Changing Partners

by Sydnie MacElroy and Jeff Uribe ©

Emma turned away from the window, buried her face in her pillow and tried in vain to block out the constant sounds of traffic and voices and chaos that drifted up from the streets below.

Exhausted as she was after a long day of meetings and shows, of lunch at the Russian Tea Room surrounded by names and faces she knew only from magazines and a private dinner in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue hosted by the head of one of the biggest fashion houses in New York, of running from place to place, catching taxis across town and dodging traffic and mayhem at every turn, tired as she was after all of this, Emma couldn't sleep.

The sounds and the excitement left her wide awake, drifting in a dream-like state. It was all so far from her quiet life in Kansas City. It was unreal and she had constantly to remind herself that she was really there.

She had to remind herself, too, to keep her mind on her job. The parties and the dinners and the shows, all of it was novel and thrilling, but she wasn't here for fun. She had a responsibility as the buyer for an upscale boutique, and it was her responsibility to keep a clear head. Not only was her job riding on this. The decisions she made this week would mean the success or failure of the business over the next year.

Emma opened her eyes, sighed and stared at the ceiling for a few moments, tracking the patterns of shadow and light cast by flashing neon and passing headlights, longing for the peaceful darkness of her own bedroom in her own home and for the warmth and security of having her husband at her side. He might be far from perfect, but he was always there, reliable, dependable. Dull, but in a good way.

It was their first night apart since their wedding and the big empty bed felt lonely, the room, in spite of the cacophony of city sounds, seemed strangely silent without his rhythmic snoring. She looked over at the clock on the bedside table. It was midnight and the hours until dawn stretched out before her mind's eye, endless minutes and seconds, alone in a strange place with no hope of sleep in sight.

She threw back the blanket in disgust, got out of bed, and pulled on a comfortable pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and stood for a while in front of the mirror, looking at herself and marveling at how wonderful this clothing felt next to her skin after the business suit and evening gown she'd been forced to wear most of the day. She picked up her key and her purse and set out for... somewhere other than here.

Two hundred bodies packed into a twenty by forty room. Pulsating strobe lights cutting through dense smoke - most of it tobacco. The stench of stale beer and stale cigarettes and stale bodies. Heat, like a furnace, radiating from every surface, human and otherwise. Emma edged her way up to the bar, ordered a beer and wondered what had drawn her here. The music was too loud, the atmosphere was offensive, the people were not the sort she particularly wanted to associate with. There was a sense of desperation and hopelessness hanging in the air. These people were here because they had no place better to go. Maybe that was it.

"Hey baby, what's your sign?"

Emma bit back a laugh. "You've got to be joking," she said. She looked up into the grinning face of an average looking, vaguely familiar man. "Do I know you?"

"Good eye," he said, pushing aside a drunk from the next barstool and taking his place. He called for a beer. "I was running the lights at the DKNY show this morning. I sort of tripped over you in the lobby."

Emma nodded and forced a patient smile. He hadn't tripped over her. He'd run full force into her and knocked her backward into a wall in front of one of her most important contacts. "I remember," she said, and drained the rest of her beer.

"I wanted to apologize, but you never gave me the chance." He motioned the bartender for a refill for her. "Name's Greg Conti," said, and held out his hand.

"Emma Schobel." She didn't respond to the offered handshake. "So, what? You've been following me all day hoping to corner me?"

"No. I didn't figure on getting a chance. Imagine my surprise seeing you in my neighborhood hangout."

"Imagine," Emma repeated, not without a hint of irony. "Apology accepted. Just watch where you're going in the future." Finally, she took his hand and shook it briefly, and looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. He wasn't particularly handsome. His features were dark, tired looking. His form was soft, a little pudgy. But there was something in his eyes, something fascinating. And he had the most wonderful smile.

The week passed in blissful contentment for Emma. And then, too soon, it was over and it was time to go home. She'd had no chance to think about feeling guilty, hadn't wasted the time in wondering what the future might hold. She'd treasured every second she'd spent with Greg, and spent every second she was apart from him longing for his touch.

Then Sunday morning had come, and she had a flight to catch, and the fantasy world she had built came crashing down around her. She promised herself that she wouldn't cry, that she couldn't mourn something that was probably never meant to be. It had only been a week, a little less than that, actually, and what kind of foundation could be built in so short a time. No, it was not worth crying over.

But at the airport, Greg took her in his arms and kissed her with the same intense passion she'd been feeling throughout the whole week. He touched her cheek and whispered her name. And then he said the words she had been longing to hear and dreading the sound of.

"I love you, Emma."

"I know. Me, too." The tears started without warning.

"When can we..."

"Don't! Don't ask me that. Please."

Greg nodded. "I can't lose you, Emma. Somehow... As soon as you leave, I'm going to write to you, so there'll be a message waiting for you when you get home." He paused and looked at her with uncertainty in his eyes. "You'll write back, won't you. You promise?"

Emma nodded. "Of course," she said, barely able to speak through her tears.


Emma awoke to sunlight streaming in through her bedroom window on the first day of spring feeling at once a sense of enthusiasm at the dawning realization that winter was finally over and an ever-deepening gloom. It had been nearly six months since she'd seen Greg. They had kept in touch, as promised, through daily e-mails and chat sessions once a week - sometimes several times a week. They had their own private channel. GregnEmma. Most of the time, they didn't have to plan to meet there. They both just knew when the other needed or wanted to talk - which to be honest was all the time.

Emma's husband didn't suspect a thing. Bruce - sweet, dumb, blind Bruce - still thought they had a perfect marriage. Sometimes, Emma felt guilty for deceiving him. Sometimes, but not most of the time. Most of the time, she resented him, resented that he was the only thing standing between her and her fantasy life back in New York.

Emma thought about just leaving him. That would be the simple thing. The logical thing. It would break his heart, but he'd get over it eventually. She would talk herself into it, be on the verge of telling him it was over, and then he would do something so kind, so wonderfully romantic to demonstrate his undying love for her that she just couldn't do it. For a few days she would feel guilty, and then the process would begin again.

Checking her morning e-mail, she prayed, as she always did, for a message from Greg. As always, it was there. The subject line was cryptic -

The message didn't do much to satisfy her curiosity.

>G'morning Angeleyes. Sleep well? Tonight, same time, same
>place. Got a surprise for you. I sent you a present. Should
>be at your shop today. Follow the instructions to the letter,
>and don't check your mail before we meet. Promise?
>Good. Love you, miss you, need you,

"Messing with that damned thing again?" Bruce wandered into the room and set a cup of coffee on the desk by Emma's elbow. He was grinning at her. If he was jealous of anything, it was the computer. He'd complained many times that she spent too many hours "playing" with it.

Emma shut down the mail program quickly but casually and smiled at him. "Yep."

"Gonna go blind staring at that screen all day," he chastised, but not without a hint of humor.

He was dressed in sweats and sneakers, hair uncombed, just back from walking the dog. His morning ritual. It was at precisely this moment each morning when, teeth unbrushed, unshowered and sweating, he was at his most repulsive in Emma's eyes. She could remember a time when she looked forward to this moment. She'd race him to the shower, and since he had to stop to brush his teeth first, she would always win, then after a minute or two he would join her. No more.

"Sure as hell hope not," she said.


She couldn't wait for nine o'clock. She wanted to talk to Greg, of course. She always wanted to talk to Greg. But this time, it was something else. She wanted to find out what on Earth this thing was that he'd sent her. She had done as he'd asked. Brought it home, and followed the instructions he'd provided in the package to the letter.

Roughly the size of a large microwave oven, the device - she could think of nothing else to call it - had been hooked up to both the printer port and modem of her computer, the interface card installed, and when she'd started up the computer again, the whole system whined and purred for a good ten minutes before everything settled back down to normal. And then there was nothing to do but wait. Wait and force herself not to check her mail. Wait and ask herself over and over what all of this was about.

At ten minutes to nine, she could wait no longer. She signed on to IRC as Angeleyes, as always, and went to their room. Greg was already waiting for her.

(Emstiger) Hey there gorgeous. Took ya long enough.

> What the hell is this thing?

(Emstiger) Just go check your mail. That'll explain everything.

> ok.

Emma opened her mail program, hit send and receive and was astonished at the size of the file that was being transferred. It seemed to be taking forever.

> How long's this gonna take?

(Emstiger) Hang in there, baby. Its worth the wait.

The download took five minutes. Just when Emma started to think it would never be complete, it was.

> ok. I've got it. Now what?

(Emstiger) Open it, silly.

Emma clicked on the message and her computer went into convulsions, whining and purring and making some kind of deep, grinding, metallic sound. Then a low whistle began to sound from the device Greg had send her and it, too, began making an array of ominous sounds.

> Is the machine going to explode?

(Emstiger) Of course not. Tell me when the sound stops.

> It stopped. What now?

(Emstiger) See the latch on the device? Turn it and open the door.

> ok.

Emma did as she was told. She pulled open the door of the device and couldn't believe her eyes. A dozen red roses lay inside. Hologram, was her first thought, but then she reached out and touched them. Fresh, beautiful, delicate blooms greeted her finger tips. She pulled the flowers out of the chamber and a light scent drifted up to her.

(Emstiger) Well?

> how?

(Emstiger) I've been working on it ever since you left. Something I've been toying with for years, but you gave me the incentive to finish it.

You like?

> of course!!!!! And thank you for the flowers. But how? How does it work?

(Emstiger) That's a little complicated. Does it matter?

> no, not really. I just wondered if it works with *anything*

(Emstiger) hmmmm... haven't tried everything, but it might. Have to do a few experiments. If it does...

> I know. I need you.

(Emstiger) ditto.


Three days later, Emma's morning mail contained the message she'd been longing for.

>I tried the device on a hamster and on a cat. Both came
>through in fine shape, no worse for the experience. You
>know the plan. Tonight?

Emma fired off a one word reply.



The day dragged, but she finally got through it. She ran through the front door at 5:15 in a fit of euphoric excitement. Tonight. Tonight all of her dreams would come true. Tonight she would be with the man she loved, and together, they would take care of the only obstacle standing in their way, an obstacle named Bruce. But first she had to... had to...

She couldn't quite put it into words, even just in thought. It was necessary, and she would do what she had to do. There wouldn't be any evidence, no chance of getting caught. And it would be easy enough to do. But... But it would be a lot easier if she didn't really think of it. If she just did it.

Something felt off. Not anything big. Just a quirk in her environment. Bruce was sitting in his favorite chair, reading the paper. The television was on. Wheel of Fortune. Mind candy for the intellectual diabetics. Everything looked normal. Until Emma looked at her own hands. She was shaking.

"I'm home," she announced. She thought her voice sounded strained, but Bruce didn't seem to notice.

"Wanna go out for dinner? Didn't get around to starting anything."

"I brought Chinese. Moo shoo pork. Your favorite." She held up the bag and Bruce's eyes gleamed like a little kid who's just been told he's won a lifetime pass to Disneyland.

"I'll get the plates!" He dropped the paper and ran for the kitchen while Emma spread the food she'd brought out on the coffee table.

They ate in silence. Actually, Bruce ate. Emma moved her fried rice around on her plate and watched him, wondering. How long? Would it work? It had come through the device. Had that done something to it? Why wasn't it working? Greg had gotten it from a friend who worked in the jewelry industry. That was supposed to mean something, but Emma didn't understand. It didn't matter where it came from. Cyanide was cyanide, after all. But why wasn't it working?

Bruce looked at her suddenly. His eyes were glassy, confused. He gasped. He collapsed. Emma stared at him. For five minutes, ten, half an hour, she stared. He didn't move. Slowly, she got up from her place on the floor, touched his face. No reaction.

"Oh my God," she muttered. Then she muttered it again and again while she went into the den and started up the computer. The message was there. The download would take forever. And seemed to, but she sat and she stared and watched as the indicator light slowly crept along the scale.

It occurred to her that after dinner, Bruce always walked the dog. If he didn't, it would mess on the floor. "Damn," she muttered. Well,she better take care of that, too. Might as well do something constructive while she waited.

"Fergus," she called. No answer. "Fergus!" She searched the house and found no trace of the dog. Just as well, really. She'd never much cared for the stupid mutt. Still, it felt wrong to just forget about him, and sitting there waiting was more than she could take. She searched the house, carefully avoiding the living room where Bruce still lay on the floor, slowly growing cold and stiff. Fergus was not there.

She looked outside, found his chain and his broken collar at the end of it. So he'd run away again. Third time this week. He'd be back, but at least Emma's mind was at ease. Bruce loved that dog, doted on him beyond all reason. The least she could do was look after him.

When she got back inside, the file had finished downloading. Greg had finished downloading, Emma thought. A thrill of excitement and dread ran through her. It would take hours to complete the process, but she could feel his touch already. She clicked on the file and the process started. He would be here soon. Then all they would have to do was load Bruce's body into the device and scatter his ashes in cyberspace. No mess, no fuss. No evidence.

Through the open door, she could see Bruce. She shivered. That was the only part of the plan she didn't like. Not killing him. She could live with that. She felt bad about it, but it was necessary. But having him here, dead, not fifty feet away. She wished she could have gotten rid of him completely before Greg arrived. Getting rid of a body hardly seemed an appropriate way to begin their life together. But she didn't know how to go about it, so there was really no choice.

Emma leaned back in her chair while the device moaned and groaned and hissed and sputtered. Only a few hours. Why did it have to take so long, but only a few hours. She'd waited six months. She could wait a little longer. She closed her eyes, leaned back in her chair. She dreamed of Greg, of holding him, kissing him, having children and growing old with him.

After a few minutes, or was it hours, Emma felt the familiar strength of Greg's hands running over her body. Caressing her gently,with the practiced touch that she had come to know and love during her brief time with him. How she had longed to feel his touch once again, and now it was finally a reality.

Keeping her eyes closed, she reached back and felt Greg's muscular legs behind her. As she ran her hands up his legs and past his thighs, she remembered how much she had enjoyed doing just this after their lovemaking. The caressing, the small talk, just generally enjoying each other's company and basking in the afterglow of their union.

Feeling his excitement growing, Emma whispered, "I've waited far too long. Let's go, babe."

Close to her ear, she heard Fergus bark, objecting to a stranger in the house she supposed. He would get used to it eventually. But Fergus had run away...

Emma stood up, opening her eyes on the face of a beast with Greg's body, barking with Fergus's voice.


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