t though, and even to attempt magic with a bowl in this state invites the most unpredictable of outcomes. If you think what you face now is bad, I tell you it’s nothing compared to what would almost certainly come from using this.”

She showed me that chip in Tony’s bowl. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen it before. The gap was about as large as my thumbnail and roughly triangular in shape.

“What about the two bowls? Is there something we could do with just those two?”

“Perhaps, but it wouldn’t give you what you want. At this stage, with the bowls broken, we need one complete one for each person being transferred. We could switch Danny and Jerry, which means you’d have Jerry back in Laura’s body, but it would leave Danny in prison as Tony.”

“Not acceptable.”

“I didn’t think so. A second option would be for Danny and Tony to switch. That would put Danny back in his body, but would leave Tony as Laura and Jerry stuck as Tony in prison.”

“As a last resort, I suppose Jerry and I could accept that. At least it would get Danny back where he belonged.”

“Which leaves us with the third option of switching Jerry and Tony, putting Tony where he belongs and leaving Jerry and Danny in the wrong bodies.”

“Which doesn’t work either, because Danny’s really struggling with being stuck in Laura’s body. Can’t we use the bowls more than once? Switch Tony with Jerry first time, then Jerry with Danny?”

“I’m sorry dear, but this is a once only thing. Most of the magic drained from the bowls when they broke. I believe there’s just enough can be drawn from them to carry one more transformation each, but only if we have the complete bowls.”

“So the only way we can make this work three ways is..?”

“…if you can find the missing piece of this bowl, but I believe it’s been missing for some time now hasn’t it?”

“Certainly more than a year.”

“Do you think there’s any chance of recovering it?”

“I don’t know. If we found it, would we be able to proceed?”

“If it were complete. Only if we have all three bowls absolutely complete, would I feel comfortable trying something.”

“Then I suppose I’d better see whether or not it’s possible, hadn’t I? I don’t suppose you have any sort of magic that might help me look?”

“I’m sure Doris has told you, today’s magic is quite ephemeral. Whether it even works at all is open to debate, even amongst those of us who believe in it.”

“But you could try.”

“We could try, but please don’t hold out too much hope. I mean what would be the first thing you would do if you found a chip from a piece of crockery?”

“I suppose I’d throw it in the bin.”

“Exactly, which would then end up in a landfill somewhere. There’s no way of knowing which landfill, and even if you did, you’d be searching for something no larger than a five pence coin in acres of rubbish, hundreds of feet deep. It would be like searching for a single needle in all the haystacks in England.”

“At least let me try. Maybe the chip was never swept up. Maybe it’s still in the room where the bowl was damaged, hidden behind a sideboard or something. I have to at least try and find it, and I’d stand a better chance if you were helping me.”

“We’ll do what we can, dear. All I can say is good luck.”

“Do you mind if I leave the bowls here with you for now? We’d have to bring them back for whatever magic ends this, and it would save me the risk of damaging them more while I search.”

“They’ll be fine here as long as no-one tries to steal them again, dear.” Doris spoke for the first time since Millie had broken the bad news. I don’t know if she was trying to lighten the mood a little, but I, for one, didn’t feel much like laughing.

I took my leave and climbed back into my car. I took it easy heading home, my mind chasing down ever more desperate what-ifs and distracting me from the road, until I very nearly drove up the rear end of a tractor. Thank goodness for decent brakes.

Back home, I drove past the Flat where Tony and Mary had lived when this had all started. It was quite the des res, right in the middle of town, but with the recession chewing at everyone’s resources, the place had proved too expensive to rent since Mary had put it on the market shortly after Tony’s arrest several months back. I pulled up on the road opposite, set my hazards flashing, and dialled the number on the estate agent’s board. A short conversation later and I had a viewing arranged for the following morning.

It was still early enough that the antiques shop should be open. I headed there and parked round back, behind the van and the Beetle.

Danny was relieved to see me. His eyes searched mine for any signs of hope. I told him what I had discussed with Millie and Doris, and that at the very least I hoped there might be a way to get him back where he belonged. He was bright enough to realise what the consequences were for Jerry.

“No! No bloody way! You ain’t sorting fings for me an’ leaving ‘im gettin’ fucked up the arse.”

“The only other options either leave you in that body, or put you in Tony’s. At least this way one of us gets sorted out.”

“So why don’t you switch me and Jerry then? Tha’ way you get back togever, and you two is sorted.”

“Do you think Jerry or I could live with that? Knowing that you were stuck prison?”

“For one fing, I can ‘andle meself. For anover, now you know how I’d feel if you did the over fing.”

“And what about your mum, Danny? If we left Tony in your body, what would that mean for her?”

That silenced him. He decided to change the subject.

“Randy took us to the hospital yesterday,” he said. “Me mum was there, bovvered as ever, and the doctors was saying they thought Danny was making good progress, and they was finking of liftin’ the section maybe on Sa’urday.”

It was slightly crushing news.

“That’s our deadline then. We have tomorrow to hunt for this missing piece of the bowl. Whether we find it or not, we head back to Mrs Maxwell’s cottage on Saturday and let them do what magic they can. I am not letting Tony loose with your mum.”

“I’ll come wiv you tomorrow then, and ‘elp you look.”

“Randy? You, Mike and Pete happy to hold the fort until this is over?”

“Take your time boss. Do what you need to get things sorted. Don’t worry about us.”

It was time to close up. I helped take stock and add up the day’s income. The cash went into the safe for now. I’d find an opportunity to put it in the bank before the end of the week.

Danny and I headed for home. The fridge was pretty empty, but there was enough in the freezer to put together a halfway decent stir fry, and Danny was a good enough cook to be able to do it. I set the table and opened a bottle of wine, and for a while it almost felt like Jerry was there with me.

I limited myself to one glass of wine. My feelings were so mixed up I didn’t know where they might take me. We headed for bed early; I’d arranged the viewing for nine o’clock the following morning, which meant we needed an early start. It felt strangely wrong that Danny should be sleeping in the spare bedroom, and I had to stamp on my feelings and tell myself how much more strangely wrong it would be for Danny to have me come on to her – him. I felt lost and hopeless. Part of me couldn’t help thinking this search was pointless, that we had no chance of finding what we were looking for, which meant that after tomorrow, the best I could hope for was to see the man I hated most inhabiting my body. With that, my last hope for happiness would be crushed, along with Jerry’s last hope for survival.

It took forever to get to sleep that night, and when I did, my dreams were filled with nightmarish visions of seeing my old body with Tony’s self-satisfied smirk on it as he snuggled up beside me and forced me to watch Jerry, in his body, subject to the most abject and miserable torture prison inmates could devise.

-oOo-

I woke up in a cold sweat with the room still in darkness. I grabbed my dressing gown and headed downstairs. We’d fallen into the habit of leaving the downstairs alarm off so that Danny could move around in the night as his insomnia led him.

I found him sitting at the kitchen diner with his hands round a mug of milk. It was so like Jerry when he was me, I nearly lost myself to wishful thinking again. He looked up at me and smiled that smile which left me breaking inside.

“I could ‘eat up some more,” he said, and with his manner of speech the moment’s illusion shattered.

“That would be great, thank you.”

“We’ll find it Mr Goodman. I ‘ave a feelin’ abou’ it. This can’t end wiv Tony gettin’ away wiv wha’ ‘e done. You and Jerry bin so good abou’ all this, there ain’t no way you don’t ge’ wha’ you deserve.”

What we deserve? And what was that exactly? True we’d done what we could for the others involved in this mess. We’d offered Randy, Pete and Mike a way back to their old lives, not once but twice. We’d given them jobs when they were struggling, even though they’d tried to steal everything from Jerry and his bank and leave him swinging for the theft. We’d refused to let Danny pay for Tony being an arsehole, still refused to do that, even though it meant both of us would likely end up suffering for it. In all fairness we’d done our best by the people around us, but was it enough? With Jerry’s wealth we could have done a lot more. In a day and age when banks were repossessing houses and calling in loans, we could have set up some way of offering financial advice to those who needed it, or financial aid even, given that we had so much. There was a lot more suffering going on in this world than in our tiny little bubble, and despite having the means to do something about it, here we were playing at being antiques dealers. So what exactly did we deserve?

The warm milk felt like it was curdling in my stomach. Maybe it was. Stress causes acid reflux doesn’t it? And acid curdles milk. So maybe this wasn’t the greatest choice of middle of the night drinks.

With an apologetic look at Danny I pushed my barely touched mug to one side and went in search of a tumbler of single malt. Again maybe not the best for an acid stomach, but if it could numb my brain a little, maybe it could reduce the stress.

Again I only allowed myself the one, triple though it was, before heading back to bed. Hopefully there would be enough night left for me to metabolise the alcohol.

-oOo-

Morning came, invading my bedroom with lances of brilliant sunshine peeking through the gaps in the curtains. That one triple malt had been enough to banish my disturbing dreams without giving me a hangover. My stomach felt queasy, but I wasn’t sure if that was the malt talking or the milk.

By the time I was done in the bathroom I was feeling much better. I dressed in old clothes, all the better for rummaging about in dirty old houses, and headed downstairs to find Danny poaching eggs and toasting bagels.

The words ‘make someone a wonderful wife someday’ drifted through my mind but I managed to derail them before they made it anywhere near my mouth.

“You know you don’t need to do all this cooking, don’t you?”

“It’s no’ a problem. I does a fair bi’ for me mum when I’m ‘ome, and it’s nice to be able to give back somfing, you know wha’ I mean?”

I did know what he meant, although recalling my thoughts of the previous night, I realised I was quite some way from putting action to the meaning. There was coffee, which was always a good start to the day, and the food tasted amazing as usual.

Once we’d finished eating, I rinsed out the crocks and cuttles before adding them to the dishwasher. A glance at my watch showed we had a comfortable half hour to get into town. We decided to leave straight away, not knowing what the traffic would be like.

I parked in the multi-story near the flat, and we ambled across to wait. The estate agent was ten minutes late, all apologies and poor excuses. She let us into the property and did her thing showing us around with her patois of buzz words and clichés. We let her prattle on for the duration of the tour, then I asked if she could leave us to look around by ourselves for a while.

“I never agree to a sale while the salesman – or woman – is in the room,” I explained. “I hate making decisions when I’m being pressured into them, and I’d be able to get a much better feel for the place if you’d let us be. Would that be alright?”

“Er, I’m not really sure.”

“Perhaps you could give your branch a call. Tell them my name’s Jeremy Goodman; they should know who I am. I’ll be happy to drop the keys back at the branch later today, and should any damage occur while we’re here, I’ll happily pay for.”

She made the phone call. We got the place to ourselves.

I vaguely remembered Tony using the basement for his collection, so we started there. The place was to be let furnished, and most of the furniture looked familiar from the times I’d been here in the past.

Not that I’d visited Tony much. There were a couple of times before he stole my bowl, then that evening with the party when this whole roller coaster ride had set off. Still, it was enough.

I provided most of the muscle, much to Danny’s disgust. In his own body, I’m sure he could have lifted entire sideboards and display cabinets by himself. As Laura, all he could do was push a bit while I lifted my end.

We dragged all the cabinets into the middle of the room and set about a painstaking, inch-by-inch search around the edge of the room, checking the gaps between the carpet and the skirting-board. Once we’d been round the edge, we moved a foot into the room and repeated the circuit, probing with fingers, and taking care to examine everywhere. Once we’d worked out way in as far as the cabinets, we’d stop long enough to haul them back to the edge of the room before continuing.

With the entire floor searched and found empty, we took a cabinet each and went through it with meticulous thoroughness. Danny did find an old coin – an American half dollar I think – and I discovered a packing bead, an old shipping label and several pieces of fluff.

“So,” I said, stretching the kinks out of my back. “If not here…”

We chose another room, then another, then another. We spent an hour in each and two in the hallway. The kitchen didn’t take long, given the lino floor, and the easily removable trays in the drawers. It was getting on for half past three in the afternoon when we declared the search over. Even Danny was looking defeated by the end, despite his earlier enthusiasm.

All in all, the only discovery of value was the coin he’d unearthed. We sat down for a short rest and I asked to have a look at it. Confederate half dollar, eighteen sixties, silver by the looks of it. I handed it back.

“Upwards of thirty quid I’d say. More if you can find the right buyer. It’s in good condition. At least we won’t go away completely empty handed.” I managed to squeeze a bit of forced joviality into my words. Every empty square inch of carpet we’d examined, every nook and crack with nothing to find but dust, had added another pound of lead to the weight crushing my spirit. I’d put everything into this search, and it had drawn a blank. If I didn’t come up with something soon – like in the next couple of hours – Jerry was going to be stuck inside for the rest of what would probably be a very short and painful life. I couldn’t bear it.

“Wha’ if we’re goin’ abou’ this all wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who was ‘ere when Tony’s bowl got busted?”

“From what I understand, just Mary. She confessed to Tony later and got a fat lip for it.”

“So why don’t we give ‘er a bell? Ask ‘er where she broke the thing? Maybe ask ‘er if she know’s what ‘appened to the bi’ tha’ bust off?”

It was such a simple idea. Why the hell hadn’t I thought of it? I mean okay, maybe it’s more of a female thing asking for help, while blokes plod on by themselves, but I had twenty seven years’ experience of being a woman while Danny had a little over a week. Was it built into the physiology?

Questions for later, if I could even be bothered to ask them. I dug out my mobile. I doubted if the number I had for her and Tony was still valid, so instead I called through to a directory enquiries service.

“Hello, I’m trying to find a Mary Ward?” I gave the city as the location, as well as the flat’s address as her last known residence. There were seven possible matches. I took them all and called each one in turn. Not the right Mary Ward. Not even a Mary in some cases.

“Maybe she changed ‘er name.”

Fucking right she’d change her name. Who’d want to keep the name of an arsehole like Tony. So either she’d gone back to her maiden name, or maybe by now she’d remarried. Only I didn’t know her maiden name, or what she’d been up to recently.

“Maybe the estate agents‘ll know.”

How was he coming up with all these good ideas all of a sudden? I phoned the estate agents

“Yeah, hi, this is Jerry Goodman. We’re looking at a city centre flat you have for let.” I gave them the address. “I was hoping to talk to the previous occupant here? There are a few things we’ve found around the place that we’d like to discuss… yeah I know you don’t usually give out that information. I did know the people before they moved out. It was Tony and Mary Ward, though I know Mr Ward ended up in prison and Mrs Ward divorced him and moved out. I’m not sure if she changed her name when she did so, and I really need to talk to her… Look I appreciate that, but you should have her details. Could you at least just call her and say that Jerry Goodman needs to talk to her. We met a few times at parties and such. She may not remember me, but please tell her it’s a matter of the utmost urgency… Yes, if she could call me on my mobile.” I gave them the number and had them repeat it back to me.

I don’t think I ever prayed in my life before that, but I prayed then, to whoever or whatever might be listening. I made all sorts of promises about being more considerate to everyone I met, and a bunch of similar things. The minutes ticked by. My stomach was growling.

“She’s not going to call, Danny. We’ve been at this for over six hours. What say we get a late lunch?”

Danny didn’t have a chance to reply as my mobile chose that moment to start ringing.

“Hello, this is Jerry Goodman.”

“Hello Mr Goodman, this is Mary Andrews here. I used to be married to Tony Ward. I understand you want to ask me something about the flat we used to live in?”

“Yes, thank you Mrs Andrews. Thank you so much for calling back. It’s not really about the flat, and it may sound trivial, but it’s of considerable importance. I don’t know if you remember a party you held here a little over a year ago. Your husband was playing a sort of a game with a green bowl he had. He told you to put an earring into it, but…”

“I thought I remembered your name. Mr Goodman, how are you? It’s been such a long time.”

“It has Mrs Andrews. I’m fine thank you for asking. I hope you’re well too.”

“Yes thank you. Life has been so much better since I left Tony. I understand you’re working in the antiques business now, with that lovely young lady you met at the party. What was her name?”

“Laura. Laura Townsend.”

“That’s right. Such a lovely young woman. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but she was so much nicer than that other woman you came with.”

“Portia, my wife. Yes we divorced shortly after that party. I found she’d been having an affair.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You needn’t be. Portia wasn’t much better to me than I believe Tony was to you. I went into business with Laura once the divorce settlement went through. It’s actually to do with the antiques business that I’m calling you though.”

“Oh yes? I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll be able to help. That was mainly Tony’s side of things.”

“In this case I think you can. You remember the green bowl from the night of that party?”

“Of course I do. It surprised me because it was so much like one I’d broken a month or so before. Tony was very upset about that.”

“I heard. It was actually that first bowl I wanted to ask about. I bought quite a lot of Tony’s stock when he went into liquidation, including that green bowl with the chip in it. We already had Laura’s, which is the one he had that night, and we’ve managed to put our hands on a third. They’re all damaged in some way – two have broken into large pieces, and the one I obtained from Tony is missing that chip. I’ve just discovered that together they could be extremely valuable, but only if they are complete.

“We’re at your old flat right now, in the rather desperate hope that the piece that broke off might be here somewhere. I was hoping you might remember where the bowl was broken and what happened to the small piece that chipped off.”

“It was in his display room in the basement, but you won’t find the chip there, dear.”

“Why not? Did you throw it out?”

“I think you’d better come and see me. I live just outside the city now – about twenty minutes’ drive from the old place.”

She gave me the address.

I yanked Danny off the sofa and all but ran from the flat, only just remembering to lock up as we left.

-oOo-

It took us half an hour to get to Mrs Andrew’s residence. I’d promised to return the keys to the estate agent, so we had a slight detour.

It was Mrs as well, since she had re-married, and done pretty well for herself by all appearances.

“Martin owns a chain of restaurants,” she explained as she let us in through an impressive front door to an opulent entrance hall. From there she led us to a large and tastefully decorated front room. “He’s such an astonishingly nice man after Tony. I feel very much like I’ve had a reprieve. Tony was quite a dreadful person. He used to shout at me all the time and make me feel like rubbish. Martin is such a gentle soul, and so kind by comparison.

“Do you know, in those last few months before he was arrested and I left him, Tony complained about you two all the time, saying how you ruined his business.”

“All we were doing was being competitive. We bought for more than he was prepared to pay, and we sold for less. It’s not really surprising he went bust.”

“Well it doesn’t worry me, except that it seems I owe you something of a debt. If he hadn’t gone to the bad, I might never have found the courage to leave him, which means I never would have met Martin. Now you wanted to know about the bowl didn’t you?

“Could I get you some tea, and perhaps a sandwich? I know it’s a little late for lunch, or perhaps early for tea, but…”

Danny’s stomach growled at that moment, much to his embarrassment, and our hostess’s amusement. She let out a hoot of laughter and rang a bell on the table. A moment later a maid appeared.

“A pot of tea for three please Miriam, and a large plate of assorted sandwiches, and some cake if we have it. Thank you dear. Now where were we?”

“You were going to talk about the bowl. The first one which was chipped.”

“Oh yes. You know Tony was so excited when he acquired that item. I’ve never seen him so delighted. He was like a child with a bag full of sweets.

“’Do you know what this is Mary?’ he asked me on more than one occasion. ‘This is the key to our future success. This is going to make us rich beyond your ability to imagine. This is diamonds and jewellery for you and fancy fast cars for me.’

“He put it in pride of place in the display room, on the top shelf of his central cabinet. You know I never really understood why he called it his display room; it was down in the basement and he only took a very few select people down there. Including those three ghastly friends of his. What were their names?”

“Michael, Peter and Randall?”

“That’s them. I wonder whatever happened to them.”

“They came to work for us after Tony went bust. Actually I think they quit shortly after that trouble at the party, but we only offered them jobs when we heard Tony had stopped trading. They’re quite a nice group of lads if you get to know them.”

“Well I shall take your word for it dear. I remember them coming up from the basement once looking all rather shocked and bothered, then a week later they came up laughing those unpleasant laughs they had.

“It was a day or so after that when I accidentally broke the bowl. I mean it wasn’t as if Tony had forbidden me from going down there, and the place used to get so dusty. I went down to tidy up a bit, and I must have been a little careless when trying to reach that top shelf. You know how it is dear, when a shelf is so high and you have to stretch to reach it and all you can do is polish it by feel? I didn’t even know the bowl was up there until I knocked it. Before I knew it had fallen down past my head and hit the bottom part of the display cabinet. That was when the small piece broke off. The rest of it landed on the carpet, which you know is quite plush, so the only damage it sustained was that small chip.

“Ah here’s our tea. Thank you so much Miriam, it looks quite wonderful. Do help yourselves to sandwiches. I’ll be mother shall I?”

Both Laura and I were perhaps a little less than polite in the way we piled our plates, but nearly a whole day hunting through a flat on our hands and knees on nothing more than the bagel and egg we’d enjoyed at breakfast, had left us ravenous.

Mary’s narrative stalled while we replenished our energy levels. The tea was quite excellent as well. Not Earl Grey or Lady Grey for which I was grateful. I’ve never had much time for perfumed teas.

Five minutes and a couple of empty plates later, we were sitting with a second cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge awaiting our attention.

“You just explained how you knocked the bowl off by accident and it hit the bottom part of the display cabinet.”

“That’s right,” Mary picked up her tale with evident relish. “Of course as soon as Tony arrived home that evening, I confessed to the accident. He’d never been a wonderfully forgiving man, and I’d caught the wrong end of his spiteful tongue often enough before that evening, but this was the first time he became physically abusive. He slapped me across the face – split my lip as I recall.

“’You stupid cunt’ – pardon my language, but that’s what he called me. ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’

“I shook my head. I was quite terrified by this time.

“’I said this was going to be the making of us, this bowl, and you go and do this to it!’ He became angrier and angrier as he shouted at me. I was afraid he might hit me again, or even kick me. ‘If it doesn’t work now, so help me…’ I was cowering away from him by this stage. I’m not sure what caused him to stop, but he yelled at me to get out, and I have never run from him so fast.

“I remember he was on the phone even before I’d climbed the stairs, and a few minutes later another couple of his friends – really unsavoury characters these – turned up and headed down to join him.

“I don’t remember seeing them leave, nor do I remember seeing them again after that, but by then I was too scared of Tony to talk to him. Later that evening he came to me and threw the bowl on the table in front of me. I must have flinched, I was so terrified of him.

“’There you go, you stupid fucking cow.’ Sorry about the language again. ‘You might as well hang that round your neck. It’s the closest you’re going to get to jewels now.’

“He stormed off again, and when I had regained my courage, I went over and had a look at the bowl. You know it really was such an attractive piece. I still feel dreadful about having damaged it.

“The bowl itself was obviously too large, but the chip that had broken off… It had such a lovely fine grain to it, and with that green lacquer, it looked a little like a piece of malachite.”

She fell silent for a while. It didn’t seem right to prompt her again.

She stood and walked over to a white, padded leather box, perhaps a little smaller than a shoebox, which stood on a bureau on one side of the room. She brought it back and set it on the coffee table in front of us.

Lifting the lid, we saw the inevitable jumble of tangled necklaces and bracelets. One in particular…

She took hold of the pendant and gently shook the chain free.

“I took it to a jeweller friend of mine and he mounted it for me. I never quite had the courage to wear it when Tony was about – it would have seemed like I was defying him, I think. Which means I don’t think I’ve ever really worn it, apart from the time when I picked it up from my friend’s shop.

“It’s the only thing I have left of that old life. I’m not even sure why I keep it still, except that it represents my first effort at defiance against that horrible bully.

“I don’t know if it’s of use to you Mr Goodman, but I’d like you to have it. You brought me good fortune, and if this in anyway repays that, then I’m glad.”

I stared at the pendant in disbelief. It looked like the chip was complete. The jeweller had run a thin silver border around the three edges and joined it to a simple ring at the smallest of the angles. The chain, of course, ran through the ring. What was important was that it didn’t seem as though he’d filed down the edges at all. The chip was complete.

Mary must have been reading my mind.

“My friend was worried that it might be delicate, so he didn’t do anything to it other than added the silver border. It’s quite effective don’t you think?”

“It’s exquisite Mrs Andrews. You don’t know what this means to me – to us.”

“I’m glad. Would you like some more tea before you go? Perhaps I could show you around the house a little.”

It did no harm to humour her. I mean I was jumping up and down inside with exaltation, I wanted to get my phone out and call Doris and Millie, I wanted to run around the room like a demented child, but in reality there was little enough we could do till tomorrow.

So we had a tour of the Andrews’ residence. Its immense and immaculate gardens, its impressive halls and rooms, its entirely enviable collection of antiques. Some of the things on display put me in mind of one or two items I had in the shop. Once this was over, I felt Mrs Andrews deserved a little more than just our grateful thanks, and I mentally put a few pieces aside that I knew would complement their already impressive collection.

Eventually we escaped from our expansive hostess with her promising a future invitation to dinner. I doubted there was substance to the promise, but then it didn’t matter much. I had all I cared about nestled safely in my jacket pocket.

Back at home I spent an hour with a soldering iron and a pair of delicate pliers tweezing apart the mount that held the chip as carefully as I could. With it removed, I wrapped the sliver of wood in cotton wool and placed it in a small jewellery box from Laura’s collection. Jerry who would soon be Laura again. I was sure she wouldn’t mind.

We had a takeaway delivered. Indian again as it was Danny who’d turned today’s disaster into such a triumph. After all it had been him that came up with the right questions that led us to the answer. All I’d managed was to get us good and grubby, tired and ravenously hungry chasing a red herring into the depths of an empty ocean.

-oOo-

The previous night I’d been unable to sleep through worry. That night I was too excited to sleep. The sliver of wood, in its jewellery case sat locked in the safe, but still it didn’t feel secure. I lay awake staring at the ceiling, willing sleep to come, and gave up about midnight.

Danny found me about two in the morning lying on the larger sofa downstairs with a blanket wrapped around me. I was asleep when he came down the stairs, but it had taken me the best part of an hour staring at the safe before I nodded off.

He was quiet as he made his hot milk, but still he managed to rouse me.

“D’yer fancy one, or would you raver have a whisky like last nigh’?”

“I’ll join you in a warm milk this time, thanks. I was too stressed last night; it was doing strange and unpleasant things to the milk when I drank it.”

“So d’you fink this’ll work then?”

“No reason why not, my friend. You’ll have to come with me tomorrow.”

“Just try and stop me.”

He carried two steaming mugs over and handed me one. I twisted round into a seated position, leaving space on the sofa if he wanted. He chose a chair.

Probably for the best.

“I can’t ge’ me hopes up too much you know.”

“Last time was hard to take for all of us, but I can’t afford not to hope. I can’t imagine living the rest of my life without Jerry – as Laura. Still, one way or the other, we’ll get you sorted.”

“How d’you mean?”

“If the chip doesn’t work we’ll do a transfer with two bowls, get you shifted back into your body.”

“No you fucking won’t!”

“Danny, I thought we’d been through this. We can’t leave Tony in your body. Not with what he’d do to your mum.”

“Me mum can take care of ‘erself, an so can I. Switch me wiv Jerry. I’ll be a bloke again, an’ I reckon I could do alrigh’ as Tony. He weren’t as big as me, but ‘e ‘ad a bit o’ muscle.”

“Thirty-five years inside Danny!”

“Time off for good behaviour. Besides, you’d do wha’ you could to ge’ me ou’. I ain’t lettin’ you sort fings for me and be stuck in the shi’ like you would be if you left Jerry inside. Besides, we ain’t there yet are we? This is all gonna work.”

“We’ll see. We’d better get a bit more sleep. We have an early start tomorrow. Doris said she and Millie are usually up and fit to receive visitors by eight, so we should try to be on the road by six.”

“I’m usually up well before five. It’s you I’m bovvered about.”

“Well I plan to sleep down here for the rest of the night, so if you’re up at five, give me a nudge.”

Danny went to his bed, switching off the light as he went.

-oOo-

True to his word, Danny was up and about by five. As requested he gave me a nudge – enough of one in fact that I ended up on the floor.

“I hope you can control your strength a bit better when you get your body back.”

He laughed – He probably meant it to come across as playful, but it sounded a little disturbing to my ears – like he rather enjoyed pushing people around.

I headed up to my bedroom to shower and dress, and came back down to the smell of sausage, egg and bacon sizzling in the frying pan, and the ever-welcome perfume of coffee.

“You know Jerry’s not going to thank you for all those calories.”

“We gotta celebrate somehow. Get the fing out the safe. I don’t want to find us halfway there and realise we forgot it.”

It wasn’t a bad idea, so I did as suggested, opening the box and unwrapping the cotton wool enough to satisfy myself that the chip was still there. The box snapped shut and found a home in the inside pocket of my blazer.

We were on the road by quarter to six, and this time two hours could be as long as it liked. My spirits were soaring. The road whizzed by, the sun was out, nothing could go wrong today.

It was still twenty minutes to eight when we pulled up outside Doris’s cottage. We sat in the car for five minutes until the door opened and a mildly amused Doris waved us in.”

“We thought you might get here a little early today, so we got up and dressed sooner than we normally would. Millie is in the living room. Can I get either of you some tea?”

We both accepted gratefully and made our way through to where Doris’s friend was waiting. I took the jewellery box out of my pocket and offered it to her. With due reverence and care, she removed the small piece of wood and offered it up to the chip in Tony’s bowl.

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” she said.

Talk about words to send a cold shiver down your spine.

“It looks complete, but there may still be a tiny sliver missing which might have adverse consequences. I’d say I’m prepared to proceed, but you need to be aware that something could still go badly wrong with any or all of you. I need your consent before going ahead.”

“You ‘ave mine,” said Danny with a little too much eagerness. All he could see in his future was getting back to being himself.

“I can’t speak for Tony,” I said. “He’d oppose this simply because he’s happy where he is, plus he’s enough of a coward he wouldn’t take any sort of risk if he thought there was the least chance of something going wrong.”

“Tony is the wrong doer here. He doesn’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Which leaves Jerry, and I’ll speak for him if I may. He’s in a pretty dreadful place right now, and I reckon he’d be prepared to do just about anything to get out of there. The possibility of escaping his present circumstance, should things go right, would be enough to convince him it’s worth a try.”

Doris came in with a tray of tea things. Proceedings paused as tea was poured and handed around. We supped appreciatively, but hurriedly at our drinks for five minutes then handed them back to Doris who cleared them away.

“Okay,” Millie set to again. “Which bowl is whose?”

“I’m sorry, why is that important?”

“Because the magic is all about ownership; I thought you knew. Doris, didn’t you say one of them owned a bowl?”

“Yes, that would be Laura here, but… Oh yes, I’d forgotten there was a break in your line of inheritance. But didn’t I explain that to you dear?”

“Explain what?”

“The way the bowls work,” Millie said. “When used normally, everyone puts an item in the bowl where the magic associates that item with the person who placed it there, or rather their body since the bowl makers associated ownership with the body. Everybody then takes something belonging to someone else and, once the last item has been taken, each one returns to the body that owns it, taking the mind, or soul if you prefer, of the person holding it.”

“So that’s how the property returns to whoever owns it.”

“Yes, but you’re missing the point. These bowls have lost almost all of their power. There should be, we hope, enough left to make one last transfer back to the owner of each bowl – sort of a safeguard for the bowl owners we believe – but that means each bowl must belong to one of the people we’re trying to return someone’s mind to, or rather it must belong to the body of that person.” She sounded quite concerned.

“That shouldn’t be a difficulty dear,” Doris said. “I worked all that out a few days back. We’ll need to revert ownership in a couple of cases, but it should work.

“This one belonged to Laura initially. It was stolen by Tony, but recovered which means it belongs to…”

“Me,” I said.”

“No dear. Body ownership remember. It belongs to Laura’s body, so…”

“But when I recovered it, I was in this body.”

“Oh yes of course. Silly of me. Well you will have to give it to Laura’s body in that case. Not too difficult.”

“Let’s hear about the others before we do anything,” Millie said.

“Okay, this one’s a little complicated. It was mine until it was stolen by Tony in his body. He then kept it when he transferred into Laura’s body, so ownership passed to her, then again when he transferred to Danny’s. It was then recovered by Jerry and returned to me by Laura, still in Jerry’s body. That means if I give up ownership back to Jerry’s body, and Laura, in Jerry’s body, gives up ownership as well, it should revert to Tony in Danny’s body.

“Finally there’s this one which used to belong to Tony…”

“Until Jerry and I bought it when he went bankrupt. So since it’s the body that owns it, the current joint owners of that bowl are Jerry’s body, which I’m inhabiting, and my old one, Laura’s, which Danny’s in. So if Danny and I give up ownership, it’ll revert to Tony’s body, currently inhabited by Jerry.”

“Very succinctly put, dear.”

Millie let out a sigh of relief. “I wish you’d told me earlier Doris, you gave me a bit of a turn there. Alright, how are we going to do this?”

“Well, let’s start with mine shall we?” Doris asked picking up the three pieces of her bowl. “I’ll say the words first – I as rightful possessor of this artefact do hereby rescind my ownership in favour of its previous holder.”

She looked at Millie who nodded, then passed the pieces to me. I repeated them word for word and put them back on the table, reassembling the bowl as carefully as I could.

Millie cocked her head to one side. “Very large man with dark hair. Possibly six foot four, looks like a rugby player. Lying in bed wearing a hospital gown. Would that be him?”

“That sounds like Danny,” I said. “How do you do that?”

“Magic,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “I owned a bowl for seventy years, and I can trace inheritance in my family back at least a thousand years. I know a trick or two. It’s a little like the feeling you have when you know it’s okay to transfer back, only with a few extra twists.”

“Okay,” Doris said passing Tony’s chipped bowl across. “You and Danny need to say the same words with this one.”

We did, and Millie described Tony beautifully, right down to the big nose and balding head. He was being marched down a corridor between two prison guards when she ‘saw’ him. Tony’s bowl was placed back on the table and the chip re-inserted.

“Last one. Laura, you need to pick up your bowl and formally give it to Danny – you remember the words your mother used? And Danny, you need to formally accept it.”

I picked up the two pieces of the last bowl and turned to Danny.

“I’m giving this bowl to you now. It is your responsibility. Look after it and use it wisely.”

Danny took the bowl from my hands. “This bowl is mine now. I will look after it and use it wisely.”

“Well not exactly the traditional words,” Millie said, “but it seems to have worked. Next step is to decide who’s going where.”

“Well Danny here needs to go back into his body,” I said.

“In which case we need something belonging to the body he’s in now.”

“Where’s the bag I brought with me a couple of days ago?”

“Oh, I put it in the cupboard under the stairs dear.”

I fetched it and pulled out the three sets of keys, passed the VW fob to Danny. Following Millie’s instructions, he put them into the bowl formerly owned by Doris.

“Is that right? Danny wants to go back to his body, so we put Laura’s keys into Tony’s bowl?”

“You’re still not thinking body ownership dear. The keys belong to Laura’s body and the bowl belongs to Danny’s body. Whoever’s in Laura’s body will be transferred into Danny’s body.”

“This is confusing.”

“Yes dear. Now I think we want Tony, who’s currently in Danny’s body, to return to his own. So something belonging to Danny into the one with the chip.”

I put Danny’s large bunch of house keys into Tony’s bowl.

“Which leaves this Tony’s key into Laura’s bowl.”

I complied, putting the Toyota keys in the last remaining bowl.

“Right,” Millie said rubbing her hands together in a business-like manner. “We only get one shot at this, so let’s make sure we have it right.”

She went carefully and methodically through the changes we were trying to achieve one more time, and once we agreed we were happy with what we were aiming to achieve, she reached out her hands to Doris.

“So what do we do?” I asked.

“Keep quiet and try not to distract us,” Millie replied.

“Shouldn’t there be more of you?” I couldn’t help asking. “I mean I’m sure Jerry said there were more of you visiting Doris when she was in hospital.”

“Doris and I are the only ones who really know much about the bowls. That and we are the only ones who know the old tongue well enough to do this chant, and this is a spell that needs to be spoken in the old tongue. Now please be quiet. This is going to take a lot of concentration.”

I sat beside Danny and put an arm around him. He gave me an odd look, but I wasn’t going to be deterred. For one thing I didn’t want to risk him collapsing in the middle of the transformation and distracting our hostesses. For another, I wanted Jerry to wake up in her body with my arms around her.

After a moment’s quiet, the two elderly ladies started to chant. It was an unusual language made up of guttural, monosyllabic grunts, but quite musical nonetheless. Each of them was chanting with a peculiar rhythm which seemed out of place with the other, but after a few rounds, they began to wind around each other, the sound braiding into a noticeable pattern.

Danny and I sat still and watched. For long minutes nothing seemed to happen, until suddenly there it was. A change had been happening gradually all along, but so subtly that I hadn’t noticed it. Danny’s breathless gasp came a moment later, suggesting he’d seen it too.

Each of the three bowls was surrounded by a vague but undeniable swirling cloud of greenish dust motes. Once seen, you couldn’t not see them. As we watched, the clouds became more substantial, and the bowls less so as they disintegrated by slow degrees until all that remained were the swirling clouds of dust enveloping the three sets of keys, which were floating a half inch off the table.

The chant changed subtly. The rhythm was still there, but it was different somehow. The swirling clouds grew until they overlapped, and the keys began to glide from the centre of one cloud to another.

“Oh fuck,” Danny murmured and his eyes glazed, suggesting he was entering that disconcerting in-between phase when the senses mixed together. I gave his shoulders a reassuring squeeze, hoping that it didn’t come across as too bright or too loud, or too much of whatever sense might have replaced his ability to feel.

Danny became decidedly unsteady as the keys reached their destinations and the ritual approached its end. The chanting changed again, slowing by degrees, and the green dust slowed in time, each of the clouds withdrawing into its centre. At some stage Danny’s head collapsed onto my shoulder. The chant became more drawn out until, on the final note, the last of the dust settled and all that remained on the table were three conical piles, each with a key or bunch of keys hidden somewhere inside.

Doris and Millie let go one another’s hands and collapsed back into their respective chairs. The silence was unnerving after nearly an hour of the continuous chanting. I lifted Danny – hopefully Jerry – carefully and laid him out on the sofa. Doris and Millie were conscious, but exhausted.

I headed for the kitchen. There are times when you don’t need to be told to put the kettle on.

-oOo-

This chapter ends up switching back to Jerry in prison. The way I originally wrote it is fairly graphic. In deference to those who are sensitive to such things, I’ve tried to tone it down in the two paragraphs below. If you think you’re up to my initial concept, skip to the red section. If you’re not, please don’t read past the black below.

He was taunting me, looking for a reaction. I knew better than to respond though. It took all my will power, but I forced myself to relax. I willed my body to go limp, and would have collapsed if not for the goons holding me up. They slammed me against the wall. Smooth tiles and rough grouting. It felt oddly like the taste of tangerines. My tormentor spoke in my ear, but all I could hear was a softly textured deep burgundy and black. I laughed – sharp bursts of brilliant periwinkle. My skin was itching and burning in a familiar way. She’d done it. I didn’t know how, but somehow Laura had done it.

Something wasn’t right. I was aware of my mind shifting, but a part of it was snagged, like gossamer on a nail. If I didn’t try and free it, something would tear. There was no time though. My world was filled with an intense pain that tasted overwhelmingly of under-ripe pineapple. My mind sought refuge in oblivion, even as it fought to tear free.

-oOo-

Thick and hot, like a freshly roasted sausage of gargantuan size; it was enormous. There may be a tendency to overestimate things you feel with your bum – sit on a pea and it feels like a grape sort of thing – but even taking that into account, whatever was rubbing its way slowly down the cleft between my buttocks, was epic in proportion.

He was taunting me, looking for me to struggle against the horror to come. If – no when – he rammed that thing up me, it would all but split me in two. He wanted me to panic, to be consumed by terror, to struggle only to discover that no amount of struggling would enable me to escape the inevitable.

It took all my willpower, but I forced myself to be still. There was no way out of this and fighting would simply make it worse. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Besides, if I relaxed this should hurt less, shouldn’t it?

I willed my body to go limp and would have collapsed had it not been for the goons holding me up. They slammed me hard against the wall. Smooth tiles and rough grouting. It felt oddly like the taste of tangerines. My tormentor spoke in my ear, but all I could hear was a softly textured deep burgundy and black. I laughed – sharp bursts of brilliant periwinkle. My skin was itching and burning in a familiar way. She’d done it. I didn’t know how, but somehow Laura had done it.

Something wasn’t right. I was aware of my mind shifting, but a part of it was snagged, like gossamer on a nail. If I didn’t try and free it, something would tear. There was no time though. Something hard and way too large disappeared up my back passage and my world was filled with an intense pain that tasted overwhelmingly of under-ripe pineapple. My mind sought refuge in oblivion, even as it fought to tear free.