Merope, Maybe : 9 / 19

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Merope, Maybe : 9 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux


"Never say 'no' to pie.
No matter what, wherever you are, diet-wise or whatever, you know what?
You can always have a small piece of pie, and I like pie.
I don't know anybody who doesn't like pie.
If somebody doesn't like pie, I don't trust them.
I'll bet you Vladimir Putin doesn't like pie."
— Al Roker


The car bucked and the undercarriage scraped the sidewalk as our car shot out of the processing center's garage. The tires screeched and squealed as Femke threw a hard left onto the road outside. My heart shot into my throat at her abrupt, reckless maneuver. Normally I would have shouted Watch out! or Be careful! or some equally useless warning. This time, instead, when I opened my mouth to shout a warning or a protest, the force of acceleration threw me back against my seat, and the words caught in my throat. Femke hadn't looked — she hadn't looked at all — before exiting. She didn't check for cars or pedestrians before cutting across the sidewalk or pulling onto the street. If a mother with a baby carriage had happened to step in front of us, the mother, the baby, and the carriage would have gotten steamrolled into oblivion.

Luckily there was no one on the sidewalk, no one on the street. The car fishtailed right and left before settling straight on.

White-knuckled, Femke tore down the main street and — almost as an afterthought — tore up the entrance to I-60 South. One of the wheels bounced and bounded over the curb before we shot like a rocket onto the highway. My head jerked right and left, looking for dangers, even though I had no way of preventing anything from happening. Happily, the highway was as empty of traffic as the street outside the processing center. Femke cut across the width of the highway, taking possession of the fast lane. I watched the speedometer rise... to 40... 50... 60... still within the speed limit.

The car gave a remarkably smooth ride... until the needle crept north of 60. Above that threshold, it vibrated — a clear indicator that this vehicle wasn't built for speed. At first the trembling was light. As the needle pushed higher and higher, the vibrations came harder and harder. The car shook and threatened to come apart. At least, that's how it felt. I pictured the wheels separating from the chassis, the doors and hood flying off, pieces of the engine tearing through the air. I easily imagined the two of us, cartoon-like, still in our seats, flying through the air, Femke still holding the steering wheel, but the rest of the car gone, left as scrap on the highway behind us. We hit 70... then 80...

My eyes grew wider as we narrowed the distance between us and two cars far ahead of us. They started as tiny black dots in the distance, but quickly came into view, until we whipped past them, as though they were standing still. Femke, unblinking, stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel as tight as she could with both hands. Her knuckles were bone white.

"Femke," I called in a gentle voice, "Femke, you need to slow down."

She gave me a long look, nodded, took a deep breath, and eased up on the gas. We rapidly decelerated until the car stopped trembling. She slipped over to the center lane.

"I needed to put some miles between myself and that place," she explained.

I nodded, and almost went with the shopworn I understand, but experience with Cleo taught me that I understand could be as much a trigger phrase as Calm down. No one likes to be told to calm down. It makes it sound like the real problem is their agitation, and not the thing that got them agitated in the first place.

In the same way, "I understand" trivializes the other person's feelings. Did I really understand? Probably not. I could guess, but I was in no way certain of what had happened to her.

So I went with something more neutral.

"Femke, why don't stop somewhere and have breakfast?" In very convenient timing, my stomach growled, seconding my request. "We can catch our breath. We can talk... if you *want* to talk... and I haven't eaten. Have you?"

Femke gave me another sidelong glance. She said, "Fine. But let's find a place off the highway." Then she added, "There isn't anything on this road anyway. Remember the trip up? We couldn't even find a gas station."

I borrowed her phone and consulted the GPS. "If we take the next exit, there's a diner, but it's 17 miles west of the highway."

"Sounds perfect," she replied.

We coasted slowly through the exit, and drove away from the highway, following a narrow country road. It was just barely two lanes, and the edges of the paving blended smoothly first to sand and pebbles, then to dirt and grass. At times it was so heavily overhung with trees, it felt like a living tunnel. The demographic composition of the trees changed with the miles. As we penetrated farther and farther west, we saw ever more evergreens, and fewer deciduous. In other words, the world became more green around us; we left the wildly colored leaves of autumn behind.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the diner — nearly missing it, smothered as it was by thick pines, their branches close, resting on the diner's roof.

Maude's Diner was painted fire-engine red, with a gray roof. If it weren't for the red, we'd have driven right past. The building obviously began its life as a one-story cottage, and later underwent a diner retrofit. The windows were still in a residential style, what builders call "six over one": six small panes in the upper sash, one large pane in the lower. The only clues to its identity as a diner were the sign and the entrance, which was a glass-and-metal door.

"They're going to have to trim those back," I observed, more to myself than to her.

"Trim? Back?" Femke repeated. She shot me a confused look. "What are you saying?"

"Nothing," I assured her. "It's just the trees... they're so overgrown."

She pulled into the parking lot, and followed as it curved behind the building. There were three spaces back there, close to a dumpster. I almost said something about the smell, but then it struck me that Femke might be trying to keep the car ouf of sight from the road.

She parked in the space closest to the dumpster, shut off the engine, and climbed out. I quickly followed, and went around the car to her side. "I need to shake this feeling," she muttered, and began an uncoordinated, leaping dance. She let her arms flail, she bounced on the balls of her feet, lolling her head down, left, right. She arched her spine and crunched forward, hugging herself. She jumped, stiff-legged, three times, hard. She shook herself and let out a soft crying growl. Out of breath, she straightened up and opened her arms. I understood: I moved in and held her.

"Tight, tight," she whispered. "Tighter! Oh!"

I rocked her in my arms, closing my eyes to try to feel her feeling — as well as I could. Time was suspended for a spell... I don't know how long... before I let go.



The diner was homey inside, and much larger than it seemed from outside. There were six tables and a counter seating six. The setup was that of a traditional diner: a waitress behind the counter; a display of pies at one end; the coffee station set in the wall at the far end, and a passthrough window to a tiny kitchen where a white-hatted man worked with his head down.

"Hello, girls," the waitress called in a cheery voice. "Welcome to Maude's."

"Thanks," I replied. "Are you Maude?"

"That I am!" she chirped. She gave a concerned look at Femke (who was clearly out of sorts), and told us, "There's a picnic table outside, if you girls want to have your meal out there. It's quiet and it's all yours."

"I didn't see it from the road," I said.

"Sounds perfect," Femke said, after clearing her throat to talk.

After a brief discussion, we ordered two blue-plate specials and a pot of coffee. We paid and exited through a side door: a green, wood-framed screen door mounted on a spring. It shut with an abrupt snap! behind us.

Directly outside we found a small patio paved with flagstones and covered in brown pine needles. Some broken chairs sat rusting in a corner, but the massive, heavy picnic table in the center of the patio was perfectly serviceable. The small, hidden alcove was hemmed in by thick pine branches on the front and side. It was only open toward the back, giving us a lovely view of the dumpster and a small slice of our car. Femke seemed reassured by the privacy. She poked and peeked through the branches, out toward the road.

"You don't think Stan would come after us, do you?" I asked her, half joking, half serious.

"That clown is capable of anything," she told me. She turned her head and looked off in the distance to the right of the dumpster. "I love the smell of pine trees," she said. "It's a unique aroma, isn't it? There is the piney resin, sure, but there is a hint of citrus as well. Don't you find?"

I wasn't sure whether I "found." I tried to focus my nose, if such a thing is possible; tried to isolate something I could call citrus-sy.

Before I had a chance to either get there or give up, Maude emerged with our food. She managed to carry two loaded plates, a pot of coffee, napkins, flatware, a basket of toast, and a small bowl of individual butter pats. She made it seem effortless.

With a series of fluid motions, she transferred the load of plates and articles from her arms to the table, with nary a slip or a spill. Then she told us, "If you need more coffee or more food, just stick your head in the door and give a holler." Femke sat down and smiled at Maude.

Maude smiled back, nodding, and added, "When you're done with all this, I recommend a slice of our strawberry-rhubarb pie. It's homemade, and is not to be missed. It's the best way to top off your breakfast."

"Sounds great," I responded, nodding.

After Maude returned inside, Femke consulted her phone. "This pie... Aardbei... Rabarber... It sounds a very strange combination."

"It's traditional," I said. "And it's very good. We should go for it."

The food was excellent, and Femke ate with surprising gusto. She was so obviously enjoying herself, I couldn't bring myself to spoil the moment by asking what had happened with Stan.

This particular "blue plate special" featured chicken-fried steak and eggs, sunny-side-up, along with a pile of sautéed onions, grits, and a great big homemade biscuit.

I felt a little cheated by the fact that it was actually served on an old-style blue plate — cheated, because I was looking forward to explaining to Femke why it was called "blue plate" when the plate wasn't actually blue. Of course, the plate being literally blue, she never asked the question.

What she asked instead was "Why all this bread if we already have a biscuit?"

I didn't honestly know, but before I could cook up some plausible answer, Maude emerged, bustling out with apologies: she'd forgotten the white "gravy" meant to be poured over the biscuits. She also swapped our half-empty coffeepot for a fresh, full one, and set down two pieces of pie, "in case you forgot to ask."

After we'd both put away a healthy portion of food, and swallowed a great quantity of strong, good-tasting coffee, Femke began telling me her story.

"Stan didn't want me to leave," she said. "Ever." She wiped coffee from her upper lip, and looked down at the table.

"I didn't take him seriously, of course. I saw him as nothing more than a stoner. A buffoon. A loser with delusions of grandeur. Instead, I strung him along, because he had access. Access to everything in that place. And he offered me everything! Money, US citizenship, a US passport, a new identity if I wanted it... And jewelry! He actually held out handfuls of necklaces, pearl, silver, gold... and told me to take my pick. I laughed and said I couldn't."

"But... where... how? He couldn't possibly give you any of that," I pointed out.

"Oh, no, Merope, you're very wrong. He could have given me all of that and more." She looked me in the eye as she took a deep sip of coffee.

"He wanted me to be his Persephone, he said. He considers himself a king up there."

"A king, in that bunker?" I scoffed. "Not much of a king, living in a hole in the ground."

"Oh, Merope, you have no idea. He is a criminal, many times over. That base is full of government supplies, which he sells."

"What? Old K-rations?"

"I don't know what K-rations are, but I do know that he sells material that belongs to your government, and then he orders more to replace it. Which he also sells."

"I don't know what that could be, but I can't imagine there's a lot of money in it. And those necklaces — they can't possibly be government surplus."

"They aren't, of course. They were taken from Switcher victims."


"No... just... oh, it doesn't matter. The point is, there is lots of stuff in that place, and he can do with it as he pleases."

"Sooner or later the government will catch up with him."

Femke gave a sharp, scoffing bark of a laugh. "He says, 'Not as long as I stay within my budget.' So there is that. And yet, there is something else he has to sell, and that is false identities. Or maybe not even false. This is real. Because he is part of the Switcher Processing team, he can create new papers, new birth certificates, drivers licenses, passports, out of nothing. And as long as he doesn't create more identities than there are Switcher victims, he says he can't be caught.

"He sells these identities to criminals, to drug dealers, to anyone — even to the worst people on earth."


"But, his real cash crop is marijuana."

"He's growing marijuana down there?"

"Yes. There are entire levels down there, with plants as far as the eye can see, under special lamps, probably paid for by your tax dollars. He feeds them, he waters them, with government money. He lights them with government power.

"And then... do you remember the Mexican breakfast I brought you? He has migrant workers who tend the plants, who harvest the crop, and prepare it for sale."

"I can't believe it!" My jaw literally hung open in surprise and shock.

"He says he pays them well. Many of them send money home. None of them know where they are. Even if they knew the location of the bunker, they have no idea which level they are on. They come and go on busses with darkened windows, and they live underground for an entire growth cycle. After each harvest, one group leaves and another comes in."

I fell speechless. Femke stopped talking for a bit, and without thinking, cut off the pointed end of her pie slice, and popped it in her mouth. Her eyes brightened. "Let's leave the story for a bit while we eat this wonderful pie," she said. And so we did.

In spite of her resolution, Femke stopped halfway through dessert to tell me, "He did make that USB stick for you. It has everything you could ever want to know about Merope Goddard. Oh, and he said — about the birth certificate — there is a picture of the certificate on there, a PDF, but if you want a real paper copy, you will have to get that yourself. A real birth certificate has to be notarized."

"Oh, right," I acknowledged. "Thanks."

She shrugged. "It's in your duffel bag, in the car."

"My duffel bag? What duffel bag?"

"Oh!" she laughed. "I thought I told you! Do you know how these processing centers take your clothes and do some silly tests with them?"

"Yes, what about it?"

"Well, they have rooms and rooms of clothes and shoes and bags and hats and... everything! And it's all sorted by size."

"That's crazy."

"It certainly is. So... while I was there, I spent some hours putting together a wardrobe for you. Just the basics. I wasn't greedy. It should carry you for several months, or longer, depending on how you are with clothes."

She picked up another piece of pie on her fork, and stopped meditatively with her fork poised in the air. "The, um, USB is in a little pocket... huh—" (she stared off into space for a moment, then) "—he had one of the workers carry the bag up to my car... to Rowan's car... Oh, shit!"

Femke dropped her fork with a clatter. She jumped up from the table and opened the door to the diner. Maude immediately appeared. Femke, breathless, said, "Maude, we need to check something in our car. Could you please leave the food on the table? We're not done — and the pie is wonderful!"

"Sure, hon," Maude assured her. "Everything all right?"

"It will be!" Femke exclaimed. "Merope, come!"

We dashed to the car, and she opened the trunk. "Don't touch anything!" she cautioned me. "That Stan — that son of a bitch — he said he had presents for you and me, and I'm just now thinking what those presents might be."

The space in Rowan's trunk was mainly taken by a large black duffel bag. Shoved to the side were Rowan's things: two sets of blue coveralls, a stack of police evidence bags, small note cards and marking pens, and a box of disposable blue nitrile gloves. "Police work," Femke explained, gesturing. "Crime scenes." She extracted two gloves from the box and slipped them on. She turned the duffel bag slightly to get access to a small pocket in the front, which she unzipped. She reached inside and pulled out a small memory stick. "Here's your USB thingy, see?" she said, and handed it to me. She ran her hand around the small pocket to make sure it was empty. I dropped the USB into the pocket and she zipped it shut.

Next, she opened the big zipper at the top of the bag. Immediately, we saw what the presents were: they were two kilos of marijuana: twin packages, wrapped in clear plastic. "That bastard!" Femke exclaimed. She picked up the two packs and looked around for a place to dispose of them. I could see she considered for a moment hurling them into the woods. Then, on second thought, she took two steps toward the dumpster and dropped the bundles carefully inside, as if they were a pair of bombs.

That done, Femke carefully searched the bag for more dope (or other surprises). She found none.

"God!" she exclaimed, showing me her hands. "Look at me: I'm trembling!" I showed her my own arms, covered in gooseflesh all the way from my fingertips to my shoulders.

She zipped up the bag, closed the trunk, tossed the gloves into the dumpster, and we returned to our table.

Femke picked up her phone. "I'd better tell Rowan that we escaped."

I couldn't hear Rowan's side of the conversation, except as a sequence of sounds. Even so, his side was clearly an outpouring of concern. Femke's side was mainly reassurance, without much detail. She managed to hide her agitation and anger; she kept her tone chatty and positive. She told him that everything was fine; that the two of us had stopped for breakfast and were eating a wonderful pie made of "Aardbei and something." He pressed her with questions I couldn't hear, to which she several times replied that she'd explain everything later.

They spent a long minute exchanging affectionate phrases, ending with "I miss you, too!"

She set down her phone with a sigh.

"So! Merope, I will tell you now. This is what happened last night. Rowan called me yesterday evening — or he tried to call me. Of course, I had no idea this was the case, but I did notice there was no signal in the room where I slept, or in the hallway outside. I asked Stan about it. He told me he'd open a ticket with his network team to get it fixed right away, and not to worry — he would let me know the moment your Anson showed up."

She made a scoffing hmmph! sound, then: "Which was a lie! As it happened, your Mr Anson was registered as a Switcher victim early Saturday morning."

"Saturday morning!" I exclaimed, in shock and disbelief. "But that's when *I* arrived! Is he still at the processing center now?" As weird as the center was, I wanted to go back, to meet the person now living in my body, but at the same time I felt quite sure that wild horses couldn't drag Femke within a mile of the place.

"No," Femke corrected me in a firm tone. "He never came to the center. There is some kind of—" She waved one hand in frustration, as if she could somehow snatch the right word from the air. She couldn't, and let off a phrase in Dutch that told me nothing. As if that clarified things, she continued with, "And then comes a lapsus, a slipping... with synchronization enzovoort."

Well, enzovoort sounded a lot like "and so forth," so I that's how I took it. It didn't seem like a good time to be asking a lot of questions, especially over small details.

Femke smacked the table with the palm of her hand and declared, "Rowan can tell you all that. Later." She grimaced. She gritted her teeth. "I'm too angry to find all the words." She took a deep, fiery breath and looked me in the eye, briefly.

"Stan knew about Anson. I'm sure he knew. I wonder whether he cooked up the synchronization split-down himself. Yet, he knew Rowan would call me and tell me everything."

I assumed that split-down meant "breakdown" or "screw-up," or something along those lines. I didn't interrupt to ask.

"Stan, creepy Stan, wanted to keep me there, forever. Last night, he tried to stay close, to not let me wander off. This was when he showed me the jewelry — I told you — which was very creepy. It felt that he offered me jewels, stolen from the dead." She shuddered.

"He wouldn't stop offering me drink; he kept on: wine, tequila, beer, but I wouldn't drink. He offered me smoke: marijuana, hashish, even opium. But I don't smoke. He had pills, which I rejected out of hand." A light laugh played across her face. "It irritated him. It made him angry. I didn't fit his imaginary picture of Amsterdam. All the while he made suggestive remarks, and asked me was I really Dutch, truly from Amsterdam. He told stories of the wild night life he knew back there, back then. He spoke as if Amsterdam is the most dissolute city on earth, where nothing is forbidden. He said there was something wrong with me for not wanting to unbend and be wild."

As she spoke, Femke started tensing up, all over. Then she caught herself, shook it off, and calmed herself.

"At last, I was done: I became tired and bored. Above all, I'd gotten sick of Stan, sick of the center, sick of waiting for your Mr Anson. I wanted to go home. And I needed to use the bathroom.

"Stan's workers were eating and drinking and dancing. Some of them played guitar... it might have been nice, if it weren't in that basement of a bunker. In any case, I left, out into the hallway. I wanted to be alone, so I took the stairs up one level. Then, on a whim, I went up one more flight of stairs.

"I took my time. I enjoyed the quiet. I looked at my phone and saw two missed calls from Rowan, but I decided to take them in my room, and made my way back downstairs.

"I didn't mean to stop at the room where Stan and his workers were, but when I came out of the stairwell, I heard a man in a high voice singing Guantanamera. Do you know that song?"

"Sure," I said. "I don't know what the words mean, but I've heard it."

"I never paid any attention to it," Femke told me, "It always seemed so old. But in that moment... there was something in the way he sang that touched my heart. I don't speak Spanish, so I couldn't understand, but it filled me with nostalgia..."

"You were homesick," I suggested.

"Yeah," she agreed, "but then I caught sight of Stan, so I turned on my heel and left. I went immediately to my room. I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. I took out my phone to call Rowan, but again, there was no signal. I didn't make anything of it; I was only irritated. I decided to call Rowan first thing in the morning, and I fell deeply asleep."

She pushed her fingertips down into the table top. I half-expected them to penetrate the heavy, hard wood.

Femke pressed her lips tightly together with a grim expression. "Close to morning, I suddenly woke. My back was toward the door, but I heard it open. I saw the light from the hall, and I knew right away it was Stan. He slipped in, silent as a cat. He might have taken me by surprise if it weren't for his pungent aroma. You know how badly he stinks of weed; he carries it like a heavy cloud.

"He tried to lie on top of me, to kiss me, to put his arms around me, but I fought. I fought hard. I hit him with my elbows and fists. I kicked and scratched. I bit his hand. I tried to bite his face, and that scared him. I cracked my head against his, as if he was a big stupid soccer ball.

"At last, he fell off me, onto the floor. I could see that I hurt him. I kicked him as he lay there. I kicked him with all my strength. I grabbed my things and ran from the room. This time I went *down* two flights — I didn't think he'd expect that, and ha! I got a signal. So I called Rowan. I told him what happened. Of course, he wanted to come and beat Stan senseless." She laughed. "And he told me that your Mr Anson had been found."

I shook my head, uncomprehending.

Femke continued, "Rowan suggested that I first move my car, hidden, but closer to the exit, and then go find you."

She gave me a grim smile. "And here we are."

"Yes," I replied, "Here we are! I'm sorry you went through all that."

She shrugged. "It's not your fault. You don't have to be sorry."

"I'm not apologizing!" I retorted, a little testily. "I'm just... I only mean that I wish it hadn't happened to you!"

She had no answer to that.

After a bit of silence we stepped back into the diner and bought a strawberry-rhubarb pie to share with Rowan.



About fifteen minutes after we returned to the highway, I noticed a state trooper a few miles behind us. I mentioned it to Femke, who checked her speed. "He has nothing to do with us," she said.

But she was wrong. Without any apparent hurry, the trooper caught up with us, and once he was on our tail, he started cycling the red and blue lights atop his cruiser. He gave a sharp wup! wup! with his siren. Femke slowed, pulled onto the shoulder, and put the car into park. She fished her drivers license out of her bag and asked me to get the insurance and registration papers from the glove box.

As the trooper approached, Femke rolled down her window. He was tall, with an athletic build. He wasn't wearing a hat or sunglasses, so I could see he had kind eyes, but he didn't smile. The kind eyes were hard.

"Please turn off the engine," he said. Femke complied. Then, "License and registration." Femke handed him her license, along with the insurance and registration. He glanced at the insurance paper, and handed it back to Femke, who handed it back to me.

The trooper bent down and looked me in the face. "You, too," he said.

"But I'm not driving," I pointed out.

"Are you refusing to show me your identification?" he asked.

I didn't like the sound of that, and I was pretty sure it wasn't legal for him to ask. Even so, I produced my license and handed it over.

"Omaha," he observed. "My aunt Jessie lives in Omaha."

"Oh, maybe I know her," I quipped. "Maybe we're related." I don't know why I needed to be a smartass in that moment. It just kind of came out. Probably it was nerves. The trooper gave me a level look that told me this was no time for jokes.

"Who is Rowan Brissard?" he asked, reading the name off the registration.

"He's my boyfriend," Femke answered.

"And you're Dutch," the trooper observed.


I leaned forward and asked, "Officer, why did you stop us?"

He didn't reply. He simply looked from my face to Femke's and back again, as if there was something to see, something written there. I began to open my mouth again, but before a sound came out, the trooper said, "I'd like you both to step out of the car. Are either of you armed?"

I know both our eyes widened at that. I stammered out a "No," while Femke, resolute, answered, "Of course not."

He had us lean on the trunk of Rowan's car, and gave us a quick patdown. Then he shepherded us into the back seat of his cruiser. As most people know, the back seat of most police cars can't be opened from the inside.

Before he shut the door, I put my hand on it, holding it open. It was a symbolic move: if he gave a little shove, the door would have shut. But he waited a moment as I said, "I demand to know what's going on here!"

"I'm going to have you ladies sit tight here while I conduct a search of your vehicle," he replied, and began once again to gently close the door.

"Don't you need a warrant for that?" I challenged.

"Not if I have probable cause," he countered, and shut the door before I could say anything more.

A light went on in my head, "Hey!" I exclaimed to Femke, "I think—"

Femke made a chopping motion with her hand. "Quiet!" she commanded. "Don't say a word. Do not say a single word."

It made me angry, but I did as I was told. The two of us sat there, each of us seething for our own reasons, as we watched the trooper pop open the trunk and unzip the duffel bag. I expected him to dump out the contents, but instead he sifted through the clothes with both hands, taking his time, thoroughly feeling his way through my new wardrobe. He unzipped the little pocket in front and found the little USB stick. He held it up, looked at it, gave it an experimental sniff, and put it back where he'd found it.

He examined the rest of the trunk. He opened the back door on the passenger side and explored the back seat. He popped the bench out of place, poked around underneath, and pushed the bench back into place. "I didn't know you could do that," I marveled. He ran his fingers all over the ceiling. He rapped on the doors. He shined his flashlight into the wheelwells, and opened the hood for a look at the engine.

I had to bite my tongue a dozen times to keep from saying anything.

At one point, the trooper stopped for a conversation with the microphone attached to his shoulder.

His search was unhurried. Femke and I continued our silence.

When at last the trooper closed the hood, the trunk, and all four doors, he returned to free us from his cruiser.

He told us by way of explanation, "We had a tip this morning that two women would be driving south this morning in a blue Volkswagen Golf, carrying a duffel bag filled with drugs."

At first, neither of us said anything, but I couldn't resists. I told him, "Sorry to disappoint."

He actually chuckled! Then he looked to Femke and asked, "Why didn't you tell me that your boyfriend's in law enforcement?"

She considered for a moment before answering. "I thought it would make me sound suspicious."

The trooper and I burst into laughter. Femke glanced from him to me and back again, seeming irritated and a little puzzled. To this day I have no idea whether she was joking. At the time she simply looked annoyed, but I confess that Femke's not an easy person to read.

We stood there in the sunlight on the shoulder of the road and watched until the trooper's cruiser disappeared in the distance.

Femke gave a disappointed scoff. "You see what a fucker that Stan is, don't you."

"Good thing we stopped for that pie, huh?" I replied.

She frowned, looking puzzled.

"So you could take out the drugs," I explained.

She looked down, kicked at a pebble, and grunted in assent.

After a moment I added, "We should have offered the trooper a slice of pie." She gazed at me in disbelief, so I offered, "As a show of good faith!"

"You Americans!" she groaned, rolling her eyes dramatically.

Even so... I caught a glimmer of amusement in the corner of her mouth.

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Femke is fascinating. . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Iolanthe, I love the way you allow the reader to see the US through Femke’s eyes. And a weird place it is, too. Yikes.

Pine absolutely has a citrus smell! They both smell fresh and clean, which I assume has to do with both being extremely acidic. Which is why nothing can grow under pine trees.

Final note: If Putin liked pie, he’d insist on taking the whole pie. So, really, it’d just be better for everyone if he hated it. Sure, that would mean we couldn’t trust the guy, but there are already a couple of reasons not to . . . .

I’m always delighted to see a new chapter of this story. Thank you!


"Write what you know"

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

When I think of each environment in this story, one of the first elements to come to mind is how it smells. Like the used bookstore: a very familiar olfactory experience.

It's ironic, because my sense of smell is now very spotty. It has nothing to do with covid -- I was this way before. But my *memories* of various smells is right there. I can still smell some fruits, some flowers, the smell of cooking.

A homeless man recently sat near me at the library and doused himself liberally with spray deodorant, and I could smell that! It was an almost satori-like moment.

Bad smells, though, I don't register. Sometimes I have a sense that there *IS* a smell, but I can't tell what it is, or whether it's good or bad. So, if food goes bad, if a skunk leaves its spoor -- or other odors I'm sure you wouldn't want named -- all undetectable to me.

Sometimes I pluck some herbs from the garden, or sniff an essential oil, and try to see if I'm able to smell it... or maybe recognize that the signal has changed, and this is how it smells to me now (which is conceptually difficult, since it contradicts my memories)... or see that I'm fooling myself and don't smell anything at all.

I don't feel badly about it. My partner has a hyper-sensitive sense of smell, so I rely on that.

Which reminds me of an experience long ago, standing in an alley behind a restaurant with two friends, two women, who were taking in the aromas from the kitchen, and identifying all the separate parts, murmuring to each other words like "mushrooms... basil... olive oil, of course..." They were actually identifying less obvious ingredients than those, but I can't remember.

anyway... Merope can smell these things, even if I can't. Maybe she can't decompose the smells into their components, but she does get the whole experience.

- iolanthe

"You Americans!"

close call!


Close call, indeed

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Someone once commented on how the outcome of small events can determine whether a person lands in jail or avoids it entirely.

If they hadn't been hungry... if they didn't feel safe... if they hadn't eaten pie and felt a bit meditative...


- iolanthe

I came for the car chases...

SammyC's picture

but stayed for the paranoia and philosophical exploration of identity. Another great chapter, Io.

Will we ever find out what those cylinders are all about?




Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Oh, yes, we find out about the cylinders in the next chapter or two.

And yes, it's about identity. If all the agencies involved in the Switcher business were more active and victim-focused, things would come out quite differently. Instead of dumping displaced people out on the streets with virtually no preparation, there'd be something like counseling, or re-education (for all the good and bad implied in that word).

I don't know what life is like for other people, but I remember realizing at one point that people who know me, friends, family, and acquaintances, were somehow able to put together a unified picture of me as a person: that everything I did fit into a neat summary of characteristics. It astonished me because I saw myself as a jumbled mess of unrelated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. When I asked myself, who am I? What unifies all the contradictions I see in myself? And my answer was: my body. That's the piece that's always there.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to slip this mortal coil and float off as that internal jumble -- if that's what happens.

That's how I see Merope: a jumble on the inside, but seen by everyone else as a young, competent woman (who can't keep a secret).


- iolanthe

Curiouser and curiouser

Jill Jens's picture

I don’t think that we’ve heard the last of Stan. Time to pow-wow with Rowen and use that memory stick.


Ah, the memory stick!

Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

Thanks! You've given me an idea there!

We will see Stan get his comeuppance, although Rowan won't have the satisfaction of punching him in the jaw.

- iolanthe