Masks

Submitted for your approval, an invitation delivered to the members of the Board of Directors of Intellex, an international corporation dealing in civilian and military computer hardware and software. The Board members think that they're in for an evening of corporate politics before one of them receives the final prize.

But what each man will receive is very, very different. For these are not so much invitations to a party as they are a summons to justice, a special justice to be found only in... the Twilight Zone.

* * * * *

A warning. There is a scene in part 3 that involves child molestation. As the father of the victim of such an act in my real life, I -- well, let's just say that it happened over 10 years ago, and I still want to perform a radical orchidectomy on the kid who did it.

I felt that it was appropriate to the story and justified for the character. I won't say any more. Those of you who are offended hate me already for writing it, and I don't want to spoil the story for the rest by giving any more details.

If the concept offends you, please either don't read the story or give me the benefit of the doubt until you get to the scene where it happens.

Masks
By Ellie Dauber
(c) 2001

The invitations arrived at their offices by bonded messenger. In large, embossed letters, they read:

John Flannery of Intellex Corporation
Cordially Invites You to His Home
11355 Steven's Hill Road
On Thursday, April 26, 2001
To Celebrate His Retirement
As President and Board Chairman

Then, in smaller print at the bottom of the invitation, were the following additional words:

* At Midnight, the name of his successor will be announced.
* Only those attending the party at that time will be considered for the position.
* Come alone; bring NO staff, friends, or family.

The six other members of the Intellex Board of Directors were the only ones to receive invitations. (They checked to make sure of that.) None of them were happy about going, but Flannery controlled 53 percent of the voting stock. He could decide whatever he wanted and make it stick.

Assistants made phone calls. Schedules were shifted and tickets returned. Several meetings, including two sexual liaisons -- one of them illicit -- were postponed. Everyone would attend.

* * * * *

Richard Neimuth, Corporate Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of Intellex, was the first to arrive in his silver Rolls. Neimuth was a heavy-set man in his late fifties. He was nearly bald, with only a fringe of gray hair above each ear. His dark gray suit was impeccable, English tweed, specially tailored so that his bulk suggested muscle rather than the fat that was actually beneath.

The oak door opened as he walked toward it across the brick driveway. An older woman dressed in the style of the early 1900s, violet floor-length dress with long puffed sleeves and a high buttoned collar, stood in that doorway. Neimuth caught a scent of lavender as she stepped out. As he came closer, he saw that her face was actually some sort of painted mask.

“Richard, tell your man to leave.” There was no mistaking that voice. John Flannery was behind that mask, in that dress. Before Neimuth could say anything, the woman -- John -- continued. “Have him leave _now_. He can come back for you at 1 AM. We'll be... finished by then.” She -- he -- stood firmly in front of the door, clearly waiting for his order to be obeyed.

“If that's how you want to play it,” Neimuth muttered under his breath. He turned and walked back to his Rolls. The chauffeur quickly lowered the window. Neimuth leaned down. “Walters, take the car home. Be back for me here promptly at 1 AM.” As the chauffeur raised the window, Neimuth added, “And make sure the champagne in the back stays chilled. I expect to be celebrating.” The chauffeur nodded, gritting his teeth and trying hard not to laugh at Flannery's appearance. He was still smiling as he drove past the gatehouse and out onto the highway.

Neimuth walked slowly back over to Flannery. “What's with the outfit, John?”

Flannery shrugged. “I'm a crossdresser, Richard. I've been one for years.”

“So you decided to -- what's the phrase -- to 'come out' tonight? Won't you feel strange being dressed like that around the rest of us?”

“Not really. You'll all be dressed up, too.”

“What! Look, John, if you want to go fag on us, go right ahead, but there's no way I'm going to put on a dress.”

“Then you might as well use your cell phone to have your man come back for you. No one comes to the party unless they're dressed 'en femme', as we say.” He paused. “And you know what happens if you're not at the party. You can kiss your chance at my job goodbye.”

“But what if somebody sees --”

“Except for we seven Board members -- assuming everyone comes, and I think they will -- there'll be no one here. I gave the entire staff the night off. In fact, I sent them all to a hotel.”

“But still, why do I have to?”

“Call it an old man's whim. Now go upstairs and change. Your clothes are waiting for you in the gold bedroom. You remember where it is?”

“Sure. Up the stairs, third door down on the right.”

“Exactly. Now hurry up and change. Oh, and be sure to read the material in the file on the bed. It's, well, it's an extra little incentive that I've thrown in just to make things more interesting.”

* * * * *

The gold bedroom was opulent, gold paint on the wall, gold-in-silk curtains and bedspread, and gilt edging on the dressers and the four-poster bed. There was a large dress box on the bed, wrapped, of course, with a gold ribbon tied in a bow. A thick manila folder was on the bed next to the dress box. Neimuth sat on the bed, opened the folder, and began to read the material inside.

Richard:

For the past four years you've been taking payoffs and kickbacks from
our suppliers and contractors to approve cost overruns. In doing so,
you've cost the company over $30 million. This folder has enough
documentary evidence of what you've done to stand up in any court.

The originals of all the evidence are in my private safe at work. Yes,
the Chairman's safe, the one that only the Chairman has the key to.
There are also folders on each of the other members of the Board in
that safe, each one with evidence of some illicit act.

I trust that the chance to destroy the evidence against you, to gain
control of the company, and to have the power to blackmail the rest of
the Board will be enough to encourage you to put on the items in the
dress box.

John

“Damn!” Neimuth threw the folder down on the bed. Nervously, he untied the ribbon and opened the box. He really had no choice.

Neimuth took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the bed. There was an oak suit rack near the bed. He kicked off his shoes and stepped out of his pants. First the pants, was carefully folded and placed on the rack. His shirt and silk tie followed. Then he draped his jacket over the rest.

He sat down on the bed in just his undershirt, shorts, and socks and untied the ribbon. There was a long, reddish-brown wig inside the box. He put it on the bed and looked inside at what else it held. There was a pair of sandals inside. They looked sort of like a woman's shoe with a wide half-inch heel. They seemed to be about the same size as his own shoes.

He picked up a brassiere next, red with black lace. Next to it in the box was a matching strip of elasticized material the same colors as the bra, with long strips of velcro at the top and bottom. A small label inside said, “waist cincher.” He looked for the matching panties, his stomach turning at the thought of having to wear such a feminine garment. They weren't there, but he did find an old style girdle, red with four garters hanging down. Underneath the girdle, he found a pair of dark black stockings half rolled into a ball. In the bottom of the box was a neatly folded blood-red dress.

“No way!” He lifted the stockings between two fingers and was about to throw them into the wastebasket near the bed. But he had to wear them. John had said that he would take Neimuth out of the running for something even that petty. He would be in jail an hour after any of the others read his file. Either that, or he'd have to dance the tune of whoever _did_ win. Hell, that would be almost as humiliating as jail.

Neimuth sighed and stepped into the girdle, pulling it up over his boxers. His shorts bunched up under the thick, rubbery material, and he had to twist and tug to get it comfortably on him. Neimuth sat on the bed, feeling the front garters brush against his thighs. He grimaced. This was _not_ funny. The others had better be in equally stupid outfits, or he'd -- oh, hell, what could he do?

He picked up one of the stockings. Then he closed his eyes and tried to picture his wife putting on her stockings. That didn't work; the two of them seldom slept in the same bedroom any more. He thought about Lorraine, the cute little financial analyst he was fooling around with. _That_ worked. He picked up one of the pair from the box and balled it up in his hand. He bent his leg up and slipped it over the toe. He pulled it up over his leg, watching the material stretching tight and being careful not to snag the damned thing. It was sheer, and dark enough to hide the hair on his legs. He could feel them catching in the mesh, being pushed down; it was a weird sensation. The stocking came halfway up his thigh. He fastened it to the garter, then repeated the process with the other leg. When he was done, he stood and twisted his body to fasten the back garters, as well. John was crazy enough to check something like that.

Neimuth took the waist cincher and held one end tight against his stomach. He took a deep breath and pulled the other end around, hooking it to the first with the velcro. It held, pulling in his stomach several inches even as it puffed up his chest. He sighed and picked up the bra. He thought of Lorraine again and mimicked what he remembered, arms through the straps then reach behind to hook the ends. “Damn, women must be double jointed to wear these things,” he cursed, but he somehow managed to fasten the ends. The thing was heavily padded; it looked like he had two large pillows on his chest.

He stepped into the dress and pulled it up past his hips. Thankfully, the dress buttoned in front. When he was done, he was surprised how high the hemline was. He could almost see the tops of his stockings. With the bra and cincher, he even had a figure of sorts. The dress was cut high in front, stopping just above his neck, so it looked almost as if the bosom was real.

He lifted the wig to put it on. Something was tangled inside. It fell as he lifted the wig off the bed. A mask made of the same kind of ceramic or plastic as the one Flannery was wearing. A woman's face with garishly painted lips, roughed cheeks, and long eyelashes was painted on it. The opening at the mouth was large enough that he would probably be able to eat and drink with it on. There didn't seem to be any sort of string, but when he raised the mask to his face, it held fast. 'Some kind of glue on the inner surface,' he thought. He put on the wig and stepped into the slippers.

There was a mirror standing near the bed. When Neimuth looked at it, he saw a heavyset woman in a red dress that was obviously in poor taste and not really large enough for her hefty frame. “Bah! The others better look as silly as I do, or I'll, well, I'll think about leaving.” He slammed the door behind him and headed back downstairs.

Neimuth walked down the stairs. He walked slowly because he was still getting used to walking in heels, even low heels. Flannery was sitting in a chair talking to a tall dark-haired woman in a black dress with an apron tied around her waist. “I thought you said there'd be no servants here tonight, John?” If he couldn't trust Flannery on that, could he trust him on anything else? Did the police already have the file? Was this all just a game to embarrass him?

The woman turned. She was wearing a mask, too. “Who are you calling 'servant,' lady?”

Neimuth recognized the voice. “Tony, Tony Fleischer, I see he got you to go along with this crazy idea, too.”

“Actually, it wasn't hard.” Flannery sounded very smug. “Tony saw the wisdom of the same argument that you did.”

“You got... “ Neimuth asked.

“Yes,” Fleischer said in an annoyed voice. “And that's all I'll admit to, so you might as well change the subject.”

“Fine, but we'll probably have a lot to discuss on the subject later,” Neimuth said. “Are the others here?”

“Stuart Weiss and Paul Harper are in the dining room,” Flannery said. “Probably making good use of the bar I had set up there. Harry Salvatori came just after you did, Neimuth. He's still upstairs... changing.”

“Then George Androchek is the only no-show,” Fleischer said.

“Who's a no-show? And what are you all doing in those weird outfits? I wouldn't have recognized any of you if I hadn't heard your voices.”

The three costumed men turned in the direction of the voice. Androchek was standing at the door. He was a tall, slender man in his late 30s, dressed in a gray Armani suit. He was a computer entrepreneur who'd gotten a seat on the board when Intellex had bought his company. He was quiet and generally kept his mouth shut; that was how he'd gotten elected Board Secretary. Neimuth and Fleischer both wondered what sort of secret Flannery had on him.

“It's -- well, it's a sort of costume party, George,” Flannery said. “Your outfit is in the green room -- I think you know where it is -- there's a note with the costume that explains everything.”

“This is absolutely crazy,” the younger man said. “I'm not sure --”

“Humor me on this, please. As I said, the note explains everything. If it's any help, there'll be no one to see you except the other members of the Board and myself.”

“Oh, what the hell.” Androchek shrugged and headed to the steps.

“I need a drink,” Fleischer said. Neimuth nodded, and the three of them headed to the dining room.

A short blonde in a green sweater was behind the bar mixing a drink. A brunette woman in what looked like a maternity smock was sitting in a corner chair nursing a martini. As they walked toward the bar, Fleischer and Neimuth saw that both “women” were wearing masks. They both recognized the blonde as Stuart Weiss. The “preggie” had to be Paul Harper.

“Are you sure you should be drinking that in your condition?” Neimuth said. He'd gotten his wish. So far everybody else looked as stupid as he did.

“Very funny, Richard.” Harper had recognized the other's voice. “What are you supposed to be, queen of the may?”

“I think John's the fairy queen tonight; aren't you, John?” Neimuth said.

The blonde walked out from behind the bar. The green sweater was the top half of a cheerleader's uniform, complete with a megaphone symbol. The cut of the short skirt, the pompom socks, and matching sneakers did nothing for Weiss' hairy legs.

“Actually,” Flannery said, “most men who crossdress are not gay. We just like to -- what's that old song, '... put on women's clothing and hang around in bars.'“ He walked behind the bar and pulled a bottle of Sam Adams beer out of a cooler. He opened it and drank a couple of swallows. “Ah, that's good stuff!”

“Where's the damned bar?”

Everyone looked toward the doorway. Harry Salvatori -- they had all recognized his voice -- stood there in a pink pinafore. With his curly strawberry blonde wig, complete with hair ribbon, and those old style kid's shoes -- Mary Janes -- and socks, he looked like the young Shirley Temple. Or as much like Shirley Temple as a stocky forty-five year-old man could look. He wore a little girl's mask with big, blue eyes and bright red, rosy cheeks.

He strode quickly over to the bar, poured three fingers of scotch into a glass and downed it in one gulp. Then he turned and looked at the group. “I swear, John, if you didn't have that... if the stakes weren't so high, I'd just say the hell with it and go home.”

“But I do have that... something,” Flannery said. “And the stakes _are_ that high. So you'll stay here, Harry, and make the best of it like everyone else.”

Salvatori sighed. “Yes, damn you, yes, I'll stay.”

“Oh, I'm _so_ happy,” Flannery said. “Everyone get another drink if you want. We'll have supper as soon as George joins us.”

* * * * *

“By the way, John, where did you get these masks?” Stu Weiss put down his fork and leaned back from the table. He reached for his own mask as if he were about to take it off.

“Leave it alone,” Flannery shouted. “I'm sorry, Stuart, but I insist that the masks stay on until this evening is over. Call it one of the conditions of your all being here tonight.”

“All right, but I'd still like to know where you got them. They're excellent work, easily museum quality.”

“I won't tell you everything about them, Stuart, but I will say that I got them from Mexico.”

“That's right,” Paul Harper added. “You did some jungle sightseeing while you were down at our Mexico City office a few months ago. Checking out the native talent, John. I'd have thought you were too old for a little of the old hot and spicy Tex-Mex nookie.” He winked and leered like a schoolboy.

Flannery pointedly ignored Harper and continued talking. “The artist is a... brujo, a craftsman who lives out in a small village in the mountains of central Mexico.”

“I thought that 'brujo' meant a witch doctor or something like that?” George Androchek added.

“It does,” Flannery said. “They also use it down there to refer to someone whose level of skill makes it look like he's using magic, the level above 'master,' if you will. At least, that's what they told me.”

“Did you have much trouble getting them?” Stuart asked.

“Enough,” Flannery said. “It was more than a day's trip by Land Rover through the jungle to the village. Then I had to explain what I wanted through two separate interpreters. I don't speak Spanish, and neither did the old man who made the masks.”

“I'd love to get my hands on a few pieces of this quality,” Weiss said.

“I didn't know you collected Mexican art, too,” Harper said.

“I don't,” Weiss said, “but I'm on the board of directors at the Carlton Museum. I've been having some trouble getting the other board members to agree to some of my ideas. If I could dangle the chance to get some really good new pieces over their heads, I think I could get them to vote my way on a whole bunch of issues.”

“Well, Stuart,” Flannery said. “If you're still interested after tonight, I'll be glad to let you have the masks. At a fair price, of course.”

“Why wouldn't I be interested?” Weiss asked.

“That's a good question, John.” Tony Fleischer came over carrying a plate full of food and sat down next to Flannery. “I have a feeling there's more to these masks and costumes than you've told us.”

“There is,” Flannery said, “but that's for me to know and you to quite literally find out.”

“Damn it, John, I hate it when you get talk to me like that,” Fleischer said. “I'm as much a member of this Board as anyone else, and I expect to be treated with respect.”

“I've always given you all the respect I thought you deserved, Tony. Maybe you should spend less time worrying about having my respect and spend more time doing your job and earning it.”

Weiss put his hand on Fleischer's arm. “Calm down, Tony. John's just trying to play with our heads a little. There's nothing... “

“Who the hell are you to patronize me, Stuart? You're just another damn bean counter with delusions of adequacy.”

“I do well enough, thank you. My Division has been a steady moneymaker for the company for the past six quarters.”

“I'll admit you have a modest talent. We gave you a good product and excellent support, and you haven't been able to screw it up... yet!” Fleischer laughed at his own joke.

“That's more than enough, Tony.” Flannery glared at the other man. “Your complaint is with me, not Stuart.”

“My complaint is with the whole lot of you -- and with this stupid outfit.” Fleischer pulled slightly at the apron he wore. “Tell me, John, do I have to stay in sight the entire evening, or am I free to walk around a bit?”

“You -- all of you -- are free to walk around; just as long as you stay here in the house,” Flannery said. “And, Tony, I will know if you do leave. Trust me on that.”

Fleischer stood up. “John, I don't know that I'd trust you right now, if you said that the sun would be rising in the east tomorrow morning.” He turned and walked quickly out of the room.

* * * * *

Tony Fleischer slammed the door to his room behind him. “Damn, that old fool. If he didn't have that evidence... “ He glared over at the bed table where he'd left the folder. 'That was dumb,' he thought. 'There's nothing to keep one of the others from coming in and getting a look at that stuff; maybe even taking it to use against me no matter how this turns out.' It was a good strategy. 'As long as I'm up here, maybe I'll check out a couple of the other rooms myself.'

“But first,” he said aloud, “I want to get out of this costume -- or at least this stupid mask.” He pulled at the mask, but it seemed stuck to his face. He tried several times until his skin actually began to hurt. “That's it. At least I can get out of this idiotic maid's outfit for a while.”

He walked over and locked the door. Confident that he wouldn't be disturbed, he reached behind himself to untie the apron. The knot wouldn't budge. He tried to move it around his waist, so the knot would be where he could see it, but the apron seemed to have somehow merged with the dress. He reached for the buttons at the collar of the dress. He could move them, but he couldn't seem to get them through the buttonholes. In a panic, he grabbed the collar and tried to rip the dress apart.

Suddenly, his entire body began to tingle. The room spun around him. It seemed to be getting bigger. No, he realized, he was shrinking. He stuck out his arms to steady himself. He saw them grow thinner, paler. The hair on them seemed to shrink back into his skin without a trace. His hands grew smaller, more delicate looking, with long slender fingers. There... there seemed to be polish on the nails, though they, at least, didn't get any longer.

He looked down at himself. The collar of the dress seemed to be getting bigger, moving far down on his chest. His hairless chest, for his chest hair was shrinking back into his body, just as his arm hair had done. Something was growing out, though. As he watched, his nipples grew larger and darker. Then the tissue behind them seemed to push out -- way out -- to become two large and very feminine looking breasts.

Fleisher looked past them to see that his waist had gotten smaller, while his hips seemed to be growing. The dress and apron he'd been forced to wear were changing, too, getting shorter. He tried to get a look at his legs, but something white was under the dress, pushing it out away from his body.

He had to find out.

There was a full-length mirror over in the corner, and he hurried over to it. As he walked, something seemed to be happening to his shoes, so that his step changed. He stumbled and felt something soft brush against his neck.

He looked into the mirror and shook his head in disbelief. There was no trace of Anthony Fleischer, 58 year-old businessman in the reflected image. Instead, he saw a girl of no more than 20 or 25 dressed in one of those sexy maid's outfits. Her ample breasts almost spilled out of her low-cut, lace trimmed bodice. Her short skirt, pushed out by a ruffled petticoat, showed a narrow waist and full, lush hips. Below them were a pair of deliciously curved legs in fishnet stockings, the garters just visible under the petticoat. She wore black shoes with at least a three-inch heel.

He leaned in close to look at her face. It was heart shaped, framed by a mass of chestnut brown curls that hung down to just below her shoulders. Her eyes were green, not gray, as his had been, with mascara enhanced lashes and a green eyeshadow that made them look larger. He was reminded of a deer somehow, caught in the headlights. Her nose was small and pert. Her lips were full; “beesting” lips formed into a very sexy pout.

“Mon Dieu,” he said, surprised at the soft timber of his voice -- and by the French accent he seemed to have acquired. “Whut hazz happuned to moi?”

Suddenly the room changed. He was standing in a small alcove. It was a room he did, but didn't, recognize. He knew, though, that he was in a different house.

“Antoinette,” came a voice behind him.

“Oui,” he answered, turning automatically.

A tall young man in a butler's uniform came into the room. “You had best hurry, my dear. Mr. Byers expects us to have everything ready for his party by the time he gets home and there's still a lot for everyone to do.”

“Comming,” Fleischer said, and walked toward the man, hips swaying.

The man -- Fleischer suddenly knew that his name was Michael Saunders -- reached over and gently messaged Fleischer's breasts. The transformed businessman felt a shiver of pleasure run though his body.

“You will be, my dear,” Saunder said. “After the party's over, when we're in our room together.”

Before Fleischer could react, he heard John Flannery's voice in his mind. “You were happy to take bribes to do what our European competitors told you to do, Tony. So, I've given you a new body better suited to that role. You're Antoinette now, a lovely French maid; Antoinette Saunders, actually, since you and that horny young butler there have been married about two weeks. Enjoy your new life, Antoinette. It's the only one you'll have from now on.” The voice chuckled and faded away.

Antoinette found herself smiling as her hand moved, against Fleischer's will, to run a finger along the bulge in Saunder's pants. Unwelcome words came to her lips. “Az weel yu, mon amour, az weel yu.”

* * * * *

Paul Harper walked carefully, quietly down the hall. He stopped every few paces, freezing in place and glancing behind him as best he could in case anyone was following. “Damn preggy suit,” he swore in whispered tones. “Damn thing's too hot and heavy to move in. How the hell do women manage it for nine months?”

Nevertheless, he managed to reach this objective without any problems. 'This is too easy,' he thought when the doorknob turned. 'I wonder if John or anybody is waiting for me inside?' He opened the door just wide enough to slip through. Then he opened it wider when his stomach padding hit the heavy wood.

He looked inside; no one was waiting. The room itself was sparsely furnished: a solid-looking wooden desk with a Pentium PC on its top; two bookcases, half-full with reference books and three-ring binders; and a rather battered looking four-drawer file cabinet. “Looks more like the office of one of my clerks, than the office of the Board Chairman,” he said aloud.

There were some papers on the desk. Paul looked through them quickly, nothing incriminating, just some background material on the new distribution center in Georgia. He tried one of the drawers. Locked, that might be a good sign. It would be just like Flannery to have a copy of the incriminating materials here, as well as in the office. If he could find out what Flannery had on the others, he could use it to protect himself and to control the rest of the Board no matter who was chosen as Chairman.

He looked around for something to use to jimmy the drawer lock. Then he heard footsteps coming down the hall. He moved back from the desk and looked for a place to hide. There was a door in the corner, a closet probably. He moved to it quickly. Unlocked. He stepped in and closed the door behind him.

He put his ear to the door, listening to see if anyone came into the room. Damn, it was stuffy. Hot, too, especially with this rubber padding he had to wear. Harper stepped back and began to unbutton the high collared maternity blouse that was part of the costume. He felt a strange tingling, like an electric spark, run through his body. He closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, he could see the room he was in much clearer, as if his eyes had adjusted to the dim light. It wasn't a closet. It was a small bedroom. He could make out a metal bed, more of a cot, really; a couple chairs and a dresser. It reminded him of a dormitory room.

He still felt odd, and he decided to get out of the stupid outfit, if only for a few minutes. He had some trouble with the buttons and looked down. His hands seemed much smaller, and there was no hair on his arms. 'Just the dim light,' he thought.

He finished unbuttoning the blouse, and it fell open. Something... something didn't seem right. He listened against the door for a moment, no sound at all. He decided to risk it and turned on the small lamp that was on a stand next to the bed.

When he'd changed into that stupid outfit, he'd put on the latex padding over his white cotton undershirt. Now the shirt, or part of it anyway, seemed to have gotten outside the padding. As he watched, it changed. The sleeves disappeared so it was held up on his shoulders by two narrow, lacy straps. The front formed into two circular pieces. It looked like -- no, it _was_ changing into -- a bra, shaping itself around those fake boobs. But they weren't fake. The padding had changed to match his own skin color and merged with him. He couldn't see where it ended. He could feel, though, feel the satiny material of the bra rubbing against his own new breasts.

The stomach, the preggy stomach was his, too. He touched it with a finger and shivered at the sensation. Then he felt a kick from deep inside his stomach, as if something had reacted to being touched. That meant he -- no! He couldn't be. Men didn't get pregnant. A hand shot down. He felt satiny material around his hips instead of cotton boxers. There was no opening at the front. He reached down inside the panty from the top. There was no sign of male genitals, only a patch of hair covering a very, _very_ sensitive slit.

He suddenly knew that there was a full-length mirror on the closet door, and he turned to look. The image showed no sign of the man he had been. Harper saw a girl, probably not even eighteen and just over 5 foot tall since he could see mirror above the top of her head. She had short, curly brown hair, a rather pretty round face with brown eyes, and a turned up little nose.

She would have had a good figure except that she looked to be at least six or seven months pregnant. Her breasts filled what Harper suddenly knew was a 38-DD nursing bra. Even pregnant, she had a sweet little ass, and a nice pair of legs that even the dowdy skirt and old sneakers she was wearing couldn't hide.

It was the face, though, that Harper kept looking at. This girl he had become looked a lot like... Martha. It couldn't be. That was so long ago, he was surprised that he even remembered. Odd that Martha was the secret Flannery had threatened him with.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. “Polly,” a woman's voice said. “There's someone here to see you.”

“Just a minute, ma'am.” Harper blurted out the words, then instinctively covered his mouth with his hands. That couldn't have been his voice. He sounded like a little girl, and his New England accent had been replaced with a southern drawl.

His hands went to the blouse of their own will and quickly buttoned it. He opened the door to see a short older woman in a nurse's uniform, Mrs. Tyree, though he didn't know how he knew her name. The woman smiled. “Normally, we don't allow visitors after 9 o’clock, but I thought we should make an exception this time.” She turned and walked away.

Harper hurried after her, not knowing why. Flannery's office was gone. They were walking down a hall, a dormitory hall, judging from the doors on either side. They turned a corner into some sort of reception area. There was a sign near the door.

Tuliphocken County Hospital
Home for Unwed Mothers

No! It... it couldn't be. Harper looked around for any sort of escape. All he could see was Mrs. Tyree, the admissions desk, and Jimmy Joe! Wait a minute. Who the hell was Jimmy Joe?

Before he could say or do anything, Jimmy Joe, a skinny, red-haired boy of eighteen wearing faded blue jeans and an old gray work shirt jumped up and threw his arms around Harper. “I told my folks, Polly.”

“Told them what?” A horrible thought began to form in Harper's mind.

“Told them that I was the one that got you pregnant, and that I wanted to marry you and give my kid a name.”

Harper stared in amazement. Then he heard Flannery's voice in the back of his mind. “Paul, forty years ago, you seduced a secretary to get information on a competitor at work. Only, she got pregnant. When she tried to get you to admit that you were the father, you got her fired. She lost the baby; she lost any chance of ever having another child; and, not long after, she killed herself. I thought I'd give you the chance to have some babies to make up for the ones that Martha Eckstine never had.”

“M-marry me,” Paul heard himself say. “Oh, Jimmy Joe, that's -- that's wonderful.” He threw his arms around the boy and kissed him.

“That's right, Polly. It's all arranged. You and me'll get married tomorrow, but you'll stay here so they can take care of you and the baby. I graduate high school in a few weeks, and my Daddy says he can get me a job at the garage he works at. Your momma and daddy says we can live with them in your old room after the baby gets born.” He gently touched her stomach, rubbing his hand gently over it. Then he moved his hand up and quickly groped her breast. “Course, we'll need our own place eventually once we start having more kids.”

“M-more kids? Couldn't I work for a while or something?”

“Polly Mae Harkins, do you think I'm gonna let my wife work? Hell, no! I may be poor, but I got my pride. You stay home and raise up that mess of kids me and you are gonna have.”

Polly threw her arms around Jimmy Joe's neck, even though the thought of what his body was doing made Harper's mind shudder. She kissed him, too. “I'm sorry, Jimmy Joe.” Harper couldn't stop the words. “I was just fooling you 'bout wanting to work. All I ever, _ever_ wanted to do was to be your wife. I want to have your babies and raise them all up to be just like their Daddy.”

* * * * *

Richard Neimuth poured himself a brandy and sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs to enjoy it. “Flannery may be a flaming faggot and crazy as a loon,” he said to no one in particular, “but his cellar is as good as ever.” He took another sip and decided to have one of those cigars in the humidor on the bar. Real Cubans were hard to get. Flannery had joked more than once that the real reason Intellex had an office in Mexico was to get cigars for the Executive-level staff.

As he stood up, he felt oddly dizzy. 'Damn outfit,' he thought. 'I can hardly breathe in all this feminine crap.' He unbuttoned the top two buttons; Flannery could hardly fault him for that.

A strange sensation ran through his body. His fingers fumbled with the buttons. The material of the dress seemed to be changing from simple cotton to a fine silk.

Neimuth touched the bodice of the dress over and over in disbelief. The padding in that stupid bra began to get firmer. No, when he touched the dress there, he could feel his fingers against his... chest? He quickly unbuttoned another button. His chest was hairless now, and he could see the tops of two large breasts inside of some kind of _purple_ material.

“What the hell... “ He stopped. His voice was now a throaty contralto, low and sexy. He looked down past his new breasts. His stomach was flat with no hint of the gut that years of rich food and no exercise had given him. His waist was narrow now, and his hips wide.

He panicked and put his hand flat against his groin. He could feel the hand pushing him, but there was no bulge, no sign or sensation of the male genitals that had been there. There was no sign of that dumb girdle, either. He ran his finger -- when had his nails gotten so long? -- across the front of his leg until he found a much thinner garter. It tickled. He traced it up until it ended near his waist.

What _was_ going on? A thousand questions ran through Neimuth's mind. What had made his body change? Where was the girdle? When had his dress gotten so short? The damn thing ended well above his knees. And his legs, they were so slim and curved and hairless, so... female.

His feet seemed smaller in what were now -- good grief -- red patent leather pumps with what had to be at least three-inch heels. He took a step, bracing for the fall. It never came. He walked as if he had worn such shoes for years.

He took two more steps, as the room began to spin. He could hear Flannery's voice in his mind. “Richard, for years you've willingly taken money to screw over the company. I thought you might as well look the part.”

He was in a bedroom, now. No, a hotel room. Neimuth recognized the Chicago skyline through the window. More... magic, he was over a thousand miles from Flannery's place north of New York City.

“Great view, isn't it?” Neimuth turned. There was a man standing behind him, a tall man in his forties, wearing a bathrobe over a pair of boxers. Neimuth recognized the man as Jack Kiley, president of one of Intellex's biggest suppliers. As Chief Financial Officer, Neimuth knew that Kiley's firm and Intellex were currently negotiating a major purchasing agreement.

Kiley put down a set of papers he was holding. “Let me get this straight. If I agree with the terms of this contract... “

“Then Intellex has paid me to agree to _your_ terms for the evening.” Neimuth shuddered. What was he saying, and why did he have to say it in such a sexy purr of a voice?

“Well, Intellex's offer seems pretty fair, but I'm a businessman, honey. I want to see what I'm buying.” He looked down at Neimuth's dress.

“Certainly, Mr. Kiley.” Neimuth tried to stop himself, but he had no control. His hands worked the buttons of the dress until it was opened almost down to his waist. He shrugged his shoulders and let it fall to the floor. “So, does their offer still seem... fair?” He felt himself smile. Jeez, he was actually flirting with Kiley.

Kiley was leaning back against a low dresser, and Neimuth could see himself in the mirror behind it. Only -- it wasn't _him_. The image in the mirror was female, _definitely_ female, with auburn hair that framed her face and spilled over her shoulders, and a better figure than Lorraine's. Her big boobs looked about ready to fall out of some flimsy little purple thing she was wearing. The thing -- a “violet teddie,” the phrase popped into his head -- was cut high at the bottom to make her legs look even longer. The gusset in front was barely wide enough to cover her crotch. He could see those narrow garters -- but no sign of the girdle -- stretched down over satiny smooth thighs to hold up a pair of matching violet stockings. Damn. Her legs were better than Lorraine's, too.

“Are you okay, umm, Miss? You're staring at yourself in that mirror.” Kiley sounded concerned.

The woman in the mirror smiled at Neimuth... and Kiley. “Call me Rachel, honey.” He couldn't stop the words. “I was just admiring that _firm_ counter-offer of yours.” His voice was a purr as he walked over to Kiley. 'No!' Neimuth screamed in his mind. 'Stop!' But he couldn't. His hand gently caressed the bulge in Kiley's shorts.

Neimuth’s -- Rachel's -- arms went around Kiley's neck and pulled his head down to her own. She kissed him -- deeply. “And we have the whole night to compare... terms.”

* * * * *

“So this is John's art collection.”

Stuart Weiss turned and saw Harry Salvatori standing in the gallery doorway.

“Yeah, but the weird thing is, these are all copies.”

“How do you... ? Oh, that's right, you collect, too, don't you?”

“I do, and I've seen John's collection any number of times. He has the originals of all these paintings -- or had them. I wonder what's going on?”

“I don't know, but something -- someone -- else is missing, too.”

“Really, what or who is that?”

“The rest of the Board; you're the first person I've seen in almost an hour. Have you seen anybody?”

“I've been in here for some time. Man, even these copies are great. Look at this one, 'The Ballet Lesson,' those young girls Renoir painted have all been dead for years, but here they are, still young and vital, swaying their bodies to some unheard melody.”

“It's, umm, nice, very nice, I guess.” He stared at the painting for a moment, an odd look on his face. “Frankly, though, I'm more interested in finding out where everybody is.”

“Relax, Harry. This is hardly one of those teen slasher movies where the mad killer picks the people off one at a time.”

“Okay, then what's your theory of where everybody is?”

“All John said is that we had to stay here and stay in these dumb costumes until midnight. I know that I certainly feel foolish in mine. That's why I came in here; to be off by myself so nobody could see how idiotic I look. I think everyone else did the same.”

“I guess that makes sense. I certainly feel like a prime idiot. I must admit, though, I think that you make a really cute cheerleader.”

“And you're just the _sweetest_, little girl. I wonder why John picked these particular costumes?”

“I'll ask him when -- or, should I say if -- I see him. Just remember, the mad killer _always_ goes after the cheerleaders.”

“I'll keep that in mind. You going to stay here with me?”

“No, I think I want to go and find John -- if I can. See you at midnight.”

“Midnight.” Weiss watched the other man leave. He waited a moment, then walked over and locked the door. “No sense taking chances,” he said.

He sat for a time admiring the art. “I'll have to ask John about these paintings. Maybe I can buy some of the copies when he gets the originals back from wherever they are. Better yet, I'll get the museum to buy them. Then, as a Board member, I can get them on an indefinite loan.”

He stood to take a closer look at one of the paintings. As he did, an idea came to him. “The door's locked, and it's over an hour till midnight. Maybe I can get out of this cheerleader suit for a while without anyone being the wiser.”

He reached up to take off the mask, but it refused to come loose from his face. “What's on the back of this thing, superglue?” He gave one more tug.

An odd tingling sensation, sort of like a mild electric shock ran through his body. The paintings seemed to move higher up on the walls. No, he was... shrinking. He looked down at his body in disbelief. He was getting smaller, thinner. The hair on his arms was fading away. He stuck out a leg, so he could see it past the skirt he was wearing. There was no hair on it, either, and it was getting thinner as well. So were his arms, he noticed. They were smooth and almost feminine looking.

Weiss shook his head in disbelief and felt something soft brush against his neck. He grabbed for it. Hair, his own judging from the pain he felt when he tugged at it. This was crazy. He was almost bald, only now he had a full head of hair. It was still growing, too. He could bring it into view. Damn, his hand looked small, almost dainty. His fingers were thin, and he could see a pink polish on the nails. He could see the hair, too. It was a golden blonde, like the wig, not the sandy brown color that his own hair had been.

Then he felt a strange sort of “pushing” sensation on his chest. He looked down. The cotton blouse had been replaced with a satiny looking sweater with a name on it. He worked at the upside down lettering. “Susie.” Then it got hard to read for another reason. Something was growing on his chest. Two bumps that pushed out further and further. Breasts? No, it couldn't be.

He looked down past them to see his waist narrowing, even as his hips widened beneath the now shorter skirt. He reached under it to find a cotton panty. There was a bulge inside, but it grew smaller as he felt it, until it disappeared completely.

He could see his legs now. They were gracefully curved. He was wearing a pair of boots with a two-inch heel that set them off rather nicely.

As he stared down, trying to understand what was happening, he heard the voice of John Flannery in his mind. “You falsified a number of production and inspection reports to make yourself look good, Stuart. Faulty equipment that you said was all right cost the company millions of dollars in 'make goods' and resulted in almost a dozen deaths. It seemed to me that if you're going to get so enthusiastic about things that aren't real, you might try doing it in a more persuasive form.”

“This is crazy,” Weiss said, stunned at the squeaky soprano tone of his voice. He took a step toward the door, only to see it vanish. He was in a gymnasium leaning against a wall; no, a bleacher. He looked around. There were about ten girls, teenaged girls talking or going through different exercises while a couple of women seemed to be comparing notes on a clipboard.

Weiss suddenly realized that he knew the names of the girls and that several of them were wearing the same cheerleader's outfit that he was. Was he one of them now, a teenage girl? It seemed impossible.

“How do you think we did, Susie?” He turned to see a pretty red-haired girl about fifteen years old. She was -- oh, hell -- she was the same height he was. Her name was... “Karen, umm, hi.” What was he saying? “I think we did pretty good. Ms. Braxton was smiling while we went through our routine.” Routine? What the hell was he talking about?

A whistle sounded, and the gym was suddenly quiet. A slender woman in a gray-green leotard top and a pair of matching sweat pants walked to the center of the gym. Somehow, Weiss knew that she was Ms. Braxton, whoever that was.

“May I have your attention,” Ms. Braxton said. “Ms. Gelfand and I have evaluated the results, and we're ready to announce the winners. It hasn't been easy. You're all very good, but there's only six spots available at the camp.”

'Camp,' Weiss thought. 'What kind of a camp?' Still he felt a knot in his stomach as if he were really worried about getting picked.

Ms. Braxton continued. “For those of you who don't get selected, don't be upset. One of our considerations was age. There are a number of very promising freshmen here. We wanted to give the sophomore and junior girls first crack at the camp. Keep working, and you may get picked next year.”

She paused a moment for effect. “The six girls are Hazel Domchec, Tina Hoffer, Karen Schuyler... “ The girl next to Weiss squealed at the sound of her name. Weiss felt happy for her -- and a little jealous somehow. “... Joni Landis, Meghan Preis, and Susan Silber.”

“Susan Silber!” He was picked. Weiss grabbed Karen and hugged her. He felt so happy, so proud. He tried to stop himself as he squealed and jumped up and down with her.

“Hey, congratulations.”

Weiss froze. He knew that voice, though he didn't know how. “Ray? Thanks.” He turned. The speaker was a boy of, perhaps, seventeen, dressed in jeans and an Oakland Raiders T-shirt.

“I'll miss you while you're at cheerleader camp this summer, but, hey, you were great. I was proud of you.”

Weiss felt himself smile. He took a step over to where the boy was standing and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. What the hell was he doing? He tried to step away as Ray wrapped his arm around Weiss' waist. His body refused to obey. In fact, it moved in closer to the boy. “So, how about I take you out tonight to celebrate?”

“Great,” Weiss heard himself saying. Then, to his horror, he leaned in close and whispered, “And if you think I was screaming this afternoon, wait till tonight when we're alone in your van.”

* * * * *

“Where the hell is everybody?” That was Harry Salvatori's question as he searched the house. “I was kidding with Stuart before, but this _is_ like a bad horror movie.”

There was no sign that anyone had been in the house with him except the mess they'd left from the buffet supper. That, and the locked door to John's art gallery. Stuart had been listening, and he had locked the door. Only whatever was going on had gotten him, as well. Harry had pounded on the door till his hand hurt without Stuart even answering.

Either that, or they were all off someplace laughing at him.

“The hell with it,” he said. “I'll just wait here till they come for me at midnight.” He walked over and sat down on an overstuffed sofa. It felt comfortable, very comfortable. He reached down and unbuckled the oversized “Mary Janes” that were part of his little girl outfit. He kicked them off and stretched out on the couch, a throw pillow under his head.

As he lay back, he felt an odd tingling running through his body. His arms and legs seemed impossibly heavy. The couch seemed to be moving under his body. It was -- it was growing. No, he was shrinking. He could see the muscles in his arms and legs fading away. They were getting skinny, almost like toothpicks, and... hairless. Where had the hell his body hair gone?

Now his arms and legs seemed to be getting shorter relative to his body. There seemed to be some plumpness to them again, too. He looked down at his hands, his now stubby fingers. The dress he was wearing lightened in texture. The ruffled skirt smoothed out. He now wore a pale blue nightgown. Hs body was short now, and plump. He managed to raise his head to look over his small belly. There was no bulge at the crotch. “I -- I'm a little girl,” he whispered the words, not wanting to hear what his voice sounded like now.

The room suddenly grew dark. As he lay there unable to move, Salvatori heard John Flannery's voice in his head. “Harry, I know about what you've been doing to those children. Since you got so much joy out of what you did to those poor innocents, I thought I'd let you be on the receiving end.”

There was a small brightness now, a small nightlight over in the corner. A nightlight? He could move his head now. He was in a bedroom, on a bed. There was a doll next to him. Looking around, he could see a dollhouse and a toy box. He could almost make out the shapes of Sesame Street characters on posters on the wall. A girl's dress hung on a hanger on the door of what he knew somehow was his closet.

He heard a click and turned to see the bedroom door open. A man came in quietly, closing it behind him. The man walked over and sat down on the bed. “Pretty, pretty, little Hayley, don't be afraid. Uncle Harry is here again to just play a game with you. Won't that be nice?” The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't recognize it.

“A... game,” he heard a soft voice -- his now -- say. “What kind of a game?”

“Oh, it's one you'll like.” Uncle Harry leaned over and stroked his hair. Now Salvatori could see the man's face. It was his own -- what he had looked like before. He wanted to scream, but his body wouldn't cooperate.

Uncle Harry kissed him on the mouth. Salvatori was so surprised that he opened his mouth. Uncle Harry's tongue probed inside. Then the man broke the kiss. “See, now wasn't that nice?”

“I -- I don't know. I -- I guess.” Salvatori braced himself, afraid that Uncle Harry would kiss him again.

The man -- his other self -- did kiss him, but lightly on the cheek. “Don't be afraid. You'll like this even more.” He stroked Salvatori's chest through the light gown. “Then we can kiss some more.”

One hand continued to stroke Salvatori's chest; Uncle Harry's fingers playing with his tiny nipples. The other hand slowly lifted the bottom of his nightgown, raising it almost to the waist. Salvatori shivered as he felt a finger run along the panty underneath, stroking his hairless crotch.

Then his panty was slowly, gently pulled down off his hips, pulled down almost to his knees. Salvatori whimpered. He wanted to move, wanted to scream, but his body refused to obey.

He felt something -- he was afraid to even think what -- slip inside him. 'No,' he yelled in his mind. 'No, please, no.'

An instant later, Salvatori was sitting up in the bed. He knew that he was still in the little girl's room, still in her body. But he was alone, blessedly alone. He heard a shrill, high-pitched scream, and he realized that he was the one who was screaming.

A light went on. He looked over at the door. Lynnette Ralston, his secretary, was standing in the doorway, a bathrobe covering a nightgown. Her husband -- what was his name? -- Frank, was next to her. They both rushed to the bed. Salvatori all but threw himself into Lynnette's -- into _Mommy's_ arms. He realized that he was crying.

“I h-had that d-dream ag-again, Mommy,” he heard himself say, his voice broken with fear. What dream? What was he saying?

“It's all right, Hayley, honey,” he heard... Daddy say. “That man won't bother you again. Mommy doesn't work for Uncle Harry anymore.”

“She doesn't?” What was going on? Lynnette had never said anything to him about quitting.

“No, she doesn't,” Mommy said. “I'm not going to work for anybody who did what he did to you. I can't report him -- he's too rich, too protected, so I transferred to another office, effective tomorrow. And I'm going to warn anybody who takes my old job exactly what Mr. Harry Salvatori's idea of playing with children is.”

Salvatori wanted to explode. Nobody walked out on him, threatened to expose him, especially some insignificant little secretary. She'd be back, and he'd have plans for her real daughter -- wait a minute, Lynnette didn't have any kids. She'd told him once that she'd been in some kind of accident as a child and couldn't get pregnant.

He tried to say something, to ask what was going on, but his body refused to obey. Instead, he found himself hugging... Mommy again. “Thank you, Mommy; thank you, Daddy. I -- I feel better.”

“Good enough to go back to sleep?” Daddy asked, gently taking her hand. “It's awfully late, you know.”

“Would you like to come and sleep with us?” Mommy asked. “Or I could sleep in here with you. Just for tonight, of course.”

The idea had possibilities for Salvatori. Lynette had a fairly nice body, and this would let him grope her to his heart's content. Then he heard his voice say, “Thank you, Mommy, but I think I'll be okay now. Miranda will protect me.”

Miranda? Did this kid have a sister? No, he suddenly knew that Miranda was the large doll next to him on the bed. He found himself clutching the doll as Daddy tucked him in under the covers he'd kicked off during the dream. Both parents kissed him goodnight and left. Daddy shut off the light.

Salvatori lay there in the dark trying to understand what had happened to him. As he began to fall asleep, all he knew was that he felt safer under the covers, especially when he hugged Miranda, his best-est doll friend.

* * * * *

George Androchek stared at the image of the little girl who had been Harry Salvatori, as she snuggled in bed with her doll. “Well, I'm the only one left, now, John.” He turned to Flannery who was sitting next to him watching the oddly shaped screen. “When _exactly_ do I turn into the school girl that probably goes with this outfit?” He tugged at the short plaid skirt he was wearing.

Flannery smiled. “You don't, George. Your outfit isn't magic. I wouldn't do that to you, especially now with my grandchild on the way.”

“Grandchild? You mean that you -- you're my father? That can't be.”

“It is. Your mother and I met when we were both in college, and we got married the day after we graduated. I didn't have much money, and, well, by the time you came along, I was obsessed with the idea of making a success of myself at Intellex. I was never home, never there for her -- or you. When she told me to choose between my family and the company, I -- I chose the company and gave her the divorce she asked for.”

“And never had anything to do with either of us again. Why are you telling me this now, John? Is your conscience bothering you after all these years?”

“George... please. You don't understand. Peggy -- your mother -- moved to the West Coast and remarried. She made me promise to stay away, so she and her new husband and you could be a family. I swear it.”

“And you never tried to contact us, or to help out with things?”

“Your... your... parents sent me a letter every month saying how they were doing, what was happening to them -- and especially to you. It was part of the agreement we made. I can show you the letters -- and the pictures they sent as you were growing up. As far as helping, well, your step... your father was a proud man. They wouldn't take my money, not directly anyway. When they bought the house you grew up in, they made all the payments themselves, but they did let me co-sign the mortgage. I helped with your college, too. That special scholarship you got, that was me paying your way. I had to donate a building to the school to get them to agree.”

“Wait a minute, I had to work part time for that scholarship.”

“That was your mother's idea. She wanted you to know the meaning of hard work; know that things never come too easy.”

“That sounds like Mom, but why didn't she ever tell me that you were my father? I've known since high school that Dad -- Mike Androchek -- was really just my stepfather.”

“I think she was going to, but the... stroke took her before she could. I talked with Mike right afterwards. We decided that I shouldn't come to the funeral; it would be a terrible time to have you find out. He left it up to me to tell you when I felt the time was right. He's a good man. He made your mother's life a happy one, and he raised a fine son. I'm not sure that I could have done either of those things nearly as well as he did.”

“So what happens now? Do the others get changed back eventually?”

“For starters, the other Board members are trapped in their new lives forever. The spell is making them act the part, but gradually over the next few days or weeks, their minds will adjust. They'll always know who they used to be. They just won't care anymore.”

“So the men just disappear?”

“No, that's, well, that's been taken care of. A mass disappearance would scare the Market; Intelex stock would sink through the floor. There are, I guess clones would be the best word; there are clones of all of them in whatever room they were in when they were transformed. But there's no time to explain any more now.” He looked at a clock on the wall behind George and sighed. It was 11:50. “It has to be finished by midnight.”

“What? What has to be done?”

Flannery took off his mask. As George watched, his hair whitened, thinned until there was almost nothing left. His face grew thinner and thinner until it looked more like a skull than a living man. “What... what happened here tonight had a price, a sacrifice that had to be made.” His voice was soft, waivering, as if it was becoming a physical effort to get the words out.

“Don't... don't be... upset.” Flannery's entire body seemed to be getting thinner, wasting away. “P-pancre... atic cancer. D-doc says two... two months. Maximum. Much be-bet-ter... this... way.”

George suddenly heard an odd, roaring noise outside the room. He went to see what it was. The doorknob was hot to the touch. Fire!

Flannery was smiling as if he welcomed what was happening. “The... the whole h-house is... is going... going up. Windows... get out. N-now!”

George tried to pick the older man up. “John -- Dad, I can't let you die like this. Not now.”

Flannery shook his head. “W-why? So I d-die from... from the c-cancer? G-get. Out. Of. Here. N-now!”

The flames were coming through the wall. John's eyes were closed as if he were asleep. He was still smiling. George felt for a pulse that he couldn't find. He leaned over and kissed John on the forehead. Then he rose quickly and threw a chair through the window. He jumped through after it, landing roughly but unhurt on the ground outside.

The entire building was a mass of flame. He stood up and ran about fifty yards from it. He suddenly realized that he was wearing the suit he'd come to the house in hours before. He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and quickly dialed the fire department.

Then he sat down on the ground and began to cry.

* * * * *

“I think they're finally getting it under control.” The fire inspector had questioned George while two crews fought the blaze. “You're lucky you were able to get out that alive.”

“I know.” George had given him a somewhat edited version of what happened, and no one seemed to blame him for anything. “I just wish I could... John could have gotten out, too -- and the others, of course.”

He reached inside his jacket for a handkerchief. There was an envelop in the pocket next to it, an envelope that hadn't been there before. Hands trembling, he tore it open and read the letter inside.

George:

My will is in the Chairman's safe at the office. It names you as my son
and my only heir. I know I'm leaving Intellex in good hands. There are
other papers in the safe that will prove who you are.

The company has “Best Man” policies on all of the Board, including me.
The insurance will absorb any loss to the company from their deaths,
with plenty left over for their families. You'll get the money from my
policy. Call it a present to my grandchild.

The new lives of the other Board members are taken care of, as well, but I
won't say how.

I'm sorry I never told you the truth about us, George, but I want you to
know that I think you're a fine man, and I'm very proud to be...

Your loving father,
John Flannery

George carefully folded the letter and put it back in his pocket. He looked at the remains of the house. An ambulance was taking the last of the six corpses that had been found inside to the morgue. He would have a lot of work to do in the morning, but the first item of business would be to call his father -- to call Mike -- for a long talk. If Dad didn't mind, George wanted to see about adding another gravesite to the family plot, one next to his mother's.

The End



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