In This Issue

Khimairal's Style

False Identity
Barbara Davies

Hearing Things
T.J. Mindancer

Lori L. Lake

She Said, She Said
K. Simpson



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I was clearing out the spare room when I came across the box. The clatter from the kitchen downstairs told me Dierdre was still occupied with the washing up, so she need never know I'd pried. Besides, it was her own fault. If she'd tidied the room herself, instead of leaving it until the mess set my teeth on edge, I wouldn't have been going through her belongings in the first place.

I peeled off the see-through wrapping that had kept out the dust. The box was black plastic, about the size of a book, with no markings to indicate its contents. Must be a set of watercolors, I thought. Dierdre had taken up real painting a year ago but it had been only a passing fad--why bother with the mess when electronic painting is so much cleaner? But when I slid back the catch, no palette of colors, no cobalt blues or raw siennas, met my gaze. Inside was a pink plaskin pouch, two inches in diameter, and ten plaskin finger gloves. The slot that should have held the ID implant was empty.

I knew what it was instantly, of course--Nonesuch's Claims Dept keeps its employees informed--and the implications rocked me back on my heels.

My lover of two years wasn't who she said she was.

Dierdre was staring at the floor when I entered the kitchen, at the remnants of what had once been a dinner plate.

She looked at me, her expression odd. "Sorry, Anna. It slipped." Then she noticed the black box I was clutching and grabbed for it.

I stepped back, holding the fake ID kit out of reach. Any hope that it belonged to someone else had disappeared.

"You've no business going through my things!" Her face had gone pale.

"Who are you?"

"You know who I am." She wouldn't meet my eyes.

"Do I?" I held up the box. "The ID implant is missing." I dumped it on the table and grabbed her left hand. Was it my imagination, or was the scar between her thumb and forefinger more recent than it should be?

She pulled free. "Just leave it, Anna. Please."

"Is your name even Dierdre? Or is that the name of the woman whose identity you stole?"

For a long moment she stared at me. "I'm the person I always was, Anna," she said at last. "Does my name matter?"

"Matter?" Anger was making my voice tremble. "I thought there were no secrets between us, and all the time this . . ." I thumped the box with my fist, and it sprang open, revealing the pouch of frozen blood and the false fingerprints. I didn't like to think about the ghouls who had taken advantage of the real Dierdre's body while it lay on the slab. "Why do you need a new identity?"

She laughed rather bleakly. "Am I a criminal, you mean?" Her gaze became intent. "Would it matter to you if I was?"

I was still reeling from the fact she'd kept something this important from me, and for a moment, I didn't know what to say.

She tried to smile. "So. Love isn't blind after all."

"That's not fair!"

"Life isn't fair." She hunched her shoulders and turned away. "Guess you'll want me to clear out, then."

I stared at the plait hanging down her back in a kind of panic, at the navy sweater I'd bought her for her birthday. When I had stormed into the kitchen, I hadn't thought about the consequences. Dierdre was the first woman I'd felt able to contemplate a future with when it came down to it, did her past really matter?

My legs felt shaky. Maybe it was just adrenaline, or maybe it was because I was facing an abyss. I reached for a kitchen stool and sat down, searching for the right words. "If you're in trouble, perhaps I can help."

She turned to face me, her gaze shadowed. "I haven't done anything wrong. Well, not very, anyway."

"Tell me."

"I don't think I'm ready to, Anna. It's too . . ." She shrugged helplessly.

Surely, in the last few minutes, she'd realized nothing could change my feelings for her? "You're not really going to leave me, are you?" I braced myself for her reply.

"No." She sighed. "If anyone leaves, Anna, it will have to be you."

After a long and restless night--Dierdre had moved back into the spare room and even while sleeping I was aware of her absence--and a breakfast marred by stilted conversation, it was almost a relief to go to work. Leaving her instructing the computer to trawl the Web for new commissions, I caught the tram for the local Troubridge enclave.

It was the philanthropist Patrick Troubridge who first proposed something should be done about the terminally ill poor. What "civilized" society could refuse to give its dispossessed and dying basic healthcare, clean and decent housing, and simple manual jobs for as long as they were fit enough to do them? At first, it was mostly nvCJD cases that took up his offer; later, when that epidemic was over, those whose DNA excluded them from insurance and all that that entails moved into the ten sprawling enclaves. Troubridge's original vision was well intended. He'd have been shocked to see the reality of life among "the excluded"--the squalor and the hopelessness always depresses me for days.

I got off the tram at the stop nearest to Mrs. Laval's housing block and checked her details. I was to be the bringer of good news, for once. Ten years ago, she had managed to take out a small policy, and since her disease wasn't genetically indicated, Nonesuch couldn't legally refuse her claim. The lump sum wouldn't be enough to buy her out of the enclave but it would make her last months there more bearable. I shoved the wad of cash into my pocket--like most in the enclave, Mrs. Laval had no bank account--and jogged the remaining distance to her block.

The lift was out of order, so I started up the stairs. Her flat was on the top floor. I paused for a few moments to catch my breath, then knocked on the peeling door.

"Who is it?" came a woman's voice.

"Mrs. Clarice Laval? Anna Stephens from Nonesuch Assurance. May I come in?"

It took her several minutes to pull back all the bolts, then the door creaked open.

I knew she would be ill, but even so her appearance shocked me. She had the face and body of a seventy-year-old though according to her paperwork she had only just turned fifty. She beckoned me in and stood back. I entered and closed the door behind me.

"They've turned me down, haven't they?" Her eyes were dull. "I knew they would."

I touched her arm. "On the contrary, Mrs Laval. We've approved your claim. And I've brought the money with me." I pulled out the cash.

At first I thought she was going to have a heart attack, which would have been ironic given her state of health. But she rallied enough to take the money and thumbprint my receipt. By the time I left, her eyes were brighter.

Even so, I was glad to see the back of the enclave.

Even when your personal life is falling apart, life must go on. I had arranged to have dinner with my mother the following evening and couldn't cancel without ringing maternal alarm bells. She was exactly five minutes late, as always, and ordered grilled sole and a green salad without even glancing at the menu.

The waiter reached for the reader dangling from his belt and scanned the implant in her left hand. It chimed softly. After I'd chosen mushrooms stuffed with chicken and handed back the menu, he scanned my implant too.

"That seems to be in order," he said, as the reader chimed again and he stared at the financial information on the tiny display. Then he trotted off to give our order to the kitchen.

"So," said Mother, raising an elegant eyebrow. "How's Dierdre?"

"Fine." I didn't mention that she had dropped another of the dinner plates Mother had given us as a wedding present. Instead, I reached for my lager and took a gulp. Mother frowned and sipped her white wine spritzer.

"She's working on a design for a toy manufacturer at the moment," I added.

She ignored the information. "Dierdre never suggests we meet her people, Anna. Why is that?"

"They're pretty busy, Mum," I said, as always, though, come to think of it, I had no idea if Dierdre's parents were even still alive--the photographs I had seen might have belonged to the "real" Dierdre.

Since the discovery of the fake ID, things between us had gone from bad to worse. Only that morning, I had found her sprawled over her drafting pad, crying. She had a headache, she said. I knew it was more than that but she wouldn't be drawn on the subject. She had shut me out of her life, and I had no idea how to get back in.

I mentioned none of this, of course. There are some things you don't discuss with your parents.

"And how's work going? Are they keeping you busy?"

"I had to visit one of the enclaves yesterday--"

"Those places!" Her tone was sharp. "People like that are just a burden on the rest of us--"

At that moment, fortunately, the aproned waiter placed Mother's grilled sole in front of her, diverting the conversation. My mushrooms arrived soon after.

As we ate, I found myself thinking about my mother's gene-ism, and wondering, not for the first time, what would have happened if she had been forced to apply such strictures to herself. If she had been anti-gay, for example, would she have aborted me in the womb?

Since Dierdre and I were no longer confiding in one another, no longer even sharing the same bed, I became convinced, irrationally perhaps, that she was getting what she needed elsewhere. So I took time off work--I had some holiday due--and started tracking her every move.

It was easy enough to trace the one woman she visited who wasn't an existing acquaintance or on her client list--I'd asked the computer to give me a hardcopy. Her name was Elizabeth Paxton, and they met every Tuesday afternoon at a lace-curtained house in the suburbs.

I gave Dierdre every opportunity to tell me about her affair, but she didn't. Twice, I came close to confronting her, but in the end I chickened out. There was another avenue I could take though.

The next Tuesday, I waited until Dierdre left Elizabeth's house and headed off towards the tram stop, then I strode up to the front door and rang the bell. The middle-aged woman who answered was the one I had just seen hugging Dierdre on the doorstep.


"May I come in?"

She frowned and glanced at her watch. "It's not really convenient. I'm expecting someone . . . May I ask what you want?"

I took a deep breath. "My name is Anna Stephens."

Her gaze remained puzzled, and a tinge of annoyance crept in. "Look, if you're selling--"

"I live with Dierdre Jardine," I blurted. "I saw her leave here, just a moment ago.

Understanding dawned. "I see." If I'd expected her to break down and confess on the doorstep I was wrong. She remained composed and waited for me to continue.

"Are you and Dierdre having an affair?"

She blinked. "Is that what Dierdre told you?"

"Well, no, but . . ." This wasn't going as I had planned. In fact, come to think about it, I wasn't sure what I had expected. To my embarrassment, I felt my eyes fill with tears.

Elizabeth looked at me and frowned. Then she sighed and stood back. "Perhaps you'd better come in, Ms Stephens. But only for a moment."

Gratefully, I stepped into her hallway.

She led me into a sitting room, pleasantly furnished, with fresh yellow chrysanthemums in several crystal vases. At the far end of the room, two easy chairs faced one another. She directed me to one of them and sat in the other.

On a coffee table beside me was a box of tissues. "Help yourself," she said.

I took one and blew my nose.

She didn't waste any more time. "I think you may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick . . . Anna, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"Dierdre and I aren't having an affair. She's my client."

"I checked her client list," I said. "You're not on it."

"My client, not hers." She regarded me steadily. "Are you always this distrustful?"

I blushed and dropped my gaze, then said, "I have my reasons." I looked up at her again.

"Dierdre mentioned that things had got very tense between you," she said.

"She talked about me?"

"Of course."

I picked at my thumbnail and considered that for a moment. "What exactly do you do?"

"Speaking generally," she replied, "I counsel people who are distressed or in trouble."

"Is Dierdre in trouble? She won't tell me."

Elizabeth looked thoughtful. "Dierdre is dealing with an extremely difficult matter," she said carefully. "She's chosen to handle it alone, to shut out those closest to her. Perhaps she thinks she's doing them a favor--that may well be true; I don't know you well enough to say." Then she rose to her feet. I followed her example.

"I don't understand."

"You must talk to Dierdre. Really talk to her." She ushered me into the hall and then out onto the doorstep. "At this moment, she needs you more than she's ever needed anyone."

And with that, she gently but firmly closed the door in my face.

Dierdre was watching television in the sitting room when I got home. I told the computer to turn off the screen; the resulting silence was deafening. An indignant Dierdre turned towards me, but her protests were stilled by the look on my face.

"Talk to me," I ordered. "Tell me what's going on."

She rose and headed for the door.

"Oh no you don't." I darted after her and grabbed her bare arm.

She halted. "You're hurting me!" Guiltily I released her. She rubbed the livid marks my grip had left.

"I've been to see Elizabeth Paxton," I said. "I thought you two were having an affair."

"What?" The color drained from her face.

"Well, what else was I supposed to think? I thought we were as close as two people could be, then I find out I don't even know your real name . . . And now a complete stranger says you're trying to deal with something really big, and you won't tell me because of some idea you're doing me a favor. Some fucking favor!"

I paused to catch my breath. Dierdre's eyes were huge. I felt like shaking her. "Say something. Anything. Tell me you hate me."

"I don't hate you," she said quietly.

"Then why won't you talk to me?"

"Because once you know," she said, "you won't want to be anywhere near me. My father didn't, when he found out."

I stared at her. "Found out what?"

"My mother had Huntington's disease," she said. "And so do I."

My legs started to buckle. Expressionless, Dierdre helped me to the sofa.

"I was born in a Troubridge enclave," she said, her gaze fixed on my face. "My DNA scan would've kept me there for the rest of my life--if you can call that living. I should be one of 'the excluded,' Anna. I had to get out. The fake ID made that possible . . ."

I let her talk while I tried to take in what she had told me. Suddenly I remembered how clumsy she had been recently. "The dinner plates," I said. "Was that . . .?"

She nodded. "Headaches, dropping things . . . those are the first signs, apparently. I've got fifteen, maybe twenty years, getting worse all the time. . . . Aren't you glad you met me, Anna? Really glad?" A tear ran down her cheek.

I pulled her close and hugged her fiercely. "Of course I'm glad. I love you." For a moment she resisted, then she sagged into my arms.

"I'm sorry," she said, in between gulping sobs. "I didn't mean to trap you into having to care for an invalid. Years ago I convinced myself that having the gene didn't necessarily mean I was going to get the disease--"classic denial" Elizabeth calls it--then I met you and fell in love and it was too late . . ."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Dierdre reached for a tissue and blew her nose. "Because I knew as soon as I did you'd leave me." She looked at me sadly. "You are going to leave me, aren't you?"

I stared at her. "Is that all you think of me?"

She gave a tired shrug. "It's a mug's game. They should put me down like a sick dog--isn't that what your mother will say?"

"I . . . am not . . . my mother!"

She gazed at the carpet. "It may be too tough for you, Anna. It may be too tough for both of us."

"Fifteen years, you said. They'll have a treatment by then. And if not, there's still no need for you to go back to an enclave." I was thinking aloud, trying to comfort her, to comfort myself. "If it gets bad, we can hire a nurse . . . OK, so it'll cost. But I've got a good job, and there's my inheritance--"

"If your mother doesn't cut you out of her will."

"Damn it, Dierdre! Don't you want me to help you?"

"Of course I do! In fact there's nothing I want more." Her voice trembled. "But what if you come to hate me, Anna? For wasting your life. I couldn't bear it. I just couldn't!"

"That won't ever happen." I tried to sound certain, though God knows nothing in life is certain except higher premiums. "You'll just have to trust me. Will you?"

The smile when it came was lopsided. "I'll try," she whispered.

I nodded and held her closer. That's all anyone can ask.

2005 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company