Merope, Maybe : 3 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 3 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Trouble shared is trouble halved."
English proverb


 

"It makes a BIG difference!" I cried. "If this woman is a career criminal, or a spy, or if she's on the run from the law, I— I— I don't want that! I don't want to start out this life in a heap of trouble!"

"All right, fine, I get it," he responded, low key. "But try to calm down, okay? Everyone in the building doesn't need to know the details of your new life, okay?"

"Right. Okay," I agreed in a quieter voice.

"You don't inherit her troubles. Same way as you don't inherit her debts, if she has any. Keep in mind: the processing center is going to give you a clean slate, right? Whatever this Merope person did or does, it's not going to stick on you. You could even get a brand-new name, if you want one — although I think you ought to stick with Merope."

I noticed that Rowan was pronouncing it merra-pee, exactly the way the man in the bookstore had.

"Rowan, have you heard this name before? Merope?"

"Nope. First time ever. I had to look up how to pronounce it."

I was relieved to hear that. I didn't want to be the only dummy who'd never heard the name before.

"But look," I told him, returning to my previous point, "suppose she's mixed up with the wrong kind of people — you know, criminals. Maybe she stole that money—" I gestured to the cash, sitting on Rowan's table "—maybe people are coming after her. I mean, even if they give me a new name and all that, they aren't going to give me a new face. I mean, they aren't going to spring for plastic surgery. I don't want someone to recognize her on the street and stab me or shoot me for something she's done!"

Rowan smiled — not quite laughing, but almost. "Don't let your imagination run wild. I'm pretty sure I know where the money came from.'"

The buzzer sang out. Our Chinese take-out had arrived. I tried to give Rowan a twenty from Merope's stash, but he refused to take it. "You'll need it," he advised.

The food was excellent. For about five minutes, the two of us stuffed our faces in silence. Then, Rowan asked me to recount my experience with the Switcher. I pushed back; I tried to insist that he go first, and tell me what he'd discovered about Merope Goddard (if that really is her name), but he flatly refused.

"Look: your Switcher experience is over," he said. "It's a story with a beginning, middle, and — above all — an end. You tell it, it's done. But once we start on Merope... we could end up talking all night. I want to hear about the Switcher. I've never met anyone who was switched before."

I told him my story. I tried to keep it brief. Honestly, it was pretty brief already. Rowan found it amusing that the Switcher got stuck — at least temporarily — in the body of an overweight retiree with a twisted ankle. I was offended by his chuckles, even if that part of me had awkwardly stumbled out of my life, and I'd probably never see him again.

On the other hand, Rowan was intrigued by the metal cylinders. "The Switcher took four little cylinders — it was four, right? — out of the bag, but he didn't take any of money?"

"That's right."

"Weird."

"Are you sure the cylinders weren't rolls of money? Did you get a good look?"

"Yes, I got a good look, and no, they were too long to be rolls of money. And they weren't very big around. Anyway, I'm sure they were metal. Like aluminum or steel. I heard them clink and clank against each other in his hand, and when he put them in his pockets."

He frowned, thoughtful. "Were there any markings on the cylinders?"

"Not that I could see. They were all smooth, unmarked, no labels." I shrugged to show that I knew no more.

"Did they make any sound, like a rattle? Like there was something inside?"

"Nope," I shot back tersely. I was beginning to get a little impatient.

He tried a few guesses as to what the cylinders could be, but none of them were even remotely plausible.

"Okay, enough about the cylinders," I told him, a little peeved. "I want to talk about Merope. Did you figure anything out?"

"I did," he said, "A fair amount, but first, I have to ask you: why did you call me? Why didn't you call the processing center?"

I let out a long breath. "I don't know," I said. "I know that I was supposed to, but..." I made some vague, helpless gestures with my hands. "It's just that, on TV, in the public-service announcements, they make it seem simple: This morning, you were Tom. Now, you're Harry! What fun! But they're wrong! It's not fun, and it's NOT simple! It's not simple at all." I paused a moment to think. "You know, one of those spots ends with this ten-year-old kid, who supposedly used to be a 45-year-old man. He looks into the camera and says, We all have to play the hand we're dealt. Then he makes a stupid joke about shuffling." I looked Rowan in the face. He was sympathetic, listening. "Okay, so: some hands are easier than others. I mean, imagine if this woman—" I gestured at myself "—imagine if she was suddenly dumped into my old body: she'd double her age and double her weight in a instant — plus all the other changes... Or what if you're ten years old and you're suddenly in the body of a terminally ill ninety-year-old? I'm lucky, I know it: I've been shifted back to the beginning of my life. I've got decades of possibilities ahead of me. Whoever the Switcher puts into my old body... well, they aren't quite at the end, but if they were young, they'd lose all those decades of possibilities."

Rowan didn't answer. Was he really listening? I had the feeling he was simply waiting for me to finish talking. Even so, I felt like there was something important I wanted to say, but... I couldn't articulate it. So, with a sigh, I dropped it. There were more important things to talk about. I looked up at him and asked, "Okay, so tell me: who is Merope Goddard?"

Rowan smiled and rubbed his hands. "Alright! Let's put it this way: she *was* doing something bad, but she's not a career criminal, at least as far as I can see. All in all, I think you were pretty lucky, landing in her life."

My eyebrows popped up. I leaned forward, expectant. He held his hand up to say hold your horses a minute! and said, "I just want to point out that you didn't answer my question. You didn't tell me why you called me instead of the processing center, but — whatever. It's fine. I'll let it go."

I huffed in frustration. "I thought I did tell you! I wanted help figuring out who she is, or was! I don't know whether the center will take the time to do that!" After a pause I added, "I'm not sure they'll go as far as I want them to go. I didn't think they'd answer all the questions I had, especially about her potentially criminal life. Also, I want to know whether I'm in any kind of danger."

He nodded. "Okay. I get it."

"Another thing: I think they'd look at this stuff and unilaterally make some big decisions for me. I just... I just want to have some input. I want to make my own plans, as far as I can."

Rowan nodded. "I get it," he said. Then he slipped his hands into a pair of gloves.

He explained, "If you bring these to the center, I don't want my fingerprints on any of it. I used gloves every time I touched this stuff."

He grouped the three extra IDs and tapped them with his index finger. "These are all fake. They look like the real thing, but all three are fake."

"Fake? How can you tell?"

"I'm a cop. We have a database; I looked up the license numbers — or at least, I tried to. These numbers don't exist. They look right, at least superficially, but if you search for them, you get a goose egg." He waved his hand dismissively. "This one is supposed to have a hologram printed over it, and this one is supposed to have a magnetic strip on the back. In any case, the details don't matter. What's important is that there's nothing useful for you here, because all the information is bogus. I tried the names, but they don't exist, either: no credit history, no social media presence, no local news references — nothing. The addresses are phony, as well. They don't exist. Either the streets aren't there or the numbers aren't there or both. Everything comes from the land of NOT FOUND." He paused and took a swig of beer. "The credit cards, on the other hand, were good — at least the numbers anyway — until about two or three weeks ago, when they were reported stolen."

I frowned, and felt my face turning red.

"I think I can explain all that," he said. "But first, good news! In spite of what I just said, none of these names, including Merope's, have a criminal record. No outstanding warrants — at least not in this state, or in the states named on the drivers licenses."

"So the Merope ID is real?"

"Merope is a real person, yes.

"And she's from Omaha?"

"Yes, she's Omahamian — or whatever you call a person from Omaha."

"I call them a person from Omaha."

He laughed.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, remembering, "You said I should stick with the Merope ID. Why is that?"

"I'll come to that," he said. "But first, I have a pretty simple explanation for the multiple IDs and credit cards. It's more than likely that Merope was making a little money, buying stuff with stolen credit cards."

"How does that work?"

"There'll be a guy who organizes it. He gathers stolen card numbers, and he puts those numbers on blank credit cards, along with a fake name — real card number, fake name. He also makes a fake drivers license in that same fake name."

"Why?"

"Someone like Merope will take a pair of fakes -- a credit card and a drivers license -- into a big store and buy a huge TV or a computer — something like that. A big-ticket item. Hopefully she'll get out of the store before the card is reported stolen. Out in the parking lot, she hands the merchandise to the guy who gave her the card. He gives her a couple hundred bucks, which is a small cut of what he makes when he sells the TV at a discount."

"I see."

"There's $10,000 in the envelope... a little more than $2500 in the wallet. Most of it she probably earned legally... she probably had a legitimate job... maybe she sold her belongings before she left Omaha... because if she earned her money the way I just described, buying big-ticket items with stolen cards, it would have been forty, fifty... maybe even sixty trips to different stores, which is a lot. Too many, in fact. Especially when you consider that you can't keep hitting the same stores. So I think this was a side gig for her. Not her regular profession. Not her principal source of income."

He gathered the cards and squared up the stack. "Judging by the dates the cards were reported stolen, Merope probably used these cards — or was supposed to use these cards — three or four weeks ago, before the Switcher caught her. She should have already destroyed them. In fact, it shows that she didn't do this a lot. Somebody who *did* do this a lot wouldn't have hung onto these cards and IDs. Like I said, probably just a little side gig; something she did a handful of times. Nothing to worry about."

"Should I throw the fakes away then?" I was a bit alarmed by having any fake IDs at all. I didn't want to carry them, even if I fully intended to hand them over to the processing center. They felt... radioactive. "Is there a safe way to destroy them?"

"I'm not sure what to do with them yet," he replied. "We can wait until you come back from the processing center and cut the cards up then. Or hand them in. It depends on how much you want to tell the people at the center; which way you want to go."

I felt my breath catch in my throat.

"I don't know what you mean, Rowan. I have to tell them the truth, don't I? What choice do I have? I've got to tell them everything. Otherwise..."

"Otherwise, what? Just think for a minute: What would happen if the Switcher threw this bag in the trash before he met you? You wouldn't know anything about it. You wouldn't even know your name. Neither would the processing center."

"But that's not what happened."

"What if the Switcher took all the problematic stuff out of the bag before he met you? You wouldn't know anything about the money, about the fake IDs... and neither would the processing center."

"Yes, but—"

"No buts. When you go in there, all they know is what you tell them -- and what's in the bag. If we set the money aside, leave just — say — $45 in the wallet, the folks at the center will look in and say, "Huh. Forty-five dollars. Why didn't the Switcher take it?"

At first I was speechless. Then I protested, repeating, "I have to tell the truth, don't I?"

"Do you?" he asked. "In any case, I never said you should lie. I think it would be a good idea to leave some things out — like this money, for instance. Suppose you go in tomorrow with all the money. What are the chances they'll confiscate it?"

After a pause, I mumbled, "I don't know... fifty-fifty?"

"Yeah. I don't think they'll have a problem confiscating the money. I mean, it's Merope's money, right? Are you Merope?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"No matter how Merope got this money, she earned it. Don't throw it away! You're going to need it."

"I guess."

"Look, I'm going to leave $45 bucks or so in the wallet, and I'll keep the rest here until the center is done with you." Rowan moved some of the currency from the wallet to the money envelope and went to hide the envelope somewhere in his bedroom. When he returned, he said, "I think you ought to leave the fake IDs and credit cards here with me as well. I mean, especially if you want to keep Merope's ID. You go in there with four sets of identification, they'll probably take them all off of you."

"Why would I want Merope's ID?" I asked him.

He looked at me, clearly weighing something in his mind. "Let's hold off on that, okay? I have a reason, and I'll tell you, but I want to get through the stuff in this purse first."

Rowan sat down at the table and motioned for me to sit as well. He picked up the bag. "Let's set aside the easy stuff." He took the small pack of tissues, the lipstick, the tampon and sanitary pad, and set them at one end of the table. "Just regular women's stuff."

"Then, we have this." He held up the pen. "This is kind of unusual. It's special."

"It's a nice looking pen," I acknowledged.

"It's more than nice looking," he told me. "This pen is expensive. It's a Pineider Rollerball in Bordeaux Methacrylate. Don't be impressed; I had to look it up. It costs more than $600. That's a little strange, because Merope's bag is nothing special. You'd think that someone who has a pricey pen would have a bag from Louis Vuitton or whatnot. I mean — not that this isn't a nice bag, but I looked it up, too, and you can find it on sale at Macy's for $20 downtown. Also, the pen is in pristine condition, while the bag looks like it's been in daily use for a couple months."

"Are you saying the pen was stolen?"

"No, I'm just pointing out that it's incongruous. It sticks out; it doesn't fit. BUT, we can't jump to conclusions. Maybe Merope had a thing for expensive pens. Who knows? Right now we're just collecting facts. Okay? Moving on: the wallet, like the bag, is nothing special."

"And that's it!" I exclaimed. "There's nothing else! I still don't know who this woman is!"

"Wait," Rowan said. "There's more. I mean, let's think about what's missing."

I looked at the items lying on the table. "There's no phone."

"Correct."

"There aren't any photos, or papers."

"Right."

"No store receipts or business cards. There's nothing to tell me who she was or where she's been."

"Something else is missing," Rowan prompted.

I turned my gaze once again to the items on the table. I thought about the items Cleo usually carried. It seemed like her bag was always stuffed with papers and... "Hand sanitizer?" I ventured. I tried to picture Cleo, digging through her bag, looking for...

"Keys!" I exclaimed.

"Exactly," he agreed, and sat back in his chair with a smug smile.

"And what's so great about that?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "let's talk about this more-or-less empty purse. I've never seen a woman with a bag so empty. Have you? Do you think the Switcher went to the trouble of cleaning it out? Of purging all Merope's stuff?"

"Seems unlikely. Why would he bother?"

"I'm guessing that Merope did it. I think she came to Harmish looking for a fresh start. I bet she was going for a job interview. That's why she wore those nice clothes. I think she was done with Omaha and didn't like earning money illegally. She came here to start over! So... how do you think she got here?"

"How would I know?" I shot back, a little irritated by the question. "Train? Plane? Bus?"

"She drove here," he replied, crossing his arms and smiling even more smugly than before.

"How do you know that?"

"Because her car was ticketed not far from downtown. Expired meter."

I tried to consider what it could mean to me, but all I came up with was, "Okay, so if I'm Merope, I have some kind of car."

"Right. A ten-year-old Corolla. Color: yellow."

"But there's no key."

"If you're Merope, you can have a key made. You call a locksmith. They want to see that your drivers license matches the name on the registration, and you can show that."

I fell silent, thinking about how much that would cost.

"If you want to know who Merope was, that car is probably full of clues."

"I guess," I conceded.

"I'm sure," he countered. "Okay, here's the plan—" as he spoke, he swept the tissues, the lipstick, the tampon and sanitary pad into the bag. "You take this bag with you to the center tomorrow morning—" He picked up the wallet, inserted Merope's ID and credit card, and $47 dollars. "Forty-seven bucks," he said. "That's believable."

Then, with a sigh, he dropped the pen into the bag as well. "I hate to see this go. Those clowns will probably confiscate it. Try to keep it if you can. They don't have any right to take it, but..."

Then he asked for my phone — Anson's phone. He looked at it. "You turned it off. Did you call your wife? Did you call Herman?"

"No," I said. "I'm feeling really guilty. Cleo's probably worrying..."

"If you call her now, you're going to make a mess. Leave it to the processing center to make the first contact. As far as I know, they'll bring the two of you together — or the three of you together — to see if your family will let you live with them."

"Will let me live with them?" I repeated, my voice rising. "LET me live with them? It's my house! Bought and paid for by me!"

"Try to keep your voice down," Rowan reminded me. "The *me* you're talking about is Anson. You're not Anson any more."

With that, he dropped my phone — Anson's phone — into Merope's bag.

"Why are you doing that?" I demanded.

"Calm down," he said. "You want these guys to let you be Merope. If you give them something to scold you about, something they can legitimately take from you, they're more likely to let you get away with something else."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Trust me, it does. Plus, if they're lazy, letting you stay Merope means less paperwork for them."

He pushed the bag toward me and stripped his gloves off. "Take this bag, just like this, tomorrow morning. Don't talk about what's not there. Don't even hint at what used to be there. Don't tell them any of the things we learned. Just forget everything that's not in the bag, okay? Tell them that you saw the Switcher take stuff out. Tell them all about the cylinders. It's probably important. They are probably the reason he's in town." I glanced away for a moment, so he snapped his fingers to get my attention. "Listen to me. Listen carefully: Don't add anything to what actually happened, okay? No embellishments. Don't make stuff up. Don't lie. Don't draw any conclusions for them. Don't give them any theories. Don't say that he took the envelope or anything but the cylinders. You don't know about any envelopes because you never saw any envelopes." He studied my face for a moment. "Can you do that?"

"Of course I can!"

"Okay. So tell me: what's in the bag?"

"Tissues. Feminine hygiene products. Wallet. Lipstick. Anything else?"

"You forgot the pen, but it's fine."

 


 

The bag's contents were analyzed and settled. "What's next?" I asked, "Rowan... What's the plan? Tomorrow morning, I call the center?"

"No, you don't have to do that. I'll drive you," he said. "We have to leave at about seven, which is when the dry cleaners opens. It'll take about 40 minutes to get to the center. That'll give us twenty minutes leeway up there in case of complications, and give me plenty of time to drive back and get to work on time."

"Have you been to the center before?"

"No. I've never been there. I told you: I never met anyone who was switched before. I looked up the address. It's a straight shot up I-60. Easy-peasy."

"Why is it so far away?"

"It costs money to run these places. Money, infrastructure, personnel... They call the centers regional, but some of the so-called regions cover three states."

"Do you think they might insist on giving me a new identity and sending me to live far away?" I asked.

He shook his head. "It's unlikely. Think about their procedure: First off, they find out who you are — I mean, the you inside; who you used to be. In your case, Anson Charpont. At the same time, they figure out who you are now, the physical you. In your case, Merope Goddard."

He took a breath. "Your situation is that of the typical Switcher victim: you've got a foot in two different worlds, Anson's world and Merope's world. The people at the center will see if they can fit you into one or the other. Your old family is closer. They'll probably call Cleo and Herman right away and — like I said before — they'll ask Anson's family if you can live with them."

I harrumphed. "I don't see how they can refuse me."

"They can. They absolutely can. Legally, Anson is dead. Or could be pronounced dead. It depends on what your family wants."

"You're not selling this very well, Rowan!"

"I'm not trying to sell it! I'm trying to adjust your expectations. Anyway... suppose your family says yes to you. Great! Then you go off to live with Cleo, and maybe with whoever is Anson now."

"Oh," I said in a small voice, getting the picture. "I didn't think about that! Now... with a different old me in the picture, it doesn't sound promising. They'd have to ask Cleo about him, too, right? What are the chances she'd want either of us? What are the chances she'd want both?"

"It would be awkward, to say the least. But you never know." He scratched his head. "Cleo... Herman... could decide to go for it."

I tried to picture myself, Merope, living with Cleo — or living with Herman. It was difficult to imagine.

"At the same time, they'll look into Merope Goddard. Does she have a family somewhere? Has she been reported missing? The center will reach out to Merope's people. Maybe Merope has parents who wonder where she's gone." Rowan gave a roguish smile. "Or maybe Merope has a husband, a man with a hard body and a desperate longing."

"Hardly," I told him in a dry tone. "Merope is already an adult, and she isn't married." I held up my left hand as evidence.

Rowan shrugged. "She might have a boyfriend." I made a face. "Maybe even a fiance." Rowan grinned. "He might be well endowed."

"Oh, Christ, Rowan!"

"He might be VERY well endowed."

"That's enough of that! I get the picture: The processing center looks at my old world and my new world and asks each one if they want me."

"That's a good way to put it. Then, if you're a no-go in both directions, they give you their whole-new-life bit. It's a package deal: a new name, a Greyhound bus ticket, and the offer of a shitty job that you'd never take. They walk you to the door, tell you the world is your oyster, and give you a great big swat on the butt, 'cause it's your birthday."

"Hmmph. You make it sound very bleak and cynical."

"You have to remember: the people in the center are just doing a job. You can't expect them to care. They get people in there who are freaking out, demanding to be put back in their old bodies. It's tough. It's hard work."

Rowan thought for a second, then told me. "So listen: the main thing, when you're dealing with them, is don't be demanding and don't freak out. Don't be pushy. The worst thing you can say is YOU HAVE TO HELP ME. It triggers them. If you say those words they will screw you in every way they can."

"Why would they do that?" I demanded. "They are there to help me!"

"Okay, yes, technically, yes, but, remember — they deal with freaked-out people all day, every day, okay? If *you* freak out, you're just another hysteric in a long line of hysterics. You'll be one more bad day, and that's all. They'll just want to get rid of you. On the other hand, if your attitude is, I'm cool with this. I'll be happy to wait if I have to... I'll be glad to leave here peacefully and get on with my life. I'll make-do with the hand I've been given — if you're like that, they'll be more likely to actually help you. Okay? Don't be demanding, don't freak out on them, and do NOT tell them what they're supposed to be doing. Act like you're on their team. Respect their time and their efforts, and everything will be okay. Okay?"

I didn't answer, so he asked again, "Okay?"

I nodded.

 


 

I nodded a second time, and suddenly felt very sleepy. A whole-body tiredness hit me all at once. In spite of myself, I let out a huge, open-mouthed yawn.

"All right," Rowan said. "You can sleep in the bedroom. I'll take the couch. What time do you want me to wake you?"

"We're leaving at seven? Wake me at six-thirty," I replied.

 


 

Now that I was finally alone, I sat on the edge of his bed. It felt surprisingly firm and comfortable. I looked around the room. There were two doors: one for the closet, one for the living room. There was one huge curtainless window, looking out on the bookstore and cafe across the street. The only furniture was a bureau. The bureau was centered between the outside wall and the door to the living room, leaving a small empty space.

I squeezed into the opening between bureau and wall, and lowered my butt to the floor. Hugging my knees to my chest, I rocked gently and quietly, thinking about Cleo. How would she react? She'll be angry, I told myself. She'll blame me, even if it's not my fault.

Or could she be happy to finally be rid of me? It seemed that lately all I could do was irritate and disappoint her.

My mind played over the events of the day. If only I hadn't argued with the Switcher. If only I hadn't stood on the bench. If only I'd turned west at the river. If only, if only.

Cleo, it's not my fault, I told her in my mind, as if she could hear me. It's really not my fault, I repeated, and started to cry, snuffling as quietly as I could manage.



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