A Minority Of One : 9 / 9

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A Minority Of One : 9 / 9

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


“Such terrible things seemed no longer incredible.”
— Zane Grey , The Trail Driver


 

“No,” I said. “You didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t.” My legs felt weak. I closed the fridge and dropped into a chair. My hands were trembling.

“Yes, we did!” Lois countered. “And calm down, will you? Seriously! We were only talking! No one is going to *do* anything. We’re not criminals, Celine. All we did was walk through it. A conversation. We were only playing, you know? Using our imaginations. It was like writing a mystery novel. We did the whole thing, from beginning to end. We worked out all the weak points. We filled in all the parts that were missing.”

My heart started pounding. “You’re not thinking of doing it, are you?”

Lois frowned and shook her head. “No, of course not! Aren’t you listening? I’ve already told you, I don’t know how many times! We were just… intrigued. We were curious. It turned out to be pretty exciting! And a lot of fun! Like writing a screenplay, you know? For a movie. The perfect crime.”

“It’s not a perfect crime,” I told her. “Even if you filled in all the holes and ironed out all the kinks, it still wouldn’t be a perfect crime.”

“Maybe it wasn’t before, but it is now.”

I could see that Lois was getting a little irritated by my resistance. She put her hands on her hips and demanded, “Do you think you’re the only one who can have ideas like this? Meredith is pretty smart, you know. She’s a computer programmer. And I’m no slouch, either!”

“Of course,” I said. “I know that. But I also know that between you and Meredith, that *you* are the sensible one. Are you sure that she isn’t thinking of doing this herself?”

“No, why would she? She doesn’t need money. Plus, she’s got that Ponzi guy wrapped around her little finger. She’s leading him around by his you-know-what! I wouldn’t be surprised if they got married. Or at least ran off together.”

My breath caught in my throat. Things were getting crazier by the minute. So far, my protests had done nothing but rankle Lois. I had to proceed with caution. Right now, the most important thing was to make certain that NO ONE tried to pull off the heist. In this exact moment, everything else was secondary. There was no point in getting pedantic about what constitutes a “perfect” crime. And it wouldn’t help if I made Lois angry or ruined her good mood. I didn’t want her storming off, or sulking off, before we were done talking. Clearly, now was not the moment to point out that if Meredith and the Ponzi guy ran off together, it would be a crime in itself: they’d be running with stolen money.

Lois scoffed. “And do you know something else, Miss Smarty-Pants? it’s not as hard as you make it out to be. Meredith could do it. All by herself.”

Again I felt the blood drain from my face.

“Look,” I said. “She’s not a criminal. There are things she hasn’t considered. There are things I don’t think she’ll be able to do.”

“Such as?”

“For one thing, how will she open the safe?”

“That’s the best part! She already has the combination! She was cleaning his office one day, dusting his desk, and she lifted up his desk lamp. There it was! Written on a piece of paper and taped to the bottom of the lamp. It was a series of numbers. She tried it on the safe, and the safe opened! She quickly closed it, but now she knows it works! Meredith says that people often do that with their passwords. She says if you ever need somebody’s computer password, the first place to look is on the underside of their keyboard.”

“Oh!” I was quite surprised. “I didn’t know that. You have to admit, though: it was a stroke of pure luck.”

“So what? Why does that matter? She *has* the combination. How were *you* going to open the safe?”

“I was going to ask Meredith and Theresa to install tiny cameras at various angles around the safe, and watch him type the combination.”

“Hmmph! That doesn’t sound very likely!”

“It’s a known method,” I countered, aware of how lame it sounded. “That’s how crooks get ATM codes.”

Lois shrugged. “What else do you think Meredith can’t do?”

“Meredith might get greedy and try to take all the money.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Two things — The first thing is the capacity of Meredith’s van. Based on the amount of money Theresa saw in the safe, the van can’t hold it all, and if you *did* fill it, the van wouldn’t be able to haul it. It would break down from the load. The second thing is that the Ponzi guy has to be left with enough money to run with. If he has a big enough pile of money, he will disappear. Everyone will think he took *all* the money, and no one will look for Meredith. But if she leaves him with little or nothing, he will have no choice: he’ll blame her for everything, and put the police on her trail.”

“Interesting,” Lois said, but she didn’t seemed convinced. She also seemed to have lost interest in the topic — or at least, she was done talking to me about it. However, there was still one more point I had to make, in case Meredith had serious intentions.

“One last thing is that Meredith will need to stay in town and sit on the money. I don’t know whether she’ll be able to do that. If she gives a significant amount to Theresa and Leo, it will multiply the problem.”

“What problem?”

“If she runs off with the money, it will be an implicit confession of guilt. That’s why she has to stay here. She has to know where to hide the money, and she has to know what to *do* with the money.”

Lois huffed with impatience. “What to DO with it? That’s easy! You spend it!”

“No, you can’t! You can’t put the money in the bank, and you can’t make big purchases.”

“Then what’s the point of taking the money in the first place?”

“If you’re smart, you can parcel the money out, and never have to work again. Over time, you can employ money-laundering schemes to make the money appear legitimate.”

Lois stood silent for half a minute. Again she said, “interesting” in an uninterested way. After a long pause, she said, “You know, you’ve spent a lifetime inventing ways of lying, cheating, and stealing from people. I hope, in the future, you’ll be able to use that mind of yours for something constructive. Something lawful and good. So Ken and I can be proud to say that you’re our daughter. Try to think about that.” Then she left the kitchen, went into the living room, and turned on the TV.

I sat there, stunned. This was bad, very, very bad. I was scared, and for once I was scared for someone other than myself. If Meredith stole that money — if Meredith tried to steal that money, it was bound to end badly for her.

Another thought came to me, one that made me feel far worse: If Lois relays my objections to Meredith, would they prevent Meredith from committing the crime? Or would they make her feel better prepared? Or worse, would she feel angry and try to pull the caper just to show me up?

I put my head in my hands. Something else occurred to me that I was sure they hadn’t considered: How vengeful was the Ponzi guy? If Meredith pulled off the heist, and took all the money, his best move would be to go after her. And even if Ponzi *did* run away, how much effort, money, and time would he put into hunting Meredith and getting his money back? What lengths would he go to? How badly would he try to hurt her?

 


 

In the end, the only way I could calm down was to try to convince myself that Lois was right: It was only a thought experiment, a fictional crime. I felt 100% sure that Lois herself had zero inclination to break the law. I could see that she wasn’t tempted in the least. The idea of a huge pile of money didn’t make her salivate. The fact that it was someone else’s money, money she hadn’t earned, money she had no claim on, took it completely out of any consideration.

Meredith, on the other hand, had become a person I no longer knew. Then again, did I ever really know her? Even when she was Max? For all I knew, his boring, predictable personality was only a patina that hid a chaotic hedonist. Maybe Max was only good because he never had the opportunity to be bad.

In any case, Meredith might be seriously tempted. She might be reckless enough to want to do it, but was she stupid enough to actually try?

I wanted to say no to that question, but it was a matter of fact that one of my last acts as Leo was to try to tempt my friends (including Max) into the heist: to not only try, but to succeed in extracting that pile of money. Back then, the possibility of Max, Meredith, and Theresa helping me steal seemed a viable possibility.

Drawing a shaky breath, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. I told myself over and over, They were only playing a game. It was nothing but talk. They aren’t criminals. They would never do anything wrong.

 


 

A week went by, pretty much without event. It was a busy week for Alfie, though: he had three games, one of them away. I went to all of them. One of the unexpected benefits of becoming a baseball fan was getting to know Claire, a girl my age who also came to all the games. Claire was a pretty girl with long straight hair. She came from a family with money: if her clothes and accessories didn’t make that clear, her conversation and behavior certainly did.

The first thing I learned from her was the wisdom of bringing your own cushion to the games. “The seats are so hard,” she explained, “And you don’t know who sat there before you.”

“Are you worried about cooties?” I asked, with a teasing grin.

She hesitated and looked me in the face before responding. I think she was trying to determine my exact intention: Did I say it to mock her? Did I want to offend? Was it possible that I was so immature that I actually believed in cooties?

She decided I was trying to be funny (and failing), but she couldn’t miss a chance to tell me something I CLEARLY didn’t know.

“Cooties?” she repeated. “Hardly. Unlike some people, I like to keep my clothes clean. Consequently, I’m careful where I sit.”

I nodded. She was right. Beginning with the very next game, I always brought my own cushion. She acknowledged it with a nod and a little smile, and the nature of our association was defined then and there.

Claire had zero interest in baseball, but she had a very active interest in James, who pitched for Alfie’s team. Claire liked to talk, and as I was her only possible audience, she arrived late and planted herself next to me at every game. She couldn’t hide the fact that she was a snob, but as none of her peers were there, so she had to make do with me.

Baseball had never held my interest before, so I was surprised to find I’d somehow, in the course of my life, absorbed most of the rules. Claire talked the entire time, either to me or on her phone, but even while we were talking I kept an eye on the game.

Completely unaware of how it might offend, Claire cautioned me to not speak to her while she on the phone. In fact, I shouldn’t make any kind of sound. “If you’re going to shout and cheer, move down there,” she said, waving her hand down the empty bleacher row. “I don’t want to have to explain who I’m here with.”

On another occasion, she mistakenly thought she spotted one of her friends walking a dog on the road near the baseball field. Horrified at the idea of being seen at a baseball game — and even worse, being seen with me — a girl outside her social class — and worse yet, being friendly with such a girl — she gave me a shove and hissed, “Move down the bench! Move down there! Go! Go!”

When it became clear that the dog-walker was not her friend at all, she said, “You can come back now, but be ready!”

I didn’t mind. Once summer ended, I doubted that I’d see her again. She and James were attending a private school far from Tallmadge High, where Alfie and I would go. It would have been nice to be her friend, but being Claire’s audience suited me just fine. Claire was my window into the world of girls my age. I made mental notes of things she mentioned. Sometimes I made actual written notes, on the palm of my hand, for things I was sure I’d forget. She found this oddly amusing, as if it were a primitive activity she happened to observe while slumming.

I soon came to realize that I regarded her in a similar way: as a native of a foreign culture, a practicant of unusual rituals, a holder of obscure, yet parochial, knowledge and know-how. We were so different, we might as well have come from different planets.

When she feigned surprise that we “only” had one house and one car, she asked whether we at least had a boat. “Where do you go in the summer?” she asked, bewildered. I shrugged, because I had no answer. It was summer now, and we were at home.

In a way, both Claire and I were like anthropologists. We had a mutual otherness. I came to know that her friends called me “the girl who writes on her hand,” just as she came to know that Alfie’s teammates called her “the rich girl with long hair.”

So far, I had three guides into teenage femininity: Reddie Barnes, my Rorschach Madonna, and now Claire.

Reddie Barnes’ active presence in my life ceased once I finished the last page of The Trail Driver. My Madonna had begun to look the same each time I’d see her. Somehow she lost her Rorschach quality — now, she was a girl who was a little tired and a little coy, who was used to being stared at, but didn’t want her picture taken. I still liked the painting, but it wasn’t as alive as when I first saw it.

Claire was my new guide, and she was pleased to be in that role. She enjoyed explaining the relative merits of various brands of shampoo vis-à-vis the various types of hair, the cultivation of perfect nails, and the effects of various foods on one’s complexion. She was full of practical tips, such as how to deal with acne and unwanted facial hair. (“Not that I have either problem!”) She also had a lot of things to say about boys — what they want, how they think, and so on.

Principally, though, what I looked for and learned from her was how she talked, how she spent her time, what music she listened to, what apps she had on her phone.

She often made comments on what I was wearing and what I could do with my hair. She once pointed out the difference between our shoes. NOT, however, how much better and more expensive hers were than mine, but how much cleaner hers were. Mine were splattered with mud and dirt. Hers were pristine, as though she’d just bought them, taken them from the box for the first time, and put them on at that exact moment.

“We’re in the middle of a baseball field!” I exclaimed. “How can your shoes be that clean?”

“I’m a girl,” she said. “I have to be careful where I walk.”

I’m a girl, too! I told myself, and from that moment, I too, was careful where I walked.

As you might imagine, Claire sometimes got on my nerves. One day, she was talking about cosmetics, comparing brands. At one point, I asked her whether the items she described as “the essentials” were expensive.

“I wouldn’t know,” she replied. “Does it matter?”

My answer was a scathing look. It alarmed her; she was taken aback. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, and we sat in silence for a few minutes.

Later, when my mood had passed, I gave her a playful nudge.

“Why did you do that?” she exclaimed in alarm. “Why are you shoving me?”

I burst into laughter at her response. At first she looked puzzled and a little irritated, but then she smiled. “I like you,” she said, in a soft voice, as if it were a secret. “It’s too bad we can’t be friends.”

Yes, she was a snob. Maybe *I* was a kind of a snob myself. I knew I needed someone like Claire, but I wished it was someone else, not her. Someone more on my level. Then again, a girl who was more on my level wouldn’t have as much to teach me. In any case, I could see I was acquiring a kind of pantheon: a collection of girls I could contemplate and eventually understand. Certainly Claire belonged there, alongside Reddie Barnes and the Madonna, but just because she belonged there didn’t mean I wanted her there.

And yet, all in all, things were going pretty well. I’d gotten comfortable being a young girl. It wasn’t a role any more — at least most of the time. Lois and Ken became Mom and Dad. Meredith became my mother’s friend. Claire was my peer, whether she’d admit such a thing or not. I still felt a bit strange and half-naked when I’d wear a dress, but that feeling grew smaller as the days went by.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, about a month after my becoming Celine, a weird wrinkle appeared. Lois gave me a ride to Alfie’s house. We chatted about one thing and another. After I got out of the car and was standing in Alfie’s driveway, Lois lowered her window and said, “I nearly forgot to tell you: Meredith moved in with the Ponzi guy.” Then she drove off, leaving me with my jaw hanging open, blinking and shaking my head.

 


 

Two weeks went by without event. Meredith and Lois continued their giddy friendship. Occasionally Meredith would stop by and hang out with Lois. By now, my presence hardly registered with Meredith. She seemed to have forgotten that I was ever Leo. Now I’d been demoted to being her best friend’s daughter — which was fine with me.

She and Lois spent an inordinate amount of time talking about sex. Meredith was constantly looking for “ways to spice things up,” which, in the context of her already overheated sex life, seemed about as needful as spraying gasoline on a burning house. Twice, when the weather was so stormy that I couldn’t leave the house, the two of them talked so loud and so explicitly, that I had to put my fingers in my ears and go la la la la la. In the end, I put on some headphones and listened to music, loud, until I heard Meredith leave. There was no room in the house where I could escape from their talk. I would have hidden in the attic, but it was far too hot up there.

In the end though, it was Meredith’s constant pushing of the sexual envelope that finally drove a wedge between her and Lois.

One Tuesday morning, Ken was driving me to Big D’s to pick up breakfast. While we were alone, I had to ask him.

“Dad, did something happen between Meredith and Mom?”

He gave me a cagey look. “Why do you ask?”

“Because Meredith hasn’t been over in a couple of days, and I haven’t heard them on the phone together.”

Ken sighed. “I”ll tell you, but you have to keep it to yourself. Do NOT mention it to your mother.”

I agreed.

“Meredith asked your mother if she was up for a threesome with the Ponzi guy.”

”What!?”

He glanced at me before continuing, “Or a foursome.”

“Wow!”

“It was too much for Lois. We’re not made that way.”

I fell silent, considering what he’d said. There was nothing I could say.

Ken took a deep breath. “She said she wanted to surprise the guy. Lois, of course, gave her a frosty ‘no’ and asked her to leave the house. They haven’t spoken since.”

My eyes widened. It was too bad. Meredith needed someone to ground her, someone to help her, and Lois was the only person who could fill that role.

At the same time, Lois needed a friend, and this rift left Lois out in the cold.

I felt the heat of the pancakes penetrating the bag on my lap, warming my legs. I blinked and asked, “Were you flattered that she asked?”

Ken gave a bark of a laugh. “Flattered? Hardly. We’re the only people she knows. Who else was she going to ask?”

 


 

Another week passed. It was Sunday morning. Ken was working. Lois and I were in our kitchen, trying to decide what to do with our day.

The phone rang. It was Meredith: contrite, apologetic, calm for the first time. She and Lois spoke for a few minutes, tentatively at first, then after some mutual efforts at mending their friendship, Meredith got to the point of her call: she invited the two of us, Lois and me, to the Ponzi guy’s house at two that afternoon. She gave us the code to open the gate.

“That’s odd,” I observed after Lois hung up. “I thought you couldn’t get in that house without a background check.”

Lois shrugged and said, “Now the question is: how do we get there?”

Our neighbor, Mr. Waters, was happy to give us a ride. “I’m never on that side of the hill,” he confessed. “It will be a little adventure for me. I can drive around and look at the houses.”

He was right: an adventure it was! The houses in the Ponzi guy’s neighborhood were enormous — or at least strikingly beautiful. All the houses were conspicuously well cared for, with beautifully manicured lawns and topiary bushes. Occasionally we’d see fountains, sculptures, and enormous, curved driveways. Ponzi’s house was a contrast: it looked more like a bunker — albeit an expensive one, hidden behind a high wall. The only entry was through the driveway gate.

Mr. Waters dropped us off, then drove slowly away. He was going to do some more sightseeing before returning home.

Lois punched in the code, and the heavy, wide gate slowly swung open, almost without a sound. The two of us followed the drive as it curved and descended. The house was very angular, with hard-lines, clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. As we rounded the corner of the house, Lois gasped. Suddenly the landscaping and the walls opened to a magnificent view of the lake.

“Can you imagine living here?” she whispered, nearly breathless.

The driveway continued to dip lower, ending on a level below the back yard. The garage was open, and at first the only vehicle visible was Meredith’s van, with its logo (“Meredith’s Maid Service”) displayed happily on the side. As the van came more completely into view, I noticed how low the carriage sank. It was inches from the ground.

“Oh, no!” I groaned. Clearly, Meredith was going to try to pull the job herself, and just as clearly, she’d already screwed it up by overloading the van.

“What?” Lois asked, stopping in her tracks and looking to me.

I took another two steps before stopping myself, and saw, behind Meredith’s van, a car that I knew very well. “Crap!” I softly exclaimed. “That’s Leo’s car! This is going to be bad.”

“Okay,” Lois said. “Let’s try to project positive energy. Meredith clearly has something in mind. Let’s give her a chance and see if something good can come of this.”

“Nothing good can come of this,” I told her, and pointed to the van. “Meredith is trying to do the heist. The van is already loaded, over its capacity.”

Lois’s body stiffened and her face went white. She froze on the spot, one arm slightly raised in a gesture of helplessness.

“Should we leave?” she whispered.

“Let’s go in and see if we can stop her,” I suggested. Lois nodded. I took a deep breath, and saw her do the same. She gripped my hand, hard, and we walked into the house together.

We entered the garage and found Meredith standing there smiling, along with Leo and Theresa. Theresa also greeted us with a smile, but Leo scowled like a thundercloud. “What is that brat doing here?” he demanded.

“You don’t know?” I asked.

Angrily, Leo growled, “Of course I don’t!”

So I told him: “Meredith is trying to rip off the Ponzi guy.”

Meredith’s jaw dropped in surprise. “How did you know?” she exclaimed.

Leo, shocked and offended, shot a look at Meredith, then at me. He turned to Theresa and said, “We’re out of here.” He grabbed her roughly by the arm and started stomping toward the exit. When he passed close to me, he pushed his face next to mine and said, “You’re still screwing up people’s lives! Are you ever going to stop?” Then he went to his car, still dragging Theresa behind him. She shrugged apologetically as she went, smiling and waving goodbye.

Once they had driven out of sight, I said, “Meredith, this is a terrible idea. You have to put the money back. All of it.”

Meredith struggled to find her words. “How did you even know?” she asked again.

In answer, I gestured at the van. “Look how low that thing is hanging! It’s way over capacity! You took ALL the money, didn’t you?”

“No,” she said, blushing. “Not all.”

“You took as much as you could fit.”

She nodded mutely.

“You can’t drive that thing! It’ll break down! You could snap an axle. The tires could give way. It’s going to be harder to drive, harder to steer. You could even tip over! And, besides all that, the police will stop you for driving over capacity.”

“That isn’t a real thing,’ Meredith scoffed.

“Yes it is a real thing. It carries a fine. Overloaded vehicles damage the roads. That’s why the cops watch for it.”

“Hmmph,” Meredith said. She put her hands on her hips in a petulant gesture. After a short inner struggle, she said, “All right. Will you guys help me put some of the money back?”

“No!” Lois shouted. “Neither of us are touching any of that! We don’t want to be involved! We don’t want our fingerprints on anything here!”

“Okay,” Meredith said in a small voice.

“Look,” I said. “The only thing you can do is put all of the money back before the Ponzi guy finds out. Where is he, anyway?”

“He’s in New York for the weekend,” she replied sullenly. “He won’t be back until lunchtime tomorrow.”

“Then you have enough time to undo it,” I said.

Meredith stared at the ground, sullen. Lois, shaken, said, “Meredith, I don’t understand how you could ever imagine I’d want a part in this.”

“We talked,” Meredith replied, weakly. “You were so happy about the idea.” Then she raised her head and looked at me. “But look: I can still do this, can’t I? If you two leave, and I dump enough money to make the van lighter, I can go, and everything will be fine. It will be your perfect crime!”

“No, no, no,” I told her. “You’ve already screwed this up, badly. You never should have invited Leo, Theresa, Lois, and me. You’ve involved all of us.”

“You don’t have to tell,” she whined, white faced.

“We don’t need to tell! Look, I counted four security cameras on the walk down here. Who knows how many are inside the house? If the police — or the Ponzi guy — look at the footage, what will they see? You. Us. Leo and Theresa. Who do you think they’ll come after?”

Lois groaned, as if in physical pain.

Meredith, visibly upset, told us, “I can fix the cameras. I’ll delete the footage and shut them off.”

“Do you know where the control room is?”

“I guess so,” she said. “There are only two rooms we aren’t allowed in. I just have to get his keys.”

“Don’t forget to check whether the feeds go to an offsite repository,” I warned her. She nodded, her face bloodless and frightened.

“Can you wait for me to get back?” she asked plaintively. I looked to Lois, who nodded.

After Meredith disappeared into the house, Lois whispered, “What a shit show!”

“We’ll get out of here as soon as she comes back,” I promised.

After what seemed an eternity, we heard Meredith shouting for help. I picked up a cloth (to avoid leaving prints) and opened the door. Meredith was stumbling down the hallway, helping, half-carrying another woman. They were both crying, full of fear.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Ponzi’s assistant,” Meredith explained. “She was tied up in one of the rooms.” In fact, raw red marks were visible on her wrists and ankles. She must have been tied tightly, and struggled against her restraints.

“No,” the woman contradicted. “Not her. Schiaciata. Emris Schiaciata.”

Meredith’s face convulsed in horror. She screamed, let go of the assistant’s arm, and convulsively her body jerked. She jumped away from the woman, not wanting to touch her. Without Meredith’s support, the poor assistant tumbled to the ground, crying helplessly. She obviously hurt her knee in the fall.

“Meredith! What is she saying?”

Meredith was trembling so violently that she could hardly stand. “It’s the Ponzi guy! The Ponzi guy! His name is Emris Schiaciata.”

I still couldn’t make sense it. “What? What about the Ponzi guy?”

“He said he’d change me back!” the women wailed from the ground. “I told him everything! He said he’d change me back!

Then whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. My eyes widened, my jaw dropped. Every hair on my body stood on end. Simon had worked his malevolent magic here. As Max, he’d switched with the assistant, then, as the assistant, he’d switched with the Ponzi guy.

The Ponzi guy — wherever he was — was now Simon, the Switcher.

This woman who lay crying on the garage floor was the *real* Ponzi guy, yet another victim of Simon’s switching.

My mind flashed through a dozen odd facts, all of them unconnected until now: the messed-up papers on Leo’s desk, the strange visit from Simon when he held my arm, Meredith’s description of the Ponzi guy’s obsession with touching her, the assistant “leaving” before the Ponzi guy took up with Meredith...

As the dots connected for me, I looked up to see Meredith’s face abruptly distort into a mask of terror. She was trembling so violently, she could barely stand. Her right arm lifted; she gestured mutely at something behind me before she fainted dead away. Her body went limp, and she hit the concrete floor with a sickening slap, like a marionette whose strings were abruptly cut.

When I turned to see what had frightened Meredith so badly, I saw a man I’d never seen before, yet I immediately knew who he was: Physically, he was the Ponzi guy. Internally, he was Simon, the Switcher.

Simon had chosen his victim well: The Ponzi guy was very fit and very good looking. He was of medium height and build, with a full head of wavy, dark-brown hair. He was dressed well and expensively. He carried a gun in his right hand, but held it loose, not pointing at anyone. The woman on the ground cried out when she saw him, and began whimpering, “Please! Change me back! You told me that you’d change me back! Please, I’m begging you! I’ve done everything you asked!”

Simon, with a look of disdain and irritation, raised his gun and shot her. Just like that, as casually as if he was swatting a fly. I recoiled in horror and disgust as blood spurted from the woman’s forehead. Lois clutched my arm, and we both looked away.

“I hate whinging,” Simon said, as if in explanation. Then he smiled and asked, “So how is everyone doing today?”

The offhand murder and the callous quip afterward triggered a rage in me that I’ve never experienced before or since. I felt as though I was on fire, angry, offended to the core. I felt full of power and strength, as if I’d been transformed into the Incredible Hulk. I’m sure the fire was also fed by my weeks of dealing with my new life, the life of Celine, which Simon had thrown me into.

I shook off Lois’s hand. I balled up my fists and walked slowly toward Simon, shouting, “You asshole! You unmitigated asshole! What is wrong with you, you psychopath?”

At the word psychopath, Simon’s head jerked back, and his lips tightened. Lois cried out my name and said, “Stop, Celine, stop! He’s got a gun!”

At that point, I stopped walking. I was three feet from the man. The recklessness and foolishness of what I was doing hit me. Yes, Simon had a gun, and my anger didn’t make me bulletproof. He looked down at his weapon, then passed it from his right hand to his left.

Now, with his right hand free, he swiftly raised his arm and gave me a slap, right in the face. I’ve never been hit so hard. It made my legs buckle. I stumbled a few steps, but I didn’t fall. I put my hand to my face, wondering whether he’d dislocated my jaw.

“Ohhh!” Simon sighed with pleasure. “You have no idea how deeply satisfying that is to me. So often — so often — I’ve met someone who — just like you — deserved to be richly and roundly slapped in the face. And I would gladly have been the one to slap them — but I’ve restrained myself.” He smiled at me.

“You understand, Celine, that normally if I slapped someone, I’d switch with them right away, and then I’d experience the pain I’d given them! It’s an absurd injustice, reserved only for me! What a trial my life can be!

“But you — I’ve already switched with you, and so I’m free to give you all the slaps you’ve earned.” He thought for a moment. “And, why not? The slaps I couldn’t give to others. Or kicks and punches. There’s no need for restraint, is there?”

With that preamble, he gave me a back-handed slap that sent me flying. I landed at Lois’ feet.

“Stop it!” Lois shouted. “Stop hurting my child!”

Simon gave her an amused, mocking smile, and mouthed the words my child. “Aren’t you forgetting, Lois dear, that I was your child, too? Don’t you care about me?”

“No, I don’t!” Lois said. “You’ve taken my daughter from me twice. I’m not going to let you do it again.” She stepped over me, and placed herself between me and Simon.

Frowning, Simon mouthed the word twice? made a show using the barrel of his gun to count on his fingers. He mimed confusion, then gave it up with a shrug.

“Don’t worry, mummy. I’m not going to hurt your little, middle-aged girl. I need her conscious, to do one little thing for me before I can leave. Celine, come here. I have a little gift for you. I’m not going to hurt you. Come. Come! The sooner you do this, the sooner I’ll leave you in peace. If you dawdle, I’ll kill you all. See, I’m being kind: I’m giving you a choice. Come here now, or the shooting starts.”

I got to my feet shakily, and — my face hurt and burning from his slaps — I approached him cautiously, full of mistrust. He reached in his pocket and pulled out four black cable ties.

“Now,” he said, “take these and tie up mummy — wrists and ankles. Do it quickly, and do it well. I’m going to be watching. And don’t say no; I can see the word written on your face. If you don’t tie her up as quickly as you can, I’ll put a bullet in her head. Mummy, face down on the floor, hands behind your back.”

Lois lay on the concrete. I bound her ankles with one tie. “Tighter,” Simon instructed. “Tighter.” He wanted to see the tie biting into her flesh — which brought to mind the wounds on Ponzi’s assistant. Then a second tie on her ankles, and two for her wrists.

He had me lie on the floor about six feet away from Lois. Clearly, he didn’t want to touch her and accidentally switch with her. Before he knelt to bind me, he said, “Any tomfoolery, and I shoot mummy first. Then I’ll put a bullet in your leg so you can live with what you’ve done.”

I didn’t resist, and soon I, like Lois, was painfully restrained.

Simon quickly checked Meredith, who still lay on the floor, unconscious.

Then — he kissed her!

When he rose to his feet, he said, “I’ll miss this house, and all the good things it brought me.”

With that, he got into Meredith’s van and very slowly drove it out of sight. He kept the transmission in its lowest gear. The engine struggled and whined. I expected it to break down before he reached the street, but it didn’t happen while I could see it. After it turned the corner, I couldn’t hear it any more. Aside from the sound of the trees rustling in the wind, there was silence.

Lois said, “We need to wake Meredith!” She turned on her side and wormed her way across the floor until she could nudge her friend with her head.

Meredith soon came to.

We called Ken. Ken called the Feds, who noisily and ineffectually showed up thirty minutes later. Ken, on the other hand, appeared on the scene in minutes. His shift was over; we caught him on his way home.

The Feds brought Meredith, Ken, Lois, and me back to their base, the place where this story began, and questioned us repeatedly. They made us stay the night, and in the morning they interrogated us all over again.

They also picked up Leo and Theresa, but kept us separate for obvious reasons.

At last, breakfast done, and interrogations over, they brought us all together in a conference room: Feds, friends, family, and others. One of the agents — someone I hadn't seen before — stood in the front of the room and said, “For the sake of our team, and as a courtesy to our guests, we’re going to lay out the sequence of events for everyone, as we understand them now. Please save any questions or corrections until I’ve finished.”

He consulted his tablet before beginning. Then, with a look of uncertainty, he pulled a large piece of paper from his pocket. I could see it was a diagram, consisting of boxes, arrows, and names. He cleared his throat, and jokingly commented, “You really need to make a diagram to keep it all straight, don’t you?”

He took another look at his tablet. “I, um,” he said, sounding uncertain. His looked up, and his eyes rested on me. He approached another agent, and gesturing at me, whispered, “Is she the one who...” but I couldn’t hear the rest. After the two had a brief discussion, the agent approached me, and said, “Would you mind — do you think you could — um, can you kind of summarize what happened here? Starting from your barbecue? Would that be alright?”

I shrugged and nodded, then stood up in front of everyone. This is what I said:

“One thing you need to know in order to understand what happened, is that I used to be a 42-year-old con man named Leo. I had an idea for a heist, a way to steal a sizable amount of money from a man named Emis Schiaciata. Emris was running a Ponzi scheme, and had a vast amount of cash in a safe in his home.

“Before the barbecue that your agent mentioned, Simon had taken over the identity of a thirteen-year-old girl, Celine Morsten, who had just moved to Lambeth with her parents.

“Through the internet, Simon discovered that I recently tried to defraud my wife’s employer. She lost her job, but I wasn’t charged with any crime, and this made him curious about me. But as yet, he knew nothing of my scheme to rob the Ponzi guy.

“However — he did know where I lived, and when you Feds were on his tail, he ran to my house. He — still in the guise of Celine — had a little time before you caught up with him, and in that time he overheard me try to tempt my three friends — my wife and the couple next door — to help me with my heist.

“My explanation didn’t get very far for two reasons: one, you were hot on Simon’s tail and he had to switch fast, and two, my plan was still just an idea: an idea full of holes.

“After Simon switched with each of the four of us, creating maximum confusion, he got away in the body of my friend Max. As Max, he jumped over a fence and hid out — maybe in Max’s house — until you Feds left. At the time, you didn’t know that Max was missing, so no one looked for him.

“Once everyone was gone, Simon returned to my house and had a good look around. He found my papers, including my notes on the heist, and soon he knew everything that I knew. He had plenty of time to look, to read, because the rest of us were here, being questioned and getting oriented to our new lives.

“A week later, when everyone expected him to be long gone and far away, Simon came to find me. He didn’t reveal his real purpose, but I now believe he wanted to know whether I was still planning on executing the heist — even though I was now the thirteen-year-old daughter of a policeman.

“When he saw I no longer had any interest, he went ahead with the heist himself.

“First, as Max, he switched with the assistant of the Ponzi guy, Emris Schiaciata.”

I paused for a moment. “I heard that you found Max’s body at the assistant’s house.”

“Yes,” one of the agents replied. “His throat had been cut. By the way, the woman you call ‘the assistant’ — her name was Connie Deffermil.”

“Okay, thank you. Now, in the guise of Connie, Simon got access to the house and switched with Schiaciata himself. He lied to Schiaciata, promising that he’d switch him back, restoring his own body, if he told him everything about the Ponzi scheme, the money, the safe combination, and all that.

“Of course, Simon’s promise was nothing but an impossible lie, but Emris had no way of knowing that. In any case, Emris had little choice.

“At the same time, my friend Meredith gave into temptation and decided to steal the money herself. Simon, in the guise of the Ponzi man, watched her, manipulated her, and in the end pretended to go away for a weekend. She used that opportunity to load her van with money.”

“Meredith found Connie tied in a locked room. Once we realized she was really Emris, everything became clear: above all the fact that Emris was now Simon.”

I stopped and looked around the room. “Is everyone following this?” A few of the listeners glanced at each other, not wanting to admit to being the only ones who felt confused.

“Don’t worry,” the first agent assured me. “We’re recording this, and — uh — we’ll make a diagram to go along with it.”

“Okay,” I said. “In the end, Simon shot Connie in cold blood, tied us up, and drove off in the van full of money.”

I paused again. “That’s all I know. Now, can somebody tell me how Simon got away? I expected that van to break down before it left the driveway.”

The same agent answered. “Simon had a flatbed tow truck. He loaded Meredith’s van onto the flatbed, covered it with a tarp, and hauled it away. We managed to work that out from security cameras on the street. We haven’t found the flatbed or the van yet.”

I nodded.

I saw Ken shift in his seat. He bristled.

“So he got away.” Ken said. It wasn’t a question. “Simon got away again.”

 


 

I had hoped to say goodbye to Leo and Theresa. It would have been nice to leave on good terms, but clearly that wasn’t meant to be.

Leo and Theresa decided they wanted a clean slate and a clean start, somewhere far from Lambeth, as husband and wife. The Feds wouldn’t fabricate new accounting credentials for Leo, but they did find him a job keeping the books for a large construction company. I sincerely hoped that the new life improved Leo’s mood and demeanor.

Meredith also asked for a fresh start, but she didn’t get one. She had to make a plea deal with the Feds, and was held as a material witness in the case against Schiaciata’s investment company.

Before we left the facility, one of the agents led us to a small windowless room, where he asked us to wait. “Someone wants to see you,” he explained with a smile. We sat there, impatient and curious, for five minutes. When the door opened, I jumped to my feet. It was the nurse I met when I first awoke here, when I first became Celine.

“Hello!” I exclaimed, and ran to wrap her in a hug. “It’s so nice to see you again!”

“Hello, yourself,” she replied. “I heard you were here, and wanted to see how you were getting along.”

“Aside from several crises, it’s just been a day at the beach,” Lois joked.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s been good. I think I got the best deal in my bunch.”

The nurse nodded. “I’m glad,” she said. “I had a good feeling about you!”

 


 

After that brief, friendly visit, we were once again bundled into the back of a blacked-out van and bounced around for an hour. They let us out, once again, in the Target parking lot.

After they drove off, Ken observed, “I’m pretty sure we just came from the industrial park we visited last time. It’s only fifteen minutes in that direction.”

“What now?” I asked.

“I, for one, am hoping for a whole lot of nothing,” Lois declared. “I’d like to find out what it’s like to not have adrenaline running through my veins. Do you think we can manage to be a boring, suburban family for at least a few months? It would be nice to know what that’s like. It would be a new and welcome experience for me.”

“Sure,” Ken said. “We can take a crack at that. Or we can sit down and let it happen. Whatever it takes.”

“Um, yes, absolutely,” I agreed. “A boring life sounds fine, for now. But really what I meant was: what are we doing right now, at this moment? Are we going home? Or are we going to hit the Cheesecake Factory?”

“That is our pattern,” Ken agreed, “And I could definitely eat something.”

“Yeah,” Lois agreed. “I’m sure that food would help knit up the raveled sleeve of care.”

“Shakespeare?” I asked.

“You know it, hon,” she replied, and stepping between me and Ken, linked arms with both of us. “And now, let’s go demolish some big, bad burgers!”

“I’m in,” Ken grinned.

“I see cheesecake in our future,” I predicted.

“And how about a long journey?” Lois asked. “Do you see that in our future as well?”

I looked up at her, puzzled, and she explained, “Before school starts, it would be nice if you could visit your grandparents, wouldn’t it?”

My face lit up, and we stopped so we could wrap ourselves in a true family hug.

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Comments

Thanks, Dot

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

I'm glad you hung on to the end.

hugs,

- io

It ends but it doesn't

erin's picture

Simon is still out there, and this story has shown him to be even more malevolent than the scheming psychopath we've seen before. We know the eventual ending of his story, or think we do.

But Celine now gets to start her own story. A young woman with a whole life ahead of her, a life where she may find love, laughter and satisfaction she has previously conspired with the world to deny herself. Good luck, babygirl.

And thank you, Iolanthe.

Hugs,
Erin

= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.

LOVED it, Io!

Nyssa's picture

I haven't commented on the last couple of chapters because Veronica keeps saying what I would have said (only she says it MUCH better) and I figured out who Simon would end up being and didn't want to spoil it. Don't get me wrong, it was masterfully done and you had me having more than a few doubts.

Personally, I think the Feds should keep a real close eye on Meredith. Simon might want to rekindle that relationship and if the Feds piss her off enough, she just might consider it.

For me, the only slightly frayed thread was how Simon was able to stay in Celeine for so long? I would have thought that a some point Lois would have touched her, even with the horrible dynamic in the family. If I remember, Lois actually felt like things had improved during the time Simon was animating Celine. Just wondering - it didn't dim my enthusiasm for the story at all.

Can't wait for your next incredible tale Io!

How to build up to pulling off a surprise?

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Yes, I was sure you'd know where the story was going, and that's fine -- as long as you don't know how it's going to get there. At least, that's the best I can do now.

I feel that a surprise can't be a TOTAL surprise. I'd like a reader to actually swear aloud at the climax, and say, "I sure didn't see THAT coming!" but at the same time, feel that all the elements were there, and so OF COURSE Simon was the Ponzi guy.

Also, about Simon remaining Celine -- all she had to was avoid being touched, and that was the standard in the Morsten home. Celine was a feral, spiny, troublesome. So for her to be quiet, stay in her room... it would seem like heaven after all the problems she caused.

Thanks, Nyssa!

- io

Feral

Nyssa's picture

Don't know if it was an intentional reference, but I still can't see that as a normal word yet. Of course, I also wonder how many bathtubs might secretly be evil.

Sad that it's over so soon

laika's picture

Somebody posted a blog a short while back about TG fiction, and the consensus seemed to be that once a person adjusted to the transition or transformation the story was over; because after that point it would no longer be a transgender story, just a story about a girl going about her life.

Which would be fine with me; I hate saying goodbye to characters I love! I know it's not gonna happen but I'd love to see Celine's story continue... meeting her grandparents, finding out whether her budding romance with Alfie will blossom or she'll fall for someone else, seeing her majoring in Police Science at the U and joining the special FBI task force dedicated to capturing Simon; etc....

Glad that Leo, Theresa or Merideth didn't suffer too badly as the results of Meredith's greed (and speaking of Westerns she really needed to take the moral of Treasure of the Sierra Madre to heart- people rarely get off unscathed trying to take advantage of an "easy score"). To me a fitting fate for Simon would be for somebody to get a lucky shot in with an impromptu weapon resembling an ice pick; the resulting brain injury leaving him unable to switch bodies and serving a life sentence in the most miserable of bodies to end up stuck in.

Great little wind-down segment at the end. The promise of a nice, normal life (plus cheesecake) for Celine, Lois and Ken and fading out on a sweet hug that showed they'd truly become a family. Sniff...

Oh well, I'm sure your next story will be just as engaging.
~hugs, Veronica

.
"You can either fly Over the Rainbow or Under the Radar but you can do both..."

Where Celine can go

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

If someone could remember a recent, previous incarnation -- that would be something like Celine's life after this. Impressions, memories, know-how, would all persist, although it wouldn't be something she could speak to other people about. Even with her own family, her time as Leo is something they only heard about, and never actually experienced.

For those reasons, I think the life of Leo -- in Celine's life -- will never be forgotten, but will fade over time and seem less and less real as time goes by.

Of course, there would be events that would spark memories, or visits to places she'd known when she was Leo, and all sorts of things could surface and create something of a tangle...

Or perhaps in a few years, after Celine attains her majority, she might run into an old colleague or mentor of Leo, a criminal who expects to scam Celine...

There are a lot of things that could still happen, things that hang on the TG premise. But I think they'd be difficult to write, at least for me.

Thanks for all the comments and the great analyses, Veronica. It was fun having you along for the ride!

- io

Late to the party, again

Jamie Lee's picture

Simon sure confuses those who can't conceive of the possibility of people switching bodies. And they're confused more when body switching becomes a three ring circus.

Because they can't conceive of people switching, they don't have a plan in place that would allow them to watch individuals in order to, maybe, finally catch Simon.

Every time Simon has struck, the Feds are Johnny-come-lately, again. And each time it's the victims they interview, while Simon goes on his, or her, merry way.

Meridth, Max, wasn't the master criminal after all. As Celine tried to tell Lois, several times, there were several holes in the plan. A plan that could get them caught, as it did in the end. If they'd been master minds, Ponzi guy would have been watched to make sure he went where he said and wouldn't return early.

Meridth and Celine were in danger of being shot, Lois of being switched. But the amount of money Ponzi guy kept in his house was the greater prize. And because Ponzi guys face was basically unknown, switching with Lois would have been a mistake.

Simon is the quintessiential character to hate, want seen drawn and quartered, beheaded and his head on a pike. But how can he be found? Fingerprints are useless. Stories of not being in the right body are dismissed as having had to much to drink.

Lois was very jaded towards the new Celine. Cold even, acting like it was Leo's fault the real Celine was killed. Something changed in Lois because of their latest run in with Simon. She saw real life as she'd never seen it before, and she saw Celine put herself in danger to protect her.

Simon doesn't know it, but he was instrumental in creating a family. It was strained until two lives were in danger. Two lives that were strangers to each other, struggling to cope, given what both had recently experienced.

This is a well written story, an attention grabber. The writing makes the reader feel for those Simon switched at the BBQ. The writing makes the reader want to crawl into the story and dispatch Simon so no others have to suffer.

The only question left is when will Celine's life story be posted?

Others have feelings too.

Yikes!

That was a pretty scary encounter with Simon! I feel bad for the ponzi guy, even if he was conning people out of their money. I'm really glad everybody else survived. Especially Lois. She seems like a pretty awesome mom! Ken seems like a pretty wonderful Dad. Even though sounds tough dealing with some of the drastic changes, Leo's new life as Celine seems to have turned out the best. Thank you again for sharing such a wonderful story! :)