Merope, Maybe : 8 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 8 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Our two greatest problems are gravity and paperwork.
We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming."
— Wernher von Braun


 

The next morning, I woke up because someone was tapping me. If I'd been less asleep, the fact of someone touching me at all would have jerked me into full consciousness: I would have instantly hit battle mode.

It didn't happen this time because I was down too deep. When I lay down on my bed last night, I was exhausted, and slept the sleep of the dead. So... when it came time to wake up, it was a long, slow climb back to consciousness.

As I made that sluggish, lead-footed, and confused ascent from the land of dreams to the land of the living, I did my best to piece things together: to separate dream from reality.

Yes, someone was gently, rhythmically tapping my ring finger, tap tap tap. Why on earth would anyone do that? Gradually I understood that it was *me* tapping. Me tapping myself. My left thumb curled inside my hand, tapping my left ring ringer, close to the base. A few more steps out of dreamworld, and I understood why.

Cleo and I have been married — had been married — were married for... twenty-five years, give or take. I can never remember the exact number. It doesn't matter now.

In all that time, I've never taken off my wedding ring. Never. Well... hardly ever. I'd sense the lack, the absence, right away — the sensation of something missing, and I'd feel a low-grade panic until I found the ring and put it back on.

Now, of course, there was no finding it. There was no putting it back on. It was gone, along with my previous body. Some other Anson was wearing it now.

Maybe he was waking up as well, his thumb tapping what used to be my ring finger, my ring. Maybe he's asking himself who is on the other end of that ring? Had he met Cleo? Have they argued yet?

I exhaled heavily and sat up, looking at my left hand. I'd looked at myself before; I knew the story already: Merope had never been married; never worn a wedding ring. I could see this by the light coming under my door from the hallway.

This room needs a decent nightlight, I said to myself. Something a little more intentional than the light under the door.

"I'll put it in my Yelp review," I said aloud, and laughed. "I have to comment on the decor... and of course on the wi-fi service—"

I stopped in mid-sentence. How was the wi-fi? I wondered. I hadn't noticed any routers anywhere, not that I was looking. Then again, I hadn't seen many devices that would need wi-fi. Except in the nurse's office. She had a tablet, so there must have been a connection nearby.

Out of habit, I groped in the near darkness for my nightstand, for my phone. I only wanted to know the time, but — whatever. Merope didn't have a phone. Not at the moment, anyway. And there was no nightstand.

Do phones work, this far underground? Well, actually we were only one or two levels down, but there had to be a huge mass of steel and concrete above and around me. The base was probably one huge Faraday cage.

I dangled my head over the side of the bed and stared at the red glowing numbers, upside-down, on the clock over the bookcase. 8:45 AM. I didn't usually sleep that late. I'm usually up before dawn.

After a brief trip to the bathroom, I stood in the middle of my room, blinking, still slightly foggy with sleep. I debated myself: was I was hungry enough to dress and make my way to the cafeteria, or would I be better off crawling back into bed. Coffee? Or pillow? I decided to go with the coffee option, which raised the question of showering or not showering. So many decisions! I made my bed and was smoothing the blanket, when another tapping started. There was someone at my door. Who could it be? God, please don't let it be Laura, I prayed. But even so... I took a deep breath and opened the door a couple inches, placing my body behind it to hide the fact that I wasn't wearing any pants.

It was Femke. "I come with breakfast," she said, matter of factly. She didn't ask whether she'd woken me.

"Oh, my God! I'm so happy to see you!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, yes, awesome! It's so awesome!" she joked, in a very broad American accent. "Don't overdo it," she cautioned.

"I'll overdo if I like," I told her. "I'm American — I'm going to act out like an American! Come in! Come on in!"

Femke was dressed, like me, in Army fatigues. "It's camouflage," she explained. I hesitated, unsure whether to tell her that I knew very well what the splotches of green, black, and brown were called. Femke, watching my face, frowned. "I can see the gears spinning in your head," she told me. "I'm joking. I'm wearing these to blend in, so I look like one of you." She gestured at herself. "I know this is camouflage, but it's also camouflage. Get it?"

The lanyard around her neck was white, and held a card with her picture, her name, and the title "INTL OBSERVER." She saw me glance at it, and grinning told me, "I'm an international observer." She laughed. "I'm observing like all-get-out." She set a bag of food on the end of my bed, and pulled two cups of coffee out of a four-cup carrier. She rested the drinks atop the little bookcase.

Inside the bag were two styrofoam take-out containers. The contents were identical: one for her, one for me. They held huevos rancheros, fresh tortillas, white rice, and black beans. As if that wasn't enough, there were four slices of buttered toast. The coffee cups were large, holding generous, hot black coffee. Everything was excellent.

"Is this from the cafeteria?" I asked. "I have to say, the food here is something else!"

"Something else?" Femke echoed.

"Oh — I mean, it's really good. It's exceptional."

She nodded. "It's not from the cafeteria."

I blinked a few times, waiting for more. When she wasn't forthcoming, I asked, "Where is it from, then?"

She raised her head and thought for a moment as she chewed. After she swallowed, she answered, "Let's say we sent out for it." She spooned some beans and rice into her mouth and picked up a tortilla.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

She sighed. "Don't ask," she replied. "It means, don't ask. I'll tell you after we get out of this place."

I frowned and pressed her again, but she wouldn't budge. She wouldn't say another word, except to repeat that she'd tell me once we left the center.

A little frustrated, I changed the subject. "So, how have you spent your time here, so far?"

"I'm looking around," she answered. "Observing. Getting the lay of the land. Is that correct to say?"

"The lay of the land? Yes, that's perfect," I replied. "And what have you found?"

She raised her eyebrows and smiled like the cat who swallowed the canary. "You won't believe it," she confided. "But in any case you'll have to wait until we leave before I tell you."

"Why?" I demanded. Now I was more than a little miffed, and starting to get offended. "What's with all the mystery and the things you won't tell me?"

"Rowan told me that you can't keep a secret, so it's better not to tell you... sensitive... things until we're safely out of here."

"Hmmph!"

"One thing I *can* tell you that your old self, Mr Anson Charpont, has not yet put in an appearance! It's very strange."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. I checked before coming here, just now. The center knows nothing about him. Also — and here is a bit of good news — Stan has given me a pager that will alert me the moment your Anson arrives." She showed me a small dark block clipped to her waist.

"Who is Stan?"

She sighed heavily. "Stan is the stoner who let us into this place. Remember? The dude who lives in a cloud of marijuana smoke? As it happens, he is the facilities manager — can you believe it? He is responsible for this entire installation, and for that reason, he has access to everything here. Everything. They have a room full of pagers. Pagers! Who needs pagers nowadays? And yet they have enough for an army! They also have an alert system that can send out automatic pages for anything and everything."

I didn't know what to respond, so I didn't say anything.

Femke went on. "I'm going to call Rowan in an hour. I'm going to ask him to dig into the whereabouts of your old self."

"Thanks."

"He should be able to tell us what's what. He is a big-city detective, after all," she quipped.

After chewing for a bit, and swallowing, Femke sniffed the air around her. She asked me, "Do I smell of pot?"

I took a few experimental sniffs. "No. Not at all. Were you smoking?"

"No, but Stan — he reeks of it. I was afraid his stink might... transfer to me."

"No, you're fine."

"That man is high every moment of the day, if you can believe it. He smokes even when he is already on his ass. I'm convinced that when he dies, his autopsy will show that his brain is ten percent brain cells, and ninety percent resin."

I laughed.

"Stan believes that he and I have an Amsterdam connection, as he puts it, and for that reason he is happy to do things for me. He can believe in this connection all he likes, as long he stands far enough back that his pot-cloud doesn't touch me."

"Yeah," I agreed. "He does have a potent aura."

"In any case, as I was saying, Stan has access to every part of this base. And this base is enormous. Enormous! You can have no idea! It has no end of lower levels. At some point, the floors are no longer numbered. They use letters, acronyms. Obviously, it's to obscure the depth, so you don't know how far down you are."

"Wow."

"But this bureaucracy, this Switcher center, they only use the top ten levels, and those, only to a limited extent. The rest is just—" She spread her hands in a gesture meaning vast emptiness.

Femke went on talking about the size of the base, its original purpose, and the Cold War. She found it fascinating, and spoke for some time, gesturing and exclaiming. I finished my food and sat brooding, holding my coffee in both hands, but not drinking. My mind was elsewhere.

I was concerned about Laura. I couldn't stop thinking about her. She was obviously a bright girl, but not happy about living in a boy's body. Not happy at all. Obviously distressed about finding herself once again a minor, and not having the power to determine her own fate. My mind replayed pieces of our conversation, and I found myself composing helpful advice I wish I'd had the presence of mind to offer in the moment.

"Hey," Femke called to me, gently at first. Then, "Hey!" with a poke to my thigh. "Where are you, Merope? You seem distracted and disturbed."

"I am," I confessed.

"Don't worry," she said. "You'll learn to navigate this new life of yours. We'll help you, Rowan and I."

"It's not that," I told her. "I mean, thanks for all that — I really appreciate what you're doing, and the fact that you're here. I'm just distracted. I'm concerned about a girl I met here yesterday."

Femke nodded, and I related the whole experience, from seeing the crewcut boy in the library, to realizing she was a girl to her core, to listening to her confused and contradictory conspiracy theories.

Femke confessed, "I haven't heard any of that stuff — but I must admit I'm not au courant with conspiracy theories. Of course it's all nonsense, but perfectly in line with typical paranoid, anti-government fantasies." She chuckled to herself. "Have you ever considered that there may be a nebulous miasma composed of all the common elements of your standard conspiracy theories? Can you picture it just floating in the air throughout history, waiting for a topic, for a focus it can adhere to, and congeal itself around? Then, once that topic is exhausted and gone, it returns to being an untethered miasma once again?"

"Ah... well... I can honestly say, that the idea has never occurred to me."

Femke shook her head and declared, "Don't worry, Merope! The girl will be fine. Certainly after a few sessions, all that crap will be straightened out of her."

"Sessions?" I repeated.

"With her therapist."

"If she *has* a therapist."

"Why wouldn't she? Surely a mental-health professional will spend some time with her. Help her understand, adjust."

"No," I told her. "That won't happen."

She gestured vaguely with her hand. "This... facility... what is it for, then? They must provide counseling. There must be therapists, counselors, on staff. Mental health — it's elementary! How can you say they won't help in that way? Certainly they offered this to you! Not that you need it, but how do they expect disconnected, displaced people to find their feet after this experience? For many, this will be an immense trauma."

"They expect each of us to find our own way."

Femke stared at me, uncomprehending. "That makes no sense," she objected, shaking her head.

"Femke, no one has offered me anything, except for a bottle of water. As far as I've seen and heard, there's no consideration given for mental-health. None at all."

"And yet, someone follows-up each victim at their homes, afterward."

I shook my head. "No. The man who did my intake, he told me quite clearly that no one ever follows up on any Switcher victim. They never have, and I guess they never will."

Femke processed this, then smiled. "Surely there are support groups."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you Americans, the moment something happens to one of you, the first thing you do is create a support group, and the second thing is that you go on TV."

I thought about that for a moment. "Yeah, probably," I admitted.

"And your Laura-girl, or Laura-boy, she also has a advantage over someone like you. A sad advantage, but an advantage still."

"What's that?"

"She will connect to a network of conspiracy people. If not in person, at least online. She will find kindred spirits who will listen to her story, and take her into their arms, at least metaphorically."

I looked at the floor and took a sip of my coffee. "Cold comfort," I commented.

"It's better than being alone in her sorrows," Femke offered.

"Is it?"

Femke gave me an encouraging pat on the knee and said, "At least you, Miss Merope, you can comfort yourself by creating a support group, if there isn't one already! You can collect all the Lauras and Petes of this area and be their shepherd."

Femke was smiling. I had no idea whether she was making fun of me, but at the moment I didn't care. Her encouragement and optimism improved my mood and made me smile.

"I guess I could at least get some t-shirts printed," I joked.

"That's the spirit! In that way, you'll make your fortune."

We both took a deep sip of coffee after that.

"There was something else," I said, changing the subject once again. "For some reason this Laura, her boyfriend Pete, and some homeless guy in blue shorts, they all arrived last night, which was Friday—"

"—So, the Switcher got to them after you and Anson."

"No, that's what I expected! Instead, for some reason, they encountered the Switcher *before* me, before Merope. They got switched on Thursday night."

"What do you make of that?"

"I don't know," I replied. "If I see Laura, I'll try to ask. She is a little spiny, though."

"Spiny?"

"Like a hedgehog... or a porcupine."

Femke thought for a moment, then said some word in Dutch that seemed to clarify things for her.

"Okay," she said, "I will see whether Stan can shed some light on their late arrival. Maybe it's connected to your Anson's late arrival as well?"

"I suppose it's possible. Thanks."

I also mentioned the fanny pack that the Switcher was careful to keep. "The cylinders could have been in there," I speculated.

She shrugged. "It's possible. In any case, it shows that the Switcher was already up to something before he met you. This business with Laura and her friends seems more intentional that his interaction with you."

"True," I agreed.

"Maybe you bumped into him on his way out of town."

 


 

After Femke left, I took a shower. Then I dressed in a fresh set of fatigues and headed toward the lounge. I found myself walking quickly, almost angrily, and realized that I was spoiling for a fight. It came out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness. What was doing in this place, after all? Wasting time, certainly. Learning nothing, that's for sure. Could I insist on being let go? No one ever told me, after all, that I couldn't leave.

In Laura's case, by way of contrast, they had told her she couldn't leave. Not until her fate had been decided. It was different, of course. In Pete's body, she was legally a minor, and was obliged to wait until Pete's parents decided whether they'd take her in.

The point I was making (to myself) was that Laura was directly *told* that she couldn't leave. In my case, they asked me. Matt said something like how do you feel about staying for a couple of days? That sounded pretty voluntary.

Next time I saw Femke, I'd have to tell her that if she wanted to leave — or whenever she felt like leaving — I was more than ready to get out of Dodge.

It seemed, though, that Femke was enjoying herself, or at least that she found the place interesting. She didn't appear to have trouble keeping busy.

Maybe I should ask if I could hang around with her; visit the other, more hidden parts of the center.

But for now? I used my access card to open the women's dorm, and stuck my head in, hoping to find the two women who'd been so hostile the day before. Instead, I found the place empty. Empty of people, I mean. There were ten beds, all of them made up, clean and ready for use. The two women were probably back in the outside world. And where do they fit in the daisy chain? I wondered. Before me, most likely. Probably before Laura and Pete, as well.

Or were they just staff? People who worked in the center, taking advantage of the surplus beds for a night?

I sighed. It didn't matter either way. None of it helped me.

The library and cafeteria were empty. I could hear the sound of a ping-pong game coming from the lounge.

It was Laura (in the guise of a lanky, crewcut boy) and Pete (now short and stocky, with light brown hair). I found them intent on the game: unsmiling, competitive. I stood off to the side, well out of play. Neither of them bothered to greet me, so I didn't speak until Laura delivered a powerful spike that caught the very edge of the table before its ricochet carried it to one of the room's far corners.

"Hey, Laura," I offered, as Pete turned to run and fetch the ball.

"How you doing?" she replied, twirling her paddle as she spoke.

"Quick question," I said. "How come, if you were switched on Thursday, you didn't arrive here until Friday night? Did you wait before you called the center?"

"No," she replied, and quickened her words as Pete approached with the ball. "I called the police right away, but they didn't have anybody to bring us here until Friday."

I nodded thoughtfully. Simple answer. Pete tossed the ball to Laura and announced the score. Laura resumed the game by delivering a lightning-fast serve that shot right past Pete.

"Happy?" she asked me.

"Ecstatic," I replied. "Thanks — I'll leave you to your game." I waved to Pete. He smiled and nodded, then asked, "You don't have any cigarettes, do you?"

I shrugged, shook my head, and left. Now I had my answer, and yet once again I'd learned nothing.

After picking up a mug of coffee in the cafeteria, I wandered into the library. I decided, either perversely or ironically, to search for A Room with a View, but couldn't remember the author's name. Instead I ended up with Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham. I only picked it because it happened to be lying out on a table. I started reading because a blurb on the back cover proclaimed it "one of the funniest books ever written."

I'm a fast reader, and it's a quick read, but I have to say I got 150 pages into it, before I found anything amusing. And it wasn't even funny! It was only amusing. Even so, by that time, the story had hooked me, and I wanted to know how it all came out, so I moved to the cafeteria and sat near the coffee dispenser.

So... was it "one of the funniest"? No. Not at all. It was engaging. The premise was clever. I liked it, but I only laughed out loud once, and that was at a scribbled note some random reader added. The book quoted Racine: Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée, and some simple soul must have Google-translated and gotten: "Venus all whole at her prey area of responsibility." My French was rusty, but after a little struggle I got the idea that it was "Venus herself, fastened to her prey."

Still, I stayed with the little book all the way to the end, until the author neatly tied up every loose end — some of which he purposefully left dangling until the very last page in the book.

The story left me in a curious and reflective mood.

It gave me a sense of the author's — or at least the narrator's — kindness, compassion... maybe even tenderness. And the writing was flawless, if I'm any judge.

What was it about? It told the story of a famous writer who'd recently died, and how his upper class friends — lovers of propriety — steadfastly closed their eyes to everything that formed the man, everything that made him interesting, and defined who he was. They wanted a smooth, unoffensive, upper-class portrait; all light, no shadows.

So... again, "one of the funniest"? Not by a long shot. But still... maybe what I liked in it, maybe what I wanted from it for myself, was for someone to see me and understand me, with the same kindness and compassion. Maybe that's all it was.

 


 

The day passed slowly. Apart from Laura and Pete, who had no interest in my company, I didn't see another living soul. I traipsed around the floor, which was vast. All I found was one hallway after another. Every hallway was full of doors. Numbered doors, elevator doors, or double doors. I couldn't open any of them. Every door was labeled with numbers or descriptions (such as "LARGE BRIEFING ROOM" or "CLEANING SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT") or with acronyms. Most doors were labeled "NAP".

Later, Femke asked Stan about NAP. He told her it meant "No Assigned Purpose."

Femke mentioned that she'd come by at seven so we could have dinner together. I was feeling rather low after a boring day spent alone in an underground bunker, but I tried to not show it. She asked whether I wanted Mexican food again, but I told her I felt like eating a big pile of vegetables. We went together to the cafeteria. Laura and Pete were eating at a table for two, off in the distance, and they didn't bother to look up when we came in. We left them to themselves.

Femke surveyed the food line, amazed at the variety and the volume. "This is an awful lot of food for three people!" she commented.

"I guess the people who work here, eat here as well."

"Even so!"

I chose a large bowl rather than a plate, and piled it with boiled and sautéed vegies. I dumped in potatoes, cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, ... and seasoned it all with olive oil and salt. I also grabbed a big chunk of cheese and the end of a baguette, along with two bottles of water.

Femke selected a pair of fat sausages along with a healthy serving of spaghetti with ragu. She sprinkled the pasta liberally with grated parmesan. "What? No wine?" she quipped. Leaning close, she added in an undertone, "I can get us some, if you like."

"No, that's fine," I said. "There's plenty of time for that when I'm out of here."

We sat near the door for some reason. The moment we sat down, Femke shoved a healthy forkful of spaghetti into her mouth.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, the word muffled by the pasta. She held up one finger, meaning wait, while she chewed and eventually swallowed. "This is quite flavorful!"

"Yeah, the food here is surprising."

"Anyway, I spoke to Rowan. He was in a great hurry, but he told me that he found your Anson."

"Did he? Where? And why isn't Anson here?"

"He couldn't answer that yet. He is still finding out. He said something about a reporting sync." She shook her head.

"Do you mean sync, like synchronization?"

"Yes, of course," she acknowledged. "Synchronization. I don't know what needs to synchronize with what. He actually suggested not telling you, because you'll only have questions for which he has no answers."

I sighed heavily. "I'm getting sick and tired of not being told things."

"I understand," she said. "Only think: once he resolves this sync'ing business, you'll be free like a bird."

I considered what she told me, and asked her, "Hey, Femke. How will you know when I've been released? How can I find you?" I pointed to her phone number on my arm. "Does your phone work down here?"

"It does. Phones, pagers... you can even get the internet if you like. Do you want me to get you a tablet?"

"No, thanks. I just wanted to be sure that once they're done with me, I'll be able to find you."

"Absolutely. Stan assures me they will find me when it's time for you to go. I'm your contact person. It's in your... account... your personal record. They'll call me, and I'll also get an automatic page." Grinning, she held up the black box attached to her waist.

"Did Stan set that up?" I asked her, a little suspicious.

"Sure, yes."

I nodded, and considered for a long minute what I wanted to say — and whether I should say anything at all. Femke had her head down, focused on her spaghetti. The two sausages, some bread, and cheese were on standby. When she consumed the last forkful of pasta, she looked up at me and smiled.

"Femke," I began, tentatively. "I know Stan's been incredibly helpful—"

Femke gave a sharp barking laugh of agreement.

"—and I know you mentioned this Amsterdam connection he imagines you two have—"

"Yeah."

"—he's doing so much for you—" [Here my face began to redden] "—he's probably hoping... or expecting, even... or in any case, wanting—"

Femke laughed and wiped the red sauce from her mouth with a white napkin. She took a healthy swig of water and gave me an open-mouthed grin.

"I know what he wants, Merope," she said, laughing. "He's a man. All men are dogs, when it comes down to this. They hope, they expect, they want."

"But you're not going to sleep with him, are you?"

Femke held my eye and hung fire. When I could stand the suspense no longer, she said, "I haven't decided."

I have to say, I was shocked. I must be naive. After sixty years of life, I was still rather innocent in some things.

"What about Rowan?" I asked in a hushed tone.

She replied, "The Italians have a saying, Occhio non vede, Cuore non duole. Do you know what it means?" I shook my head. "It means that what the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't feel."

I was speechless. Femke watched me stew in my shocked feelings for a few moments, then burst into a loud guffaw.

"Oh, Merope! How could I stand to! Such a thing! That man, and his stink! Never, never — and then, never." She laughed and laughed.

"Anyway, Stan is happy. He is wrapped in his little cloud, dreaming of his youth in Amsterdam. He enjoys helping me, in part because he's showing off. He feels this base is his kingdom; that he has boundless riches here. Usually he has no way to show them off. Finally he has someone to boast to and impress. He wants me to ask for things, especially if they are difficult or forbidden."

"Really?" Something clicked in my brain. "Femke, do you think Stan can do something for me?"

She shrugged. "I think he would be delighted. I can only ask."

"When they interviewed and examined me, I asked for information about Merope, but they wouldn't give me any. Do you think Stan can get it for me?" I spoke in an undertone, furtively. I felt like a criminal, subverting the system.

"What sort of information?"

"Well, like... everything, really: Tax returns — all her tax returns. Medical information." I scratched my head. Femke got out a blue 3x5 card and a pen and began writing. "Um, bank account... I mean, bank statements — credit card... can they do a credit check? email address..."

I tapped my forehead, as though it would help me remember. "Oh! Phone number! What's her phone number? and her carrier!"

Femke, scribbling furiously, caught up with my list. "Anything else?"

"Oh, yeah, I suppose, um, debts? police record? Rowan said she didn't have any, but it wouldn't hurt to check again."

"These people here have resources, Merope. Serious resources. I think they can get into anything. Everything."

"And if Stan could put all of that on a USB stick, that would be great."

Femke grinned. "Your wish will be his command."

"Can you ask him about getting my birth certificate, too?"

"Sure." She shrugged and grinned. Then she picked up a knife and fork and attacked her sausages.

 


 

I slept a lot better that night than the night before. I took my used fatigues and spread them along the crack at the bottom of the door, leaving my room in near-complete darkness. There was still light filtering around the edges of the door, and the red numbers on the clock glowed all night, but I felt as though I was in a cave. A safe, warm, dry cave. The word atavistic came to mind. As I turned it over in my mind, asking myself whether the term applied to the way I was feeling, I slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep.

 


 

The next morning, Femke woke me by knocking on my door. Not tapping, knocking. "Merope, get dressed. Grab your bag. It's time to go."

"Do you mean—"

"Your Mr Anson finally reported in. You're free to go."

"Is he here? Can I see him?"

"He's not here. Maybe back in town you can see him. We'll see what Rowan says. We can call on the way. Come on, let's go."

Still a little groggy with sleep, and puzzled by her sudden... anxiety to leave. She'd shifted from one extreme to another: from relaxed, happy, go-with-the-flow, to hurry up, there's no time, let's get the hell out of here.

"Can I take a shower first?" I asked her.

She sniffed at the air around me, left and right. "You smell fine," she told me. "You can take all the showers you like after."

I started pulling a new set of fatigues on, and noticed that she was dressed in her own clothes. "No more camouflage?" I teased.

When she didn't respond, I picked up my bag — Merope's bag — and asked, "How about breakfast?"

"Oh. Uh — we can stop on the way."

"Could we get that Mexican breakfast again?"

"NO!" she exclaimed.

"What the hell, Femke? Did something happen?"

She glanced around her, as if to see whether anyone was listening. Then she snatched the pager from her hip.

"Do you think that fucker can track this?"

"Stan? I don't know? I suppose it's possible."

She threw the device on my bed, and repeated, "Let's go."

"Um — I'm supposed to change the sheets—"

"Fuck that! We're out of here!" She grabbed my arm and pulled me, and not very gently, into the hall and away.

She led me through a series of turns, from one hallway to the next. She told me later that there were indications on the wall, pale red arrows that I hadn't noticed.

At last we arrived at an elevator. She stopped abruptly and stared at it for a moment. She was obviously thinking, considering something — I had no idea what, so I reached forward to hit the elevator-call button.

She grabbed my arm to prevent me. "We're taking the stairs," she said. "Try to be quiet. I'll tell you everything in the car."

I was already getting the idea. Stan must have tried something, and it freaked her out.

I silently followed her up several flights of stairs until we arrived in a parking garage. There were a dozen or so cars parked on that level. I saw across the way the entrance that Matt mentioned. Stan was waiting there, watching a set of elevators, smoking a joint.

"Fucker," Femke hissed, and put her finger to her lips. I nodded.

Quietly we made our way through the garage, up one more parking level. Rowan's car was sitting in a dark corner, half-hidden by a large square pillar. The doors were slightly open. "Don't close the door until I've started the engine," she cautioned. We got in, buckled up, closed and locked the doors, and drove up and out, back into the real world.

"Fucker!" Femke exclaimed again, through gritted teeth, then "Fucker! Fucker! Fucker!" pounding the steering wheel with each cry.



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