Flip – 11 – Keen and conclusion
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Erm, Ph…” I stopped myself before autopilot pushed me into using either of my names and confusing matters. There was another name I’d always liked. It belonged to a girl I’d met on holiday last year before Philippa emerged. “Faith,” I said. “Who are you? Where’s Mrs Merrick?”
“Come inside,” he said, grabbing my shoulder.
I pulled back out of his reach. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.” I had my voice slightly raised, threatening a scene.
He reached into his jacket and showed me the wallet I’d seen once before. “Agent Keen, MI5. Now come inside.” He had the sense not to reach for me again, but he pointed emphatically. This was an instruction, not a request.
I took another step back. “I need to call my aunt,” I said, pulling my phone out of my purse and pressing the speed dial before he could stop me.
“That was quick.”
To right! I’d need some quick thinking to make this work out.
“Aunt Miriam, it’s Faith. I don’t know why, but I think I’m in trouble. I came to Mr and Mrs Merrick’s house like you suggested, but there’s this scary man here. He has a badge…”
I didn’t get any further. Keen stepped out of the house far enough to grab the phone out of my hands. He took hold of my upper arm with his other hand to stop me running away.”
“Who is this?” he demanded into the phone. After a short pause, “This is agent Martin Keen of MI5, now… Badge number 2029332, now… Alright.” He hung up the phone and stood still, fuming.
I suppressed a smile. It wasn’t a side of Dr Sellers I’d seen, but I imagined she could be quite intimidating. My phone rang and Keen answered.
“Yes, now… Will you tell me who you are? Thank you Dr Sellers. Your niece has come to the house of a family who are assisting us in a case. I’m afraid she will have to… No, out of the question… You can do what you like, but this is happening. Alright, but very briefly.” He handed me back my phone.
“So, Faith then. You’d better go into the house with him. Don’t hang up the phone, just make it seem like you’re doing so. Don’t put it back in your bag if you can help it. I’m guessing you’re making this up on the fly, so try and give me as much information as you can without saying more than you have to.”
“Yes Aunt Miriam.”
“I told your Agent Keen that I’m calling a solicitor, and I will. We’ll help as much as we can.”
“Alright Auntie, bye.” I stabbed at the phone, but deliberately missed the end call icon. I squeezed the lock screen button on the side, making the screen go blank, and held the phone to my chest, allowing myself to be guided into the house.
Mum, Dad and Stacey were sitting in the front room, looking grim. Stacey’s eyes went wide when she saw me. She fought for and regained control before Keen followed me into the room. There were a couple of other agents there, but they hadn’t been in a position to see anything. Dad looked at me without recognition then went back to his quiet fuming. Mum’s eye’s rose at the sight of me. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Hello Mrs Merrick,” I said, interrupting her. “I don’t know if you remember me. Phillip and I made friends while we were on holiday last year. Moorhouse Farm in Somerset. We were pitched a couple of tents down from you.”
“Oh. Oh yes. Faith, wasn’t it? Faith…”
“Warren, Mrs Merrick.” Chalk one up for keeping close to the truth. “Phil always said I should look him up if I was ever around here. Is he around?”
“I’m sorry dear, he isn’t.” She looked at Keen expectantly.
“It’s your friend Phillip we’re investigating,” he said. “Perhaps you can tell us a little about him.”
“Well, it was a whole year ago so I’m not sure. He was a bit spaced out, but he was kind. You know, most guys are just after one thing, but he was different. He wanted to be friends…”
“Have you been in touch with him recently? Has he been to visit you?”
“No. Why, has he gone missing?”
Dad looked up, glaring daggers at Keen. So they had admitted my escape from custody.
Keen ignored my question. “You’ll excuse me, Miss Warren. I’m a little suspicious of your arrival at this exact moment in time. I must warn you that Phillip is in a considerable amount of trouble, and if it turns out that you are hiding him, you’ll be in trouble too.”
“I don’t know anything,” I said. I looked for somewhere to sit. Stacey shifted a bit on the sofa, giving me space which I took, perching nervously on the edge. “It’s just… I told Phil about how little choice we had for sixth form where I live, and he suggested I should look at the college here. My aunt brought me up, and we had a bit of spare time so I just…”
“Miss Warren, if you know anything about his whereabouts, you must tell me.”
“But, it’s like I told you,” my turn for a bit of acting, raise the pitch and volume a little, “I don’t know anything.” Stacey put a hand on my arm. “Who are you?” I asked.”
“I’m a friend of Phil’s too. They think I’m involved somehow.”
“I still want to know where you went yesterday evening,” Keen said, directing his words to Mum and Dad as much as to Stacey.
“We went to visit my sister,” Mum said. “We told you that. They’ve adopted a little girl recently and she was upset about something.”
“And why did you go?” Keen glared at Stacey.
“Philippa and my younger sister were friends. She knows me; I thought I could help.”
“How does your sister know this Philippa? She doesn’t exactly live round the corner.”
Mum sighed. “We explained all this. My brother-in-law works for social services. He and my sister have been looking to adopt for a long time. When Philippa came onto the system, they put in their application, but their home wasn’t quite child friendly yet. Sally asked me to look after Philippa for a few weeks while they sorted things, and while she was here, she made friends with Stacey’s sister.
“As Stacey said, she and my son are friends. He must have mentioned Philippa, and Stacey’s sister, Emma isn’t it, invited her to her birthday party. They stayed friends after that.”
“Weren’t you at your sister’s on Saturday too?”
“Yes,” Mum said. “For the tenth time, Philippa is having difficulty settling. We decided that having a few familiar faces around might help. Stacey agreed to come with us.”
“And then again last night?”
“Because she had a really bad day yesterday. I know it’s a long way to go, but she’s a lovely little girl who’s been through a horrible experience, and I’d do a whole lot more for her than what I have.”
“As far as we knew, Phillip was under lock and key in your custody,” Dad growled. “Now you’re telling us that he escaped over a week ago?” He made to rise from his chair, but one of the agents standing near him placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “I swear, you are not going to get away with this.”
“Your son was caught in the act trying to destroy data and equipment in a laboratory conducting military research. He admitted to sabotaging another piece of equipment being used for national security purposes, he has consorted with a person suspected of being an enemy of the state. He was legitimately being held under suspicion of terrorism…”
“He’s a sixteen year old boy!”
“Terrorists can be any age, Mr Merrick. The law treats them all the same.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Phillip’s not like that…”
“Do I look like I’m kidding, Miss Warren? Now, unless you want to be arrested for aiding an abetting a suspected terrorist, I suggest you tell me what you know.”
Crying seemed like a good option, and the tears were there. Except they were Philippa’s tears and I couldn’t afford to transform in front of Agent Keen. Tears of rage seemed to be an option too. I let them come, stinging my eyes.
“How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t know anything.”
“As many times as you like. I do not believe you. Firstly you three,” he indicated Mum, Dad and Stacey, “who are already involved with this boy…”
“Our son!” Dad yelled.
“…just happen to be away visiting family one day before and after yet another raid on a military installation, and then you,” he pointed at me, “turn up with this wholly unlikely story.”
“What could our visiting my sister possibly have to do with this raid you’re talking about?” Mum asked.
“Your son has already proved to be resourceful enough to get into some pretty inaccessible facilities. This raid has the same signature all over it.”
“We do not know where our son is,” Dad was struggling to throw off the hand keeping him in the chair. “He was in your care and you lost him. You didn’t even have the courtesy to tell us he’d escaped.”
“I think you do know where your son is Mr Merrick. I think your wife’s sister and her husband are involved in this, and we’ll be looking into them after today. I think Phillip uses their house as a means of keeping in contact with you, and that you were visiting him on both Saturday and yesterday. And I think you,” he rounded on me, “are harbouring him. Whether your family is involved and he is staying at your house, or whether it’s just you and you have some secret hidey hole where he’s camping out, I will investigate and find out.
“You could make this all a lot easier on everyone and come clean about your involvement, or we can play hardball and keep you all detained until this whole mess is sorted out.”
“You can’t do that,” Dad shouted.
“I can and I will, unless you start to co-operate.”
The door bell rang making us all jump. Keen went to answer it. Stacey moved her hand to my thigh and squeezed. When I turned to her, she gave me a brave smile. There wasn’t much else she could do with the other agents in the room, but it was a lot. I squeezed her hand back and smiled in return. Mum, I could see, was bursting with questions, but fortunately had the good sense to hold them in. Dad was too lost in his rage.
Keen came back into the room, bringing with him a short, balding man wearing an overcoat and trilby. He doffed them both, handing them to Keen.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “My name is Frank Cummings of Cummings, Taylor and Pratt. Now which of you is Faith Warren?”
I raised a tentative hand.
“Ah, good. Dr Miriam Sellers has engaged me to act on your behalf. She suggested that I might offer to represent you all if necessary, and from what I just heard, I think that might be a good idea.”
“How much will it cost?” Ever the appropriate question, my dad.
“This is hardly an appropriate time to speak of such things. We’ll sort something out, and I assure you, you’ll not regret accepting my help.”
“We accept,” Mum said. “For Stacey as well.”
“Good, good.” He opened his briefcase and lifted out a number of forms. One had my name on it — my borrowed name — which he handed to me along with a pen. “You need to sign it in order for me to officially become your lawyer,” he said. He asked for and added names to similar forms which he then passed to Stacey and my mum to sign.
That done and checked, Mr Cummings placed the documents in his briefcase and closed the lid. He stood and turned to Agent Keen. “So. may I see your credentials, sir?” Keen dug his wallet out again and passed it across. Cummings made a brief phone call. It seemed the MI5 switchboard was being kept busy today.
“Well that seems to be in order.” He handed the wallet back. “Now will you tell me what evidence you have that any of my clients have broken the law?”
He stood, nodding his head as Keen went through his litany.
“So you have no evidence that any of these present have been involved in terrorist activities?”
“No, but their son is.” He pointed at my parents.
Cummings nodded. “And to which terrorist organisation does their son belong, Agent Keen?”
“We don’t know, but he committed acts of sabotage.”
“Not automatically an act of terrorism, Agent Keen. What form of support have my clients offered to this alleged terrorist organisation?”
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure these three are in direct contact with him…”
“Pretty sure? As I understand it, no-one has seen the young man for some weeks. How can you be sure? Do you have evidence?”
“No, but I have suspicions…”
“Which may be good enough to detain a suspected terrorist, but not suspected accomplices. You need evidence, Agent Keen, or a court order. Do you have a court order?”
Agent Keen admitted he did not.
“And my other client. My primary client. What evidence,” he emphasised the word, “do you have that she is in any way involved?”
“None.” It came out through gritted teeth.
“Then I maintain that you have no legal recourse to detain these folks any further. The moment you find any, please feel free to come around again. Only be careful you have strong evidence. I will be consulting with my clients after you and your colleagues have departed, and I will suggest a complaint be made against you for your dealings with then today. If you harass them again without probable cause, you don’t need me to tell you what a second complaint from the same people would mean, do you?”
Keen fumed, but there wasn’t much he could do. He thrust Cumming’s hat and coat back into his arms and, indicating his fellow agents should follow, he left.
“Oh, Phil,” Stacey had her arms around me. Breasts squishing against breasts was an unusually pleasant feeling.
“Phil?” Dad asked, genuinely perplexed.
“If you’ll give me a moment to arrange myself,” Cummings interrupted. He was struggling to put his overcoat on. Mum stood up and helped him. “Thank you, kind lady. I’m sure I misheard now, or misunderstood. As far as I’m aware, there is no-one named Phil here. You, my dear,” he bowed to me briefly, “most assuredly cannot be him. Quite apart from your appearance, I was informed your name was Faith Warren, and that is what you signed on the document engaging my services. I will assume that you, young lady,” he offered a bow to Stacey, “are distraught at what is happening to your friend and sought comfort in this person’s arms. Would I be correct in assuming that you would like me to lodge a complaint against Agent Keen?”
“To right we would,” dad said, “but…”
“The cost of my services is being covered by another party. You will not be charged. Agent Keen did not need to hear this, so please forgive my obfuscation from earlier. I have some work to do before this day is ended, so if you will excuse me. My card if you need further assistance.” The card he dropped on the table was of expensive quality and restrained in style. He retrieved his hat from Mum and let himself out.
“Phil?” Dad repeated, staring at me — at least at a certain part of me.
Stacey had her arms around me again, making me feel all melty inside. A quick blur and I was a couple of feet shorter and fitting my clothes rather loosely.
“Well, I guess that settles any argument over the matter,” Mum said. “How, though? And what are you doing here?”
“Phil?” Dad repeated dumbfound.
“Yes, it’s me.” I disentangled from Stacey and focused my way back to my larger self. “Sorry love, it’s going to take me a while to get used to how that feels.”
“It’s going to take me a while to get used to it too,” she said. “Are those real? They’re bigger than mine.”
“They’re real enough. The transformation went a little further than expected. What do you think?”
“Well, if I was ever going to switch teams, it would have to be for someone as stone cold, drop dead gorgeous as you. Are you still…?”
“Still male underneath my new skin, yes. And to answer your other question, Mum, I came to introduce the new me. I didn’t expect you to have company, and Dad, I really didn’t mean to spring it on you like this. I meant to show Mum first, then be Philippa for when you came home. I was going to explain all this before showing you.”
“Phil.” It looked like I’d broken my dad.
“Faith now, I suppose. Oh flip. We have to get the warning out. I doubt Agent Keen’s going to sit around doing nothing.” I dug for my phone. The call to Miriam was still open. “Hello?”
“It’s alright, Faith,” she said from the other end of the line. “You did good. I heard everything, and we have people sorting it. Wiesner knows that Keen’s on his way to your Uncle and Aunt. He’s talked to them about what he wanted and is getting clear. Sally and Mike know they’re on MI5’s radar. They’re okay with it, but are worried about how well Philippa’s paper trail will hold up under scrutiny. I’ve assured them that Deus ex is filling in the gaps. Our document people are really good.”
“You didn’t tell them about…”
“The foundation? Good Lord no. Just that we have people sorting it. We also have people sorting out the situation with your friend Faith.”
“Only two families named Warren stayed at Moorhouse Farm last summer. Only one had a daughter named Faith. We have agents changing the records at the campsite directing them to another of our people who’s been briefed on the back story. We also have people keeping an eye on the real Warren family to make sure MI5 doesn’t come their way. You may have to stay with the agent who’s covering for you, at least until we can close the Phillip Merrick case. She’ll most likely end up being in your cell when you’re considered old enough to join Deus ex.”
“Wow, you’ve thought of everything.”
“Not me personally. The foundation has managed to stay under the radar for a lot of years. They’re pretty good at it.”
“Well thanks, you really came through for us today.”
“Glad to help. When you’re ready to go home to your uncle and aunt, give us a call.”
“I will. How do I get home if the authorities are camping on the doorstep.”
“Henning’s sorting something out. Relax. Spend some quality time with your folks. Will you tell them about what’s going to happen to Phil?”
“I think I’ll have to.”
“Good luck. Talk soon.” She hung up.
“So then,” I smiled. “Who’d like a nice calming cup of tea?” -oOo-
Overall it was a good visit. The tea managed to revive Dad enough that he could say more than my name. We let him have his rant about how he’d told us this would happen. He wasn’t much pleased when I said I’d been aware that it might, and that I was happy with it. He didn’t much like that he’d lost his son, and was all the less happy when I told him that he’d have to say goodbye permanently.
Even Mum cried when I told them that Phil would have to die, at least on paper. It seemed that mourning his demise wouldn’t take much acting on their part. They understood the reasons, but didn’t like the reality.
“I’ll still be here,” I said, and unfolded my plan to come live with them as a lodger.
“It won’t be the same,” Mum said. “It’ll be like you’re not part of the family anymore.”
“It certainly won’t be the same,” Dad chipped in. He hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away from my chest for more than a few seconds all afternoon.
“On the bright side, you’ll have something to look at when there’s nothing worth watching on telly,” I said cheerfully. “And Mum, we’ll get to do mother daughter things.”
“Are you going to keep your hair like that?” she asked.
That was when I knew she’d be alright, and if she was, then she’d make sure Dad was too.
“I didn’t have a lot of option today.” Was it just today all this had changed? It had happened so fast. “I’m planning on growing it out a bit, but I’m not sure how long it’ll take.”
Stacey didn’t have much to say, but she stayed beside me all afternoon, touching me often and gazing into my face with a sort of dreamy expression on her own.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Mum suggested tea. We were all pretty hungry, and with all of us helping, it took no time to set the table and fill it with food. Even Dad helped, which came as a pleasant surprise to us all. When we’d finished eating, Stacey and I cleared away and washed up, then I told my parents I’d walk her home.
“Oh shoot!” Dad exclaimed. “We should have called your mum, Stacey. She must be going spare.”
“It’s okay, Mr Merrick. I texted her after everyone had gone. She knows I’m okay and that things are sorted.”
“Well, I’m not sure I like the idea of two girls out walking alone this time in the evening,” he said.
That was when I knew my dad would be okay. I guess he didn’t have much option but to accept me for what I’d become, but denial is still a great place to hide and a lot of people do.
“We’ll be fine, Dad. I got skillz.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Then just accept that I can still hold my own as well as Phil ever could. Probably better.”
“Well, come straight back.”
“I need to get back to Aunt Sally and Uncle Mike, Dad. I have a friend waiting. I was going to ask her to pick me up from Stacey’s.”
“Not Wiesner then?”
“No, but one of his friends. I’ll call you when we’re on our way back to Mike and Sally’s, and again when I get there.”
He seemed at a loss. I was going to have to jump this hurdle sooner or later. I gave him a hug.
It meant the world when he put his arms around me.
“Bye Daddy.” I gave him a peck on the cheek, which left him standing with a hand against the side of his face.
“Bye Mum.” Hugging her was easier. I wasn’t worried about her response. She hugged me back and kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll see you both at the weekend.”
“”What’s happening at the weekend?” Stacey asked.
“Dad’s birthday,” I said.
“And before you ask, you’re invited,” Mum told her. “All of your family. It’ll be Philippa coming rather than, er, Faith, so we’ll need Emma to keep her amused.”
“I’ll tell Mum,” Stacey said. “What time and what should we bring.”
“Two o’clock and yourselves and an appetite.”
I grabbed my coat and Stacey’s hand before Mum could think of another reason to keep us there. We made our exit and headed back towards Stacey’s house.
She wouldn’t let go my hand once we were outside.
“Do I take it you’re okay with this?” I asked.
“It’s better than a face I’d be happy to sit on,” she said.
“Better isn’t necessarily okay.”
She stopped, spinning me round to face her.
“There are people watching,” I said.
“You wanted to know if I was okay.”
I could feel my insides melting. “Hold on a second,” I said. I dug in my bag for the belt buckle and pressed the Phil side.
The kiss was almost too much for the device. I could feel Philippa rising inside me, rejoicing with me. Soft skin against soft skin, full lips against full lips, Breasts brushing gently against each other. It was magic.
“Enough of an answer?” she asked.
I nodded, too breathless to speak.
“Good for you.” It shook us out of the moment. The comment had come from an elderly woman walking past us, a gentle smile playing on her lips.
I walked Stacey the rest of the way, telling her about the plans Wiesner had come up with for our future weekends.
“I think I can make that work,” Stacey said. “Mum and Dad will be happy for me to be doing something that’ll keep me out of mischief for a while. All the intrigue with kidnappings and MI5 has them quite stressed out.”
“I can imagine. How will they react when you tell them about me?”
“Can we hold off on that for a while? I’ve done enough to upset them recently.”
“I’m not sure you did much other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Phillip Merrick, or Faith Warren, whoever you are, beside you has never been the wrong place, and it never will be.”
Here came that melty feeling again. I grabbed for my belt buckle, and it was enough of an answer for her.
“You won’t believe how soon.” I pulled my phone out of my bag.
“Wait till I’m inside,” she laughed.
“I’m calling my ride,” I smiled. “Hi, Miriam. It’s Faith. I’m at Stacey’s house.” I gave her directions to me, meanwhile Stacey had closed the door on me. I hung up and called her number. “Hi…” -oOo-
Keen had been and gone by the time Miriam and I made it back to my uncle and aunt’s. I changed into Philippa and put on one of her dresses over the altered singlet. The tights were looser, but not too much so, so I kept them on.
Miriam called Sally and told her the party was done and could she come pick up Philippa. It had been Wiesner’s idea. Just in case anyone was still watching, it would seem more natural if Sally came to collect me rather than I turned up in the care of some unknown person.
Miriam handed me a gadget while we were waiting for Sally. “Bug sweeper,” she said. “I’m not sure if they’ll have had the time or inclination to leave any, but just in case.” She showed me how it worked and tucked it into my bag.
A quick run around the place with the gizmo assured us that the house was clean. I changed into big girl clothes, then went out to introduce them to big girl me. Things went a little easier with Mike for not having it delivered as such a shock. Sally was totally okay with it from the outset.
“I think you’re right,” she told me. “Being in the middle isn’t easy, but it’s easier if you’re a girl. I know this wasn’t entirely your plan, but I approve of the outcome. Come on let’s get you ready for bed.”
It was late for Philippa, so I didn’t complain. No bath tonight, just a quick change into one of my singlets — one of the old style ones — and into bed.
“What did Dr Wiesner want with you?” I asked “He said he had some things to discuss with you.”
“He wanted to know if we had any holiday plans for this year. To be honest, with everything that’s happened recently, we haven’t given it much thought. He told us not to book anything, but to get you put on our passports.”
“How did things go with Agent Keen?”
“Well, he wasn’t very pleasant. He made a few accusations, which we denied. He wanted to see our adoption paperwork, which we provided. I hope your friends know what they’re doing.”
“I’m gaining confidence in them.”
“Well, fingers crossed, this will all blow over soon. Right now you need to get some sleep or you won’t be awake for school tomorrow.”
She laughed and kissed me. “Night sweetheart.” -oOo-
The rest of the week was long and tedious. I couldn’t hide my boredom and earned myself a reprimand or two from Miss Demspter. I also won a few merits for excellent work. It wasn’t excellent, it was just too easy. I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d be able to survive months of this.
The weekend couldn’t come soon enough, and when Friday finally did arrive, I ran into Sally’s arms.
“Oh dear,” she laughed. “Was it that bad.”
“Worse,” I said, “but it’s the weekend and Daddy’s birthday.”
“Not so loud. You’re adopted, remember.”
“I can’t help it. Come on.”
We headed home and I transformed into Faith so I could help Sally pack and get ready. We were all sorted by the time Mike turned up. I’d shifted back into their adopted daughter and was fidgeting excitedly.
We’d arranged with Mum and Dad to come down the night before so we could spend as much of the weekend with them as possible. I’d agreed to be Philippa for Saturday, and play my part — not so difficult as I liked Emma and hadn’t seen her in a long while — but managed to wangle a few hours as Faith with Stacey on the Sunday.
Dad’s birthday party was a great success. He was shooed out of the house for the morning while we got everything ready. He’d arranged to play darts over a few pints with his mates down at the local. Not too many pints though, he’d been warned. He was very slightly merry when they brought him back, but still compos enough to enjoy all the attention we lavished on him. There were still the odd moments when I caught him looking my way with a pained expression. It was going to take time, but pretty much anything worth doing hurts to some extent.
Halfway through the afternoon, the doorbell rang.
“Who could that be?” Mum mused, and went to find out. She was back seconds later, her face ashen and Agent Keen following in her wake. The room fell silent, the laughter of a moment before flash frozen.
“What do you want?” Dad could switch moods faster than anyone I knew. He’d just gathered storm clouds so quick it was a wonder there wasn’t a tornado.
“I, er.” This was a significantly different Agent Keen. The swagger and arrogance was gone from him, and in its place an uncertainty. “I have some terrible news, Mr Merrick. I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were celebrating. I’m not sure how to say this.”
“Just say it and get the…” Dad caught sight of Emma and me sitting in the corner and managed to control himself. “Just say what you have to say and go,” he finished more calmly. The storm clouds were still boiling inside him though.
“We’ve, er, we’ve found a body. I’m sorry to say, Mr Merrick, it’s been identified as your son’s.”
Strange to hear the announcement of your own death. Stranger still to see your own father’s reaction to the news. He knew I was in the room, but still it hit him like a blow to the stomach. He lowered himself slowly into his chair.
Stacey was making her bid for an Oscar too. She had her hands over her mouth, and was making small distressed noises. Her mother went over to her and put her arms around her.
“There are more details, but they can wait. The police will be in touch in a day or so to ask you to identify the body. I know it won’t mean a thing, Mr and Mrs Merrick, but I’m really sorry. Sorry for your loss, and for the trouble I’ve caused you.”
“Trouble?” Dad’s default setting was anger; so much easier to live with than vulnerability. “You did this!” he stood and turned towards Keen who was wincing, almost cowering. “I’d like you to leave now.”
“Yes of course. Rest assured, we won’t…”
“Get out!” Dad roared.
Keen left. I almost felt sorry for him, but then I remembered the way he’d treated me on both occasions I’d met him.
“I’m so sorry,” Mrs Owen said. “What a dreadful thing to happen. We should leave.”
“Thank you,” Mum said. “Would you mind looking after Philippa for the rest of the afternoon. I think we could do with some time to deal with this.”
“Of course. I’ll bring her back about six, would that be alright?”
“Thank you, that would be very kind.”
So I found myself bundled out of the house along with Emma, who was too stunned to react, and Stacey. The three of us shared the back seat while Mrs Owen drove us back to their house. Stacey went to her room, leaving me to keep Emma company. She finally found her tears without knowing the reason for them. Her mum picked her up and carried her into the kitchen leaving me alone.
I went in search of my girlfriend and found her sobbing into her pillow.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m still here.”
She picked me up and squeezed me so hard I couldn’t breathe.
“Too tight,” I managed, and she relaxed a little.
“Oh Phil, that felt so real. I don’t ever want to get that news for real.”
“Not going to happen. I’m done with the whole secret agent stuff.”
“Could you do something for me?”
“I want to see you.”
“You’ll have to help me unbutton this dress then. It’s not one I can get in and out of on my own.”
She did as I asked. Under the dress I was wearing one of my newly redesigned singlets, now more of a leotard with added skirt, delivered via courier on Thursday. I focused and grew.
“Ta da.” I gave a curtsy.
She smiled through her tears. “No, I mean I want to see all of you.”
I felt suddenly self conscious. I was okay having this body with all its added extras, but I knew it wouldn’t meet with acceptance from everyone.
Anything, I’d said. I slid the arms off and exposed my breasts.
“Come on Phil, all the way.”
I took a breath and slid the garment all the way down to my ankles. I kept my eyes averted, too afraid of her reaction.
“Yes?” I reached for my courage and looked at her.
“Thank you.” She was smiling. “You can put it away now, if you can get it to fit.”
Embarrassed, I pulled my leotard up and slid my arms back in. The bulge was visible under the skirt thanks to a reaction I couldn’t control. I reached for Philippa and shrunk back down into myself.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“I needed to see it was still you. I know that was difficult, so really, thank you.”
She helped me get dressed back into my party dress, and after she’d managed to compose herself a little, we went and joined Emma and her mum.
The afternoon passed in subdued silence. Emma and I watched one of her Disney films — Frozen I think, though I wasn’t paying much attention. I could hear Stacey talking with her mum.
Her father came home about five-thirty wanting to know who’d died. Never a more poorly chosen word. He apologised and gave his daughter a long teary hug when he was appraised of his mistake.
Mrs Owen took me back to Mum and Dad’s fed and sleepy. I never found out what they did with the afternoon, but everyone was kind of relaxed and okay by the time I rejoined them.
“So,” Dad asked, “how did I do?”
“You convinced me, Dad,” I said to him. “Even I thought I was dead.”
He gave me a half-hearted laugh. “Is this finally over?”
“Nearly,” Mum said resting a hand on his shoulder. “We still get to identify the body and put it in the ground.”
“I meant you and Wiesner.” Dad wasn’t going to be diverted.
“No more missions for certain. No more trouble with the authorities. I still have a few things I need to sort out with him though.”
“I don’t like him.”
“I know. He’s caused a lot of trouble for you and Mum…”
“He took my son from me.”
I bit down on my first response. This was something he needed to work through from a feeling point of view rather than a logical one.
“He gave you a couple of daughters instead,” Sally said. “Surely that counts for something.”
That hadn’t been quite what I’d intended to say, but it’d do. I walked over and climbed into his lap. “It’s still me, Daddy. Same inside, just different outside.”
“Are we staying tonight?” Mike asked. “It’s not too late for us to head home if you want to be on your own.”
“God no, that’s the last thing I want. Could I make a request though? I’d like to spend time with the other you.”
“Sure,” I said. “Can I ask why?”
“I’m not sure I ever really knew my son. I don’t want to make the same mistake with my daughter.”
So Sally helped me out of my party dress and left me to change into Faith, then into something of Faiths.
It was a good evening. Quiet, but different. Dad asked a whole bunch of questions and actually listened for a change. One in particular sticks in my mind.
“Did I make such a mess in the way I raised you?”
I spent a long time thinking about that before answering.
“No, I don’t think so. I mean you always did what you thought was best for me.”
“But that’s the point. I did what I thought was best, from my point of view. I never tried to see it from yours. It doesn’t factor in my thinking that you’d be alright with this, but somehow you’re more at peace than I’ve ever seen you.”
“The important thing is that you did what was best for me. I don’t think there’s a person alive who thinks their parents did everything right. I mean do you?”
He laughed. “Not a chance.”
“The most important thing that I had from you is that you tried. You cared for me — still do. I can cope with you getting it wrong, as long as I know your heart was in the right place. I do know that, Dad.”
“Thanks, son.” He brought himself up short. “That’s not going to work anymore is it?”
“It’ll do.” I gave him a hug.
We all had an early night. Next morning I was up with the early birds. Dressed and breakfasted and texting Stacey to find out what she wanted to do. Mike had set our departure time at four o’clock, so we had to start early if we wanted to get as much out of the day as we could.
We spent it walking together in the park. We got a few funny looks, but this was the twenty-first century. If we had to endure a few funny looks from the occasional dinosaur, that was okay.
It was a good day. Clear of old emotions, like after a rainstorm washes the world clean, we had time to enjoy each other’s closeness and be aware of each other.
The worst thing about it was that four o’clock came too quickly. -oOo-
Life settled into a routine after that. I didn’t end up having to spend any time with the person who adopted the role of Mrs Warren. Following Mum and Dad’s ‘identification’ of ‘my body’, the investigation into Phillip Merrick was closed.
Wiesner was as good as his word and rented a flat near Mike and Sally’s house for Stacey to use over the weekends, and we spent most of our time studying together. We had mainly common interests and slightly different strengths, so we were able to help each other quite a bit.
Miss Dempster finally came to the conclusion that I was brighter than the average six year old and agreed that I should have at least some lesson time with tutors. It was enough to make the days at school bearable, and enough to get me back on track with my studies. On occasions, Wiesner would invite Stacey and me to a retreat where he worked us hard, making sure that we were doing well enough. When it finally came round to exam time, Faith Warren walked into an exam hall as an independent learner and walked all over the exams. Results day wasn’t until mid August, but I wasn’t at all worried.
The tickets arrived that day after my last exam. All expenses paid trip to Mauritius For Mike, Sally and myself as Philippa. I texted Stacey to let her know that I’d be spending a couple of weeks of my summer in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and she texted me back to say she’d be coming too. Wiesner swung it by saying that she’d been awarded the trip for working so well at her weekend job, which was kind of true. Her job had been to keep me company and help me prepare for my exams, and she’d done amazingly at that.
Choosing appropriate clothing for the trip was another matter. Id be spending a lot of it as Philippa, for sure, but I wanted some Faith time as well. Anticipating this, Miriam had done a little research for me and sent me through a sort of false piece of female anatomy that hid my male gear. It took a while to get used to it, but once I had it sorted, I went shopping for bathing suits with Stacey, eventually finding a couple I could wear without worrying what was showing.
Wiesner arranged for her to be picked up from her home and to join us at the airport, where her reason for being there was as a live in baby sitter for me. We all sat together, which was just as well. It was a long haul and having someone to share it with made the twelve hours pass just a little quicker. I had Threads with me as usual, but aware of what the airport scanners might pick up, I’d retrieved the thumb drive and hidden it the same way I had in the lift shaft. He could have it back after we arrived.
Our first week there was just the best. We had a chalet on the west coast of the island, and a hire car to get anywhere we wanted to. The beach was pretty much deserted, which meant I could be Philippa or Faith whenever I wanted. Faith won most of the time, and Stacey and I enjoyed some of the most romantic walks along the beach. The sunsets were spectacular, but short lived.
In the middle of our second week, an envelope was posted under the door of our chalet. It contained a card inviting Faith and Stacey to come to a bar at seven o’clock, a couple of miles down the coast from us, and to bring the invitation. No-one knew about Faith here, which meant this had to be something Wiesner had set up.
I made sure Sally and Mike knew, just in case things weren’t as they seemed. It would be after dark, which meant less than baking hot weather. Light cotton skirts and tops over our swimsuits. We set off about sunset and watched the sun boil its way into the ocean as we walked barefoot down the beach. There was enough of a moon to see by once the last of the daylight had faded, and half an hour later we arrived at the bar. We were early, but that didn’t matter much. We ordered a couple of fruit cups — non-alcoholic of course — and found somewhere to sit.
A few minutes later a face I didn’t recognise sat opposite me. Perhaps sixty or so, male, balding.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He pointed at the card. “I’m the first of a number of people who’ve agreed to meet with you tonight. Your friend, 73791 requested it when you were online with us a few months back. A meet and greet is something we rarely do, which is why I requested a background vote from five thousand of our members to see whether we should. Your friend provided some compelling reasons and the vote went through, so here we are.”
“You’re 20012?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose I left myself open for that. Yes, I am. We’re discouraged from saying anything that’ll link us to our assigned numbers. Anonymity is at the heart of security in our organisation. I doubt it’ll make much difference though, I’m not very active any more and am seriously considering retiring. I do, however, share the same concerns as your friend.
“So convince me.”
He made a pretty good job of it. As did the succession of people who took his place. Most only spoke for a minute or two, some took us through detailed studies and spent ten or twenty minutes at a time. I don’t know how many people sat down with us, but it was past ten o’clock when the last of them left.
“Wow! That was intense,” Stacey said. “Does it have anything to do with what you were reluctant to share that night Wiesner kidnapped me?”
“For not talking about it. I doubt I’d have been in much of a state after hearing all that.”
“Wiesner only told me the basics of it.”
“Still, that’s a heavy load to bear.
“They gave me the impression they were trying to convince you to keep helping. I thought you said you were done with it all.”
“I promised no more missions, and I intend to keep to that.”
“Then what were they on about?”
“It’ll take a while to explain. We could take a taxi back to the chalet and I could tell you when we get there, or we could walk and I’ll tell you on the way, in which case I’d better call Mike and Sally to let them know.”
“I get the impression this is going to take a while.”
“I should say.”
“Okay, let’s walk then.”
I asked the bartender if I could use his phone and placed a quick call through to the chalet. Mike sounded worried, but I managed to reassure him. Not drunk. Planning on walking home. Would be there in half an hour.
“You have till eleven,” he said.
Easily enough. I offered to pay the barkeeper, but he waved me away. I put a few coins in the charity jar instead.
I’d never seen a clearer sky. The moon was still up and washed out a lot of the stars, but what we could see shone sharp and bright. The beach was deserted apart from us, the only footprints being the ones we’d made on our way down. The waves grumbled to us as we walked, as I collected my thoughts.
“They invited us both tonight, so I’m taking it as read they’re okay with me sharing this with you.”
“Wiesner is part of a secret organisation that calls itself Deus ex Machina…”
“…and that just about brings us up to date.” We were within sight of the chalet, perhaps another couple of minutes walk.
“So, the things you stole give Wiesner the ability to stop people from having children?”
“And start it again. There’s a gene that controls it. I stole two vials, one to turn the gene on and the other to turn it off. It won’t do it to everyone either. He estimates that about one in a hundred wouldn’t be affected.”
But you didn’t give him everything he needs?”
“He has the vials, but he doesn’t know which is which. I have all the computer data on a thumb drive and the bits of label which would allow him to identify the vials. Unless I give him what I have he can’t complete his work.”
“His work being to decimate the human race.”
“His work being to bring our numbers back down to a manageable level in the most humane way possible. You were there tonight, you heard the arguments.”
“Yeah, but it feels wrong.”
“Lots of things feel wrong that aren’t.”
“Where’s the thumb drive now?”
“You’re right. Don’t tell me”
“Why? What would you do with it if I gave it to you right now?”
“I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t trust myself to do the right thing. I’m not sure I ever would.”
I stared out at the ocean. The Moon, now low in the sky, traced a silver path to the horizon. “I guess that’s it then,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’ve told you everything. I’m not sure I would have tonight if that meet and greet hadn’t forced my hand. I’m not asking you to make the decision, or even share in making it, but I’m glad you know. I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.”
I turned to her, reached out to her, but she resisted, keeping her head down. After a moment, I kissed her on the forehead and headed into the chalet.
“Ten minutes to spare,” Mike said looking at his watch.
I told you. Easy enough. I felt Stacey come through the door behind me.
“Uncle Mike?” I asked.
“Can I ask you a really hard question?”
“Sure, but if it’s that hard, I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it.”
“No, I mean hard as in it might be painful to answer.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“How has not being able to have kids affected you?”
“Wow. Well I guess I did say go on.”
“It’s probably the worst thing that’s happened to us,” Sally said from their bedroom door, “and maybe the best. It hurts like you can’t imagine, not being able to have a family, and it put an incredible strain on us as a couple, but it made us stronger. We’re better able to see other people’s pain, which is one of the reasons why Mike’s so good at his job.”
“So if you had a way to reduce the world’s population so that it doesn’t keep going up until everyone’s starving, but it would mean that maybe only one in every hundred couples could have a child for the next two generations, what would you do?”
“Where is this coming from, Phil? These aren’t questions a kid like you should be asking.”
“If not me, then who? Someone has to.”
“We’d need a way of doing what you said first,” Mike said. “Oh. Oh God Phil, no.”
Sally walked into the room and rested her hands on Mike’s shoulders. “I’m not sure we’re the best people to ask,” Sally said. “We have a biased view.”
“You do have a perspective most other people don’t though. You know what it feels like not be able to have children.”
“We don’t know what it’s like to starve though,” Sally replied. “We survived finding out we couldn’t have kids and maybe we grew because of it. Ask us whether we should inflict it on the world, there’s an obvious response. Ask us if it’s better or worse than the alternative, I couldn’t tell you.”
“Thanks, I suppose. Sorry if my asking was painful.”
“Phil…” Mike said.
“I’m going to bed,” I said and walked past into my room.
I changed into a cotton nightdress — short fit on Faith, loose and long on Philippa — and climbed into bed. I’d probably regret it later when I woke up with a furry mouth and a bursting bladder, but I had a sudden need to be on my own.
I listened to everyone else bustle about making ready for bed. It was kind of restful. I let my mind drift and found it taking me to our arrival here. As a country, Mauritius wasn’t considered to be either poor or developing, but on the trip out here to the chalet, we’d passed a fair number of hovels, and there had been a couple of beggars on the street. Probably not as many as in places like London these days, but even that was a sign of things changing.
Those people didn’t have representation in the debate going on in my mind even though they were probably the most affected. Among the people we’d spoken to this evening had been quite a few from poorer countries in Africa and India, and they’d all but pleaded for something to be done to help them. They’d been well dressed and well fed though, so they only knew the issues from their ivory towers.
If you choose not to decide. It was still a choice, because I would be allowing the wealthy of our world to make the decision for me, and they would almost certainly choose for their own selfish needs.
The chalet had quietened. Aunt Sally had a characteristic pattern to her breathing that told me she was asleep. Mike’s gentle snoring started up. I listened for Stacey, but couldn’t hear her. A silhouette appeared in my doorway, approached my bed, lifted the mosquito net and settled down next to me, snuggling close.
I opened my mouth to speak and felt a finger across it. We lay there in silence for a long while. I felt a damp patch forming on my shoulder.
“It has to be you,” she whispered. “I can’t help you make up your mind. I’ve tried and my feelings keep getting in the way. You know what it feels like from a male and female perspective though. You’ve gone through all the arguments — more than we heard tonight — you know more about these Deus ex people than anyone who isn’t a member.
“Phil, Faith, I love you, and I trust you. It’s a horrible decision to have to make. One way billions of people have to come to terms with not having children, the other way billions of people die of starvation. I can’t help you make up your mind, but I promise I’ll be right here whatever you decide. If it means we don’t have kids, then that’s the way things have to be.”
There was no answer I could give. I squeezed her and kissed her forehead, reached for her hand and lifted it to my cheeks, now damp with my own tears. I was alone in this, but at least I wasn’t alone overall. I let go her hand and it settled on my breast. In time her breathing steadied, leaving me to ponder deep into the night.
She was still there in the morning when I woke. The quality of the light suggested it was early, but there were noises out in the kitchen area. Sally stuck her head through the door, arched an eyebrow at me, then whispered. “Mike and I are going for a walk. We’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Stacey showed no signs of stirring, and I had the anticipated furry mouth and bursting bladder, and my arm felt numb. I shifted into Philippa mode, which dealt temporarily with the bladder problem. It also gave me space enough to slip out from under my girlfriend. I ran to the bathroom and took care of business, freshening my mouth while I was there.
Stacey still hadn’t stirred. I picked out a light cotton dress and slipped it on. Threads sat where he’d been all week on the table next to my bed. I picked him up and walked outside. The chalet came with an old wooden swing seat. I settled onto it and looked out to sea, holding Threads tight.
“So, you have decided?”
It was no surprise to find Wiesner here. I looked a Threads.
“How long have you known it was there?”
“The day you came for the last treatment. It seemed inside the bear would be a good hiding place, so I felt for it.”
“You could have taken it then.”
“Yes, but it is like I said, I consider you to be my moral compass.”
“I thought that’s what Deus ex was supposed to be. Lot’s of like minded people discussing difficult matters and acting as a check for one another.”
“This is so, and in matters of logic and the mind I would look to them. Here is a question that is not just of the mind, but also of the heart, and you have a great one, Leibchen. In this matter I would trust your heart more than their mind.”
“It’s not fair. You’re putting the fate of the world on my shoulders.”
“Not so. You know as well as I that the decision of the mind has been made. Deus ex has many members, and information has been provided by them to consider carefully both sides of the matter. Much has been said of the likely future of the world if nothing is done, and much has been said of the consequences if we complete this plan of mine. To them, it is a solution that saves not just the human race, but the world as well, and to them the cost is acceptable.
“What I ask of you is to consider what you know of the foundation itself. You have read and heard their arguments, you have met many of the people — I think enough to understand their motives. Answer for me these two questions about Deus ex Machina. Do you trust them, and do you believe in this instance that they are right? You have struggled with this matter in your mind, I know this, and you have found no solution. Now I ask you to consider the matter with your heart. Your good, strong heart.
It was still such a lot of responsibility. I reached inside Threads and removed the capsule, stood and walked towards the sea. Wiesner, the man of logic and science, had surprised me once again. What did I feel about this?
I shifted into Philippa, my dress ballooning about me in empty folds. I reached for my female intuition, the feelings of my young heart. It would be my world to live in after all, mine and everyone else my age. I flipped back into Faith and allowed the pragmatism of my masculine side study what I had just experienced. I shifted back and forth, not trying to think, not trying to find the impossible answer to that impossible question, but trying to feel it.
It seemed to work. Inside me a decision began to crystallise, to grow. On the one side Wiesner, on the other the impenetrable depths of the Indian Ocean. Wiesner trusted my heart, and so did Stacey. That was reason enough for me to do so. The decision grew inside me, and it felt right.
I took the thumb drive and…
– The end? –