Too Good to be True

too_good_to_be_trueCopyright © 2010 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

Sunday

“So what do you think?” I spread my arms out and spun round. “Is this not the ultimate find?”

“I don’t know Mike, it seems too good to be true and you know what they say about this city; ‘If it seems too good to be true…”

“’It probably is.’” I joined in the chorus. “Not this time though Gary, it’s just a lucky break and you are just jealous that you didn’t spot the ad first.”

My best – ok I’ll admit, pretty much my only – friend hunted about, nosing through doors and checking for just about anything that might explain why someone would want to let a fully furnished apartment, twice the size of the one I had been living in, for $50 a month less than I had been paying.

“I don’t suppose you had the good sense to ask why they were letting it so cheap?”

“Yep! It turns out the owners want the place let by the end of October, and the superintendent figured the only way he could do that was to drop the rent.”

“So they’ll put it up next month and you won’t be able to afford it.”

“No, rent is fixed for the first six months. If they put it up after that, at least I get half a year living here before I have to move on. Did I mention it was fully furnished?”

We’d found our way back into the very large living room and I walked over to a large, expensive looking mahogany cabinet. I pulled the doors open and felt a smug sense of satisfaction as Gary let out a low whistle and collapsed onto the sofa.

“Fifty inch plasma, cable, blue ray, home cinema surround sound, the works; all part of the furnishings. OK I have to pay a little extra to insure against accidental damage, but it’s still less than I was paying.”

I flopped onto the empty space next to him and gave him my best Cheshire cat grin.

“So, what say we have a Halloween party here?”

Later that evening I was sitting alone in front of the enormous TV, a bottle of beer in my hand and a couple of slices of cold pizza close at hand in case my appetite resurfaced.

The afternoon had passed quickly with Gary first helping me to move my few meagre possessions into my new palace then discussing the division of labour setting up for the party. Gary, being the socialite, would take care of the invitations and having the better paid job would provide the food and booze. I agreed to do the decorations and to put together a suitable mix of music.

Gary had disappeared shortly before six with his usual excuse that he needed to get ready for a hot date, so that left me on my own in with a few bottles of suds and fifty inches worth of entertainment. Frankly I would have preferred an evening out like Gary, but I was painfully shy around women, and the one time he had tried to set up a blind date for me, double dating a friend of his lady of the moment, had turned out so badly that we both vowed never again to go down that route.

I mean it wasn’t that my date for the evening was aesthetically unappealing in any way, just the opposite in fact. She had been bright, witty, intelligent, attractive, perfect in fact. Oh no, the problem had been me managing a very passable impression of a Neanderthal, complete with cave man eloquence and elegance.

That had all been a couple of months ago, and I still hadn’t quite recovered from the shame, which made it just as well that I had a much nicer place to do the recovering in right now. I had high hopes of changing my romantic fortunes with the up and coming party, but for now I would indulge my self-pity and get used to living it large, so to speak.

The film I had been watching had ended and I decided to hang on for the news before going to bed. It turned out to be a slow news day with nothing much to report, either locally or nationally. Instead they padded the bulletin out with speculation as to whether or not the Halloween Hacker would take another victim this year. They gave time over to old reports from the previous five years, showing unnecessarily realistic re-enactments of each of the brutal stabbings and revelling in descriptions of bodies so mutilated that they hadn’t been identified even now.

I turned off the TV in disgust. I mean OK what’s Halloween without a little scare, but this was sick. Most of the attacks had taken place quite close to my new home, and I knew from the looks my neighbours gave me that nerves were already on edge. The last thing anyone needed right now was some irresponsible reporter capitalising on cheap sensationalism.

I closed the lid on the pizza, dropped the empty beer bottles into the trash and headed for the bedroom. Gary had laughed when he saw it; king sized canopy bed with satin sheets and a big walk in closet, still half filled with the previous occupant’s clothing.

The previous tenant had left in such a hurry that she had left a fair amount of her wardrobe behind. The superintendent had said I could box it up and would put it in storage in case she came back for it, but I didn’t have a lot of stuff anyway and it fit quite easily into the remaining space so, for now at least, I hadn’t bothered to get rid of anything.

On impulse I lifted a short red velveteen dress off its hanger and held it up against me in the mirror. My predecessor hadn’t been that much different from me in size, poor girl, and I found myself wondering what it would feel like to put the dress on.

I shook off the thought with a shudder. “Pull yourself together Michael,” I told myself. “You are getting decidedly weird.”

The dress went back in the closet and I stripped down to my boxers, ready for bed. The silky feel of the sheets was a sensual delight and I felt my mind wandering again as I drifted off. “You know you still need a costume for the party…”

As sleep took me, my mind was filled with images of me walking around the party in the short red dress, black fishnet stockings and the pair of red heels I’d spotted in the closet. I’d look ridiculous but if I could get hold of a devil’s horns head band, a small, cute pitchfork and possibly a tail, I might just be able to pull it off. A lot of girls liked a guy who didn’t mind looking like a fool for the sake of a bit of fun.

I awoke to the sound of crying. It was too dark to read the time on my watch, but the fact that it was still dark meant it was way too early to be awake yet. I looked over in the direction of the noise and in the dimness could just make out the shadowy outline of a young woman sitting at the dressing table, her face buried in her hands.

“Can I help you?” Sometimes I think I must be part Canadian, I mean I was talking to someone had just broken into my apartment, snuck into my bedroom and woken me up; you’d think I could come up with something a little more appropriate.

She spun around a stared at me. There was fire in her eyes. No I mean literally, they gave out just enough light to show the contours of her face twisted into a mask of what? Anger? Anguish?.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

She stood up from the dresser and began stalking slowly towards the bed.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

She spoke louder, almost shouting, the emotion more evident in her voice. Suddenly she lunged forward, leapt as though she were going to wrestle me in the bed.

“Get out, Get Out, GET OUT!”

I was scrambling away from her for all I was worth, terror coursing through me. I shut my eyes expecting a wild fury to land on me, scratching and biting, but all I felt was breath of wind.

My heart was hammering in my chest as I opened my eyes. The room was empty, but I turned on the bedside lamp and walked around, checking the closet, the dresser, under the bed, just to make sure.

I grabbed a dressing gown and headed for the kitchen. A minute with the microwave and I was cradling a glass of hot milk and honey in both hands, sipping away and waiting for my madly beating heart to settle down. What in all the world had that been?

I finished my drink and dropped the glass into the dishwasher. It was only then that I realised the gown I was wearing was pink and silky. What had happened to my dressing gown? I was sure I’d hung it on the back of the door.

Back in the bedroom, I checked, and yes sure enough there it was. So why had I picked this one up instead?

I hung it back up on the door and slid back between the satin covers, dimly aware of the contrast between the rough cotton of my boxers and the smoothness of the sheets. Cheese was supposed to give you vivid dreams wasn’t it? And there was quite a bit of cheese in pizza. I clung to that as an explanation, doing my best to ignore the number of times in the past that I’d had late night pizza and no scary dreams to follow. Sleep took a long time coming, but eventually it came.

Monday

I woke feeling thick headed, as though I hadn’t slept at all. There were the vague echoes of disturbing dreams, but nothing I could be sure of. I made my way to the bathroom on autopilot, dropped my pyjama bottoms and sat down to pee. As the pressure in my bladder lessened, I stared stupidly at the pyjamas.

“Those aren’t my boxer shorts.”

Having achieved that brilliant deduction I stood up and flushed the toilet. For lack of anything better to wear I pulled the PJ’s back up and turned to look at myself in the mirror.

Silky, peach with embroidered lace flowers on the lapels. A bit baggy in the chest, but otherwise a reasonable fit.

“Those are not mine,” I said to my reflection.

I stripped them off again and turned on the shower. Maybe a blast of cold water would help drive out the cobwebs.

The cold water did wake me up a bit, but it did nothing for my mental faculties which remained bent out of shape as I turned the controls to a more acceptable temperature and gave myself quick but thorough scrubbing. I managed to prevent getting my hair too wet, and eventually climbed out of the shower and towelled myself off while the steam subsided.

There was something about the mirror. I wiped the water out of my eyes and had a look. It was covered in condensation as you would expect, but with smears; writing.

“You must leave now. Get out before it’s too late.”

What was happening here?

I wrapped the towel around my waist and headed for the kitchen. Five minutes later, with a jolt of caffeine coursing through my system I had a plan. I would get up and pretend none of this had ever happened.

OK, I never said it was a good plan.

I picked the PJ’s up off the bathroom floor, folded them and put them back into the dresser. I grabbed a fresh pair of boxers and climbed into them as I headed for the closet. I made a point of ignoring the feminine clothing and grabbed a pair of my jeans and a plain white tee shirt.

Suitably attired I closed the closet door and headed for the living room where I set up my laptop. The block of apartments had a shared wifi Internet link and I had jumped at the chance of joining when the superintendent had mentioned it. It probably wasn’t the best deal going, but at least I didn’t have the hassle and delay of setting up a connection for myself.

I logged into my account at the local newspaper and downloaded the potential assignments for the day. Freelance journalism wasn’t the steadiest or best paid of jobs, but it allowed me to work from home as while giving me the freedom to pick and choose what I wanted to write most of the time, and even to come up with an idea or two of my own when I found something worth pursuing.

After half an hour it was obvious I wasn’t getting anywhere. The coffee had woken me up sufficiently for my brain to start working, but my mind kept wandering back to the events of the previous night.

I headed for the kitchen to refill my mug of legal stimulant. It seemed that I wouldn’t be able to do anything sensible workwise until I had given some time over to finding out what was going on in this place. Fortunately I had some leeway in my current deadline and might even be able to pass off what I was planning to do as research.

I took my mug of fresh Joe back to the lounge and settled down with my laptop and a renewed sense of determination.

Two solid hours following every source and lead I could think of relating to this building and this particular apartment, and nothing. Absolutely nothing remarkable had happened in this building since it had been built over thirty years previously.

Frustrated, I closed the lid on the computer and decided to head out for a walk.

It was one of those cold, clear days when the air seems so much fresher than usual. I was glad of my heavy overcoat and boots as I ambled aimlessly around the neighbourhood. This at least was a good idea. The clean air and clear skies were doing a great job of restoring my perspective, when my eye was drawn down an alleyway where the usual accumulation of rubbish had been moved out of the way and replaced by bouquets of flowers, almost as though someone had built a shrine in the middle of all the filth.

I ducked into the alley and approached the odd sight. Just a cleared area and bunches and bunches of flowers, some beginning to droop, others fresh enough to be on a flower stall even now.

Unnerved, I slipped back out of the alley and looked around me. On the opposite side of the street was a small café and I figured I could combine lunch with a little bit of investigation.

The café was quiet and nearly empty. I ordered myself a toasted sandwich along with a fresh cup of coffee and, when the owner brought them over to my table, I nodded towards the alley.

“What’s the story?”

He looked in the direction I’d indicated and let out a deep sigh. With no new customers to distract him, he lowered himself into the seat opposite me and looked across the table into my eyes.

“Saddest thing,” he said. “Couple of years ago on Halloween it was. About midnight there’s this screaming from the alleyway over there, wakes the whole neighbourhood up. I live in the apartment upstairs,” he nodded upwards with his eyes, “and my missus kicks me out of bed telling me to go find out what’s happening.

“By the time I’d found my shoes and my old baseball bat, the screaming had stopped, but I went across there anyway. That’s when I found her, all bloody and mutilated. Takes some hatred to do that to a person, I will say.

“She must have been a pretty one from the way she was dressed, you know all short skirt and silk blouse, but you wouldn’t know it from the state of her. Her blouse was all bloody from the number of times she’d been stabbed, and her face and hands had been stabbed and slashed until there was nothing but a bloody mush.

“I lost my dinner at the sight of it I don’t mind saying. No person ought to have to witness anything so horrible. I hurried back to the shop as quick as I could and called the police.”

“So it’s you takes the flowers across there?” I took a bite from my sandwich.

“Oh no, that’s the strange thing. There’s this young man I never seen before comes along the morning after the police take the tape down. He clears out a space around where she was lying when I found her and puts these flowers down. He’s been back every day since. Throws away the rotted flowers and puts fresh ones down.”

“Why is that strange?”

“Because no-one knows who she was. She had no ID on her and her face and hands were so badly mashed up there was no way to find out. Yet this young feller comes along and creates a memorial to her.

“The police come to question him one day, but all he would do was moan and wail at them till they let him go.

“He’ll be along in a short while, you can see for yourself”

The door opened with a jangle of bells and the café owner jumped to his feet, leaving me chewing thoughtfully on his words as much as on my toasted sandwich.

I nursed my coffee for another twenty minutes before I spotted the young man walking down the opposite side of the street. I drained the mug and dropped a big enough bill to cover what I owed plus a decent tip, and headed for the door.

The young man had disappeared into the alley with his latest bunch of flowers, and was still down there when I approached the opening. He was filthy and little more than skin and bones. His clothes looked once to have been decent quality, but the accumulation of grime and wear and tear left no question as to his present quality of life.

I kept my distance, not wanting to upset his evidently delicate state of mind.

“Hi,” I said in as quiet and friendly a manner as I could manage.

He jerked his head up like a startled animal and stared at me. There was almost no remnant of sanity in that gaze, and even as our eyes met that faded. He let out a terrified howl, more animal than human, and ran at me.

“Please I only want to talk. To help if I can.”

There was so little to him I could easily have stop him if I’d wanted to, but it would have been cruel to add to this poor wretch’s misery. I stepped out of his way and watched as he fled down the road.

My head was buzzing with new ideas as I headed back home. Somehow I’d found where one of the Halloween Hacker’s victims had died and already there was something new to be investigated. I had hated the sensationalist way the story had been covered on the news the previous evening, perhaps by looking into the people affected by the killings I could put a new slant on things. I pulled out my cell phone and called my editor and explained what I had in mind. He hummed and hawed for a bit, then caved in.

“Get me a feature written by five o’clock on Saturday and I’ll see about putting it in the Sunday Halloween edition.”

“Yes! Thank-you!”

“Hey don’t thank me yet. Give me something I can print and we’ll go with it.”

It was still a good break. The feature, quite apart from bolstering my flagging bank balance, would earn me some major kudos points with the paper. I headed back home with a new spring in my step.

That afternoon I looked up the locations where the other victims had been found and planned to spend at least part of the following two days visiting them. I also phoned through to the police and asked for information about the flower guy. Usually the police won’t share information on an on-going investigation, but this was two years old with nothing to show, and I had a contact on the force, so I managed to squeeze a few drops of blood out of the stone.

Unfortunately it wasn’t of any use. The guy had no ID on him and he hadn’t uttered an intelligible word in all the time he was in police custody. He didn’t match any of the missing person’s they had on file, so they let him go after twenty-four hours. I asked if I could come down and have a look through the missing person’s folder and didn’t understand why my friendly police contact was laughing so hard until I turned up at the station later that afternoon, only to be presented with half a dozen very large and very full lever arch folders.

All the Hacker’s victims had been female and in their twenties so I restricted myself to women of that approximate age who had been reported as missing in the first two weeks of November. Even so the job was long, tedious and singularly unproductive.

I headed home again, wondering if I was actually going to be able to come up with something for the paper by the end of the week.

Dinner came out of a tin and I spent way too long that evening following up even the most tenuous leads on the Internet. I nodded off staring at my screen only to wake up a few seconds later when my head drooped enough to pull me back to consciousness. There was something new on the computer.

A new document had been opened and in it in large bold letters the message:

“You have to leave now before it’s too late. You don’t have much time.”

I shook my head and closed the computer down. I was too tired for this.

I shuffled off to bed, peeling off clothes as I went. For some reason I found myself looking at the drawer of the dresser, but no, even if I wasn’t this tired, the thought of putting on those silky, soft pyjamas again was… mmmnn actually it sounded pretty appealing.

Only my rapidly fading consciousness saved me from humiliating myself. I collapsed onto the bed pulled the covers over me as the room faded to black. I seem to remember mumbling something about challenging any ghost to wake me tonight then the world faded away.

Tuesday

I woke to the sound of giggling. I was cold, my legs especially, and uncomfortable. I opened my eyes cautiously to find a small face grinning down at me.

“You’re funny mister.”

It was a young child’s voice, a little girl’s.

“Emily, come away from there.” The woman sounded panicky.

There was another giggle and the sound of running feet as the little girl headed back to her mother.

I groaned and tried to sit up. My vision swam into focus revealing a graffitied brick wall in front of me and piles of rubbish all around. The ground beneath my legs was gritty and hard, and cold. I looked down to see my legs encased in sheer nylon. My groin was uncomfortable and I dumbly lifted my short skirt to see my family jewels crammed into a very small pair of lace panties.

My mouth felt and tasted like something small and furry had climbed in there and died, as it turned out the only furry thing in there was my tongue. My nose finally grabbed my attention long enough to announce its discovery of a flower smell almost masked by the stronger stench of stale urine.

I shook my head and clambered very unsteadily to my feet, only very nearly to fall back down as I found myself tottering on a pair of three inch heels.

“What is happening to me?”

I steadied myself against the wall and looked down at myself. I was wearing a grey silk blouse with a bra underneath it (I could feel the unusual restriction). Beneath that was a short black skirt that barely covered my modesty, silky black tights that seemed somehow to have survived snagging on the rough concrete ground, and black patent leather shoes that buckled in place.

The hair hanging around my field of vision was definitely mine, but somehow it had been styled into a mass of curls instead of its usual straight, lank shoulder length guy style.

My head ached and, as I lifted my hands to massage my temples, I discovered that I had a small black purse tangled around my right wrist. I pulled it open to find, thank goodness, my keys and wallet along with a few bits of makeup and a compact.

I fished out the compact and flicked it open. Yeah that was my face alright under all that makeup. It looked like a decent job spoiled by the ravages of a night on the grubby alley floor. That and my stubble was sticking through.

I looked around me. The bags of rubbish and the foetid smell were somehow familiar, but it wasn’t until I turned round and saw the flowers that I realised where I was. It would take me half an hour to walk home from here, probably twice that in these ridiculous shoes, and I doubted any taxi would be kind enough to pick me up looking like this. It was still early, before the general rush of commuters, so the sooner I got moving the fewer people would see me like this.

A sudden noise startled me awake and I looked up into the wide eyes of the stranger who tended this shrine. He was frozen; transfixed with a look of horror and outrage on his face.

“Look, this isn’t my fault, I just woke up here and I have no idea how I got here or why I’m dressed like this. Please, I don’t mean you any harm or disrespect, and I could really use some help right now.”

“It’s happening again. It’s happening again!” His voice became shriller and louder with the repetition then suddenly he spun on his heels and ran away faster than I would have suspected possibly for someone with his scrawny frame.

Still unsteady on my feet and unbalanced in my mind, I followed him out of the alley and turned in the direction of my apartment. The shoes pinched my toes horrendously, and limited me to very short steps. The short skirt kept riding up and I tugged at it almost continuously in a most unladylike manner. My chances of getting home before the cops saw me were almost nil, and then my life really would be over. The few people I passed on the street looked at me with mixed incredulity and disgust. I looked wildly around me for a way out, just as a van pulled up by the side of the road.

“Get in.”

It was the café owner from the previous day.

“Look unless you like walking around like this, I suggest you get in. A neighbourhood like this, there’s likely to be a cop come round the corner any second.”

I pulled open the van door and clambered aboard, giving the world a flash of white lace before I managed to pull my skirt down again. I jammed my legs together and pulled the seatbelt around me.

“Thanks, you are a life saver.”

“Probably quite literally. Some of the gangs around here are pretty homophobic. What do you think you’re doing wandering around dressed like that on a day like this? If you don’t get yourself knifed, you’ll die of hypothermia before lunchtime.”

“Look I’m probably not going to be able to explain, but this was definitely not my idea.”

“Hey whatever. You left a nice tip yesterday, so here’s me saying thank-you. I have to do my rounds, pick up bread and meat and stuff for the café, so tell me where I can drop you. Maybe my rounds’ll take me that way today.”

I told him the address of my apartment building and he pulled out into traffic. We passed a couple of police cars on the way home and I ducked my face to hide my increasingly obviously male features. Ten minutes later we were outside my apartment and I climbed out of the van.

“Thank-you, I will not forget this,” I said in through the passenger window.

“Aw, get inside before somebody sees you and you don’t have any reason to be grateful anymore.”

I didn’t need telling twice and ducked into the building. The lobby was empty, and I looked longingly at the elevator as I slipped past towards the stairs. It was going to kill my feet climbing six stories in these heels, but the odds of my meeting someone I knew in a lift were too high for me to want to chance it. The stairwell was clear as I expected and by the second floor I’d had enough of the shoes, preferring the risk of slipping in stockinged feet to that of losing my balance on the unfamiliar heels. After I’d removed them, the climb went by far more swiftly and easily.

When I reached the sixth floor, I opened the door a crack and looking into the corridor. There was no-one in sight, but I didn’t have a watch so had no idea on whether everyone had already left for work or was just about to.

“Come on Michael, you’re only ten seconds away from safety, show some backbone.”

I pulled the keys out of my purse, found the right one and, taking a deep breath, headed out into the corridor. A dozen steps later I thought I’d made it. The key slid into the lock and I turned the handle then just as I was about to step into the privacy of my own apartment I heard a gentle cough from behind me.

“Mr Barrett. I was just going to drop by and ask if you wanted some help boxing up those clothes, but it seems you’ve found another use for them.”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep calm.

“Mr Paganni, whatever you think this is I can assure you you’re wrong, and if you’d like to drop some boxes by in a half hour, I’d be happy to empty the closet.”

I could feel the oily smirk on his face, but I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing the state of the rest of me, and kept my back to him. I retrieved my key, stepped across the threshold and leaned on the door, shutting it behind me.

I was shivering, but how much of that was from the cold and how much from the adrenaline I would never know. I set the bath running and headed for the bedroom where I stripped off the offending clothes, replacing them with my cotton towelling dressing gown.

I kept a pad next to my bed in case I thought of something I wanted to remember during the night. There was writing on the top sheet.

“You have to get out right away. Things will get much worse if you don’t.”

What was with this ghost? And what could be worse than the morning I’d just had. I screwed up the sheet of paper and threw it into the bin, then went back to the bathroom. The water was steaming and filled with sweet smelling soft bubbles. I didn’t remember adding anything to the water, but I was too cold and tired to be bothered running a fresh bath. I hung my dressing gown on the back of the door and settled into the scalding hot water.

A half hour soak was enough to restore life and warmth to my bones and fire to my spirit. I had managed to wash most of the curls out of my hair and I decided I was not going to let some snivelling, angst ridden ghost of a girl drive me from this place. OK, she wanted to play games, I’d think of something.

I’d just finished dressing when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Mr Paganni with a handful of boxes and an expression of barely concealed contempt.

“Oh, you changed. You looked so much prettier before.”

And I’d thought he was such a nice guy when he showed me round the place just a few days ago.

I took the boxes from him and was about to slam the door in his face when a thought occurred to me.

“Mr Paganni, the girl who had this apartment before me, you said you were going to put her clothes in storage in case she came back. Don’t you have a forwarding address for her?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“She left in the middle of the night without saying a word to anyone. One day she was there, the next the place was empty. No note no nothing, so what can I do?”

“You don’t think it was a little odd that she should disappear like that? I mean something could have happened to her, shouldn’t you have told the police?”

He shrugged again.

“Maybe you’re right, but you know, it happens a lot more than you’d expect. People decide to move on and disappear without saying a word. If I were to send in a missing person’s report every time one of these places goes empty overnight, the police would soon ask me not to bother them anymore.”

“I’m working on a story about missing persons at the moment. I wonder would be ok if I had a look at your records for renting these apartments out, specifically when the occupant disappeared suddenly without leaving a forwarding address.”

He looked at me suspiciously.

“I wouldn’t print anything bad about this place, I just want an idea on how often people disappear in this city without anyone knowing.”

“Nah, I’d like to help you, but records like that belong to the guy who owns this place, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be very happy if I let a reporter have a look at them.” He turned to leave. “You have a nice day now Mr Barrett and let me know when I can come by to pick up those boxes.”

I didn’t like the way he had suddenly turned evasive. There had to be more to this. He closed the door as he left. I spoke to the dark wood.

“Ok Mr Paganni, there is more than one way to skin a cat.”

I headed for my laptop again, opened up the newspaper archive and set up a search of the classified ads for the previous five years. I figured the superintendent’s phone number wouldn’t have changed in that time, and since he was first contact for any lets in this building…

The search would take a while so I left my machine bipping away in digital heaven and dragged the boxes through to the bedroom. It didn’t take more than about fifteen minutes to empty the closet and drawers of all things girly. I have to admit I wasn’t very careful with the stuff, but then the chanced of it being picked up were fairly low. I found some parcel tape and sealed each box as I filled it, then dragged them all to the front door ready to go.

The computer was still busy with its search, so I left it working and headed out to visit a couple more sites where the victims of the Halloween Hacker had been found.

It was early evening by the time I returned. I’d drawn a blank at the first two sites which were both secluded with no indication that someone’s life had ended there, and no people living nearby to show the least awareness or interest.

Since it had taken me far less time to investigate the first two places, I decided to go onto the others. The third location I visited was equally as uninspiring, but the fourth had shown a little more promising, at least at first.

I noticed the small shrine the moment I arrived, and ducked into a local store to ask about it.

“Oh yes, there was a young girl murdered there about this time last year,” The shopkeeper seemed happy to chat. “Such a sad thing. Must have happened quite late at night.

“The last of the shops around here closes about seven, you see, and then with receipts and restocking and the like, the last of us is gone home no later than nine or ten, so it must have been after that. No-one lives around here see, just come in to buy or sell stuff.

“It was Ernie found her. He runs the deli about a hundred yards down on the other side. A few of the shopkeepers around here pop in for an early breakfast, so he’s usually the first of us here. He was quite horrified by it all; tried to describe it, and from wheat he said I’m glad I didn’t see her for myself.

“Mutilated she was. Stabbed in the chest and stomach, then slashed and beaten in the hands and face. No way to tell who she was.

“But you can’t have something like that happen on your doorstep and do nothing, so we all collect in memory of her,” he indicated a jar on the counter, “and the proceeds go to buy flowers and to pay a public investigator to find out who she was. We figure there has to be a mother somewhere who doesn’t know what happened to her girl, and even though we only have terrible news, at least we have news.”

I asked about unknown people coming to visit the spot, but it seemed that the only place that had a mystery mourner was the first place I’d visited and, since he was unable to speak, my story was dead in the water.

I thanked the shopkeeper and put a five dollar bill in his jar. Half an hour later, having questioned a few other shop keepers, I climbed on a bus and headed back home.

Mr Paganni was waiting for me in the lobby. The door to his office was open and he called over to me as I came in through the door.

“Hey, Mr Barrett.”

I walked over to him.

“You’re friend came round, the one who helped you move in. He asked if he could wait in your apartment and I figured you wouldn’t mind.”

“Thanks.”

“You got those clothes packed up yet?”

“Yes, they’re ready. D’you want to come up and get them now?”

“Nah, I’m too busy.” He waved a hand at the papers strewn across his small desk. “Tell you what, put them outside your room before you go to bed and I’ll collect them when I do my rounds later tonight.”

“Great. Thanks.”

I turned towards the elevators.

“Not taking the stairs this time?”

I thought rude thoughts but said nothing.

Back in the apartment Gary was lounging on the sofa with a beer in his hand and the TV tuned to the game.

“Hey Mike, I hope you don’t mind but I helped myself.”

I gave him a dismissive wave and grabbed a beer from the fridge myself before joining him on the sofa.

“I should apologise to you, I forgot you were coming round tonight.”

“It’s nothing. I order pizza, should be here in about ten minutes.”

“Sounds like I got here at the right time.”

I planted my feet on the coffee table in front of me and leaned my head back. A glance at my laptop showed me that it had finished its search. I’d have to look at that later, but for now I was just too tired.

“What’s with the boxes in the hall?”

“Oh, I cleared out all the clothes that were here when I arrived. It was freaking me out a bit seeing a closet half full of women’s clothes every time I woke up.”

Well it was the truth, if not quite all of it.

“So, you decided what costume you’re going to wear for the party yet?”

I thought of the red velveteen dress, now sitting in one of the boxes in the hallway. No after the last few days I wanted nothing to do with cross dressing.

“I had an idea, but I’ve changed my mind.”

“Well if you’re going to hire something you’ll need to get your ass in gear. The costume shop didn’t have a lot left when I went in to pick mine up yesterday.”

“So what are you going as?”

“I’m keeping that as a surprise.” He grinned at me and drained his beer.

There was a knock at the door and Gary jumped to his feet.

“Perfect timing,” he said as he headed off to answer it. “The game goes to commercials, I finish my beer and the pizza guy arrives.”

He opened the door and exchange money for a couple of hot cardboard boxes, dropped the evening meal onto the coffee table and headed for the kitchen.

“You want another one?” he asked diving into the fridge.

“Yeah, why not?”

I was feeling more than a little frustrated at my wasted day, and alcohol right now seemed like an excellent idea. I drained the bottle in my hand and gratefully accepted the fresh one Gary offered me as he sat back down. The commercials were ending and we turned our attention back to the TV and the pizza.

The game was just one more disappointment with which to end a lousy day. Even a fifty inch plasma can’t do much to improve matters when your team plays like bunch of girls, and Gary and I more or less emptied my fridge in an attempt to drown our sorrows. We were neither of us too steady on our feet by the time the game ended in a humiliating defeat, so I offered Gary the use of my sofa for the night. He declined, saying he had an early start the next day, and staggered off down the corridor, calling for a cab on his cell as he went.

I dragged the boxes out into the corridor and headed back inside. It was still the wrong side of midnight for my usual bedtime, but with the frustrations of a wasted day and the effect of too many bottles of beer, it seemed like a reasonable idea to have an early night. I had just enough presence of mind to lock the door, turn out the lights and get undressed before collapsing into bed. The room spun gently leaving me feeling a little nauseous, but sleep took over nonetheless.

Wednesday

I awoke in a silken sea and indulged in the sensuous feel of everything until my bleary brain finally registered that things were not as they should be. I sat up and looked down at myself. Thin straps cut gently into my shoulders and my chest and abdomen were covered in a shimmering green silk.

“No that’s not right,” I told myself. “I packed this away yesterday morning.”

I climbed out of bed and the hem of the night dress felt to my ankles. The right cheek of my backside hurt and made my unsteady way to the bathroom where I discovered, amongst other things, that I wasn’t wearing anything under the nightie. I splashed some water in my face and looked up at the mirror.

My hair looked different again. I now had bangs hanging down almost to my eyes, and the curls were back. The hair was shorter, almost bobbed now, and would need to be cut really short if I wanted to look like a man again anytime soon. I rubbed my chin with my hand, normally by this time there would be some fairly stiff stubble, but somehow I was disturbingly hairless, and not just on my chin. My chest and arms were hairless now and from the feel of the silk against my skin…

I pulled up the nightdress again and examined a pair of very sexy looking legs, perfect in every way except for the fact that they were attached to my body.

I lifted the nightdress further and turned to look at the painful area in my right cheek. My butt was now smooth and hairless like the rest of my body, and there was just the slightest hint of a needle mark.

What had gone on last night? I remembered the game, I remembered Gary leaving and I remembered having an early night. Everything else was blank.

In something of a daze I headed back to the bedroom and pulled open the closet. All of my clothes had disappeared, replaced by those I had packed away the previous day. I checked the dresser too. No boxers, no socks, just lots of lace and nylon. In the mirror, written in lipstick was a message:

“It’s not too late. You can still get away if you leave now.”

I grabbed for my dressing gown behind the door and came away with a handful of pink satin and lace; my cotton towelling dressing gown was gone.

I ran for the door and stuck my head out into the corridor. One of my neighbours was just leaving for work and nodded his head at me with a vaguely puzzled expression. I had neither time nor inclination to explain so simply nodded back absently as I looked at a vacant space outside my door. The boxes were gone.

I dashed back inside, grabbed the phone, dialled the superintendent’s number. It went to voice mail and I left him a short message saying I needed to talk to him urgently as soon as possible.

I went back to the bedroom. This could not be happening. Last night I’d gone to bed in my boxers leaving my jeans and tee-shirt on the floor, and now even they were missing. What was happening to me while I was asleep?

I realised I was crying and somehow managed to pull myself together. It had been years since I last cried, and now the tears seemed to be flowing just a little too easily.

“Come on Mike, it could be worse.”

For all the good it had achieved, I’d done all the legwork I’d planned to do the previous day. I could get dressed in whatever I could find for now, spend the morning on the Internet and call Mr Paganni in the afternoon to get my clothes back. I could say Gary had played a practical joke and swapped the clothes while he’d been waiting for me. Yeah that would work.

So I headed for the bathroom. The shower felt good, more refreshing than usual, except that there was a sensitivity about my chest that I couldn’t quite get the hang of. I started rubbing myself dry with the towel in my normal manner but it felt a bit too rough on my skin so I ended up patting myself all over to get dry.

I walked into my bedroom and searched through the dresser drawer for the biggest pair of undies I could find, but they were all skimpy and lacy. In the end I grabbed a pair at random and pulled them on. They felt weird somehow. I mean I was expecting them to be uncomfortably restrictive given my experiences of the previous morning, but somehow these seemed to fit better. I looked down at myself; the bulge was a lot smaller than it had been. I slipped my hand in to check my equipment and everything was small and flaccid. I found myself thinking about the needle mark in my backside and a cold chill ran down my back.

I checked through the closet hoping for a pair of slacks and a sweatshirt, but all I could find were skirts, dresses and blouses. I thought about the silky PJ’s I’d been wearing when I woke up the first day and went over to check the dresser. They were gone.

In the end I chose a longish black skirt that fell to about mid-thigh. It was very full and swirled about when I moved, but at least it covered most of my legs. To go with it I picked out a plain white cotton blouse. It had lace trim on the collar and buttons that did up the wrong way, but it was the most like a man’s shirt I could find.

Ten minutes later I was back in the bedroom. Soft as the cotton was, it seemed to be rubbing my chest raw, so reluctantly I stripped it off and rummaged around in the drawer for a bra. It felt oddly restricting, but at least the blouse wasn’t rubbing anymore.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror and turned to give my reflection a good look. To be honest I wasn’t sure who or what was staring out at me. I mean I could see my features in the face, and my arms and leg were bigger than most girls would want, but with the hair style and the clothes and the hairless, smooth skin, there was something distinctly feminine about the figure standing before me.

I turned away before I went into mental meltdown and headed back to the kitchen. I made a quick coffee and headed for my laptop. The last time I’d looked it had been switched on with the search window open. Now it was in a sulk having locked up.

I ground my teeth and held the power button until it powered down. Five minutes later, the infernal machine was awake and running through the search again. I knew from yesterday’s efforts it was going to take at least half an hour and quite possibly as much as two or three to finish its search, so I held my mug in both hands and started pacing back and forward trying to put together a plan of action.

The skirt moving against my leg was a sensual experience, and I found myself wondering what it would feel like with a pair of nylons on. I abandoned my coffee for long enough to go fish out a pair and slide them on. I’d watched women do it on TV shows enough times, so I naturally gathered them up into the toe and slide them on, almost as though I’d done it before. The feel of the soft material against my hairless legs, and then the cool caress of the skirt lining against the nylon sent shivers down my spine.

This was so kinky, I felt certain I should be feeling some arousal down below, but my little friend remained little and unaffected by what I was doing. Somehow that was the most worrying thing so far today and I headed back to my laptop to do some research, I minimised the existing search program and opened up a new browser window.

Half an hour later my story was the last thing in my mind. Having researched my symptoms it turned out that there was one thing that cropped up most often in my research which could cause erectile dysfunction, sensitivity in the chest and emotional episodes. I thought again about the bruise in my bum.

A little more research and I picked up the phone.

“Dr Carter’s surgery.”

“Yes hello. Look I was wondering if it would be possible for you to put me through to the doctor. I need to discuss some symptoms with him.”

“I’m sorry, but the doctor is seeing a patient at present. Perhaps you’d like to arrange an appointment to see him?”

“Look please, I can’t get out of the apartment today and I really need to have an answer on this issue quite quickly. I’ll hold till he’s done with his current patient if you will let me talk to him. I promise I won’t take up more than a minute of his time.”

Eventually she relented and within ten minutes I was talking to the doctor. The promised minute actually ended up being more like three, but in the end I had learned that, yes my changes could be caused by a cocktail of female hormones and testosterone blockers, yes an injection would speed up the changes but it was unlikely that even with a heavy dose the symptoms I was describing would happen overnight, yes the injection was intramuscular, usually introduced into the gluteus maximus, no it was quite possible that the stage I had described was reversible, but given the sensitivity in my chest I might want to make that decision soon if I didn’t want the discomfort of a double mastectomy in my near future.

I thanked the doctor for his time and hung up. The thing is the changes had happened overnight. Was this some new cocktail they were using on me, or perhaps there was something going on here that was beyond science. I mean the ghost was turning out to be more than a particularly strong piece of cheese too close to bedtime.

I’d taken this line of investigation as far as I could for now. I was going to have to take measures to stop the changes from going further but they were for later. Right now there were other things to research.

I re-opened the search window, but before I could read through the results there was a knock at the door. Mindful of the computer’s unreliability, I switched on my printer and committed the results to paper. There was a second more impatient knock before I was done and had put my eye to the spyhole.

It was Mr Paganni. I opened the door tentatively and peered round at him trying to show as little of myself as I could.

“Oh hello miss,” he gave me his best oily smile. “Nice to see you again.”

“What?! You do know it’s me Mr Paganni? You know I’m Michael?”

“Oh yes of course, it’s just that you look so pretty with your hair like that, and that is a lovely blouse.”

I was outraged, but underneath it all, like a calm, gentle undercurrent, there was an odd sense of gratification. He thought I looked pretty…

I looked down at the blouse and realised that with the lace collar and slightly puffed sleeves there really was no disguising it.

“Actually it’s about the clothes that I wanted to talk to you. It seems my friend the other night, you know the one you let wait in my apartment without asking me, played a bit of a prank on me and swapped all my clothes for those I’d put in the boxes. I woke up this morning and all I had to put on where these.”

I gave up trying to hide and stood clear of the door.

“And very nice they look on you if you don’t mind me saying.”

What was with this guy?

“Well actually I do mind. I didn’t particularly want to put this lot on this morning, and I was hoping you wouldn’t mind getting the boxes out of storage for me again so I could get my clothes back.”

He seemed taken aback by my acerbic tone, and even more by what I was asking.

“Oh dear. I am sorry miss, but after our conversation yesterday I did some thinking, and it seemed to me that you were right, there’s almost no chance of anyone coming back to claim stuff like that, so I phoned up the local welfare and had them come and pick it up.”

“You did what?!”

“Look I’m sorry, but you did say it was alright for me to take those boxes away, and since I’m short on storage space…”

I could feel the tears building and fought hard to keep them down. I looked down at myself.

“What am I going to do now?”

“Well if you don’t mind me saying, miss…”

“If you call me miss one more time, I will clock you so help me.”

He backed off a step.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that the way you look, you could go out dressed as you are and I doubt anyone would take you for anything but a pretty young lady. You really do look quite attractive.”

The look he gave me left me feeling naked and very vulnerable, and yet underneath there was that warm feeling of satisfaction at his complements. Confused, I closed the door on him and retreated to the kitchen.

I considered my situation over a fresh mug of coffee. The idea of going out in public dressed like this terrified me, but I didn’t have that much choice. I could ask Gary to get me a few things, but then he’d see me in these clothes and I wasn’t sure I could bear the embarrassment. I could maybe order a few things online, but delivery would most likely take a few days; not enough time before Gary was due to visit next. I bit my lip thoughtfully and tried desperately to think of something else I could do.

I headed back to the computer and several pages of printed research. My mind was still wandering aimlessly and it took me a while before I remembered what I was looking for. When I did, I felt my blood turn to ice.

Every year for the previous five years an ad had been placed in the first week of November for an apartment giving Mr Paganni’s phone number as contact. In each case, the ad was word for word identical to the one I had answered in getting this place. Over the last two years the ad had appeared a several times in in September and October as well, as though there were something wrong with the apartment and there had either been no takers or they had only stayed a week or two before moving on.

It was too much of a coincidence and my reporter’s sense for a story – very different from the one I had originally planned – kicked in. I needed more information, and the only place I was going to find that was in Mr P’s records.

OK, so it looked like I’d be going out wearing a dress after all. I mean I couldn’t justify the risk when it was just a shopping trip, but now I had to see if I could get into Mr P’s office and look at his records. Who had stayed in this apartment before me? Was there perhaps a chance that there was a link between the people who lived here and the Halloween Hacker? This story was smelling big enough to justify pretty much any risk.

I made myself a light lunch from what I could find then sat making a list of all the fresh fruit and veg that I would rather have had available. Hunger sated, I looked around at the mess of beer bottles and pizza boxes that were still littering the lounge and decided I’d feel a lot better about the place if it were a little tidier, so I spent the next half hour clearing things away and working through a long overdue sink full of dirty dishes.

At last, with the place looking tidier than it had since I’d moved in, I grabbed my wallet and keys and headed for the door. I caught sight of myself in the mirror by the door and decided that I really needed to make a bit more of an effort.

I managed to overcome my confused thoughts by convincing myself that I was concerned about being found out and headed for the bedroom. Rummaging through the closet, I came across the red velveteen dress again, and on a whim I slipped it on. Before long I was wearing fishnets and a pair of bright red patent leather pumps and was preening in front of the full length closet mirror. Yeah this would do great for a Halloween costume.

I hung the dress back in the closet and looked for something a bit more everyday, eventually settling on a blue and white floral print dress, some light nude hosiery and a pair of white shoes with sensibly low heels. I found a white handbag big enough for my wallet and keys and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror brushing my hair. I didn’t have enough confidence to attempt anything with makeup, but even so I was astonished at the pretty girl who looked back out of the mirror at me.

Something changed in me then. For as long ago as I could remember I had disliked myself, disapproved of myself as though I was in some way lacking, but at that moment I looked at reflection in the mirror and for the first time I liked me. A weight lifted off my shoulders; something I’d been carrying so long I was only made aware of its existence by its sudden absence, and I smiled, really smiled, for the first time in living memory.

I noticed a bottle of perfume on the table and decided that if I was going to do this, I should go all the way. I dabbed a small amount onto my wrist and took a tentative sniff. Mmn, nice. I added a little more to my neck and wrists before grabbing my coat and purse. The fragrance followed me out the door.

The elevator door opened and I stepped uncertainly into the lobby. Mr Paganni was sitting in his office with the door open. He gave me an appreciative once over, lingering for a while on my smooth legs and only looking back up at my face when he picked up my perfume. He gave me a knowing smile and nodded at me. I found myself hurrying to leave the building – my excursion into his office would have to wait.

I was too terrified to enjoy the short walk to the shops. It seemed that every other person I passed was looking me up and down, and every second I expected someone to point and tell the world that I was really a man. By the time I reached the mall I was a wreck until a good looking man of about my age asked if I was alright and it finally sunk in that the people who were looking me over were doing so because they saw exactly what I had seen in the mirror; a pretty young girl.

Confidence came back slowly, but eventually I began to enjoy myself. In a costume shop I found a cute pair of sparkly red devils horns and a mini pitch-fork – enough to complete my costume – and set to filling a basket with groceries. I paid for the goods and was half-way home with two large brown paper bags when I realised that half the idea of this excursion had been to get me some more appropriate clothes. I looked back the way I had come. My feet were already beginning to protest even in the low heels and I decided that I would rather go another day in a dress than head back to the mall right now.

Mr Paganni was still sitting in his office when I came back into the building. He gave me a slow wink as I waited for the elevator, and I was glad when the doors finally opened. That guy really did creep me out. He also seemed a permanent fixture in his office during the day; I was just going to have to wait for evening when did his rounds before I snuck in to look at his records.

Back in the apartment I kicked off the shoes gratefully and set about putting my purchases away in the fridge. I made myself a salad for tea and sat quietly munching away in front of the TV. The news was still fear mongering with their continued wild speculation about the Halloween Hacker so I channel hopped until I found a baseball game. Five minutes later I realise that I had never really enjoyed watching sport, but only did it as a way of fitting in as one of the guys. Well I certainly wasn’t one of them tonight. I flicked on until I found what looked like a soppy romantic film and curled my feet up under me to watch.

By the end of the movie I was mentally adding tissues to my next shopping list. I switched off the television and headed for the bathroom where the puffy eyes in my reflection told me it was a good job I hadn’t tried any makeup that afternoon. I slid down my panties and hose and sat to pee. If anything my male equipment was smaller than ever; I’d probably have had trouble finding enough to hold if I’d wanted to use the point and shoot method. Somehow I knew this should bother me, but oddly it didn’t.

I checked my watch – eleven thirty. Mr Paganni would be doing his rounds now, and if I planned on sneaking into his office tonight, I would have to move now. I grabbed my purse and a small flashlight and cracked open my front door. The hallway was clear so I snuck down to the elevator in my stockinged feet. Mr P usually used the elevator to get from floor to floor, so I slipped past and into the stairwell. Six flights down and I eased the door open just a crack. Enough to see that the office door was closed and the lights were off.

I wasn’t sure how much time I had left before he came back so I dashed across the lobby and tried the door. Locked – blast. Still it was a bad fitting frame with a simple Yale lock. I pulled out my wallet and looked through the plastic, eventually settling on a card that held the emergency contact details for my previous Internet provider. With a little persistence, I had the card wedged between the door and frame, and within a couple of minutes had managed to push it home far enough to spring the lock. I slipped into the room and closed the door behind me.

The filing cabinet was old and rusty. squealing in protest when I opened the drawers. It didn’t have what I was looking for so I eased it shut again and looked around for other clues. In the end, the only thing I hadn’t tried was the rather ancient looking computer sitting on the desk. I fired it up and stood by the door while it made its laborious way through the start-up screens. Fortunately there was no password and before long I was searching through folders and documents for any file that might have something to do with tenants. The hunt ended when I found a spread-sheet showing a full list including names and addresses. The computer had Internet access – of a sort – which I set to open up my personal online storage space and upload the file. I then cleared the cache and shut the computer down.

I was headed for the door, counting this little excursion as a success, when I heard the sound of keys jangling from the other side. The office was tiny and cramped and offered almost nowhere to hide. I ducked behind a pile of old boxes and held my breath. The door rattled open and I heard Mr Paganni’s tuneless humming as he rummaged about on the desk for something.

I must have been crazy to try this. I mean I suspected the guy of murdering five women, what could I hope for if he spotted me? The humming continued for an eternity then stopped with a sniff. I bit my lip to stop myself from whimpering. The silence dragged, time slowed and I held myself rigid, waiting for my hiding place to be revealed.

Then it was over. With a grunt, Mr P turned out the lights and left. I heard the door close and the sound of his tuneless hum receding into the darkness. I held on for as long as I could, not moving, not breathing, but eventually something had to give, and my need for oxygen was the deciding factor. I let out a long silent breath and took another. The world didn’t come to an end, so I risked peeking out from behind the boxes. The room seemed empty, and listening at the door, the lobby seemed so too. I made a break for it, making it first to the stairwell, then up to my floor and my apartment without seeing anyone. OK it was past midnight when all good little boys and girls are tucked up in bed, but I was still grateful not to have bumped into anyone.

I grabbed my laptop and downloaded the file then, having made myself a cup of hot chocolate, sat down to examine my find at leisure. Ten minutes late I was staring off into space in disappointment. Yes this apartment had been the one advertised; the vacancy always seemed to come up on the first of November with the previous tenant having done a runner in the night. The only problem though, all the occupants had been male. I could feel the story slipping away from me again. My first idea of doing a human side to the story had fallen apart when there seemed to be almost nobody other than the victims affected by the tragedy, just one guy leaving flowers who was too unhinged to string together a simple sentence, let alone give a coherent account of what had happened to him. Then the ads for this place every November put the idea into my head that maybe my apartment was the link between the Halloween Hacker’s victims, which would point the finger squarely at the superintendent as being the murderer, except that that none of the missing tenants were girls…

There was something messed up here, something I couldn’t figure out, but what? A good night’s sleep might knock the cobwebs loose.

Conscious of the weirdness that had happened while I was asleep the previous two nights, and that Mr Paganni had a master key to all the apartments, I jammed a chair under the handle to my front door and balanced a pile of pots and pans on top of it. I doubted it would stop him getting in if he wanted to, but he wouldn’t manage it without waking me. I checked my cell phone was charged and put it on the nightstand then I changed for bed, this time willingly dressing on the silk nightie.

I woke in the early hours again. A shadowy figure sat weeping at the dressing table just as she had on my first night here. In the half-light I noticed her hair was bobbed and curled very much like mine was at present. I sat up in bed and turned on the bedside lamp.

She looked up at me with a gasp, eyes wide with fright and cheeks streaked with tears. She was wearing the same nightdress as me with a silken dressing gown that matched the one hanging on the back of the door.

“Why are you still here? You have to leave.”

“Is it you doing all these things to me? Why would you, and what are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to get you to leave! You’re in danger here. It’s too late to stop the change now, but you can still escape with your life. You have to leave, don’t you understand?”

“He killed you didn’t he? The Halloween Hacker killed you?”

She hung her head in her hands and heaved out enormous sobs of anguish. I slipped out of bed and approached slowly, tentatively.

“He said he loved me, that he would help me. I didn’t dare believe it at first, but then he was so kind, and he brought me this stuff which made such magical changes. Then he changed; he became hurtful, hateful. The more I became who I wanted to be, the more he hated me, until he, he…”

I reached out a hand and put it on her shoulder, half afraid that it would pass right through, but she was solid, deathly cold but solid.

“Who is he? Is it Mr Paganni?”

She jerked upright again and stared into my eyes, her own alight with a fire of madness and fury.

“You have to leave,” she yelled into my face. “Leave now if you want to live.”

She leapt up from the stool, knocking me onto my back, and seemed to explode into nothing. I must have screamed because before I had managed to pick myself up off the floor there was a knocking on the door. My heart was pounding and I felt unsteady on my feet, but somehow I managed to slip on my dressing gown and make it out to the hallway. The chair was still as I had left it with the pans undisturbed.

I carefully lifted my improvised alarm out of the way and opened the door a crack. I recognised the worried face as belonging to one of my neighbours. We hadn’t spoken in the few days since I had moved in, but I suspected that was about to change.

“Are you alright dear? It’s just that I heard such a terrible scream.”

“I’m fine, I just had a horrible nightmare.”

“Oh you poor thing, let me come in and fix you a glass of warm milk.”

“Really I’m fine. I’m grateful for your concern, but I wouldn’t want to keep you up.”

“Oh it’s no trouble dear,” she pushed past me into the apartment and I followed her into the kitchen.

I found her with her head in one of my cupboards.

“Where do you keep your saucepans dear?”

“Oh…”

I went back out into the hall and picked a small pan from the pile on the chair. She gave me an odd look which I returned with a sheepish grin and a shrug.

“Some odd things have been happening since I moved in. I was worried someone was sneaking in while I was asleep so I set a kind of alarm.”

“Oh my,” she laughed as she poured a generous amount of milk into the saucepan and set it on the stove. “You girls these days sure show some pluck.”

I didn’t really know how to answer that, so I kept my peace.

“To be honest I didn’t think you were a girl when I first saw you. You know when you moved in, you were wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, and even with long hair you still looked so much like a boy. I’m so glad you decided to change your appearance. You look so very much lovelier like this.”

I smiled at her; again the complements gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. Somehow being mistaken for a pretty woman made me feel so much better than remembered ever feeling before.

She carried over two glasses of steaming milk and handed one to me.

“I should introduce myself. My name is Eleanor Richards and I live opposite in number sixty-five.”

I unwound a hand from my drink and offered it to her.

“Mine’s M…”

I stopped myself just in time. She was convinced I was a girl and it would do no good to disabuse her at this stage. I took the coward’s way out.

“Michelle. Michelle Barrett”

“That is such a beautiful name, and it suits you perfectly. You know now that I think of it, you remind me ever so much of the young girl who lived in this apartment a year ago; she had her hair styled very much like yours.”

I felt the blood turn to ice in my veins.

“There was a girl living here last year?”

“Oh yes I remember it quite well, she moved in about two weeks before Halloween. She was a bit of a tomboy at the beginning too, but then she started seeing this really nice young man, and she blossomed into a beautiful young woman just like you. But then she disappeared in early November. I remember asking Mr Paganni if he knew what happened to her and he said he thought she had gone back to her mother or something.”

“Mrs Richards…”

“Eleanor, please.”

“OK, Eleanor, how long have you lived here?”

“Oh way too long,” she laughed ruefully. “Let me see now, it must twenty-two, no twenty-one years now. I remember because it was the same year the Berlin Wall came down; I recall sitting in my new apartment when I watched it on the news.”

“I don’t suppose you can remember who was living in this apartment around this time of year over the past five years?”

“Oh I don’t know dear, that’s an awfully long time ago, and people come and go here all the time. My memory’s not what it was you know.”

“It could be really important, and you might remember because they all would have disappeared suddenly without telling anyone.”

“Oh dear, now let me think… Well yes there was that strange matter two years ago. I remember a young man coming around just after Halloween and hammering on the door calling out for someone called Nigel. I had to call Mr Paganni to deal with the matter, and when he came the young man kept shouting at him, ‘What have you done with my brother?’ I remember thinking it strange because there was definitely a girl living there. She had lovely legs and didn’t mind showing them to the world. I tell you it was positively indecent what that girl chose to wear some days.”

“What about before that?”

“I’m not really sure. I seem to remember three and four years ago that there were young men staying in the apartment, but they both became very reclusive towards the end. I don’t think I saw either of them at all during the month of October, then they were gone and the apartment was up for let…”

“What about five years ago.”

“Oh, well that I would rather forget altogether. It was definitely a young man living there then, but he would insist on dressing in women’s clothing. He looked ridiculous and horribly miserable at the same time. He had a boyfriend of sorts and there were all sorts of histrionics throughout the whole year. Things calmed down in October though, and then one day he was gone, just like that.”

A lead weight had settled in my stomach and grown heavier with the telling. A new idea was forming in my mind, but it couldn’t be possible could it? I drained the last of my milk. There had been cinnamon in it and the mixture of warmth and sweetness had settled my nerves well enough. Despite my new misgivings I was beginning to feel tired again.

Mrs Richards, it seemed, felt the same. She stifled a yawn and set her glass down.

“Well my dear, I think I should be heading off back to my own bed now. It was lovely to meet you at last, and I enjoyed our little chat. Now you must remember, if you have any more nightmares, I’m just across the hall, and I don’t sleep very much these day, so feel free to knock on my door any time of the day or night.”

I smiled at her and followed her to the door.

“Thank-you for looking out for me, it was really kind.”

“Oh it was nothing. I was glad to help.”

I watched her go back into her own apartment then closed my own door. Back in my own bedroom, I stripped off my nightclothes and stood naked in front of the mirror. The areolae around my nipples were distinctly larger, and when I put my hands to my chest, there was definitely soft palpable tissue there. They were only just noticeable, but I couldn’t deny I now had breasts. My waist seemed a little narrower, and my hips broader, and there was very little left of my male genitalia; just a small knob of flesh about the same size as the first joint of my little finger and a slight mound where my testicles seemed to have drawn back into my body.

I cursed myself for being an idiot. I should have been documenting this change as soon as I noticed. I fetched my cell from the nightstand and started taking photographs of my body and the various parts that were showing most change. The doctor had told me that hormones could not induce a great deal of change, nor would they do so very quickly, but here I was less than two day s since waking up with a sore bum, looking more female than male.

What was it the ghost had said? It’s too late to stop the transition. I sat down and wept for my lost manhood, although I’ll admit I didn’t cry for long. As a man I’d always been a disappointment to myself as much as to anyone else, but it was still a sudden and unasked for change and deserved to be grieved.

When I was done, I pulled myself together and decided to take the ghost’s advice. I dressed swiftly, then grabbed a small suitcase and threw in enough clothes to keep me going for a few days. My laptop – my lifeline to the world – went into its carry case along with my printouts from the previous day, and with one last glance around to see if I’d left anything important, I closed the door and headed for the elevator.

The lobby was in darkness, but there was enough light from the streetlamps coming through the glass front doors to guide my way. I winced with every step as my heels struck tiny detonations against the marble floor, threatening to wake the dead. My relief on reaching the door was short lived as it refused to budge when I pushed it.

A light came on behind me and I turned to see Mr Paganni silhouetted in the doorway to his office.

“I’m sorry miss, but I can’t let you leave right now. I mean it being the middle of the night and all, you don’t know what dangers there are out there.”

I kept a lid on my terror; barely.

“You have no right to keep me here, and whatever risk there is outside is mine to take. Now I demand you unlock this door.”

Mr Paganni stood and sauntered across the lobby to where I stood. Even in my heels I was an inch shorter than him. He looked down at me with his oily smile.

“I am so sorry miss, but I can’t let you leave. It’s not the right time you see. Let me escort you back to your apartment. You’ll feel a lot better after a good night’s sleep.”

He took hold of my arm in a grip I couldn’t hope to break and led me back to elevator. The terror that had been threatening just below the surface finally broached and my legs went weak. I had no fight in me and, whimpering in fear, I let him walk me back to my door.

“Now see you lock yourself in miss, and don’t worry your pretty little head. I’ll be sitting downstairs guarding the door all night.”

He waited until I’d closed and locked the door, but was gone when I checked the spyhole a few minutes later.

There was a fire escape running down the side of the building with access through the window at the end of the corridor. Grabbing my bags I made for it as quickly as I dared. The window was stuck and I yanked at it, panicking, until with a screech of tortured metal it final shifted. With strength born of desperation, I hauled it open enough to fit myself and my bags through, and then clattered down the metal stairs, risking a trip with every step.

Eventually I made it to the bottom level and released the ladder that would take me down to the alley below. I dropped my suitcase as carefully as I could and, hanging my laptop bag around my neck, swung my leg over the ladder and down to waiting pavement.

“You know I could have you arrested for using a fire escape when there is no danger?”

Mr Paganni waited until I was just a step away from the bottom of the ladder before stepping out of the shadows. He picked up my suitcase and took hold of my arm once more.

“That was such a fine site watching you come down that ladder though, I think I’ll just take you back up to your apartment and let you off with a warning.”

All the strength went out of me once more. There was something about him, his attitude of assumed superiority, that intimidated me into submission. I followed meekly back up to my apartment and locked the door once more. This time when I checked the spyhole five and ten minutes later, he was out there waiting. He had found a chair and a newspaper from somewhere and had positioned himself opposite my door so I had no doubt he was out there guarding me.

I picked up the phone but the line was dead. I grabbed my cell, but there was no signal. Could he be jamming it somehow? I tried my computer, but the wireless Internet link was down. I was trapped, isolated.

I jammed the chair under the door again and set my saucepan alarm. It probably wouldn’t do me any good, but at least I’d have some warning if he tried anything. I sat down to think, but the horror of my situation overwhelmed me, and in the end I ran to my bedroom and threw myself, sobbing, onto the bed.

Thursday

My watch read six-thirty when I finally woke up again. I checked in the hall to find my improvised alarm in place. The rest of the apartment looked untouched. I checked through the peephole to find Mr Paganni still sitting in his chair. I don’t know how he knew I was there, but he looked up at me and winked.

I set my coffee machine working on a fresh jug and headed for the bathroom. A quick check in the mirror showed noticeable growth in my breasts and no indication of male genitalia what so ever. All that remained was a small button sized lump of flesh. I fetched my phone and took a set of fresh photos.

Showered, dressed and with a fresh mug of coffee, I sat down at my computer. Right now I had no way out, no way even to get a message out, but I could at least write my story. I transferred the pictures across from my phone to my laptop and started writing.

The first couple of efforts I discarded completely and started over. This story was verging on science fiction, and bad scifi at that. I had to get my facts straight and present them with what little proof I had. I started off by outlining what was known so far, that each year in the previous five years, a young girl had been killed and brutally mutilated on Halloween night, that the police had no leads because the only missing person’s reports for young girls around those times had either been solved or had obviously not matched the remains of the victims. When there is no simple lead to follow, it may be that something more complicated is going on. I outlined my own experiences, starting with waking up with a pain in my backside that seemed, on examination, to be a puncture mark like a rather deep and inexpertly given injection. I described the changes I had experienced, including the photographs that I knew were too graphic to show in a newspaper story, but might act as evidence in a police investigation. I went on to detail Mrs Richards’ words from the previous night, drawing out that each of these might have gone through a similar transformation to my own. I ended with a description of my experiences from the previous night, and pointed an accusing finger at Mr Paganni as having access to some odd cocktail of drugs that could transform a man into at least the semblance of a woman, which he would then use to create his victim for Halloween night. The police wouldn’t think to look for a male victim and so any missing persons reports for young men would be overlooked.

I still wasn’t happy, and continued re-writing the story until well into the afternoon, trying to find a way of putting something this unbelievable in as objective and logical a way as possible, trying to lead with the evidence.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to get out of this alive, so as further proof I took a permanent marker and drew identifying marks in hidden places on my body. These notes I included at the end of my story as things to look for, as well as mentioning the position and appearance, and including photographs) of a number of freckles, scars and warts that would further help to identify my body if it were otherwise unrecognisable.

Towards the end of the afternoon I decided I needed more evidence and stuck my head out of my front door. The corridor was empty for a second then Mr Paganni appeared out of a janitorial closet and raised his eyebrows at me. I ignored him and crossed the corridor to knock at number sixty-five.

“Oh hello dear, is everything alright?”

Mrs Richards was as bright as she had been the previous night.

“Everything’s fine Eleanor,” I lied. “I was wondering if you’d like to pop over for a coffee and a chat.”

“Oh that would be lovely, just let me get my keys.”

Mr Paganni gave me a warning look and I got the message. I could put other people at risk too.

Back in my apartment, I took out my digital voice recorder and asked Mrs Richards if I could take a recording of the things we’d discussed the previous night, and she obliged, albeit with a few unnecessary embellishments.

I copied the story and accompanying evidence onto a memory stick and slipped it into an envelope addressed to my editor. This I slipped into Mrs Richards’ purse while she was in the bathroom along with a note that she should deliver it if I were to disappear over the next few days.

After Mrs Richards was gone, I copied the files onto two more memory sticks. One went into my purse, the other I put it in a stamped, addressed envelope and threw out the window. Knowing this city, the person who found it would most likely delete the files and keep the memory stick, but it was worth a chance. I also printed out the information several times over, put the pages in stamped addressed envelopes and threw them out the window. A little later, inspiration took me and I put together a half dozen more envelopes and wrote on them that there would be a reward for anyone delivering the envelope by hand.

I’d done everything I could. To be sure, I tried the phone and Internet again, both not working, and stepped out of my apartment with my cell phone in my purse. Mr Paganni followed me up to the roof then stayed by the access door while I wandered around among the ducts and other machinery looking for a signal, but there was nothing.

Well I’d tried. I headed past Mr Paganni with his smug smile and back to my apartment. I could think of nothing else to try so drew myself a hot bath, laced it with the bath oils and lay in for a long soak. All I could think of was that Gary was due to visit tomorrow evening and then we’d be able to sort something out. As long as Mr P didn’t try anything before then I’d be safe.

The soak helped me to relax and unwind. When I was done I blocked the door and settled down into bed. I hadn’t been sure if I could sleep so early, or after such a stressful day, but the combination of soft silky nightclothes and the scent of flowers following me about soothed me to the extent that I was fast asleep in next to no time.

Friday

It was still dark when I woke, but no ghostly tears or other sounds had disturbed me. I’d simply slept as long as I needed to. Wide awake, I slipped out of bed and undressed to examine myself in the mirror. My breasts were definitely showing and there was a definite mound with the beginnings of a cleft in it between my legs. Was it possible that one injection was going to change me all the way, and in just a few days?

I dressed swiftly and quietly then sat to examine myself in the vanity mirror. My face had changed subtly. I’d never had particularly strong features, but now with softer skin and an absence of beard, even after several days, everything seemed softer and more feminine. My lips were fuller and there was something about my eyes as well. I shook my head, there certainly was no going back to the way I had been, but somehow that didn’t seem like such a hardship.

I picked up my purse and shoes and tip-toed up to the door. Mr P was in his sentry position, head drooped over in sleep. If I was careful I might just be able to sneak past him. I dealt with my booby trap as quickly and quietly as I could then carefully eased the door open. Holding the door latch across I slid it shut behind me. So far so good; Mr Paganni’s sleeping form hadn’t moved.

Carefully at first, then with increased urgency I sneaked down the carpeted hallway in complete silence, and slipped quietly into the stairwell. I didn’t expect the main door in the lobby to be open, but I tried it anyway. Next I climbed back up one flight of stairs and tried the fire escape again. The window opened easily enough, but the ladder had been padlocked in place and there was nothing in the alley below to soften my fall. If I tried dropping I’d almost certainly break something, and most likely my neck.

My last idea was to find somewhere to hide out until people started leaving for work and to try and join them. I knew if I started from my apartment, Mr P would find some way of stopping me, so it would have to be somewhere else. The problem was where to hide. Almost all the doors led to other people’s apartments, for which I didn’t have any keys, and the rest were custodial closets which were similarly locked and too small to act as sensible hiding places. The stairwell was too open with the only hiding place being under the final flight of stairs. Way too obvious, which left me with…

…the elevator. It had stopped on the third floor so I climbed up to it and pressed the button to open the door. The was a hatch in the ceiling which, with little bit of struggle, I managed to open and climb through. I felt like I had lost some weight over the previous few days, but also my upper body strength had lessened. Still I managed it somehow and settled down for a long wait in the gloom on top of the machine.

It was grimy and greasy up there and for a while I resisted sitting down or leaning against anything, but in the end tiredness, born more from habit than lack of sleep, took over and I settled carefully onto a spot near the hatch. I could always buy myself a new coat after this was over.

I startled awake as the elevator started to move. Upwards, I counted the doors. We stopped on the sixth floor. I held my breath and listened hard. Something told me it was still too early for people to be awake and moving. The lift started moving down then almost immediately stopped.

“You can come down anytime you like.”

Mr Paganni’s gloating tones drifted up through the hatch. I remained silent. Maybe he was bluffing. Maybe if I waited a while he’d give up and go looking elsewhere.

“The hatch isn’t seated quite right miss, so I know you’re up there. Our tenants are going to find the elevator out of order this morning, so no-one is going to come to your rescue. If you prefer, you can wait up there where it’s cold and dark and dirty and I’ll come get you when everyone has left.”

I kept my peace and looked around me. The elevator was half obscuring the sixth floor doors so, even if I managed to pry them open, he’d see me get out. The seventh floor was too much of a climb dressed as I was, and even if I could reach it, I doubted I could do so quietly.

“OK suit yourself; I still haven’t finished the sports section here.”

Sometime later I began to hear the sound of people making their grumbling way down the stairs. There was no way I could reach them, no way I could get them to help me. I cracked the hatch open and looked down on that familiar sardonic grin.

“Look away then, I’m not climbing down there with you peeking up my skirt.”

“Oh no, you lost the chase and have to pay the forfeit.”

He grinned wider and eventually I surrendered my dignity and clambered down into the elevator as quickly as I could so as to minimise his enjoyment. As a minor act of defiance, I left the hatch open. He shook his head and went back to reading his paper.

Eventually the noise of commuters making their way down the stairs trailed into silence. My captor turned his key in the panel and directed the lift back up half a level. He was a little rougher than he had been the previous day as he dragged me back to my apartment. He picked a key from his belt to open my door and dragged me into my living room.

“You know it’s a shame you figured it out this early, usually it’s much more enjoyable when the terror hits just before the kill. Still you’re smart, I’ll give you that. You haven’t figured it all out, but you’re close.”

He pulled a pile of envelopes out of his back pocket and dropped them on the table. They were all addressed to my editor in my own handwriting. A quick count and my heart sank. He’d found them all.

“I’m not sure if you’re aware that these doors can be double locked, and when they are they can’t be opened from the inside. I’m sorry miss, but I have things to do today and I can’t be chasing you all the time. I’ll ask you to keep quiet as well; Mrs Richards is such a nice old lady and it would be a shame if she became too suspicious wouldn’t it?”

I was beaten. A locked, reinforced door stood before me and any hope of freedom and all my means of communication were cut. I stripped off my grimy clothes and took a shower. What had he meant when he said I hadn’t figured it all out?

Wandering about on autopilot, my mind wallowing in despondency, I picked out a pretty navy blue dress then sat down in front of the mirror to tame my hair. Somewhere in the overwhelming mess of emotions that were dragging me down, I managed to latch onto that sense of self-worth I had discovered and focused on the pretty face staring back at me. Don’t ask me why because I don’t fully understand it, but something in me decided that I’d feel better if I could make myself look better, and with time on my hands why not?

I opened a drawer in the dresser and pulled out a makeup kit. For the next few hours I climbed a painstakingly steep learning curve, wiping away one clown face after another until I finally saw an improvement on my unadorned features. It was a long way from perfect, but I still had a few hours to experiment.

I stopped long enough to eat a light lunch then sat back down in front of the mirror once more. Gary would be coming over later and I wanted to look good for him.

Where had that come from? I examined my feelings for Gary. He had been a good friend and up until now I hadn’t thought of him in any other way. I suspected he was gay from the way he looked at me sometimes and from comments he’d made, but over the year I’d known him, I’d only thought of him as a friend.

But things were different now; I was a girl, or very nearly. I’d always wanted a girlfriend, but had never found the courage or the self-confidence to impress one. I could probably manage it now, but did I want to? I wasn’t’ sure I saw myself as a lesbian, which left me with guys. I thought about Gary, making an effort to do as the girl I now was, and found that the thought of snuggling up to him, having him hold me and kiss me, brought a warm glow all through my body. He was going to be my knight in shining armour to rescue me from my current danger and sweep me away to a magical kingdom where we could live happily ever after. Despite everything, I smiled at the thought.

I cleaned the apartment from top to bottom and hunted through some recipe books for something I could make for us with the limited resources at my disposal. Keeping busy doing ordinary day-to-day things seemed to keep my spirits up, and when five o’clock came round, everything was ticking over nicely.

I showered again, examined myself in the mirror to find that my breasts were now large enough to fill my small hands and between my legs the change was continuing but a long way from complete. I hunted through the closet, discarding outfit after outfit until I found a simple little black dress. The neckline showed my new cleavage to advantage, and the hem stopped halfway down my thighs; modest enough but still showing off a spectacular pair of legs in charcoal hose and black pumps.

I worked on my hair until it shone and fell just right then spent the best part of forever continuing my experiments with makeup. Eventually my appearance was perfect and I made my way back into the kitchen to check on dinner. All seemed in order, so I took a bottle of chardonnay and two chilled glasses form the fridge. I popped the cork and poured one for myself then set some quiet music playing and sat down to wait.

It wasn’t much later that I heard a key turning in the lock and stood up ready to confront my tormentor. I had been psyching myself up for this since, well let’s face it, the whole getting ready in front of the mirror was part of the psych. I had been doing anything and everything I could think of to feel stronger and better about myself, and now that my saviour was here I was determined the fur was going to fly.

I reached the door just as Gary stepped past Mr Paganni into the entrance hall. He had an odd grin on his face, and the expression Mr P wore did little to reassure me either.

“Well look at you. Didn’t you turn out to be something special?”

Wait, what!? Gary didn’t know about what had been happening to me. He should be all ‘what the bleep happened to you?’ not looking at me like I was a prize turkey he’d been fattening up for Thanksgiving.

“Gary? What’s going on here?”

“Oh, and James here told me you’d figured it out.

“Mmn what is that smell? Did you cook for me? That is so sweet. Tell you what, why don’t we sit down and eat and I’ll explain everything.”

All the fight had evaporated from me again. All that hard work building up my confidence, my anger, and now just a few words had sent my world crashing down around me once more.

Autopilot took over again and I wandered back into the kitchen to put the vegetables on to boil. I refilled my wineglass and took a long swig with unsteady hands.

Gary picked up the second glass and poured one for himself then leaned against the doorframe looking me over with a hungry look on his face. Whatever he said, his mind didn’t seem to be on food.

Ten minutes past in silence with me shuffling pans and serving up. I offered a plate to Gary and he led the way through to the dining table in the lounge. He sat down and started eating. My hunger had dissipated with my courage so I sat looking at him and waited.

“This is good,” he said around a mouthful, “really good.”

I kept still and waited for him to notice. He set his knife and fork down, took a sip of his wine and looked away into space for a while, marshalling his thoughts.

“James showed me copies of your story; it’s really good and almost complete. It’s just a shame that no-one is ever going to get to read it. I’ll admit we’re both a bit baffled as to where you found some of your information, but most of it is really good research. You might have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for your perfume. You see James didn’t see or hear you down in his office, but he did smell you, just a hint but enough for him to know that you’d been in the office and most likely accessed the computer.

“The thing is you found all the information on the names of the tenants who lived here in previous years, then Mrs Richards gave you enough clues to work out what had happened, but you didn’t dig deep enough to find out who was responsible. That’s on the computer too, documents that show my father owns this building, that the lease to apartment sixty-six on the sixth floor has my name on it. You know I almost couldn’t keep a straight face when you ‘found’ the ad for the apartment in my paper last week. I thought I would have to drop a few hints to make you look, but you zoomed right in on it. I didn’t think you’d be comfortable renting from me if you knew, so I kind of finagled you into it without you suspecting a thing.

“If you’d known of my involvement, I’m sure you’d have figured things out, but as it is your story breaks down when you accuse James. The whole thing about drugs that can have such a profound and rapid effect on the human body is hard to swallow even with the evidence you presented, but how would a man like James Paganni get hold of them? On the other hand my father heads up a conglomerate business empire with extensive biotech labs. He gave me a tour a few years back which is how I found out about an experimental drug that regresses cells back to a malleable state where they can be redefined.

“I don’t know how much you know about biology, or even if you’re that interested, but even if you remember your most basic lessons you’ll know that a human being forms from just a single cell, the ova, once it has been fertilised by taking in DNA from a male sperm. The cells grow and divide, remaining identical for the first few days, but eventually they have to specialise. Some become muscles, others liver, others brain and so on until the whole complex body is formed, but every cell retains in itself the complete genetic code necessary to become whatever it needs to be. I inject you with the super-drug and it reactivates all the bits of genetic code in all your cells which were switched off when the cell specialised. I add to the mix a cocktail of testosterone blockers and oestrogen, and when the cells get round to figuring out what they ought to be, they get signals which cause them to develop female structure rather than male. You still have XY chromosomes, but by the time the cells have remapped themselves, this really doesn’t matter a great deal.”

“Why? Why would you do that to someone? Why are you doing it to me?”

“For love of course.”

He pulled out his wallet, opened it to a picture and passed it over to me. The photograph showed a young man wearing too much makeup and a frilly blue dress that looked ludicrous with his masculine features. He was grinning in a mixture of embarrassment and secret delight.

“His name was Peter and I fell in love with him the moment I saw him, but it was messed up from the start. You see my father has never approved of the LGBT community and a lot of his homophobic attitudes rubbed off on me as I was growing up. It came as one of life’s big ironic jokes that I ended up being gay myself.

“Peter was different though. I knew he was transgendered and attracted to men, and despite his own struggle with depression over his identity crisis, he still reached out to me and helped me come to terms with who I really was.
“Then I came up with the idea that if I could make Peter look enough like a woman, I might fool my parents into thinking I had finally found a girl with whom I wanted to settle down. Peter would be delighted with the effects of the drugs making him look more like a woman, I could have my gay lover, and everyone would be happy.

“I moved him in here and spent all my spare money on making him more feminine, even though to me he was already beautiful. For a while it worked. I paid for his hormones, his boob job, even reconstructive surgery on his face and eventually took him home to meet my parents. They were fooled by him and I thought it might work, except that Peter couldn’t be happy when underneath it all he was still a man.

“It was around then that I found out about the drug and managed to get myself a supply. He begged me to give it to him and because I loved him so much I did. My father dragged me off on a business trip for a couple of weeks during which time I heard nothing from Peter. I was sick with worry. Had the treatment gone wrong? Was he dead or horribly disfigured by the drug, I mean it was and still is experimental after all.

“I came back from the trip on Halloween and thought I would surprise Peter and take him out on the town, but it was him or rather her who surprised me. She greeted me at the door to the apartment with such joy in her eyes and insisted on dragging me into the bedroom to see what the wonder-drug had achieved, and it was truly spectacular. My Peter had been transformed into a beautiful and complete woman, and he, I mean she, was so grateful.

“We went out to a restaurant and then to a nightclub. She was dancing on clouds, revelling in the attention of all the other guys there and sharing the dance floor with whoever asked her, but to me it felt like a betrayal. With every drink I had, the resentment grew until I was filled with such rage and loathing that I could barely contain them.

“It was late when we left the nightclub and there were no taxis available, so at Peter’s suggestion we started to walk home. She was spinning around and laughing at her transformation, and the more she expressed her delight, the angrier I became until the rage overtook me. I picked up something heavy from the ground and swung it at her. We were cutting across a building site at the time and there was no-one around to hear her as she screamed, and I beat her and beat her until all the rage was gone.

“When I came back to my senses there was nothing left of her beautiful face and her hands were torn to shreds where she had tried to fend of my attack. The horror of what I had done overwhelmed me and I have no recollection of what happened next, only that I woke up the next morning with James taking care of me and a story on the news about a brutal attack on an unknown woman.”

I could hardly breathe. The horror of what he had done, what he had just confessed left me barely able to contain the scream in my own throat. He looked up into my wild eyes as though nothing were wrong and continued in a calm voice.

“It was some months before I met someone else. He was just gay, but he sympathised with my parents’ intolerance and played along with the whole pretending to be a woman thing. He had such fine features he didn’t need much help to look like a girl, but he was scared of being found out, especially by my parents, so I gave him the drug and he changed. He was as horrified with his transformation as I was. He didn’t want to be a girl and I didn’t want him to be one either. We looked for ways to change him back, but there were none and eventually he accepted his new role. That’s when I began to feel the resentment growing inside me again and on Halloween night my rage took over and yet again I destroyed the person I loved.

“It’s happened three more times since. I fall for a good looking guy, my contact inside the research facility manages to ‘lose’ some of the drug during the big stock check in October and send it my way, I try to change the man I love into someone who looks enough like a beautiful woman that they can fool my parents, but always they betray me and change completely into a woman, then all they want is to go out and find a man to satisfy them and I can’t control my anger.

“You’re different though Michael. I know you’ll stop yourself from changing completely. My parents will be fooled because you are so very beautiful, so much like my Peter, and we can live happily together. Tell me things will be different this time.”

There was something frighteningly brittle about the way he spoke, as though he were trying with all his will to believe something he knew couldn’t possibly be true. I had as much as told him that I wasn’t gay several times over the year that I’d known him, but this seemed like an impossibly bad moment to remind him of that, or to tell him how far my transformation had already progressed. Somehow I managed to find a voice.

“I can’t find words to express how I feel about you right now Gary,” true enough, all I wanted to do was scream, “and I hope with all my heart that things will be different this time.”

He let out a sigh and silence descended on us for a while. The music changed and he stood up and walked over to me.

“This was always one of Peter’s favourites. I wonder, would you dance with me?”

And so numbed by the horrors I had heard and terrified beyond endurance by my immediate future, I clung to him and let him sway me gently back and forth as the music continued on into the night.

I held things together for a few songs, but the scream kept threatening to break loose. Eventually I pulled away.

“I’m tired Gary. It’s been a long day and I could use some sleep. Will you be alright here on the couch?”

He looked uncertain for a moment but then nodded.

“Yes you’re right, I’m tired too, and we need to make an early start if we’re going to decorate this place and get the food and stuff ready for the party.”

Oh hell was he really planning on going ahead with the party, even after his revelation?

“Who’ve you invited?” I asked.

A look of childish mischief spread across his face.

“Actually I didn’t invite anyone. I thought we could make a day of it, just you and me.”

He pulled me close and planted a kiss on my lips. It was such a shock I just went rigid. He pulled back and bored into me with his eyes, searching for the lie that would release his anger.

“I’m sorry Gary, you took me by surprise and I am so tired. Let me sleep on it, things will be better in the morning.”

I retreated to the bedroom and closed the door on him, leaning back on it and letting the dam burst. I sank to the floor and allowed wave after wave of silent sobs to wrack my body. How was I going to get out of this? How could I possibly escape this madman?

With the tears spent I managed to regain enough control of my body to change for bed. Part way through changing I noticed my body in the mirror; I was almost entirely a woman now. I slipped my hand into my panties and explored what was there. No opening, at least not yet, but everything else felt so different that, even with my lack of experience, I was certain that I was less than a day away from complete transformation.

My face felt sticky from where my mascara had run, so I spent a few minutes cleaning the worst of the war paint off before throwing myself onto the bed. The tears came again and were still flowing when sleep took me.

Saturday

When I woke Gary was in the bed with me. I was laying on my side with my legs drawn up a little and he had slipped in behind me and shaped his body around mine. His arm was draped over me and I could tell from his slow, steady breathing that he was asleep.

My body betrayed me with a warm flush of pleasure before my mind woke up enough to recall yesterday evening’s revelations. It made it worse somehow, starting from those warm and sensuous feelings to the sudden cold certainty that I was being held by a madman who would end my life in just a day or two. The scream was back, deep down and contained for now but I wasn’t sure how long I could keep it there. My body stiffened and shivered involuntarily and Gary snuggled closer. Unable to bear it any longer, I lifted his arm and slid out of the bed with one smooth motion. I looked down on his naked sleeping form and was grateful for the long nightdress that had separated me from his touch.

I retrieved my dressing gown and slipped silently out to the kitchen. I wanted a coffee, but the smell might rouse him and I needed to be alone more than anything. I filled a glass with water and tried to cudgel my brain into coming up with something, anything to get me out of this.

A quick check of the spyhole showed Mr Paganni sitting in a chair opposite my door, awake and reading his sports pages. This time he didn’t notice me, but there was no escape that way. I wandered back to the kitchen and gave the block of carving knives a speculative look. I could kill him while he slept. I’d be arrested, but at least I’d be alive. I slid the longest knife I had from the block and looked at it with my hand shaking. I was no killer; there was no way I could go through with this, even to save myself from a madman. I put the knife back and headed for the bathroom.

I didn’t flush – anything that might risk waking him. I did undress and examine myself though. My breasts were larger than my hands, a noticeable weight pulling on my chest, and between my legs was a definite opening into a soft moist cavity. Maybe the plumbing wasn’t all connected yet, but there was no way to pretend I was a man anymore. My arms and legs seemed thinner, softer, weaker; if I’d ever had a chance of holding him off physically, it was long gone. I looked in the mirror and shed a tear over the beauty of the face looking back at me. How had I never realised before? I’d never thought of myself as a being in any way female before the events of the past few days, but the girl looking back at me in the mirror completed parts of me I had never realised were lacking. I cried for the lost opportunity to get to know this new me, for the impending horror that was to cut my life short just as I was learning to live.

There was a noise in the kitchen; he was awake. I snatched the bolt across then crouched in on myself and fought with all my self-control to contain the whimper. He would come looking for me soon and I couldn’t be found hiding. I flushed the toilet and stepped into the shower. The cold water woke me up and the world around me snapped into a sharp, severe clarity.

I stayed in the shower as long as I dared searching for a way out, but all I could find were ideas to prolong the inevitable. Fine I’d take what I could get. By force of will I caged the screaming, whimpering weakness deep inside me and stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel with a second wound around my head. I hadn’t washed my hair, but the pretence would give me a few extra minutes alone.

Gary looked up at me as I stepped out of the shower and came over to hand me a mug of coffee. His smile seemed genuine, relaxed, so different from the madman of yesterday evening. He leaned in for a kiss and I supressed my revulsion and reached back to kiss him back. My skin crawled, but my resolve was iron and after long enough to satisfy him I drew away with a smile on my face.

“Thanks sweetheart.”

I took a sip of my coffee – too strong and not enough milk – and retreated to the bedroom. He made to follow, but I stopped him at the door.

“Oh no, you have to give a girl a little privacy to get ready.”

A flash of anger passed behind his eyes and I wondered if I’d stepped over the line already. I gave him a coy smile.

“Come on Gary, you’re the one who wants me to look like a woman. Don’t begrudge me a little play acting.”

The anger subsided and the smile returned. I shut the door on him before he could think of an excuse to follow me. I leaned against the door and let out a ragged sigh of relief. I was going to have to tread really carefully here.

I slipped on a pair of white cotton panties and a plain bra, adjusting the straps to fit my new size. If the changes didn’t stop soon, I’d have to go shopping for underwear. Next I pulled a pair of hose out of a drawer and rolled them into a tube before pushing them down the front of my panties. It wouldn’t fool anyone on close inspection, but it might just introduce a shadow of doubt at the right time. I slid on a pair of thick pink hose, grateful for the added tension to hold my little disguise in place, then I turned on the hairdryer and sat down to think.

Could I make myself look unattractive enough that he’d lose interest in me? The face staring back at me told me no, besides if I dressed down too much he might start to suspect something. He wouldn’t expect anything like the LBD form yesterday, I mean that had been dress up for the evening, but I couldn’t look too dowdy either. My best bet would be to persuade him to let me go out with him to do some shopping. He’d brought all the decorations with him already; the box was in the hall where he’d put it when Mr P had let him in, but we still didn’t have the stuff I said I’d bring.

Well if I could persuade him to go out I’d need low heels or flats definitely; I didn’t want to risk turning an ankle running in heels, and I didn’t fancy the idea of running in bare feet on the filthy streets. I cursed whoever had filled this closet that they hadn’t put any pants in there, and in the end settled on a short denim skirt, a white cotton blouse and a pink cardigan. It would be warm enough in the cold October weather and allow me freedom of movement to run as fast as I could.

I turned off the hairdryer and dressed myself, brushing my hair until it at least looked like it might have been freshly washed. A little foundation, a touch of blush, a pink lipstick to match what I was wearing. I still needed practice, but I was happy with the overall effect. I steeled myself for what was to come and stepped out.

Gary had finished showering and was getting dressed in the lounge when I found him. His powerful arms and shoulders showed off the time he spent in the gym, and I had to supress a shudder at the thought of what damage those muscles could do.

“Well don’t you look good enough to eat?”

He came over and pulled me tight to him with a look of challenge in the back of his eyes. I could feel a growing bulge in his pants and was aware of my own improvised package pushing against his thigh.

“Anyone would think you weren’t please to see me.”

Again the hint of challenge, of accusation. I pushed away, feigning the beginnings of anger and turning from him. I was walking a knife edge here, praying I got it right.

“Testosterone blockers and oestrogen remember? It hasn’t risen to any occasion since you injected me with that stuff.”

He came up behind me and wrapped me in his arms.

“I’m sorry, I was just hoping to see a bit more of the guy in you today.”

“Well yet again, if you’re going to leave me with a closet full of dresses and skirts, I’m hardly going to be able to do much to satisfy you there am I?”

I was trying to remember how a guy would react. The girl in me was a mess of conflicting emotions and I had locked her deep inside me, for now I was acting entirely on past experience of having been a man and trying to project that into my present very odd situation.

“You couldn’t have found something a little less girly though?”

“It’s all for appearance my love. I mean you wouldn’t want anyone looking at us and wondering would you?”

“Well I hadn’t planned on anyone else seeing us today. I was hoping we’d spend the whole day together.”

“You have to be kidding?” time to play my part to the max. “Your watchdog out there hasn’t let me outside in over a day. I don’t have food for the party, or candies for trick-or-treaters, we need to do at least some shopping.”

“Well you know Halloween isn’t actually until tomorrow night, so there won’t be that many kids running around tonight, and we could always order in.”

The woman in me wanted to squeeze out a tear and plead with him to take me out, but he wanted to see a guy’s reaction. This needed to be a challenge, a fight. I rounded on him and fanned the embers of an anger that wasn’t completely feigned.

“I have been cooped up in this place for over a day thanks to your bodyguard. If you think being cooped up inside these walls for another twenty-four hours, even with you, is going to bring me any amount of pleasure then you have another think coming.”

He was shocked, taken completely by surprise. I pressed home my advantage.

“Come on Gary all I want is a bit of fresh air, or do you plan to keep me locked up for the rest of my life?”

I winced inwardly at my own words, realising that the rest of my life was not likely to be much more than thirty-six hours at this point. Fortunately for me, he relented.

“OK. If we get the apartment decorated this morning, we’ll go out later to get your things. Does that suit you?”

I nodded, if a bit reluctantly. It was so strange dealing with him now. He seemed almost perfectly normal, except that he’d already shown the madman looming just under the surface.

We passed the rest of the morning hanging decorations and cutting out and placing Jack-o-lanterns in every room. Gary was enjoying himself, and I almost had to keep reminding myself of the threat he posed to stop myself from being drawn into the fun of the moment.

Midday came and went and the apartment looked good. There wasn’t much else we could do to it except clear away the debris which I did quickly before grabbing Gary’s hand and leading him to the front door.

“Come on, you promised me we’d go out and if we don’t go soon, there’ll be nothing worth buying.”

I thrust his coat into his arms and shrugged on my own. Giving him no chance to react, I pulled the door open and stepped out into the corridor. Mr P looked up from his paper in mild surprise and looked at his employer.

“We’re going out to fetch some things. We won’t be long.”

“I’d be happy to get anything you like sir, there’s no need for you to go.”

I gave Gary an impatient glare and he ducked his head.

“No it’s alright; I think we could both do with some fresh air.”

Mr P trailed us down in the elevator and seemed ready to follow us out into the cold, wet afternoon. I grabbed hold of Gary’s arm and looked up into his face.

“Is he going to follow us everywhere we go? Because I’d rather it was just you and me.”

Gary turned to Mr P.

“It’s alright James, you keep an eye on things here, I think we’ll be alright.”

I kept hold of Gary’s arm as we walked down the street. I was outside and seemed to have Gary off guard. I had to keep the advantage, I couldn’t relax now. We walked past the mall and I kept a firm tug on Gary’s arm as he tried to steer us into it.

“No come on, I found a great place to shop. It’s a little further on, but I think you’ll find it’s worthwhile.”

A plan was beginning to form in my mind. I checked my watch. This would take careful timing if only I could trust that one other person to be punctual.

The café came into sight and Gary began to slow, recognising the place.

“What are you playing at?”

The suspicion was back and, not far behind, his anger.

“Just down there,” I pointed beyond the café. “I found some great little shops when I was here a few days ago.”

I kept the momentum going then just as we were passing the alley I feigned a stumble and let out a small cry. Please be there, oh please be there. I glanced down the alley to where the makeshift shrine was, right into the eyes of the young man I’d been hoping to find.

“You,” he said recognising me somehow, then looking up at my companion, “and you!”

Rage flared in his eyes and he launched himself the short distance down the alley. I barely managed to step aside as he came barrelling out and pushed Gary into the street in front of him. There was the wild screech of rubber on tarmac and cars turning this way and that, barely missing each other and the raging pair in the middle of the road.

Fight fire with fire I’d thought, so how do you fight a madman? The scrawny, malnourished youth was no match for Gary and his muscles; I had to take advantage of this while I could. I ran across the road, ducking between the melee of stopped cars and into the café.

“Please you have to help me, he’s the Halloween Hacker, he’s trying to kill me.”

There weren’t many customers in the place, but they all looked at me as though I were mad. I went to the counter and shouted at the owner.

“Please the man from the alley is fighting him, but he’s not strong enough. You have to help him. You told me about finding the girl two years ago and I remember seeing the regret in your face then that you hadn’t acted sooner. You can make up for it now.”

He looked confused for a moment then his eyes widened in recognition. He reached under the counter and came up with a baseball bat.

“Come on you lot, this isn’t happening in our neighbourhood again.”

To a man they stood to follow him. I waited inside the café as they ran out calling to the car drivers who were looking on in confusion at the wild fight going on in front of them. It was over in a few seconds, the two protagonists separated and held immobile in arms strong enough to overcome even their madness enhanced strength.

I found a phone at the back of the café and called for the police, who arrived just five minutes later, and an ambulance which took a while longer. Gary was spitting furiously and demanding to be let go saying that the other man had attacked him and he had only been defending himself. The young man was a bloody mess and unconscious which put a lie to his words, and when I stepped forward and accused Gary of being the Halloween Hacker, his roar of fury at my betrayal was enough to convince the police to put him in handcuffs and into the back of a squad car.

I told the police about Mr Paganni acting as an accomplice and they radioed for a car to go and pick him up before this incident made it onto the news and warned him to run. It was over and I let the girl in me out of her cage. Tears flowed freely and I made my way over to where the paramedics were ministering to my saviour.

He had regained some semblance of consciousness and looked up into my eyes, the madness seeming to subside a little. I touched him lightly on the shoulder.

“Careful miss, he has several broken bones including his collar bone there.”

I withdrew my hand reluctantly, but smiled down at him, tears flowing freely.

“Thank-you. It doesn’t begin to say enough, but you just save my life.”

He began to cry as well. He made no sound, no movement – I suppose it would have hurt too much – but the tears washed away the anguish he had been carrying for so many years.

“I’m sorry miss, we have to take him to the hospital now. Our Lady of Mercy on Mercer Street if you plan to visit later.”

I thanked the paramedic and stepped back so they could lift the stretcher gently into the back of the ambulance. A policeman came up to me.

“Miss we’d like you to accompany us down to the station. We have a few questions.”

I let myself be led away.

The police allowed me a phone call when we arrived at the station. I called my editor and told him to send someone down to the station with a laptop; that I had a story to put his paper on the map but I had a few bits to alter on it. A young lad turned up fifteen minutes later and handed me the tool of my trade saying he’d been instructed to wait until I was done. The police station was as efficient as any I’d encountered and I was left to wait while they found someone to take my statement. It gave me enough time to fire up the computer, copy the files across the memory stick in my purse and rewrite the story in light of the things Gary had told me. It took me an hour and half to finish and I sent it off with the young man with time to spare before the deadline. A few minutes later a detective inspector came over to tell me they were ready to take my statement.

It was late into the night before they finished questioning me. I’d shown them the few photographs I had of my transition as well as the bruise that was still present on my bottom from the injection. I gave them my editor’s number and they called him and asked him to come down to the station. I had to answer a long string of personal questions before he was convinced of who I was and vouched for me to the police. After that I gave them the names of the guys who had lived in my apartment and disappeared over previous years and they set about matching DNA that had been kept from the victims with anything they could collect from the parents of the missing men.

It would take weeks to complete, but the evidence was damning. Unbelievable as my story seemed, it would be proven, Gary would be remanded to a high security mental institution for the rest of his life, James Paganni would be given consecutive life sentences for his part in aiding and abetting, and the lab tech who had provided Gary with the drugs was soon identified and jailed on a lesser sentence of trafficking in unlicensed drugs. Gary’s father tried to sue the paper when the story was printed the next day, but when the evidence mounted up against his son, he dropped the charges and offered to pay me compensation for what I had gone through. I took the settlement, I mean cash is cash and women’s clothes are outrageously expensive.

The police finally dropped me back at the apartment block in the early hours of the morning. A policewoman accompanied me up to my rooms and offered to stay. I’m not sure I would have been able to go back in if she hadn’t been with me and between us we pulled down the decorations which were too much of a reminder of my ordeal. We chatted over coffee before she shooed me off to bed, promising to spend the night in the lounge. I doubt I would have slept if it hadn’t been for her presence nearby.

I woke in the early hours again. No noise this time, but a feeling. There were five figures standing around the bed; they all looked somewhat like me. They smiled down on me and I wasn’t afraid.

Halloween’s supposed to be a time when the dead can cross over into the land of the living. They didn’t say anything, but I could see the peace in their eyes, the gratitude for the end of this nightmare. One by one they faded to nothing, all except for one of them.

“Tell my brother I love him and that he shouldn’t blame himself; there was nothing he could have done. Tell him that from Little Squit.”

With that she faded from view. Before she was gone completely though I called after her.

“Wait, what’s his name?”

A whisper came back, almost too gentle to hear.

“Dave, his name is Dave Milton.”

Sunday

When I woke the next morning, I wasn’t sure if it had been real or a dream. I made coffee and breakfast as a thank-you to the policewoman who had stood vigil through the night and bade her a happy Halloween as she left. I dressed in something non-descript and bumbled about the apartment at a loss for something to do. I realised I wasn’t going to be able to stay in this apartment, so as a first step to putting my life back on track, I headed down to the Mall to buy a newspaper.

“Halloween Hacker Arrested!”

The headline brought me up short. I hadn’t thought about my story since I’d sent the young boy off with it the previous afternoon, and now here I was headlining the newspaper. There were a few extra comments and statements added by one of the paper’s permanent reporters, but most of the story was mine, and I my name was first in the byline – M. Barrett to avoid ambiguity. I paid for the paper and was halfway back to the apartment when my cell rang.

“Hello?”

“Mikey!” It was the voice of my editor and in quite effusive mood. “Or what should I call you now? This is the biggest thing to hit the newspaper in years. I hope you don’t mind that I let Alex add a few lines to the front page; they were needed for impact. Listen, I’m paying you a bonus on this feature, and I’d like you to come on board as one of my permanent journalists, effective immediately but with two week’s paid vacation starting today. What do you say?”

I let him talk himself out of breath then cut in.

“I think Michelle would be best from now on. No I think Alex’s contribution was a good call,” I had to say that anyway, but I found I didn’t resent sharing the limelight. “As for the job, I’ll say tentatively yes now, but I’ll give you my firm answer in two weeks. I need to get my head straight before I do anything else.”

“Michelle it is then,” he’d actually been listening. “OK call me in two weeks, and if you need anything at all in the meantime, call me sooner. Chow.”

And he was gone. I smiled at his enthusiasm and wandered back to the apartment. I tried the phone, but it was still dead and my cell still didn’t have any signal inside the building. I grabbed my bag and the paper and headed out. The police tape was still blocking off a lot of the road, but I managed to squeeze by and into the café. The place was heaving and I was about to give up on the hope of finding a table or even being able to think with the noise going on around me when the proprietor waved me over. He was very much the centre of attention with reporters mobbing him for his part of the story and I was afraid he would draw me into the rabble. He must have seen my reservation because he ushered me behind the counter and indicated the door at the back.

“Go on up, my wife is there and she wants to meet you. I’ll come when I can.”

I walked tentatively up the stairs.

“Hello?”

A plump, middle aged woman poked her head around the corner and looked down at me.

“Your husband sent me up. He, er, he saved my life yesterday.”

“Oh my, you’re the poor dear, come on up. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve just put the kettle on.”

There was a hint of Irish in her accent and I accepted her gracious welcome with a smile of gratitude. The tea was soothing and refreshing and we chatted about all sorts of nothing for what seemed like an age before I heard heavier footfalls on the stairs.

“We never had a chance to introduce ourselves before,” the café proprietor stepped into the small living room. “My name’s Patrick and this is my wife Millie.”

“Michelle, at least now.”

I offered them each my hand and they shook it in turn.

“You know it’s strange. I know you say I came to your rescue yesterday, but I’ve had the feeling ever since that you saved me. Ever since that girl dies on my doorstep two years ago, I have felt so guilty that I did nothing. You have given me back something that goes beyond value or name, and I am so very grateful.”

“Well the gratitude is returned. Without your actions yesterday he would have come after me and killed me in a most horrible way.”

We didn’t have much time to talk then; the café had been the centre of attention since my story had named the café as the place and its proprietor as the man who saved me from my awful fate, and he wasn’t going to waste the sudden upturn in business. He was only worried about running out of supplies, so I offered to go on a food run with Millie while he basked in his well-earned celebrity.

Custom died off a little in the afternoon, and we sat together downstairs enjoying a light lunch. I told them my whole story, filling in some of the gaps that hadn’t seemed relevant to the newspaper feature such as how I had come to be in an alley dressed in a skimpy skirt and still looking like a man. Eventually I admitted to them that I’d only come to the café looking for a quiet place to make some phone calls about apartments for let, and they left me punching away at the keypad of my cell.

I managed to line up a few promising viewings for the next day, it being both Sunday and Halloween today, no-one wanted to have me round immediately, before heading back to the apartment. After the previous night’s visitation it didn’t seem such a terrifying place anymore. Memories of the last ghost’s parting words drifted back and I realised I had unfinished business. A quick call to the operator and I was put through to the Hospital.

“Hello, there was a young man brought in yesterday afternoon with injuries from a fight. He had a broken collar bone and a couple of other breaks I believe.”

“Yes, how can I help you.”

In the spirit of modern medicine she wasn’t giving anything away.

“He was injured trying to protect me and I wanted to visit to say thank-you. I wonder if you could tell me when I would be able to come and see him.”

“Visiting times are between five and seven o’clock, but it’s families only so don’t come unless you’re related.”

She put the phone down. Oh well time for some subterfuge; it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had some practice in acting a part these past few days.

Back at the apartment I filled a bag with some fruit to take with me and gave some thought to how I was going to do this. I wandered into the bedroom and opened the closet. The red velveteen dress seemed to call out to me. Maybe later, but not this time. I needed sensible clothes; party girl would have to wait for another time.

I turned up at the hospital a little before five dressed in a plain blue skirt and white blouse. The nurse behind the counter was more helpful that the one I had spoken to on the phone, but I knew not to push my luck.

“I’m looking for my brother. He’s been living on the streets for the past couple of years so I don’t know what his state of mind is at present. I heard reports that someone answering his description was beaten badly yesterday and admitted here.”

I gave them a description of David and his injuries and eventually they agreed to let me have a look at their most likely candidate. It was easy to squeeze out some tears at the sight of him, and I pushed past them into the room. He looked up at me with far away eyes and , conscious.

“Hello David, I’ve been looking for you for such a long time.”

His eyes focused and his brows knit together as he tried to piece together some fragments of his shattered mind.

“Little squit says hello.”

Tears flooded his eyes.

“I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t save him from that monster.”

“No but you did save me, and now no-one else is going to be harmed by him. David, your brother says you shouldn’t blame yourself, that there was nothing you could do for him. I say you should be proud of yourself because yesterday you did have the opportunity to do something and you took it. Because of you that madman has been locked away. Because of you I and a lot of other people in this city are safe. Because of you your brother and the four other victims are at peace.”

The floodgates gave way and he leaned into me and cried rivers onto my shoulder. The nurses stood by the door looking uncertain, but I smiled and nodded my thanks to them, and they left us.

Two years of anguish poured out of him and I sat there and hugged and rocked him for nearly half an hour. Eventually he lay back, but there was a peace in his eyes as he looked at me.

“You look a lot like he did towards the end.”

“Part of the maniac’s fantasy I think. I saw all of his victims last night. They all had their hair cut like this. They were different, but they looked like they were all trying to be the same person.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

So I did. I’d just reached the point where the five ghosts had appeared to me when a nurse came in.

“I’m sorry but visiting time is over, oh!”

She’d noticed Dave’s alert expression.

“It’s alright nurse, I think I’m on the mend now, thanks largely to erm…” He took my hand in his and looked up at me vaguely puzzled at not knowing who I was

“I’m his sister,” I interjected. “But they already know that David. Family visitors only you know, or they wouldn’t have let me see you.”

He was quick enough to pick up on it.

“Yes my sister. She’s been looking for me for a while now.”

“Yes of course,” then nurse still wasn’t sure how to deal with a patient who had been deeply catatonic that last time she saw him. She turned to me. “Listen, we’re planning on having a party later for some of the patients who are up to it. It looks like your brother can manage it, so you’re welcome to join us. About ten o’clock in the recreation room on this floor.”

She pointed to a door down the corridor and I nodded my thanks. I leaned down to kiss Dave on the cheek and whispered my new name into his ear then I stood up and headed for the door.

“Bye David, I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Bye sis.”

I left the hospital with a spring in my step. Dave was quite good looking, or at least he would be after he’d put a bit of meat back on his bones, and in my limited experience of him, I’d found him to be intelligent, thoughtful and courageous. We’d have to play brother and sister for a while, at least until he left hospital, but who knew where this would lead.

I thought about the red velveteen dress back at the apartment as I climbed onto the bus. Bright red lip gloss and red nail varnish should finish off the costume perfectly. Three hours to get home, get ready and get back, yeah I should be able to do that. It seemed I was in the mood for a Halloween party after all.

-Fin-