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The Wrong House by Penny Lane

Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. All characters and places mentioned are fictitious.
This story is copyright (c) 2009 by Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

The young man sleepily pulled his arm out from under the covers and switched off the bedside alarm. He yawned mightily. Time to get up again, another day beckoned. He dragged back the covers and climbed unsteadily out, shaking his head. Such peculiar dreams again! Standing, he found his slippers and pushed his feet into them, then turned and tidied the blankets on the bed before walking slowly into the small bathroom attached to his bedroom.

He washed his face, shaved, and did the usual offices before returning to the bedroom. He definitely had a headache, he felt distinctly odd. Making a note to ask for a tablet or two when he got downstairs, he pulled open the wardrobe door and began to dress.

He had reached over his head, and down his back, to finish pulling up the long back zip on his black dress when he stopped, shocked by what he was doing.

What the - !

He stepped back, abruptly, from the wardrobe, closing the door so that he could see himself in the mirror on the front of the door. He saw himself, dressed in a short sleeved black knee-length dress. What sent fear and confusion through his thoughts, and a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach, was the realisation that he had also put on all the appropriate underwear: bra, briefs, slip and tights, all the while behaving as though it was a perfectly normal and routine thing to do. Worse, the figure in the mirror had breasts, which implied padding that he had put himself into the cups of the bra, which implied that he was a willing participant in whatever was going on. He opened the wardrobe door again, and inspected the contents. No men's clothing at all. Just skirts, blouses and dresses. Women's shoes on the floor of the wardrobe. He began to sweat.

Returning to the bathroom to wipe his face, he examined it in the mirror. He was 22, but the face that looked back looked older, since he had had a rough childhood, some of it on the streets and some behind bars. However, it was still a young face, fortunately untainted by spots or scars. His hair looked strange. He picked up a comb from the shelf and automatically tidied it - into a female style, centre parted with a fringe that just covered his eyebrows - not realising that he did so.

Back at the wardrobe he pulled out a pair of black lace-up shoes with a two-inch heel and put them on his feet - without again consciously realising what he did - before leaving the small bedroom and stepping carefully down the two flights of stairs. In the kitchen he found two women, one a few years older than himself, maybe 27, and another older woman, maybe ten years older again. Both were sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, and they looked up curiously as he entered. He looked at them both, puzzled.

"This is going to sound really strange," he began, "but I don't think I know who - or what - I am. I thought I was a man, but I dressed like this," he indicated his outfit, "as though I'd always done it. I don't think I know either of you, but you look strangely familiar. Where am I? Who are you? What am I doing in this house? I seem to live at the top of the house, and to know my way around, but I don't remember anything like that happening to me."

The older woman spoke. "Come and sit down here, and I'll get you a nice cup of tea." She got up and pulled out a chair, so that when he sat down he was facing the two women. He had the strangest impulse to say, "But I should be making the tea," but he said nothing, his thoughts churning.

The older woman said, "There you are, drink that. Now, can you tell me what your name is?"

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. It occurred to him that in this house, he might be known by a different name, not that he remembered his own, anyway. The name "Tony" floated up out of the depths of his brain. Tony? No-one except his elder brother ever called him that! Several had tried, but his fists had soon stopped that. He took a sip of the tea.

The older woman addressed the younger. "Louise, I think it's time we called Ellie over. Would you mind phoning her while I look after our guest?"

Louise replied, "It's still early, you sure it'll be okay to wake her up?"

"Yes, that'll be fine. I think she'll already be up, anyway, just in case we needed to call her over. She knows it's likely to happen in the next day or two, anyway."

"Fine, I just thought I'd check," Louise said, getting up and leaving the kitchen.

"You remember nothing, then, of what went before?" the older woman asked him.

"Not really," he replied, "but it's peculiar. Although I don't have details, it seems as though a lot should be familiar, like a dream, or, what's that foreign phrase for when you think you've done something before?"

"Deja vu?"

He nodded. "I think that's what I mean. But why am I wearing a dress? Why am I apparently living in this house? Where exactly is this house? I'm not mad, am I?"

The woman replied, "Well, I could tell you exactly what's been going on, but perhaps I'm not the person to do it properly, and you might not properly understand what I'd tell you. My friend Ellie Stevens can explain things better than I can, and Louise has gone to ask her to come over. So if you'll wait for a short while, she should be able to answer all your questions."

"I also seem to have a headache," he said, "have you any tablets I could take, please?"

The woman's eyes flickered. "Ah, no, perhaps that wouldn't be such a good idea. Maybe later on in the morning, when you have all the facts. Perhaps having some breakfast inside you might help."

"Yes, thank you. I can make it myself, I think," he offered. He got up, and walked over to the work surface. Toast, he decided. The bread was in here, the toaster was over here, and the butter was in the fridge here. Plates were in this cupboard, and knives were in this drawer. At this point he realised that he had done the whole thing without thinking, and the feeling came back to the pit of his stomach again. He knew his way around this kitchen well enough to do it in the dark, it seemed.

Just what have I been doing in this house all the time? How long have I been here, anyway?

The toast popped up, and he buttered the slices ready to bring to the table to eat. He looked uncertainly at the woman, who was watching him attentively.

"Should I be making breakfast for you and -" he hesitated, "- Mistress Louise as well?" Now why did he call the younger woman that?

The older woman waved a dismissive hand. "No, don't bother about us today. Just come and sit and eat."

Louise came back into the room and sat down. "She'll be right over. You were right, she'd got up early just in case." She looked curiously at the young man eating toast and drinking tea. The older woman gave her a small shake of the head, implying, "Leave it".

The older woman switched her attention back to him. "Ellie only lives two streets away, so it won't take her long," she explained. He took another munch of toast, and realised with another shock that the nails on his fingers which held the toast had clear polish on them.

"More tea?" He had been offered, and given, a top-up, and had drunk most of it before the doorbell rang. He discovered a tremendous urge to go and answer it, but the older woman waved her hand and said to Louise, "Go and let Ellie in, would you? Take her into the living room, we'll be right along after clearing the table."

Dishes in the sink, he followed the older woman along to the living room at the front of the large house. A third woman was there, who also looked vaguely familiar. The four sat down, and the newcomer began.

"Good morning, Tony. I hear this has been a bit of a shock to you. I've come to explain as best as I can, but the results may not be pleasant. Will you be prepared for that?"

The young man nodded, wondering why she called him "Tony".

"I need to know what's going on," he said. "I need to know who I am, what I am, and what I'm doing in this house. I need to know who all you people are. It's like some kind of weird dream, or some kind of - drug - trip, maybe."

The newcomer nodded. "I fully understand," she said, "and I should be able to help you clear things up. Actually, you already know most things, they are stored somewhere in your head. It's just that the memories are suppressed, which is why I said that knowing them might prove unpleasant. I can unlock those memories by saying a certain word. Are you ready for me to say the word?"

The young man licked his lips, nervously. "Yes, I think I am."

The three women became attentive. The newcomer spoke a single word.

"Rumpelstiltskin."

*****

Ant Everett paused in his task, in one of the bedrooms of the old Victorian house. Oh shit! He had heard something! That's just what he needed, the owners to come home just now! Shit Shit Shit! He grabbed up the carrier bag which he had been filling with valuables and crept out of the room, pausing at the doorway. He could hear voices downstairs, a conversation. Might be harder to get out if there was more than one person down there. Shit! One of them was coming up the stairs! He moved away from the door, and tensed, ready to push his way past whoever tried to enter, and to dash down the stairs and make a break for it.

He was lucky, he thought. The person who had climbed up had turned the other way, probably to go to the bathroom at the other end of the landing. He crept out of the bedroom, and silently wafted along to the balcony at the top of the stairs, alert for any motion, bag clutched tightly in one hand so it didn't crackle. Seizing his chance, he ran full pelt down the stairs, aiming to get to the front door before anyone could stop him.

He had nearly reached the bottom before he realised that someone was in the passage beside the stairs, and that there were two shopping bags on the floor of the hall, which this person had presumably come to pick up. The next thing he knew, he had tripped, and was falling towards the floor. His outstretched hands hit first, followed by his knees, then he slid along the tiled floor and his head hit the inside of the front door with a tremendous crack. The bag of loot went flying, it's contents scattered over the floor, some bouncing off the walls before spinning to rest.

Louise Stoughton had taken half a dozen bags of shopping into the kitchen already, and had been coming back for the final two, when she caught sight of someone running down the stairs from the corner of her eye. Automatically, she stuck out a foot, and the intruder went flying, ending up with a thump, motionless inside the front door.

"My God! Aunt Peg! Come quickly!"

Margaret Whitehead, thoughts of a toilet stop erased temporarily by the commotion downstairs, came to the top of the landing. She saw the sprawled figure and hurried down immediately. Louise had one hand to her mouth as she bent over the young man.

"Have I killed him?" she asked.

Margaret bent down and examined the body carefully, without touching it.

"No, I don't think so, I can see and hear him breathing. He might have damaged something, though, so we'd better get help," she replied.

"Shall I ring the emergency services?" asked Louise, moving towards the door of the living room.

Margaret, still kneeling on the floor, held up a hand. "No, wait a minute, let me think." She considered the likely possible courses of action resulting from an emergency call, and shook her head. "No, we can call them in later if we need to. Try and call Ellie, see if she is available. The first thing we need is a medical examination, see if he's in any danger. Then we can decide what to do. And, knowing Ellie, she may have some useful suggestions. Oh," as Louise moved further, "and tell Ellie to come round the back. I don't want to have to move him in order to open the front door."

Louise went off, and came back shortly, saying, "She was at home, she'll be right over. She'll ring the bell to let us know she's arrived, then go round the back. Is there anything else I can do here?"

"Get the food we brought home into the fridge and freezer, I think. Oh, and have a quick look round to see if you can find out how he got in. If he comes to, and we're not ready, he may try and get back out that way."

Margaret spent the waiting time collecting what she could find of the spilled valuables, putting them back into the carrier bag for convenience. She pursed her lips as she recognised every item, and realised that the burglar had rifled through most of her - and Louise's - drawers in his search. She began to get very angry, only calming herself by regulating her breathing when she realised what was happening.

Louise had put all the shopping away and had found the point of entry, a jemmied french window, before the bell rang and she had to go back into the kitchen to let Ellie in.

Ellen Stevens, MD, three years older than Margaret, had been her friend for many years. She bustled into the hall with a concerned look on her face, her bag in hand. Margaret stood, to allow her doctor friend room at the patient.

"What happened?"

Louise replied, "We'd just come back from the supermarket when this chap came barrelling down the stairs. I stuck out my foot and he went over. I think he hit his head on the skirting board. I hope I haven't broken his neck or anything."

Ellie bent down to examine the unconscious would-be burglar.

"No, I think you're all right this time. From the angle, it looks like the top of his head took the full force. He's going to have a heck of a headache when he wakes up. How long ago did this happen?"

"About a minute before we phoned you."

"Right. I think it'll be safe to move him. Do you think we can get him into the living room between us?"

"We can but try," said Margaret.

The three women awkwardly lifted the limp body and carried it into the living room, depositing it on a long settee, front downwards. Ellie sat down at the foot of her patient, the two women found facing chairs.

"Burglar, you said?" Ellie asked.

"Yes, that's right, he had a bag full of our jewellery in his hand. Open and shut case," replied Margaret.

"Well, you should know, if anyone does," said Ellie. "It's always worse when it happens to you, though, isn't it?"

"Yes. Next time I'm in court, I'll have to make sure I can still deal with any little toe-rags like this in an unbiased manner. I got really angry while I was waiting for you."

Ellie nodded. "Yes, it shook me up, the first time it happened to me. Now, what I wanted to ask you was, why involve me? Why not just get the police and ambulance, and let the authorities do all the hard work?"

"Well, I got thinking, I know just what would happen if I did it the orthodox way. One of two things would happen, depending how busy the police are at the moment. Either very little, and we'd be left here with him and a scene of crime officer would turn up in two days time and lecture me about how bad my household security was, which it isn't, or I'd have a house full of men tramping through for the rest of the day, and there would be days and days of form-filling, and eventually that little sod would get left off with a caution, if anything happened at all." Ellie nodded, and Margaret continued, "I decided I was annoyed enough to want to explore other options. This chap is not going to get away with this. It occurred to me that there might be alternatives. So I decided to ask my dear friend Ellie to call, and to offer some useful suggestions. I know that you have occasion to visit certain groups, shall we say, who might offer some alternative ideas on punishments."

Ellie snorted. "I can't believe I just heard a magistrate suggest punishing a criminal in a way which would almost certainly break the law itself," she said, but her eyes twinkled. "Besides, it was three years ago, that business with those women who ran that dungeon."

"I know, but I also know you still go out to visit some other fringe groups, like that trans-gender club on Kirby Street. I know you still have the connections," Margaret said, adding, "but that wasn't quite what I meant. I'm a magistrate, true, and that gives me a little leverage. I think I can get a charge to stick, this time. Problem then would be, he'd be in and out in about six months, and he'd be no different to what he is today. Might even try to come back and rob us again. No, what I think I want to do is explore the idea of a "community service" alternative, if you like."

"Community service?" Louise asked, "You mean, like picking up litter? Washing out graffiti, that sort of thing?"

"No, I was thinking a little closer to home, actually. Look, he's beginning to stir. Perhaps we ought to make sure he doesn't bolt first, then we can find out who he is."

"Debag him," said Ellie promptly.

"What?"

"Pull his jeans down. That'll stop him running out. Use the belt to tie his hands."

Margaret viewed her friend with interest. "My, Ellie, you do seem to be moving in some intriguing circles these days. We must have a long evening soon with a bottle or two of wine."

Louise had already got up and crossed to the settee. She moved the body to reach the belt, unbuckled it, and pulled it out. She reached under again and undid the waist and fly, and Ellie then pulled the jeans down so that they were bunched over his ankles. Louise, meanwhile, crossed his wrists behind his back and looped the belt round them several times before doing up the buckle. The young man groaned, and tried to raise his head. After a while he regained full consciousness, and at that point realised that he was being watched by, presumably, the owners of the house. He became very still, watching them. Ellie, still at the foot of the settee, was out of his line of vision.

"Awake, then, I see," said Margaret. The young man said nothing, but tried to move, and then realised that he had been secured. His face changed.

"You don't move from there until we get answers," Margaret said sternly. "So it's in your interest to speak up. Now, what's your name?"

The man's face changed to a sneer. "I don't have to tell you nothing," he said, wincing as his head started pounding. "I'll answer my name to the police, and that's all."

"You picked the wrong house to burgle this time, young man," Margaret said, sharply. "I don't know you, but I know your type. I'm a local magistrate, and even if I don't take your case, I can make sure the result will be most unpleasant for you. So, what's your name?"

The young man stared at her with a mixture of hate and fear - and not a little pain from his throbbing head. Eventually, common sense drove him to speak.

"Everett. Anthony Everett."

"Middle names?"

"No."

"You're not local, otherwise I'd have recognised you. Where are you from?"

The man's eyes shifted. "Here and there."

"What do you mean by that? Where do you live at the moment?"

His eyes dropped. "Nowhere, actually. I'm just dossing where I can find a spot."

"You mean, you have no current address? You're on the streets?"

His face twisted. "Yeah, got evicted last week, couldn't pay the rent." He winced as another pain went through his head.

"I'm assuming you have a criminal record. You've been inside?"

"Not recent. Did some juvenile a few years back."

"Probation?"

"No, not at the moment." If he had been, the Probation Service might have found him a place in a hostel till he'd found his feet again.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty two. I think."

"You think?"

"I know my birthday, not sure which year."

Ellie spoke, which startled Ant, as he hadn't realised that a third person was in the room.

"I think it's time we sat you up," she said, "I want to give you something for that headache you must surely have."

Ellie and Louise got up, and manoeuvred Ant into a sitting position. Ellie opened her bag, and got out her light.

"I'm a doctor, so don't play up when I examine you, okay?"

She shone the light into Ant's eyes, then made him open his mouth and checked in case he'd bitten his tongue or his cheek when he fell.

"Right. This is a bit irregular, but I'm going to give you a shot to help the pain. I'll put it in your leg since that's already exposed. Louise," she asked, "can you fetch me a wet flannel? I think we need to try and cool his forehead. Oh, and bring a glass of water for him. He may be a burglar, but he's still human, and he's my patient for the time being."

Louise left the room in search of a flannel. Ellie swabbed, then gave Ant a shot with a disposable syringe. His head hurt sufficiently he didn't notice the prick of the needle. He sat, uncomfortably, on the settee, and looked at Margaret.

"Why've you tied me up, then?" he asked. "Why haven't you got the police in, or something?"

"That's a very good question," Margaret answered, "And we were just discussing what to do with you when you woke up. Let me see. No rent, which means you've probably no money. That means you've probably no job, either, am I right? When was the last time you ate?"

Ant lowered his gaze. "Yesterday morning."

"That's a lie," said Louise, returning, "he's had a meal in the kitchen here, before he started turning over the rooms. I would guess he's pretty hungry, if he'd eat before thieving."

"I meant before that," said Ant. "That's the last meal I had before coming here."

"And before yesterday?"

"The morning before," he admitted. Louise approached him, handing the wet flannel to Ellie. He accepted a few sips of water from the glass Louise held.

"Right, now lean your head back along the back of the settee," instructed Ellie. Ant squirmed into a new semi-reclined position, and Ellie laid the folded flannel on his forehead. He closed his eyes as the pain began to subside. Ellie got up and beckoned the other two over to a position by the door, so that they could confer without too much being overheard.

"No home, no money, not local, no-one's going to miss him," remarked Ellie. "What did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure," replied Margaret, her forehead wrinkled in thought. "I wondered whether or not we could keep him here, make him work off the cost of the burglary."

"He didn't actually get away with anything," Louise pointed out, "what other cost is there?"

"There's the damage to the french window for a start," said Margaret. "Also, he's eaten food. Trivial, I know, but I wondered if a few weeks of household chores, in return for board and lodging, might do him more good than sitting in a police cell for a day or two, or a month or two in the nearest prison, or even having to sleep in a derelict building."

"How are you going to do that?" questioned Louise. "What's to stop him just bolting at the first opportunity? I know I'm here most of the time, but I'm in my office, writing. I can't supervise someone like that. If he goes, he'd probably take all our valuables with him. He'd have all the time in the world to find out where we kept everything."

"Yes, I know, and that's where I thought Ellie might contribute. I know you have some connections to alternative circles through your community work. There must be ways we can keep him in check, restraints, that sort of thing. You know, I can't believe I've just asked you that, I'm sorry, Ellie."

"Don't be, you know where my work takes me. You're talking of manacles, that sort of thing? Yes, I know where can lay my hands on almost any kind of restraint you can think of like that, and probably several kinds you wouldn't even dream of. A couple of those bondage clubs have some very inventive members. But I don't think that would necessarily work. It'd be no different to prison, really, and he'd resent it the whole time. No, thinking about your problem, what you want to do is change his behaviour for good, and that's a different proposition. Hmm. There might be a way to do it, but he's a little old. If we attempt it, we may have to supplement the equipment with a little medication to keep him calmed down. I can give him that, even prescribe it, as a treatment for the concussion he probably has. Now," she said, moving closer to the other two, "have either of you ever heard of ...?"

*****

"No!" blurted out Louise, loudly, causing Ant to open his eyes, "Is that even legal?"

"Actually, yes, it can be," replied Ellie, "if the explicit consent of all parties is given."

Margaret nodded. "I remember a case about eighteen months ago," she said, "I wasn't involved, but it was so unusual that all the judicial staff talked about it for days afterwards. The case was dismissed, if I remember rightly. If we ask him, and he agrees, we should be in the clear. Now, if you'll excuse me, I was going to the bathroom when our visitor fell off the stairs, and I'm not sure I can hold it any longer. Why don't you go and look after him for a bit? I'll have a think about what you've told me while I'm sitting down upstairs."

Margaret opened the living room door and left rather hurriedly. Louise and Ellie moved back towards Ant, each sitting besides him on the settee.

"How are you feeling now?" Ellie asked.

Ant remained with his head tilted back on the settee, but replied, "Much better now, doc. Still hurts, but nothing like it did before. My knees hurt. Can you look at them for me?"

Ellie bent forward. "You've got a lovely bruise coming up on each of them," she said. "Nothing looks broken, though. I'll tell your hosts about different creams you can use once you're able to move around again."

"When will that be?" he said. "How long are you going to keep me like this, anyway?"

"I can't answer that, I'm just a friend of the house owner. You should find out once she comes back downstairs."

Eventually, Margaret re-appeared and sat down in front of Ant. He sat up a bit straighter.

"I have a few more questions to ask you, then I'll decide what we might do with you. I'm expecting honest answers, too. If you tell me any tales, the consequences might not be in your favour. I can probably check most facts you tell me, anyway, so it's not going to be worthwhile making things up."

Ant looked at Margaret, saying nothing, but eventually he gave a very small nod.

"First, let me review. You've no job, no home, no money. You're not in probation, you're not out on bail, you're not wanted by the police - yet. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"Have you any family?"

"I did once. Don't know where any of them are now."

"Parents?"

"Dad left when I was young. No idea where my Mum is."

"Brothers or sisters?"

"One brother, two sisters. All have different fathers. Don't know where any of them live, either."

"You have any belongings stored anywhere? With friends, maybe?"

"No. I didn't have much anyway. Some got nicked when I was evicted. The rest I had to sell to get food. Friends? They all hopped it when they found out I was in trouble."

"Mobile phone?"

"Pawned that."

"Do you drink, take drugs, smoke tobacco?"

"No. At least, not now. Can't afford it. Used to smoke a bit, like a drink when I can get it. Can't do drugs, I get some kind of reaction. Doc here might know about that."

Ellie looked at Ant with interest. "We might discuss that at another time."

"What was your last job?"

"Shelf stacking in the local supermarket. Lost it because they reduced the opening hours. Wasn't my fault, but I guess the manager had a choice of who he let go, and I've got a record. Bastard."

Margaret pursed her lips at the curse, but she'd heard worse. She had some sympathy for the young man. One of the big problems with the justice system was keeping people with a record from breaking the law again, but with almost everyone discriminating against them, it was an uphill task.

"Very well," she said, "There are a number of ways I can deal with you. You will not find any of them pleasant, but the end results may be quite different, depending on what we decide. A lot will depend on whether you really wish to get off the crime treadmill."

Ant did. He'd had enough of being hungry and cold. However, if your back is against the wall, and the choice is thieve or starve, he knew what he would choose.

"First, I can just let you go. Push you out on the street, forget about the burglary, and everybody goes about their business. However, that doesn't get you your next meal, or a job, or a home, and it leaves me with a broken french door and a house to tidy up, and I don't think I'm inclined to let you get away with that."

Ant understood that. He understood payback perfectly. He would do the same if he had been the householder.

"Next, I can just call up the police, and hand you over. Don't even think about claiming false imprisonment or any of that nonsense. I will make sure you get a custodial sentence whatever you do. You would probably be sent down for three months, possibly six, and when you came out you'd be back to square one. The third option I want to give you is a bit different. You need a job and a home. I might be prepared to offer you both a job and board and lodging to go with it."

Ant's eyes opened wide. What was the old fool thinking of? Alongside him, he heard the younger woman, the one called Louise, give a sharp intake of breath. The woman opposite held up a finger.

"There will be stringent conditions, and also payback. But I'm offering you the chance to turn your life around, and I suggest you consider my offer seriously. I also realise that you're thinking, 'If I'm here, I will have all the time in the world to find all the valuables and make a getaway,' but that is not going to work. At least, I plan to make sure that doesn't happen. Are you interested?"

Despite himself, Ant was interested. He couldn't imagine what the magistrate wanted with him, enough to feed him and put him up. It was worth listening to what she had to say, anyway. He nodded, though the effort made his head pound again.

"This is a big house," Margaret began, "and it takes quite a lot of upkeep. There's just my niece and myself living here, and we're both quite busy. I've been thinking for some time now that we needed to get a cleaning woman in, or something similar, to help keep the house tidy and do the usual housework. I'm asking you if you might want to do that, instead. Are you afraid of hard work?"

"No, ma'am," replied Ant. Margaret noticed the deference, and recognised that his interest was real. The young man was now, effectively, undergoing a job interview despite the strange circumstances.

"The work would be cleaning, washing, cooking and other household duties. I don't expect you to do everything straight away, we'd let you pick up speed over a period of time. Can you cook at all?"

"Not really, ma'am. Bacon and eggs and toast is about all."

"We can teach you what you need to know. We don't eat fancy food here, in any case. We don't intend treating you like a skivvy, it'll be a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, except that in this case, most of your pay will go towards your own board and lodging, and paying for the damage. We'd pay you a small allowance as well, which will go into your own bank account."

"Considering I broke in your house, that's generous, ma'am."

"I haven't finished yet! There are conditions attached, as you know there must be. Firstly, since I would be properly employing you, there will be a written contract, which you will have to sign, and which you will have to stick to. Secondly, I don't trust you an inch, and until you can demonstrate to me that you are worthy of my trust - and Louise's - you must expect your freedom to be restricted. This will probably mean that you get locked in your room at night and when the house is empty. Possibly other restrictions as we think of them."

Ant nodded. What she was proposing was only fair. Also, if it gave him square meals and a roof over his head, it would still be better than the local prison.

"Finally, if the sum of your possessions is what you're wearing, I think we'll have to find you clothing more suitable to the job you will be doing. How long have you been wearing those?"

"I don't know, ma'am. Four days, five days, maybe?"

"Ugh. And I suppose you haven't had a bath, or even washed, since you got evicted? Very well. The clothing we would give you instead would have three purposes, firstly, it would be more appropriate to what you would be doing here. Secondly, it might deter you from wanting to leave. Thirdly, if you decided to do a runner, it would make you more obvious. What do you think to my proposal?"

An orange jumpsuit? Some kind of uniform? Ant decided that he could live with that, although it made things less different to prison. Still, if he stayed inside the house, who was to know? Do his job, keep his head down, and the future could take care of itself.

"Ah, ma'am? How long were you thinking of keeping me? In the job, I mean?"

"I hadn't got that far. What do you think of my idea of a job, first?"

"As I said, it's very generous, ma'am, given the circumstances. I understand the restrictions you might want to put on me. The offer of clothes is generous, too."

"You might not think so when you see what I have in mind. Are you interested?"

"Yes, ma'am. Although I'd probably say yes to any offer of a bed and a hot meal just at the moment."

"Very well. Suppose I offer you a minimum of a month, that will probably be how long it will take you to build up to doing everything properly, and a review after three months. At that point you can decide if you want to stay or move on. But I insist on you doing one month minimum as payback for the break-in. The movement restrictions and the clothes I provide will also be payback."

"I understand, ma'am." Ant understood payback. There was a distinct vagueness, and a hint of unpleasantness, in what was being proposed to him. But there had been plenty of unpleasantness in his life so far, he could put up with it if it got him off the treadmill for a while. The work sounded as if it could be quite hard, but with only two people in the house, three, he amended, he would obviously have his own presence to allow for as well, things didn't sound too tough to handle. He made up his mind.

"I'll do it, ma'am. If you'll take me."

"Very well. I'm afraid we're going to have to keep you like you are for a while until I get a few arrangements made. Ellie, can I have a word with you in the hall?"

"Why certainly. Only, I can't stay too much longer, I have a surgery in half an hour."

"Oh! Yes, of course. I just want some advice."

The two women got up and walked into the hall. Louise also got up, and crossing to the mantelpiece, brought back a framed photograph which she held so that Ant could see it.

"See this? This is the presentation where I was given my eighth Dan black belt. So don't think that just because you've been left alone in the room with a younger woman that you're going to get very far. Just sit tight until Mrs Whitehead gets back."

"Yes, ma'am. I understand."

"The chap you need is Guido Manazares," Ellie said to Margaret. "Despite his name, he's a local, and he also provides specialist services to some of my groups. Here's his number, just tell him what you want, and he'll make sure you get the right items."

"Thanks, Ellie, I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Well, I did hear mention of bottles of wine earlier. I must be off. I'll look in this evening around eight, if I may, to see how my patient is. Assuming, that is, I don't get called out in the mean time."

Ellie left, and Margaret went to use the phone in the kitchen. When she had finished, she made some sandwiches and took them in to the pair in the living room.

Louise had fed a sullen Ant some of the sandwiches, and the women had eaten the rest, before the doorbell rang again. Margaret got up and let in the locksmith Ellie had recommended. He had a toolbox in one hand and a sports bag in the other.

"Mr. Manazares? Glad you could come at short notice."

"Please," the newcomer said, shaking Margaret's hand, "my name's a bit of a mouthful, my customers all call me 'Mr Guy'. I understand you have a delicate problem."

Margaret explained what had happened, and what Ellie had suggested, and they discussed what he could do.

"Let's get your guest comfortable first," he said. He walked into the living room, nodding a greeting to Louise.

"Now, lad, let's have you on your front on the settee," he instructed Ant, in a tone that suggested refusal was not an option. Between Louise and the locksmith, they lowered Ant back down into his original position on his stomach. The locksmith grinned at Louise, who had a hand in the small of Ant's back to keep him still, and pulled a pair of handcuffs out of a pocket of his overalls and clipped them onto Ant's arms above the belt. Ant, who had been wondering if this was the moment he would be released, felt the cuffs go on.

"Hey!"

"Keep still, lad, or you'll hurt yourself."

The locksmith unbuckled the belt and removed it, handing it to Louise, and then pulled the cuffs down to Ant's wrists and tightened them. Next he turned his attention to Ant's legs.

"No," said Margaret, "leave those for now, please."

The locksmith shrugged, and with Louise's help pulled the young man upright again. Ant tested his wrists, and understood that his chance to wriggle out of the bonds had gone. He had previous experience of handcuffs, after all. He looked sullenly at the locksmith.

"Look at it this way, lad. You're a lot more comfortable now than you were before, aren't you?"

Margaret asked Ant, "Can I leave you here with Louise, or do we have to do more?"

Grudgingly, Ant said, "Yes, ma'am. I'll stay put." He didn't want to test out Louise, who had made it perfectly clear that she could do with the practice if he attempted anything.

Margaret led the way up to the top of the house. Up here, partly in the roof space, had been quarters for servants when the house had originally been built, consisting of three small bedrooms, a bathroom and a boxroom. She led the way to the largest of the bedrooms.

"I thought I'd put him in here," she said.

The locksmith looked around. There was a dormer window, starting four feet above the floor, which looked out over the back garden. At some time in the past, a previous owner had knocked a new doorway through to the next-door bathroom, making a tiny self-contained suite. The original bathroom door, opening onto the landing, had been screwed closed and painted over in subsequent years. The walls were the original unpainted plaster, the floors were the original boards, uncovered. The bedroom held a single steel bed frame with a relatively unused mattress, an old wardrobe, a table and a chair. The bathroom had bath, washbasin and toilet, and had an unopenable skylight at one end.

The locksmith nodded. "It's quite large, compared to some I've done, but it can be secured quite easily." He inspected the bedroom door closely. "I'll have to put a high security lock on this, of course. Do you want to have a handle on the inside? Some do, some don't. I can fix the dormer window as well, so he doesn't start climbing about on the roof."

"Ellie said something about a tether?"

"Oh, yes. The best thing you can do is anchor him to the bed frame. I can make you up one quite easily, long enough, say, to allow him to sit on the toilet. Oh, and I was going to use these on his legs, you might as well have them anyway. They'll be useful if you need to have tighter control."

He pulled another pair of handcuffs from a pocket and showed them to Margaret. This pair had a foot-long length of chain attached to the centre links, with another cuff at the far end.

"You can use them on his hands, with the long end attached to a bed, chair or radiator, for example, or to escort him around, like the staff in your courts do," the locksmith explained, "or you can put them on his feet. For example, if he's eating at a table, you clip the long end to the rung of his chair, and then you can free his hands. If you don't need the anchor, you just clip it to one of his legs. Or, you clip both short sides to one leg, and the long side to the other, and you have a hobble, allows him to get about, but not to run or kick. If he's being really difficult, you cuff his hands behind, put these on his legs, and pull his legs up behind and clip the long end to his handcuffs, that's called a hog-tie."

"Thank you," said Margaret as she accepted the shackles, "but I don't expect I'll be needing them long."

"No, he doesn't look as though he's much fight in him," commented the locksmith. "Now, can I show you some locks for the door?"

Margaret returned downstairs to the living room, leaving the locksmith to fit the equipment. She had been given a glimpse at a whole world new to her, and she didn't know whether to be fascinated or appalled, especially given her professional position. Louise and Ant were still sitting where she had left them.

"I'm sorry, Louise, is all this business keeping you from something important?"

"No, Aunt Peg. I do have some writing to do, but nothing that can't wait till we get this sorted out."

"That's good. I'm not sure I can manage him on my own like you can."

"I don't want to be no trouble, ma'am," protested Ant.

"No, and I've seen many like you who say much the same thing in court, and mean none of it. So I think we're justified in handling things the way we are, wouldn't you say?"

Ant dropped his eyes. "Yes, ma'am. I don't blame you at all for treating me like this."

Margaret crossed to a bureau and sat down in front of it, finding a sheet of paper and a pen.

"Now, let's see if I can write a contract for you. I'll keep it simple," she said, looking at Ant, "we don't need big legal words neither of us understands."

She started writing, speaking each word as she set it down.

"Contract of employment between Mrs Margaret Whitehead, householder, and Anthony Everett, was it? Let me see. In order to compensate Mrs Whitehead for damage and disturbance caused by a burglary attempt made by the above Anthony Everett, Mrs Whitehead agrees to employ Anthony Everett for a period of three months as a domestic servant - "

"Domestic servant?" said an outraged Ant.

"Yes, that's what you'll be. I don't see any point not calling a spade a spade. A domestic servant," she continued, "to live on the premises, and be provided with all clothing and meals, to be paid at the rate of forty pounds a day, thirty pounds of which will be retained to pay for board and lodging, also to pay for the damages as mentioned above. The balance of the money to be paid into an account for Mr Everett to have access to at the end of the three months. Agree so far?"

Ant was calculating the cash. The wages sounded a bit low, but if he was getting board and lodging - and clothing - it wouldn't matter quite so much. Fifty pounds a week for three months would be six hundred, more money than Ant had seen in a long while.

"Yes, ma'am. Sounds like a lot of money."

"If I hired a housekeeper, I'd be paying a lot more," Margaret told him, "but I have to feed and clothe you, and you'll be paying back damages, so I think it balances out. I don't want to pay you slave wages, I want you to be able to leave here with enough to make a decent start for yourself."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Don't thank me yet. To continue: Because the offer of employment was caused by a criminal act, the employee Anthony Everett agrees to the following restrictions. One, that he is forbidden to leave the house at any time except that he may enter the back garden in order to carry out his duties. Two, that he may be restrained as required by Mrs Whitehead or her niece Miss Louise Stoughton in order to ensure the security of the householder's property or belongings. Three, that he agrees to wear without complaint the clothing provided by the householder in order to carry out his duties."

Margaret paused. Ant looked at her, then shrugged. It was much as he had expected.

"Can't argue with any of that, ma'am," he said.

Margaret continued. "This contract to run for an absolute minimum of one month without change. At the end of the initial month, both parties will have the right to review the contract and propose changes. The employee has the right to remain employed for a further two months, whatever other changes are made to the contract. That fair enough for you?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's more than I deserve. But supposing I can't do some of the work? Like I said before, I don't know how to cook much."

Margaret pursed her lips in thought, then added to the paper, "The householder agrees to instruct the employee in all duties, and undertakes to ensure that the employee is properly trained and equipped to perform the required duties. The householder will not require the employee to perform duties he is not capable of. In return, the employee undertakes to perform all requested duties promptly and as efficiently as he is able. How's that?"

Ant struggled through the sentences. "Uh, can I read through that please, ma'am? I want to make sure I understand it right."

"Of course. I'll ask Louise here to word-process it up and make some copies. She can witness it as well, when we sign it. We'll each have a copy, so that if there's a problem in the future, we can refer back to it."

Louise went off with the paper to type it up. Margaret remained with Ant, trying to talk to him and get him to tell her about his past, which he did with great reluctance. After nearly an hour, the locksmith came down and poked his head around the door.

"I'm finished upstairs, do you want to have a look?"

Margaret said, "What'll we do with him? I can't leave him here on his own."

"We'll take him up with us, it's where he's going anyway, isn't it?"

"I suppose so. You'll help me?"

"Yes, of course," the locksmith said. He considered Ant for a moment, then said to him, "Up you get, lad, time to go to your room."

The locksmith and Margaret helped Ant to stand up, then each pulled up one side of his jeans. Then, each holding an arm with one hand, and the top of his jeans in the other, they propelled Ant out into the hall and up the stairs. Ant got the point immediately. If he attempted anything, his captors simply had to let go his jeans and he would be stuck wherever he happened to be. If that happened to be halfway up the stairs, he would likely fall, and with his hands cuffed behind him the landing would not be pleasant.

They reached the attic room, and sat Ant on the bed. He looked around. The room was quite sparsely furnished, but Ant had endured worse. The mattress seemed reasonable, the room was quite light. Through a doorway he could see a washbasin, and guessed that he had bathing facilities to hand. The bedroom door had a new, shiny stainless-steel lock mounted on the inside, fixed with security screws. The window had been fixed shut with similar screws. At the head end of the bed, a length of plastic-coated steel cable lay, the visible end connected to a single cuff which was currently clipped to the head end of the bedstead.

The locksmith unlocked this, reached behind Ant, and clipped it to the links of his handcuffs, handing the key to Margaret.

"There, lad! That'll keep you from harm till I finish business with your hostess. Why don't you lie down, you look tired. We won't be long, I just have to see to the window you broke on your way in."

The two left, and the door closed, to be opened and closed several times as the locksmith explained the workings of the lock. Ant keeled over onto the bed, trying to make himself comfortable, wondering what on earth he had let himself in for.

After a while, Margaret reappeared, carrying a big pile which consisted of bedding and towels. She was followed by Louise, who stood just inside the door. The bedding was placed at the foot of the bed, while the towels went in the bathroom, along with a bar of soap, some shampoo and some toilet paper. Ant struggled upright.

"Now, I'm going to set you free. This is your first chance to prove that you want to do this."

Margaret unclipped the tether and secured it on the bed frame before releasing the cuffs. Ant rubbed his wrists with relief. Louise held some papers, which she placed on the small table.

"That's the contract," said Margaret, "You can read it properly, now."

Ant stood, and with one hand holding his jeans, at a nod from Margaret went and sat in the chair.

He took some time studying the papers, finally saying, "It sounds more than fair. I don't think I really deserve this, er, Mrs Whitehead. You sure you want me to do this?"

"Are you sure you want to do it yourself? It may not end up the way you expect. I did say all the options could be unpleasant."

"Got to try, ma'am. Ain't going nowhere if I do it the other way, like you said."

Ant looked at Louise, who handed him a pen, and he signed the three copies. Margaret added her name, and then Louise took the three sheets and signed, holding them up against the wall so that she could do it without moving from the doorway.

"What happens now?" he asked.

"Well, we can't do much till we have you kitted out. The first thing I want you to do is to take all your clothes off, and go and have a bath in there. Wash your hair as well, everything. I'll take your clothes and wash them in the meantime. I'm afraid you'll have to stay put in here for a while. Do you read, at all?"

"Not much, ma'am."

"Louise and I have a fair collection of books between us, you're welcome to borrow any of them to read, although I'm sure most won't be to your taste. Can't do that today, though. You'll just have to put up with it."

"I've spent days in police cells, ma'am, I'm sure I'll manage. You want me to undress, now? Here? In front of you?"

"Yes, if you would. We've seen you part undressed, anyway. We need to measure you for your uniform, in any case. We'll do that once you've bathed."

Ant reluctantly took all his clothes off, handing them to Margaret, who folded them and put them on the table. He paused when he got to his underpants.

"These too? If you take these away, what am I going to wear after I've bathed?"

Louise grinned, wickedly, and Ant's heart sank. She pulled out a garment from her trouser pocket and held it up for Ant to see.

"Women's knickers! I can't wear those!"

"You're being silly," said Margaret firmly, "This house has two women living in it. Do you really think we keep a stock of men's underwear around, just in case any burglar who passes by needs a change of clothes?" Ant's face fell. "They're not a lot different to yours, anyway, and they'll be under all your outer clothing, so no one will see them, so I don't see the problem."

Ant scowled, pulled off his underpants and threw them on the table, turned, and stumped naked into the bathroom. He didn't - quite - slam the door behind him. Louise dropped the knickers on the bed while Margaret picked up the clothes, including Ant's trainers.

"That went well," Louise remarked.

"He's bound to be a bit wild at first. Just wait till he sees what we've got for him to wear this evening! He'll throw a fit!"

The two women closed and locked the bedroom door, then returned down stairs, talking as they went.

"Ellie might be right," said Margaret, "We might need a little something to calm him down until he accepts what's going to happen to him."

"Are you sure this is the right thing to do?" asked Louise. "Some of it seems, well, questionable."

Margaret shrugged. "He signed the contract. It probably wouldn't stand up in a court of law without some careful argument, but I never intended that to happen. He probably doesn't intend to follow it to the letter, either, but it's a useful tool for hauling him back into line if he gets too difficult."

Louise sighed. "Whatever happens, the next couple of days could be exciting. Perhaps too exciting. Why couldn't he find some other house to burgle?"

The two entered the kitchen, and Louise put the kettle on. Margaret dumped Ant's clothes on the floor.

"What are you going to do with those?" Louise asked as she rinsed out the teapot.

Margaret pulled a face. "I was just going to dump them, actually. I think I'll wash his outer clothes and send them to a charity shop. His underwear, socks and trainers can go straight in the bin, though. They're too foul to keep around for any length of time, and we don't want to anyway. I want him to understand that all his bridges got burned when he broke in here."

"Do you think Mr Guy wants a cup of tea?" Louise asked.

"I'll go and ask him. I want to see how he's getting on with the french window."

Margaret walked into the room at the rear where the damaged window was.

"Ah, Mrs Whitehead. I'm nearly finished, just got to tidy this up, and I'll be done."

"Any trouble?"

"I've made it secure again, but it's not pretty. I'd like to come around again and do it properly, if I may. I'll bring a chippy mate of mine and we'll replace this whole piece of wood, here. I can't come tomorrow, would the day after be all right?"

Margaret thought. "I've a court in the morning, it may run over. Other than that, it should be all right. My niece Louise will be here all day anyway, so there would be no problem with access."

"I'll charge you for today's work, I'll not charge you for anything else we do to this door. I try to be fair to my customers, if I didn't, they'd go elsewhere. How's your guest? Settling in?"

"So far, we've had no trouble. I'll let you know when I see you next time. Thank you for your 'extra services'. I don't know how we'd have managed otherwise. Would you like a cup of tea? The kettle's on."

"Thank you, yes, Mrs Whitehead, I would. I'll be in right away."

When the locksmith came into the kitchen he had some catalogues in his hand.

"I thought you might find these of some use. I don't handle all of the products in these, but I can put you in touch with people who do. Or you can ask Dr Stevens, she has these catalogues as well. Ah, I hope you're both broad-minded. Some of the pictures show people demonstrating the equipment, so to speak. No sugars in the tea, thank you."

He sat down and started drinking with one hand, while the other wrote out an invoice for the work and equipment. He tore it off and handed it to Margaret, who nodded acceptance.

"Oh, that reminds me," he said. He went out and returned with a form, which he handed to Margaret.

"You might find this useful. It's just a form for doing a complete set of body measurements. You probably won't need most of what's on there, but it's a useful guide if you need to order anything. There are conversion charts on the back to standard men's and women's clothes and footwear sizes for reference."

Margaret looked at the form, then handed it to her niece.

"So many measurements," remarked Louise. "What? Even length and circumference of each and every finger? Why would you need those?"

"Bespoke gloves," replied Mr Guy. "You have a flick through the catalogues, you'll understand."

The locksmith departed, and the two women returned to the kitchen, both fascinated, repelled and horrified by the contents of the little booklets. Eventually they decided that enough time had passed for their new employee to have finished his bath, and the next step had to be taken.

They climbed back up to the top of the house, and Margaret unlocked the bedroom door. They found Ant standing inside, a towel round his waist. He had obviously got up hurriedly when he heard the key in the door.

"We need to measure you to find you something to wear. You can't spend the rest of the day looking like that," said Margaret. "Suppose you take the towel off."

"Do I have to?"

"Look, you spent this morning pawing through all my intimate possessions, so I don't think you have cause for complaint. Are you wearing the knickers we left you?"

Ant dropped his eyes. "Yes," he said reluctantly. After a second, he folded up the towel and put it on the bed, turning to stand with his hands in front of his genitals. Margaret looked at him steadily, and he reluctantly dropped his hands to his sides, showing the lace underwear he now wore.

"You measure," Margaret said to Louise, "and I'll write."

This way would leave Ant less chance to try anything. After a while, he began to get restless.

"Ma'am? There seems to be an awful lot of measurements."

"It's okay," replied Margaret. "There's a lot of entries that can be filled in on this form. I shan't do all of them, but as you're here, we might as well do a thorough job of those we might need. Just keep still, now."

Eventually, Margaret thought she had exhausted all the dimensions that might possibly be needed, so they left him again, saying, "We'll be a few minutes sorting out something for you. Once you're dressed, you can come downstairs again."

They locked Ant in and went downstairs to Louise's bedroom.

"I thought I might have to sacrifice some of my wardrobe," she said, resignedly.

"It's just unfortunate that he's about the same size as you. We won't need much, just for this evening and tomorrow. Tomorrow sometime we can go out and buy him all his own things, including uniforms. If you really don't want to have those things back he'll wear this evening, we will just have to replace them," said Margaret.

"That brings up another question. If he and I are nearly the same size, we'll have to find some way of telling our clothes apart. I know, I can put an embroidery stitch on the washing labels, a different colour for each of us. I'll make sure he gets the pink thread."

The next time Ant's door was opened, Louise had a bundle of clothes over her arm.

"Like I mentioned before," began Margaret, "we don't keep a stock of men's clothes in this house, which is why you won't be wearing any. You probably won't know how to put on the clothes Louise has for you to wear this evening. If you'll co-operate, we'll show you how to put them on."

Ant's face went pale, then flamed. "I can't wear any of that stuff! I'm a man!"

Impassively she picked up Ant's copy of the contract from the table.

"...that he agrees to wear without complaint the clothing provided by the householder..." she quoted.

"Shit. I mean, sorry, ma'am. This isn't what I expected." His voice lowered, as he realised his position. "I don't want to make no trouble. What do you want me to do, ma'am?"

"First of all, I want you to sit on the bed."

Margaret put a pair of black semi-opaque tights on his lower legs, then asked him to stand while she pulled them up to his waist. Next, there was a long-sleeved white blouse, which Ant had difficulty doing up because the buttons were the wrong side. It was of an unfamiliar floppy material, not shiny, but very smooth to the touch compared to the sort of thing he normally wore. Then, she helped him into a calf-length black pencil skirt, which Margaret pulled up to his natural waist, many inches above the level he normally wore his trousers, tucking in the blouse. Finally there was an old pair of Louise's sandals, with a web of fragile looking straps all over an open sole, and a narrow two-inch heel at the back.

"Your feet are bigger than Louise's, and they are much bigger than mine, so we can't offer you shoes to wear. You'll have to manage with these sandals, I'm afraid."

That was only partly true. The sandals had been chosen so that he would have to walk slowly and carefully to avoid injury. The skirt had been chosen to slow him down as well, and to prevent him kicking. The women made him turn round so they could check his appearance.

"Not bad," said Louise, nodding. "You're lucky we're nearly the same size, or you would have had to stay naked till tomorrow. Now treat those clothes carefully. They won't stand the sort of rough treatment you gave to what you wore when you broke in."

Ant tottered over to look at himself in the mirror on the front of the wardrobe.

"I look stupid. Er, ma'am, sorry. I'll try to look after these clothes."

"Time to come downstairs, then."

Ant nearly broke his neck before he got to the bedroom door. Louise caught him as he fell and hauled him upright.

"You have to take much smaller steps," she advised. "You have to think about the way you walk in heels, especially at first."

He found going down the two flights of stairs an ordeal. The narrow skirt prevented him from stepping down the treads the way he usually would have, and he had to learn a whole new method, hanging grimly onto the bannister as he descended. Finally, he was shown into the dining room and told to sit at the table. When he sat down, the tight skirt clamped his legs together, causing him to have to wriggle about to try and get comfortable.

"Are you hungry?" asked Margaret.

"Yes, ma'am. I didn't have much before, er, when I first came in here this morning."

"Very well. I'll feed you first, then take you back to your room while we have our own dinner. We've still got a whole lot of tidying up to do from the mess you made, so you will probably have to stay upstairs until Dr Stevens comes by this evening. I expect she'll want to check your head. How is it, by the way?"

"Still hurts, ma'am. As do the knees."

"Right. Louise will stay with you while I go and prepare something. Is there anything you won't or can't eat I should know about?"

"No, ma'am. Never ate too much greenstuffs before, though. I'll eat whatever you decide to put in front of me, ma'am."

Margaret left, and the two sat in silence until she returned later with a steaming plate of food. The two women sat at the table and watched him eat. Ant decided to try and eat a little more carefully than he usually did. He was frightened by what might happen if he splashed something on the white blouse. He felt strangely overdressed in what was after all just normal office wear.

"Had enough to eat?"

"Ah, yes, ma'am, thank you. Can I have some water, please?" Ant had difficulty remembering the last person he had said 'please' to, but it seemed he'd have to learn to be more polite from now on.

When Louise brought him a glass of water, she remarked, "You are lucky you chose this house to enter, instead of certain others round here. Our friend Dr Stevens visits certain groups who have unusual ideas about punishment." In her other hand she had the catalogues, and she placed them on the table in front of Ant. "Have a quick flip through these."

Ant had fondly imagined, as many young people do, that he was worldly wise. He soon found out differently. He looked with growing horror and revulsion at the strange equipment, apparatus and garments offered in the catalogues with the understanding that he had indeed been lucky, if his present predicament could be called lucky. Finally, he turned over a page, and everything fell into place, and he realised that luck was relative. He closed the booklet, keeping his finger in the page.

"Ma'am?" he asked, resigned, "You're not going to give me back my clothes, are you?"

Margaret looked at him steadily, then said, "No."

"You're going to keep me like this, in women's clothes, all the time."

"Yes."

"Are you going to make me dress like this?" he asked, and opened the booklet to show Margaret the page he had marked.

"Can I see?" she said. Ant handed the booklet over.

Margaret looked at it closely. "No, I don't think so. This is what I believe is called fetish clothing. Do you particularly like or dislike latex?"

"No, ma'am. Not one way or the other."

"That sort of clothing is more for fantasy purposes than practical use. However, you're right, 'maid' was the word I had in mind when I decided to offer you employment. I want to get you something that's a little more hardwearing and a lot less, ah, flamboyant. I don't need you to look like a comedy french maid, just to comfortably do the job. What do you think?"

"Ah, ma'am, I think I'd rather not be a maid, but the decision's been made, so I'll just have to see how I like it, ma'am."

"The decision has indeed been made, but I don't want to unduly humiliate you or make fun of you. If you do your job quietly and properly, no one need ever know what you did in this house. Ah, that's not quite true. I do occasionally entertain at home. I suggest we wait until that occasion happens, and then decide what I want you to do or not do."

Meal over, they escorted Ant back to his attic room. The journey up proved as difficult as the journey down, even when Louise showed him how to hold the skirt hem up so that he could raise his leg enough to reach the next stair tread.

"I've brought you today's newspaper, so that you don't get completely bored," said Margaret. "Don't expect it every day, though. While you're up here, you might as well make your bed up ready. When we come and fetch you down next time, I'll bring some hangers so you can put your new clothes in the wardrobe when it's time for bed."

The women left him, Louise to go and begin dinner, Margaret to tidy up the mess Ant had made in her and Louise's bedrooms. The evening passed. Dinner was taken, and the two women were sitting in the living room with coffee, discussing what needed doing the following day, when the doorbell went.

"Ellie! Do come in. There may be some coffee left in the pot if you want some."

"No, thanks, I've not long eaten. I'm dying to hear about your afternoon's activities."

"I bet you are. Do you want to see him?"

"Of course! He's still my patient, in any case. Where is he?"

"In his room upstairs, waiting."

"You really went through with it, then? The way I described it to you?"

"I don't know about that. Every situation is going to be different, isn't it? But yes, I now have a maid, although I'll have to wait to see whether or not the whole effort was worth it."

"Gosh, I'm impressed. A magistrate, as well! Well, I'm certainly not going to tell anyone about your new employee. How did you get on with Mr Guy?"

"He's a treasure, isn't he? He sorted out our young thief, fixed up his room for him, and repaired the french window in almost no time at all. He's coming back day after tomorrow to do a better job on the french window. Presumably, if I need any more 'special gear' I can just phone him."

"He knows a lot of useful people. As far as I'm aware, he doesn't do anything that's actually illegal himself, but be careful when you're discussing the special aspects, because you might leave yourself open to pressure, especially considering your job."

"I know that, Ellie. You're in a similar position, aren't you? Coming? Louise, we're going upstairs. Are you coming?" Margaret called.

The three women trooped upstairs, pausing to collect some wardrobe hangers on the way. Ant was sitting on the bed, reading the newspaper, and he stood up nervously when the women walked in. Ellie was impressed that Margaret had already got him into women's things. She gave him a thorough examination, paying close attention to his head.

"Hmm. I think, if you don't mind, that I'll come back tomorrow, Peg. I'm not quite happy with his responses. I don't think it's full-blown concussion, not by a long way, but I want to make sure."

"We'll be going out in the morning to outfit him. Can you come over for lunch? How is your diary fixed?"

"I won't be able to get away till about two, I'll come straight over from surgery. Time's flexible, you know what sort of madhouse I work in."

"That's fine with us. We'll have some nibbles ready for when you arrive, okay?"

"Yes, indeed. If you get a problem before that, you can always phone me."

Margaret said to Ant, "I suggest you stay up here this evening, particularly if you're not entirely well. You've had a bit of a strange day, today, so get an early night, and we'll fetch you down for breakfast tomorrow morning. I'm sorry, we've no nightclothes for you, I hope you'll be warm enough. We need to get you a toothbrush, comb and shaving kit as well tomorrow. You'll just have to make do tonight. Is that all right?"

"Er, yes, Mrs - er, ma'am. Will I start work tomorrow, ma'am?"

"If we manage to buy all the things you need, and if Dr Stevens passes you fit. As I said earlier today, we're quite prepared to ease you into the job, although I won't look favourably on you if you start dragging your feet."

"I wasn't intending to, ma'am."

"Good. Well, we'll leave you now. I may look in before we go to bed."

The women returned to the living room and Margaret cracked open a bottle of wine.

"What do you think of him?" she asked.

"Seems pretty docile now," remarked Ellie. "Be careful tomorrow morning, he will have had the night to think it over, and he may decide to get out while he can."

"That's all right," grinned Margaret, "I've got my own muscle to stop him doing any funny business." She smiled in Louise's direction. "Mr Guy left us some equipment to use if he keeps acting up, and I gather is quite happy to supply us more if we need them."

Ellie switched her attention to the younger woman. "What do you think of your aunt's idea?"

"I was a bit taken aback at first," Louise replied, "it's beginning to grow on me, though, especially if we can get him to contribute to running the house. I have to spend a certain amount of my time on domestic chores, and I'd rather be writing instead. I've also discovered that I've got a bit of a vindictive streak, which I'm trying to keep a lid on. Big problem is going to be the training period, where we'll be spending money and using up valuable time having to shepherd him around till we're sure he won't bolt."

"I know what you mean," the doctor said. "I have experience of three occasions where this sort of thing happened, and two of them were husbands who willingly, more or less, took the servant's role, at least to start with. The third case was done forcibly to a young woman. I had to rehabilitate her afterwards, it wasn't pleasant or quick. Your case is a little different, in that although there's an element of coercion, he seems quite willing to play along. He's also at a point in his life where he's got nothing to lose."

"Yes. He said himself, he'd do almost anything for a meal and a warm bed."

"I think he's got the sort of character who needs to live in a fairly well structured environment. That sort of person often ends up in prison, because it's got clear rules. If he doesn't panic, he should settle in here well, and do what you want him to. You may find that your biggest problem is getting rid of him at the end."

"Oh! Well, Ellie, I hadn't got that far! I'm still planning what we need to buy tomorrow."

"A clock," said Louise.

"What?"

"He'll need some sort of alarm clock, if he's to get up in the morning. That means he's going to need a table of some sort to put it on. He'll also need a chest of drawers to put his smalls in. He can use the table that's up there as a vanity unit - wait, are you planning to go further with this idea? Do you want to turn him completely female?" she asked.

"Physically, you mean? No, I didn't. But I don't know that I can deal with a man wearing a dress. I'd rather I thought of him - her, rather - as a woman servant. What do you think, Ellie?"

"A tricky one. If he sees himself as a man in a dress, he will probably resent it, and think of himself as trapped. You didn't intend that, did you? If he can think of himself as kind of a substitute woman, even with the wrong genitals, it may help him slip into the role. In other words, if he thinks of himself as a maid, he'll act like one. On the other hand, if you turn him into a pseudo-female he may have psychological problems later on in life. Hmm. I must think about that. I'll do some reading and come back with something when I come tomorrow."

"Yes, okay. Where were we?"

"Shaving kit," said Louise, continuing her mental list. "Presumably something safe, like they use in prisons. Toothbrush. Flannel. Comb, hairbrush. Moisturiser, oh, yes, the reason I went off on a tangent. Do you think he'll end up wearing cosmetics?"

"Not straight away. I think we'll have to wait till Ellie works out the pros and cons. That means we'll have time to buy such items if we need them."

"What else? The usual - loads of fresh underwear. He's not sharing any more of mine. Tights, briefs, bras, slips, vests. Nightwear. What about uniforms?"

"I haven't thought that through yet either. I don't think we want any of those fantasy garments that were in those catalogues of Mr Guy's. Any ideas, Ellie?"

"If you remember, there's a shop down the far end of Crown Street which sells service clothing. You know, items for the hotel trade, nurses and therapists uniforms, chefs outfits, that sort of thing. I think you might find something suitable in there. If you get stuck, I might have some connections who can help out. Or you could try Mr Guy."

"That's a good idea, I'd forgotten about that shop. We'll try it tomorrow. Now, what else?"

"Footwear," resumed Louise. "Flat black lace-ups?"

"I think we'll try something with a bit of heel if we can find any," said Margaret.

"How about non-uniform clothes? The poor boy, I mean girl, won't be wearing a uniform all the time, I hope."

"We'll have a look in some charity shops. We can build up from there if we need to. We won't need anything too fashionable, at least to start with. One rule, I think. No trousers. I think it's the lack of trousers which may keep him here, at least to start with. I suggest we lock all of ours away for a couple of weeks, till we know where we stand with him - I mean her. It's going to be difficult to think of my new employee as a her."

Louise pouted. "You know I like wearing trousers. At least till the weather gets a bit warmer."

"Bah, it won't hurt you for a week or two. It may help her to blend in, as well."

"I do have one problem, one that I hadn't realised was there when we started this mad project," said Margaret after a while. "That is, at some time I'm going to have to let her into our kitchen."

"I would expect you to," said Ellie, "What's the problem?"

"The problem is that the kitchen, like most, is full of weapons. Even if she doesn't attack us in there, she could take a knife and threaten us anywhere in the house. I can keep her doing housework and washing and such like, but at some time she's going to be able to get at knives and forks, even if she's just eating her own meals. What can I do?"

"Tricky. I did mention medication earlier in order to calm her down, but if she has too much of that, she'd be a danger to herself in the kitchen rather than to anyone else. There's something else I could try, but I think we'd be getting fairly close to some ethical boundaries."

"What have you got in mind?"

"I don't know if you know, but I take some hypnotherapy classes to help people stop smoking," said Ellie. "With some suitable chemical assistance, I might be able to make her believe that she's in a comfortable place, and that she shouldn't threaten you. I think she's a suitable type, trouble is, we won't know until we try. As I said, it's ethically dubious, since I'd be tampering with her head without her knowledge or say-so."

"I'll bow to your superior judgement. Perhaps it's something we can keep in reserve if it all goes horribly wrong. I'll remind you that you suggested this whole idea in the first place."

Ellie acknowledged with a nod. "What are you going to call her?"

"More detail I hadn't got to," replied Margaret. "Do I have to call her anything?"

"It was all right with just the two of you in the house," pointed out Ellie, "you always knew who was the recipient of anything either of you said, but with three, you're going to need names. If I may make a suggestion, his name is Anthony, isn't it? The question almost answers itself. You could call him, or rather her, Toni. That's T-O-N-I, not T-O-N-Y, although the fact the pronunciation is the same may be useful when talking with others around."

"Yes," added Louise, "We can't just call her, 'Oi, you'. Calling her Toni sounds suitably subversive, I think. But what is she going to call us? Can't have the staff being too familiar, don't-you-know."

"In the standard dom-sub situation, we'd all be mistresses. That is, Mistress Ellen, Mistress Margaret and Mistress Louise," said Ellie. "To our face, she'd call us 'ma'am', just like she's been doing anyway. But you'd say, 'Take tea to Mistress Louise', if you were giving an order, for example. Or she'd say, 'Mistress Margaret asked me to call you to dinner, ma'am', if she was taking a message to Louise."

"Sounds awfully formal," said Margaret.

"It's rules, again," said Ellie. "Set up a structure, and they know where they fit in."

"You mentioned 'dom-sub', Ellie. What's that?" asked Louise.

"Some people play games, and sometimes more than games, where one is dominant and the other submissive. Master and slave, or master and servant, if you like. Some of those who do that change places from time to time, others don't. They also sometimes refer to themselves as 'top' and 'bottom' when they do it," explained Ellie.

Margaret looked at Louise. "I think two bottles of wine won't be enough," she said. "There's obviously a whole section of society out there that we have absolutely no knowledge about. Ellie, we're going to have to ask you to educate us over the next few weeks."

"Not a bad idea," mused Ellie. "It will be useful to you professionally, in any case."

"Myself also," added Louise, "I can sense a whole series of articles coming on."

"You be careful doing that," cautioned Ellie. "Make sure you don't let any personal information get out, or we'll have a local scandal, even if you're not doing anything strictly illegal. If the papers get hold of what's going on here, it might get tricky for the three of us."

"Don't worry, I'll be discretion itself."

*****

The next morning, Margaret and Louise went upstairs to fetch 'Toni' down for breakfast. To their surprise, he had already washed and dressed when they unlocked his door, and was sitting on the bed waiting for them. His face looked terrible, and it was obvious that he hadn't slept well.

"Good morning. Are you ready for breakfast?"

"Yes, ma'am. I had to put the same things on again, I hope that's all right, ma'am."

"That's fine for this morning. By this afternoon you should have all your own things to wear."

He had learnt, a little, how to move himself around in the constricting skirt and sandals, and made his way carefully to the top of the stairs. Descending to the hall was still difficult, but he had figured out how to do it, and practice would come over the next few days. They sat him at the dining table, and Louise sat with him while Margaret prepared breakfast for the three of them. When they had finished, they escorted him into another downstairs room, a reception room that had been converted into a library, and where Margaret worked when she was at home.

"We're going to have to leave you locked up for the morning, while we go out and get things for you," Margaret explained. "I thought you might like to choose a book or two to read while you are waiting."

He couldn't find a suitable book, after a short search through the shelves, but ended up with a few magazines from the weekend papers instead. They escorted him back to his room, sitting him on the bed. Margaret undid the cuff on the tether, and hauled on the steel cable to ensure that the other end was firmly fixed before clipping the cuff to his ankle.

"I did say I'd have to do this," she apologised. "Show me that I can trust you, and I'll be able to dispense with it."

"I understand, ma'am, I expected it."

"We should be back around lunch time," she said in parting.

"Yes, ma'am."

The two women set off as soon as they could, as they had a lot of ground to cover. After a while, they divided their resources, Louise going to a big chain store to get all the underwear while Margaret went to the service shop to find a uniform. They met up later for coffee in a local cafe.

"Did you succeed?" Louise asked.

"Yes, that place is an Aladdin's cave," replied Margaret, tapping one of her many bags. "I got a long-sleeved one. If this plan of ours comes off, I'll go back when the weather gets a bit warmer and see if I can get a short-sleeved summer-weight one."

"Was it expensive? Specialised clothing often can be, I know."

"No more than I would have expected, I think. What did you manage to get?"

"Almost everything. Tights, briefs, bras, slips, two nightdresses, some bedroom slippers. We still need to find shoes and all the bathroom, hair and cosmetic type things. Oh, and I found an alarm clock."

"Excellent! There's a shoe-shop about ten doors from here I saw having a sale. Might be the place to go. Then we can pass by that big chemists, and we'll take in one or two charity shops after that. That should do us, I think."

Ellie's car turned into the road just as Margaret's car turned into their drive from the other direction, so they were still unloading when she pulled up alongside.

"Ellie! Oh, are we late? I didn't think we took that long shopping."

"Hello both! No, you're all right, surgery was not oversubscribed this morning, so I got away only twenty minutes after I'm supposed to. Here, let me help you with those bags. My, you have been busy."

"Just dump them in the living room for now, I'll get the kettle on."

"Right, that's that done. Sandwiches okay for you, Ellie? I've got some small cakes to follow. Would you and Louise mind fetching down our guest? You said you wanted to see h-, her, it might be convenient to do it now, then we can all have lunch together."

"Yes, Peg, that would be a good idea. I shouldn't take too long, it's just to satisfy my professional curiosity."

"Aunt Peg?" prompted Louise. "Can I have the keys, please?"

"What? Oh, yes, of course." Margaret handed over the key to the attic bedroom and the key to the tether - which was the same one that was used for all the handcuffs.

Dr Stevens led the way up to the attic, and Louise opened the door to the small bedroom.

Toni sat on the bed, distraught. She had been crying, and Dr Stevens could see her shaking. In her hands, she held a wadded mass of toilet paper, which she was continually pulling, twisting and balling. Her nose was red, and there were black rings under her eyes.

"My poor child! Whatever's the matter?" Dr Stevens walked rapidly across and knelt in front of the patient.

"Th-th- n-n- I-I- M-m-" she sobbed.

The doctor looked at Louise. "Can you get me a glass of water, please?"

Louise went into the bathroom and filled a plastic tooth mug from the washbasin tap. Meanwhile, the doctor was attempting to inspect the tether, in case it had been too tight, but the girl pushed her hand away, panic-stricken.

"N-n-no, M-m- s-s-"

"Louise," Dr Stevens said to her as she returned, "she won't let me go anywhere near the tether. See if she'll let you take it off."

Louise crouched down, and, showing the key to Toni, reached down and unlocked the tether, clipping it out of the way on the bed frame. Dr Stevens sat on the bed beside her patient.

"Now, can you go down and fetch my bag out of the boot of my car, please. Here's the key. I don't think I ought to leave her." She gave Louise a significant glance, and the younger woman hurried from the room. When she returned, Toni seemed a little calmer, but still flinched when Louise entered the room. Margaret followed her into the bedroom, having been alerted by Louise. Toni brightened up, but could still not speak clearly.

"Ma'am, I-I- want t-to b-b-b-"

"Thank you, Louise," Dr Stevens said, taking the bag and opening it, "I think you two had better leave for a while. It'll take me some time to get to the bottom of this. No, you can leave the door, I think it's safe enough." With a warning glance, she indicated that she wanted to have the patient to herself for a while. Margaret and Louise decided to return to the kitchen and finish preparing lunch, concerned with the apparent deterioration of their new servant. Dr Stevens appeared nearly half an hour later, shaking her head.

"That boy is a mass of contradictions," she said as she entered the kitchen. Margaret looked at her. "Yes, I said boy, because that's the reason, I think, for most of what's happened." She took a deep breath, and absent-mindedly picked up a sandwich. "Part of it is he wants to please. He kept saying 'payback', and I understand that he knows he did wrong, so he expects to have to pay a price. And the price we set him seemed fair to him, even though it was a bit unusual. Problem is, it's caused conflicts in him, to the point he's just about to have a complete breakdown. He wants to show he can work for Peg, but he doesn't want to be a maid. Next minute, he wants to be a maid, but he doesn't know how to. I mean, he has a sketchy idea what the job entails, he doesn't know how to be a female maid. I suspect he knows as much about females as he does about, I don't know, penguins. Next minute, he'd rather be in prison than here, but if he did that he'd be letting you down. He's got ideas of being wrapped up in some of those gadgets in the catalogues if he does the wrong thing. He's also frightened of being beaten up by Louise if he doesn't do the job right."

Louise's jaw dropped. "I was just trying to stop him running away!" she protested. "I didn't think it would upset him that much."

Dr Stevens waved a hand in dismissal. "I understand, and another person might not have taken it so badly." Hungry, and realising that she held a sandwich, she wolfed it down before continuing. "It just so happens that you two have inadvertently created a 'good cop, bad cop' pairing for your young thief upstairs. That's no bad thing, but it's assumed gigantic proportions in his mind."

She picked up another sandwich and looked at it, then pulled out a chair and sat down. Margaret put fresh water in the kettle and set it to boil again.

"How have you left her, him?"

"I've given him a... sedative," Dr Stevens replied. "He's lying down, I think this morning's effort has worn him out. I think I've time to push a few of these down before I go back to him." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Peg, this is as much my fault as yours. We concocted this amazing plan to keep a young offender out of the clutches of a system that, let's face it, isn't going to do him any good, but we forgot to consider the person. The only real question is, what do we do now?"

"Do we even have a plan B? I don't want to seem cruel, but is any alternative even acceptable at this point?" asked Margaret. "It could be quite tricky letting him free, even under controlled conditions."

"I don't know that we can," said Dr Stevens, "he might not accept it, anyway. There's the whole question of payback, you see."

"I do see. Well, we made the mess, now we have to clear it up. You have an idea."

"More of a thought. There's an old Russian saying, or perhaps it's Chinese. 'If you have broken eggs, best try making omelette.' I spoke yesterday about not messing with his head, looks like I'm going to have to do that anyway, the state he's in. That's why the drug I gave him isn't exactly a sedative. It's a psychohypnotic drug, a bit like Rohypnol, only without the nasty side effects."

"Rohypnol? Isn't that the so-called 'date-rape' drug?" asked Louise.

"Yes. It wipes out the short-term memory and makes the subject very suggestible. It's quite useful when used in the correct way, but the after effects can be unpleasant. The drug I've given him is milder and is useful for stopping panic attacks, amongst other things. Let me think about this." She attacked another sandwich. Margaret poured tea.

Louise spoke. "I'm sorry about the catalogues, Ellie. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, it was a good idea in one respect, in that he worked out the maid thing on his own. If he hadn't, perhaps we wouldn't have had a breakdown today, but a different kind of problem when we took all the stuff we bought up to him."

Dr Stevens nodded. "You're probably right. I know what's in those booklets, and they're enough to give anyone ideas."

"They gave me ideas, all right," said Louise, "I have had trouble getting some of the things I've seen out of my own head. In fact, I had a very wet night." She blushed beetroot red.

Dr Stevens looked at her sharply. "I think I'd like a word or two with you later on, young lady, if you don't mind. You've had a glimpse into some very murky waters, and I want to make sure you understand what's going on."

"Yes, Dr Stevens," said Louise meekly.

Margaret cleared her throat. "Actually, Ellie, I wouldn't mind a word or two myself. And not just in my professional capacity, either."

Dr Stevens raised an eyebrow. "You too? Have I managed to corrupt the pair of you? Yes, of course, we can talk later on, but first, we see if we can do something for my patient. He's top priority."

"Of course."

They had cleared the sandwich plates - reserving some for their young guest - before Dr Stevens spoke again.

"I really didn't want to do this," she said, "but circumstances leave me little choice, and it may work out for the best, anyway. I want you both to come up with me, but stay outside somewhere within call to begin with. I'm going to have to do a bit of setting up. The drug should have taken full hold by now, so that should make things straightforward."

"We have to go and clear out a chest of drawers for Toni's things," said Margaret. "That is, if you still think -"

Dr Stevens nodded. "That's what I'm aiming at. Now, let me go and see if I can put that young person's head together the way it needs to be."

Margaret and Louise, after clearing the lunch things, went upstairs into one of the smaller of the five main bedrooms and began emptying a small chest of drawers ready to take up to the attic level. They had done that, and were waiting on the landing, when Dr Stevens called them up. She stopped them on the top landing.

"Right. It was easy, actually, rather too easy. I think my patient just has that sort of personality. What I've had to do is hide his memories, so there's no conflict. She is now your newish servant Toni, who's had an unfortunate loss of memory. She's a girl, so there should be no conflict there, either, though she knows that parts of her body are different to those of normal women. She won't question that. Her normal memories are still there, but buried, and there's a trigger word which I can use to bring them back in the future when she's adjusted to her position here. You'll have to train her, which you were planning on doing anyway, but it removes any possibility of her wanting to abscond. She wants to be in this house, and the unconscious memories will reinforce that. She may get weird dreams from time to time, just don't draw too much attention to them, just say they're to do with her memory loss, which will of course be true. Now, let's introduce her to her employers."

Dr Stevens led the way into the room.

"Toni, this is your employer and her niece. Do you remember them at all?"

"No, Mistress Ellen," the girl said doubtfully, shaking her head slightly.

"Well, this lady is Mistress Margaret, your employer, and this is Mistress Louise."

Toni stood up. "Hello, ma'am, ma'am. I'm sorry to have been such trouble. Mistress Ellen said I've had a nasty bang on the head which has made me lose my memory."

"Sit down, Toni," said Margaret softly. She was overcome by the change in the young person in front of her. "I'm sure we'll get you back to normal in no time." She thought swiftly. "I'm sorry the room's so bare, we'll be bringing your things up in a little while, make it feel a bit more cosy. How's your head?"

"Much better, thank you, ma'am. Doctor Stevens, Mistress Ellen that is, has given me some medicine to take to help my head get better."

"There's some lunch waiting for you downstairs. Do you feel well enough to come down, yet?"

"Thank you, ma'am. I'd like to try and come down."

"That's good. Mistress Ellen," - she had difficulty saying that - "and I will help you downstairs, while Mistress Louise brings your things up. Will that be okay?"

"Yes, ma'am, thank you, ma'am." Margaret wondered whether that would begin to grate after a while.

Ellie helped Toni out of the bedroom on to the landing. Margaret said, quietly, to Louise before they followed, "Can you manage that chest, do you think?"

"No. One of you will have to come. On the level, I might manage it, but not up stairs."

"Pull the drawers out and bring those up, and you can fill them while you wait for one of us. Get all the things we brought, and unwrap them and hang them up or arrange them in the drawers. Make sure you find all the shop labels and remove them. Oh, and take away that tether. I don't think we'll be needing it any more, but I don't want to have to answer any awkward questions. Put it somewhere safe with the handcuffs, just in case we get a need in the future."

Strangely, although Toni had to be helped down the stairs, she appeared to have less difficulty descending them than Ant did. Reaching the kitchen, she was sat in front of the sandwiches while Margaret put the kettle on yet again. By the time she had finished, Ellie had helped carry the carcase of the chest of drawers up to Toni's room and the drawers and wardrobe had been filled. Margaret helped Toni to climb the stairs again.

"We've bought you a new uniform, to replace the one you lost," said Louise. "Would you like to put it on?"

"Er, I don't think I know how to, ma'am."

"That's all right, Toni, we'll show you how to do everything again. Memory loss can be a difficult thing to come to terms with, I know," said Margaret. "Shall we help you to undress?"

"Yes, please, ma'am."

The three women gently stripped Toni, who did not appear to be at all embarrassed by the process. Louise then produced a bra from a drawer, plain white, full cup with a lace overlay. Margaret was a bit apprehensive about what would happen next, but she was astonished when Louise produced a pair of breast forms!

"I'll show you again, just in case you've forgotten how they fit," Louise told Toni. "Just stand there, and I'll show you how to put the bra on first."

She showed Toni how to do the hooks up, spin the bra round, put her arms in the loops and then settle the forms into comfortable positions. Next, came a white slip, shaped round the cups, and slightly full below the waist. Louise went to the wardrobe and pulled out the uniform, which consisted of a simple black knee-length long-sleeved dress. It was made of a hardwearing cotton/polyester mix, and had full shoulders to the sleeves and a fitted bodice, the skirt full enough to make working comfortable but not so full as to get in the way. It had a small round neckline, and was closed with a long back zip. There had been a detachable white Peter Pan collar, and two detachable white cuffs, but Louise had decided that the collar wasn't needed. The dress fitted Toni perfectly.

"Now, we'll help you put a pair of your shoes on," added Louise, " and then you can have a look at yourself in the mirror."

They chose a pair of black lace-ups, with a heel that was about the same as that of the sandals she had taken off. Toni looked at herself in the mirror.

"It feels nice, ma'am. Thank you for my new uniform."

"I'm pleased you like it," said Margaret. "Do you think you'll be able to dress like this again, or do you think you'll need help?"

"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm sure I can do it now. Thank you for asking."

"Perhaps you feel ready for some work?"

"Yes, please, ma'am. I don't know what to do, though, ma'am. I can't remember."

"Don't worry, we'll show you all you need to know."

Ellie said, "Peg, would you mind taking Toni down? I assume Louise is going to have the most to do with Toni, so I'll come behind with her and give her instructions. She can pass them on to you when you've both got a moment."

"Yes, of course, Ellie."

As Louise and Ellie walked down, a little behind Margaret and Toni, so that they could talk in peace, Ellie explained how to handle Toni's state.

"At first, she may be rather wooden, but that should go in a couple of days. You're going to have to teach her everything, I'm afraid. I had to give her quite a heavy dose to calm her down, before, and that's taken away a lot of what she may have known about the job. I have told her what dose to take, and when, but I'll tell you as well, so you can remind her if she forgets. It's quite easy to remember, every night before bed, she should take a small glass of water with one drop of medicine in it. That's just to keep her calm overnight. First thing every morning, she should take another small glass of water, with three drops in it the first week, then two drops the next week, and then one drop thereafter. It might be worth writing the doses on a calendar so you don't get mixed up."

"Will her memory ever come back, Ellie?"

"I've used a combination of the medication and a hypnotic suggestion to hide most of it. Some may come back as the dosage decreases, but I've no idea how much. I think, and I stress think, that I can get most of it back by using the code word. I shan't tell either of you what that is, to avoid accidents or slips of the tongue. I want our victim, because that's what she is, to have settled down here before I dare try that out."

"We've made a mess of this, haven't we?"

"Yes and no. Don't go blaming yourself, none of this would have happened if he hadn't decided to break in, after all. It just so happens that I think we're doing the right thing, even though we might be severely bending some rules in doing so. Oh, and be very, very careful how you instruct your new servant. She'll take things very literally to start with."

"Literally? How do you mean?"

"Tell her to wash all the sheets, and she may well attempt to do just that. All the sheets. And make it clear how you tell her to do something, or you might get unintended consequences. 'Stand in saucepan and boil for an hour'. Understand what I mean?"

"Oh? Oh! I see what you mean. Ellie, this could get rather tedious. How long is this going to last? Will she improve over time?"

"I'm expecting it to, but I don't know how fast it will happen. No doubt you - or Peg - will call me if you get any problem in the next few days, but I don't think you'll have to. I'll be dropping in from time to time in any case to keep an eye on her."

Later that evening, after Toni had been put to bed and locked in for her own safety, the three women had a final chat before Ellie went home.

Margaret asked Louise, "I've been meaning to ask you, where on earth did you find those false breasts? I've been wondering for a while how we were going to get round that problem, then forgot when we got home."

"When I finished getting all the underthings, and was on my way to meet you, I passed a shop in the High Street and had a brainwave. It's that costume and party shop next to that big Italian restaurant. I wondered whether they might have something suitable, and they did. I told the chap in the shop I was going to wind my boyfriend up, and he didn't ask any more questions."

"They're not bad," said Ellie. "Not particularly realistic, but not too obviously fake, either. Under clothing no-one's going to know the difference. They look as though they'll last a while, but you might think about getting a second pair from somewhere. It's funny, but with those in place, I definitely think of her as a her, if you know what I mean. It wasn't quite so clear previously."

"Yes, good thinking, Louise," added Margaret. She added, "I quite like the underwear you chose, it's quite pretty."

"Yes, it is, isn't it? It's a new range, not too expensive, but good enough I think I might get some for myself. I must confess I deliberately sought out feminine items, to try and rub our offender's nose in it, but that idea's no good now. In fact, it may reinforce the idea that Toni is female. Funny how things turn out."

*****

The next few days seemed strange to Toni. Her mind was still fogged, but the Mistresses were very solicitous and helped her to get to grips with the tasks they allowed her to do, explaining exactly how they wanted them done. Toni quickly discovered that, however much the past refused to reveal itself, whatever she was told by the Mistresses stayed in her brain, and she soon became proficient in her activities. She began to take an interest in what she was asked to do, and to experience pride when her tasks were completed successfully.

She got tired very quickly each day, so the Mistresses only let her work during the mornings, despite her protests that she wanted to do more. After lunch each day, she would go up to her room and change out of her uniform into a top and skirt, or one of the print dresses that Mistress Louise had found for her. Then she would spend the afternoon reading, often under Mistress Louise's supervision, before joining the Mistresses in preparing dinner, which she would eat with them before retiring for the night.

The second week, her mind seemed less fogged, although she didn't connect that with the reduction in medication. The Mistresses allowed her to do more, although they still had to curb her enthusiasm. As well as a morning's routine of cleaning, she was now getting to grips with the complexities of washing, drying and ironing, learning to check the labels to see how to treat each item, learning which items could only be worn once before washing, which could take more wear, which items like sheets only needed to be done once per week or fortnight, which items like nets and curtains only needed doing occasionally.

At this time, the Mistresses said it would not be a good idea for her to go into the garden to hang out the washing, and she had no problem with that. What the Mistresses said was right, wasn't it? She noticed that she was getting stronger, although she didn't realise that this was because she was now being fed properly, together with the physical work she was doing. Mistress Margaret came back one afternoon after court bringing a new uniform, this one with short sleeves, a larger neckline and a higher hem, which was much more comfortable now the weather was getting warmer.

*****

"Ellie! Do come in!"

"Thank you, Peg. Good evening, Toni. How are you feeling, today?"

"Much, much better, thank you ma'am."

"We've not long finished dinner. Do you want some coffee, or can I get you something stronger?"

"I'll wait, thanks, Peg. I'd like to give Toni a thorough checkover first, if that's all right with you, and then I'll join you and Louise for a chat. Is Toni available?"

"What have you left to do this evening, Toni?"

"There's still some things to be washed up from dinner, ma'am. You haven't asked me to do anything else tonight."

"Very well, I'll release you from the washing up, Louise and I can handle that. Take Dr Stevens up to your room and let her talk to you, and after that the rest of the evening is free for you."

"Thank you very much, Mistress Margaret. If you would like to come this way, please, Mistress Ellen."

When Ellie returned to the living room, she was shaking her head.

"I wish all of my patients were as polite as that girl," she said. "What an amazing transformation! When I remember what the boy was like, I have difficulty believing it is the same person." She lowered her voice. "Still, it's just as difficult to say 'the end justifies the means', but in this case I think I'll give it the benefit of the doubt."

"We've both been feeling guilty," said Margaret, handing Ellie a glass of wine, "I think what makes it worse is that she's so enthusiastic about the whole business."

"Yes," added Louise, "and to make matters worse again, she's actually better at the work than I could ever be. She approaches each task in such a single-minded way it's terrifying."

"That might be the male characteristics coming through," said Ellie thoughtfully, "it's mostly rubbish that women multi-task but men can't, but there might be a grain of truth in it. Still, it's the sort of character trait that's just right for the job, don't you think?"

"I suppose so. It's a bit eerie though, sort of Stepford Wives kind of eerie. You don't think that the man is inside, screaming to get out, do you?"

Ellie shook her head. "No, that's not the way that sort of medication operates. Although, of course, one's never entirely sure what's going on inside. By the way, I've noticed she's walking differently."

Louise said, "Yes, I've been training her to be more female-like. In the future, she's going to have to interact with other people and we wanted her to behave naturally."

"You're planning to take her out, then?"

"Not yet, no, but the time will come," amplified Margaret. "I'm treating what's happened to her as more or less non-reversible, so if she decides to leave, sometime in the future, she'll have to be able to make her way in the world. It's the least we can do for her after hijacking her life."

"Was there anything wrong with Toni when you examined her, Ellie?" asked Louise.

"No, she's fine. She seems to have taken to her new situation like a duckling to water. There's nothing physically wrong with her - for a twenty-two year old male, that is."

"So we carry on as planned, then?"

"Yes, I think so. I think I'll come back and check her in another four weeks, if you don't mind. Any more of that wine left?"

*****

"Mistress Louise!"

Louise had taken over the smallest of the bedrooms on the first floor as her work room. It was lined with bookshelves. Tables were overflowing with files and papers, and a computer fought for space on the desk in front of the window. It was the one room in the house that Louise wouldn't let Toni clean, because if she did, she was afraid that she would never find anything again. Saving her file, Louise went to the door and opened it.

"Mistress Louise! Ma'am, I was hanging some clothes on the line and there were men shouting at me! They were making noises at me, too."

"I'll come and see. Where are these men?"

"Next door, ma'am. Up in the air."

"Up in the air? What do you - ah, were they on the roof of next door?"

"Yes, ma'am. Standing on those pipes they put up."

"We'll see about that." Louise followed Toni out the back door, and far enough into the garden to see the builders, busily working on next door's roof from the scaffolding. There was a shout as the men saw two women in the garden, but that was cut short as Louise gave them an earful. She extracted an apology, and a promise to leave Toni alone if she was ever in the garden again.

Her concentration broken, she decided to help Toni finish hanging out the washing.

"Do you like being out in the garden, Toni?"

"Yes, ma'am. Leastways, when it's nice and warm like this, ma'am."

"When the weather is nice, would you like to come and sit out here when you're off duty? You could read your book, say, or just relax in the fresh air."

"Thank you, ma'am, I might like that. Where would we sit? I don't see any seats."

"We've got fold-up chairs, and we keep them in that outbuilding over there. We only bring them out when the weather is fine. There's also a table, and some big umbrellas to keep the sun off you when it gets too hot. Sometimes, in the summer evenings, we eat dinner out here too."

As they finished, and were carrying in the baskets, Toni said, "Ma'am? Can I ask you something?"

"What's that, Toni?"

"The men. They said that I was pretty. Is that true, ma'am? No-one's ever said that I was pretty, before."

Louise stopped, looking at Toni. Because Toni was there all the time, it was difficult to see her as a stranger might. Louise used her imagination. In four weeks, Toni's hair had grown out of the short cut she had arrived with, and Louise had trimmed it and shaped it a couple of times. It was still too short, really, but what there was framed the face quite effectively. Yes, with a bit of attention she might be quite passable, never a proper beauty, perhaps, but with the right cosmetics enough to walk down any street without exciting the wrong kind of comment.

The body helped, too. The thief had been malnourished for years, and had narrow shoulders on top of a narrow chest. The chest had recovered somewhat with the physical labour, but that merely accentuated the waist, which was certainly of female proportions. The hips were too narrow, but the styles of dress and skirt Toni wore hid those deficiencies well. The legs were, well, a little muscular, and not at all flattering if found on a true female, but would pass muster. Overall, the impression was positive.

"Actually," Louise said, "I think you could be quite pretty. Perhaps we ought to investigate some cosmetics for you."

"Really, ma'am? Oh, thank you very much, ma'am."

Later, Margaret arrived home and lunch was taken. Toni retired to her room to change, and Margaret and Louise sat at the table with coffee top-ups, talking.

"Some men working on next-door's roof were shouting at Toni earlier, when she was putting out the washing," explained Louise, "I told them off, but she said something afterwards that got me thinking. The men apparently told her she was pretty, and I suggested to her that we might get her some cosmetics of her own."

Margaret raised an eyebrow. "That's a big step to take. I suppose it's inevitable, but I'd not thought of doing anything like that for a month or so, yet."

"It's funny. I seem to have become very protective of her, like she's a younger sister that needs looking after. I think I've become enthusiastic about teaching her the female ropes. It takes me back to my own teenage days, even though we're both much older than that."

"It's interesting you should say that. I've been noticing that I'm feeling a bit motherly towards her myself. Perhaps it's just guilt from us getting her in this situation in the first place, but I think there's something more. This poor child didn't seem to have a very good home or family, and perhaps we are trying to compensate for that."

"Yes, I think you're right. I don't have any problem with that, Aunt Peg. I'm more convinced than ever that we ended up doing the right thing."

"Yes, I agree. Now, if we're going to carry on, I've been thinking that maybe it's time we had a look at her room. It's still a bare attic room at the moment, and she deserves a bit more than that considering her commitment to the work she's been doing."

"What had you in mind?"

"Let's decorate it, and make it a room a young woman would feel comfortable in. We're no longer dealing with the punishment of a burglar, there's no real reason she should have to stay in a bare room. Let's spruce it up for her and make it a real place she can retreat to when she needs to."

"Aunt Peg, that's a wonderful idea!"

Toni was called, and the idea explained to her. Margaret spent some time phoning decorators and getting quotes, finally selecting one who offered to do the other attic rooms as well for a tiny increase in price.

The following day Mr Guy came in and removed the screws holding the window shut, replacing them with a proper, though still lockable, latch. He also modified the door lock so that Toni now had a bolt she could use for privacy - although it could be overridden from outside in an emergency. When the decorators arrived, Toni was moved to one of the guest bedrooms on the upper floor of the house for the duration. The walls of both the bedroom and bathroom were painted a candy pink, with the woodwork picked out in a much darker red. Floral curtains now framed the dormer window, and a patterned carpet was laid to make the room feel cosy. Landscape pictures were hung on the walls. A proper - though second-hand - dressing table had been found and installed in the bedroom along with a small bookcase and an armchair. Toni was overwhelmed by the improvements to the room, and there were tears in her eyes when she turned to thank her employers.

"Ma'am, I don't know what to say. Thank you for this, I don't deserve it."

"You deserve every bit of it," said Margaret gravely, "You've worked very hard, and you've earned every part of it. Now what I want you to understand is that I don't want you to try and work any harder just because we've decorated your room for you. Decorating rooms happens every so often, after all, so this was bound to happen sooner or later. I do want you to be comfortable, though, which is why it's been done sooner."

"Thank you again, ma'am."

*****

After eight weeks, Toni had developed her job into an efficient, practical routine. Usually the first to rise, she would go down to the kitchen and make tea to take to the Mistresses in bed. While she waited for them to come down for breakfast, she would sort the washing and load the machine with the first batch. Since the Mistresses' breakfasts were usually not that complicated, she would have spare time in which she would identify supplies, both household and kitchen, which were running low, and make lists for the Mistresses to replenish.

Mistress Louise usually ate muesli, and Mistress Margaret had toast, sometimes with a boiled or poached egg. After trying different things for breakfast Toni had settled on muesli. Although Toni prepared the meal, and washed up afterwards, the three always ate together, as they did for all meals. This practice had evolved almost by accident.

Initially, the Mistresses had not let Toni do things in the kitchen on her own, but insisted on helping her, "to prevent her from hurting herself", and that was certainly possible in the first week or two. It never occurred to Toni that she might hurt either of them, indeed the idea would have horrified her. Since she had to be taught how to cook, from basics, the preparation of food had turned into a communal affair, with all three contributing to the process, peeling vegetables, rolling pastry and baking cakes. Toni would nearly always serve, and nearly always wash up afterwards, but she did not think it strange that one or other Mistress might wish to help, or that she would eat with them. That was the way things were.

After the breakfast things had been cleared away, the first lot of washing could be hung on the line, and the second batch if any started in the machine, and then Toni would clean the house. Each day she would vacuum and dust every room which was used every day, and each day she would also clean a different one of the lesser used rooms in the big old house. If there was some of the morning left before lunch, Toni would catch up on the ironing.

Lunch would arrive, and Toni would eat it in the kitchen usually with Mistress Louise, Mistress Margaret spending most of her days in the local courts. After lunch, the second batch of washing would be hung out, and then there would be an hour's ironing. After that, she would have free time, checking the washing from time to time, until about seven, when it was time to help the Mistresses prepare the evening meal. They would eat it together, talking freely about the day's events, or any other topic of interest. Toni was always encouraged to contribute to these discussions. After the dinner things had been cleared away, the rest of the evening was free.

*****

"I think you're still on a guilt trip, Peg. You should try not to let it affect you quite so much."

"I know, Ellie. It's difficult, I'm a magistrate, after all, which means that I have standards I'm supposed to maintain. I realise that what we did to Toni actually worked out spectacularly well, but the principle of what we did, I'm still having difficulty in coming to terms with."

"Well, you might not have to come to terms with it much longer. You do realise that the contract you worked out runs out in, oh, a couple of weeks or so, if I've got my dates right. Perhaps it's time to let Toni take back control of her, or even his, destiny."

Margaret sighed. "Yes, I'm well aware of that. I'm not really sure what to do, Peg. I wouldn't stand in her way if she wants to go, and I'd be quite happy if she wants to stay. In fact I'd be delighted if she wants to stay. I don't think I realised quite how much effort it took running a house this size with just the two of us. I'm not sure I want to go back to doing things that way again. Having Toni here has been a godsend, and I'm not sure we could ever find someone else who would match up to her."

"Ah. You're not thinking of extending your pact with the devil, are you? Toni doesn't deserve that."

"Absolutely not. We've done enough damage. If I kept her as she is, that would be virtual slavery. In fifteen days time, Toni gets to decide her own future."

Louise poked her head around the living room door.

"Evening, Ellie. Aunt Peg, did I just hear you say you're going to let Toni go?"

"Almost, Louise. After all, a contract is binding both ways, isn't it? She gets to choose after three months. How did your evening go? You look a little sweaty."

"I feel sweaty, too! One of the instructors had a friend over, and he got us to try out some different techniques. I thought I was pretty flexible, but parts of me I didn't know existed are aching somewhat. Let me change, and I'll join you in a moment or two."

Louise left, and the conversation resumed.

"If we want to get the original personality back, how will we do that, Ellie?"

"She's still on the low dose of the medication. We'll let her continue for the next week, and then I'll swap it for a placebo. In fact, it may just be plain water, she won't know the difference. But it should allow some of the suppressed memories to become available again, so that they will respond to the trigger word when we're ready. In fact, some of them may be there already. Has she said anything about funny dreams recently?"

"Yes, she has. She's tried to describe them to me, but it all seems so alien to her neither of us can work out what's going on. Though I did think one of the sequences might have been in a prison, but I didn't tell her that, of course. She's also had some trouble remembering things. It's odd, it doesn't seem to affect her work, but if I ask her, for example, what we had for dinner two days ago, she sometimes can't remember."

"That's to be expected, actually. The person you'll end up with will be an amalgam of the old and the new, and it's anybody's guess how much of each you'll have. You're prepared for what might happen when the cat's let out of the bag?"

"Not entirely," Margaret admitted, "I just hope that the outcome will be at least acceptable to all of us. I'm hoping against hope there won't be a big scene. Perhaps all we've done is put off what we ought to have done in the first place."

"We'll see. I think I'm a bit more hopeful than you are, but of course you can never tell."

Louise appeared a little later, refreshed and wearing a light and floaty top and skirt.

"Do you want some wine?"

"No thanks, Aunt Peg. Not after what I've just been through. I'll just have some fruit juice, I think. What have you decided about Toni, then?"

"It's in just over a fortnight's time that her contract's up. We'll wean her off the keeper drug and when she comes round, let her decide whether she wants to stay or go."

"I want her to stay, Aunt Peg, but I know that's not my decision. I've really liked having her here. I didn't realise how much difference it made to the amount of work I got done. After the first couple of weeks, which were a bit of a trial, it's been difficult to get her to stop. The house is so clean, too! One could almost, as they say, eat off the floors. I've got her to help me doing some research, as well, in her free time." Louise coloured. "I, er..."

"What have you been up to, then?" prompted Ellie. "You haven't been taking advantage of that young, vulnerable person, have you?"

Louise sipped her juice, then said in a low voice, "I've been experimenting with the handcuffs."

"You've been putting the cuffs on Toni?" asked Margaret, surprised.

"No, Aunt, worse than that."

"What? You mean Toni put the handcuffs on you?"

Louise nodded, her eyes averted. "I trusted Toni, and my trust is justified." She looked at Margaret, her face determined. "She's like a little sister to me. We talk about a lot of different things. We were both talking about what's in those catalogues of Mr Guy's a while back, and we were talking about why people would do those things to themselves. Let's say the conversation got quite... stimulating. After a couple of days of talk, I decided I had to try it out for myself." Her face was now flaming. "Let's just say that the impressions I got were very... powerful. Poor Toni thought I'd become ill." She looked at Ellie. "I didn't want to touch Toni, I like her too much to do that to her. I know what she is, and how vulnerable. I just got her to help me abuse myself."

"It's not abuse," said Ellie, "it's a perfectly natural human thing to do. It plays on normal fear and reward mechanisms and natural curiosity, and unfortunately for you, it's generally all self-reinforcing. Just be sure, if you do this in the future, that you put sufficiently good safeguards in place. People can come unstuck in all the wrong ways if something goes wrong."

Margaret added, "I have no objection, as I have told you previously, if you want to explore that side of your personality. After all, you're an adult, you can make your own decisions. Like Ellie said, though, just be careful. Have you thought of taking it any further?"

"Regrettably, yes," admitted Louise, "I've been seriously thinking of ordering one or two items from one of the catalogues. But I'd planned to talk to both of you before I went any further."

"Well!" said Ellie. "Consider this to be that conversation, then. Unless you wanted to consult each of us separately, that is?"

"No, this'll do fine. Trouble is, I don't know where to start. I've had a trawl around the Internet, but the sites I've found vary from the unlikely to the impossible to straight garbage, and half of them are probably illegal. I need information. But what I wanted to ask Aunt Peg was, if it would be possible to put a room aside to have some privacy."

"Privacy? Who from? Me? Toni? Ellie?"

"Well, no, I suppose. Random callers. Guests. Builders next door. Window cleaners. Even burglars. It would mean there would be a place that fixtures and fittings could be put up. I didn't want to ruin a downstairs room, or one of the guest bedrooms."

"What you want," said Ellie, "is called a dungeon. Just because it's called that doesn't mean it has to be underground. I know a couple who have a very nicely fitted out garage, and another pair who have a big summer house at the bottom of their garden. As for information, I think you need a trip to the Scarlet Club. Heard of it?"

"I have, although I thought it was just a party place."

"Second Wednesday of the month, they have bondage evenings. You ought to go along to one of those. Just dress as you would for any night out, you don't have to wear anything special if you don't wish to. Talk to the folks there, you'll get a lot of useful information."

"Have you been there yourself, Ellie?"

"Yes, I got called out there when one of my patients collapsed. He was, let's say, well restrained, and that actually prevented serious injury. I found a number of other people I knew there, and after I sorted out my patient I stayed the rest of the evening. That's one of the ways I got introduced to some of the alternative groups I go to visit. They know and trust me."

Louise finished her juice. "I won't be able to experiment on my own. At home, I mean. I trust Toni now, do you think I'll be able to trust her afterwards?"

Ellie shook her head. "We've absolutely no way of knowing. I'd put your ambitions on the back burner for now, till you know what state we'll all be in."

"If it comes to that, I'd be willing to help you, Louise," said Margaret. "I feel more than a little curiosity myself about the subject. But, Ellie's right, till we get Toni sorted out, we don't know what will happen. Wait till then."

*****

"Rumpelstiltskin."

The three women watched the expression on the maid's face. It went through almost the entire range of human emotions, fear, anger, boredom, pleasure, anxiety, determination, contentment. Finally, the eyes lost their glazed expression and returned to the present. The maid suddenly realised where she was, and hopped to her feet in confusion.

She stammered, "Ma'am! I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to -"

"That's all right, dear! You're not on duty, sit down, sit down. Really! This is a special day, so the routine is changed for now."

The maid sat, and looked expectantly at the woman who had spoken.

"Now then, do you know what your name is?"

The young person considered this seemingly simple request for a long while, and then answered.

"Ma'am, I think I was once Anthony Everett. But I'm not sure I want to be that person any more."

"Do you know what name you want to have now, then?"

The young person considered this request, then said, decisively, "Yes, ma'am. I would like to be called Toni."

"Do you know what you are?"

"I know I was once a man, ma'am. I think I still have the body of a man. I'm not sure I want to be a man any more, ma'am."

"Do you know where you are, and what you're doing here?"

"Yes, ma'am! I'm at your house, where I live, and I do the domestic work for you. Ma'am? Why are you asking me all these questions?"

"You lost part of your memory. Dr Stevens here has managed to restore some of it for you. We're trying to find out how much you remember. Now, do you remember, for instance, how you came to be in this house in the first place?"

Toni thought, and then said slowly, "I, I mean, he, the Anthony Everett person, broke in here and -" She hopped up again, a look of horror on her face. "Mistress Margaret! Did I break in your door and try and steal your things?" The tears started streaming as she shook her head in disbelief. "then I - then you - this is why I'm like I am now? How could I? How could I?"

Margaret stood up and clasped the young woman to her. Louise stood and fetched a tissue, which Margaret used to dry the tears. After a while, she pressed the maid to sit down again.

Toni looked thoughtful for a while, then said composedly, "Thank you, Mistress Margaret. Anthony Everett wasn't a nice person, was he? I think what you did to him was just what he, what I, deserved. Thank you again, ma'am."

"Do you know what we did when we found you? We made a contract which said you would be employed here for three months. Do you remember that?"

Toni thought for a while, then nodded uncertainly. "I think so, ma'am."

"Well, today's actually the day when that contract expires. If you wish, you can leave here, and go and do whatever you wish with your life. There's a fair sum of money put by to start you on your way. If you wanted to go back to being a man, we can go and buy you some more suitable clothing. If you wanted to go as you are, you may take as much or as little of what you already have upstairs. We consider the damage and distress you originally caused fully paid for. Alternatively, we would have no objection if you wished to remain here, doing the same thing you've been doing for the past three months, and doing it very well, I might add. The choice is entirely yours."

Toni considered the options very briefly.

"Ma'am? If I leave here, it would be no different if I was to be Toni or to be Anthony Everett. I'd have to try and make a living, and I don't know how easy that would be. Toni might find it easier to get a job, maybe, but all I really know is housekeeping. There's another thing, though. Since I've been here, I've had a home. I never lived anywhere I thought of as home, before. I've been treated most generously by yourself and Mistress Louise. I've been looked after as though I was part of the family, and that's never happened to me before. I've enjoyed looking after your house, ma'am, and looking after you and Mistress Louise as well. If you'll have me, I'd like to continue doing that. I'd like to stay, ma'am."

Now it was Margaret who had tears in her eyes. "Yes, Toni, we hoped you would want to stay. You are very welcome to, for as long as you want to. We must apologise, because we did a terrible thing to you, without your consent. You would be quite within your rights to be very angry with us."

"I don't think so, ma'am, begging your pardon. Anthony Everett, I, broke into your house and caused a lot of trouble. He also caused a lot of other people trouble, and like I said, I think he deserved what he had coming to him. I see things a whole lot differently now, ma'am."

"Tell me something, do you mind being a maid? We did sort of force it on you, after all."

"I don't think Anthony Everett was impressed, ma'am, from what I can remember. But I don't mind at all. It feels quite natural. If you mean, do I mind being a woman, then that too. The clothes were a bit funny to start with, but now I quite like the idea. Anthony used to think girls dressed silly, but Toni understands why they dress the way they do. Ma'am?"

"Yes, Toni?"

"Do you think that you and Mistress Louise might help me to become even more like a woman? Is that possible?"

Margaret sighed. "Yes, Toni, it is. Depending how far you want to go, we might have to ask you to have a long talk with Dr Stevens here. If it's just a question of clothes, or cosmetics, or hair, or how to behave, then yes, we can do that, and gladly."

"Thank you, ma'am, I'd like that. Now, ma'am -" Toni got to her feet again. "If there's nothing more, ma'am, the weather looks good, so I would like to get some sheets in the washing machine before I start the vacuuming. Ma'am?"

Margaret looked stunned, but nodded and waved her hand. Toni bobbed and walked from the room, leaving three open-mouthed women behind her.

"Did you see that?" exclaimed Ellie. "She curtseyed. Did you teach her how to do that?"

"No, it's all her own idea," said Louise. "She watched a couple of programs on her TV and she saw the maids doing it, so she decided that she ought to do it as well."

"What programs?" asked Ellie, mystified.

"Oh, I think one of them was Sherlock Holmes," said Louise. "Another was one of those period films, I forget which."

"What just happened?" asked Margaret. "Did things work out all right?"

"I think so," said Louise. "I think we all got what we wanted, even Toni. We'll have to give it a few days to see how much of Anthony is left, but we might just have pulled it off!"

*****

Louise had had an advance from a journal she wrote for, so she had taken Margaret and Dr Stevens out for a celebratory dinner. When they arrived back, in order for Ellie to pick up her car, they noticed that some of the downstairs lights were on, which was unusual when the women were out. Margaret got out her key to put it in the door, but before she reached it, the door was opened from inside by a flustered Toni.

"Ma'am! Mistress Louise, Mistress Ellen! Thank goodness you've come! Come quickly!"

"What's the matter, Toni?" asked Margaret, worried that they might have had a burst pipe or a fire or something.

"This way, ma'am, you'll see. I didn't know what to do."

The three women followed Toni into the kitchen, where an unexpected sight came into view.

"I didn't know what to do, ma'am," Toni repeated. "I was in my room, reading, and I heard breaking glass. I came downstairs and found him. I was angry he messed up the kitchen, so I hit him and secured him, like Mistress Louise showed me. I wasn't sure about sending for the police, they'd want to ask me awkward questions, so I decided to wait for you."

On the floor, immobile, was a young man of about nineteen or twenty. His hands were cuffed behind him, as were his feet, and the long link had been used to hog-tie him. Toni had taken a tea towel by opposite corners and twirled it to make a sausage, which she had then forced between the unfortunate burglar's teeth, securing it with a knot behind. The intruder caught sight of the new arrivals, and started grunting and squirming, with little effect.

Margaret considered the squirming package on the floor and said to Toni, "Excellent work, my dear. You did exactly the right thing."

"Thank you, ma'am."

She moved her attention to the young man on the floor. "You chose the wrong house to enter this time, young man. You may find it interesting to know that the last person who tried to burgle this property is standing in this room."

The prisoner became still, and his eyes flicked from one to another of the women standing over him, disbelief plain in his eyes. Then his gaze stopped and lingered on Toni, who grinned at him.

The young man fainted.

Margaret turned, and said to her companions with a smile, "What do you say we offer our new guest a job?"



Chapter End Notes:

* Regrettably, the description of the probable handling of a burglary case in the UK is not very far from the truth at all. I don't wish to make this a political rant, but let's just say that practically everyone is fed up with the current state of affairs - burglars excepted, of course.
* The pay rate quoted in the contract, for a nominal eight-hour day, would therefore be five pounds an hour, which is actually below the legal minimum wage here. Needless to say, there are many people in low-paid jobs who still receive less than this.

The End. (Complete)
Penny Lane is the author of 7 other stories.

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