Merope, Maybe : 13 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 13 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"People love dogs.
You can never go wrong adding a dog to the story."
— Jim Butcher


 

Over the years I spent married to Cleo, I became familiar with her repertoire of morning sounds, especially her kitchen sounds. On the weekend, for example, the pace of her activity was slower, calmer, less focused. She might open the refrigerator or a cabinet three times, rather than once... but slowly, with a casual air.

Of course, if she was in a hurry, it all became staccato. Sharp, crisp. Quick impacts: bap! snap! clink!

Her easiest set-piece to identify came when she was angry: there was no mistaking the deliberate, outwardly-focused slams of the drawers and doors, the throwing down of plates and cutlery, building up to the climax of the front door closing with a boom! that echoed through the house... followed by the distant epilog of her driving off in a huff.

Of course, there were many peaceful mornings. There were sets of widely-spaced, almost-inaudible sounds that told me, I'm trying to not wake you. It was like a caress that could nearly reach me in my dreams.

My favorite of all was the one I heard this morning: A very particular set of quiet sounds that an untrained ear would not distinguish from the trying-to-not-wake-you set: the whole performance was restrained. The drawers gently rolled closed. The cabinets shut with the lightest touch. Plates and cutlery landed cushioned by placemats, never on the hard counter or table.

What was the difference? When Cleo tried to not wake me, the sounds came farther apart, as if from far away. This other set was more continuous: one whisper followed the next.

When she tried not to wake me, I'd find myself asking whether I heard sounds in the kitchen, as if I could have been mistaken.

In this alternative version, by its continuity, composed the light, muffled sounds into a call... to me. It was her way of saying that she was there; that she didn't want to *abruptly* wake me, and yet she wanted me to come share breakfast.

I padded on bare feet into a room full of sunlight and the smell of fresh coffee.

"Morning," she said. Her eyes looked me up and down. "Dear God!" she exclaimed, with a slight smile. "I had to be drunk to give you that top last night — I can see your nipples through the cloth!"

Startled, I looked down at my chest and told her, "I'll go change right now."

"No, no," she said. "It's fine. I have to leave in two minutes, and, uh, he won't be down for another half hour. Eat some breakfast. Take a shower first. I wanted to see you before I left for the office."

She took a bite of toast and pointed at the percolator. I nodded and poured myself a cup. I've never liked drinking coffee on an empty stomach — or at least, I never had as Anson. As Merope I didn't seem to mind. But — force of habit — I dropped two slices of bread into the toaster and leaned my butt against the counter so I could face Cleo.

"I'm glad I came back last night," I offered.

"Yeah," she said, not looking at me. "Let's see where we go from here."

I sipped some coffee. She sipped some coffee. Cleo gazed at the table: not hostile, not awkward, not closing me out. At the same time, not open, not friendly, not laughing as she had last night. Now, sober, she was, what? Cautious, maybe — not throwing open the doors after whatever it was we passed through as a couple. You could say that in a moment we'd magically transmuted from a pair on the verge of a break up, to — to what? To a pair of women backing away from a cliff we'd nearly gone over?

Tentatively, I tossed out a thought: "Mukti seems like a nice guy. A good person."

"Yeah," she acknowledged. "Let's hope he can be a good housemate. He seems honest. Let's hope he's as guileless as she seems. It'll be good to not live alone in this great big house." It took her a couple of beats before the thought occurred to her: "Do *you* have a place to stay? I mean, if you're stuck with nowhere to go." She made a vague gesture at the house that surrounded her; a half-hearted offer of a place to land. At the same time she gave me a look that I understood to mean (1) that her offer was real; that I truly could stay if I needed refuge, and (2) that she sincerely hoped I wouldn't.

"I'm staying with Femke for a while," I assured her. "She has an extra room. But as soon as I have a job, I'll get a place of my own."

"Job?" she echoed. "It sounds like you have something definite in mind."

"Yeah," I confessed. "I'm going to try to go back to my old job, the job I just left."

"Really!" she exclaimed.

"Yes. Mukti's coming with me tomorrow, to help convince them that I'm Anson on the inside."

"You could get a t-shirt with that, blazoned on the front: ANSON ON THE INSIDE," she joked, gesturing at her chest as if the words were written there.

"I'm pretty sure they need me," I said. "Not that I really want to do that work anymore, with those people in that place, but least it will give me a toehold. You know, it's easier to get a job when you have a job. While I'm there, I can train in some newer programming language, and find something different."

"Finally leaving your Cobol behind," she mused.

"Yeah."

"Good plan," she acknowledged. "I guess Mukti's going to go back to teaching yoga, giving massages..." she chuckled. "At your age! At his age. You know what I mean."

"He told me he wants to do a blog," I said, "of his progress post-switch."

"Yeah," she acknowledged, glancing at her watch and suddenly hurrying. "He wants to pull me into it. I'm not so keen. Although I think he might find it easier doing a podcast about his transformations." She gathered her belongings. "I've gotta go. Listen, don't leave without seeing Mukti. He's got a surprise for you." She smiled as though the surprise was something on the level of a drawing a child might present to their parents.

She gave me a quick peck on the cheek by way of goodbye, and — her hand still lightly resting on my forearm — she froze for a moment, remembering.

"Oh, listen," she said, taking a half-step back. She raised her hand, palm out, and I found myself admiring her manicure. "Just so we don't create any confusion, that kiss last night — it wasn't for you. Don't make too much of it. For one thing, I'm not into women, and in any case, in my mind in that moment, I was sending it back in time to Anson. To the Anson I fell in love with, a long time ago." She gave a funny, wistful, twisted smile.

I shrugged and said, "Don't worry about it. And thanks." I smiled.

"Don't forget — make sure you see Mukti before you leave. He'll be very disappointed if you're gone when he comes down."

"Is he awake?"

"Oh, yes. He's doing yoga and such. I stuck my head in, to exchange a few words. He'll be down soon, I'm sure."

With that, she was gone.

 


 

After my shower, I took note of the brand of shampoo and conditioner Cleo used. It seemed to have a good effect on my hair, leaving it soft, clean, manageable. I liked the scent, too, of the tea-tree oil. It made my scalp tingle.

I studied my face in the mirror. Did I really need makeup? Maybe if I never wore it, I could get away without it. Unfortunately, having seen my face with some makeup, I seemed washed out and tired with no makeup. Still, I didn't have any, so the question was moot in the moment. I would have to take care of that before my job interview tomorrow.

The dress Cleo gave me was a little loose in the bust and a little high on my thigh, but otherwise it fit well. I might consider wearing it tomorrow, to my job interview, if I could call it that.

So! After folding my bedclothes into a neat pile, I returned to the kitchen and poured myself a second cup of coffee. I poked around in the fridge and kitchen cabinets, but the only thing that called out to me were some crackers. They turned out to be slightly stale, so I stuck them back in the cabinet.

I was halfway through my coffee and beginning to feel impatient to leave, when Mukti thumped downstairs and said hello.

Not Namaste, I noted. Just Hello. A point in his favor.

"Hey, how's the ankle?" I asked, by way of greeting. "And all the rest?" I gestured at myself, meaning all his bumps and bruises.

"Oh, everything's healing up. It's work, you know, and time." He opened a cabinet and extracted a can of a chickory-based coffee substitute, which he offered and I declined. "Honestly, the hardest part is writing about it. It's tedious, describing something that changes so little, one day to the next."

"Cleo suggested you might be better off doing a podcast," I offered.

"Yeah," he acknowledged. "I don't know how comfortable I am... we'll see."

"Maybe you just need a sidekick, you know? Someone with a sympathetic, interested ear. Someone to act as your soundboard. The way Johnny Carson had Ed MacMahon."

"A bit before my time, but I get the point," he acknowledged. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You could be the sidekick, right? You're sympathetic, interested..." He tilted his head and shrugged, meaning that the conclusion was obvious.

"No," I told him. "I don't want to advertise the fact that I was switched. I'll tell anyone who needs to know, but I don't want the world to know. Especially about my changing from man to woman."

"Okay," he acknowledged, regretfully.

"Someone will turn up," I assured him. "And it doesn't have to be a permanent position, you know. You could bring in different people. People you're interested in talking to."

He nodded, shrugged. Clearly he was considering it, but wasn't completely convinced. i guessed he'd hoped for a simple solution in either me or Cleo, but neither of us were willing.

In any case, as I noted yesterday and noted once again as he moved around the kitchen, Mukti's posture, his bearing, his movements, were much finer and more graceful than mine were, when I lived in that body. Each time I looked at him I sat up a little straighter.

"I don't know whether I mentioned this," he told me, "but you ought to consider taking up yoga. You're young; it will help you stay young, and when you age, it will help you age gracefully."

"I'll think about it."

"And, uh..." he walked around the kitchen island and stood behind my chair. "If you don't mind, I see all this tension in your shoulders." He rested his hands heavily on my shoulders, pushing down.

"I didn't realize I was so tense," I admitted, though I was uncomfortable with his touching me — with his assuming it was fine to touch me.

"This is going to hurt a bit," he said, as he abruptly gripped the flesh between my shoulders and neck with his thumbs and forefingers. He squeezed so hard that I saw a flash of light inside my eyes, and involuntarily I shouted the worst swear word I know.

He let go immediately.

To my astonishment, my shoulders relaxed and eased into a more natural position, like water flowing downward. Clearly, I'd been very tense, and that tension had me squeezing my shoulders up towards my ears.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm can see I'm much more touchy-feely than you." I felt that his sorry was more performative than sincere.

"Uh, well, it feels good now," I admitted, rolling my shoulders and shifting from side to side, "So... thanks for that, but next time could you ask me first?"

He nodded with something like magnanimity, which irritated me more than a little. Even so, he clearly meant well. And I didn't want to offend him, seeing as I wanted his help tomorrow, winning my job back.

"I really ought to get going," I told him. "I've got to get Merope's phone and start digging into her life."

He nodded.

I picked up my new bag — the tiny backpack Cleo gave me. It triggered a sudden flashback to yesterday, when the USB drive came bouncing out of Merope's old bag. I asked, "Mukti — can I use your phone? I want to call the FBI about the USB drive we found."

"Ohhh," he replied, rolling the sounds out slowly, pulling his head back a little. "Normally I'd say sure, but uh — I don't know that it's such a great idea, you know?" He gave me a cautious look. "If you call the FBI from my phone, they're going to call back on my phone, right? And what am I going to tell them? I can't even give them your phone number, because you don't have one."

"Okay, good point," I conceded, but it put another thought in my head. "Still — could I look at your phone for a minute or two, so I can copy some phone numbers? I'll just grab a piece of paper..."

For the first time, I used Merope's cool, expensive pen. It was surprising, how different writing could feel! I never would have thought that such a small thing could make much of a difference, but the pen felt remarkably good in my hand. It was perfectly balanced. It sat in my hand as if it belonged there, and made writing a breeze.

I scrolled through my old contacts, copying names, numbers, and some addresses onto paper.

"There's probably a way I could just send all your contacts to you at once," Mukti mused. "But then again, you'd need to have a number, a phone of your own."

When I finished, I folded the paper in quarters and dropped it and Merope's pen into my bag.

"Are we still on for tomorrow morning?" I asked him.

"Absolutely," he nodded. "What time?"

"Could I pick you up at nine?"

"That'll be fine. How do you want me to dress?"

I considered for a moment. "Be comfortable. Be yourself."

He smiled. "I can do that," he replied with a little laugh.

I got up to leave. Mukti remained seated at the table, smiling, perfectly content. I didn't think there was a way I could politely remind him about the "surprise" Cleo mentioned. Whatever it was, it could wait until tomorrow...

He walked me to the door, when suddenly a light seemed to go on in his head.

"I almost forgot!" he exclaimed. "It was bothering me all yesterday, since our walk! I caught Cleo last night when she came upstairs..."

From his pocket he drew a check, folded in half. "This is for you. Please take it. It's from Cleo and me. And don't worry — I know she was a little... inebriated last night, but I asked her again this morning, and she's good with it. In fact, she signed it this morning. I can't sign checks yet... I guess I'll to practice your signature, you know?"

"Uh, no, you don't," I informed him, holding the folded check in my hand. "You can go down to the bank and give them a new signature card, once you have a signature you like. I guess you could do it after you've changed your name — that would be the perfect excuse."

"Ah! Good point! I didn't know I could do that!"

"Yeah."

"Please take it," he insisted — because I hadn't yet opened it.

"I don't want it or need it," I told him. "Please."

"Okay, listen," he said. "Don't take it as money. Take it as an expression of friendship and goodwill. If you don't take it, I'll understand that you don't want... friendship and goodwill."

I groaned softly in acquiescence. "Okay," I said, opening it out. It was a check to Merope Goddard for $5000, signed by Cleo Charpont. "That's really generous," I told him, my eyebrows bouncing in surprise. "Thanks. And thank Cleo for me."

"No problem," he replied, beaming. "See you tomorrow!"

 


 

Friendship and goodwill.

I knew what $5000 would mean to Cleo. She could afford it, especially considering that Mukti was passively receiving income, but only as a one-time thing. It was a lot of money. It was $5000 she couldn't spend elsewhere.

I felt fairly certain that Cleo chose the number: Higher than that, and I'd have refused it. Lower than that, I might have felt snubbed.

Now I had the question of how to turn that friendship and goodwill into money. With Stan's USB, I should be able to find Merope's bank account. I tensed a little at that idea. It wasn't my money, after all. Probably better to open a bank account of my own, and use this check as the initial deposit.

For that, though, I'd need Merope's social security number and a mailing address. I didn't know how long I could rely on Femke's charity... so as a temporary measure, it seemed prudent to rent a box at one of the mailbox stores. That would be better than a post-office box; it would give me a street address to send things to. A lot of businesses won't accept a post-office box as a permament address.

For that, my drivers license ought to be enough. That, and my credit card.

Another sigh: what was the state of Merope's credit? Once I had her phone, I could call the customer service number on her Visa card... once I had her phone.

I stood next to my car, thinking. My obvious next step was to get to Femke's, where I could dig through Stan's USB drive. I didn't need to do any serious digging. At a minimum, once I had her social security number, phone number and carrier, I could make some moves.

I'd also need her social security number to get hired, I reflected. I could find that on her tax returns.

Where to park, though? The garage where Femke parks is pretty expensive — because of the neighborhood. She probably has a monthly contract. An expensive monthly contract.

There were some streets on the outskirts of Teteree where, if I was lucky, I could park without paying. I decided to head there and walk to Femke's house.

As I unlocked my car, my eye was caught by a flash of light. It was the sun glinting off a small, clear plastic bag in the backseat. I opened the rear door and saw that the bag was left for me by the detailers. It contained the items they collected while cleaning my car's interior. Resting my right knee on the back seat, I reached over for the bag, and (by mistake) picked it up by the bottom seam, spilling most of the contents onto the floor.

What remained in the bag was a parking ticket, in its bright orange envelope, and a small notecard, in a small, elegant envelope — the kind you'd use for a wedding invitation or something like.

I bent further, scrabbling for the handful of small items that I'd spilled. It was mostly coins, small change, amounting to 57 cents, as it turned out. There was also two rings and three unmatched earrings. None of them looked costly. There were also eight metal items, tokens, that I knew right away: a thimble, a boot, a Scottie dog, a car, a battleship, a top hat, and a flat iron. They were old Monopoly player tokens. I laughed as I recognized them — a blast from the past. I fumbled a little, gathering them, shifting and stretching awkwardly. After I restored the items to the plastic bag, I felt around under the seat, but there was nothing more to be found.

My pose during all of this was far from dignified. I had one knee resting in the car, on the back seat. My left leg was extended in a straight line, my toes pointing, but not quite touching the ground. My butt was pretty much sticking up in the air.

Suddenly, I felt a warm, wet tongue give a quick lick to my right ankle. I yelped and scrambled my way out of the car, clutching the plastic bag.

"Hey, sorry about that!" said a young male voice. "I tried to stop her, but you know... dogs..." as if the word dogs explained everything.

I became aware of three things at once: the dog, my dress, and the boy next door. The first thing was the dog — because of course, there was a dog: who else would have licked my ankle? Naturally, it was a small and disarmingly cute dog. It had a friendly face that seemed to be smiling. I know nothing about canine breeds, but somehow i knew this one: "Is she a Pomeranian?" I asked, sounding very stupid to myself.

In the same moments that I took in the dog, I also could feel how far my dress had crept up my body. I couldn't help but look down at myself. The hem hadn't risen high enough to make my underwear visible, but it was dangerously close. I had no idea what sort of show I'd put on in back, while my butt was in the air. Rowan's comments about my "bee-hind" echoed in my head, making me blush more than necessary.

Lastly, there was the young man, literally the boy next door. I knew him. His name was Wayne. He was in his early twenties. He stood at six-something. I had to tilt my head back to look him in the face. He was trying to build a business as a personal trainer, and definitely looked the part. I remembered a recent night at his parents' house, where Wayne told us that he "specialized in handstands." His musculature wasn't exaggerated, like a weight lifter, he was lithe, with long, smooth muscles: strong arms and legs, well-developed shoulders and chest, and a flat, powerful midsection.

The encounter hit me so unexpectedly, that my reactions exploded out of my surprise. I was aware of the dog's having licked me — I felt the wet spot on my ankle — and at the same time, a stirring inside me. I took in Wayne's appearance all at once: I didn't need to look him up and down to see it all. He was barefoot, and even his feet looked fit and strong. He wore a pair of red shorts and a dark blue tank top. My eyes rested on his shoulders for a moment longer than they should have.

"I'm Wayne," he said. "Sorry about my dog. I guess she found your ankle irresistable."

"Oh, God," I laughed. It was such a corny line! And yet, I felt a warm sensation radiating from my thighs to my shoulders. "I'm, uh, Merope."

He watched, unembarrassed, unabashed, as I tugged my dress down, pulling it into place.

"Are you friends with Mr and Mrs Charpont?" he asked, gesturing to my old house. "I live next door" — now gesturing to the house on the left. I knew that; As I said, I was acquainted with his parents. I'd seen Wayne grow up.

"Well, friends," I echoed, with a laugh. I looked him in the face. Should I tell him?

Probably it didn't matter. I mean, what were the chances that I'd ever see him again? And yet there was a definite response in me, a glow, a yearning. I felt it in my core. His maleness... his body... his youth... I wanted it. Even if I couldn't have it, I wanted it. Was it crazy of me?

It occurred to me that in every rom-com — in every romantic comedy — there is a moment when one of the characters should tell the truth about something. They ought to tell the truth, but for some idiotic reason they don't. Later on, that lie or omission — call it what you will — comes back to bite them in the ass. And it bites them hard. It takes the entire second half of the movie to set things right again.

"Wayne," I told him, "I know who you are. I used to live in that house" — here I gestured to my own. Wayne gave a puzzled look. "Did you know that Anson, Mr Charpont, was recently a victim of the Switcher?"

Wayne's eyes twinkled. "No, I hadn't heard that."

"Well, he was. And so was I."

Wayne smiled and shrugged. I don't think he believed me. I don't think he believed me at all. His smile twitched. He expected a punch line, and was ready to laugh.

"Wayne, what I'm trying to tell you, is that on the inside, I'm Anson Charpont."

He burst into laughter. "Oh, yeah?" he said. "And I'm — I'm Winston Churchill!" He laughed some more. "What about Mrs Charpont? Did she get switched, too?"

"No. She's still the person she's always been."

"Hmmph," he grunted, as if disappointed, as if everyone switching would have made a better story.

"I'm serious," I told him. "You'll see. Mr Charpont is going to start calling himself 'Mukti' and he'll be teaching yoga—"

"Mukti?" Wayne repeated, incredulous. "Like the jungle boy?"

"No," I answered, scowling. "That's Mowgli. Anway..."

"So," Wayne interrupted, playfully. "If I touch you, will I get switched as well?"

"No, it doesn't work that way."

"Are you sure?"

He reached out slowly with his index finger, grinning, and pushed gently against my shoulder. I felt a rush of energy flow through me; a kind of release. Dear God. I hoped I hadn't wet my pants.

"Nothing happened," he pointed out. How wrong he was!

He stood there, looking at me. His little dog stood patiently nearby, tongue out, panting. My feeling, in that moment, was that he wanted to connect... he wanted to pick me up. I wanted it, too. If he stayed there, if he stood there, I would have stood there, too, like an idiot all day long.

"So, explain this to me," he said. "You got switched, because the Switcher touched you, right? But if *I* touch you... even if I touch you all over, I won't switch?"

"No," I breathed.

"What kind of sense does that make?" he asked, still grinning.

"I don't know," I replied. "But think about vampires: some people get bit and they die, while others get bit and turn into vampires themselves."

"Yeah, I always wondered about that," he said. "I guess there's always a part that's never very well explained."

The fact that I'd just repeated Laura's inane example embarrassed me. It brought me back down to earth. I sighed heavily and said, "Wayne, I have to go."

"Maybe I'll see you," he replied, his eyebrows raised rakishly.

"Maybe. Probably."

I fumbled opening the door, and clumsily climbed inside. I had business that needed doing, and here I was drooling over the boy next door. How far had I fallen?

I felt like a jackass, but I couldn't help it. The impression of his body, of his masculinity, was imprinted on my consciousness, the way a song gets stuck in your head. This was far worse than a repetitive melody, though. It was a feeling that dominated my entire body.

The famous phrase from Bridgerton came to mind: "I burn for you." When I first heard it, I found it silly and melodramatic. Now, like a fool, I was living it.

 


 

In spite of all that happened so far today, it was only 9:30 when I got back to Femke's apartment. She wasn't there.

I grabbed my notepad and Merope's pen. I fired up my laptop and plugged in Stan's USB drive. The file explorer window popped open, and my heart sank. There were hundreds of files. None of them were labeled except "birth-certificate.pdf". All the others were sequential, meaningless strings. I opened the birth certificate and jotted down my birthday. And my parents' names. That gave me pause. I'd have to dig into that later.

I copied the files to my laptop; it would be faster and easier to work with them there. Then I'd have the USB drive for backup.

The names of all the other files came in the format MGUSBxxx.pdf, where xxx was a sequential number, starting at 001.

The first one I opened was Merope's 2022 tax return. I jotted down her social security number and forced myself to move on. I closed the file, renamed it 2022-tax-return.pdf and put it in a folder named TAXES.

The first two dozen files were tax returns. I renamed each one and moved them

The next dozen were bank statements from the past year. I started skipping around, opening files more or less at random. I found utility bills, medical bills, old apartment rental contracts, credit card statements...

I was sorely tempted to dig into each and every document, but there simply wasn't time. I needed to find her phone. So I pushed on, renaming files, sorting them, moving on.

It was tedious work, but at long last I hit a phone bill from three months ago. Her carrier had a store at the edge of Teteree, so I closed my computer, grabbed my notes, and took off.

It was a bit of a sweaty walk. On the way, I happened upon a "Mailboxes" store and got myself a mailing address.

When I got to the phone store, I found it was manned by teenagers, but for all their casual airs, they seemed to know what they were doing. The one who helped me was an incredibly skinny girl dressed in tight black clothes. She had two piercings in her nose and a thick blue streak in her hair on one side.

As it turned out, my drivers license wasn't enough to justify myself to her. I also had to pay off the balance due (it was for one month), and I had to give her the passcode to my account.

"The passcode is the same code you use to unlock your phone," she explained when I hesitated.

"And what is it?" I asked her.

She gave me her doubtful look and repeated slowly, as if I were hard of hearing. "It's the code you punch in to unlock your phone."

"I know that," I protested. "It's just that I'm drawing a blank. Can't you tell me what it is?" She shook her head. "Can you reset the phone so I can give it a new code?"

"No," she answered, in a categorical tone. She leaned forward and in a low voice told me, "I can give you your hint, though, if you like. It's good doggie." She grinned.

"Good doggie," I repeated. The sensation of the Pomeranian licking my ankle came to mind. My face burned hot. In my mind's eye I pictured the little creature with her white and light brown fur and her tiny tongue hanging out as she panted...

Next up in my mind's eye's slideshow came the photo of eight-year-old Merope and her German Shepherd. Hal 2001 was written on the back. It was worth a try...

I looked at a telephone keypad. HAL was 425. I told her "4252001," which she punched into her terminal.

"We're in!" she declared.

"Whew!" I exclaimed, and the girl laughed.

She asked me to confirm that my phone was "lost or stolen," and informed me that she was about to suspend service on the existing device. It suddenly occurred to me that if Merope was still using her phone, I'd be cutting her off.

"Wait a minute," I asked. "What happens if I don't cut off service to my old phone?"

The girl looked at me with big eyes, as if doubting my sanity. "You'd be paying for whoever stole or found your phone, and you'd have to get a brand new phone number, because they'd be using yours. You don't want that, do you? You don't want to pay for them, right? You don't even know who they are!"

"No, I guess not," I replied. She rolled her eyes, but in a subtle, almost professional way. Then she walked me through choosing a new plan — which of course involved buying a new phone in installments. She popped in the SIM card and did a bit more setup.

"Now let's get your backup down from the cloud," she said, and a few minutes later Merope's phone was fully restored.

The first thing I did was change the lock code. The only thing that came to mind was Area51 (273251).

From there, I went to the nearest bank and opened an account, depositing the check from Cleo and Mukti.

Now I felt like things were moving.

 


 

Back at Femke's, to avoid burnout, I set a Pomodoro timer. I find it useful when I need to do something tedious, or something I *want* to do, but can hardly bring myself to do. Basically, you work for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, and keep repeating the cycle. Now, for 25 minutes, I processed files from Stan's USB. I opened a file, saw what it was, closed it, renamed it, and moved it into the appropriate folder.

When the timer went off, I logged onto Merope's credit card account online. Now that I had her phone, I could do the "Forgot password" trick that sent a verification request to my phone and let me change the password. Once inside, I changed the mailing address.

Luckily, she'd made a recent payment, and the next one wasn't due for a few weeks.

There weren't any charges since last Friday, the day that I was switched. I assume Merope was switched on Friday as well. So, she didn't appear to be using the card. Even so, after a little hesitation, I reported the card as lost and requested a new one.

That done, I restarted the 25-minute timer and went back to processing files. I realize it might seem obsessive, but until I sorted the entire pile, I wouldn't know what I had.

The next time the timer went off, I got into Merope's bank account. She had $780 there. It made me feel guilty. That, and the thousands I got from her purse had to be all the money she had in the world. How could I feel anything but a thief? Here I was, getting expensive car washes and such. What was Merope doing? Who was Merope now? Was she homeless? Was she hurt?

It occurred to me that Merope's wallet didn't contain a debit card, which meant it was possible, at least theoretically, for Merope to get at the money in her bank account. So I left it as it was.

Then the timer went off again, I got back to slogging my way through the files.

 


 

The third time the timer sounded, I'd had enough. I needed a real break. I found a beer in Femke's fridge, and after swallowing a few glugs while standing by the kitchen sink, I remembered the bag of items from the detailers.

I dumped the contents onto my bed. The coins meant nothing — I could just as easily have dug them out of any couch in America. The Monopoly pieces? They tickled my fancy, but I couldn't see them holding any real significance. The parking ticket? I'd have to pay. Getting switched was no excuse. And let me say, parenthetically, that it wasn't any kind of moral sense that impelled me to pay the ticket. It was practical. If you don't pay your parking tickets, eventually your car can be locked up or towed, and a warrant issued for your arrest. I'm sure about both outcomes, because (1) I've seen cars on the street immobilized by a Denver boot, and (2) I remember the satisfaction I felt on hearing of the arrest of a particularly pompous and obnoxious acquaintance. Much to his chagrin and humiliation, he was held overnight, and his car was impounded until he paid all his fines, fees, and interest.

Although, I reflected, I hoped I wouldn't be caught out by the old Merope's transgressions. On the other hand, my cursory dip into her life showed her to be regular and up to date on her financial obligations. The phone bill I had to pay was on the cusp, you might say. I'm sure she would have paid if she had remained Merope for a few more days.

Also, Rowan had assured me that she had no criminal record. I realized that it didn't insure me against unpaid parking tickets, but I could deal with them as they arose.

So... this particular ticket was only $25, anyway. I made a note of the address where the infraction had taken place. It might be a clue to what she was up to before she was switched.

The last item was the best of the bunch. The stationery was elegant, as I said: soft to the touch, substantial. I extracted the card from the envelope, and saw at a glance what it was all about.

It was a love letter to Merope, from someone named Boyce.



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