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Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 epilogue

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 5: A Special Dedication
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

Erin and Shelly dressed and left for Hershey, PA. Shelly wanted to say good-bye to William since she hadn't gotten to say goodnight to him the night before. Michelle explained that William was leaving for Europe very soon and couldn't stop packing or he might miss his shuttle. That held little water with the little girl. She was clever in an innocent way and resolved it in her mind that William didn't have to stop packing, she could just go up to his room and give him a kiss and a hug good-bye.

Michelle was afraid this was going to turn into a scene with Shelly; she was becoming insistent and refused to go unless she had the chance to kiss her brother good-bye. It wasn't lost on Michelle that none of them had gotten the chance to kiss William good-bye and she couldn't help feeling a small jealous twang at the idea that something else had been taken from her without her consent.

Erin on the other hand was simply waiting in the wings, silent and smiling, her butt parked on the arm of the sofa in front of the VID. She wore white UFS Snow Camo's and her metal-coated boots, pad locks and all. Erin just watched as her parents tried to explain something that could never be explained away to a four-year-old child.

"I want Billy!" Shelly demanded. Her arms were crossed and she had a pout on her face that would have shamed Shirley Temple, had she survived the crude and sloppy cryogen-hibernation process.

Erin suddenly spoke up from the other side of the room. She was not looking at the three arguing, she was looking at her timepiece, and fortunately for her parents, Shelly had no concept of time. She was not aware of the argument that for all the time they had wasted telling her no, she could have been up and back again six times.

"Shelly, we're going to miss the chocolate making demonstration and the free samples if you don't hurry." Erin said in a matter of fact voice.

"Huh?" Shelly asked in total confusion.

"Free sweet stuff!" Erin said with a grin.

"Mom, Dad..." Shelly said. "Tell William I love him. I have to go get some sweet stuff." She said with a very serious look on her face. She turned and walked to Erin, took her hand and said. "Let's go." She tugged Erin off the couch and Erin looked behind her at her parents as she hit the stair well; shrugged and grinned and was gone with great clomping foot falls as her boots trod down the stairs.

Saturday was then divided into separate chores for each Michelle and Gary.

Since Gary would have looked a bit ridiculous shopping with a sixteen-year-old girl for clothes for said girl, Michelle was assigned that particular task and didn't object. Especially when she heard that Gary's first stop would be the Fenton's Townhouse.

Michelle and the girl now known as Beth whet shopping for clothes that would fit better than her mother's clothing. Pants, shoes, skirts, tops and the like were all purchased. The volume of clothes purchased was overwhelming and very depressing. Each time she thought about, Beth could only think. Even if I wear everything only once, it will take me two months to wear it all. How long do they think am I going to be like this?

She remained quiet however and suffered in painful silence. When they got home, Michelle went about the task of removing William's clothes from his room and replacing them with those they had purchased that afternoon. It was almost as hard for Michelle to do this as it had been for Beth to try each outfit and watch as the mountain of clothing grew and grew.

With each arm load of clothes she took to the guest room closest the media room, the more it felt like she had buried and elegized her son and now had begun with the formalities of the healing process. First, clear out the memories.

All Beth could do was watch as one more piece of the person she still felt herself to be was vanquished and removed from sight

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Gary's attempt to search the Fenton home failed. He could not break in during the middle of the day. There was no discernable way in. In his youth he may have been reckless but he had only broken into a building once. It had proved to be an ill-fated adventure that had never been repeated. Gray was simply not the cat-burglar type. He checked the doors and both front and HOV bay doors were locked. The Brown stone windows sat high, almost one story above the sidewalk and could not be reached without an obvious attempt at climbing the wall.

This was compounded by the fact that he and the Fenton's were well known in the neighborhood. He could not think of a reason that would have pacified the neighbors as to a reason why he needed to break into Jason's home. Worse, strangers passing by would have called Police Services. He didn't want those guys involved under any circumstances.

Gary's concern about being discovered as he entered the house finally got the best of him and he failed to even make an attempt to get in. Michelle would understand. When Gary returned after practicing what he would tell her for an hour and explained to her in his well-rehearsed form, she had not understood. Gary explained to Michelle the degree of difficulty in gaining entry to the Fenton Brownstone and expected sympathy. What he got instead was guilt; disappointment and a pouting wife that wanted him to go back a try again. "Try at night Gary." Gary explained that even if he tried this at night, he would have to turn on the lights attracting attention.

"So let them think that Jason and Carrie are home. What do we care?" Michelle argued. The conversation was dragging deep into the afternoon and Gary was having a hard time getting Michelle to see logic.

"If no one sees them arrive, if no one sees them come home and the lights just mysteriously come on, what would you do?"

"I'd mind my own business." Michelle insisted.

"Yeah, well others might call the police. Then what?" Gary countered. It was a weak lash back but in his faltering logic, he had to have a defense. The last thing they needed was undo attention. If the police came what would he tell them? The NewsVID would have a field day with the idea that Gary had been caught breaking and entering. Even if he had said he was just checking up on his old friend, everyone would find that his choice to brake in rather than call Police Services and have them check was suspicious. How long would they be able to hide William's problem them?

Michelle wrestled with idea after fruitless idea, tossing them up like clay pigeons only to have Gary nimbly shoot them out of the sky. She exhausted her wellspring of ideas as well as herself by the time evening came around. It was clear that if William had any reasonable chance of getting out of this mess by the end of the weekend, then that chance lay in Jason's house. They would have to figure out a way to get in there in the morning. Perhaps Sunday would be the best day. Most of the city's population worked on Sunday, but it was still, traditionally a somewhat lazier day for most. There might be a chance of finding a way in then without so much risk of being noticed.

That night Shelly was introduced to Beth. The older girl was not into her roll. Even with the addition of jeans and a T-shirt, she felt exposed, as the shape of her body was now clear under the tighter fitting clothes. Beth continually pulled on her shirt trying to make it baggy, to reduce what she called the 'cling factor'. Something, as William, she could clearly remember admiring in other girls, but now it was clear she was deeply troubled with.

Shelly insisted that their new guest play tea with her; and was aghast when Beth admitted that she didn't know how. She had never played tea party before.

After dinner, Shelly took her hand and maneuvered her toward the stairs. Michelle came up next to her and whispered, "Be careful, no letting on. We have to be careful."

"Mom..." she started to say but the look on Michelle's face indicated the first slip. It crushed Michelle to do it but she had to if for no other reason than the preservation of the rest of the family.

"God!" Beth whispered in tortured anguish. "Aunt Michelle." She said sarcastically. "Do I have to play tea party?" she pleaded back in a whisper.

"Erin has practice tonight. It will help us to keep Shelly busy while we figure something out here. Be a sport and humor her."

Beth exhaled with resignation and allowed her self to be lead away to the young girl's room.

Gary had only one more idea on tracking Jason locally. It was, to say the least, a long shot. It seemed that their first impressions were correct. Jason had fled, if so Jason would not return to work, but on the outside chance he was only hiding locally until he could what, get paid, employee assistance from a sympathetic friend at work? He would, if he needed something from the office, he could get a coworker to help. That may have already have happened. Since he could not have been in two places at once, he would not be able to test this theory until Sunday. Gary and in fact most of the working world no longer knew of the five day workweek. That had gone the way of the Dodo back when Russia and Canada had invaded the United States back in 2046 and again in a brief attempt to regain lost lands in 2061 that failed beyond measure. These days, most folks worked seven days a week just keep their heads above water. Only the truly prosperous business, the smaller successful businesses could afford to let their employee's have two days off consistently.

It was this one fact that gave Gary hope that if Jason would return; he might do it when the people he knew were coming to work in the morning. And he explained this to Michelle who agreed, if there was a chance to get to him it should be explored.

The mornings were still cold before the sun got up. Gary had left well before sunrise and settled his HOV down on a side street to wait and watch. Gary remained huddled inside the frigid HOV rubbing his hands together trying to do his best to keep the circulation going and stay warm. Outside the HOV people were pouring through the security gates at the Horizon Preservatives facility.

Gary had seen this place a number of times before, past it on the way to work nearly everyday. Why then had he never noticed that there were no vehicles parked in the lot behind the fence? Everyone was walking in to the building; and security was tight much tighter than he would have expected for a food processing and chemical preservative manufacturer.

A mass of people where huddled around the guard station while two guards, one on either side checked ID's and allowed workers in. Once, shortly after he had arrived there was one person that tried go gain entry but apparently hadn't passed scrutiny. Instead of being turned away, however, he was seized taken inside the compound, presumably to wait for the police to come and arrest him. To Gary it seemed the man, who appeared to be young but ragged and homely, hadn't been causing a real disturbance, just trying to sneak in to the facility. Why arrest him? But he supposed that industrial espionage had no real boundaries. He himself had two young men arrested in the past for stealing and selling recipes he had toiled long and hard to develop and promote. As a businessman he could understand the corporate pressure to be unique. As a citizen and an observer it did seem to him to be a bit harsh.

As he sat, he dwelled on the issues his family faced. The very idea that he had may lost his son caused a rage to boil in him so hot and so deep that smashed the dash board of the HOV with his fist sending off a gale of internal alarms and warning bells and sirens that took five minutes to shut off. When they were all off he sat and mourned his son. He told himself that he was not really gone but even when he had tried to comfort Michelle all those years ago he was busy falling in love with her. Was this not a clear indication that he believed that Mike was gone, lost and replaced by the woman he had been falling in love with the whole time? If so, why would his perception be different now? He just couldn't convince himself that the person lurking below that pretty face was Mike, even though he knew it to be true it was hard to see until she started talking about the things that they had both gone through. Mike had accidentally become the girl of his dreams; and he, Gary, had tried as increasingly painful as it became with passing minute he spent with her he had tried to put her back as Mike. And God help him, each time it failed he was happier and happier that the options seemed to be running out for Mike.

In that time when they were at opposite ends of life just after the patch code transmitter failed to restore Mike to normal, his heart broke, mended and broke a million times over to think that he had found her lost her and gotten her back only to have her turn against him. He began to drink heavily so badly in fact that it wasn't until a few years later that he confessed that he had been arrested twice in that six month period for drunk and disorderly down at the College Knights. It had been his mother and her contacts that had kept Gary out of court and out of jail.

She had come back to him, and he was made whole again. Now his family, the thing he treasured most in this world was being torn apart by the same thing that had formed it. He couldn't curse the damned things and he couldn't bless them. He had selfishly entertained the idea that it might have been better for everyone if he had simply gotten killed during one of his silly stunts way back when. Back when Mike was still trying to get him to put his feet on a more stable path.

Why my son? How many times can a family be plagued? It wasn't really a plague was it? Gary guessed that depending on your frame of mind it could be considered many things, karma, and punishment for your sins, dumb blind misfortune or even simply the roll of the dice.

He knew that Michelle had tried any number of things to escape from her skin and finally decided that this was the was the judgment that fate had dealt and her she was going to have to play it out. She finally accepted that she was stuck as many before her had become and came to terms with who she was now!

How had she done this he wondered? William didn't have anything like that. In fact if you put this situation under a microscope, there was simply no correlation at all to what Michelle had gone through. She had been wrong when she felt she had a friend to help her through it. He had been so much more. He had been and emotional crutch for her, he had been her council and confidant. Most importantly he had become her lover and security blanket.

How could either of them be a tenth of that for William or rather Beth now. You could see the girl cringe when the name was spoken, as if she were about to be hit by an abusive lover. It hurt him nearly as much as it hurt her to hear it. The resignation in her face that she was stuck in a form she despised was devastating to her.

Although Michelle hid it well, Gary could see that the way the young girl viewed her self was disturbing to her mother. He could tell there were things that she wanted to tell her. Ways she felt she could comfort her until a resolution was found to this problem. But she dared not revel herself. There was really no telling how the children would take such news, or if they could keep it a secret. The last people to find out about it had been Gary's parents. After they died, Gary and Michelle decided they would let no one else out side of those who had been there in on the secret.

Of the original six there were Gary and Michelle, Norman who was killed in a HOV accident a few years ago. Much to his credit, he had never spoken a word about it. There was Frank and Kit and there was Rodney. It was Rodney that was as much of a mystery as Mike had been. He too had also disappeared a few weeks after everything had happened. Gary, Michelle, Kit and Frank paid close and nervous attention to the news but he was never reported missing to the Police Services or anyone else for that matter as far as anyone could tell. He was just gone. In the wake of the sensational disappearance of Mike Vello, the misplacing of a small time hood was an anticlimax to most NewsVID Services.

Even at those times when Michelle felt she would tell her own mother, revel herself to her last living family member she would withdraw and hide from the issue. She was Michelle Shipley now. She would be for the rest of her life. She no longer had a choice even if a choice were presented. It would only complicate matters to let in another wild card that couldn't be monitored or controlled. The greatest worry was how Rose would have reacted. She could be a stern woman, once she set her feet on a path there was very little that someone else could do to talk her out of her decided course of actions. If she decided to turn Michelle in to the authorities then the fear was that there would be little they could do to convince her otherwise. Rose had a nasty habit of reacting to her gut rather than following her heart. So now, much to her heartache, Michelle had been forced to leave her mother out of the family circle.

Gary rubbed a hand over his face and tried to think what do next if Jason didn't show for work. This was harder than what he and Michelle had been through. They had known where the transmitter was. This was a complete blind alley; there was no way to see what was going to come racing out at you until it too late. Jason had just up and taken off. That took resources. That told Gary he probably had everything he needed with him, the hope of Jason returning to work with something so large looming over his head was certainly nothing more than a pipe dream, but he had to be sure.

Then Gary's eye caught the image of a man, a man of about Jason's height and build skulking up the sidewalk behind the HOV in its rearview VID's. In Gary's opinion, the guy was working hard to avoid being seen. Just as the man got to the door of Gary's HOV, Gary leaped out and knocked the man down. The gentlemen went sprawled over the sidewalk and in to an alley cut out between what had once been one building. Gary raced in to the darkened space after Jason.

"OK, Asshole... Get up!"

"What the hell do you think you're doing knocking me down." Someone answered back out of the dark. The man's face was hidden by the shadows but the voice made it clear that this was not Jason Fenton.

"Oh shit!" Gary breathed.

"Oh shit indeed!" Replied the voice. There was a hint of an Eastern European accent to it, Russian perhaps or Polish.

"Aw buddy, I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"You are implying that headlong rush and assault was an accident? Next you will try to tell me you simply lost control of your arm and legs and they were the ones that knocked me to the pavement?"

"No. No, I'm not going tell you that." Gary admitted, "What I did was deliberate. But..."

"Some honesty from such a brutal man..."

"As I was saying..."

"My good man, I'm not really interested in what you were saying. You have subdued me, destroyed an expensive suit of clothes and ruined my day. What could you say that I might be interested in listening to?"

"I'll pay for the suit." Gary said as he stepped into the alley to lend a hand to the gentleman trying to get up off of the dirty concrete pavement of the alley. The man that lay there withdrew angrily from Gary when he extended his hand for assistance leaving Gary feeling funny and small.

"Please, don't waste your time with offers you couldn't possibly fulfill. This suit costs more than most people make..." the man trailed off. He had gotten up and now saw Gary in full light the man could now see that Gary may indeed understand how much the man's suit may cost. The man that had knocked him down was wearing one almost like his.

Gary began to try to justify his irrational behavior. It seemed important at the time. "I thought you were some guy that... abused my niece." Gary lied. When it was out he was sorry he had offered any information at all.

The guy in the shadows froze. It seemed Gary had struck a nerve. "Oh," said the man in a strangled voice. "I'm... I'm very sorry. At least I understand why you were so upset now anyway."

"No, I'm sorry I should have found out for sure that you were the man I was looking for first."

"Good thing you didn't have an taser." The man laughed.

"Yeah... ah good thing." Gary didn't see any humor in the statement. He had considered getting one from one of his many contacts in the city.

The man reached out his hand to Gary. Gary looked at it for a second and then took it. "The name's Terrence Michales. I understand about young girls. I had a daughter once. No hard feelings, OK?"

"Had?" Gary asked and winced. He was again sorry he had not thought before speaking. He wanted desperately to take the question back. "Hey look, I'm sorry. I had no business prying."

"No, that's OK, really. She's dead, she and my wife. So I live for my work now. Look I'm sorry about your niece. I hope you find the guy..." A moment of clarity came to him. He looked from Gary to the preservatives plant and back at Gary again. "You're staking out the factory. He works there?"

Flustered, Gary understood he had exposed himself or at least part of his method of operation. Now what? He thought. He told the truth and hoped to leave it at that. "Yeah he does, or did."

"I work with those people. I'm a..." Michales paused for only a second but it was enough to send up a warning flare to Gary. "...Chemical engineer. I'm not supposed to do this," Michales reached into his coat and pulled out a business card and a pen and prepared to write, "but if you give me his name I'll do some snooping for you. If we have a guy like that in the factory, I'd rather get in trouble than see him get away with child abuse."

Gary was taken a bit off guard by the offer. After all, he had just knocked the guy to the ground and possibly ruined what looked like a very nice suite but in this light it was hard to tell. Not to mention that he didn't want to raise the alarm that his niece was really his son. That could lead to even worse consequences. 

Gary thought for a second and carefully gauged his response. "I'm sure he's run. I've checked his house and he hasn't been back all weekend. I think I'll just let the police handle it." He said and tried shake the man's hand but the conversation was not over. Not for Michales anyway.

"If your niece said she was abused, then letting the professionals sort it out is probably the best way. The police have can be very persuasive."

Gary nodded; "Yes, I agree. Again, I'm sorry about your suit. If leave me your card..." at those words the card Michales had been prepared to write on vanished back inside his coat. "...I could have a new suit sent to you anywhere you wish." Gary finished, not wanting to draw attention to the man's obvious attempt to hide something. Gary wandered what it could be. Not his name the man had volunteered that. It was now obvious but unspoken by both men that they were involved in an elaborate dance. Both understood as they tangoed about the issue that the other knew the steps to this dance. They could not hide that the other understood what they were doing but they could not speak of it out loud. It was a forbidden dance, meant for only these two to experience.

Michales didn't shake Gary's out reached hand nor did he put his business card there either. Instead he pressed for the identity of the man that Gary felt was responsible for this alleged abuse.

"You still have not given me a name with which to look for. If you go to the police then they will come here to look. If they don't then I'll know you were looking for something else. Espionage is a dangerous thing my friend. Ease my concerns and give me a name."

Gary was reeling from what the man had just said to him. He had actually just been threatened. Now, it was very clear to him. He had gone to far. The only thing he could think of was William and Michelle and what would happen if any one started looking around before they could set their plans in motion. If someone discovered that things weren't in place now and looked later, there would be no hiding. Gary decided to give him the name. He would go home and have an ID made for Beth and do his best to place William in Germany. That would mean changing school records for now and then trying to come up with the other necessary paper work that actually pointed to his being in Europe.

"The name of the man I'm looking for is Jason Fenton. He's a neighbor of mine and... Hey, are you alright?" Gary watched as the man appeared to weaken, his face, which had been flush with color, was going pale and Gary could see that the man was trying to wet his lips, as if his mouth had gone completely dry.

Michales had not expected this gentleman to know anyone in the gates of the facility. Michales was prepared to simply go look the name up in the HR files once he got in. But he had not only known someone but he had known one of Michales friends. It not only lent credence to the man's claim but it possibly meant that an unstable element had to now be factored into the security equation at the facility. That aspect scared Michales very much. Now that he had confirmed that this man did exist and the victim's uncle was intent on finding Fenton, Michales now had to find a way to keep this man from employing the police after all. He could not allow that.

"I'm fine, it's simply the thought of someone at our facility possibly guilty of this. I have heard a name like this Jason Fenton about the office." Michales raked his hand through his hair and added, "I can check and see where he is. If I find him then I will make sure I know where you can find him. Then the two of us can determine if there's a reasonable possibility that he did what you claim. I'll need your VID address." This time the card and pen were back and ready to write.

Gary was grateful that it seemed that the police were no longer in the forefront of this mans plans for action. He didn't completely understand why, but somehow, knowing someone within the walls of the protected facility only a block from where they were standing had taken away this man's Royal Flush and replaced the cards he had been holding with a hand he could do nothing with.

Gary gave the address to the man. "Yes, of course. MGShipley@131HarborTrace."

"The 'M', is that your wife's initial?"

"I want to keep this matter between us for now. Is that agreeable?" Gary said trying to divert undo attention from any other portion of family. The man could find out on his own if he wanted. That didn't mean Gary had to volunteer the information!

"If you mean strictly between us, then yes. Let's not ruin a man's reputation with rumor and innuendo until we both feel confident that he has wronged you niece." Michael's said.

"Yes, it would be wrong to let others outside our party for now. That is fodder for rumor." Gary added. He played along fully aware that there was an unspoken element of fear that both men were feeling. He knew why he was afraid; he could not for the life of him understand why Michales should act so.

"You are wise. I will call and speak only to you. I will offer what I can, but I'm counting your confidence in this matter. Beyond this man's reputation, there is the reputation of the company I work for as well. It could mean the loss of many jobs if... if it were learned that we had a child abuse suspect working unwatched within our gates."

"We wouldn't want that either would we?" Gary said.

This time it was Michales that stuck out his hand. Gary watched it for a moment and then decided it was the best offer he could make considering how badly he had blundered and almost got his family involved in something that could have been disastrous. Once more, the end had not yet been written to this particular deed. It may still come home to remove a cheek or two from his backside.

Gary went home feeling nervous. He had screwed up badly all he could do was hope that this man wanted to protect his business as much as he seemed to want to. It was the only ace Gary held

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Gary was already huddling in the cold Pennsylvania morning out side the so-called preservatives factory when Michelle woke to find a note from Gary. Usually, when he got up, when he stirred she felt it. It was not that he disturbed her sleep, but more that she simply wanted to be awake when he woke. Gary was much the same way. Each was given a few minutes private time in the morning to brush one's teeth or do morning bathroom things, as Michelle liked to put it. Each however usually followed the other in to the world of the waking.

Gary had eluded her this morning and she couldn't keep the pang of being just slightly annoyed that she had missed him from her heart. She started by walking toward the bathroom and saw a scrap of paper with writing on it lying on her dressing table, which was next to the door of the bathroom.

She stopped and picked it up and quickly read the note.

My Angel,

I have one more idea. It's a long shot so don't get your hopes up. I'll tell you about it when I get back. I shouldn't be too long, maybe home later afternoon at the latest; unless of course something pans out, though this doesn't feel real promising.

Back home soon.

Love you,


He hadn't told her what the idea was. That made her anxious. She did her 'bathroom thing' and dressed, light blue cotton shorts and a light, navy top. She had a pair of deck shoes she wore on the weekends because they were comfortable. She found them, slipped them on and made her way to the kitchen. When she got there Beth was up, had made coffee and was seated, slumped in one of the bar chairs sipping coffee.

"Where are your sister's" Michelle said. She did not catch the slip.

"My cousins you mean, don't you Aunt Michelle?" the tone was snide and hateful.

Michelle blushed, "Yes, that's right. I'm sorry." Michelle waited for an answer but she got none. "Well?"

"Well what?" asked the girl.

"Where are your cousins?" Michelle asked, as she got closer. She grabbed a cup and poured a bit of coffee for herself.

"They left. Something about Philadelphia today, I dunno." Beth said as she sulked.

"Then why did you make me ask again? That wasn't very nice."

"I'm not feeling very nice." She shot at Michelle. "And because I wanted to hear you say it. I wanted to see if it came as easy for you as you think it does for me?" Beth cried.

Michelle thought about scolding the girl when Beth leapt from counter and began a rant. "This is turning out to be a prison for me. No matter what we do we're thwarted. Dad couldn't get into Carries place. No one can figure this freaking thing out? How long do these things last?" Beth started tugging on her hair. As hard as it was for her to watch as her child futility struggled with a thing that not really there, her first Michelle thought she would just let her get it out of her system. She understood the panic these things can inspire. When Michelle saw a trickle of blood about the girls hairline however she raced to intercede.

The girl was grunting as she now yanked on her hair. She raked her nails over her neck with an anguished cry and trickles of blood began to pop up on her pale skin.

"Honey, stop!" Michelle shouted as she ran to the girl.

Beth was ready for her, however. She backed out of the way with a crazed look in her eye. "NO MOTHER! I can get it off. I know how to get it off. Watch..." Beth reached for knife that had been left out on the counter from the night before.

"BETH! God NOOOOOOO!" Michelle was filled with horror as Beth got to the knife before she could. In her attempt to get there first, Michelle tripped over the stool Beth had been sitting in and fell, her hands flailing for the knife and striking Beth's wrist hard. Beth spun around and the knife flew from her hand and back into the kitchen area where it clanked about the stainless steel appliances there.

Beth's feet had caught on her nightgown and robe as she had tried to avoid her mother's blow at the knife. She twisted around in an awkward position, her legs were twisted and she fell backward in a heap not far from her mother.

"William..." Michelle cried. "William!"

"Oh God!" wailed the girl. She was to Michelle's right and Michelle got to her knees and knee-walked the short distance to her child.

"Are you hurt?" Michelle demanded to know. She franticly searched the girl's body for signs of injury but found none. The whole time Beth just moaned.

"William, you mustn't ever do that. Don't hurt yourself. We might not be able to get this off of you. Are you listening to me William?"

"That's not my name any more, remember." Beth said pathetically hiding her face from her mother.

"It will always be your name honey. Oh God." She hugged the girl in a painful sort of attempt to comfort her. She understood now what Gary had seen all those years ago. She knew how hard it must have been for him to try to keep her sane and still see his best friend under the body she had been locked into.

"William will always be your name." She repeated. "We can't let certain people know that right now."

"Why?" Beth demanded.

"Because of what they would do to you if the thought you were really using a SKIN, hon. we have too keep it a secret. But you will always be William. You will always be the little life that I helped bring into this world and I will always be your mother."

The child wept bitter tears. She had needed to hear these words. She had felt so alone in all this. It had been as if her parents had discarded their son in favor of a new daughter. They were just too willing to cast him aside and give him the name Beth and buy women's clothes for her and make her play tea-party. Now, to hear her mother, William's mother recognize him, credit his existence and embrace him, it was a sound like no other. They had not forgotten him. They had not buried him. He was not dead!

"I'm sorry. I get a little crazy living as this girl sometimes." She looked up at Michelle. "I don't think I could have really cut myself."

"You did a fine job with your nails."

Beth touched herself on the neck; she could feel the painful whelps they had left there. They felt a bit slimy and she understood that she had broken the skin. "God, I did that?"

"I think I can cover it. It's not that bad really. A little anti-inflammatory medication, we'll wash it up good and a bit of make up and you'll never see it. It will have healed in a day or two anyway... your skin is so delicate. You really didn't do a lot of damage."

The girl smiled a soft smile. "Thanks... Aunt Michelle."

Michelle shook her head. "No. When no one's around I use William and you can use Mom. OK?" So many memories were flooding back now. She remembered how strange it had been with only Gary and herself along in his parent's home, the two of them had still been using the name Michelle. You would have thought they could drop the pretense. She had certainly wanted to, but she had agreed that in the sake of not fucking up someplace else, they would stick to the script. After a while, it sounded more than natural. By the next morning she couldn't even think of herself as anyone else but Michelle.

Michelle was surprised when the girl shook her head no. "We can't do that. You or I will screw up and that will just make things more complicated. It may amount to nothing. We can explain away almost anything and make it believable. I know that. But there's that one tenth of one percent." Beth stopped and shook her head. "What would they do with me... Aunt Michelle?"

Michelle couldn't believe what she had just listened to. It was almost exactly the same logic she had been forced to realize. And why not, was it not just as much truth today? If you used a SKIN, you simply didn't want people to find out. The price was just way too stiff.

"I don't know honey. It wouldn't be good. It would be a lot worse than where you are right now."

The girl nodded. "So my name is Beth."

"Yes Beth." Michelle answered.

"And being a girl isn't really so bad is it Aunt Michelle?"

"No, it's not that bad once you get used to it." Michelle answered. Michelle helped the girl to her feet.

"Are we OK?" Michelle asked.

"I don't know about we, but I'm ready to get pro-active here. I just wish Uncle Gary had been able to get into that house." She said sounding greatly disappointed.

A distant memory came to Michelle, a memory of walking Jessie and Bo Jangles a young William with her as they walked the dogs through the park. Why had she had Bo Jangles though? Mr. Bo Jangles had been the Fenton's dog. Jessie had been Michelle's, he had been a Christmas gift from Gary on their first Christmas together.

She hadn't thought about Jessie in some time now. It had been painful for her to have Gary put the dog down. That had been only three years ago. This memory was a strange one. Why think of both dogs now? She remembered that she used to walk Bo when Becky and Jay and Carrie went on vacation. They did the same for her. She had given a passcode key to Becky and she had one that she kept meaning to give back but never had.

"Oh My GOD!" Michelle squealed. "I know how to get into Carrie's house."

"What are you talking about?" Beth wanted to know.

Michelle took Beth by the shoulders, brought her Beth's face to hers and said. "I have a key to Becky Fenton's house. She gave it to me! Oh hell," Michelle waive off the memory. "A long time ago. I still have it." She said that last part like in a whisper, as if saying it too loud might make the key dematerialize.

"Don't pull my chain on this. You really have the key?" Beth asked not wanting to get to hopeful but unable to keep from getting excited.

"I saw it just last week." She said proudly. "I was actually going to throw it away." Then she put her index finger on her chin and said in a foreboding tone. "I hope I didn't throw it way."

"Mother!" cried Beth.

It was Michelle's turn to over look the slip. "I have it. It's in the bureau up stairs in the first guest room, in an envelope labeled 'Becky'. Go get dressed and get the key, we'll go together."

"Yessssssss!" Cried the girl.

  _         _         _         _ 
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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

Terrence Michales was shaking badly by the time he got to his office. He passed Brenda Wilson, his administrative assistant; barked, "I don't want to be disturbed." And slammed the door to his office.

Brenda regarded the door and said, "Too late."

Inside, Terrence grabbed a bottle of Polish vodka and downed a huge swig of the warm, oily liquid. It burned like hell going down but within seconds the perspective of the day came into clearer focus.

Terrence sat as his desk and started the process of trying to reason this thing out. He pulled out is ID card and pulled it through the slot in his VID. "Records for Jason Scott Fenton please." On the screen before him rolled out the corporate records for Jason. These records included Human Resources entries, payroll, security checkpoint passages, programming VID time and even time spent working directly with Terrence. There was the entry last Friday for his work on the blackboard. Before that was an entry for numerous checkpoint entries and exits, thousands of them in fact, all to various parts of the compound.

Seeing nothing extraordinary, the man Michales had been accosted by this morning was probably a liar. Why then, would this man have to gain by lying about something like this? It was too confusing. Well, he could always check

Michales asked, "Public CITREG, Resident MGShipley at 131 Harbor Trace. The VID began displaying records and public knowledge on Gary Allen Shipley. The fact that he was married, three children, and successful owner of a chain of restaurants, here was something interesting. He had once been a suspect in a missing person's case.

Terrence remembered that one well. It had been a young local hero. He couldn't remember the name though. Mikal or Mica or something like that. This man had been his best friend. Vello... Yes... that had been it Mike Vello; same name as the girl that had been driving the Low Altitude HOV that had been involved with his wife's accident.

He was about to pull up the information on his wife when his eye caught something on the minimized screen of Jason's records. It was an entry to the disposal facility down stairs.

"Oh no..." He whispered.

But it was there. Michales killed the CITREG screen and probed deeper. There was another one and another one... so many. The entries were piling up fast. He checked the dates as they went past, 2105... 2100... 2097... 2090... good God, fifteen years worth.

He quickly pulled up the security address.

"Security, Jamieson speaking. Oh... Ah Mr. Michales. Yes what can I do for you?"

"We have a breach." Was all he said.

"I'm not showing..." Jamieson said

"It's one of ours." Terrence corrected.

"Shit! Where is he? How do you know?" The man said, worried.

"Look at this." Michales said. He touched the screen and sent the data he was looking at to the man who was looking at him.

"Yeah, programmer. He needs access to... Holy SHIT!"


"Oh my God... He... Crap! Look at this! How many?"

"Let me ask you something." Michales inquired of Jamieson.

"Yeah, go ahead."

"What happened to the guy that lost that shipment of sixty thousand back in '82?" Michales asked.

"Oh Shit!"

"I'd get a couple of men out there if I were you." Michales finished before disconnecting.

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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

In Michelle's mind it didn't matter that she had been there when William melted down. It wasn't enough that she had been able to prevent him from hurting himself and the making the SKIN permanent or worse accidentally killing himself in the process. It was time to get that thing off of him. She knew only to well that mental health wasn't something that you necessarily were able to control when you suddenly changed genders involuntarily.

The two crossed the park, taking almost the identical route William had taken on his way over to Carry's house Friday. For Beth it was an eerie journey. She kept remembering how the sun had beaten on a face she no long had.

Her mother had covered the scratches on her chest and neck and now they barely showed. Looking at them however had proved one thing to her. William wasn't under there. No, he wasn't under there at all, only tissue, blood and the organs of a female. If she had cut herself open all that would have spilled out would have been lungs, a liver a eight miles of intestinal tissue. An autopsy would have shown a sixteen or seventeen year old girl who had died of self inflicted wounds.

Until this point she had been unwilling to give up her identity as William. In her mind she felt that all she needed was to just step out of this costume and everything would be all right. She was more trapped than she had imagined and she now understood, in some small way, why her parents seemed so confused on what to do and how to get their son back.

They crossed the vehicle-free street, spanned the lawn and mounted the stairs to the front door. Michelle thought briefly about going in the back but decided that the best way to avoid looking conspicuous was to do things as inconspicuously as possible. She inserted passkey card and pulled down on it.

The VID at the right of the door sprung into life. "Hi Michelle!" Becky Fenton announced. Beth recoiled from the visage of Mrs. Fenton in horror and clutched at her mother's arm. Michelle was equally surprised at the announcement and gasped in surprise at the sound of her name.

The message was an old one obviously; Michelle remembered parts of it as she watched. "Thanks for taking care of Bo for us. We'll be back on Sunday. Say hi to Gary and Erin and William for us." Michelle thought, This was before Shelly, God Am I getting that old? You wouldn't know it.

"Oh yeah," the VID Becky continued. "I left Bo's medicine on the counter. Just empty a capsule into his food; he'll never know it's there. Thanks again girlfriend. We'll do lunch Monday after we get home."

They had not gotten the chance to do lunch however. Becky had died that Sunday, the night they got back; before going to bed, some sort of brain hemorrhage. The kind of surprise that makes one realize how fragile life truly is. At least they had that weekend. That's something. Michelle thought feeling pity for the whole Fenton family, despite what Jay had tried to do to William.

"Mom, let's go in. I can't watch this anymore."

Michelle nodded but said nothing; She pushed the door open, disconnecting the VID transmission.

Inside the place was dark and silent. Here are there was a scattering of clothes. A few things that looked like processors on the floor, DIGISTILS scattered about. Michelle moved down the hall and looked from one room to the other. The two were met by silence. To the left was Carrie's room. Except for the clothes strewn everywhere, an obvious sign of a frantic attempt to pack what they could in a hurry and get out, things were the same as they had been that night. The bed where she had been born was still unmade. His clothes weren't here only because Carrie had tossed them out the window in a fit of rage.

On the right was Jay's room, in much the same state. The concentration of processors had been getting thicker here and Michelle bent and picked on up from the floor. It was a cash chip. There were so many of them lying about. Michelle wondered, if they had gotten most of what they had to the HOV with them, then Gary had been right. They had the resources to stay gone indefinitely if they needed.

The atmosphere of the dwelling was almost haunted. That feeling was reinforced by the specter of Becky still standing guard at the door welcome friends and strangers alike to a house where no on lived. Michelle took one last look at the cash chip in her and discarded it. He was keeping these someplace and it stood to reason that if she followed the ever widening trail of the things then she might find where the hiding place of the transmitter might be.

The trail seemed to lead into the bedroom on opposite side of the hall from the one Beth indicated as Carrie's room. This room was dark. Michelle knew it to be the one that Jay and Becky had shared but gone was the spirit and light that Becky had once brought to this living space. The shades were drawn and appeared to have been that way for sometime. The bed had been made but the place was dusty and the signs of neglect were everywhere. Everywhere she looked there were scraps of paper, cobwebs and other signs that, although neat the room was not clean and the heart that lived here did not care about the state of the room.

Michelle found what she was looking for just inside what looked to be the walk-in closet for Jay's clothing. A portion of carpet had been pulled back reveling a space under the floor. Michelle crouched to peer into it and found a slue of cash chips, papers and other things. She rummaged around in the void eventually getting on her hands and knees to for a better view, stirring the contents with one hand; feeling for that damned box. It wasn't there.

OK, that doesn't mean it's not here. It just means it wasn't there. She thought. She had gotten into the house when Gary couldn't. That had to mean that the fates were finally on her side. Why else would she have remembered the key?

"Anything?" peeped a small timid voice from behind her.

"Not yet. But we just started looking. It's here someplace. It has to be." Michelle assured her. She got up and brushed the chips that had stuck to her knees. She vanished into the dark closet. Beth could hear her trying to reach the shelves on top. "Damn." Michelle called out once.

Michelle emerged from the closet looking discouraged. "Too short to reach." She admitted. "And it's dark in there." Michelle looked around for something to stand on but found nothing.

"Maybe if you just turn on the light to see..."

"Hon, if I turn on the lights in an abandon house then I want to make sure I can see what I'm looking for. I don't care if it is light outside, if I'm going to risk this then I want to see everything up there and not have to risk doing this twice."

Her mother's thoughts made sense. They could take their time now couldn't they? If they had to, they could search the entire house. Why call attention to the fact someone was in here unless you had to?

"What are you looking for now? Maybe I can help." Beth asked.

"A stool or a small step ladder or something I can use to get up higher on those shelves."

Beth thought and then remembered that Carrie had a small fabric covered footstool in her room. Beth ran off to get it and brought it back in. "Will this work?"

Michelle took it and placed it in the closet. She then turned on the light and looked around. Everything was in plain view now. She looked at Beth and smiled. "Perfect! I could play basketball with this thing." Beth giggled at the idea of her mother playing basketball.

"What?" Michelle asked.

"Nothing." Beth said dismissing her with a wave of her hand.

"You don't think I can play basketball do you?" Michelle asked with a note of bewilderment in her voice.

"No, of course I do..." Beth was on the verge of breaking up completely. Michelle, pleased that child was in better spirits continued to search but played off the good feeling at the same time.

"You do not. You know, I was once an athlete." She had to be careful here. Don't get too specific, she warned herself.

"What did you ever play?" Now the doubt in the child's voice was evident.

"I'll have you know that I used to play baseball and basketball, oh doubtful one." Michelle announced with not only with pride but a nostalgic tone that seemed almost a bit sad.

"Organized?" Beth asked. Now she had her. She could not answer yes even though that was the true answer. It was common knowledge that Michelle was an orphan, legally anyway. It was also common knowledge that she had supposedly spent most of her teen years on the streets living on what most of society called 'the fringe'.

"No, you know I didn't go to school..." Michelle stopped short. Beth had heard it too, a noise coming from the area of the front of the house. They both listened. It came again, the unmistakable sound of the front door rattling.

Beth turned to the woman on the stool in the closet and squeaked. "Mom?"

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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

Michelle and Beth had been in the Fenton home for about twenty minutes when the men in the black HOV gently set the machine down on the curb on Trimbolt Ave. Side of Roth Park. They sat and allowed the witnesses that had seen them land clear the area or move on to other activities. It was a trained behavior. Never exit a vehicle immediately when not necessary. It helps you to blend in. Nondescript clothing was also the order of the day; black.

Imagine yourself giving a description of two people wearing the same thing, same haircut, and same general build. When you've given the description for the first man, you've finished for the second as well. Just by virtue of this one aspect the information the police were getting in descriptions and details were reduced by half. One could also never really be sure of how many agents were actually at the scene; could be two; could be twenty.

After giving the steadily increasing number of morning pedestrians enough time to move on or find other distractions to occupy them the two men exited the vehicle and moved north along Trimbolt and right on to the Fenton property. One man pulled a computerized passkey card from his lapel pocket and drove it into the slot where Michelle had not long before.

To the agents' dismay, the locking system shorted out on contact. "Son of bitch knew we were coming." One said flatly to the other.

Thing 1 looked around and watched those that might be watching them while Thing 2 jiggled the handle of the door.

"It's jammed." Said Thing 2.

Thing 1's intelligent and well-formulated response to this fundamental problem was, "Fuck!"

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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

Michelle stepped of the footstool and rushed to Beth, clamping her hand over the child's mouth. She didn't know whom it could be trying to get in, it was probably burglars most likely, but she didn't intended on sticking around and finding out. They had to get out of the house.

Michelle stuck her head through the doorway of Jason's bedroom and looked down the hall. Beth's mouth was still clamped behind her hand. She looked down toward the way they had come in. At that moment, glass erupted from the one of the side panels that stood sentry to the door and she almost cried out in surprise. The door was hidden behind an alcove only just hidden. She did see the sleeve of a black coat with the cuff of a white starched shirt reach in. Attached to the very end of that sleeve was a huge meat hook of a hand. Those are not burglars! She thought

She pulled her head back in the doorway. She raced to the widow on the other side of the room and peek out between the drapes intent on making a quick retreat out the back window. There, however, across the street sat a black GI Shop vehicle. Inside, Michelle could just make out two shadowy figures dressed in similar clothes. They were trapped.

She went to the doorway, taking Beth by the hand, she held one finger up to her lips and Beth nodded that she understood.

Michelle had seconds to consider what to do and how it should be done.

She slipped out into the hall and raced quietly down the hall, Beth's left hand clutched in her right. She was silently grateful she had worn her old deck shoes today. They helped pad her down the hall without making a sound. They slipped into the bathroom together. Michelle slowly, quietly closed the door, watching through the narrowing crack for when the man that broke in might turn the corner. He did just as the door was slipping closed. Michelle reached up and pressed the "Locked" button on the keypad.

She breathed a sigh of relief but they were now on borrowed time. They could hide here only so long. They had to get out on the street and across the park without being seen. She mentally kicked herself for getting Beth into this. She should have done this herself. She should have told Gary about the key before attempting this. One thing was certain. If the transmitter was here, meat hook man was going to find it and take it back to where ever these things are born.

She breathed heavily but tried to keep it quite, her back braced against the door. On the floor was a rope and in the corner the pipe that Beth had told her about, the one she'd been tied to waiting to be killed. Now she was trapped in here again only it had been her own mother that had brought her to this place. Perhaps he was meant...

"No!" she whispered. She shook of the idea of fate and Karma. If her son had been destine to die in this room then he'd be dead.

"You fit through that window?" she asked.

"That's how I got out the last time. But it's a steep drop. Almost a whole story." Beth said.

"I'm game if you are." Michelle whispered. Outside she could hear the footfalls of not one but two men, heavy and lumbering on the hard wood floor."

Beth scrambled up and out the window. She could hear her land on the asphalt of the alley outside. Michelle started out; Beth was pressed against the wall of the alley directly below her. She was looking out at the Trimbolt exit of the alley and there were two more agents waiting for someone to use the alley as an escape route.

Michelle thought about calling Gary on her wrist VID and decided that evolving him would give them a face that was too close to the family. She needed someone to create a diversion but someone she could trust.

She pressed Kit's address on her WristVID and immediately there was Kit's smiling middle-aged face, as smooth as ever in his style. "The Goddess calls." He announced.

"Shush!' she said adjusting the volume on her WristVID. "Where are you?" She knew that Gary had asked him to look after the store for the weekend until they could figure out a way to get William out of this female SKIN.

"Not far from your place. I was on my way in to the Washington Street store Gary asked me..."

"Yeah, I know. I was hoping you were close. Kit, I'm in trouble I need a favor." Kit had only remembered seeing her this desperate once before. It broke his heart to see so much fear in her eyes.

Kit's face got deeply serious. He set his face close to the VID screen and said. "Well, you're not going to be in trouble for long. Tell me what you want and where you need it and I'm all over it."

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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

Thing 1 and Thing 2 crept into to the Fenton's foyer, FTazors drawn. One crept in and went right, the other left. Thing 2 just missed the bathroom door silently latching shut. The exercise would changed to an entirely different operation had either one known there were people in the brownstone, rather than suspect the place was empty.

Each one advanced into pre-determined and well-rehearsed areas of responsibility Thing 1 had the living room, den, media room and kitchen. Thing 2 had the dining room, three bedrooms and two baths.

It didn't take Thing 2 to make sure that no one was in either of the two forward bedrooms. He closed and secured each bedroom from the outside to make sure that anyone hiding in the third bedroom couldn't used the adjoining bathroom at the end of the hall to transfer to an already secure bedroom and possibly surprise them or worse, escape.

He came to the third bedroom and peered in his FTazor out in front of him pointed automatically in the direction he was looking. He scanned the room and entered. It appeared to be used for storage. Boxes and bags of things piled on unused furniture. The room was secure. He turned back to the hall and locked the door from the out side.

Next Thing 2 turned his attention to the bathroom door.

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  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

Inside Michelle heard the footsteps of one man walk closer as the other seemed to walk in the direction of the living area of the house. "KIT!" she whispered frantically in to her WristVID. In the image behind him she could see Kit's HOV and out the window she could see her building of flats pass by as Kit brought his HOV into some sort of sweeping dive, "Where are you?" she pleaded.

"I'm there now, hold on to your hats ladies. I think this is going to piss them off a whole lot. Be ready to get the hell out of there."

Michelle watched the door as the footfalls stopped outside the door. The handle began to jiggle, gently at first, then harder. "Carl," the man shouted, "unsecured room. Back me up partner."

Oh shit, they're coming in. These were Michelle's last thoughts before all hell broke loose.

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The collision was not massive but it was noisy. In her brief conversation with Kit, Michelle told him only that she was in trouble and it seemed to be Shop agents. It was all Kit needed to know. It had been fortunate that Gary had called him to work at the main store. It meant that Kit had to cross town to get there, passing the Shipley home on his way.

She had described the house from the outside and how she and the agents had gotten in; not what she had been looking for or why. When Kit saw the HOV parked at the corner it couldn't have been any other than that of the agents. If it wasn't, when the police got there he would simply point out the brownstone and draw their attention to the broken window next to the door. Either way, it should buy Michelle enough time to get out if the police didn't find her inside too. To make sure there was no monkey business. Kit called the police prior with image off and claimed to be a bystander that told them it looked like someone was flying erratically in the area.

Kit brought his HOV down in a great sweeping arch. To the bystander he might appear as if he was trying to land on Trimbolt. As he got closer however it appeared he did not have complete control of his HOV. The thing lurched left, the left again and almost had a direct line of sight on Trimbolt when it snapped right and dove right for the agency vehicle.

When his HOV struck the agency HOV the alarms that went off was amazing. Instantly two men, dressed head to toe in black, white shirts and black ties came charging from a neighboring alley. Kit's HOV struck the agency HOV on the rear left quarter panel and pulled it out into the street. Kit's HOV stopped with a jolt, spun from the rear; end around end and landed on it's side, the jets shutting off automatically when not in vertical lift position when in proximity to the deck.

The agents grabbed him and pulled him from his HOV just as the police arrived on the scene. There seemed to be confusion on the agent's part. They had not expected this nor were they prepared to handle the sudden explosion of witnesses that had gathered. Shop owners, pedestrians, mothers with babies and business men on their way to work all gathered around to see what had happened.

One officer walked up looked at the crash site and asked, "Did any one see what happened?"

Kit, still in the hand of the shop agents pointed behind him with his thumb and said, "Yeah, these two guys did. They helped me out of my HOV." Kit then turned to the first clone and stuck out his hand. Thing 1 looked stupidly at Kit's outstretched hand, slowly took it and allowed Kit to pump it up and down once then again as he thanked the man, "Thanks buddy, thanks." He repeated the act with Thing 2 as Thing 1 and Thing 2 looked at each other with dull bewilderment.

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Michelle eased herself down into the alley. She and Beth took refuge behind a huge dumpster and waited for Kit to come to the rescue. Then there was a crash, a terrific noise combined with an array of alarms that surprised both women. Then the agents at the opening to the alley were gone, running in the direction of the noise. Michelle noticed that Thing 2 had gained entry to the bathroom and had stuck his head out the window to see what the commotion was about.

"Crap!" he muttered and she could hear him call, "Carl, we have a problem." as he withdrew his head back into the Fenton home. Michelle took Beth by the hand and dashed to the mouth of the alleyway. With her head poked part of the way around the corner, she saw Thing 1 and Thing 2 exit the Fenton's via the front door. They looked around and saw the confusion down the street. Thing 1 talked into what Michelle assumed was a WristVID but couldn't tell for sure from her vantage point. She assumed some message went out to the agents watching the rear of the building. Confirming her suspicion, she noticed, hi above, the other black agency HOV she had seen out back lift and take to the HOVway system above.

The police must have seen Thing 1 and Thing 2 standing there because she heard one say, "Holy shit, there are two more. Hey! You two... come down here."

With Thing 1 and Thing 2 distracted, Michelle took Beth and exited the alley. Instead of walking away, which would have looked suspicious, the two women walked toward the scene of the accident. They milled around in the crowd until she caught Kit's eye. Kit turned for just a second and smiled. Without letting anyone else see, Michelle gently blew Kit a kiss and then made her way across the street and back home.

Kit briefly saw a young woman turn and walk way with her. Before he could get a clear look at the girl she and Michelle were both out of sight behind him. To turn and look might draw attention to them. He instead focused his attention on the questions of the officers. Michelle was safe, that's what mattered. What was troubling was why were agents after her?

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Michelle pushed her thumb into the print recognition port and she heard the metallic buzz of the lock opening. She pushed the door open and entered the foyer of the stair well. Both women leaned with relief against the walls of the foyer when, suddenly Michelle burst into tears. She covered her face with one hand and hung her head and sobbed. Shudders coursed through her body as the fear of the morning shed itself from her body and mind.

Beth was on the verge of tears as well but she didn't break down. She wiped the wet from her eyes as she crossed the narrow distance to her mother. She hugged the woman who was quietly sobbing into her hand. "It's OK Mother. We're safe." She hugged her tighter to fight off the tears she could feel bubbling to the surface. "Please Mother, it's OK."

"No. Look what I did. I never learn. This time I put you in danger." She held the child so tight that it hurt Beth just a bit. Michelle shook her head and said again. "No, this was not alright. None of it was."

After a time, Michelle dried her tears and said. "We have to make sure Kit is OK. He helped us now I have to make sure he's not going to jail."

Michelle looked at the sweet frightened face of the girl in front of her. She was reminded so strongly of her own flight from a dirty old man she had tried to employ to get her out of her own SKIN and very nearly wound up in physical danger herself. Now, she had done it again, this time with her child in tow. It was a clear message. It's done leave her as she is! But Michelle couldn't just leave her as she was; this was her son, HER son. She was not going to lose him to this fucking thing. Michelle would not allow that to happen to her family.

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Gary returned home, choosing to park his HOV in the garage in the basement of the building they all lived. There were now over 60 families living in what had become known as The Shipley Building. The structure itself was ten stories tall, of which Gary and his family owned and occupied the second and third stories of the building. Theirs was the only residence with street access via a front door. All of the other residents had Garage access to their flats or a set of common elevators from the side of the building that led to the apartments above.

Each floor above the Shipley's set residence had 10 large apartment style dwellings, each with a spacious living room, two to three bedrooms, kitchen, two and half baths and a bonus room. Each resident purchased his or her apartment and owned it outright. On the roof there was a pool, tennis court, playground and handball court. There was also a tube that led down into the basement from the roof for the resident's HOVs to gain access to the basement though.

The Shipley's owned the building, even though the residents owned their apartments. An individual or family could not sell their flat to another individual or family without the approval of the Home Owners Association. If a resident had to move the Shipley's were given first option on repurchasing the apartment at standard market value from the resident. Gary was very fair about situations such as these and most residents that did move and sold to Gary usually made a substantial profit on their investment. That went a long way to explaining why there was a ten-year waiting list to get into The Shipley Building.

Gary entered his home from the basement entrance and arrived in the living room via the family's private elevator, tossed his HOV license hard card and coat on the table next to the doors and slumped in a recliner that was not six paces from the elevator. He rubbed his eyes. Behind them a headache was beginning to build from the events of the morning's unfortunate meeting with Terrence Michales. The feeling in his head reminded Gary of the way he had seen thunderstorms build on the Kansas plains on WeatherWatch VID broadcasts, boiling black clouds of stormy of power, violent with electricity and wind blown hail and rain. His head ached so in fact that he felt sick with the strength of it. He covered his eyes with his hands and he sat very still waiting for the wave of nausea to leave him. As it subsided he parted his fingers and opened his eyes to test the effects of sunlight on his current state of mental health. He peered out from between his fingers and scanned the room. The nausea did not return. The front was passing and hopefully the tornado warning in his stomach had been only that, a warning.

From between his fingers, on the VID he could see the green message light flashing in the upper right corner of the screen. He sighed a resigned sigh and shuffled his feet. He did not want to get the messages, but could not resist the need as he became aware that the house was empty. No sounds of Michelle or the girl that was now their guest as his and Michelle niece. Under the assumption they had gone shopping once again, Gary got up wincing slightly at the pain behind his eyes, to retrieve the message or messages stored there.

The first one, predictably, was from Kit. His sharp and swarthy beach-bum good looks stood out in sharp contrast against his kitchen uniform as the recorded message started to play.

"Yo! I wanted Gary to know that I got his message and I'm on my way, anything for the chief. Of course," Kit continued sarcastically, "my own store is leaderless today, never mind how that cuts into my staffing and scheduling, not to mention my profit margins for the entire year. I'm a slave to my generosity. Do I ever ask for anything? Do I ever make people feel guilty when I need help?" Kit shrugged on the screen. "That's just the way I am I guess. Seriously Gary, I'm on my way to your store. Everything is taken care of. Rest easy and take care partner, you know where to reach me, bye."

The VID went black as the last of the electronic trail spooled off the counter at the bottom of the screen and the next message started. It was Nathan Crock.

Nathan was lead guitar and back up vocals for Tidewater. He was also the self appointed spokesperson for the band since it's original leader vanished. Nathan had, and Gary had thought at first rightfully so, taken the forward position in the bad during those days when all of Pennsylvania and eventually the nation had turned its eyes to Rouston to see if Mike Vello would be found dead or alive. Who could have known that he was never going to be found at all?

In those days, Nathan had moved himself forward and taken the reigns of the band. As time wore on, the band faltered and died. The source of all its true talent was gone and the players could not sustain the creative edge that Mike had brought to the band. Collectively, the band was a merely a group of musicians waiting for direction.

That direction came one afternoon at the end what was to be the last day of auditions and a permanent close of business for the band Tidewater. The auditions had gone poorly for months. The band had been given months only due to Nathan's slick maneuvering and manipulations of the label that wanted to cash in on he media hype of Mike Vello, mystery man. It was Nathan that built the original catalog of songs from old demo tapes and trickled only the best of those, four songs starting with On A Mountain Top to the record company. As they were released over the next twelve months, their popularity grew spurned by media attention On A Mountain Top went gold in three weeks nationwide.

The slow drip of songs from Nathan gave the band what he hoped would be enough time to find a singer close to the talent and caliber of Mike, but with humble and subservient side to him that Nathan would be able to manipulate him and maintain his current status and ring leader.

On that last day of auditions, in walked Michelle and after all the others had been dismissed, she had stepped forward to the stage and asked for a chance to audition. Gary had not known she was going to audition. The band had been packing with the idea that they had run out of time. They had been given to find someone to replace Mike, but they could find no one that Nathan would agree to hire. Michelle had a rich, strong voice. It was sensual and soothing and Michelle knew how to control it, how to ration it out and maintain notes. It was as if she had been doing this sort of thing all her life. She did an old Natalie Imbruglia song call Torn for them and she was hired on the spot.

Nathan was pleased. Michelle did not seem to want to be too well known. She did not want the spotlight, and she did not want leadership of the band, for a lead singer that was a hard thing to accomplish. She only wanted to sing. To the others in the band, it almost seemed as if she were experimenting with something she was not quite sure she could still do. She was awkward at first, like a woman waking from a coma and trying to walk for the first time on unused legs. She was shaky at first but once she realized she still commanded the use of her vocal cords she was a powerhouse.

Michelle hid the practice sessions from Gary well, and on Christmas night, on the way back from a celebration at The Red Fish, where Gary had proposed to her, she pleaded to go the College Knights club, a place Tidewater had indirectly made famous. He knew the band was launching its new incarnation that night. The identity replacement singer had been kept a well-hidden secret from everyone. Taken somewhat off guard and surprised by the seemingly urgent request, Gary had given in and agreed to see what the fuss was about. He had supposed that it might not be good for Michelle to see life going on yet again without her. In Gary's eyes, it had been made worse for her by the very fact that she had gotten exactly what she had wanted, Mike was famous and the band was on its way. Only now, she could not enjoy the prosperity she had brought to the band because of the body she had become trapped in. Once more, the thing Mike had worked so hard for the thing that Michelle now felt she had been robbed of was going to be flaunted in her face. This compounded by the fact that she was now pregnant with their first child, caused Gary to be hesitant about giving in to her plea. As they passed Front Street, however he could see the look in her big doe like eyes. He had not been able to find a way to say no to that look and he never would be able to. He had finally pulled over and escorted her inside.

Once inside Gary had been slapped on the back by old friends. The news was spread that he had popped the question to Michelle and congratulations were conveyed from everyone. Michelle was very comfortable in the crowd of old friends that didn't know she was in fact Mike Vello. She was pleased to be on Gary's arm. She was happy that Gary's friends were jealous of him. It made her insanely pleased that she looked good for him and that others envied him for that. One could see the glow of contentment and pride on her face.

Gary made his way to the bar where Marcus, the owner, was mixing drinks. Introductions were made to Marcus, who was the only other person that knew Michelle was singing that night outside of the members of the band. Marcus offered her a drink but Michelle refused. Gary later told Marcus that Michelle was pregnant and they were to be married after the first of the year. In that time, Michelle had excused herself. Dressed in a short black dress, pearls and black heels she had gone around back and when the house lights when down, she mounted the stage and surprised everyone as the bands new singer.

Most of all, Gary had been knocked out. Gary was reminded of a line from the John Stinebeck novel, Cannery Row, "the world was once again spinning in greased grooves." Yes, Gary had thought, I understand exactly how he must have felt when he wrote that line. That's exactly how it feels.

It had been a good night all in all, for everyone, Nathan was no exception, and he had what he had wanted most in life. The band was together, it was successful and more importantly it was his. He had never cared for the way Mikes talent had given him carte blanch rule over the band. If anything Nathan felt, if he could not be in charge of the band's direction, then it should be a democracy. Now, thanks to Mike, the band was famous. Mike had been so very good as to have dropped out of sight before those events and now, with the help of this girl, tidewater was off and running again.

Then a series of events happened that rocked Nathan's idea that the band Tidewater had been Mike's legacy to Nathan and Nathan alone.

With in a month, they were recording Tidewater's first album, all original tunes that amazingly were mostly written my Michelle and Taylor Morgan the bands base player. Nathan it seems could not set his own name to music if the barrel of an old style projectile firing pistol had been held to his head. Nathan could play what was written, he could improvise... beyond that, he was pretty much a useless turd.

Cuts were released as they were completed prior to an album release. Michelle, who was not yet showing had not told her band mates or the studio that she was pregnant. Unknown to her, the success of the singles set in motion the wheels of profit driven delirium in the executives at Caribbean Shores and they began to plan a limited tour of fifteen cities in the UFS.

Then it came time when the studio head came down to break the good news in person during a remix of On A Mountain Top, this time with Michelle singing the lead. Michelle dropped a bomb on the group announcing that she would not tour. Nathan went ballistic. He fired her on the spot, without so much as even finding out why she had refused.

Most of the others sat in stunned disbelief at what Nathan was trying to do. They later confessed that they all wondered if Nathan realized that Michelle did not need Tidewater so much as Tidewater needed Michelle. In the middle of Nathan's explosive demonstration of power Michelle very quietly and unseen by the other left. She went to the lounge and collected her things.

Carl Hagan, Director of Caribbean Shores calmed Nathan down and then raced after Michelle which caused Nathan to spit and curse and fume at Hagan after he had left. Hagan caught up with her in the ladies lounge.

"Where are you going?" Carl had asked.

"I've been fired, didn't you hear him?" She said quietly. She had been hurt and it showed. "Should you be in here?"

"It's my building, I go where I like." Carl said forcefully.

"Ah, the alpha male through and through. OK then, it's your building, I'll leave." Michelle gathered her back and began to stride past Carl.

"So I'll asked you again, where do you think you're going?" He stood before her, his fists on his hips doing his poor Superman impression.

Michelle sighed and dropped her bag. "You might not understand this, but I thought that I added value to this band, and Carl, in a very real sense, I feel like I found a place where I belonged. But if Nathan can run rough shod over the band like that, then maybe it's best they find someone who enjoys being treated that way."

"Michelle," Carl said picking up her bag and putting back near her locker. "ever since Mike passed away..."

"No one knows if he's really dead." Michelle corrected.

"OK, fair enough. Ever since it was discovered that Mike was missing, Nathan as felt he was the next in line to wear the crown. Mike was pretty strict and controlling, that's all Nathan knows."

Oh you are not going to blame me for that asshole's attitude? You didn't even know me then you pompous bastard!

Michelle was careful to not reveal her true thoughts. "And that makes it right? No, I'm not touring so the band is best without me. It would have been nice however if they had let me go with a bit of dignity, that's all."

"I'm not ready to give up on you touring, so you're still in the band." Carl insisted.

"Carl, you don't under..." Michelle began but Carl cut her off.

"If I forward the idea to the band that it should be put to a vote who do you think would win?" Carl continued.

Michelle sighed again and blurted out. "I'm pregnant."

"That's nice dear. I'll tell you who would win, you would my dea..." the animation of his speech drained from his face. He had a wounded look that made Michelle sick. How could something that made her so damned happy be such a disaster for everyone outside her family? "Did you say you were pregnant?"

A tear slipped from her eye. She was upset now. Michelle had wanted people to be happy for her. It was a confusing time for her. She had fallen in love with Gary all over again. She had given up all attempts to become Mike and had accepted that she was going to spend the rest of her life as the girl she woke to see staring back at her in the mirror each morning. The pieces of her life were beginning to make sense to her until about ten minutes ago when she was so abruptly dismissed from a place she felt she had made a worthy contribution. She wanted both worlds but not at the expense of the family that she now desired.

"Why are you crying Michelle? I think that's wonderful." Carl announced.

Michelle sniffled and smiled through tears that had streaked her eyes red. "You do?" she asked meekly? "I thought everyone would be mad at me." She pulled her sleeve across her eyes and sniffled again. "Then Nathan reacted the way he did." She gestured in the direction of the mixing booth. "I'm ready to leave. This baby means more to me than the success of my singing career."

Carl came to Michelle and hugged her. "It doesn't have to be one or the other." She squeezed him hard at those words. He understood. He really understood. "You know I didn't even start this business until after my boys were grown. Family is a very important thing. I glad you feel the same way."

"Thank you Carl, thanks for understanding. But I'm afraid the guys won't be as sympathetic as you are."

But they had been, all but Nathan that is. It was put to a vote and Nathan was essentially stripped of his decision-making powers. Leadership of the band nearly focused back again on Michelle where it had rested when she had been Mike but she refused that role. It was agreed upon that she would reconsider touring after a three albums and after her child was born and in school.

In the time that followed, the band was a studio band. Erin was born, Michelle became pregnant with William and Gary's parents died. The band recorded Southern Comfort, their second album with animated cartoon images of the band members on the cover. This album contained four new songs, the four original hits recorded by Mike and four covers of older songs.

The first album had been good. So good in fact that it scared Michelle. She had not been prepared to be forced into the limelight the way she was. There had been award nominations on the first album. Although the band didn't win that first go around, it had scared Michelle into thinking that she should indeed think about resigning from the band before she was discovered to be stuck in a SKIN.

If success was scary for Michelle the second albums move up the charts was down right terrifying. Southern Comfort won the Best Artist Award by Billboard and Album Of The Year during The New Grammy's but when Michelle refused to show up for the presentations, many fans gave up. The demand to see the bands shining star actually perform was growing. It's what the fans wanted and nationally, many were beginning to believe Michelle was a synthetic voice. A singer created for an electronic band designed to do one thing, make a fast buck for a recording company. Only those who had seen the band play locally knew she was the real thing. Michelle however remained aloof.

The rumors of Michelle being a synthetic voice didn't seem to hurt sales of the latest album however. In the weeks following the Grammy's Southern Comfort went double platinum. It was the best selling album Caribbean had ever had.

The bands singles continued to sell and as long as that happened Carl Hagan was a happy man even if the press and the award mongers weren't. He remained a happy man until his death shortly after William turned five. Even Nathan was happy.

Michelle however was not happy. The pressures from the press, the public, and the band and since Carl's death, the label, were opening her to a very public life. That meant requests for interviews, photo shoots, product endorsements and an ever-shrinking base of plausible excuses on why she could not do any of these things. These were the consequences of fame. Things she had always known of, had even desired in another life, but now they were dangerous to her. All that it would take would be for one reporter to start digging and find out that she had no identity beyond a few years ago an the house of cards they had built might very well come crashing down around them. It was with great trepidation that she returned to the studio to begin work on a third album.

This album named Somebody Save Me went triple platinum in four weeks. It featured a collection of songs entirely written by Michelle who had become the bands one stop-shopping source for original music. It was clear who was driving the band and their reliance on her made Michelle more than just a little nervous. When it became too much for her, Michelle suddenly and mysteriously stopped recording and withdrew from public view.

When the news got out that she was no longer in the studio the offers from other labels came pouring in. It was assumed that she had left to focus her energies on a solo career. The extra attention made her doubly nervous. Agents, news reports, label reps all started coming around the restaurant soliciting services, interviews or contracts. She stopped showing up at The Red Fish to perform her hostess duties. It was a task she loved dearly. It was something she had never stopped doing even in the midst of the bands success. She continued on there because it was a job she dearly loved and it kept her close to Gary but also it offered her an opportunity to work closely with the customers. For her, it was a safe harbor a sanctuary, and now her refuge was being taken from her.

The label cut one more album under the Tidewater name in an attempt to keep the band's name in the public eye. A greatest hits compilation that went out under Michelle's vehement objections. That was four and a half years ago and the stir that the albums appearance had caused had just about died down, so too had the sales.

Nathan was right on time. The money must be drying up right about now.

"Hi Michelle, I guess you know why I'm calling. We're putting together some of the pieces you recorded earlier this year for an album and... OK look, the guys here need to make some money so we've decided to take the three or four things you did back in January and let Mark record some vocals and blend them together in an album. If you want to be a part of this, great! Come on down; but honestly Michelle, Mark's right four albums in twenty years, come on! It's great you and Gary are well off, but the guys need something and Mark... well, we'll lose him to someone who WILL record if we don't do something. Any way that's it. Call me."

"Bastard." Gary spat.

Mark was a newbie, Gary suspected he had been brought in to test the waters of taking the band back to the place where Mike had left it, in the hands of a male singer. Mark Allen was a good ole boy, cowboy hat wearing southern redneck if there ever was one. Gary had met him a few months ago when Michelle had gone back into the studio for a few days to try her hand at recording one or two songs she felt she liked, covers of older tunes.

She was a bit dismayed to find a stranger there, but after hearing him play on the song that she wanted to cover she felt it was a piece of the band that somehow no one had put in place. Mark played the rhythm and lead acoustic guitar, he played bass and violin (Mark called it a fiddle) and he sang. His voice was strong and masculine. His appearance was just as masculine but his dress was a bit out of place this far north. His accent was thick and decidedly southern. Michelle couldn't remember ever meeting someone that claimed to be a cowboy before, but Mark fit the bill. The day she met him he wore white denim jeans torn in several places across the legs and one small hole in the crotch. He had a blue Arties Deli T-shirt on and on his head a white Stetson western hat. On his feet was a pair of Western style boots that appeared to be made of snakeskin. He was almost laughable in his appearance but Michelle soon found that he was the genuine article.

The laughs stopped when he played. The first two takes had been so rich that she decided to keep what was on the tapes. He had offered backup vocals and she discovered that his range was almost as wide as her own. For the fun of it she decided to show him up and do a couple of numbers from a band called Heart. His vocals were flawless; he matched her tone for tone on back up vocals and played her evenly on acoustic.

The guys were excited to be back in the studio and felt that maybe this time they could make a go of it. It had been Michelle, after all, that had called them all back. The sessions had taken on a somber tone with the introduction of Allen however. His slow, deliberate speech was an excellent mask for musical abilities that rivaled Michelle's and Michelle soon became aware that he was not meant as a complement to her talents but as a potential replacement.

Michelle finished the mixing on two of the four and then lost the heart for it. If she were to be replaced after all she had brought the band, then so be it. She had after all quit. Was it not their right to go on? "Still," she confided in Gary when he had come to get her on that last day, "It hurts. I know I have no room to complain, but Gary, it hurts."

He had not said a word to her, only listened and held her. Sometime it's best if one just listens. Gary felt that had been one of those times. Before long she was recovering from her heartache and looking at the positive aspect of being left alone and not having to worry about being discovered. The fame her singing career had heaped on her was a constant source of worry for her. Now that it seemed to be over she was happier again.

And now that bastard was crawling back trying to lure her back into that black pit of worry and pain that was the band. He was tempted to delete the message, but then took a deep breath and pressed the save key on the screen. It was Michelle's call, it was her band she had to make the decision.

Wisely, Michelle refused to let the band to sell their catalog of songs to wholesale buyers that offer the rights to popular songs to commercial advertisers. This kept the most of the members of the band not only solvent, but also quite wealthy. All except Nathan, who had a habit of living beyond his means.

She had been given other opportunities to record, and she had been tempted. Gary never tried to dissuade. Quite the opposite in fact, he would tell her when he could see she was fretting over what to do, "Michelle, this is what you were born to do."

"I wasn't born Gary." She would say glumly in the depths of indecision. "I was engineered, remember?"

He would enfold her in his arms, "You were born. You've been luckier than most. You've made a success of two lives." Then he would kiss her. "And you've made a success of a life that you aren't living." He would kiss her again. "And, you're going to make a success of Erin's and now little Billy's life."

"William." She corrected.

"Oh, ah... right, William." Gary also corrected.

"Thank you."

"For?" he inquired.

"For loving me so hard like you do."

"Even if I could help myself I would still love you this hard."

"I should do this then. You think I should record another album?"

"I didn't say that. What I said was that I want you to do that which YOU feel you were born to do."

"Oh... well then, I'm doing that right now." And she kissed him passionately

After she finished Gary smiled and said. "Then don't let me interrupt you."

In the end however, she always decided not to accept any more offers to record. This was further influenced by the fact that Erin was now intensely jealous that her mother seemed to be able to command a recording contract at will. It was a glorious magic trick Erin couldn't seem to pull off.

He fondly recalled a memory of the song that had drawn her back to the studio to record Southern Comfort. She had heard a song she had wanted to cover very badly it had been an older song called "I'd Have Loved You Anyway" Gary could still remember the first time she had heard it. It was almost as if the music had possessed her. She had been drinking a Tennents standing in the living room swaying to the way the song had started with hard plucking of a guitar. It had been a hot day in July, the windows were open and Michelle stood there, bathed in sweat. Gary watched from silently from the space between their open kitchen and the living room where she stood. There, Michelle was little more than a silhouette. Gary could make out the color of her pink short shorts and the white men's button down shirt she wore halter style, tied below her breasts, open above the knot. She had run the cold green bottle of beer over her forehead down her neck and between her cleavage; the condensation dripping off the emerald green bottle and on to her over heated skin. Her legs had glistened in the sun that spilled through the windows and a light breeze carried the fragrance of her skin to his nostrils.

Gary walked over to her and took her in his arms and they had danced to the music. She allowed her self to be held though, he could tell, she was a thousand miles away, listening to the music. Half way through the song her eye's popped open and cried, "She's singing about me. Are you listening to this Gary?"

Gary shook his head gently, he had not been listening, he had been watching his wife sway to the music. She waited until the end of the song and replayed it, singing to it this time.

"If I'd have known the way that this would end,"

"If I'd have read the last page first."

"If I'd had the strength to walk away,"

"If I'd have known how this would hurt."

"I would have loved you anyway,"

"I do all the same."

"Not a second I would change,"

"Not a touch I would trade"

"Had I known my heart would break,"

"I'd have loved you anyway."

He had to admit, it was a beautiful old song. He was a bit disturbed that she would equate her heart breaking with loving him though. She must have seen the look on his face because she said, "My heart sings now, don't be so insecure." She pecked at his lips the afternoon had ended in bed.

The next message began playing as Nathan message went back into the to storage Que. As Kits voice peeled out of the speakers, his face pale and drawn on the screen, Gary's blood froze and the floor dropped out of his world. He felt as if he were free falling.

"Gary? SHIT! If you're home answer the fucking VID NOW! Come on, come on. OK... Look Michelle called me. Don't get rattled and go do something stupid. She's got some trouble across the park from you. I'm on my way to help get her out of it; and Gary, I will get her out of it. When you get this message stay there. Michelle said specifically she didn't want you seen in this mess. I'll call back as soon as I can.

Gary ran to the window and saw the two HOV's that had tried to mate on the corer of Trimbolt Ave. One of them he could see was Kit's. His breath caught in his throat, he could not move from his spot at the window and outside life seemed to crawl. He could see the black HOV on the other side of the small community park that sat in the center of their neighborhood. He could feel himself slipping away from rational thought. He felt he understood the black HOV's and what they represented. Those were Agency vehicles. Some one had reported Jay as having contraband. If that's where Kit went that could only mean that Michelle was there. She had become entangled in an Agency matter.

"Oh Shit." He whispered. Fear, dark and oozing like a black water swamp filled him from his heart to his brain.

There were voices. He was in such a fear-induced stupor; he thought they were coming out of his own thoughts. The voice seemed dim and muffled, "It's OK Mother. We're safe." It was faint and he fancied that in his imagination he could hear William in his now soft feminine voice comforting her mother. He knew what Michelle would have said in return she would blame herself, no matter was the cause she would still...

""No. Look what I did. I never learn. This time I put you in danger."" Gary nodded his head yes just like that. It was so like her. How could Kit say to stay put? There was no question, if Michelle was in trouble...

He could hear weeping from someplace and to Gary's mind that didn't seem like a picture he would paint. The words yes, the background noises... no. He spun in the direction of the sound. It sounded as if it were coming from the foyer down stairs. Gary rushed to the top of the stairs and there, her back to the wall, was Michelle.

"MICHELLE!" He shouted. He felt he was going to faint and tumble down the length and height of the stair well. She looked up at him and she crumbled.

"Gary. Oh GOD. I screwed up." She started to slide down the wall slowly, her legs could no longer support her. She clutched Beth who stood next to her but she reached out to Gary with her left hand desperately. "I'm sorry. I thought... I had a key... I had forgotten all about it."

Gary took the staircase in three leaping bounds and gathered up his family in his arms. He held them close and tight; it was a scene of a man who had lost his family, only to be granted a reversal in time to make right, that which had gone so horribly wrong.

Michelle was trembling so hard she it felt to Gary that pieces of her might start falling off any minute. When the tremors subsided some, he looked at her and Beth and said. "Up stairs. Lets go up stairs and talk about this."

Beth looked back at father with a calm look. To Gary her eyes had a strange quality, there looked to be a sense of resignation in her face. He was not crying or upset and yet Michelle was clearly shaken. To Gary, Beth looked to be on the edge of going insane.

"Come... up stairs." He helped support Michelle up the stairs and offered to help Beth but she withdrew assuring Gary she was fine and could climb the stair on her own saying, "I'm a big girl Daddy!" with a distinct sarcastic tone.

In the living room, Gary listened to Michelle tell her story of how the morning had started off badly for Beth. She played it down for Gary but Beth, who was becoming more and more bitterly depressed, made sure Gary had all the details of how she was going to cut the SKIN off of her until her mother had disarmed her.

Gary tried to offer comfort to the girl but she was having none of it. "I said I was fine didn't I?" she snapped at Gary.

Cautiously, Michelle proceeded, keeping her eye on Beth. This new turn of events had done much to calm Michelle by giving her something more important to focus on. She told Gary that in a moment of accidental inspiration she had remembered she had a key to Becky's home and where she had gotten it. Gary was astounded. He remembered the dog care favors they used to exchange and lamented not remembering the passkey himself.

As Michelle told what happened next, it became chillingly clear that it had been his report to the man he had assaulted a block away from the preservatives factory that had sent up the alarms. The events of the morning began to take shape. The ragged man trying to get in and being hauled inside instead of being turned away. No HOV's in the lot out front. All of it was now spooky and foreboding, how in the hell could he not have seen it. Hell, the events of the last twenty years came into focus. When you thought about it where else would all those cases of SKIN's come from in this dinky little town back when they had been young?

The place where Jay had worked was more than what it seemed. Convenience is the greatest temptation for committing a crime. The SKIN's had been convenient for Jay to take because they were right there. Michelle's description of the cash chips everywhere was too convincing. This SKIN that William was in was not the only one Jay had gotten hold of. Somehow, something Gary told that man... Michales had been his name, something of their discussion or something Michales had found later had alerted him to a bigger problem. Otherwise it would have been the police that had come looking for Jay and not The Agency.

Gary got paler and paler until Michelle finally noticed. After the incident in the park where Gary had passed out on the grass in front of the Fenton's only night after last she was understandably alarmed. Gary was able to assure her that he was fine and told her why he was so worried. He then told her of his morning and his theory about the facility where Jay worked.

It was Michelle's turn to become pale. At the end of his explanation she simply sat there with a blank look on her face; trying to soak it all in. After a long span of silence, Gary asked. "Talk to me. Tell me something."

Michelle turned and slapped him on an arm he quickly brought up in a defensive position to ward of the blow. "That was stupid Gary!" She swatted at him again connecting with the arm again.

"God! Do you know how close we came to getting caught over there?"

"I do now. If I had had any idea that place might be a government facility I wouldn't have gone near it. You can't think I'd risk you and Wil... Beth," he shook his head at his mistake, across the room the blonde girl seated in the seat facing them snorted her disgust. "Sorry. But really Michelle, I know what I did was dumb."

Michelle was angrier with herself than at Gary. Her own misadventure as Gary's had been was a self-directed act of desperation. Now they had an element that had never been involved before to contend with, The Agency.

"No more dumb than what I did Gary." There seemed to be nothing else to say.

"How are you doing?" Gary asked Beth.

Beth exploded; both parents felt they could understand why. "I just freaking great! Who the hell were those guys? Are these the guys you're afraid of?"

"Yes, those are the ones." Gary said.

"Then they know about me?" Beth said, now she was trembling.

"No." He said confidently.

"How do you know?" She asked challenging him.

"Because they're not over here." He said.

"Well, that's good news isn't it?" The girl said sullenly. Gary was at a complete loss, when he looked at Michelle however it appeared to him by the look on her face that she understood the tantrum perfectly. Gary had been ready to read her the riot act again, only Michelle's tender, loving looks at his daughter stopped him.

Instead of reacting he decided to probe just a little. "You're upset and it's not about almost getting caught. Would you like to share?"

"You know what? No! I don't want to share. What was that little exercise good for? We were almost caught breaking and entering by a couple of badly dressed clones only to loose what you guys have drilled into my head is the only way out of this mess. They must have that fucking box you two keep harping about and if they don't they will. So what do I want to share? I share this happy thought. What now?"

She turned and ran. She had lost control of her emotions now too. Gary could see streaks of water coursing down the girl's cheeks when she passed by him in a flash. He reached to stop her but Michelle's had was there and gently pulled his arm back into place.

"Let her go." She said quietly.


"Gary, Let her go. We can't watch her all the time anyway, we have to give her some trust right now."

"She should have someone with her just the same." He said.

"Sometimes you have to be alone with your thoughts Gary. I think this is one of those times."

Michelle turned to Gary as he sat down. "Do you think they'll come here?" she asked.

"I don't know Michelle. I wish I did, but I don't. If they do, I'll do my best to bullshit them until you and... Beth get out of here." Gary shook is head. "I'm just not getting a 'warm and fuzzy' off of this Michelle."

"I'm listening Gary." Michelle said. To Gary it sounded like a question she was more than just a little reluctant to ask.

"Michelle," he paced his words, measuring them trying to be careful. "I wonder if things here haven't gotten too much out of hand already."

Michelle didn't say anything; she looked on as her husband spoke, unblinking. Gary waited for her to say something. When she didn't, when she just stared at him like some frightened, synthetic rabbit in a pet store window he wanted to prompt her; instead, he continued.

"Maybe we should consider leaving this place like Jay did." Gary waited again, still nothing; only a motionless stare. He got up from his place next to her but she kept staring at the place where he had just been sitting. To Gary, it felt like he was having an Out-Of-Body-Experience. He just knew that if he looked around a little more he was still be sitting there talking to her.

He took his own dare and much to his relief, he was not on the couch next to his wife. He was in the middle of the floor standing in front of the large VID.

He tried it again. "Michelle I..."

"No Gary." It was a short and curt statement.

"I'm sorry?"

"You heard me. We are not leaving. Not until we've fixed this thing." She was up and walking toward him. "Maybe then if we have to. Maybe if they know and can prove something we'll leave."


"I said no Gary." It was her sweetest, most persuasive voice. But Gary understood that she was determined. She would rather have him on her side voluntarily but if that wasn't possible then he knew that she was going to start getting more and more defiant. "They don't get William. Not him. I want my son back Gary. He deserves that."

"And what if they know and they're just waiting for all of us together."

"They don't know. That's not how they operate." She said, acting the experienced specialist in the subject.

"Neither one of us know how they operate. Just because we got into some trouble a way's back doesn't make us subject matter experts Michelle. Not even you have dealt with this before today. Hell, I'm convinced I'm the one that called down the thunder off the mountain! I'm if you're including me in this expertise attitude of yours; then let me do us all a favor and simply withdraw my name from that list right now before someone gets hurt."

"You don't know that you caused what happened this morning Gary, now do you?"

"No, I don't." Gary said agreeing. "I would feel better if I knew for sure though. At least I would feel I had a somewhat better grip on what they know." He shook his head. "I'm scared Michelle. I don't want to lose you or the kids."

Michelle opened her mouth and got an angry and insistent look on her face that told Gary she was on the verge of raising her voice, when she looked back toward the stairs where Beth had just charged off to, her features softened and when she spoke, it was in an even and level tone.

"Gary, we can't leave William behind."

"We won't be doing that Michelle. William will be with us. You know that as much as I do." He walked to her to comfort her but she walked away from him her arms crossed.

"If you're trying to say that I'm the same person I was when I moved out of my parents house, when I formed the band... Before Erin died; then you're wrong. I have some guy's memories in my head that's all. I could no more act or speak or feel the way I did when I was Mike than I could breath on Jupiter. I'm not Mike Gary. Mike couldn't have had the children I've had. I'm very different and so is Beth and any impact that William would have made on the world is gone right now, to me, that exactly the same as being dead."

There was nothing he could do to argue that point. She was living a life he couldn't even imagine himself living nor had he ever tried. "Then we need ideas Michelle and I don't know about you but this well is dry." He said speaking of himself.

The two stared at each other, dry wells both. With the Fenton home confiscated from their reach the patch code transmitter might as well have been buried in the Russian tundra. They were at the end of the road.

Gary stayed with Michelle most of the day to try to come up with answers to this problem. They had all but promised William they would restore him, never believing, no matter how desperate Jason's act of trying to execute their son had been, that they would not find the transmitter in his home.

Now there would be no box. Zero box... Nada... Nothing... Both their minds revolved around that one simple fact. No box, no escape. The more they circled around the issue the more frustrated they became. Michelle especially, set on the idea that she would not give up she was stymied from going forward.

Michelle sat, elbows on the dining room table, head bent looking down her fingers buried to their hilts in her hair. To her it was as if all the leads they had found had been deliberately turned off as soon as they had been discovered by someone or something that didn't want them taking that path. Maybe Gary was right. Maybe all her spiritualism was just a bunch of hooey.

Beth came in twice. Once to rummage in the food-refrigeration unit for seemingly nothing and the second, an hour later to make a peanut-butter and mayonnaise sandwich that she abandon on a plate on the counter without so much as a forethought. Each time Michelle and Gary would watch her soundlessly as she moved about the open kitchen. She moved as if they weren't there, never acknowledging them, not once speaking or looking at them. Each time she left in straight-line determination, looking neither left or right, for the stairs that led to her room on the next floor of the Shipley home.

Now the sandwich sat in its place where it had been left on the counter. Gary stood over it looking down at it as if it just might leap up off the plate and run away. He had circles under his eyes and his face was strained under the idea that now, this entire thing had run completely away from their control so quickly. The idea struck him that maybe it hadn't. More time had passed safely now than before. The shit hit the fan much earlier before, only because Mike had been noticed missing. That hadn't even happened with William yet. What would happen then? It became clear to Gary they had to leave. Beth was stuck with her lot in life. Gary wanted to cry for his son and would later, now he had his family to think about and protect. He looked at his wife anguishing over a way to fix something she could not fix. Still she lamented it as she had when it had happened to her.

Sometime near five, Erin and Shelly wandered in from someplace. Shelly sported a red, white and blue flag shopping bag with flags and books and other goodies poking out of the top. Gary tried to perk up when they came in but Erin could tell there was something seriously wrong.

"Mommy!" Squealed Shelly, "See what Erin bought for me." She raced over to the table where Michelle had been sitting all day and dumped the contents on the table. There were reproductions of Old Glory and the original Federal Pride after the reformation of the States after the capital was moved to St Louis. Books on the history of the last US wars. One called Heroes and Patriots depicted Marcus Sharp, leader of the UFS resistance in his black beret whipping up thousands of expatriated US citizens during the first Canadian infiltration. The place where Erin had taken her today was all to clear these items had been purchased in Philadelphia.

Michelle had tried to be upbeat as she looked through the material that Shelly showed her, but as Erin looked on she could tell they were no closer to freeing her brother from the female body he was locked in than they had been the night it had happened.

"Dad?" Erin whispered. But Gary just shook his head. It was clear he didn't want to talk about it for whatever reason. Erin dropped the subject, then after seeing the forced smiles on her mother's face as Shelly went through the treasures she had, it was clear that her mother wanted to be attentive but her mind was elsewhere and for good reason it appeared.

Michelle looked up; her face seemed just as strained as his felt. She looked at him with a blank look. Behind her the sun was going down. She kissed her daughter's head as Erin came collected the souvenirs and scooped them into the bag they had spilled from. "Come on squirt. Bath time." Erin said. Michelle looked up at Erin and smiled Gratefully from the seat where she had been all that day. Erin ran her fingers through her mother's fine auburn hair and asked. "You going to be OK?" Michelle smiled again but said nothing.

The look in his wife's eyes was a clear reminder that Michelle was internalizing what William was going through, she was feeling the same trapped sensation she had gone through during her own attempts to escape a damaged SKIN. William was facing the same fate. And as much as it ripped Gary apart, he could see it was destroying Michelle.

Erin scooted "the squirt" toward the stairs, past their father where Shelly squealed "Daddy!" and leapt into his arm. Gary caught her and lifted her to him. "I'm going to take a baff..." she said grinning and cuddled into her father's neck.

"Good..." he said with a huge smile. "You smell like a cheese steak."

"I not a geeze steak." She scolded with a serious look on her face.

Gary took a deep exaggerated smell that made the little girl giggle. "Oh yes... definitely cheese steak. Pat's I think; no wait, Geno's!" He tickled Shelly under her neck and she squealed with laughter allowing his mind to wander from the terrifying truths he had been considering only moments before to bask in the light of his daughter's laughter. It was a splendor and a joy that might be hard to come by in their very near future. Gary greedily took from the moment all the happiness he could glean from Shelly and carry away for himself.

Erin was standing by the stairs waiting when Gary set Shelly on the floor and gently nudged her towards her sister. Shelly shed her clothing along the way, a habit she had not yet grown out of since her earliest days. She reached the stairs and proclaimed she was prepared for her bath by announcing... "I nekid." with her hands thrown up in the air.

"You sure are squirt." Erin chuckled and went around behind her sister to pick up her clothes. The little girl charged up the stairs with Erin close behind. From some place up stairs she announced again "I nekid" and they could hear Beth giggling in spite of the developments of the day.

Gary went to Michelle who turned her face up to him. She was on the verge of tears. She had become so fragile in the years that had passed, conforming helplessly to the programming of her body. All the memories of Mike Vello in the world couldn't betray a hint of the person she was now. Her friendship to Gary was as strong as it had ever been, since they had been children. But she was a very different person thanks to the technology that had changed Mike from a young man of nineteen to a young lady of eighteen.

She looked haggard right now to him, beautiful but drawn out and tired. She wanted out of the maze. He could see it on her face. All she wanted was for this to have never happened and for her life to go back to what it had once been. He didn't have the heart to tell her they should pull up stakes and get out while they still could. It would have killed her he felt. Instead what he did was take her hands, lift her from the chair she sat in and pull her to him.

"Oh Gary." Was all she could manage, her voice soft and scared.

"Shush..." He stroked her hair and held her head to his chest feeling her breathe in and out in ever slowing and calming cycles. "It's all going to be OK." He felt the statement to be a lie, but what could he do, drive her crazy? If this was the end of them then he would give himself up and do is best to hide Michelle and the girls.

His throat closed at the mental sound of "the girls" his son was gone now. This was not some college prank or hazing, William had been stolen from them. If he wasn't very careful with his emotions, he was going to lose control and be of no use at all when everything hit the fan. There were few comforts for his wife now, at a time when she needed them most, she needed to relax. There was nothing else to do except plan for contingencies and escape. He didn't need to tell her of his ideas just yet. Not until there were plans, at these ideas if not full fledged blue prints. She would have her ideas after all, he wanted as much information as he could get to use from everyone. He was certainly no expert.

He kissed her forehead and said, "Go on up and take a nice warm shower... you'll feel much better if you have a chance to run some warm water over you."

She shook her head, "I don't want to Gary, I feel like I have to come up with some sort of plan here. A way to get William out this mess."

"Shush, There's not much to do now. Just go and try to relax. I'll prepare something for the kids to eat."

She closed her eyes, and gripped tightly to her husband's hands then lifted then to her face and kissed them tenderly. She sighed and then said, "Ok... a hot shower, maybe you're right. She stood, took his face in her hands and kissed his lips. "I love you, you kind sweet man."

Gary smiled but said nothing, everything he had to say he knew he was saying with his eyes. Michelle pulled away and made her way down the hall to the master bedroom. Gary watched her go and turned to the kitchen to prepare dinner when the VID started chime.

Skin Deep chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 epilogue
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