Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 19

It took a while for the backhanded compliment to settle, but when it did the anger melted away and a gentle smile took over.

“If ever I were to make an exception it would be for someone like yourself, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’m Michael.”

He held out a large hand which totally engulfed my own, the act of friendship and acceptance having a calming effect on everyone else in the room. The tension drained out of the air and, by ones and twos, most of the crowd drifted off.

“Do I take it you’ve been nominated as spokesperson here Michael?”

He nodded as his significant other moved in and slid an arm protectively around his waist, all the time giving me ‘hands off’ signals. Michael put his arm around the young man’s shoulder and hugged him close. There was obvious love there. How could anyone think such a thing was wrong?

I held up my ring to the younger man and gave him an apologetic smile.

“I’m kind of spoken for anyway. I didn’t really mean what I said other than to comment on your partner’s stunning good looks. You’re very fortunate.”

He shrugged and offered his own smaller hand.

“Colin.”

“Nice to meet you both. Michael do you know who I am?”

It seemed a daft question given the amount of time I’d spent on television recently, but if these two had been out wandering London’s highways and byways these last months, it could well be that they’d only seen me in TV shop windows with the sound turned down.

“I’ve seen your face on telly a bit and there’s been talk among the street folk about someone called Elizabeth doing stuff for us. Would that be you?”

“Yes. I’m kind of part of the reason this place exists.”

“Nah, she is the reason this place exists.”

Aaron couldn’t keep quiet. I think he was proud to be someone who knew me and wanted the spotlight to be pointing in the right direction. He told Michael and Colin how the centre had come about. I didn’t really want the interruption, embarrassing as it was, but it proved to be useful. By the time he was done both of our hosts were looking at me with a little more respect. Aaron finally ran out of words and I was able to get a word or two in.

“Well, whatever. I wanted to come up here myself to say how sorry I am for the way you’ve been treated. I had hoped that, being from the street, you’d have enough in common to overcome prejudice like that shown you earlier today, but I guess when people have their basic needs filled, their true nature comes to the surface, and you find fuck-ups wherever you go.”

Colin spurted out a laugh, the sort that would have had milk coming out of his nose had he been drinking any at the time. I guess I needed to take control of my language, but I was still angry that anyone under my care had been subjected to such unpleasantness.

“Anyway, two of the ringleaders have left this place and the rest seem to be a little less antagonistic. I just wanted to come up and meet with you people, let you know that the welcome the management extends you is warmer than the one you’ve received so far. And to ask you to comment. Is there anything that you or anyone else here can think of that might stop this from happening again?”

“I don’t think so. Most of us kind of expected something like this. A few of us thought this place was going to be different, but apparently not.”

“Wait, are you saying there’s more like you? Still out on the streets and not coming in because they’re afraid of being attacked?”

“Yeah, there are quite a few more of us, maybe a couple of hundred or so. It’s difficult to tell because most of us hide who we are a lot of the time. You know, most of us ended up on the streets when we came out to family and got ourselves disowned and kicked out. Something like that makes you a bit cautious. The few of us who thought this place was worth a shot are those who are more settled about who they are, hence the TGs taking advantage of the clothes you had to offer, and the gays like us mainly being in open relationships. The ones who could really benefit from a place like this, if it were to show a little more openness and acceptance, are too scared to come forward. And well, let’s face it, who can blame them.

“We don’t want to cause any trouble though. We’ll move out tomorrow.”

“The hell you will.”

“Liz, it’s okay. We’re used to living on the streets and, well, the weather’s getting better. We’ll be fine. You’re doing a great thing here and it’d be a shame to see it go off the tracks because the people you’re trying to help are flawed enough not to be able to accept us. Your coming up here to speak to us means a lot. Took a lot of courage. After your kindness it would be wrong of us to be arseholes ourselves.”

He smiled a little sadly.

“Michael, if you keep running away from things like this, they’ll never get any better.”

He laughed.

“I can see where the courage comes from.”

“Colin, can’t you say anything to him? Michael, when stuff like this happens, it’s usually just one or two over the top, extremist nutters who probably deserve to be castrated for inciting otherwise decent people into a frenzy. If you go then the little shits have won and I would feel like this place had been derailed more than just a little if it failed to find a way of helping people like yourself and the others here.

“I’m looking to open a new shelter soon, hopefully in less than a month. I’m planning on visiting the site early next week and I’d like you and anyone else from this floor, or even those still out in the cold who make up part of your group, to come along. Maybe we can come up with some ideas on giving you guys a part of the building to run for yourselves. If you don’t think we can address the situation head on here and now, at least let me offer you sanctuary away from those likely to cause you trouble.”

“You’d do that for us?”

“Michael I know something of what people like you have to live with. It’s not a burden any human being should have to carry. I’m sorry, I don’t know a lot about homosexuality so I can’t comment directly here, but there are transgendered people in my family and I’ve seen how hard it is to live without acceptance. I’m not doing this because I want to make a statement about the LGBT community, but because you are people. If society is intent on marginalising you, then yes I’d do it for you, because you deserve to have a place where you can feel safe and warm and with the people you care about.”

He shook his head disbelieving and bewildered.

“Okay, you’re on. And thank-you.”

“Any chance you can make a few introductions? We’d like to talk to some of your companions.”

And that’s how we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening. Aaron held back a little, obviously uncomfortable around such people. The age old problem with men; if you’re seen with a certain group, then you get associated with them and risk being ostracised from your own circle of friends. He listened in though, and as each new acquaintance brought a fresh story of rejection for something they couldn’t help, he allowed himself to be drawn in, until he was asking more questions than me.

By the time we left his eyes were shining with unshed tears and he withdrew into a pensive silence. As we walked down the stairs together, I glanced across at him.

“Penny for them?”

“What?”

“I was wondering what has you looking so thoughtful.”

“Oh, it was all them upstairs. You know I never thought of them as being people; just something different to keep away from. I was angry with you earlier for dragging me into all that, but you know, they’re just like you and me underneath it all.”

“Where it counts, yes, they’re just like you and me. Better sometimes because when you have to live with persecution and hardship it makes you more sensitive to other people’s pain.”

“That’s why they was offering to leave even though they was attacked?”

“Yes. Good people. Not always, there are dickheads in every crowd, but not up there. Just ordinary, good people who are hurting.”

“Can I come with you when you go to look at the new place?”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

“Yeah, sure. I wanted you to come anyway because you did such a great job with this place; are doing such a good job I mean.”

“Well, you came through with your bit.”

We shook hands at the front door. All around people were pushing chairs and tables to the side and laying out sleeping bags. Aaron’s care for others in evidence, the fact that he couldn’t turn anyone away. I wanted to hug him, but I guessed that wouldn’t be so appropriate. There was something in the way he looked at me still, and I didn’t want to encourage his hopes.

-oOo-

Friday morning I dressed in something comfortable, fired up Mr Pinkie and set to on the phone with a renewed purpose. My first call was to Karen inviting her to lunch, then my next to Mike to make sure he brought enough for three, but afterwards I called ministers and businessmen, doctors and bankers, even news reporters and media contacts, jack-russelling each of them into submission, asking begging, demanding, whatever it took, until I had what I wanted. By the time both hands of my clock were pointing heavenward I had a meeting at the new building set for Monday morning, with a promise of it being available for decorating by the end of the week; I had the promise of seven small businesses coming in with their workers to run training courses for one or two mornings or afternoons a week; I had a mental health clinic with appropriate specialists promising to run sessions one day a week for any of the LGBT crowd staying at the separate wing I was planning in the new building; and I had a minister’s promise that the clinic’s time would be paid, at least in part, from one or another NHS budget, the rest potentially being covered by more standardised charitable gifts from the financially well off.

There were certain things I’d had to promise in return which would be challenging to achieve, many of which depended heavily on certain people in the media sitting me in front of the camera again. I’d would probably need to arrange a publicity stunt or two to get the TV channels interested again, but then that was part of the reason for inviting Karen to lunch.

I had just hung up the phone on my last planned call of the morning when the buzzer went. I walked downstairs to find Karen standing outside with a pot of daffodils in her hand, and Mike’s car just pulling up behind her. We did the air kiss thing that Karen seemed to prefer – I guess as you get older you become progressively more paranoid about mussing your makeup, afraid of the horrors that might show through – and I did the expected ‘ooh are these for me, you shouldn’t have, they’re lovely’ while we waited for Mike to park up and walk over.

“I hope you don’t mind. Mike usually comes over for lunch since we don’t have much time to see each other in the evenings. You did say you wanted to meet him anyway, and I doubt you had much time to talk that evening when he proposed.”

“No I don’t mind at all. How are your bruises?”

She held me at arm’s length and subjected me to a hypermetropic scrutiny.

“That’s one of the reasons I invited you over. I’m still not sure how much good your therapist did, but she reckons that what little colouring is left by Monday will be easily covered with makeup, so if you want me back up on the horse and leading the charge, I’m all yours again.

“Hi Mike, what do you have to enchant our appetites today?”

He leaned over to give me a very reserved – for him – peck on the cheek, probably overly conscious of today’s illustrious company.

“You know I’m sure you’re just marrying me for my cooking. I thought the stomach was the way to a man’s heart.”

Oh, it was so tempting to tease him on that one, but I hadn’t told Karen about that part of my past, and I wasn’t about to initiate her into my inner circle of ‘friends in the know’. Not now, possible not ever. I settled on a more traditional response.

“That and your money. One advantage of being that much younger. I stand to inherit so much”

I grinned at his mock outrage, and at Karen siding with him. I suppose if I was going to bring up age issues I shouldn’t be surprised when those of a certain generation banded together against me.

“Come on up, I’m starving.”

Mike managed to show off his usual culinary excellence by presenting us with a quite exceptional Thai curry. Being the middle of the day we limited ourselves to a half bottle of rosé between us and made up for the lack of booze with scintillating conversation. Karen started us off with a most original question.

“So how did you guys meet?”

I let Mike do the talking, partly because it was him Karen had wanted to get to know and partly because you can grow a whole new perspective on a person just by listening to them answer a question you know the answer to. How they word it, what they emphasise, the bits they leave out, it all goes to giving indicators on what’s important to that person and what’s not. I found nothing to complain about in Mike’s description.

We kept the topics light while we were eating, but as soon as the plates were empty, Mike cleared them into the sink and I put the Mighty Wurlitzer to work making the coffee. Yes I know that’s a pipe organ, but with all the wheezing and other weird noises, the analogy still holds.

Karen and I left the man to his suds, and the machine to its strange noises, and retired to the lounge where we sat and started to talk business.

Karen wanted me to handle a number of exhibitions and parties around the country and presented me with an itinerary that would have me out of the city for more than half of the next two months. It wasn’t something I could object to, after all it was written into my contract. I did try to negotiate a couple of dates that threatened to have me out of London over Mike’s birthday, but apparently the schedule had already been published so there was no room for manoeuvre. Mike overheard that part of the discussion – I suppose the familiar dates causing his ears to prick up – and stuck his head through the door long enough to say it was no big deal and we’d celebrate when we could.

With her business out of the way I summoned my inner rottweiler and presented my own proposal for her to get involved in my project. Karen shied away at first, completely unsure about what I was suggesting, but I wasn’t about to let this go; it was too good of an idea. After ten minutes, Mike appeared with a tray of coffees and a wry smile.

“It’s not worth it Karen, when she gets like this there’s no escape. You might as well give in now rather than wait for her to wear you down; it’s easier on the nerves.”

The double teaming thing worked and Karen finally caved with a promise to see what she could do. We chatted details for a little, and by the end I think she was genuinely coming round. Any speculation was cut short when her phone started clamouring for attention and she excused herself, hurrying out of the flat with it glued to her ear.

“That went well.”

Mike had a way with words sometimes. Concise, to the point, accurate.

“Yeah, shame about the travelling though. I mean I like the idea of getting around to see these places, but I see little enough of you as it is.”

“We’ll just have to find some other way of keeping in touch. It won’t be that bad, we’ll at least be able to speak to each other. Besides, they say having some time apart helps a relationship to grow.”

“Does it?”

“Either that or it causes it to fall apart.”

I reached over into his embrace and kissed him long and deep.

“That, my love, is never going to happen.”

-oOo-

Mike and I spent a languorous afternoon in each other’s arms. It felt good to lean against his chest and listen to the slow beating of his heart, to feel his strong arms around me, to feel loved and protected. It hardly seemed possible that he had been in my life for just a couple of months, he was such an integral part of it. The only time in recent memory when he hadn’t featured in at least part of the day was the previous Saturday, and then he had been with me as I woke the following morning. This was going to be different, difficult.

He was idly stroking me hair and probably completely oblivious to the effect it was having on me. Loving and being loved is much the same regardless of which side of the gender divide you stand, but there are some aspects that are different. As Ken, I had felt a sense of proprietary care for any girl who had given me more than the time of day. It wasn’t ownership – that would feel wrong on so many levels – but rather responsibility, like I had permission to look after and protect the person in my arms. As Liz the feeling was reversed, sort of a sense of submission, of giving up some of my autonomy. Old fashioned traditions dictated that the care of a woman be passed from a father to husband, and regardless of modern views, with feminism doing away with the need for a woman to have a protector, I wanted this. With each gentle stroke I found myself surrendering myself more completely to my man, and it felt wonderful.

“You know, if I were a cat, I’d be purring right now, and quite possibly dribbling all over you.”

He laughed, quietly, careful not to disturb me with any sudden movements.

“Cats are nice, but I’d rather have you the way you are.”

“What, mad and unpredictable?”

“And beautiful, and kind, and thoughtful, and generous, and…”

“Don’t stop.”

“Words don’t do you justice love.”

I twisted round to look up into his eyes and saw what he had no words to say. He reached down towards me and I reached up. Lips met in a soft, gentle caress.

He pulled away, leaned his forehead against mine, eyes closed, struggling with something.

“Mike?”

“I love you Liz, I didn’t realise what that truly meant before I met you. “

“And?”

“This feels like it’s leading somewhere, but I want our first time to be special, perfect. Would it sound odd if I told you I wanted to wait?”

I climbed up onto his lap, seated, not straddled, and gave him such a kiss. When oxygen deprivation forced us to surface I clung to his neck with all the meagre strength I had.

“You can be such a surprise sometimes you know? Odd, but only in the sense of unusual. Atypical. Different, but in a good way. You couldn’t have said anything more right just then.”

“I was worried…”

“I know, but no need. I’m sure one day we’ll find something new to disagree upon, but not today.”

He let out a long, relieved sigh. I was suddenly restless and bounced off his legs, spinning round to grab his hands and tug at them. The overall effect was spoiled by my lack of strength and body mass, resulting in a totally ineffectual attempt to haul him up after me.

“Come on, I’ve figured out what we can do with the rest of the afternoon.”

He allowed himself to be led but, I guess being a man, had to let it be known that he was only moving because he had decided to, not because I was pulling at him.

“Are you going to give me any clues?”

“It’s to do with keeping in touch while I’m away.”

I ran to the bedroom and striped off my sweatshirt and scruffy jeans. Well okay, they’re not really scruffy; everything I own is still nearly new and well cared for, but these were deliberately worn looking and loose and comfortable by comparison with the paint on, slightly elasticated ones that made up my more trendy-wear. I was rifling through my wardrobe wearing nothing but my frillies when Mike’s head poked through the doorway.

“Oh, sorry.”

He withdrew like a tortoise in an avalanche. It was almost a shame. I’d be giving him free access soon enough and I didn’t mind him looking.

“What did you think I was doing?”

“I think the operative word there is ‘think’. I wasn’t. Anyway, I did say clues. You know, plural? With an s?”

for_evil19My rummaging bore fruit as my hands fell on a simple dress patterned with autumn leaves on a white background. I pulled it on, along with same plain white tights and a pair of black pumps.

“Well, the telephone always seems a bit too impersonal to me. I like to see who I’m talking to, don’t you? Oh it’s safe by the way.”

His face peered cautiously through a crack in the door until he saw me fully dressed and sitting in front of my vanity, masking out the patches of purple and black.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking you’re thinking?”

“That depends if what I’m thinking you’re thinking I’m thinking is what I’m thinking. As a further clue, do you have a computer at home? For personal use I mean.”

“Well no, just the clunky old beast I use for the business.”

“Well that won’t do. That old nag is on its last legs and I wouldn’t want to risk your shop data by messing with it. I think it’s time for Mr Pinkie to finish his real life test and go in for SRS, which means she’s going to want a boyfriend just like what I got, and I have seen some just like her only in blue in that place down the road. You do have broadband don’t you?”

“Yes I think so.”

“You do ‘cos I was using it when I was round your place last week. What I don’t know is whether or not you’ve got wireless.”

Mike pulled out his mobile and hit a speed dial.

“Hi Sandy, is James there?

“James hi, it’s Mike. Our Internet connection. Do we have wireless. No hang on, I’d better pass you over to someone who speaks the same language.”

He handed me the phone and James gave me details of Mike’s setup. I’d about finished with my face and set about combing a few tangles out of my hair.

“Okay, sounds like we need to get you a wireless router as well. Come on let’s get you sorted.”

“Hang on, what if I don’t want a laptop and wireless whatever-you-said?”

“You don’t havean option, ‘cos while I’m away I want to be able to video conference you. That means Skype or something similar which probably wouldn’t run on your old dinosaur. If you have a wireless router and a laptop with a camera, you’ll be able to talk to me face to face from anywhere in the restaurant. Now, if for no other reason, isn’t that worth the trouble?”

Mike gave me an exasperated look which I returned with a bright smile.

“What was it you said to Karen? Might as well give in now rather than wait for me to wear you down?”

“No fair, I was trying to be supportive. You’re not allowed to use that argument against me.”

“All’s fair in love my dear.”

“Don’t you mean all’s fair in love and war.”

“Well that may be true, but if so, my statement holds as well.”

“Heaven help me, a woman who can do logic.”

“All women do logic sweetie, it’s just that simple men find it difficult to follow it in its more advanced forms.”

I put my brush down and gave myself a quick check over, front and sides.

“Good enough for jazz, as my dad used to say.”

I grabbed my handbag and my man and dragged them out of the room.

-oOo-

We took separate cars since we’d be heading back to the restaurant afterwards to set things up, and I wouldn’t be able to rely n Mike for a lift home. It didn’t take me long to gather the things we needed and pay for them. As we lined up at the check-out, a slightly bewildered Mike leaned over and murmured in my ear.

“Is this my engagement present then?”

“What a cheap old laptop that will be in the bin in three years’ time? Not a chance. When I buy you your engagement present, it will be something that will last a lifetime and will remind you of me every time you look at it. This is just in aid of keeping me sane while I’m away from you. You do want to keep me sane don’t you?”

“I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a bit late for that.”

I stuck my tongue out at him and handed my card over to the girl who had just rung up three modest figures on her till.

“Can you afford this?”

“I get a pretty decent salary and so far I haven’t had to spend anything on clothes, so I’d say so, yes. Now keep your nose out.”

Back at the restaurant, James and I replaced the elderly single-machine router with the wireless one. I was glad he was there. I’d set up my own internet connection as Ken, but I wouldn’t say I was any sort of expert. James, by contrast, was something of a whiz, and what would have probably taken me an hour or more, he managed in ten minutes.

A quick check showed that the old thunderer could still see the interweb, then in the time it takes to go through a first boot on a new computer, the laptop was running and online. Mike came and stole James away to get things ready for the evening’s customers, and I stayed on long enough to download and install Skype, set him up an account, test the sound and video and add my username to his list of friends. Before I left, I carried the machine down to the kitchen and put it on a table in the corner. It was still picking up the wireless signal, so I left it running with Skype in the background.

I interrupted Mike long enough to give him a kiss.

“If it makes a funny noise, click on the green telephone.”

He gave me a harassed nod and a quick smile, and I decided I’d better get out of his way.

It was a warm night so I drove home with the top down. The next time I picked up my hairbrush I was going to regret the indulgence, but for now all I cared about was the sheer delight of having the wind in my hair and Mike in my heart.

Back home, it was but a moment to coax the newly rechristened Miss Pinkerton into life and accept Mike’s Skype address. I thought of trying to call then and there, but the restaurant was just about to enter its busy period, so I suppressed the urge. There would be time enough later.

Hearing noises from across the corridor, I grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge and knocked on Sharon’s door.

“Hey sweetie, everything alright?”

“Everything’s perfect, except Karen’s sending me off on a tour of the British Isles so I’m not going to be around much over the next few months.”

She reappeared carrying two wine glasses and put them down on the table so she could give me hug.

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Not yet. I just got back from setting Mike up with Skype. I figured if I have to be away from him for days at a time, at least we’ll be able to keep in touch.”

“Smart move. I was just putting together some stuffed red peppers with feta cheese salad. Fancy joining me?”

So the threat of self-absorbed melancholy was averted, and Sharon and I managed a pleasant evening catching up on each other’s news. It seemed that she and Phil were more or less back to where they had been when I had become Liz. She had been dropping hints for about a week now, and was hopeful that sometime soon Phil would pop the question for a second time. I was excited for her, but at the same time concerned for Phil. I knew he still felt horribly guilty for what he had done to her and, I wondered if that was holding him back from trying a second time; worried perhaps that he might do something even worse. Maybe Auntie Liz needed to give him a gentle prod.

We found enough topics to keep chatting well into the night, then about eleven, she started making subtle yawning motions and I took the hint. Besides, things at the restaurant would be winding down and I wanted to try out the new technology on Mike. Back in my own flat I made myself a hot chocolate and settled onto the sofa with Miss Pinkerton on my lap.

Double click and wait. Silly Skype ringing noises repeating for a few seconds then… contact. Mike’s face was staring out of the computer screen at me. He looked over his should.

“What do I do now?”

“Look into the camera and talk to me you lummox.”

He looked back at the computer screen, eyebrows raised.

“That’s all there is to it?”

“Technology even you can appreciate.”

“I thought you would have called earlier.”

“Well I had things set up here about sevenish, but I figured you wouldn’t appreciate an interruption at that time so I went to see Sharon for a bit. I’ve just now come back. How was your evening?”

“Busy, but enjoyable. We tried a few new items on the menu this evening and they went down pretty well. We did have a couple of cancellations so it wasn’t quite as busy as we expected. How’s Sharon?”

“Doing well. Waiting for Phil to propose again. I’m wondering if he’s still on a guilt trip. I mean here we are, Friday evening and two beautiful girls alone at home. I have my excuse and I can live with it, but I can’t help wondering where Phil was tonight.”

“What are they doing tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, but I was planning on visiting the twins.”

“So you were, how about Sunday then? And would you like company tomorrow?”

“Hang on I’ll ask. And yes always, as long as you don’t mind doing a little shopping first.”

“Shopping?”

“Charley gave me a list, plus I would like to get him a prosthetic so he doesn’t have to keep stuffing socks down his front. I’d also like to get a few things to help Emily and that’s going to be a bit more delicate.”

“Ok, tomorrow, your place, early and down to the shops, then off to Kent. Go ask Sharon about Sunday.”

I put the computer to one side and went to knock on Sharon’s door again. She appeared in pyjamas with a toothbrush in her mouth and an enquiring look in her eyes.

“Mike and I were wondering what you and Phil had planned for Sunday.”

She swallowed her mouthful of foam. Yeah I know, not such a great idea, but in her defence she had limited options for getting rid of it otherwise.

“Phil’s on a course this weekend. He doesn’t finish ’til Sunday afternoon. About four I think.”

“Do you know where he’s gone?”

“Somewhere in Surrey, Guildford I think.”

“Fancy meeting him out there and going somewhere for a bite?”

“Yeah sure, sounds fun.”

“Cool. I won’t keep you up any longer. Mike and I are off to see the twins tomorrow, so if I don’t see you before, it’ll be Sunday morning.”

“Okay, goodnight.”

I suppose I can’t blame Sharon for being a bit offish. It was getting late and we had already said goodnight. Plus there was nothing we’d just discussed that couldn’t have waited until the following morning. I returned to Miss P and a patiently waiting Mike.

“Okay, we’re on for Sunday. Where do you know that’s good around Guildford?”

“I’ll give it some thought. Right now I think we both need to get to bed, especially if we’re up early tomorrow. What time do you want me round?”

-oOo-

Saturday started off more or less according to plan with Mike joining me for an early breakfast around eight o’clock. I’d decided to try my girly self out on the twins today and, after some deliberation, had settled on my Autumn Cloud dress. It was mainly for Emily, this. I wanted her to take on board the idea that being a girl could be fun. Maybe it was a bit OTT, but I hoped she’d see past the actual clothes to the evident enjoyment I took from wearing them. Mike approved the choice, and his approval put extra shine in my smile.

Breakfast done, we climbed into my little roadster and headed off for a rather seedy part of the city. A little Internet research the previous night had given me the address of a particular shop. They promised discretion, but what they meant by that was they had painted the windows black. Mike refused to come in with me so I was forced to venture forth on my own. I described what I was looking for to the Gothic hermaphrodite behind the counter, and discovered that it was called a soft packer. Various sizes and colours were presented for my consideration and I chose a modestly sized one which matched my skin tone.

When asked if I wanted to try it on I sort of stammered out that it was a gift for my transsexual twin sister. Yeah I didn’t really think that out and it got the smirk it deserved, along with the suggestion that since she was my twin sister, I could still try it on for her to make sure it fit properly. With a beetroot blush showing through my makeup I decided that the easiest way out of this was to go with the flow, which was how I ended up in a changing room with a very realistic looking, and feeling, false penis and testicles dangling between my legs – outside my knickers of course, I mean hygiene and all that.

It felt so weirdly wrong. There was an odd sense of familiarity, memories of how it had felt being Ken, and Ken wearing a dress at that. The prosthetic was comfortable enough and felt to be about the right size and weight, but it actually revolted me to feel myself completed in that way again. I couldn’t bear to leave it there any longer and retrieved it, physically shaken by the experience. I only hoped it would be better received by Charley.

When I went to pay for it, the odd little shopkeeper suggested a line of additional products I might be interested in, from a variety of dildos to several different shapes, sizes and qualities of vibrators. I didn’t think my blush could go any deeper and actually felt light headed with the amount of blood that had risen to the surface of my skin. I declined the suggestions and handed over a twenty to pay for the package I had come to collect. There was a surprising amount of change, the price being considerably lower than I’d expected.

I was glad to be out of the shop and breathing clean air again. I climbed into the car, dropped the new purchase behind my seat, and drove off as soon as I could, my rigid posture daring Mike to comment, laugh or even breathe in any way out of the ordinary. His self-preservation instincts were good though, and he survived the five minutes it took my mood to return to normal.

Next stop was a retail outlet where we quickly found all the things Charley had asked for. Emily was tougher, but I picked out a selection of things ranging from blouses and trousers to skirts, tights and dresses. I tried to focus on soft, sensuous fabrics in subdued but subtly feminine colours and styles. The sort of things that might encourage her to experiment without feeling that she was selling out her old life too readily. I added a pair of flat slip-ons which would go with pretty much everything I’d bought, and which said girl without screaming girly-girl in the way high stiletto heels would.

Mike reached the limit of his patience long before I had everything I needed and, whilst I could understand his frustration, I was unable to explain how important I felt it was to pick out just the right things. Eventually we escaped the mall and made it out to the motorway and round to the centre by mid-day. We’d have to leave by two-thirty to get Mike back in time to get to the restaurant, but two and a half hours would be more than enough time.

For a change I went to see Charley first. He took the proffered packages gratefully enough, but when he looked inside the brown paper bag that contained my first purchase of the day, the oddest expression took over his face. It seems bizarre to use such a term with someone who possessed such a beautiful, feminine body, but the word ‘unmanned’ sprung to mind. He rushed off with his spoils to indulge himself.

If ever I had any doubts about why I was doing this – helping two total strangers who just happened to look like me – the expression on Emily’s face was enough to banish them for good. There was both relief and delight in her smile, and she all but squirmed with anticipation as she jumped up to greet me.

“Wow, you look amazing.”

It was still a thrill when people said that to me, but we weren’t here for me.

“I know. And guess what? You can too.”

I began to unpack the things I’d brought her and something of the light faded from her eyes.

“I thought you’d prefer to start off with small steps. I mean these are all quite feminine, but a little subdued so you don’t feel like you’re standing out too much. There are still trousers if you don’t feel ready for skirts yet. We can take it at whatever pace makes you feel comfortable.”

“I’m going to sound awfully ungrateful…”

“Spit it out Em, I’m here for you whatever it takes.”

“Well I was kind of hoping with this I could go all the way. You know all or nothing kind of thing? I don’t suppose I could try your dress on?”

I looked down at myself with surprise.

“But I’ve been wearing this all morning. Wouldn’t you prefer something fresh, something new and all your own?”

“Maybe later. Can’t I just try it? I want to feel what it’s like to look as amazing as you.”

Wow, I never expected her to change this dramatically. What the hey, I’d said whatever it takes. I quickly stripped out of the dress and handed it to her, showing her how to put it on.

“What about tights? Did you bring any tights like the ones you are wearing?”

I handed her a packet of fresh, white tights from the bed, again showing her how to roll them up and slide them on.

“It’s actually easier to put the tights on first, you know before the skirt or dress, but it’s no big deal.”

She jumped over to the mirror that had been added to her room. There was something about the image that wasn’t quite right. I went over and touched the surface. Plastic not glass. I gave Em an enquiring look and she shrugged.

“Glass is too easily broken, and after last week I guess they don’t trust me. You must be cold, why don’t you put something on.”

I’d thought this was going to be a quick show and tell kind of thing, but it seemed she had other ideas. My turn to shrug as I picked up a powder blue dress and slipped into it.

“There’s something wrong, something missing. I still look too plain.”

I dug for my handbag and went to work on her face with my makeup kit.

“Hold still. This’ll feel a bit strange, but you get used to it… Here comes the lipstick, again don’t mind the taste; it’s not unpleasant, just odd.”

I finished my masterpiece and turned her back to the mirror. We looked like two peas. Well you know, not literally. I mean it was impossible to tell who was who.

“Can I try your shoes? They look like they might be fun.”

They weren’t much of a heel, maybe two inches. Whatever, we’d gone this far. I slipped them off and handed them over. She took a few awkward, tottering steps, a new-born giraffe finding its legs. After a couple of minutes she was walking like a pro. She ran over and hugged me and sat down next to me, looking down into her lap. The scars on her wrist had healed as much as they were going to but there were still thin white traces in evidence.

“I wish there was something we could do about these.”

I pulled out my compact. I mean it had hidden my bruises, why not Emily’s scars. Hey waddaya know, it worked.

We sat on the bed chatting about this and that, all the while her mannerisms becoming more girly. This really felt like it was going to work. I checked my watch. It was getting on for one o’clock and the others would be waiting for us to get some lunch.

“We’d better change back Emily and go and meet Charley and Mike for lunch.”

“Mike. He’s your boyfriend isn’t he?”

“Well my fiancé actually. He’s really sweet.”

“You know what would be a great laugh? Why don’t I pretend to be you for lunch and see if he notices?”

The small amount of discomfort I felt at the idea was washed away in Emily’s enthusiasm. If this was going to help her get over things, I guess there wasn’t any harm. I took off my watch and my angel wings necklace – still my favourite – and handed them to her, slid my feet into her new pair of flats, checked my own appearance in the mirror and turned to leave. She plucked my handbag from my arm with a mischievous grin.

“Gotta make it look good.”

It was oddly uncomfortable seeing Mike kiss Emily, and the disquiet inside grew inside me as we ate lunch together, Em leaning on Mike’s arm as though she belonged there. She was a consummate actress and would have convinced even me had I not known that I was me and not her. Time for this charade to end.

“Alright Emily, enough’s enough. I think we should change back now.”

“What do you mean Em? What are you saying.”

“I’m saying you’ve had your little joke, now I think we’d better change back.”

She stood up and waved at one of the orderlies scattered around the room. They were always there, I noticed, discrete but always close enough to intervene when necessary. The orderly came over and Emily spoke to him pointing at me.

“It’s my sister Emily, I think something’s wrong.”

“Emily. What are you doing?”

Shit, how had I allowed myself to make this mistake. Ice water trickled through my veins as I realised just how this must look to everyone else. I looked at Mike who loved me and knew me best, but even he was giving me odd looks.

“Mike it’s me, Liz. That’s Emily, we switched clothes to see if you could tell the difference.”

“Oh God, she really thinks she’s me.”

Like I said, consummate actress. The orderly took hold of my shoulders and I tried to shrug my way out of them.

“No, this isn’t happening. Please, you have to believe me. I’m Liz Raeburn, that’s Emily, my sister. We just switched clothes, can’t you see that?”

Another orderly hurried over, and a doctor brandishing a syringe.

“No, I… Please no. I’m her, she’s me. This isn’t right. Emily why are you doing this?”

I felt a sharp stab in my arm and the last thing I saw was Mike and Emily, and even Charley, looking at me with a mixture of fear and pity. Emily, clinging to Mike’s arm as if for support, betrayed the vaguest hint of a smile then the world faded into darkness.

-oOo-

Chapter 20

When I came to, I was lying on a bed wearing a white lace nightdress, with my ankles and wrists held in padded restraints. I could barely move and knew better than to try and struggle. I looked around the room, hoping to find a nurse or orderly sitting with me, but I was alone. The door was closed and, again, I knew better than to shout out.

How had I been so stupid, so gullible? Emily had seemed so genuine, and every little request, taking her just a little bit closer to taking over my identity. Like boiling a frog. Increase the water temperature slowly enough and it doesn’t notice, sits there quite happily unaware that it’s being cooked alive by slow degrees.

Then when she’d sprung her trap, or rather I’d sprung it I suppose, I’d panicked. There had been so many things I could have doneor said, that would have sorted the matter out, but those cold tendrils of fear had crept through me and strangled off any coherent thought processes.

Shit, she was out there with Mike now. He’d realise soon enough, when she didn’t know the way home or something. What would she do to him when he found out?

I looked frantically around for some way to get someone’s attention. I even tried calling out, but when no response came, I stopped. These cells were sound proofed and I knew I’d be wasting my time. I blinked back tears of frustration, tried futilely to find some weakness in my restraints, checked the room again for cameras, anything. There was nothing. Nothing I could do but wait and brood.

At the back of my mind a familiar voice returned.

“I told you they were mine. And now you are too.”

“No. You don’t know how to do anything but lie. You have no power here.”

“I don’t know if you noticed, but neither do you.”

“That’ll change. Do your worst, I’m not listening to you.”

The voice quietened, leaving the ghost of an echo of eerie laughter reverberating around my skull. It was right, I was powerless here. But not for long, not forever.

No windows, no way of telling how long I’d been under, or how long I’d been awake. It had to be Saturday afternoon still; I just wasn’t hungry enough to have missed a meal. Which meant, at the very least, someone would be coming soon to feed me. If I played my cards right I could hopefully persuade them of who I was. With nothing else to do, I lay back and started thinking through my options. What did I know that might help prove who I was?

Time drags when you have no way of measuring it. My estimate put it at a couple of hours – but it could as easily have been minutes or even days – before the door swung open and an orderly came in carrying a tray with a bowl of soup and bread roll. He put the tray to one side and pressed a switch to raise the upper part of the bed and put me in a sitting position.

“Please, I need to talk to Doctor Marston.”

“It’s Saturday Emily. You know he took today off for his daughter’s birthday party. He’ll be in on Monday, you can talk to him then.”

“Another doctor then. Whoever’s supposed to look after me while Doctor Marston’s away. It’s really important.”

“Yes it always is. Come on have some soup.”

I turned my head away from the proffered spoon.

“Listen please. I’m not Emily. I’m Liz. Emily persuaded me to change clothes to see if we could trick my fiancé. I know it was stupid, but she’s clever and persuasive.”

“Yes, like you’re being right now. Come on, you need to eat.”

The spoon made a dash for my mouth. I let it in, not wishing to risk my teeth against hard metal. Pea soup. Not my favourite. I swallowed it down and spoke again before he could feed me another mouthful of the revolting stuff.

“Look, Emily tried to commit suicide earlier in the week. She tried to slit her wrists on the bed frame. Look at my wrists. Why don’t I have any scars?”

He paused for a moment then let out a chuckle.

“You really are devious aren’t you? If your sister had been Emily in disguise she would have had scars on her wrists.”

“She did. She does. I covered them over with foundation. A bit like my face. I had an accident in my car last weekend, caught a face full of airbag. If you wipe the makeup off from around my eyes and nose, you’ll see some of the bruising that’s still there. Please, I’m not making this up and it would only take a second to check. Just look at my wrists please, then call the doctor.”

Apparently I could be persuasive too. The orderly put down the bowl and spoon and moved to check my wrists. I tried to help by pushing my arms down through the leather cuffs so that more of my wrists showed. He rubbed the part where the scars should have been, then licked his hand and rubbed again.

“For heaven’s sake man, you’d have felt them even if you couldn’t see them.”

“Shit.”

He looked at me for a second, genuinely scared, then sprinted from the room.

It took only a couple of minutes for him to return with the on call doctor, who examined my wrists then my face, wiping off enough makeup to reveal the last of the bruising. He looked at me, still not willing to believe.

“Look, when I came here the first time last Saturday, I was given a safety word. Phoenix it was, but I forget what the challenge word was. Evanescence or effervescence or something like that. I came back again on Thursday morning, but because Emily was in restraints and Charley had changed his appearance so much, I guess they felt they could forgo doing it again. Nobody thought about it today, myself included, but then I never guessed Emily could be this devious.

“You want further proof, go and talk to Charlie. Ask what gift I brought him today. He’s probably still got it stuffed down the front of his PJs.”

It still took time, protocols to be followed and all that. Calls were made and eventually Doctor Marston turned up looking upset at having his weekend messed up. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy given the way my own was going. I started to give him a description of what had happened and my proofs of who I was, but he was already doing his own examination. I barely had a chance to begin before he made up his own mind and removed the restraints.

“I need a phone. I have to call Mike.”

The doctor took me to his office and waved at the instrument.

“Nine for an outside line.”

I punched in the relevant numbers. The clock on the wall said it was seven thirty. He wouldn’t be happy, but there was no helping this. The phone was answered on the seventh ring.

“Mike’s place.”

“James hi, it’s Liz. Is Mike there?”

“Yes but very busy at the moment, can you call back later?”

“This can’t wait James, I’m sorry.”

There were a few moments of muffled conversation then Mike came on the line.

“Liz this really isn’t a good time.”

“Oh, thank God you’re ok.”

“What’s happened? What’s the matter?”

“Mike, that really was Emily you took away from the institute with you this afternoon.”

“What? Shit!”

“I was afraid she’d do something to you after you figured it out, but you didn’t did you? I don’t understand how you didn’t realise it wasn’t me.”

“I thought something was off, but just put it down to you being upset about how things had gone with Emily. I mean… Oh sod it. You, that is she, said she was too upset to drive, gave me the keys. I drove her to your flat and left her there. I just thought you… she… were… was bothered about how the visit had ended. I mean sure I noticed a difference, but I never twigged it wasn’t you. Shit, I am so sorry. Are you alright?”

“I am now. I was terrified for a while, but things are getting sorted out. I’m more scared for Emily now, and I’m glad you’re alright. Sorry to interrupt you at your busiest love, but I had to know you were okay. Go back to what you’re doing, I’ll call you later when I get home.”

“Okay, you’re sure you’re alright? You don’t need me to come out to you or anything?”

“I’ll be fine. Have a word with Doctor Marston, he’ll tell you.”

The doctor took the phone for the brief moments it took to reassure him then handed it back to me.

“Like I said I’ll call you. Get back to your cooking before you burn something. I promise I’ll call later.”

I put the phone down and turned to the doctor. With Mike’s safety assured, there was something else I had to sort out; something which, the more I thought about it, the angrier I became.

“Thank-you doctor. Now perhaps you’ll help me find out what happened to my engagement ring?”

He blanched visibly. The implications and ramifications of that particular oversight could go a long way.

“SOP to remove any sharp objects from disturbed patients. Should be able to find out what happened to it easily enough. Mystery is why the hell nobody questioned what it was doing on your finger.”

“Recriminations can wait Doctor. I’m going back to Emily’s room to find some clothes to wear. That should take me about ten minutes. Any chance I can have my property returned to me by then?”

“Rest assured, but then need to find your sister. Dangerous, to herself and others right now.”

“Well Mike dropped her off at my flat a few hours ago, but she probably won’t have stayed there. Still it’s a starting point.”

“Where would she go?”

It didn’t take much thinking

“Home. The phone call she made on Thursday was to her mother.”

“Her mother?”

Oh shit that should have been our mother, but then I couldn’t go down that route. This was going to get complicated. Think Liz. He’s off balance now because of what happened to me, but if I give him reason to believe that I’m nuts he might just arrange for me to have a permanent bed here. I don’t think he’s that self-serving, but I’ve already badly misjudged one person so far today. I improvised madly.

“It was one of our neighbours when we were growing up. Em never could talk to Mum or Dad about anything, so she made friends with a lady across the street. They hit it off so well we used to call her Em’s other mum. Emily told me she tried to call her on Thursday. It didn’t go well and I think may have kicked off her suicide attempt.”

“Do you have an address?”

“No, but don’t you have call logs? Can’t you get the number from them? Trace the address from the number?”

He sat down at his desk and tapped away at his computer for a minute, then picked up the phone and dialled.

“Hello? Mrs… Bailey. Mrs Bailey, my name is Doctor Marston, I’m a clinical psychologist. One of my patients managed to get out of the institute earlier today. Have reason to believe she might be coming to you. Name of Emily Raeburn.”

Shit this was about to get complicated again. The doctor looked up at me confused.

“Says she doesn’t know anyone by that name. How come?”

I indicated for him to give me the phone, which he reluctantly did.

“Hello Mrs Bailey?”

“Speaking.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you Mrs Bailey. My name’s Liz Raeburn, you may remember me?”

“From the telly a few weeks back?”

“Yes that’s right. This is sort of complicated to explain, but my twin sister, Emily, is a little bit disturbed and has been staying in a mental institution for the past few weeks. She managed to get out todays and we believe she may be on her way to you right now.”

“Why would she do that?”

“She was friends with your son.”

I hated lying, and this felt like walking a tightrope, trying to say what I needed to to Paul’s mother without giving away that I had never met her. By the look on Doctor Marston’s face, I wasn’t doing that good a job. Time to cut things short.

“Mrs Bailey, it would be helpful if we could come and see you. Would you mind giving me your address?”

The doctor handed me a pen and paper and I wrote down the name of a street in Grays, just the other side of the Thames. A moment’s Google later and we had the route and an estimated travel time.

“Mrs Bailey, it looks like it will take us about half an hour to get to you, would it be alright if we came to see you?”

“Just one moment dear, that was the door.”

There was a clunk as she put the phone down and a muffled conversation followed. I couldn’t be certain, but one of the voices sounded like…

“Hello? Are you still there? I’m sorry I’m going to have to hang up now, I have a visitor.”

“Mrs Bailey, is Emily with you at the moment?”

“Yes that’s right dear.”

I hissed the news to Doctor Marston who snatched the phone from my hands

“Mr’s Bailey. No need to worry. Emily isn’t dangerous, but may say some things you might find disturbing. Please try to keep calm. Will alert the police to come to you as soon as possible. May take a little time, but if you can keep calm, things will work out fine. Hopefully within the next hour.”

He listened to her response and nodded in approval before hanging the phone up then stabbing the keypad three times with his finger. My missing ring seemed insignificant compared to what was going on twenty miles away. He asked for the police and gave his name and the name of the institution, adding that there was an escaped patient. He was put through to someone very swiftly indeed.

He spoke in his typical terse manner, passing across the who, what, when, where and why of Emily as far as we knew, then stated his intention of driving up to take custody. Again a nod and the phone was back in its cradle.

“Police on their way now. Unless things get unpleasant in the house, they shouldn’t interfere until we get there or they have a negotiator on site. We should be able to beat them. I’m assuming you want to come with?”

“As long as I can go and get dressed first.”

“Ten minutes you said. I’ll see what I can find out about your property in the meantime.”

for_evil20_bigI headed, with orderly in tow, back to Emily’s room where I put on the same powder blue dress from earlier. My tights were balled up in the bin, showing evidence of having been removed none too carefully. I put on a new pair from Emily’s wardrobe, slipped my feet into her flats and headed back to the doctor’s office where he was holding up my precious diamond and sapphires.

“In the safe, logged with paperwork. Will be asking a few pointed questions on Monday. Heads will roll. Wouldn’t blame you if you took us to court over this.”

“Let that be Monday’s problem. Right now we have to get to Emily.”

“Car’s waiting outside. Sure you’re going to be warm enough in that?”

The dress was backless with a halter top and Em had taken my own jacket when she left with Mike. My long hair would protect most of my back but, since I hadn’t thought to buy Em a jacket or even so much as a cardigan, I’d have to cope with the bare arms.

“I don’t have many options here Doctor, but I should be alright as long as you don’t have a daft soft topped sports car like mine.”

He exchanged his white coat for something more appropriate to the outdoors and even managed to borrow a light jacket for me. It wouldn’t win me any fashion awards – not for good taste anyway – but at least I was warmer. In the end I needn’t have worried about the doctor’s car, as he had a top of the range Lexus, the high tech aircon bringing the car up to comfortable temperature in next to no time.

-oOo-

The car was almost impossibly quiet as it sped smoothly and effortlessly down the motorway. Doctor Marston glanced over at me, a shrewd, calculating look in his eye.

“A few words about what happened? Off the record?”

“Doctor, I’m not in a fit state of mind to discuss what happened right now, there’s every possibility I might say something both of us are likely to regret.”

“Then don’t say anything. Just listen, okay?”

I wasn’t ready for this, didn’t want it, but I was too tired to argue. I shrugged and nodded reluctantly. The doctor gave a few moments over to ordering his thoughts then launched.

“No two ways about this, we screwed up here big time. Well within your rights to bring a law suit against us, and if you do, what we have left after paying you won’t be enough to get us through the damage to our reputation. You’re angry now, and rightfully so. Shit, I’m angry and some people will lose their jobs over this. Not to appease you, but because they screwed up protocol so badly. We… fuck! Can’t even make myself say all the things we did wrong.

“What you decide will set the future for the institute. Usually a good judge of character, or so I’m told. Think good things of you so laying breast bare. Strike or not, your choice. Will settle out of court, anything reasonable.

“Don’t answer now. Understand you’re still angry. Not the best time to make decisions; respect that. Just want you to know. When you’re ready, rather talk than go to the mattresses.”

He hadn’t said a thing about my own bad judgement in the affair. That I had agreed to swap identities with Emily, even for a joke, was the height of stupidity on my part. The only black hat here was Emily, the institute as much a victim as I was, its staff no more guilty of bad judgement than me. I felt the anger draining away, some of the tension leaving my body. In a way it was a relief.

“Okay, we talk about it. I will want to bring someone in to represent me, but I have no immediate intention of going public.”

The fizz of tension dissipated as Doctor Marston let out a long relieved sigh. Odd how such an atmosphere can grow without your noticing and only make itself known as it leaves.

“I never understood that phrase, ‘going to the mattresses’. Sopranos isn’t it?”

He looked at me oddly for a moment, but then realised that perhaps it was best to shift to safer, more neutral topics.

“Godfather films as well. But originates in sixteenth century Italy. Guy called Michelangelo Buonarroti. Hung mattresses from one of the towers in Florence. Protect it from cannon fire. Phrase means going to all-out war. Rather avoid that.”

“Well I think we should be able to.”

“Grateful. Was hopeful we could.”

Evidently the tension hadn’t totally subsided and the next few minutes passed in silence. Something told me this was Doctor Marston’s preferred mode; that the extent to which he had talked this evening was beyond his comfort zone.

It wasn’t that comfortable a silence as my mind kept racing down different paths. What had I done wrong? Had there been any other indication that Emily had been playing me for a fool? Why the hell would she do this after all the progress she’d been making? What might she have done to Mike, or even Sharon had she popped across when Emily arrived home? What was Em doing now? Would the police managed to corner her? Was Paul’s Mum alright? The questions kept coming, but none of the answers.

I wanted to call Mike, but Emily had my phone. I looked at my wrist only to recall that she had my watch as well. I glanced around the dashboard. Eight thirty, things’d be busy, but at a guess he would be worrying.

“Do you have a mobile phone I can borrow?”

Doctor Marston fished in his pocket and handed it over. It was one of the fancier, modern touch-screen doodads and it took me a few moments to figure out how to unlock it and bring up a keypad. Eventually I had it ringing.

“Mike’s place.”

“Hi Sandy, it’s Liz. Look I know you’re busy, but just in case Mike’s climbing a wall somewhere.”

“Hang on I’ll get him.”

Barely two second later.

“Liz. Shit, I’m so sorry, I should have known it wasn’t you. I feel so crap.”

“Mike don’t. She was a really good actress. We’ll talk about it later ok?”

“I’ve been trying to think if she did or said anything that should have given me a clue, but… Well she seemed so upset after your outburst. I…”

“Mike.”

He stopped mid flow.

“Can we talk about this later, you know face to face? I hate using phones to do this.

“I was just calling to let you know what’s going on. Emily has surfaced. The last we heard she was with her mum. You know Em called her last week just before she tried to slit her wrists? The police are involved now and will keep an eye on the house ’til we get there; I’m driving up with Doctor Marston as we speak. I don’t know what time I’ll be home, but I’ll call you later when I can.”

“Ok, any time. I’m not going to be able to sleep ’til I hear from you anyway. I love you.”

I knew he needed to hear those words from me too, but things were churning over so much inside I wasn’t sure what I felt. I wasn’t going to be able to say them with conviction. I looked down at my ring and blinked back tears. How much was Emily going to cost me? I tried to make light of it.

“Don’t go poisoning someone on account of me will you? I’ll call you later.”

I hung up before things became too awkward and handed the phone back. The good doctor gave me another of his sidelong glances.

“Shouldn’t be too hard on him. She took us all in after all.”

He hadn’t even been there. But then again, I guess her actions this evening had come as much of a surprise to him as to the rest of us.

“Mike should have known it wasn’t me.”

“Why? Some mystical connection? She looked like you, dressed, smelt, acted like you. Why should Mike be any less taken in than the rest of us?”

Anger broached an otherwise calm surface.

“Because he knows me. Because we’re in love and he should have felt something. Something not right…”

“Crap. Used to know a couple of identical twins. Swapped boyfriends all the time, then got angry with them because they didn’t notice. How long have you known him? Mike?”

“A few months.”

“Five years, maybe ten, then he’d maybe pick up the subtle differences. Few months, not a chance. Don’t let this ruin what you have with him.”

“How can I help what I’m feeling?”

“Forgiveness is an act of the will. Nothing to do with feelings. Decide in your mind if Mike meant to do this.”

“Well of course he bloody well didn’t.”

“Then it was a mistake. Tell me you haven’t made any.”

I thought back to the first evening I’d met Mike and kept my mouth shut. Doctor Marston took that as an answer and continued.

“Mistakes should be forgiven. He didn’t mean to hurt you, most likely feels awful about it. Needs to know that you forgive him.”

“It’s not that simple Doc.”

“Why not? Afraid he’ll do it again? Afraid he’s not as good a man as you first thought? Okay, if he’s not good enough for you, understandable that you should drop him, but for this? Mike isn’t such a failure for falling with the rest of us.”

I flashed angry eyes at him.

“Who said Mike was a failure?”

“Implied. Either he did this deliberately – you say not – or he’s a big fuck up for not noticing what none of us noticed. Or this isn’t such a big deal after all and you should give him a break.”

I resented being told I was wrong; all the more because I knew he was right. I was angry and I realised he was taking away my target. Well if he was volunteering.

“You know you have a real foul mouth on you Doctor.”

“Happens when I’m stressed. Apologies.”

He reached into his pocket and handed me his phone again.

“Call him again. Tell him what he needs to hear.”

“You think you’re so bloody smart don’t you.”

“Don’t think. Know. And who’s got the potty mouth now?”

I didn’t care for his smirk, but he was right. I dialled the restaurant again.

“Mike’s place.”

“Hi Sandy, I need to talk to Mike for thirty seconds please.”

She muffled the phone and yelled for him, then came back on.

“He’s just coming. Are you guys having a fight?”

“Hopefully only for another thirty seconds.”

There was the usual muffled incoherence as the phone was passed across and Mike’s voice was back on the line.

“Liz?”

“Mike. I… There’s something I should have said a minute ago.”

I wrapped my mind around the words. I was still angry, still more than a little upset that he hadn’t been the knight in shining armour to come and rescue me, but that was more about my expectations than him. The doctor was right and my anger did need a different target. The words felt right. I could mean them.

“Mike, I love you.”

The silence that followed stretched to the point of discomfort. I caved first.

“Mike?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

There was something strangled about his voice.

“Are you ok? You sound…”

“I’m fine Liz. Now I’m fine. Thank-you.”

Another silence, but one of communion this time.

“I should let you get back to your customers.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Don’t forget to call me later.”

“I won’t. I love you.”

“Yeah, you said.”

“Just thought I should make sure.”

“I love you too. Bye.”

“Bye.”

That last was almost a whisper, and the feelings I thought had died came flooding back and leaking out through my eyes.

-oOo-

The Doctor left me to my silent, peaceful musings for a while, waited until I was palming the tears from my eyes before he spoke.

“Tissues in the glove box.”

I retrieved them gratefully then flipped the mirror down. Yes the damage was as bad as I’d thought. Bruises showing through where the foundation had been wiped away, puffy eyes and smeared rivulets where tears had run and cut crevices through the warpaint. The tissues were impregnated with aloe vera, so slightly moist. I used a couple of them to wipe the worst of the mussed makeup off and a couple more to sooth my eyes. Eventually I decided I’d done the best of a bad job with limited tools and put everything away. The Doctor gave another of his thoughtful glances. I was beginning to dread them.

“Go for the hat-trick?”

“What do you mean?”

“Not sure you’ve been completely truthful. About Emily and Charley.”

“In what way?”

“Nothing substantial. Little things you say here and there. Hints that there may be more to the story. Need honesty from you if I’m going to treat them properly.”

I looked out the window at the countryside passing in the dark. There was enough moonlight to pick out silhouettes of trees and bushes, and a few stars peeking through the light haze. How could I answer his question safely. I took my time over my deliberations and the doctor left me to my silent brooding. Eventually I had my plan of battle and marshalled my arguments.

“What would you say if I told you the truth involved magic and angels and demons, Doctor?”

He laughed.

“Not sure, are you likely to?”

“Do you dismiss out of hand that such things exist?”

“Never seen evidence to suggest that they do.”

“You could argue that the Bible is evidence. It contains historical and biographical stories that speak of angels and demons as real entities, and describes miracles if not magic.”

“Ah Christian. Explains a bit. Sorry, religious claptrap. Superstitious mumbo-jumbo.”

“And just how to you get away with justifying an opinion like that?”

“People always been interested in understanding and explaining their experiences. When faced with something they can’t, tend to make something up. Elaborate stories of creatures with abilities and minds beyond our comprehension, that sort of thing. Religion is at best gullible, primitive minds trying to make sense of a world they don’t understand, and at worst the writings of manipulative opportunists seeking to promote themselves in the eyes of the aforementioned.”

It was the longest sentence the doctor had ever said in my presence and had something of a pre-prepared quality about it; almost a mantra in its own way.

“Just how many religious texts have you read Doctor?”

“None. Better things to do with my time.”

“So where did your opinions come from? And just how can you expect anyone to respect them if you haven’t researched the topic properly?”

“Not sure I care. My opinion derives from observations of people and of history. Personal views, so don’t need to justify holding them to the world.”

“It make it hard to argue with you Doctor. Not so much because you’re right – I would dispute that in any case – but you refuse to entertain any other opinion. I do feel sorry for you though.”

“Sorry? Why so?”

“The most stiff and unbending opinions are also the most brittle. They’re the most painfully broken and hardest mended when they are shattered.”

The doctor shook his head.

“Not at all sure how we got here. Weren’t we talking about how truthful you were being with regards to Emily and Charley?”

“Doctor what I’ve told you about Emily and Charley is as much truth as you can handle.”

The motorway widened into a dozen lanes feeding through toll booths. The doctor broke away from the conversation long enough to rummage through his pockets for some coins. I couldn’t help again since my own purse was in Emily’s possession. He found the correct change and joined one of the faster moving lanes, throwing the money into a hopper and easing back into the mad rush of twelve lanes narrowing back down to four before plunging into one of two twin lane tunnels.

“Our exit is just the other side of the river Doctor. It would have been easier in the left hand tunnel.”

“We’ll manage.”

The traffic was slow in the tunnel. Stopping and starting at first, then easing into a gentle amble. I was favoured by yet another of the good doctor’s speculative glances. Steeling myself for whatever topic he was going to raise next, I made myself a promise to think twice before sharing a car with him again.

“So what now? You and Emily I mean. How will you move on?”

There was a question and a half. How could I move on? Before this afternoon, I’d thought of Emily with affection and hope. I’d felt we were making progress, that with just a few weeks more effort, she’d be far enough along the road to recovery that we could leave the hospital and re-introduce her to the world. Now when I thought of her, all I remembered was the way she had betrayed my trust. That and the wicked, knowing smile she had given me before leaving me to her own hell.

“I really don’t know doctor. I mean I still want to help her, but I can’t without some level of trust, and I since she’s broken what we had so completely, I don’t know where we can go from here.”

“Trust is very much like forgiveness; an act of the will. Can be misplaced of course, so offer a word of advice?”

“Of course Doctor. Anything to help me sort out these feelings.”

“Situation is a little bit like you and Mike. Need to start off by deciding why she did what she did. If deliberately malicious, you need to withdraw. Back off completely because she will only abuse whatever you give her next time. Give her a chance to see that you’re the best thing she has going in her life, then when she asks for you, give her a chance to rebuild the trust. When she’s ready to earn it then you can decide to offer it again.

“On the other hand, if today is a one off, bad day sort of thing, might be worth giving her a second chance. You keep pets Miss Raeburn?”

The non sequitur threw me for a moment.

“My neighbour has cats, but I’ve never been one for pets.”

“Used to have a dog once. When she grew old she developed arthritis. Had good days and bad. On the bad days she would try to bite if you came too close, on the good she was grateful for the attention; could see it in her eyes. I learned to be wary of the thing that was causing her to be vicious, but still to show her affection when I could. Wasn’t her fault she gave into weakness and outside influence.”

I looked at the doctor with renewed respect, seeing for the first time the reason he had risen so high in his profession.

The traffic picked up speed and we exited the tunnel. The street lights illuminated the enormous concrete pylons of the QEII Bridge carrying a constant stream of vehicles south across the river high above our heads. Our two lanes joined the two to our left. The doctor eased over into the left most lane just as it fed off onto a large roundabout. We drove into the maze that is Thurrock and conversation lapsed as my companion turned his attention to the directions coming from the satnav.

-oOo-

We pulled up on a narrow street of terraced houses, its pavement crowded with cars. Further down the road was a large police van and a large number of policemen in what looked like riot gear, carrying automatic rifles. We found a space and parked up. One of the policemen stood out from the others by his air of command more than anything else. Having spotted him, Doctor Marston made a beeline directly for him, leaving me to follow in his wake.

“Name’s Doctor Marston. I called this situation in. What the hell are you doing here with guns?”

The man in charge turned to us and introduced himself.

“Sergeant Fenton sir. We appreciate your assistance in bringing this situation to our attention, but this is a police matter now, so if you would be so good as to stay back sir.”

“Sergeant, the young lady in that house is a patient of mine. She is not a criminal, not armed and in no other way dangerous. I intend walking in there and persuading her to leave with me. I would appreciate you and your men staying back and out of sight while I do so. Miss Raeburn here is the patient’s sister and she will be accompanying me into the house.”

The sudden clarity of his speech leant him a greater degree of authority. The sergeant bridled a bit at the doctor’s manner, but he knew when he was outmatched. He swallowed his own gut response and nodded his head just once.

“You heard the man lads. Keep your eyes on points of egress and stand ready for my word. Doctor, I can’t say I’m happy about this, but go right ahead.”

He ushered us through and we approached the front door of Mrs Bailey’s home. The windows were clean but the paint had peeled and was worn through to bare wood in places, showing an odd mix of care and neglect. The doctor rapped smartly on the frosted glass.

An elderly lady with a vaguely bewildered expression opened the door a crack and peered through.

-oOo-

“Yes?”

“Mrs Bailey? We’re here to speak to Emily. My name is Doctor Marston and this is Elizabeth Raeburn, Emily’s twin sister.”

“You’d better come in.”

Somewhat trance-like, Mrs Bailey took the door off its chain and opened it wide enough for us to step in. She indicated the living room and we followed the line of her finger. Emily was sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea in her hands. The smile on her face held a boldness and confidence I hadn’t seen before.

“Ah Doctor, Liz. I must say you took your time, but now you’re here we can begin.”

There was something about the way she spoke that filled me with a chill. Something was very wrong here. Doctor Marston seemed oblivious.

“Emily what is this? Why run away? Why come here? You were doing so well, and now this.”

“Please sit down Doctor, I’ll explain everything. Cup of tea?”

The doctor and I both shook our heads, but sat as invited. The bad feeling was getting worse.

“You see Doctor, this past few weeks have been a nightmare for me, and as I look back over them, it seems to me that the three people most responsible for my misery are you three.

“Now as luck would have it, I have been offered an opportunity, not only to escape from the horror my life has become, but to get a little bit of revenge into the bargain. Revenge on every girl who ever slighted me, and more particularly, revenge on the three of you.”

“What are you talking about Emily? What is this nonsense?”

“No nonsense Doctor as you will see in a very short while. You see, your blind inability to accept anything outside of your limited perception of the world is what kept me in your care in the first place. You took my insistence that I am really a man as an indication that I was seriously disturbed and locked me away, leaving me, at a time when I really needed someone to believe me and to help me, isolated from anyone who could. It’s been brought to my attention that, in your case, a fitting revenge would be to see your perfect little world of logic and science shatter in the face of something you have no hope of explaining.”

It’s been brought to my attention? Who by? Oh shit, he hadn’t…

“Which brings me onto my dear mother.”

Emily, or Paul as it seemed now, stood and stepped closer to the elderly lady, cupping her cheek in his hand.

“You see there are times when children need their mothers, even when they’re full grown and independent. The world throws such a bizarre mix of experiences at us, and sometimes we need someone we love to accept us and comfort us.

“My own sweet mother failed to do just that. She doesn’t know me even now. So don’t you think a fitting response would be for her to experience the same gut wrenching changes in her own life? To be turned into something that even her family and friends wouldn’t know, and to have to deal with the changes alone and uncared for?”

I had to try and stop this.

“Paul, you don’t have to do this; any of this. Everything he tells you is a lie.”

Mrs Bailey looked between me and my twin.

“Why are you calling her Paul? Why do you keep calling me mother?”

“Let me show you mother dear. And you sit there, little Liz, the best is yet to come and it’s all for you.”

He reached forward and planted a delicate kiss on his mother’s lips.

From the outside the change looked like a cheap visual effect; a blurring of features as size and shape changed, both figures growing taller, broader.

Mrs Bailey’s permed grey hair receded to a short crop with a bald area reaching across the top from her forehead. Her face grew, showing bolder bone structure and more pronounced jowls. Her lips thinned, but remained marked with a now incongruous streak of red lipstick. Her chest flattened and broadened at the same time, straining the buttons of her blouse, but not quite breaking the threads. Her hands and feet grew, as did her legs, showing hairs through her stockings, and a bulge appeared under her skirt.

“What is happening to me?”

The voice broke and deepened as she spoke. In just a few seconds, an elderly man sat where she had been a moment before, wearing the same clothes, now stretched uncomfortably tight.

A similar change had happened to Emily/Paul, only he had grown by six inches and his shoulders had widened in proportion. The delicate fabric of my once favourite dress tore as his new body grew too large to be contained by it. Emily’s long auburn curls shrunk to a smart, black, short back and sides with a side parting. Her once delicate, elfin features turned craggy and handsome, but twisted into ugliness by an evil grin and the intense hatred in his eyes.

Doctor Marston was transfixed with horror at the impossibility of what had occurred. Everything he had been so certain about regarding the world around him, everything that made up the foundation of his understanding and belief, lay utterly shattered by the event he had just witnessed, and he sat, eyes wide, mouth slack and hanging open, staring incredulously at the two transformed people in front of him.

Mrs Bailey stood awkwardly as though she had just spilt something down her front, stunned into silence and with arms and legs held apart, she looked down at what had become of her body. Each attempt at speaking stuttered to a halt as a stranger’s voice spoke her words. She caught sight of Paul’s new body and stared in dumb, open mouthed disbelief at her son. Her mouth shaped his name, but no sound came out.

The person I had come to know as Emily, now most definitely Paul, turned towards me, careless of the rags now hanging off him, and moved slowly towards where I sat.

“And now the last and best of it. You wanted to change me into a girl…”

“You were a girl. I was just trying to find a way to help you adjust. I only wanted to help.”

“But you knew what could help didn’t you? You said it yourself when you spoke of the voice, that it was real?”

“Nothing that voice has done has been for good. It lies. It tried to get you to kill yourself…”

“And when I decided to speak to it, to listen to it, it offered me a way out. A way that you knew about. A way that you could have suggested to me. But no, you have so embraced this becoming a girl thing in your own life, you wanted someone like yourself to share it with didn’t you? That’s why you brought me those dresses and skirts and things, to turn me into your cute little twin sister so that we could go shopping together and have girl’s nights out, going to chick flicks, picking up boys together. That’s what you wanted isn’t it? To turn me into something I never wanted to be?”

“All I wanted was to help you cope with what had been done to you. I thought you could adapt, learn to live with the changes, even learn to enjoy them.”

“Well you were wrong.”

He spat the words at me, rage flaring to incandescence as he reconnected with the testosterone now flooding his body again. With some effort he calmed himself. That ugly, selfish, self-satisfied grin returned to his face.

“You were wrong, and now I have the most delicious of revenges for you. You wanted to change me into a girl against my will, now let me do the same for you. Let me turn you back into the man you once were.”

I was struck by paralysing terror as he moved in towards me, his lips parted slightly in preparation for the kiss I knew would shatter all the wonders and delights my new life had brought me.

-oOo-

Chapter 21

All my terror condensed into an ear-splitting scream and, with its release, I found my body obeying my commands again. By then it was too late though, Paul had closed on me and was holding my wrists in a vice like grip. He had planned this out well. First incapacitate the other two through his little monologue and the transformation of his mother, then come at me with his renewed male strength. Well he still had one weakness.

Fear was draining the strength from my body and I had to act quickly while I still could. I brought my foot up between his legs with all the force I could find, wishing for something a little more battle-worthy than than the soft leather of my flat slip ons.

Paul imploded under the attack, his grip weakening enough for me to pull my arms free. I twisted out from under him and backed towards what I hoped was a door. He recovered more quickly than I hoped he might and cut me off, steering me into a corner.

“You fucking bitch. I am going to screw you before I turn you now.”

He lunged at me, pushing me down onto the floor. My legs collapsed under me and I fell heavily, tears of helplessness and hopelessness streaming down my face. Rough hands reached under my dress and tore away at my underwear. All I could see was the savage glee in his eyes. This couldn’t be happening. I was going to lose everything. I succumbed to the despair of my imminent doom; the violent, tearing violation that would rip my soul more deeply than it could ever tear my body, then to be forced back into being Ken even before the blood stopped flowing. The world caved in around me and I heard myself screaming all over again.

How could I go back to being Ken now? What would be left of my life with Mike, with Karen, with Aaron and the others?

There was a loud crash and the front door all but flew off its hinges. The room filled rapidly with dark blue uniforms.

“Armed police. Back away. Hands where I can see them.”

The commands barked out, filled with such authority that even Paul, lost in his vengeance, froze momentarily. He saw his chance at the revenge he wanted slipping from his reach. With a snarl of rage he made a last desperate lunge at me. Contorting under him, I managing somehow to bring my arms up between us, to twist out of reach of those questing lips. It would only keep him from me for another second. The last of my strength had all but fled from me and I had never felt so vulnerable, so completely unable to help myself.

I can only be thankful for the police presence that day. When we’d first arrived, I’d felt the same as Doctor Marston , that an armed response, and in those numbers, was completely over the top for the apprehension of a single, unarmed, non-violent (until this evening that is) little girl. The policeman nearest me, having taken the time to assess that he didn’t need to use his firearm, ran forward, barrelling into my assailant and jamming him against the wall. The air was knocked out of him and he collapsed in a stunned heap beside me.

“Are you alright miss?”

A different policeman offered his hand, the gentleness in his voice and manner so much at odds with the violence of the previous moment.

“Just get me away from him. Don’t let him come near me.”

There was hysteria bubbling in my voice. When I thought how close I had come to losing everything, just on the twisted whim of someone I had thought of as a friend, even a sister.

“Don’t worry miss, where he’s going, he won’t be able to touch you for a long time.”

“You have to keep him away from women. Not just me but all women. Please promise me, you have to keep him away from girls.”

I was shaking, unable to stand by myself, unable to turn my mind from imagined horrors of what my life had almost become.

Another policeman took advantage of Paul’s stunned state to pull his arms behind him and handcuff him, after which he was hauled to his feet with little regard for his comfort. The look of pure venom he gave me as he was propelled past me caused me to shrink into the policeman’s protective embrace. He spat blood at me.

“This isn’t over you know.”

The officer who had cuffed him steered him firmly towards the door, talking to him as he went.

“It is for you my son. Here we go, you listening? You have the right to remain silent, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence…”

They receded into the night leaving me in a small living room with the four remaining armed officers, a catatonic Doctor Marston, and a distraught and weepy man in an ill-fitting skirt and blouse.

Funny how the needs of others can galvanise you into action when, left to yourself, you would otherwise collapse into a useless heap. I pulled away from the police officer who had saved me, whose rough riot vest had provided an all too welcome pillow, and went over to the former Mrs Bailey. I eased him… (her?) into a seat and put my hands on hers. It was still Mrs Bailey, regardless of the body she was wearing now.

“Let me get you some tea.”

She nodded and I disappeared into the kitchen behind the lounge, glad of the distraction, and set about looking for things to make hot, comforting beverages. I was still rummaging through the cupboards looking for the necessary when the sergeant come into the house and looked around.

“Would anyone mind please telling me what the fuck just happened?”

I couldn’t respond any more than my two companions in the other room. He listened to one of his officers, my most recent comforter I think, giving him as full a report as he could manage – heard screams, broke down the door, found young man assaulting a young lady, used appropriate force to take him down, done deal – then he must have heard my nervous clattering because he came through to the kitchen.

“Miss… er… Raeburn isn’t it?”

I nodded mutely.

“Miss Raeburn, I have no idea what happened here. My men reported that there were two women in this house, then you and that doctor turn up and go in. Next thing I know there are screams, I send in my unit, and when the dust settles I have a cross dressing parody of the hulk in custody and an elderly gentleman in the other room wearing a skirt. Where are the two women my men first spotted? And don’t try to tell me that they mistook the two blokes I’ve already mentioned ‘cos I know they have better eyes than that.”

The kettle finished boiling and I warmed a teapot before putting a couple of tea bags into it and leaving it to stand. The mundane, ordinary actions helped my body find a calm again. My mind was still racing, still shying away from all too terrifying memories. I forced it to stop, to think. There was no way I could clean this mess up without some help. Ken might have tried, but the girl in me didn’t have anything to prove; knew the value of seeking help when needed.

“Sergeant I wouldn’t know where to start. Perhaps you could get in touch with a Detective Inspector Chubb though. He told me, when he interviewed me a few weeks back, that his remit was to deal with awkward and unusual cases like this one, and these events are related to something we discussed.”

“And how do I get in touch with this Detective Inspector Chubb?”

I gave him the name of the police station where I had been interviewed. I was pretty sure Chubb wasn’t stationed there, but they’d at least have some idea of who he was and how to contact him. The Sergeant talked briefly into his radio then settled back to wait. I finished off the tray of tea things, mugs enough for everyone including the sergeant, and rather unsteadily carried it back into the living room.

I poured out the teas and invited the boys in blue to grab one each while I offered an overly sweetened one to Mrs Bailey. She grimaced at the taste.

“I don’t take sugar.”

“It’s alright Mrs Bailey. Drink it up, it’ll make you feel better.”

I did the same for Doctor Marston, holding the cup to his mouth and trying to make him drink until he responded by taking the mug out of my hand, after which he just held it and carried on staring blankly.

“Miss Raeburn I’m not sure you should be doing that.”

“They have no physical injuries Sergeant, just the memories of a horrible experience.”

From his frown he didn’t like me challenging him. In an attempt to reassert his authority he gestured at Mrs Bailey and addressed the room.

“Could one of you rustle up some more appropriate clothing for this gentleman?”

Mrs Bailey began to cry. Her face was a stiff mask to hide her feelings, but the tears sliding silently down her cheeks betrayed how upset she really was. I gave her the comfort of human contact, not sure what else I could offer, but she turned out to be made of stronger stuff. She stood up, trying to smooth the skirt down over her new and obvious bulge. I stood with her.

“It’s alright I still have some of my h… I have some ‘more appropriate’ clothes upstairs.”

You could actually hear the quotation marks.

“Would you like me to go with you?”

“I think under the circumstances that would be inappropriate, but thank-you.”

She walked rather stiffly and awkwardly out into the hall and up the narrow stairs.

I took advantage of her absence to check up on Doctor Marston who was still staring into space. He still held his mug of tea, but it was remained untouched. I gently eased the mug out of his grasp and placed it on the table. Saying his name did nothing to bring him back, neither did shaking him or tapping him gently on the cheek. I was on the verge of slapping him harder when the sergeant’s radio squawked.

“Sergeant I have DI Chubb for you. Patching you through now.”

A familiar voice – if slightly distorted by the radio – came through. It wasn’t pleased.

“Sergeant. What can I do for you that makes it worth you interrupting my Saturday evening, and why me in particular?”

“Sorry sir, but I have situation here I really don’t know how to deal with. One of the individuals involved mentioned your name, said you’d interviewed her recently and that this was related.”

There was a short pause.

“Her name sergeant?”

“Er, Miss Raeburn sir, er, Elizabeth Raeburn.”

Another short pause, but this time you could imagine the expletives at the other end.

“Put her on please sergeant.”

The sergeant walked across the room to me, detached his mike from his vest and showed me briefly how to use it. I pressed the button.

“Good evening Detective Inspector. Sorry to disturb you.”

“That’s alright Miss Raeburn. I imagine the situation warrants it, and I’m glad you thought to contact me. What can you tell me?”

Not what happened, but what can you tell me. Other ears listening in.

“Er Paul Bailey’s back. Came out of nowhere and seems to have picked up where Mary left off. Emily’s gone and Paul’s mother isn’t herself anymore.”

Was that telling him enough. Was it giving too much away to curious ears elsewhere in the room? Certainly the sergeant was giving me odd looks. This pause was the longest yet, but when DI Chubb’s voice came back, it seemed some decisions had been made.

“Sergeant, I’m coming over to you. Grays South I think dispatch said. I’m not going to tell you how to do your job, but I strongly recommend you listen to anything Miss Raeburn tells you. And no interviews until I get there. Understood?”

“Yes sir. And yes, confirm it is Grays South.”

“I should be with you within the hour. No interviews ’til I get there, I mean it.”

The sergeant clipped his mike back on his vest and gave me a hard look.

“Okay, so what is it you’re supposed to tell me that’s so important?”

“I think at the moment, just that Paul Bailey, your prisoner, should be kept in isolation. Minimum contact with other people and absolutely no contact with women.”

“Right you are, but I’d bloody better get some answers by the end of the evening.”

He turned away to pass the necessary information along to the station, just as Mrs Bailey came back downstairs. She was wearing a grey suit with white shirt and was carrying a tie. She walked over to me.

“You know, these things were always so much easier to tie when I was doing it for… someone else.”

I sympathised with what she was going through. Having to cope with the changes on her own and at the same time having to act as though nothing had happened.

“You could tie it on me then loosen it to go over your own head. Personally I never much liked wearing them.”

Her eyes widened as the implications of that revelation combined with what her son had said earlier and sunk home.

“You’re the same as…”

“If you think about how Paul looked when he first arrived and how I look now, surely you can’t be that surprised.

“We should have a long talk later. For the moment though, just try to keep things quiet. There’s a detective inspector coming to who knows a lot more about the situation. Once he’s involved things should get easier.”

I let her tie the tie around my neck and hair, keeping the loop large. She then settled it around her own neck and tightened it, folding the collar down over the top. I couldn’t resist reaching up to straighten it. There was nothing wrong with it, but it just seemed the thing to do.

A short while later the sergeant started organising things. Leaving two constables to secure and tape off the house, he ordered the rest of his troops out to their vehicles and back to the station. Paul – as Emily – had brought my handbag with him and left it on the table, so it was natural enough for me to pick it up. I checked the contents briefly – mobile phone, purse, car keys, usual girly bits; everything seemed to be there – and followed the others out of the house.

The police van was gone, presumably with Paul in the back, so the doctor, Mrs Bailey and I were squeezed into the back of one of the squad cars. I spotted my roadster a little way down the road, behind where the police transit had been, but thought better of mentioning it.

-oOo-

As it turned out, the trip to the station was only half a mile and would probably have taken less time to walk once we had finished fussing about getting everyone into the cars. We were given a quiet room to wait in and left to ourselves. I led Doctor Marston over to a chair and eased him into it. He sat and continued staring sightlessly, his mind, for the time being, lost in the great yawning chasm that had been torn between his perception of the world and his beliefs. His continued lack of response worried me and I stuck my head out the door looking for help.

“Excuse me but where d’you think you’re going miss?”

Apparently the sergeant wasn’t taking chances and had assigned someone to keep an eye on us.

“I’m worried about my friend, the doctor. He had a really nasty shock back there and he’s been unresponsive since. Is there any way we could get someone to come give him a look over?”

The constable called the sergeant over and I repeated my request. He told me he would see what he could do and asked me to sit back in the room and wait.

Mrs Bailey was trying to ease the collar of her shirt with her fingers when I came back in. I tried to suppress a smile.

“I had no idea these things were this uncomfortable. I mean I’ve worn high necked blouses and the like, but nothing like this.”

“I know what you mean. Look you don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to.”

“Harry would have.”

“Is that the name of your…”

“My husband yes. He passed away three years ago. I haven’t been able to bring myself to get rid of his things.”

“I’m sorry, but I suppose it’s as well, given present circumstances. He was about the same size as you are now?”

“It seems so, except I think his feet were a little smaller. These shoes pinch.”

“Again, you could take them off. I mean we’re not going anywhere for a while and it’s just the three of us.”

“No, I shall be alright dear, but please could you tell me what’s going on here? I mean how is all this possible?”

“I don’t honestly know the answer to that, but you deserve to understand a little more. This is what I have found out.”

I doubted there wouldn’t be any listening devices hidden around the room to spy on us, so told her the story as best as I could, starting with my first encounter with Mary and finishing with this evening’s events. It didn’t worry me that Doctor Marston was sitting there too. After what he had witnessed earlier, he should be far more open to the whole truth than he had been in the car. In fact, assuming he was able to take in any of what I was saying, it might even help him put things back together in his own mind.

It took me about forty minutes to go through everything. I had done explaining and was quietly answering Mrs Bailey’s questions when the door opened and DI Chubb walked in.

I stood up to greet him, then made introductions, explaining Doctor Marston’s unresponsive behaviour as a result of the shock he had experienced. The inspector looked at the doctor, then at the way I was holding myself, and headed back to the door.

“Sergeant, where’s the doctor? You have the victim of an assault here as well as a man in evident shock.”

“I’ve called for one sir. I asked for a female doctor in light of the circumstance and I think they must be having some difficulty locating one.”

“Would you be good enough to check up on it please.”

DI Chubb’s dangerous voice. The sergeant made for his phone.

“I am sorry Liz, we’re normally a lot more efficient.”

“As you said earlier, under the circumstances…”

He asked me for details on what had happened and once more I found myself talking about the unreal events of the evening. It didn’t take long to go through what DI Chubb didn’t know, and ten minutes later we were discussing options.

Doctor Marston chose that moment to return to us, shaking his head gently.

“Impossible, this is impossible. Explains everything, but how can it be true?”

“Doctor, thank goodness. I was getting worried.”

“Like you said in the car. Strongly held beliefs, hardest to adapt to changes. Still not sure I believe all you’ve said, but can’t ignore what I saw.”

He looked over at the still, very male Mrs Bailey.

“Never expected to see such a thing. Still can’t believe my eyes.”

There was a knock on the door and the long awaited doctor came in. I insisted she check Doctor Marston first, but since he seemed to be talking lucidly and otherwise responding correctly, there was little to be done for him. The doctor led me out to a different room where a WPC stood by for moral support and the fulfillment of the law.

for_evil21The doctor was careful to explain what she wanted to do with every stage of her examination, asking my permission at each step. She asked me to remove my tights, badly laddered at the crotch where Paul had pulled at them, and my knickers, also torn but less so. I then let her examine me in my most intimate area, squeezing the WPC’s hand hard enough to make her wince while she did so. Apparently there were some minor scratches down there, but nothing worse. I could have told her myself, but I suppose first hand examination and a correct report made more compelling evidence. She kept my clothes as evidence and found me something to wear in their stead; torn jeans and a faded sweatshirt, along with some fresh underwear which was just a little too big. Eventually I was returned to my companions where plans were being laid out and parts being assigned.

The fiction involved giving Mrs Bailey the name of Geoff Hammond, a made up friend, who was looking after the house while she spent a few days away with friends, and had been caught out indulging in a very private fetish when everyone started arriving.

Paul’s appearance out of the blue would have to be the mystery it was, as would his wearing a torn designer dress and a full set of women’s underclothes. Hopefully , along with his violent behaviour, this would go some way to helping Doctor Marston convince the police that he should be held in the doctor’s mental institution, at least for the time being. The explanation as to the doctor’s and my presence would be a continuation of the lie that had brought us here in the first place; that Emily had known and drawn close to Mrs Bailey when she was younger, and since she had called her earlier in the week – institute call logs available to prove it – we had come here expecting to find her. She hadn’t turned up though, so her whereabouts was still unknown. Earlier reports of two women in the house would, again, have to go unexplained.

Chubb spoke to the sergeant and a short while later, he, Doctor Marston and I were led down to the cell where Paul was being kept. Following my earlier suggestion, he had been given a cell to himself with solid steel door with a small hatch at eye level, barred window and good solid walls. He wasn’t going anywhere. The duty officer opened the hatch and immediately Paul was up against the door looking out at us and shouting.

“I want a lawyer. I know my rights, you can’t keep me here. Get me a lawyer and make sure it’s a woman. I don’t like dealing with men.”

He spotted me amongst the uniforms and his attitude changed dramatically for the worse.

“You bitch. You fucking bitch.” He slammed the door for emphasis. “You did this to me. Come here and get what you fucking deserve. You bit…”

The stream of profanity was cut off as the duty officer slammed the small hatch closed. Everyone was looking at me.

“That’s the man who attacked me. He was trying to rape me when your men came in.

“There was no provocation, I mean I never saw him before tonight. If your officer hadn’t been there then… Well I don’t want to think about it.”

I shuddered with genuine revulsion; no play acting necessary.

We headed back upstairs to an interview room where I made my statement explaining how Paul had attacked. Doctor Marston added his own to the same effect, saying it seemed obvious that the young man had suffered some psychotic break and needed psychiatric care.

DI Chubb took responsibility for the handover. It took a while to make things legal – paperwork and all that – but eventually it was arranged for Paul to be transferred to Doctor Marston’s institute via secure transport later that evening.

Interviews over, we were allowed to leave. DI Chubb offered us a lift back to the Bailey residence, which we readily accepted. We parked up outside the house and agreed the next stage. Mrs Bailey would collect a small suitcase of her husband’s things and accompany Doctor Marston back to the institute, where she was to be given a room so she could stay close to her son. Doctor Marston, still a little shaken, assured us that he was well enough to drive home.

I just wanted to climb into my car and head for home, but the detectives inspector reminded me that Emily was still on the loose and supposedly driving around in the roadster. There would almost certainly be police watching my flat by now, and if I turned up driving the car, I would almost certainly be detained.

On further reflection he suggested that perhaps that might not be such a bad idea after all though. Emily needed to be caught if I was going to get my life back, so we hatched another plan. I would pretend to be Emily and go back to my place where, if all went as it was supposed to, I would be apprehended and taken back to the institution. Doctor Marston would be there for the rest of the night settling Paul and his mother in, so should be able to have me released and back in the real world before the night was over. DI Chubb would follow me home to make sure the police found me.

I reluctantly pulled my engagement ring off and handed it into Doctor Marston’s care once more..

Decisions made, I headed for my car while the other three approached the policemen on duty at Mrs Bailey’s house. Under DI Chubb’s supervision they all went into the house so Mrs B could collect her clothes. This gave me the window I needed to drive away without being noticed. I parked up two streets down and waited for the detective inspector to come and find me.

The respite gave me the opportunity to call Mike and explain a little of what was going on. He didn’t like it, quite understandably, but agreed to wait for Doctor Marston’s call before coming to collect me.

Eventually the DI appeared and led me on a nervous couple of hours’ trip around and into London, supposedly via routes less frequented by the police, back to my place.

-oOo-

As predicted, there was a car waiting on my street and two plain clothes policemen approached and took hold of me while I was fumbling with my keys. I protested and did my best to convince them I was Liz and not Emily; well okay, not quite my best. They didn’t believe me and I spent the next few hours making my back to Doctor Marston’s care via a cell in yet another police station. Being locked up wasn’t so bad this time because I knew it wasn’t going to last. Eventually, with dawn not far away, I was helped out of the pack of a patrol car and into the familiar surroundings of the institute.

A show was put on for the policemen who brought me, orderlies wheeling me away to Emily’s room while the on-call doctor filled in the necessary forms. I had time to change out of the borrowed clothing and into something of Emily’s, feeling more comfortable in new underwear and better fitting jeans and sweatshirt than the things the police had found me. Doctor Marston turned up a few minutes later and gave me back my ring and handbag.

“Already called Mike. He’s on his way.”

He led me back to his office where we passed the time discussing the real events surrounding my own transformation and those of Paul and Charley. Being both a psychologist as well as a psychiatrist, he was fascinated by the concept of having three people under his roof with such marked experiences in gender change.

“You do realise that you won’t be able to write this up Doctor?”

“Not bothered. Get insight now, maybe publish something later with different observations. You’re right though. Start spouting off about transformations and I’ll end up in one of my own cells.”

He shook his head again, as though the simple action could help bring his old reality back to him.

“How’s Mrs Bailey?”

“Settled in okay. Taking it hard as you can imagine. More concerned about her son than herself. Bonds of parenthood and all that. Very level headed person though. Should be alright.”

“Can I see her before I go?”

He checked the clock on the wall.

“Five thirty a little early. Needs sleep to help adapt and recover. Sure you’ll understand, would rather leave her be for now.”

Doctor Marston’s office looked out on the front drive so he noticed Mike’s arrival a few minutes later. He stood and held out a hand to help me to my feet.

“Do me a favour Doctor?”

“You can ask anything. Feel I owe you rather a lot.”

“Yeah about that. I’m not going to be talking to my solicitor on Monday after all. Do what you must to tighten up your procedures, but be forgiving if you can?”

The doctor’s face was unreadable. It took him a second to recover.

“May I ask why?”

“Mainly I’m just grateful still to be me tonight. It puts everything into perspective. Besides I have to shoulder a fair bit of the blame. Allowing Emily to swap identities with me was beyond stupid.”

“Like to think it was more misplaced trust on your part. Still, once more, have my gratitude. Still haven’t asked though.”

“What? Oh, the favour, yes. Actually two spring to mind now. The first was that perhaps you could put Paul and Charley into the same room for a bit, see what happens.”

“Already thought of that. Had it in mind to do so. The second?”

“Well I’m hoping to put together a home for transgendered and homosexual street people and wanted to run clinics for them. You know help them understand and accept who they are? Help them make decisions about how they should live their lives? I have some promise of help, but would value input from a well-established and respected institution like this one.”

The doctor suppressed a smile.

“Better for you if we don’t have any blemishes on our record, just as it is for us?”

“Doctor, this isn’t blackmail. Whether you agree or not I won’t be looking for restitution for what happened here yesterday. You have a clean slate regardless, and you decide for yourself if you want to get involved in my project.”

“I’ll give it some thought. Pretty sure we can do something. See you next Saturday?”

I nodded.

“As long as you can promise me a quieter day than today, and to keep Paul away from me.”

The long winding corridors came to an end at the reception area. The doctor opened the front door and we shook hands as we stepped out into the cold morning air. The birds were shouting their territorial claims as a low, patchy mist dispersed to reveal the dawn light illuminating a fresh new day full of promise.

Mike stepped out of the car and I ran to him burying my face in his chest and hugging him tightly enough to squeeze the breath out of him.

“What the…”

“Just hold me.”

He did. Something I remember about dealing with girls as Ken. When in doubt do as you’re told. Now so much more understood and appreciated from the other side. Mike’s arms went around me and I felt his strength encircle me. I felt safe and all the fears and horrors that had haunted me through the night evaporated with the mist. I cried out my relief into his chest and held on tight with all the strength I had.

“Never leave me Mike.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. What’s got into you Liz? What’s the matter?”

I was about cried out for the moment, so released my death grip on him and reached up to kiss him. Short, then long, then longest ever.

“I’ll tell you later. Everything’s alright now though. Now you’re here, everything’s alright.”

He led me round to the passenger door and helped me in before climbing in himself.

“Back to yours?”

I nodded.

“Except I don’t think I have much food in. I’ve been running things down ready for my trip on Monday.”

That reminder brought a pang of regret. Now more than anything, I didn’t want to be away from him.

“That’s ok, we only need breakfast at most. We’re taking Sharon and Phil out to lunch remember?”

I smiled and curled up in the seat looking across at him in my usual manner. He glanced at me and shook his head.

“I should have known it was Emily.”

I placed a hand on his arm.

“No recriminations, no regrets love. We all made mistakes yesterday, but it turned out okay. For the most part.”

I thought of poor Mrs Bailey and felt a treacherous tear escape and trickle down the side of my nose. I wiped it away with my sleeve and reached my hand out to touch him again.

All the way home I drowsed in and out. When I was awake, I couldn’t help myself touching the man sitting beside me, resting my hand on his arm, his leg, his hand. He was my reality, my rock. He brought me back from the edge and grounded me in this world I wanted to inhabit. He did keep giving me worried looks, which I returned with as reassuring a smile as I could manage, all the while abandoning myself in the all too brief glimpses of his kind eyes.

We made our way easily through the light early morning traffic. Between my drowsing and the swift passage it seemed almost no time at all before we were pulling up behind my little yellow car.

“Come up with me? I don’t want to be alone right now.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t want you to be alone right now either.”

A brief fumbling with the keys and we were through both the doors. I turned to Mike and all but climbed up him to reach his mouth. A sudden insatiable need overtook me and my hands were all over him, undoing the buttons of his shirt, caressing his chest, my lips seeking his. He backed away.

“Liz, I…”

“Don’t you dare stop this now. If it’ll make the difference, Mike Paston, before the eyes of God I take you to be my one and only, in all things and forever.”

It was the longest I could bear to keep myself from him. I went back on the attack, easing his shirt off and kissing his chest as I reached down to his belt buckle.

“Liz I don’t have any…”

Bless you Sharon. I had never expected to need one, but it was part of her emergency kit, therefore it had to be part of mine. I pulled away from him long enough to tip the contents of my handbag out onto the coffee table, retrieved a small foil packet from the debris and slapped it into his hand, dragging him towards my bedroom in the same motion.

“Are you sure…”

“Never more certain.”

I pulled off my sweatshirt and bra, then went back to his belt. With that loosened, I guided his unoccupied hand up to one of my breasts, while fumbling with his flies with the other. Electric jolts of delight went through me as he massaged my breast. I threw my head back and gasped with the pleasure. I took hold of his waistband and pulled him with me towards the bed, pushing down his trousers and pants as I settled backwards onto the covers.

He followed, more willing now. I rested a hand on his chest.

“Don’t you have anything to say?”

How he understood me I don’t know, but he got it immediately. He smiled.

“Elizabeth Raeburn, before the eyes of God, now and forever in all things, I am yours.”

He reached forward to kiss me and I retrieve the little foil package from his hand. Irritating interruption, but I wasn’t on the pill yet. I pulled the foil apart and pulled out the slightly moist piece of soft rubber. The acrid smell of it assaulted my nostrils. I resented the necessity, but accepted it even so. I reached down and rolled it onto the one part of Mike’s anatomy I wasn’t yet acquainted with. Well endowed? Not quite equine, but certainly enough to satisfy. I bit my lip and squeezed my legs together as a warm, moist sensation ran through me.

Mike’s clumsiness grew with his eagerness and I had to help him undo my jeans and ease them off. The moment had come. Mike stared at me as if to ask if I were really sure. In answer I spread my legs, inviting him in. Again a nervous fumble, his hands and mine guiding until… There. Slowly, gently, he entered me, his eyes constantly looking to mine, constantly seeking approval. There was a moment’s discomfort, then he was in. All the way.

I held onto him with arms and legs, willing him to be still for a moment, a long moment, as I savoured the feeling of having the man I loved inside me, filling me, completing me. Slowly he began to move, back and forth, sliding in and out. After a moment he paused, a look of exquisite agony on his face. He managed to hold off, and we lay together, embraced, connected, one person, for a while longer until he felt able to continue.

Each thrust brought a heightening of tension within me, each gentle caress, a new electric spark leaping through me. It didn’t last much longer, but I was as ready as he was and, before he let out his own shuddering sigh of release, I felt the most exquisite sensation pass through me, like a cascade of fireworks exploding through my nerves, starting in my very centre and passing through me in all directions.

Mike settled beside me, then reaching down, withdrew his latex covered member before it deflated enough to make a nonsense of our using the protection. I regretted his absence, but focused on the new feel of my body now that he was gone. I felt his having been there and that was special in its own right.

“Back in a sec.”

Mike’s naked form bounded off toward the bathroom to dispose of a certain something and to clean up a bit. He was only going to be a few seconds, but I felt abandoned, aching with the loss his absence brought. I diverted myself be reaching over to the night stand and using some tissues to clean up my own aftermath. By the time he came back, I was under the duvet and holding it open invitingly. He didn’t take much persuasion, and seconds later, I was wrapping myself around him, skin against skin. Mike gave me a worried look.

“Are we going to regret this?”

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan to. Thank-you Mike, I so needed that.”

“I wanted to wait ’til we were married.”

“I know, but I meant those words Mike. The wedding’s just a formality now.”

“Oh I doubt that very much.”

I chuckled, thinking about all the planning that had already gone into it.

“Ok, maybe you’re right, but this is the moment, this is the day that I give myself to you Mike. I needed you today and you were there. You ground me. You make me real. Complete.”

“I’m not going to pretend to understand that Liz. Except the last part. I have never felt so complete as I do right now. You make me so much more than I could ever be on my own.”

We lay for a long while as the morning grew old. We heard Sharon close her door and knock on mine, but we kept quiet, suppressing giggles at the ridiculousness of avoiding her. She gave up and left and I snuggled in closer to Mike, if it were at all possible to be closer than we were now. It would have been nice to go again, but I’d only had the one. In any case, Mike had his own ideas.

“Can we not do this again until after we’re married? I mean I don’t know about you, but it feels right to wait.”

He was right. Besides, August wasn’t that far off.

“As long as we can make this morning last long enough to make the wait worthwhile.”

I stroked the hairs on his chest and carefully avoided that part of his body that might make lying still a challenge. Eventually, with the morning all but gone, I propped myself up on an elbow and looked down at him. I planted a kiss on his lips and climbed out of bed, slipping into my dressing gown.

“I’m going to take a shower and get dressed, then I’ll put the coffee on while you do the same. I imagine Sharon will be back soonish. You did book somewhere for the four of us to have lunch didn’t you?”

“Just outside Guildford, table booked for two o’clock. I imagine you’ll get round to telling me what happened last night in your own time.”

I gave him an appreciative smile.

“I will, but that’s not for now. I feel too good right now to want to spoil it with those memories.”

-oOo-

Some time later I heard Sharon on the stairs and stuck my head out to greet her.

“Hiya. Sorry about earlier. Had a long night last night. Fancy a coffee? We’re about ready for our second cup.”

“Ooh ta. Give us a second to drop a few things off and get changed.”

Old faithful was huffing and puffing away in the kitchen by the time she arrived. I managed to disentangle myself from Mike and head into the kitchen. Sharon followed, leaving Mike to commune with the telly.

“There’s something different about you this morning. A sort of a glow.”

I didn’t quite manage to bite back the grin. It was true, all morning I had felt warm and fuzzy both inside and out. Sharon’s eyes widened to saucers and her voice descended to a strangled whisper.

“Oh my God, you didn’t. You did, didn’t you?”

I nodded helplessly and she ran over and took my arms.

“Come on, details.”

“Too long to go into here and now. Last night was a nightmare, but Mike was there at the end and as soon as I was with him, everything made sense again. He drove me back here and I just couldn’t keep my hands off him.”

“Regrets?”

“None. He’s the man for me and if we could set the wedding for today I’d do it.”

“What was it like?”

“Oh you can’t imagine. He was so gentle and concerned, I wondered if he’d ever get started. When he did, it was wonderful. I mean I never expected anything the first time but…”

“Oh you lucky cow. No wonder you have that rosy glow about you. What about… You know?” SHe made vaguely obscene gestures around her nether regions.

I didn’t need to say anything, the answer was dancing in my eyes.

“What are you two conspiring about back there?”

Mike’s voice broke the shared reverie, and we broke down in giggles.

“Nothing darling, just girl stuff.”

I quickly gathered mugs, milk and biscuits onto a tray and poured out the coffee so we could re-join Mike. I ignored the pointed looks he was giving me and plonked the tray down on the coffee table. After all that’s what it was intended for.

“How long will it take to get to this place Mike?”

“About forty-five or fifty minutes if the traffic’s not too bad.”

“And Phil knows where he’s going?”

“Well I texted him the time and place and he seemed to think he’d be okay. He has a satnav doesn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Then no problem. We should be going in about ten minutes if we want to be sure of making it.”

So coffee was a bit rushed, but we made it out of the door on schedule. I was going to sit in the back with Sharon and keep her company, but she wouldn’t let me, so instead I sat up front next to Mike and we kept a three way banter going all the way. Traffic wasn’t kind and we were about ten minutes late arriving. Phil was already sitting at the bar with a pint in his hand. He took drinks orders from us and tried to wave down the barman, who was doing his best in the Sunday lunchtime rush. I turned to Mike.

“I’ll help Phil bring the drinks. You and Sharon go and get the table sorted.”

I smiled at the barman as he went past the next time and he faltered in his stride long enough for me to give him our order.

“I guess I can see some advantages to being as you are now.”

“Oh there are more than some advantages Phil. But other subjects, I wanted to grab you on your own before we sat down together. Can I be blunt?”

He shrugged.

“When have you ever been subtle?”

I let the jibe pass. Shortage of time didn’t allow me the luxury of defending my own corner. The barman had already brought the drinks and wandered off with Phil’s twenty pound note.

“I was wondering when you were going to get round to proposing to Sharon again.”

Okay, so maybe he was right. Maybe I didn’t do subtle. He was looking sheepish and evasive. Warning bells started to ringing at the back of my mind.

“Actually, I’ve been giving that some thought, and I’m not sure I’m going to.”

-oOo-

Chapter 22

I settled onto a nearby barstool like a slowly deflating punch bag.

“Why? I mean what’s brought this on?”

“It’s just that… Just that since Sharon and I have got back together things have been different. Especially lately. She keeps looking at me as though she’s waiting for me to screw up again or something.”

“You are kidding right?”

He took his change from the barman and looked round at me in confusion.

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean you can’t really be that dense?”

“Hey! I’m bearing my soul here. The least you can do is show a little sympathy.”

“Sympathy is not what you need Phil. More like therapy. She’s waiting for you to propose not mess up. I mean haven’t you noticed the hints she’s been dropping?”

“What?”

“A few weeks back she and I went into a jeweller’s because she wanted to check her ring size. It’s how she got my size for Mike so he could get my ring sorted, but I’m pretty sure she had it in mind to leave hers lying around for you to find.”

“That’s what that was.”

“Yes dummy. The girl is just as crazy about you as she was when you two first started going out.”

“But what if I screw things up a second time?”

“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that. I mean sooner or later you will definitely screw things up again. The great thing about it all is that she’s already forgiven you for being the completest and utterest jackass in existence, so when you do mess up, again, it won’t be as bad. And if she can forgive you for what you already did, she can forgive you pretty much anything else you might do.”

The look he gave me would have been priceless if it hadn’t been so genuinely miserable. I found myself taking pity on him.

“Hey, dickhead, get your mind straight. Last time was down to your so called friends at work. Remember, they almost cost you your job as well as your girlfriend, and they didn’t lift a finger to help. This time round just don’t include them and you should be fine. You’ve got a lot going for you Phil, which is why Sharon has stuck by you; also probably why you didn’t get sacked, ‘cos your bosses probably have a better idea than you think of what really went down.

“Look, I understand what’s dragging you down; heaven knows I’ve felt it enough times. You mess up like you did and you start to wonder if you’ll ever do anything right again. You keep second guessing yourself and become your own self-fulfilling prophesy. You fail because you think you’re going to fail. What you need is to start believing in yourself again. Get your self-confidence back. As soon as you start thinking you’re a winner, guess what?”

“I become a winner?”

“Not what I was going for because I think you are a winner already. I was going to say you start winning again.

“Sharon is lucky to have you and she knows it. All you need to do is start knowing it too.”

There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. How to turn a glowing ember into a raging fire? Blow on it, gently.

“Do you love her?”

“You know I do.”

I didn’t, but we weren’t going to get stuck debating that point.

“Then tell her that, and buy her a fucking ring man.”

Okay so maybe when blowing gently doesn’t work you have to get a bit more forceful. The expletive was like a slap in the face; it shook him out of his moping. He favoured me with a grin.

“Thanks mate. You know, you always had my back and I never realised how much until this happened to you.”

“Well if you’ve realised it that’s a bonus. Shall we get back to the others before they start to wonder if we’re up to something?”

I grabbed Mike’s beer and my glass of rosé and headed for the restaurant. As predicted, Mike and Sharon were looking around for us as we appeared, and waved us over.

“What happened? We were about to send out a search party.”

Phil kissed Sharon on the top of the head and handed her a glass of white wine.

“Nothing love, we were, er, catching up.”

The lunch passed amicably enough, the food as good as expected from someone Mike would recommend. Things were different, you couldn’t deny that. I was definitely clinging onto Mike more than I had been, leaning against him, holding his arm, reaching out to touch him at every opportunity. He didn’t seem to mind, in fact he seemed to revel in the extra attention. Phil also was more attentive to Sharon than he had been. So much so that she kept giving me odd questioning looks as though I were responsible, which, okay perhaps I was. A little.

With the main course finished, I suggested Mike indulge his sweet tooth but that I didn’t want anything, except maybe a spoonful or two of what he was having and maybe a coffee, if it was decent. I excused myself to attend to private matters, and Sharon slipped out of her chair to follow, giving Phil similar instructions regarding dessert.

-oOo-

Urgent business tended to, I set about essential facial maintenance. Sharon came alongside a few seconds later and, under guise of doing the same, started her interrogation.

“Okay, what did you say to him?”

I feigned innocence.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. You said something to Phil while Mike and I were grabbing seats in the restaurant. What was it?”

“I told him to stop being an idiot. It does seem as though he listened doesn’t it?”

She crossed her arms and turned a pointed expression my way.

“You said a whole lot more than that Missy…”

“And if I did, that’s between him and me. He’s a good guy Sharon; he’s worth a bit of patience. Can I offer a bit of advice though?”

“What is it?”

“Try being a little less subtle with him for a while. I know it’s fun just hinting at things and seeing whether they’re paying enough attention to notice, but you have to recognise when they’re struggling and be a bit blunt. We all need reassurance from time to time, but guys especially, I think.”

“Is that from personal experience?”

“Yes actually. We may have equality, or something approaching it, in this country, but guys are still out there on their own a lot more than us girls.”

From her posture, she still wasn’t quite convinced.

“Listen Sharon, you’ve been a better friend to me than I could ever wish for. I love you like a sister. I mean you’re going to be my maid of honour for heaven’s sake. You have to know I would never do anything to hurt you. If I’m keeping schtum about what Phil and I shared, it’s because I think it’s best for both you and him that I keep it that way.

“For the rest, yes I do have a broader perspective than most people, and I’m pretty certain that what Phil needs more than anything right now is to know how you feel. Not hints and suggestions, but an in your face declaration.”

She relented a bit. I think the reminder of what we were to each other allowed her to trust me. It also acted as a case study for what I was talking about. Her arms dropped to her side and her gaze shifted away from me to her reflection and occasionally mine.

“So what’s with you and Mike? You’re a lot more lovey dovey touchy feely than you have been. What’s going on?”

I had been so busy trying to sort other people’s lives out it came as a surprise to have her probing into my own. Lipstick hung unused in mid-air, eyes dropped. I fought a sudden prickling at the back of my eyes. Damn, I’d just fixed my mascara, I didn’t want to do it again.

“Sweetie what’s wrong?”

Trust Sharon to pick up on what was festering inside me and lance it like a boil. All those things I hadn’t told Mike about yet, all the fear of loss I had pushed down inside me. This morning’s moments of pleasure and fulfilment had all been about reassuring myself of who I was and whose I was, but the fear was still there, lurking in the darkness.

“I nearly lost him this weekend.”

“Who, Mike? Liz, how can you say that? I’ve never seen anyone more devoted to another person.”

“Emily escaped yesterday. She… I mean he, Paul, made a similar sort of deal to Mary. He… He nearly kissed me.”

It took a few seconds for Sharon to process what that actually meant, then with dawning realisation and a growing sense of horror, she reached out to me and held me to her. That was all it took to release the sickening fear I had been holding back. I sobbed into her shoulder for some minutes, taking needed comfort from her tight hold on me. The tears kept on coming leaving even me surprised at how deeply I had been affected. When I was finally spent I clung still to Sharon and spoke into her shoulder.

“I haven’t told Mike yet.”

“He won’t hear it from me.”

I sniffed and pulled away.

“Thanks. For that and for listening.”

It took a further ten minutes to repair the flood damage, during which time I filled her in on the unspoken details. When I was done, we gave each other a once over and a nod of approval. Taking a deep breath and as much courage as we could draw from each other – no small amount either – we headed back to the table.

-oOo-

“You took your time.”

Phil stating the obvious, but more out of concern than anything else.

“There was a queue.”

Sharon’s little lie was enough to forestall any more questions from Phil, but Mike was looking at me carefully and raised an eyebrow slightly when he knew I was looking back. I smiled a little weakly. I suspected there would be questions on the journey home. Fortunately Phil was oblivious and saved me from having to answer any then and there.

“What is it with girlfriends having to share their guy’s desserts? I mean we’re not so badly off that we can’t afford to buy one for each of us.”

Sharon glanced over at me and smiled as she realised something of what I’d been saying.

“it’s a mixture of things Phil. Part of it is that we don’t want a whole dessert; just a taste. Anything more would be a waste or otherwise go on the waist. Most of it though is it’s a kind of reassurance thing. You know, if you still love me you’ll allow me to eat from your plate sort of thing? It’s kind of my way of saying I want to be your girl, and I want to know if you want me to be.”

There was a short pause then, as one, both Phil and Mike pushed their bowls across the table to us. There were nervous laughs, coy smiles, token mouthfuls taken and savoured, hands touched tenderly. It was a silly moment, but one that did much to cement the bonds between us.

-oOo-

Sharon drove home with Phil leaving me curled up on the front seat looking across at Mike in my usual way. He didn’t ask, though I could see from his eyes he very much wanted to, and I loved him all the more for his restraint.

“This isn’t easy to tell.”

“I know. You don’t have to.”

“Yes I do.”

It took me a while longer to find the courage to start, but when I did, I couldn’t stop. Not until I’d finished. Mike heard me out in silence then remained silent for the rest of the journey home, his face stony and unreadable. I was spent and could do little more than sit next to him and watch him. His lack of response frightened me, but he had been patient with me; it was only right I should give him time to process things.

We arrived back at my flat around four thirty. Phil’s car was nowhere in view and I suspect he and Sharon had headed back to his place. With the afternoon so far gone, I was also expecting Mike to head off to the restaurant straight away, but he surprised me by getting out of the car and walking round to open my door. He followed me into the flat and, with the door closed behind us, I turned to place a hand on his chest and looked up uncertainly into his eyes.

There were tears there. Of all the times I’d seen Mike upset over the past months, this was the first time I’d seen him cry. He grabbed me in a bear hug and crushed the wind out of me. It was all I could do to gasp in a few shallow breaths, and I was becoming distinctly light headed before he realised and eased his hold on me, He led me over to the sofa and sat down, pulling me down beside him. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came and he shook his head helplessly.

I waited.

He took my hands in his and caressed the backs of my palms with his thumbs, all the time looking down, his mouth opening and closing, his breath laboured. I squeezed his hands and he raised red streaked eyes to look into my own. He found his voice.

“Are we ever going to have a normal life?”

I let out a laugh; more single gasp, but enough that he joined in.

“I can’t believe I almost lost you again. I mean this explains this morning. Liz, I don’t know what to say. There’s no way you could have known. I… If I’d had even the slightest inkling of who was in the car with me, of what she… he was planning… I’m so sorry.”

I reclaimed one of my hands and cupped his cheek.

“Mike don’t. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

His eyes turned angry.

“I helped that freak escape.”

“No Mike. He fooled a lot of people, and you don’t get to blame yourself for something that was more my fault than anyone’s. What’s important is that he didn’t get his revenge. He’s locked up now and there’s no way he can threaten us again.”

“His own mother though!”

“I know. It’s horrible. And the thing I feel most guilty about is that whenever I think about her, I just feel glad it’s not me.”

“Me too. Does that make us evil?”

“Just human I think.”

“What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. I told Doctor Marston I’d go back next Saturday, if only to see Charley. I don’t know if I have the courage to face Paul now.

“Besides that’s not up to me alone. Mike, all I could think of when he was coming at me was how hard it would be on you if I was changed again. I won’t put you through that. If you want me to stay away I will.”

I searched his eyes, my own gaze dancing back and forth between them. I could see the fear in them. He took a deep breath before replying.

“I won’t pretend I like the idea of your going back there Liz, I don’t. Even if you’re only going to see Charley, I hate the idea of you being so close to that creep. But this is your choice and I’ll stand by you whatever you decide. One thing though. If you do decide to go back there next Saturday, I want to be there too. You don’t face this on your own. Just in case Paul finds you and comes at you, I want to be there.”

I nodded my head and pinched my eyes shut, leaning my forehead on his shoulder. My arms went round his neck and I simply clung on. Like I said before, this man grounded me. I tried to hold back but couldn’t, I sobbed out my relief into the crook of his neck. All I needed was his approval, his support, and it was there.

-oOo-

Much later there was a gentle knock on my door.

It had been half past five before I’d managed to persuade Mike that I was alright and that he should go create culinary utopia for his customers. He’d promised to meet me the following morning and accompany me on the viewing of the new building, so I’d see him again before the requirements of work whisked me away from him for a week.

After he left I had drunk three glasses of water straight from the tap in an attempt to rehydrate myself, then run myself a bath, had a long soak and washed my hair. As usual, the longest and most tedious part was the drying of same and I had just turned the drier off for the umpteenth time, so I could attack a new knot with brush and comb, when I’d heard the knock.

It was pretty much a given that it would be Sharon as the only other person with a key to the front door was the landlord, and he was rarely about on a Sunday night. I opened the door a crack, then wider when my expectations were confirmed. There was a glow in her eyes and a barely suppressed grin. I glanced down at her hand.

“You guessed it. He proposed again.”

The squeal was barely restrained as she raised her hand for my inspection. It was the same ring, but it had been absent since the first evening I met her. I wasn’t sure what to think. I certainly hadn’t expected such a quick turnaround from Phil and, regardless of what I’d said in the pub, I was a little bothered that he had changed so rapidly. I gave Sharon the expected hug and pulled her into the flat begging her to tell me about it.

It seemed they had gone back to Phil’s place where they’d had a very frank and open discussion. Phil had told her pretty much what he’d told me, and she’d managed to allay his fears by being just as honest with him. The awkwardness that had been growing between them had simply been a lack of understanding and, having clearly expressed their feelings for each other, Phil had asked her outright if she would consider marrying him.

“I told him all you need to do is ask, and he did.”

The bubble and squeak was back into her voice, and this time I joined her and gave her a less reserved hug, which she returned until she felt my hair.

“Ooh, let’s get this dry before you catch pneumonia.”

She hauled me into the bedroom and set to with the hair drier and brush. I wasn’t about to resist, but I did yell at her over the whine of the blower.

“I feel like we should be cracking the cork on a bottle of bubbles.”

“Oh, Phil and I already did. I don’t feel like any more booze tonight. I’ll join you in a hot chocolate once we’re done here. Right now let me do this for you. It’s a poor way of saying thank-you, but I need to acknowledge the part you had in today.”

So I sat back and relaxed while Sharon brushed my cares away. Paul and Charley and Mrs Bailey receded like the faint memories of a dream and I gave myself to the ordinary pleasures of having a friend look after me. Hot chocolate followed and we talked for a while, comparing wedding plans. It could have lasted a lot longer, but we both had things to do in the morning. The mugs went into the sink and I saw a blissfully floating Sharon across the hall to her flat before retiring to my own bed. Jenny Doll, usually a welcome companion at bedtime, was a poor substitute For Mike. Even so sleep came swiftly and easily.

-oOo-

I woke early and packed. Most of the clothes I would be wearing were going to be provided which meant that, apart from a few comfortable things to wear around the hotel room, all I needed to put in the case were underwear and nightclothes. When it came to the latter, I found myself thinking of Mike and picked out something I’d almost forgotten I had.

The laptop went into its own bag and by half past seven my bags were waiting by the door and I was sitting in the kitchen looking over the rim of a coffee cup at the beginning of yet another beautiful spring day. Memories of the bitter cold and damp winter seemed unreal with the sun shining out of a pale blue sky.

The minute hand reached its hourly zenith prompting me to wash up my mug, grab my coat and bags, and let myself out and down to my patiently waiting car.

Eight o’clock and traffic was filling the roads. The journey to the existing shelter was slow but uneventful and I pulled into an empty parking spot outside the main entrance forty minutes later.

Never a good idea to leave things in a soft top car, I took my small travel case and computer in to the building reception where I found Aaron and my Mike chatting with Michael ad Colin.

“Hi guys, Aaron, could I leave these behind the counter please? Thanks.

“Okay, the new building is a couple of streets over. About a ten minute walk by my reckoning and we’re due to meet the owners there in twenty, so I guess we ought to get going. Michael, any more of your friends tagging along?”

“No, just the two of us. The rest said they’d wait to see how we got on.”

“Fine. Aaron?”

He shook his head so, with a shrug and a smile, I spun on my heels and led the way with as long, bold steps as my clothes and shoes would allow me. They’d all made an effort which heartened me no end. I mean not exactly the height of fashion like myself, but given the available clothing from the charity drops, they’d done pretty well. No jeans, no tee-shirts.

They caught up easily, even Colin who was only two inches taller than me, and we fell into an easy stride. We chatted about how things were going at the centre and I was gratified to find out that there hadn’t been any repetition of the previous week’s unpleasantness. There was still some tension and, for the most part, Michael’s group kept to the seventh floor as much as they could. I asked about the training programme and Aaron gave me his usual concise update, followed by a far more enthusiastic response from Colin who had started going to hair-dressing sessions. Yeah, cliché I know, but somehow it seemed just right for him.

We found the new building in good time and spent the ten minute wait walking around and inspecting it from the outside. I’d visited the place previously so wasn’t as disappointed as the others at the run down condition of the place.

“Come on guys, it’s not so bad. It’s what’s known as ‘having potential’, and I think by the time we’ve finished with it, it will realise that potential quite nicely.”

Aaron rubbed his hands over flaking paint with a grimace.

“It’s alright for you, you don’t do any of the renovation. This is going to take a while.”

“You’re right of course, and I’m not going to insult you by pretending it won’t be hard work. But look here. You see how the place has two entrances and a stairwell at either end? We’ll need to keep access to both sides from all the building for fire regulations, but if we put a dividing wall through the ground floor and fire doors halfway down the corridors on higher levels we’ll have two separate living spaces. What do you think?”

Michael stroked his chin.

“Hmm. It could work. Do we get to choose the colour we paint it?”

“If you’re thinking pinks and purples I may find that a hard sell, but I’m pretty sure the owners will be open to some degree of negotiation.”

And with that the owners arrived. We spent a couple of hours going over and through the place, them asking for assurances and inquiring about our plans, me talking through the idea of splitting the building and the changes we wanted to make, Aaron adding his own thoughts and going a long way towards sealing the deal. It turns out his dad had been an architect and DIY enthusiast, and he’d picked up quite a few nuggets of wisdom before he had left home.

It took two hours but agreement was reached. The owners offered to draw up the contract and courier it to me for signing during the week. I left them with a copy of my itinerary so they knew where to find me and they were gone, leaving us standing back and admiring the newest addition to the fight against homelessness.

“So Michael. Do you prefer sleeping on the right or the left?”

-oOo-

Mike and I found ourselves a quiet little café for lunch where we mostly ate, drank and held hands. There wasn’t much to say; we both knew we were going to miss each other, neither of us wanted to be separated, we both knew that no amount of wishing and wanting was going to change things. So we took what comfort we could from our remaining time, followed lunch with a slow walk through a small park, and took our leave from one another around two. I had a reception to attend that evening at seven and it was going to take me a couple of hours to get ready. Two and a half hours on the road would only leave me with half an hour to check in and unpack at the hotel.

Mike leaned his forehead on mine and I reached up to kiss him.

“I should be done about midnight. I’ll Skype you then.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

It was ridiculously hard pulling myself out of his grasp. Come on Liz, pull yourself together. You’re going to see him in five days’ time. Five days, argh! It might as well be forever.

“Go on, you’d better get going or you’ll be late.”

This is why we need men to be strong. I returned his quiet smile and managed to reach the end of the road without crying. Taking a deep breath I turned towards the north and my next big adventure.

-oOo-

The M1 is never a nice road to travel these days. It’s almost always busy and almost always has multiple stretches under repair. The traffic has a tendency to travel too close, which then means that when someone or other has to brake hard to avoid becoming too closely acquainted with the vehicle in front, the unnecessary braking ripples back through the rest of the traffic. Caterpillar motion, constantly stop starting. You try to break the cycle by leaving a larger gap between you and the car ahead, but that just encourages the car behind to come past and squeeze into the gap, usually hauling on his own brakes and sending a fresh ripple back. It’s tiring and less than pleasant, so I wasn’t in the best of moods when I arrived at the hotel.

Still, I tried not to take it out on the innocent receptionist, even when there turned out to be some confusion over my reservation. It took fifteen precious minutes and the input of a manager to unravel the mess. Apparently they had been expecting me the following week, but fortunately they still had vacant rooms and offered to upgrade me for free.

I was shown up to my room where I immediately started a bath running and called through to Karen to let her know I’d arrived and to mention the change in room number. Sympathy over the failings of all things clerical and administrative, then reassurance that the dress would be with me within the hour and the limo an hour after. I climbed into the bath and allowed the hot water and scented oils to soak away the stresses of the journey.

An hour later I was still drying my hair – no surprise there – when there was a knock at the door. I answered in my dressing gown to find one of the hotel valets holding a garment bag. I smiled my thanks and passed over the expected gratuity. Back in my room I opened the garment bag to see what delight the powers that be had for me to wear this evening and found myself recoiling with unexpected revulsion.

Autumn cloud had been my favourite dress, worn all too little but probably loved all the more for that. The last time I’d seen my own, it had been torn and misshapen, hanging from the vengeful form of Pail Bailey. Now the sight of this new one brought back all the bad memories and none of the good. I found myself shaking and barely able to move.

This was stupid. It was just an item of clothing and a very pretty one at that. Was I going to let bad memories stop me from putting it on? Was I going to let Paul have that victory over me? It wasn’t something I could easily face alone, but it was already an inconvenient time to call Mike, besides he wouldn’t really understand. I picked up my mobile and called Sharon.

“Hi sweetie, what’s up?”

“Why should anything be up?”

I wasn’t quite able to keep the quavering from my voice. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

“Because you have to leave for your gig in less than an hour and here you are talking to me.”

Who says women don’t do logic?

“They want me to wear Autumn Cloud.”

“But that really looks good on you Liz, it’s a great dress.”

“Yeah, but it’s also what Paul was wearing when he attacked me.”

“Oh.”

She understood. She also knew how to deal with it. She didn’t tell me I was being stupid, or that I had every right to be upset. Instead she talked about clothes and all the great things she’d seen me wearing, focusing me on the feel of the fabric and the delight of the design before coming back to the dress hanging over the chair in front of me. It worked. I was able to look at it for what it was and not think about the horrible experience which I associated with it.

I slipped it on and stood in front of the mirror. For a second I saw myself transforming into Paul, tearing the delicate material and snarling out of the mirror, but then I pushed the image away and gave myself a closer look. This was me, fading bruises and all. Paul was locked up half a country away and I had nothing to be afraid of.

I slipped on the tights they’d sent to match the dress and settled down in front of the mirror to do my hair and makeup, all the while telling myself that Paul wasn’t here, that he couldn’t touch me, the that horror was over.

Ten minutes late, and hiding my nervousness well, I climbed into the back of the limo.

“Wow, you look great.”

Birmingham’s answer to Tarquin wouldn’t win any prizes for elocution, but as eye candy he would do. Broad shoulders, short, curly blond hair, blue eyes. Not at all my type, but the cameras would love him. I gave him a smile of thanks as I arranged myself on the seat. I tried to make the ring on my left finger evident without being obvious about it and did my best to be friendly.

“You too. I’m Liz by the way, unless you already know.”

The evening went by well enough. I allowed myself a couple of glasses of champagne to take the edge off my frayed nerves and managed to make a good enough show of myself. There were questions about where I had been for the past week and a bit which I explained, as agreed with Karen, as being time I’d taken out to work on the homeless project. The usual round of talking to well-to-do women and advising them on which of the Ell-gance line would look best on them. I missed having Charlotte, my fellow catwalk model, around, but she was heading up a series of shows like this one in the Devon and Cornwall area. Still the evening went well enough and I was dropped back at the hotel at half past the witching hour.

I ran up to my room and turned on the computer. The room upgrade included free Wi-Fi access to the Internet and, after a short while fumbling through some of the documentation I’d been given on arrival, I found the password and logged on. Cursing the slowness of all things computer, I fired up Skype and tapped manicured nails on the desk impatiently as it loaded up and connected. Double click the one entry in my contacts list and…

“Hello?”

Mike’s face appeared on the screen and suddenly everything was alright again.

We chatted for half an hour, sharing the little details of our respective days with each other. Mike was sympathetic about the thing with the dress, but as I’d guessed, he didn’t really understand. In the end we ran out of things to say and started yawning at each other, which quickly degenerated into laughter and an agreement to do the same the next day.

The bed was soft and luxurious. I wrapped my arms tight around one of the pillows and imagined it was Mike. Sleep came easily.

-oOo-

The next morning I was up early. Eight thirty there was another knock at the door and a valet with another garment bag. Something smart but less dressy as I would be breakfasting with a group of business women. Again I was representing the Elle-gance line and promoting the sort of clothes I thought they’d be interested in. Things went a little bit off track though when they started asking more about my homeless project than what was in the catalogue. Before long I had them asking me what it would take to set up a similar thing in Birmingham. The breakfast went on for longer than planned, but the outcome was worth it. I outlined everything that had gone into setting up the Way Out project and before the end of the meeting, most of them had adopted some role or other in planning what was to become the first offshoot of the London work. They even agreed to each of them put in an order for something from the Elle-gance catalogue to help me feel less guilty about using this time talking about my private project.

Lunchtime saw me opening a new Elle-gance store in the centre of the city then, after a quick bite to eat, I was on the road to Manchester and another evening do.

for_evil22Back at the hotel afterwards I was feeling a lot more relaxed than I had the previous day. There was no desk for the laptop so I dropped it on the bed while it booted up I used the time to strip off the long, tight evening dress I had worn to the reception. This was what I’d wanted to do for Mike the other day, but stress and being later than expected had me rush to turn the computer on. I pulled the baby doll nightie Sharon had given me for my birthday from my suitcase and slipped it on. I slid onto the bed, lying on my front and clicked connect.

“Hi, oh bloody hell. Don’t tell my fiancée, but I think I’ve found a naughty website by mistake.”

I put on my best sultry voice.

“I won’t tell if you won’t. Would you like me to take something off?”

“More like put something on. I can see quite enough thanks.”

“You are such a stick in the mud sometimes Mike.”

“It’s not that. It’s just that I have this image of you which I like to maintain, and it is more along the lines of sweet and innocent rather than sexy and seductive.”

“Oh? And how’s that working out for you after Saturday morning?”

“Oh, it still works. You know I do understand what Saturday was about.”

“Mmn. Should I go and change into my Victorian ‘covers everything’ nightie then? I just thought this might make my being away a bit easier.”

“Well since you made the effort I think I can manage. Maybe the rest of the week as well if you can’t find anything else to wear.”

And with a giggle to follow, that set the level for the evening’s conversation. We ended about one again, but the miles had melted away and I fell into Morpheus’ arms with all sorts of dreams about Mike lining up for me.

-oOo-

It’s Wednesday so this must be Sheffield. Meetings with various women’s groups in Manchester during the morning and over lunch as before, including one or two interested in the homeless work and with a mind to set up something there, as long as I headed it up. It made me a bit late leaving, but since Sheffield was that close it didn’t matter; I still made it with time to spare.

The rest of the week saw similar things happening in Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham. I had planned to get off early from the Midlands on Saturday morning, but some of the women I’d met Friday night asked if I would give them some time the next morning, so it was nearly ten o’clock before I was on the road.

I let Mike and the Doctor Marston know about the delay and set off. As usual with Elle-gance affairs, I was allowed to keep the dresses I wore, so the seat next to me was overloaded with garment bags. I’d decided to wear Autumn Cloud again as part of self-therapy; that and it would be showing Paul I refused to be intimidated by him.

The Journey from Nottingham was straightforward enough. A52, A1, M11, M25; all easy roads. The sun was shining again in a continuation of this very uncharacteristic British springtime, but it was just a little too chilly still to want the top down. I kept myself occupied by planning out strategies for the new branches of Way Out that now seemed to be starting up. It surprised me how much the words I had spoken on the TV and the actions I had taken, along with their reporting in the national press, had galvanised people around the country. Most were not yet ready to launch out on their own, but with the success of Way Out in London leading the way, they were more than happy to climb aboard and become part of the solution.

Anticipation grew as the last miles disappeared, and I was fidgeting in my seat as I drew into the long driveway. Mike was waiting out front and I could barely contain myself enough to turn the engine off before I was out the door and into his arms, taking in deep lungfuls of his scent.

“Next week let me take one of your shirts with me?”

“Whatever for?”

“Your smell. I’ve missed your smell.”

The reunion lasted some time, but eventually I pulled myself away. There were other people waiting besides Mike and we had the whole rest of the weekend together. Actually not quite true. He would have to leave in a couple of hours to open up the restaurant, so if he wanted to be present when I confronted Paul we’d have to do it soon. I locked up the car and dragged him in to the reception area where I asked for Doctor Marston.

-oOo-

The doctor came to greet us some minutes later, apologising for being so busy.

“Other patients to see you know. Your idea last week. Not been able to try it. Paul’s been off the charts rage-wise. Turned more desperate as the week passed. Calmer in some ways today so have arranged something in half an hour. Knew you’d want to be here so waited. Mrs Bailey’s in the garden. You should say hello. Find you later.”

With that he was off at his usual brisk stride. I wrapped my arm around Mike’s elbow and led him out into the garden.

We found Mrs Bailey sitting in the dappled shade and shelter of a flowering cherry, the blossom filling enough of the branches to keep most of the gentle breeze and bright sun at bay. She was wearing slacks, shirt and cardigan in fairly subdued colours and she seemed at peace with a book on her lap.

“Hello Mrs Bailey.”

She looked up and smiled in recognition.

“Hello dear. It’s Elizabeth isn’t it? Doctor Marston told me everything you tried to do for Paul and I am grateful. Oh dear.”

Much of the colour drained from her face.

“Isn’t that the dress Paul was wearing last week?”

“Oh I’m so sorry Mrs Bailey, I didn’t think. It’s part of the collection I model and when I was asked to wear it earlier this week I had an attack of the horrors and almost couldn’t put in on. Wearing it today is sort of a self-therapy thing.”

“I understand dear. It suits you very well. Just as long as you don’t plan on turning into a scary man.”

I laughed and settled onto the bench beside her.

“Nothing further from my mind Mrs B. Tell me do you go by Geoff still or…”

Mike was fidgeting.

“I’m going to leave you two together. I think I saw Charley over by the pond. I may go and talk football or cars or some such.”

“Oh, I’m doing it all wrong today. Mrs Bailey, this is my fiancé, Mike. Mike, Paul’s mum.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr’s Bailey, but I really will leave you to talk. This is private matter and I don’t have a part in it.”

He gave me a peck on the cheek and disappeared down the path.

“Fiancé eh? You have adapted well.”

“For me this is the best thing that could have happened. I’ve always felt there’s been more girl than guy inside me, so to have been transformed like this, while it may have been an unexpected shock in the beginning, is really quite the most wonderful thing. I mean I’m not only a girl, but I’m a pretty one and ten years younger than I was.

“I’m only sorry it can’t be the same for Paul or you, or any of the others who were affected.”

“Others?”

“There were twelve of us in all, including Paul. I was the last; the girl who was causing the changes found peace after me. Most of the men she changed ended up jumping in the river or overdosing on drugs, but three of us survived. Paul, the one – Mike’s gone to see – and me.”

“And you tried to help Paul and the other one?”

“Charley’s hopelessly male. I mean can you imagine someone with my face and body trying to pass as a man? He tries though, and through force of will he even manages to pull it off a lot of the time. I’ve been talking through his options with him, and he’s all but decided to try and transition. You know, hormones, surgery, that kind of thing? He’s a tough guy and I think he’ll make it through, even though it’s going to be rough on him.

“Paul was different though. He actually has something I thought of as a feminine side to him, and I thought I might be able to persuade him to try living on this side of the fence. You know, if you can let go of the male ego, it’s actually a nice place to be, being a girl.”

She smiled, but it faded.

“I’m afraid Paul’s always been a bit spoiled. He’s an only child and I think parents tend to overcompensate for that. Certainly Harry and I did.

“Harry passed away three years ago, so I suppose it doesn’t make much difference if I spend the rest of my life as a woman or a man. It’s nice to have a bit more strength, but I find I miss the pretty things.”

She fiddled with the brown buttons on her brown cardigan. I placed a hand on hers.

“You do seem a lot calmer and more content than you did last week.”

“Well so much has changed. I get to see my Paul again, even if he hasn’t been in a fit state to talk this week, and I met a delightful gentleman earlier this week. He seemed to know all about me, called me Evelyn and everything. He asked me what it was I wanted most of all. I told him I wanted my Paul to be well again. I mean I know after what he did to you it must be hard to see any good in him, but he is my son and I love him. He’s everything I have left in this world now.”

I squeezed her hand. I understood, but I didn’t trust myself to speak just then.

“He said that I should be patient and have faith. You know that’s not such a hard thing to do?”

“Doctor Marston’s hoping to have a session with Paul this afternoon.”

“I know. I’m going to be there. He mentioned you and Mike and this Charley person, and now that you’ve explained things it all makes more sense.”

We chatted on about less consequential things until Doctor Marston came marching through the garden. He had passed Mike and Charley and had them in tow.

“About ready now if you’re up to it?”

We stood and followed. This was going to be interesting.

-oOo-

Paul was lying on a bed much like the one I had been strapped into the previous week. Padded leather restraints held his wrists and ankles as well as forehead, chest, stomach and legs. It may have seemed over the top, but it did a lot to calm my own fears. He looked over at us, his eyes bloodshot and twitching in agitation. Doctor Marston went forward to give him a quick look over, the rest of us hanging back out of sight.

“What time is it?”

“One thirty. Does that matter?”

“Six hours. Six hours.”

He wriggled as much as he could against the restraints, making no progress whatsoever.

“Why six hours? What’s so special about six hours.”

“The power I’ve been given. I have a week between each transformation. I kissed my mother at seven thirty last Saturday which means within the next six hours I need to transform someone else or…”

Doctor Marston put down the chart and folded his arms.

“Or what Paul?”

Paul tried to turn away, but the strap across his forehead wouldn’t even allow him that much freedom.

“Or what Paul?”

“Or my soul is forfeit. Something like that. You’ve got to let me kiss someone, anyone.”

The doctor waved for Charley to step forward and into Paul’s field of view.

Paul looked him up and down, then looked away.

“It won’t work.”

“Sorry?”

Paul raised his voice.

“It won’t work. The nature of the power is only to change people against their will. He wants to be a guy. He’s already been transformed from being a guy.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because he went over the ground rules alright? I know it won’t work on you in the same way that I know my life ends at half past seven tonight if you don’t let me out of this place. Come on this is a nut house. You must have some women who are so far gone they wouldn’t notice if they had a dick, why can’t you let me kiss one of those?”

A look of pained disappointment settled on Mrs Bailey’s face. I couldn’t stay out of it any longer. I stepped forward beside Charley who was trying his best not to look disappointed.

“I never thought you were that selfish Paul. Besides would it actually work? I mean if you can’t change people unless it’s against their will, what happens if you try to change someone who’s so far gone they have no will?”

He started hyperventilating, looking more desperate and helpless with each passing moment. I didn’t have much pity for him, but I hated to see anyone suffer.

“What if he’s lying Paul? I mean you know he lies, why not here? When I was changed it wasn’t against my will.”

“It wasn’t something you overtly wanted though was it.”

“Why not at least try?”

Desperation warred with resignation; the more impassioned feeling one. I nudged Charley the moment I saw the way Paul’s thinking was going.

“Go on. Give it a try.”

“You want me to kiss a guy?”

“If I were in your position, I would. Go on, pretend to be a girl just for a moment.”

He looked me up and down uncertainly then stepped forward. The kiss was short and unimpressive. No change occurred.

“I told you it wouldn’t work.”

“Yes but you were as prepared as the rest of us to try it. I’m sorry Charley, it was worth a shot.”

He nodded and turned back out of the room. I made to follow. It was too much for Paul.

“What so that’s it? Just her and nothing more? You can’t seriously tell me that you’re going to keep me here and watch me lose my soul when the time wraps around.”

“I’m not sure what else we can do Paul. I mean this was your own decision, and it would be more wrong for us to help you than to hinder you. You transform someone this week and you’ll have to do it again the next and the next. It has to stop somewhere Paul.”

“You think it’ll stop here? The power isn’t mine but his. Once he takes me, he’ll just go off in search of another desperate idiot to give it to. This is never going to stop.”

There was truth to those words. Amidst all the deceit and lies, that one horrifying truth stood out. Perhaps Mary had started this, perhaps there had been someone before her, but whatever its origins, we’d seen the power move from one person to another, even cross the gender boundary. There would be more of these, and there was nothing I could do about it. I looked at Evelyn and Charley, struggling with lives twisted out of shape from what they had been. There had to be something.

The world around me slowed and stopped. Everyone in the room with me was still.

“If there were a way, would you take it?”

I spun at the voice. I recognised it, but this time it was less friendly, more serious. The old man with the wild hair and beard stared at me through eyes as deep as eternity. I looked at Mike. He was as unmoving as the rest. The clock on the wall was still, the second hand suspended, time stopped. I looked back at the old man, the question burning in my own mind.

“Stopping time’s not that hard when you know the trick. They won’t realise anything’s happened. This is just for you and me. I’ll ask again. If there were a way to stop this once and for all, would you take it?”

The eyes were boring into me and I knew there was more to it than just saying yes or no.

“What would be the consequences?”

“We could undo a lot of what’s been done and it would never occur again.”

“No, I mean what would be the price?”

It would be redundant to say that time stood still, but it seemed to do so even more. There was pain in his eyes and his voice as he responded.

“You would have to kiss Paul.”

I don’t know how I remained standing. It was the worst of all fears overcoming me at the same time. It was vertigo, it was falling, it was fading away, it was shattering into a million pieces.

“You mean…”

He nodded. Gravely. Everything my life had become. The love I had found, the friends I had made, the sheer delight in being this new me. That was the price. I would go back to being Ken and no longer have the things that had become so precious to me.

“What about Way Out?”

“That has enough impetus to keep alive. They’ll wonder what happened to their founder and they’ll miss you, but the good that’s already coming of it will not be wasted.”

“And Mike?”

“Mike is a human being and will make his own decisions. He will find happiness.”

“And this is the only way?”

“This is the only way. The choice is yours alone.”

I could feel hot tears welling up inside me. There was no choice, not really. I mean what price my happiness when compared to the misery of countless others? If I was going to do this it had to be before I had a chance to fully think it through. I nodded once and felt time spooling up around me. Movement returned and I looked one last desperate time into the eyes of the man I had grown to love. He saw the pain in my own and his expression changed from confusion to terror as he saw my intent.

I turned to Paul and leaned over him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mike begin to move. In the dim recesses of my mind I heard his voice roaring out in protest, but muffled as though from a great distance. All I was aware of, all that filled my mind, was Paul’s curious expression and his question, so much louder, so much closer than it should have been.

“What are you doing?”

I swallowed, reaching for courage I was not certain I had.

“Giving you what you tried to take from me.”

My lips brushed his ever so lightly, ever so briefly, but enough. I felt the power enter me again, felt the familiar dizzy sensation, felt myself growing, straining the fabric of my clothes. The comforting weight of my hair receded. Delicate nylon stretched and tore, the straps of my sandals snapped and along with them the last of my strength. I sagged to my knees, Ken’s knees. Lifted my hands to my face, Ken’s hands, Ken’s face. I opened my mouth to cry out, but no sound would come. Inside something broke and what poured out to spread through every fibre of my being was a most profound and utter sense of loss that went beyond imagining.

-oOo-

Chapter 23

The next thing I remember was a hand on my shoulder. Strong fingers gripping tight. I didn’t want to raise my head, everything hurt too much. So much loss. How could I live now?

“You did it.”

It was the old tramp. His wasn’t a voice I was ever going to forget, and now the kindness was back in it. I turned slowly to look at him. His eyes were streaming with tears and around them his leather skin stretched into more laughter lines than I’d ever seen on one face. He looked deep into me and said once more with infinite kindness.

“You did it.”

It didn’t stop the pain. For so much of my life I had wanted but never dared hope for the life Mary had given me. For the past few months I had lived as I’d always wanted to be, and I had truly lived. I had done such wonderful things, made such a difference in people’s lives, loved like I had never loved before. Just a few short months and I had lived more than I had in all the twenty seven years before.

And now it was gone.

I buried my face in his jacket and wept for the loss. I know it’s not what guys are supposed to do, but I couldn’t help it.

“I don’t know if I can pay the price.”

“You already did child.”

“But I don’t know if I can live with the cost.”

Strong arms encircled me and held me close. I cried ’til I ran out of tears, and then heaved up dry sobs of purest misery. Tears were supposed to help, to heal, but there was no ending to this pain. Even when I had no more strength left to cry the consequences of my choice weighed down on me still and it hurt so much.

He waited until I was quiet and lifted me gently to my feet.

“Let me show you what your sacrifice bought.”

The room filled with darkness, condensing out of the air, forming tendrils which coalesced to become… Him.

“What happened here? What did you do?”

His voice was less scratchy than when it played inside my head, but again I recognised him. Dark suit and bowler hat, dark eyes, dark manner.

“She did it. She bested you.”

“She? Have you looked between ‘her’ legs lately?”

“BE SILENT!”

It was a roar of pure indignation, powerful enough to make even the man in black step back and close his mouth.

“You will not speak your lies here. You spend all of your existence spreading your filth, trying to persuade people down paths they would not choose to make them just as miserable as yourself, just as capable of spreading misery as yourself. All you see are your own selfish desires, all you know is the misery and pain you feel, and the misery and pain you cause others.

“You delight in your little schemes, preying on the base nature in men and women to corrupt them, encouraging their own selfish nature and all the while backing them into a corner until they have little choice but to bend to your will. You seek to control, to twist and torture for your own pleasure, but you forget, you always forget, that all that is needed to collapse your house of cards is one act of selflessness.

“There were eight others. Bring them.”

“They’re mine. They took their own lives.”

“Only after you took every reason they had to live. Bring them.”

Eight transparent figures appeared around the room, all of them copies of me – at least me as I used to be. I would have given anything to trade places with just one of them. Even as a ghost I would have been able to find more happiness than I had hope for now. They were all dressed as I’d last seen them, though the effects of drugs and drowning were no longer evident. Even as I looked, they changed. Growing taller, broader, more male; the skimpy skirts and fishnet tights faded to be replaced by plane grey trousers and shirts. The old man by my side addressed them.

“You have a choice. You can go back where you just came from or take a chance with me. Just come over here if you can believe that what I have to offer is better than what you’ve received so far.”

To a man they crossed the room. More magical morphing and they were wearing robes. White ones. What kind of cliché was that? One of the eight seemed to be thinking along similar lines.

“Hey what’s with the dresses man?”

“They’re called robes son. Men have worn them for far longer than they have the trousers you’re more used to. Give them a try, I think you’ll learn to like them. Of course if you’re going to make an issue of it, you can always go back over there.”

That seemed to settle the matter. They all quietened down and a moment later they were gone. My companion turned again to the man in black.

Something had been bothering me since they all appeared. I finally figured it out.

“Weren’t there nine who died?”

“Yes, but the one you took to the hospital already made her peace.”

Asked and answered. He turned his attention back to the dark figure opposite him.

“Now those still altered against their will. Jordan and Evelyn.”

I turned to the door in time to see two familiar forms – frozen in time – shimmer and change. Jordan turned out to be six foot plus with broad shoulders and large muscles, which were now stretching and tearing his sweatshirt and even the denim of his jeans. Evelyn was once more the attractive, silver haired old lady I had first met a week previously. There was something else not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the man next to me was speaking again and I turned my attention to his words.

“And now this.”

He reached out over Paul’s recumbent form and drew a darkness from it into his hand. In time he held a small black sphere, no larger than a marble and swirling as if filled with smoke.

“This power is broken and so are you. You have no more influence in this realm, that assurance has been bought and paid for in full. Now get out of here.”

The last ended up as a booming command that brooked no argument. It hadn’t been directed at me and even I felt the urge to run. The man in black struggled to resist, but there was no denying it. With one final howl of rage, he exploded into the darkness from which he had formed, and faded into nothing.

My companion held me by my shoulders at arm’s length. I must have seemed less impressed than he’d hoped because his face lost much of its radiant joy.

“I could show you all the thousands of despairing people who would have gone to their graves in misery and without hope had you not stopped this.”

“It’s not that. The price was worth it, even for what you showed me. I just don’t know if I can afford the cost. This loss is too hard to accept”

I twisted out of his grasp and turned away from him. My body had found a fresh reserve supply of tears and my eyes were filling once more.

“It had to be a sacrifice, child. What you offered had to have value if it was to buy back the lives and happiness of these people.”

I nodded my understanding as his confirmation of my loss crushed the last vestiges of hope within me.

“You found the courage to give it up. You will find the courage to live.”

I shrugged dismissively I hoped. I needed to be alone to face this now. I knew he could read my thoughts, he’d done it before in the park, but he wasn’t taking hints this time.

“Do you remember when we first met you wondered how many years I’d spent on the streets with people looking down on me, despising me?”

I nodded. I didn’t trust my voice or the words I might say right now.

“The answer is more than you can imagine. I’ve lived so many lifetimes in this form, even though I don’t have to . Do you know why I keep doing it? Living like this?”

I shrugged.

“It’s for moments like this one, when I see humanity’s true potential realised. I saw it inside you the day we met, but to witness it brought to a conclusion like this is… glorious. I know you only feel the pain of your loss right now, but that will pass. Soon enough you will find reason to rejoice.”

I knew he meant well, but nothing he said penetrated the anguish that tormented me. I couldn’t face him or anyone right now and he sensed this. He squeezed my shoulder one last time, turned and walked away. I thought I heard a few muffled words spoken, as though he were muttering under his breath, then he was gone. I could feel something in the atmosphere dissipate and steeled myself for the flow of time to return and with it the need to face my friends.

There would be well meant words of sympathy, of thanks perhaps, of who knows what. But I was cocooned in my misery and nothing could penetrate the shell. Their best efforts would only serve to add to my pain.

A hand on my shoulder again, smaller and gentler this time. I glanced down at it and recognised Mike’s short nails and slender fingers; almost too slender for a man’s. I turned my head away, not wishing him to see me like this.

“Mike no. I can’t.”

The hand was firm and insistent and I hadn’t the strength to resist. He turned me to face him and I dropped my gaze. I couldn’t take what I was sure I would see in those eyes. I reached for the ring, thinking he might want it back, but my finger had grown inside of it and was even now swollen and blue. I realised it actually hurt, and the physical pain was a welcome distraction from the turmoil inside me.

I raised my hand to show him.

“I think we’re going to have to cut it off. The ring I mean, I’d rather like to keep the finger.”

He cupped my chin and lifted my face until I was forced to look into his eyes.

“He let me see it all. I couldn’t move, but I saw everything. At first I didn’t understand why you did what you did, but now I know.”

That must have been the wrongness that had caught my eye, his eyes moving in an otherwise still body. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t endure him seeing me like this. I tried to move my head but he held it still.

“Mike, please. I never meant to hurt you, I never wanted you to see me like this.”

He kept looking into my eyes as if searching for something and I couldn’t help but look back. Nothing I had expected to see was there. Not horror or disgust, not sorrow or regret. Just amazement, wonder and… love?

“All I see is the girl I fell in love with.”

With that he leaned forward and kissed me. Mike, my very straight, occasionally unintentionally slightly homophobic, but well-meaning fiancé drew me to him and kissed me gently, softly on the lips.

Something was different. At first I thought it was me feeling awkward being kissed by a guy when I was a guy myself – at least on the outside – but there was something else too. Nothing changed, at least not immediately. I opened my eyes and looked into his and he was smiling. He glanced down and I followed his gaze. In his free hand he held what looked like a large opalescent pearl.

“He said something to me before he left. He said this was meant for evil but maybe in the right hands, driven by the right heart, something better could be made of it. He said it would only work one last time.”

He grasped my hand – the one with the ring and the swollen finger – and held the small artefact between our palms. A brilliance began to shine out from between our entwined fingers and a tingling warmth spread through me, starting in the palm of my hand and spreading out until it filled every extremity in my body. I could see Mike squinting and realised that the brilliance must have transferred itself to me, shining from every pore in my body and… changing me. Mike seemed to grow a little and I looked down at myself as flesh faded from my limbs. Arms, hands, fingers, feet, legs, waist, all became slender, delicate, beautiful. Hips and breasts grew to match and, like a waterfall in slow motion, those auburn curls I had grown to love – and at times hate – tumbled down over my back and shoulders. I lifted my free hand to explore my face and felt high cheekbones, full lips, small button nose.

“But… I don’t understand.”

“He also told me that just because you sacrifice something, it doesn’t mean you have to lose it forever. Apparently there’s a precedent.”

The glow subsided and he disengaged his hand from mine. The pearl still remained in the palm of his hand, but there was something gone from it. It was inert, lifeless, spent.

It was almost too much. To have been pulled so deeply into despair, only to have that oppressive weight lifted and thrown away was almost more than I could stand. I would have fallen in a boneless heap had Mike not been there to hold me up, and tears like I have never known flowed freely and in abundance from my already weary eyes. Alternately laughing and crying, I clung weakly to Mike and let the relief flood through me.

-oOo-

Time returned once more. The unnatural silence that had surrounded Mike and myself filled with a low sound that wound up like an old fashioned gramophone and we were surround by confused and insistent voices, cries of wonder and joy, cries of confusion and protest. Doctor Marston approached, hovering nearby, torn between his curiosity and his polite discretion. I pulled wobbly legs under me and turned a radiant smile his way.

“It’s finished Doctor. You can release him.”

“You sure?”

Paul was straining against his bonds, still immobile.

“I’m sure. Whatever power he had has been taken from him and broken. He can’t hurt anyone now.”

The doctor set about loosening the straps and I turned Mike to face the two other people in the room with us.

I disengaged from Mike to give the real Evelyn a hug. Tears were streaming down her face and she kept shaking her head in wordless gratitude and wonder. The clothes hung loose on her and she had to cling to the belt to keep her trousers up.

I turned to Jordan, eyes drawn inexorably down to the large bulge between his legs and something that didn’t quite fit.

“I think we need to get you some clothes as soon as we can.”

He looked down and blushed.

“Oh. Actually that’s… not me.”

He reached down to pull out the bit that was showing and it detached causing Mike to go pale.

“No it’s alright, my little chap’s still down there. This is just… You know, what you gave me last week? I guess I don’t need it anymore”

The bulge in his knickers confirmed what he was saying. He offered me the prosthetic and I shook my head laughing.

“Don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t really want it back. Why don’t you keep it as a memento. Mount it and hang it on the wall. It’ll give you a conversation starter if nothing else. I still think we should get you some clothes though.”

“The same could be said for you.”

I looked down at the second Autumn Cloud I had seen ruined, and let out a weak sob, more of laughter than distress.

The doctor had finished releasing Paul, who approached his mother apprehensively. She was just as wary of him for a moment, but then her instincts took over and she opened her arms to him. He accepted the embrace silently, burying his face in her neck to hide his own tears. Despite his selfishness and decidedly poor judgement, he’d been through his own hell and needed to heal.

The doctor looked around at us , abruptly all decisive and pragmatic.

“Lunch. No, clothes for you first then lunch. And explanations. Not for the paperwork you understand, for peace of mind for all of us.”

I glanced at the clock. Twenty to two. Just ten minutes had passed, perhaps more subjectively given that interesting trick with time. My stomach growled to tell me I’d been neglecting it, which brought about a few chuckles and a general mobilisation towards seeing the doctor’s plan through.

Doctor Marston led us to a conference room and had sandwiches brought to us, and a pair of light cotton scrubs for Jordan – I kept calling him Charley – who disappeared for a moment then re-joined us looking relieved and agreeably more decent. I changed into more of the clothes I’d brought previously for Emily then insisted that we eat first before speaking. As well as replenishing all my spent energy, it gave me time to think through what needed to be said.

It took a while to go through the whole story. Most of those present had relatively small parts of the whole and they kept interrupting to ask questions. Eventually I finished with the events of that afternoon, glossing over some of the less essential details.

All that remained was to decide what happened next.

Evelyn and Paul decided to travel back to Grays where Paul would help his mother repair the damage to her home. Small enough penance in my mind, but it was Evelyn’s choice. Doctor Marston agreed to drop them off at the local station and they would take the train from there.

Charley – no Jordan – would also be released that same day, there being no further reason for keeping him there as well as some potentially difficult questions if he were to stay. He decided his first stop should be home to reassure his parents. The doctor looked over at Mike and me.

“Jordan’s parents live near you. Was wondering if you could drop him home?”

I turned to Jordan.

“I can probably go one better. Do you have a driving license?”

He nodded.

“I’m not sure I’m safe behind the wheel of a car right now. My insurance will cover you if you don’t mind driving my little baby to my home and making your way from there.”

“What car d’you have? I mean if it’s a pink VW Beetle or something… You know my reps taken a big enough hit as it is.”

I pointed at the roadster and watched his grin broaden. I handed him the keys.

“Please put the bags and clothes next to the four by four before you leave. The address is in the satnav. Just turn it on and hit take me home. Lock the keys in the boot when you get there, I have a spare set in the flat.”

-oOo-

Mike and I took one last turn around the gardens, both of us feeling the need for their calming influence before we headed off. There was a good possibility that we’d never be coming back this way and, in the few brief visits we’d made, we’d both grown to love and appreciate the quite serenity of the place.

Apart from some of the inmates that is. An elderly man approached us, his face contorted in distress.

“Have you seen my Sally. She’s around here somewhere. I have to find her.”

I’d come across him on at least one of my previous visits. Sally, the doctor had told me, had been Mr Dawkins’s daughter who’d died in a car accident some years previously. Mr D had never been able to accept the loss and after my recent experience I could sympathise. I reached out a hand to him in comfort and he settled the moment I touched him.

“She’s gone isn’t she? My Sally’s…”

“I’m sorry.”

“No it’s… It’s alright. I… Thank-you.”

In something of a daze he walked back towards the main building leaving Mike and me staring after him.

“Did what I think just happened just happen?”

“I don’t know. It could have been coincidence.”

We walked around a little longer without further incident until three o’clock came round and we had to get off so Mike could prepare for the evening.

“Come back to the restaurant with me? I don’t want to be away from you tonight.”

I smiled and nodded my agreement. We followed Mr Dawkins’s path back towards the main building, and from there to the car. A question nagged at me. I slipped my arm around Mike’s waist and snuggled in close to him.

“If I hadn’t changed back, if I’d been stuck as Ken, what would you have done?”

“I don’t know. We’d have worked something out, I mean I did make you a promise after all. ‘Before the eyes of God, now and forever in all things, I am yours’, remember?”

I leaned hard against him, knocking us off course for a moment.

“I don’t want to wait ’til August. How do you feel about a Spring wedding?”

“Not much of Spring left.”

“There’s still enough if we get our act together.”

“Well the cherry trees behind the restaurant are in blossom. Might last another two or three weeks if we’re lucky.”

“Sounds perfect and I feel lucky. Let’s see what we can get arranged in the time.”

We reached the car and he helped me to climb up into my seat before walking round the back to load my things in the boot. As he took his place behind the wheel he looked across at me.

“When was the last time I told you I loved you?”

“Not so long ago I’ve forgotten. Not so recently that that I would object to you doing it again.”

He reached over to kiss me before putting the car in gear.

-oOo-

Epilogue

I pick the frame up off its bracket and carried it to a nearby chair where my cup of tea is waiting. Coffee is a young person’s drink, which I gave up over thirty years ago. I settle carefully into the chair, old age making my movements slow and cautious.

for_evil23The frame shows Mike and me on our wedding day. Me in that great meringue of a dress, strapless and beaded with pearls. My choice and the finest in the Elle-gance wedding collection. Certainly the most expensive. Mike wore a plain charcoal suit with a cravat. Neither of us were that keen on top hat and tails, any more than we liked the idea of ties. The suit and cravat seemed a reasonable compromise and looked just right on him. We were framed on either side by cherry trees, the blossom falling about us like confetti. Our photographer had managed to capture the look of wonder and delight on both our faces at the effects of that sudden breeze.

I touch the picture and it changes, fading into a similar shot but from a greater distance and encircling us are the words, ‘Mike and Liz’s Wedding’. Not particularly original but what more do you need? I swipe across the picture and it does the digital equivalent of peeling off to reveal the next photograph underneath.

It’s called digital paper; a revolution from some forty years ago, and improved with each passing year. It didn’t need the frame, but could be awkward to use without something giving it rigidity. The material covers most desks and work surfaces these days, including kids desks at school and home. It’s hard to remember how limited the first versions were when compared to this. Touch sensitive with a micro foil computer on the back and WiFied into the UltraNet. Digital data is so these days, it makes you wonder what we did way back when.

The first few shots are more of Mike and me, both together and on our own. I pause on a close up of Mike and blink back a tear. Today would have been our sixtieth wedding anniversary had he survived to see it. He’s been gone three years now and I still missed him terribly, but I suppose that’s at least one consequence of marrying someone nine years older than you. Usually I’m able to fill the hole he left in my life with memories of all the things we did together, all the places we visited, but days like today I allow myself a little sadness.

I flip the page and there he is again, this time in an off-guard moment, staring in mute appreciation at the Morgan Plus 8 sitting in the car park in front of his restaurant. Cousin Katie had confided in me that he’d always wanted one but never been able to justify the expense. I hadn’t needed to, although the only way I’d been able to buy one in time for the wedding had been to go second hand. Being on the road helped as I had been able to view quite a few around the country. I enlisted the car check services of one of the roadside assistance organisations more than once and managed to escape a few near disasters. Eventually I found one that had been bought and garaged as an investment, and managed to negotiate a fair price. Mike held onto the car for twenty years before soaring petrol prices made it unaffordable for even us to run. He wasn’t prepared to convert it to hydrogen cell – sacrilege in such a piece of motoring art – and had eventually donated it to a grateful car museum, where it is still on display. I should know, I visit regularly.

I swipe the screen. Back to me in close up, this time with a good view of my necklace. Mike had taken the pearl like object that had remained after my final transformation to a jeweller he knew. The result was the epitome of simplicity and elegance. A platinum band wrapped around the opalescent sphere and attached to a matching chain. I have worn it every day since our wedding, including today.

Swipe.

A group shot with Phil as Mike’s best man and Sharon as my maid of honour. A few years ago Phil and Sharon retired to the south of France where the Mediterranean sun cured them into the sort of invincible, leathery old people you find in such places. Phil will be eighty-seven this year and Sharon just a year younger, but they keep on. Of course the advances in age prevention help no end. I stopped taking them after Mike passed on. No-one to make the effort for, no reason to hang around longer than I need to. The lines are beginning to show and I welcome them. I don’t see it so much as giving up, but rather letting nature have its way.

Phil and Sharon have invited me out to visit this summer and I’ve agreed. It will be my first time out of the country since I lost Mike, and I find I’m actually looking forward to it.

Swipe.

My bridesmaids. Sharon obviously, Charlotte, my fellow catwalk model, Cassie, radiating her delight, and my two nieces, Gemma and Abbie, grinning for England, so pleased were they to be a part of Auntie Liz’s wedding. The dresses were lavender. Not my favourite colour, but very flattering on Sharon, Charlotte and even Cassie.

Swipe.

The next was of Cassie and her mother. It’s hard to think of little Cassie as being in her seventies now. Life has this trick of catching us unawares at times.

Swipe.

Pastor James and his lovely wife Marion. Pastor James conducted the wedding service. The legal part had been sorted with much giggling at the local registry office. The registrar had spoken to us in solemn tones of the seriousness of our undertaking, and I had been hard pressed not to give in to the giggles then and there. By the time we left with ink drying on our piece of legalese, Mike, Phil and Sharon had caught it as well and we had to sit down on the steps to let the laughter subside. Married three times Mike and me. First when we made our promises that first time together. Second in the registry office. Third and most properly by Pastor James.

Swipe.

Mr and Mrs Anderton-Buckley. I’d taken Clive to one side the Sunday after it was all over and told him how things had resolve themselves. He Nodded his thanks but showed no further emotion. I asked him why he wasn’t angry, having gone to all that trouble to put together the two identities, for them to be made useless so soon. The memory of his response drifts forward from the recesses of my mind.

“Oh I wouldn’t say useless. A few tweaks here and there and I can give them to another deserving cause. I’m only pleased that I won’t be getting any more phone calls from you in the ungodly hours of the morning. I am assuming this is all over now.”

I nodded and kissed him on the cheek.

“That’s for being so fantastic over all this. And if there’s anything Mike or I can do for you, any time of the day or night. I mean it’s only fair.”

He had taken us up on that a couple of times when he’d needed a place to keep someone safe at short notice, but he hadn’t even come close to over-extending his credit with us.

Swipe

Doctor Marston with wife and children. A happier brood I never saw – until I had one of my own of course. It turned out that the incident in the gardens wasn’t a one off. The doctor called me during the week to ask if I’d bumped into Mr Dawkins in the garden and, after I explained what had happened, he asked if I would come back to the institute to spend time with some of his other patients. It turned out that I had a calming influence whoever I touched, something that came in very handy when I had children of my own, or even when I was with other people’s children. Just one touch and they calmed down. Every mother should be so blessed.

I spent quite a few Saturdays with Doctor Marston and his patients over the years. He was a good enough doctor to make use of a treatment that worked, even if he didn’t understand how or why.

Swipe.

Jordan with a very dishy young girl on his arm. He’d delivered the roadster unscathed to my flat and followed all my instructions to the letter before walking the last half mile to his parent’s home. We lost touch shortly after the wedding, but from what I saw of him, I imagine he lived a happy enough life.

Swipe.

Cousin Katie, on her own but content enough. Mike and I had continued to ride her horses when we could, right up until the point she sold the stable and retired. She and I still meet regularly to exchange gossip and to share the space Mike no longer fills in our lives.

Swipe.

Michael, Colin, Aaron and a group of others from Way Out. I still love the name we chose for its double meaning. Both a way out from the hopelessness of being stuck on the streets and way out in the sense of it being a crazy idea. It had worked though, and spread throughout the country in slow but steady steps. I’m still president emeritus for the organisation, whatever that counts for, and am asked at times to speak at public events. Aaron and Michael worked with Way Out until they retired. They didn’t make much money at it, but they were rich in friends and stories of lives saved. They both told me many times that they had no regrets choosing to stick with us.

Swipe.

A surprise arrival from Mum and Dad. Dad was still on crutches after his knee operation and couldn’t drive, which meant he was more or less hostage to Mum’s whims, and since she wasn’t going to miss her daughter’s wedding, that kind of meant that he had to come along too.

I would have liked him to walk me down the aisle, but with his leg and everything it wouldn’t have been fair. He never came round to believing that I had once been his son, and he died saddened by the belief that Ken had met an untimely end somewhere.

There had been security footage of the room when I’d been in there with Paul, but neither angel nor demon had appeared on camera, and with all the weird stopping and starting of time, my movements and changes on the video had been so disjointed it looked like a bad fake. Not the kind of proof Dad would have accepted.

Still he had been there, and so had my mother. It had all helped to make the day special.

Swipe

Well, with Gemma and Abbie as bridesmaids and Mum and Dad present, Glen and Lisa had to be somewhere too. There were a couple of shots of them. One on their own and the other with my two little nieces, still looking a gorgeous as ever in their dresses.

Swipe

Mrs Bailey and Paul. Mrs Bailey wearing a tight smile over a navy blue skirt and jacket. Her delight in being there shining from her eyes. Paul was less enthused. Mrs Bailey and I met up once or twice after the wedding, but she wouldn’t say much about Paul. I hope he learnt from his experience. I hope he learned to live a better life. Sometimes hoping is all you can do.

Swipe

Detective Inspector and Mrs Chubb. I never did learn his first name. I had phoned him while Mike was driving us home that fateful afternoon and told him all that had happened. He was grateful for the news, knowing he could close that particular file once and for all, and a week later he managed to get my watch and necklace out the Grays police station and returned to me. We didn’t really see much of them at the wedding, or after. Another friend briefly met, made and misplaced.

Swipe

Ann and Karen. Dear bubbly Ann of the dreadful coffee and Karen with the eternal phone stuck to her ear. More out of desperation and survival instinct, I had bought Ann a coffee maker and several packets of decent coffee for Christmas the first year we were together. It was a simple filter machine with jugs and hotplates, but I still had to show her how to use it. After that our visits became more bearable, and oddly her client base increased, although I claim no correlation between the two events.

Ann remained my agent and I carried on working with Karen for Elle-gance for the five years I strode the catwalk. Long enough to fill my wardrobe with clothes, and Mike’s and my joint account with funds. Enough to help extend his restaurant into a chain.

James and Sandy opened the first of the new places shortly after we were married, and Mike took on two new sou-chefs to train up. It took eighteen months to train someone up to Mike’s exacting standards, which meant we had four other restaurants running by the time I withdrew from the limelight to start a family, all of them doing well enough to mean that my salary wasn’t missed.

Joy came along less than a year later, and Ruth twenty months after that. ‘A few hours of pain for a lifetime of joy’, that’s how our first came by her name, and she lived up to it. Except for the times when she came home with skinned knuckles after fighting in the playground – defending her friends she said – or that year when every boy she brought home – and there were a few of them – had long greasy hair and leathers. The last of the bikers, the last of the petrol heads. Perhaps we should have kept one for posterity.

There were other incidents to deal with, but in the end she grew into a young woman who has made me immensely proud; a firebrand with ideas of her own. She’s fifty four now. No husband, no children for me to spoil, but what she has achieved in her life… I look into her eyes sometimes expecting to see sadness and loneliness, but all that radiates back is fulfilment and contentment. I suppose if it is enough for her, it should be enough for me; she’s found her own way to live up to her name.

Ruth also lived up to her namesake, and with a lot less hassle. Always respectful, always close to home, always looking after her mother. And happily married with three children. The oldest graduated last year and works in one of the new fusion power stations. They’re getting better each year. The first ones hauled us out of the energy crisis by the roots of our hair and the skin of our teeth, and they’ve only improved since then. What Andrew doesn’t know about fusion reactors I doubt anyone else on the planet knows. It does make him a bit of a boring conversationalist, but he’s my grandson and I can listen to a lot of his drivel without growing tired of it.

Melanie’s my second grandchild. She started medical school last year. She wants to be a paediatrician and I wish her well with it. And that leaves Peter, still working towards his A levels with offers at several good universities to read engineering. He wants to work on the space elevator that’s being built in Kenya. From what he tells me the first carbon nanotube filament runs are in place and by the time he graduates they should be strong enough to carry test modules and small payloads. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t expect to live long enough to see anything come of it, but I do delight in his enthusiasm.

No, the future belongs to the young now. Me? I have the present and the past, and what a past. There are times I look back and wonder what my life would have been if I had never met Mary, or if Mike hadn’t been able to restore me to my preferred self. I mean in most ways both Ken and Liz were the same person, but I know as Ken I would never have accomplished so much, never have enjoyed life so much. Ken was always a bad fit for me; uncomfortable and clumsy, like wearing someone else’s clothes. It was only when I was able to be the person I truly wanted to be that I was able to stop struggling with who I was and turn my attention in other more positive directions.

I take a sip of my tea, but it has grown cold. Like life in many ways. Let other things distract you and before you know it, it turns cold and brackish. Drink it while it’s hot and enjoy all its benefits.

The doorbell rings and a small window opens in the corner of the screen. De-localised artificial intelligence they call it. Someone presses the button outside, the AI finds where I am and connects the doorcam to the nearest digital imaging device, in this case the photo frame. This room has cameras on the videophone and the TriV. The AI would have activated both, decided which gave the best image, zoomed in and sent that down to the door viewer. I flip the doorcam image towards the TriV, which turns on to show Ruth looking at me and smiling.

“Hi Mum, are you ready?”

“Just let me get my bag and coat sweetheart, I’ll be down directly.”

Directly takes a little longer these days, but this is my day so they can wait a while. I put the picture frame back where it belongs and leave the room, still with the ghost of a feeling that I should be turning things off as I leave, but the AI is already doing so.

I close the door and let Ruth take my arm. She tells me her little lies about how lovely I look and guides me to the waiting car. No hover cars yet, not even this far into the future, but at least what we have is clean and quiet. Ruth helps me up into the front seat before climbing in behind John, her husband. There isn’t much to driving these days, but still the man’s place is behind the wheel. I vaguely remember once feeling things like that and I don’t miss them.

We pull out into traffic. Everything seems so built up these days, it’s hard to see the sky. Cloudy today so not much missed. John and Ruth chatter away, telling me the latest news from my grandchildren. They think I think we’re going to a quiet little place in town for a light lunch, but Peter let something slip on his last visit and I’m expecting something more elaborate. I suppose I will have to act surprised, but I do feel like company today. Maybe Sharon and Phil will have flown in, that would be special. I fondle the pendant round my neck and think of Mike.

“I’ll see you soon my love. Not today, but soon.”

-Fin-