“And that is a magnificent triple Salko from this brilliant young skater. She traverses the ice with ease, with total confidence and grace...”
The ruffles on Kathy Johnson’s dress blew in the breeze as she continued her routine on the ice. The purple garment was designed for maximum movement and flattery, hanging off one shoulder as the skirt rose and fell with each movement. As the star of the show, she had come on as the climax, and it was an amazing climax she was producing. Leap after leap, turn after turn, she made the rink her own as the music played, and the crowd gasped in admiration.
“She’s building up to the climax now...” She started to build up speed, launching herself into the air as she turned herself once, twice, three, four times, her brown hair immaculately held in place as her skirt rose. The crowd burst into applause as she came back down, skated a short distance and started to spin again, the movement catching everybody’s eye.
“And the crowd go wild in appreciation,” the announcer said as the music stopped and Kathy raised her arms in triumph. She stood for a moment, catching her breath as bunches of flowers started to be thrown onto the ice, before setting off and gathering them up, waving to the crowd as she did so.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the reigning UK Ice Champion, Kathy Johnson!!”
She smiled at everyone as the spotlight followed her to the gate out of the ice, allowing herself a curtsey and a wave as she stepped through the gate and walked the short distance to the dressing room. As the spotlight went back onto the ice, she stood against the wall, catching her breath before she sat down and started to unlace her boots.
“You were magnificent,” she said as she looked over to the space behind the wall. Sitting there, her eyes closed, was – Kathy Johnson, her wrists held together behind her back with rope, and bands encircling her upper body above and below her breasts, her ankles and legs were also similarly bound, while her mouth was covered with a length of white cloth. She was quietly breathing, unaware of what had just happened.
As she stood up, Kathy looked at herself with a smile, before walking the short distance to her dressing room. Stepping inside, she closed and locked the door before leaving her skates by the recliner and walking to the dressing table. She sat down and looked at herself fin the mirror. For a moment, all was fine, until her features started to blur in the mirror, and she found herself looking at a woman in her early thirties, with shoulder length brown hair, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. She stared at the other woman, her mouth opening in a silent scream as....
“Veronica? Veronica, are you all right?”
Veronica opened her eyes and found herself sitting up in bed, panting hard as she turned to look at her husband. “You were having a bad dream, I think,” he said as he turned the light on and looked at her, sweat pouring down her face. “You kept mumbling something about a skater, and then you screamed.”
“I... I’m sorry, darling,” she said as she ran her fingers through her light brown hair. “I don’t know what I was dreaming about. What time is it anyway?”
“Seven o’clock,” he said as he looked at the alarm clock. “I need to get up anyway – I have the diocese retreat to go to today. Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”
“I’ll be fine darling,” Veronica said with a smile. “I’m visiting Lady Bowness today anyway – she wants to get a group together to work on some new parish project.” Throwing the duvet to one side, she got up and pulled her t-shirt down. “I’ll go and start to make some coffee.”
Her husband watched her as she walked out of the bedroom. He loved Veronica dearly, but each October she felt unwell, and that time was coming closer...
As she stepped out of the taxi, Veronica looked up at the large ornate doors of Millstone Manor. The manor house had been in the hands of the Bowness family for centuries – indeed, her husband’s living at one time had been in the hands of the Bowness family.
Pulling her shawl around her to keep out the cold October air, Veronica walked quickly up to the door and rang the bell. It was opened by a young girl, dressed in a black dress and white apron, who asked very quietly “Can I help you?”
“Veronica Bathurst to see Lady Bowness.”
“Ah yes – you are expected. Please, come in.”
She held the door open and waited as Veronica handed her the shawl, leaving her for a moment in the hallway. As Lady Bowness was so important, Veronica had taken care to wear a smart two piece black suit with a pale blue camisole top underneath, and there inch heeled shoes. “This way,” the maid said as she pointed to a door at the far side of the corridor. “Lady Bowness will join you shortly,” she said as Veronica walked in and stopped for a moment.
There were four other women already in the room, none of whom she recognised and yet she felt something familiar about them. Standing by the fireplace were two women, one about six feet tall with long curly red hair, dressed in a rollneck sweater and jeans, with a grey gillet over her jumper. The other was smaller, a few years older with hints of grey in her black hair, in a short sleeved brown floral dress and knee length green suede boots.
On the recliner were two more women. One was the same age as Veronica, with short cropped blonde hair, a black leather dress and boots, while the other was wearing a white peasant blouse and bohemian skirt, with a small blue silk scarf tied over her hair. Veronica could see a pair of felt ankle boots under the hem of her skirt.
Most surprising of all was the young man, barely over eighteen, who was sat at the table. He looked incredibly out of place, and yet....
“Good morning,” Veronica heard a voice say from behind her, and she turned to see a woman in her early fifties walk in. Her brown hair was tied in a bun on her head, and she was wearing a heavy brown jacket with matching long skirt. Above the round collar, Veronica could see the top of a brown patterned blouse, while from the hens of her skirt brown leather boots covered her legs.
“Lady Bowness,” she said as she accepted the outstretched hand, “It was good of you to invite me today. I knew there would be others, but I do not think I have ever...”
“Time for introductions later, ladies, and Mark,” she said as she nodded to the young man sitting in the corner. “Please, come and sit down – I want to explain why I have invited each of you here today.”
As the group stood up and moved towards the round table, the young man said quietly “Why did you invite me? This is obviously a woman’s group, so why...”
“All in good time, Mark,” Lady Bowness said as she took a seat, her skirt creaking slightly as she did so. “Veronica, I believe you know a woman called Katie Colhurn?”
“Yes I do,” Veronica said with a smile, “She is quite the celebrity after her book was published. After all, there was a lot of debate about whether or not what she wrote was true.”
Lady Bowness walked to a bookcase and drew out a slim volume which she placed on the table. IT showed a picture of a woman, superimposed on herself, and the title of “CHANGELING: The story of a ghost thief.”
“Very entertaining,” the young woman in the leather dress said. “But why have you asked us here?”
Veronica looked at her. “Have we met before?” she said quietly. The blonde haired woman looked at her, before saying “I don’t know – do you shop at my boutique? I own Sharp Dressing on the high street.”
“Sharp Dressing?” the red haired woman said as she looked up. “I shop there – weren’t you robbed last year?”
“Apparently, although it happened after I left...”
“Are you sure you’re happy closing up for me, Polly?”
“I’m sure, Harriet – you go and enjoy the reunion concert.”
Polly watched as Harriet, the owner and her boss, walked out of the front door, her leather dress blowing in the slight breeze. She had worked here for six months now, and was enjoying serving customers and look after the stock. Harriet’s only rule was that the women who worked for her had to be fashionable herself, and on this particular day Polly was wearing a blue denim sleeveless dress, with a wide white collar, that zipped up the front, black fishnet stockings and knee length black leather boots with three inch stiletto heels.
It was a Friday, and the time for closing was getting nearer anyway, but as she turned to walk into the stockroom she thought she heard a noise from the rear of the store. “Who’s there,” she said as she went to investigate, but all she saw was the stock moving in the breeze from the fan. “Just my imagination,” she said to herself as she turned, only to run into someone. Who that someone was she could not be sure – all she could see clearly were a pair of orange eyes that glowed, and then nothing as she fell into silence.
Polly slowly opened her eyes, wondering what had happened, and why she couldn’t move very easily. The answer to the second question came to her quickly as she realised she was lying on her side on the floor of the stockroom, and glancing down she saw the black tape that had been wrapped around her legs and ankles. “Shit,” she thought to herself as she tried to move her arms, only to realise with a sickening in her stomach that her wrists and arms were also securely taped. The tugging she could now feel on her mouth and jaw suggested she had also been gagged with the same stuff.
She could hear voices outside, so she started to call out "plsnlpm” as loudly as she could. As she wriggled round, she could feel her hair coming undone, strands falling down her cheeks as she moved on the cold floor. To her surprise, however, she heard music starting to play in the shop outside as the door bell rang several times.
Eventually, the curtain that divided the storeroom from the shop was pulled back, and as Polly looked up her eyes widened in shock. Her captor was her height, her build, her hair colour – her, in fact, right down to the clothing.
“Just stay quiet now,” she heard the doppelganger say in her soft London accent, “I’m going to have some fun. Think of it as part of your education.”
She turned the light off and closed the curtain, leaving Polly screaming as she turned the shop lights off and left the bound and gagged girl all alone....
“Polly still works for me,” Harriet said as she accepted a cup of coffee from the maid, “In a way the experience liberated her. I don’t see what it has to do with the rest of you however.”
“I do,” Veronica said quietly. “In her book, Katie tells how she was visited by the one she thought was attacking the women and robbing them after I had left. Maybe this same woman visited your store after you had left?”
“That is always a possibility,” Lady Bowness said with a smile before taking a sip from her cup. “This person, whoever he or she is, seems to be a master of disguise. Tell me, Harriet, what you did that day after you left the store.”
“Well, I went home, and...” The woman stopped for a moment. “Do you know, I can’t quite remember. I know I went home, I must have done something, and then I woke up in bed.” Veronica shot a glance over at the blonde, her dress rustling as she moved uneasily.
The red haired woman was also looking uneasy. “Erika, are you all right,” Lady Bowness said with a genuine note of concern.
“I think so,” she said quietly, “It’s just it reminds me of the time my neighbour was attacked in her home. Not that she was a friend – or even is now – in fact, she can be a bit of an interfering busybody. It’s just....”
“Why don’t you tell us what happened,” Veronica said with a smile. Erika nodded, swallowed and began her tale.
“Erika Holding, if I hear that dog of yours barking one more time, I swear to god I will have the building superintendant on you like a dose of eczema!”
Erika sighed as she stood there, listening to her neighbour Mrs Burton complaining yet again about the noise Rover made. She did this every night, and every night Erika made some slight platitude, some attempt at apology.
Tonight, however, was different – she had a pounding headache, and just wanted to get back into her flat. She looked at the older woman, standing there in her stocking soles with a white cardigan over her long grey dress, and just shook her head.
“Mrs Burton,” she said eventually, “any other night I would stop and discuss this with you, but I need to go and take some aspirin. So, forgive me rudeness, but I have to go now.” With that, she turned and walked off, leaving the older woman speechless.
“Well, the manners of some people,” she said as she went back into her own flat and closed the door. Looking in the mirror, she picked up a brush and ran it through her greying hair, noting that she really needed a haircut.
The doorbell rang, and she turned towards it to answer. “That’ll be her coming back to apologise,” she said to herself as she opened the door, only to stand there for a few moments, staring ahead before she slowly crumpled to the floor, out for the count.
The person stared at her for a moment, before stepping over the threshold and closing the door. Picking up the heavy woman as if she was a pillow, they carried her into the front room, laying her on the floor and watching her for a few moments. Her red eyes stopped glowing as her figure filled out, and her hair shrank back and turned grey. A gesture of the hands made ropes appear and snake round the woman lying on the floor, her hands moving of their own accord behind her back as her wrist were lashed together, while her ankles and legs received the same treatment.
As the rope snaked itself around her legs, pulling the material of her skirt tightly around them as her arms were also constricted by bands, the intruder took a length of white cloth and tied a knot in the middle of it. Kneeling by the older woman, she took a wad of cloth and pushed it into her mouth, using the knotted strip to keep it in place as it was secured around her mouth.
The older woman lay there, unconscious as her double picked up her purse and walked out of the room, not looking back.
“We found her the next morning, when I went round to apologise for been so rude the night before. She said she had no memory of who was at the door – one moment she was standing there, the next she was bound and gagged on her own floor.”
Erika looked round the table. “As for me, I went straight to bed after I took the tablets. I didn’t hear a thing.”
The women looked at each other, while Mark nervously fidgeted in his seat. “These all must have been the same person, surely?” the person sitting with Harriet said quietly. “The thought that somebody could overpower women and bind them is abhorrent in itself. I confess I fail to see why we are even talking about it.”
Victoria looked over at the young woman. “What is your name, Sister?” she asked quietly.
“It is Rachel – are you of the family?”
“No, I’m Anglican – you’re an Anabaptist, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am – why?”
“Rachel, as anything like this ever happened to anyone you know?”
“I should say not!”
“What about anyone in your home town – anyone you have come across?”
“We keep ourselves to ourselves – it is bad enough we get ridiculed in the street at times, but to do this even in fun...”
“Tell me Rachel,” Lady Bowness said quietly, “Have you ever been to the Arndale Centre?”
Rachel looked up. “Yes – three years ago. I remember because we were insulted by one particular insensitive young lady.”
“About eighteen, long light brown hair?”
Rachel looked up suddenly. “Oh father, do not tell me...”
“Chapter 10,” Lady Bowman said as she passed over the book. Rachel took it at the page opened and read...
I remember when it happened – a bunch of those strict Baptist types had come into the store, to look round at scarves, and I made some snide comments about them. I can clearly recall one of them looking at me, but I just laughed. They weren’t going to fight back, were they?
The store had a strict uniform policy, which I was following. My jacket and skirt were white, with a red collar on the jacket and a slit up each side of the skirt. Dark stockings, white soft boots, and a wrap round top underneath the jacket completed my ensemble. I also had on a pink slip and a pair of white cotton briefs, but they could not be seen.
For some reason, I had to go into the stockroom after those women left, so I made my way to the large double doors at the rear of the store and went through. I remember I was looking for something in particular, when the temperature in the room suddenly dropped. I held myself, wondering what was happening, when I saw somebody out of the corner of my eye. I turned round, expecting it to be a colleague, but instead it was – somebody else. I don’t remember much of them just a pair of white eyes with no pupils and then – darkness.
When I eventually come to, I found myself sitting on the store room floor, stripped of my clothing as far as my slip and panties. I could not move my arms, and when I looked over my shoulder I saw that they had been placed parallel to each other behind my back, with rope holding my forearms together. More rope was around my chest, forcing my breasts out; as I could tell from trying to move my arms down that they were lashed to the ropes around my chest behind my back.
Looking down, I could see more rope around my ankles, but it was only when I looked at the person standing in front of me that I really panicked. She was my exact double, and my clothes fitted her as well as they had fitted me. The strangest thing of all was that she was bald.
“One moment, dear,” she said as she leaned down and yanked a hair out of my head. I screamed, only to hear a muffled yelp as I realised that taste like cotton wool in my mouth really was cotton wool in my mouth – held in by a knotted strip of cloth.
As I watched – and this was the really weird bit – I saw the hair in her hand start to grow, multiply, and fill out, until after a minute instead of one strand of hair there was a full wig, matching my hairstyle, in her gloved hand. She winked at me, put the wig on, and then walked off, leaving me struggling and trying to get help.
By the time I managed to get somebody’s attention, she had offered to deliver the takings for the morning to the bank, and disappeared without a trace. By the time I got home, she had been there too, and cleaned me out.
If I ever see her again – but who was she? That’s what I don’t understand...”
“Who was she?” Rachel looked around the assembled table. “We heard about it later, and prayed she would recover, but they never did find her.”
“Ladies,” Lady Bowness said with a smile, “It would seem that you have all had a close encounter with this person, whoever they are. Does something not strike you as odd, however?”
“What would that be,” the only other woman who had not spoken asked. She had been listening patiently, twiddling her thumbs as the tales were told. “Apart, that is, from the fact there seems to be more than one of them.”
Victoria looked over at the woman. “More than one?”
“Unless she or he is some distant relative of Santa Clause, then we have more than one robbery in different parts of the country at the same time. I should know – when was that robbery in Manchester?”
“Three years ago?”
“That was when my niece was robbed in a similar way – in Newcastle. My name is Irene – and I’ll tell you the tale if you want.”
The others turned and looked at the older woman as she spoke.
“Come on Auntie Irene – we only have a little further to go.”
Irene looked at Rita as she strode in front of her, her heels clicking on the flagstones in the Grainger Market. She was wearing a pink sleeveless top with a white faux fur collar, a wrap round denim skirt with a fringe, dark stockings and four inch heels – unlike Irene’s more conservative dress and suede boots.
“I need to have a drink,” Irene said as she finally caught up, “Let’s go to the Tyneside and get a coffee there.”
“All right then,” Rita said as she shook her head, her long brown hair moving in waves as she did so. The two walked off into the direction of the small cinema, Irene rubbing her head the whole time.
Fifteen minutes later, they were both sat at a table, earl grey in the cups in front of them. “Forgive me, darling,” Irene said as she rubbed her head, “I need to go to the ladies’ room. I will be back momentarily.” Rita watched her aunt walk out of the door towards the rest room in the corridor outside, and turned back to her tea.
Ten minutes passed, before Rita started to wonder where he aunt had gone. “Would you mind watching this bag,” she said eventually to a customer at the next table as she stood up, her own bag on her shoulder, and made her way to the wash room.
“Aunt Irene,” she said as she walked in, failing to hear the door click shut behind her. The room was cold, as her breath showed when she breathed out, but the toilet seemed deserted.
“Are you in here,” Rita said as she tried a cubicle door, but as she pushed the second one she was grabbed from behind and forced onto the seat. The next few moments seemed as blur to her, as she felt her wrists been forced together, and ropes appear out of nowhere to hover over her. Before they did, however she felt her clothes coming off her as if of their own accord, hovering in the air in front of her as the cords wrapped themselves around her arms and chest.
“What’s happngfnndg” she tried to call out as a scarf appeared from thin air and wrapped itself around her mouth, while her legs were forced together by unseen hands and rope passed around her ankles, thighs and claves. She sat there, effectively immobilised in her pink bra and panties, as her clothes seemed to move towards someone in the doorway. She could not make her out at first, but as what seemed to be a mist cleared she saw the person was her own double, especially as the cloths clad her as snugly as they had Rita.
“Have fun,” the stranger said with a wink and a shake of her brown hair as she walked out of the cubicle with the white leather handbag over her shoulder, the door closing behind her and leaving Rita stranded in the toilet. As she tried to call for help, the other woman walked back into the tea room.
“Thanks for watching the bags,” she said to the other customer. Collecting the shopping, she walked out and down the stairs, turning into Grey Street and carrying on down the road.
“Strangely enough,” Irene said as the others sat back, “Nothing was taken from Rita. Whoever it was just played her life for a few hours.”
“Where did you go to, Irene,” Victoria said quietly, expecting a particular answer.
“I ... I don’t know,” Irene said quietly, looking round the table. “Does this happen to you as well?”
“Every year, around this time.”
The other three women looked at each other. “Lady Bowness,” Rachel finally said “Just why did you gather us all here.”
Instead of the older woman answering, they were shocked to hear Mark start to speak.
“Changer of form, changer of shape,
Trickster and thief and jackanape.
Come now and visit this human form,
Make your home here, nevermore to roam!”
“Where – where did you hear that,” Veronica asked quietly.
“My aunt here – Lady Bowness – loaned me a book of old rhymes last year,” Mark said as he sat forward. “I took it to my fiend Felicity – we work together in a restaurant – last October.”
“Tell them what happened,” Lady Bowman said quietly. Mark looked round and began to speak.
Felicity was at on the couch, watching Mark as he looked through the old book.
“Come on, Jimmy – I have to go to work, you know,” she said with a laugh. She was dressed already – a checked waistcoat over a white long sleeved blouse with a scarf tied in a bow around her neck, a short grey skirt and grey Mary Jane shoes.
“Listen to this one then,” Mark said with a laugh, and he started to read the spell from the page. As he did so, Felicity laughed at the words, before she said “Hey – has it got colder in here?”
She looked up at her friend, who was standing still, the book held tightly in his hands. He looked down at Felicity, saying in a strange voice “I have been called and I have come.”
“Jimmy, this isn’t funny,” Felicity said as she wrapped her arms around herself. As she looked back, however, her laughs turned to gasps as she saw the whites of his eyes glow yellow, and then his body start to melt, to form, to change. She gasped as his dark hair lengthened and turned blonde, his body started to fill out and his chest develop a pair of breasts, and his clothes change from the jeans and t-shirt he was wearing into.....
“Oh... My... God...” Felicity said as she saw herself standing in front of the couch, the eyes yellow as she looked down on the frightened young girl and smiled.
“Hush, Felicity,” she heard the person who had been Mark say in her voice, before her eyes closed and she fell into a deep sleep. As her double gestured, her body slipped into a seated position in front of the couch, as her arms moved of their own accord behind her back.
Felicity slowly opened her eyes, saying “what happened...” she woke with a start as she realised there were ropes around her body, holding her arms and legs firmly in place. Looking round, she called out “JIMMMMYYYYYYY!” only for a pair of soft, delicate hands to be clamped over her mouth.
“They are right,” she heard herself say behind her,” the first time never quite works. Hush, child, hush,” she continued as a strip of tape appeared to hove in front of Felicity, only to smooth itself over her lips as the hands were quickly taken away.
She saw herself walk round and look down at her. “Have fun,” she said as she turned and walked out of the room.
Hours passed before Jimmy woke in the armchair. He saw Felicity sitting there, her head on her chest and her eyes closed, and as he started forward he peeled the tape away from her mouth.
“Where were you?” she said as she opened her eyes. “It was horrible...”
“I haven’t moved,” he said quietly, “Who did this to you?”
“You did – I mean I did – I mean... I don’t know what I mean,” she said as she burst into tears, he head falling on his shoulder.
“We split up soon after that,” Mark said quietly, “and I never told anyone about it – until today, when my aunt said she was having this meeting and asked me to come. I think she may have something to say to you.”
“I do indeed,” Lady Bowness said as she stood up. “Ladies, if I am wrong tell me, but do each of you have – times of forgetfulness in October? Times when you’re not quite sure what happened? I know Victoria has, and both Irene and Hannah admitted as such. What about you, Rachel and Erika?”
All five women looked at each other and nodded. “And what of the rhyme?”
“I read it when I was a young girl,” Victoria said, “the night my sister was tied up in our room without...” Her voice trailed off as she looked at Lady Bowman.
“Irene is quite right – there has to be more than one of these people around. In fact, there are six in Britain – and all six are here right now.”
That made them all stand up, as they looked at each other. “Are you seriously suggesting,” Victoria said as the clock struck six.
“I am,” Lady Bowness continued. “We are the Changelings – and it is a great pleasure it meet you all at last.”
“What are you talking about,” Rachel said as she nervously fidgeted, “This sounds blasphemous.”
“It is not – it is just different, allow me to show you,” Lady Bowman said as she walked to a door on the other side of the room. Opening it, she beckoned to the others to come forward.
On the floor in the little room lay Lady Bowness, securely trussed with ropes around her chest, legs and ankles and with a large pad of olive green tape stuck over her mouth. Her eyes were closed as she tried to speak, but something under the tape was muffling her every sound.
“Oh my god,” they heard the maid say, and as they turned they saw her standing there, watching the two Ladies Bowness. Mark walked quickly over and grabbed her, watching as his eyes turned yellow and the girl started to faint. The others watched, fascinated as he morphed into the form and clothes of the maid, whiles ropes and tape appeared around the unconscious girl.
“We mean no harm to others,” Her Ladyship said as Mark, or rather the maid, carried the unconscious girl into the small room. “We seek fun, pleasure, excitement – am I not right?”
Veronica and the others looked at each other, a smile on their lips as they said in unison “We are right.” As they spoke, the unconscious blonde was been bound andgagged, her replacement watching as Lady Bowness started to stir. Closing the door on them, the lady they had thought was Lady Bowness turned to all four of them.
“Excellent – before I arrived today, I asked four of Lady Bowness’ most influential friends to join her for dinner. Mandy, my dear, do go and prepare to let them in – and then we can all have some fun. Is that not right?”
“It is right,” they said in unison as their eyes started to glow, and the sound of cars on gravel came through the window....