"Moira Blackridge: Consultant Paediatrician and Professor of Paediatrics at Edinburgh University aged 53 years, after a short illness. A prolific author on her speciality, she also wrote a number of guidebooks to the Pentland Hills area south of Edinburgh for walking, her favourite leisure activity. She was unmarried."
Charles Redstart sipped the last of his coffee, replaced the bone china cup on its saucer and folded his Daily Telegraph. A long-time reader of Britain's leading broadsheet, he always turned to the Obituaries section after scanning the front-page lead stories. He was far more interested in the minor obituaries at the foot of the page - where frequently he learned of the deaths of patients and professional colleagues - than in the national and international figures reported above. "So she's finally popped off", he thought as he reluctantly brought his mind back to the business of the moment, his next patient.
At 54 years of age, Charles was the epitome of a successful medical practitioner with all the trappings of that success. Unusually, even for a senior consultant psychiatrist, his practice occupied the entire ground floor of the large house in Weymouth Street, just off (and in the area generally known as) Harley Street. The basement was usually let but was currently unoccupied and the attic provided accommodation for the resident caretaker and his wife. The upper floors that had started out as Charles's London pied-à-terre had increasingly become his home. He even owned the freehold or, to be more truthful, his wife did.
His wife - he really must see her sometime. Julia, 12 years his junior and the mother of his two children, didn't like town living and made only infrequent visits to the capital when they couldn't be avoided, such as when the children needed new school uniforms. She would then stay at Weymouth Street for four or five days, during which a carefully-planned series of visits would be made to Knightsbridge for Harrods, Bond Street for Ralph Lauren and to the Kensington boutiques where she bought her understated country-casual clothes, beloved of the "Sloane Rangers" of the 1980s and of which Julia was still a fully paid-up member.
He had met her as a result of her paternal aunt being one of his first patients when he struck out and launched his own practice. A dotty old soul with nothing really wrong with her from a professional viewpoint, Aunt Cicely quickly became Charles's patron and he soon found himself with a patient list of several other "ladies of a certain age" who needed to unburden themselves periodically at the cost of his substantial fees.
It wasn't long before he was invited, or rather instructed, to join a house party at the family seat in deepest Oxfordshire. It was a weekend of embarrassment for the boy-made-good from the lower middle-class background in Edgware who could hold his own in medical circles but was hopelessly out of his depth amongst the country gentry. His hosts were forgiving of his faux pas to the nth degree, assuring him that all was well, but he knew his gaucheness caused them great amusement. However, his suitability as a husband for Julia was beyond question. Aunt Cicely clearly regarded her 27-year-old niece as nearing her sell-by date, having been married at 19, the year after her "coming-out." Charles almost lost a mouthful of soup one evening at dinner when she referred to "gels" as the late Margaret Rutherford might have done.
Somewhat predictably, courtship was followed by marriage, which was followed by the birth of their twins, Richard and Emily. Both at prep boarding schools they inclined towards their mother's country lifestyle rather than his town one. He was close enough to them during school holidays, especially during the annual month-long family vacation in Tuscany. Julia played lady-of-the-manor exactly as she did at home; only there she terrified the villagers in her excruciatingly bad Italian. Charles simultaneously loved and dreaded these trips; loved them because he could turn off his professional persona for a month but dreaded them because of his increasing inability to relate to Julia on anything other than a superficial level.
He would go home this weekend and try to get back into the habit of doing so, even if it did mean spending most of his Saturdays at a gymkhana or a village fete and his Sunday mornings in the family pew at the parish church where the Benson-Lakes had been patrons for nigh-on three hundred years.
Charles's reverie was abruptly interrupted by a buzz on the intercom from Sophie, his personal assistant, saying that Lady Parndon had arrived. To keep an important patient waiting was unforgivable; to see her immediately would indicate the truth, which was that he was currently idle. Thus the wife of the Chairman of the Longshires Bank was shown into Charles's consulting rooms precisely five minutes after she had entered the building.
2. MEDICAL STUDENTS
He'd met Moira at medical school when he was in his second year and she was a fresher. They say opposites attract and that was never more so than between the English suburban grammar school boy and the Scottish privately educated daughter of an Edinburgh medical family. They seemed strange bedfellows; not that their relationship ever led them into bed and that was for no lack of trying on Charles's part. Perhaps her Kirk-influenced morals were what really fascinated him; he who had previously amassed female conquests like other young men collected rock music albums.
They settled into a steady friendship that was based on their shared interest in medicine and their determination to succeed; he against the odds of his family background and she because of her family's high expectations. After qualifying, they kept in touch with each other's careers and even worked in the same hospital for about a year. Charles was contemplating an offer of marriage (for nothing less would do for Moira) when her mother died and she announced that she would be joining her father in his busy Edinburgh general practice; to help with the workload and to look after him. Thus Moira sacrificed their relationship for concepts of duty alien to Charles.
Her decision hurt him more than he was prepared to admit and he resurrected his suppressed ambition to make it to the top in his speciality, psychiatry. He swiftly rose up the professional ladder, taking two rungs at a time whenever he could and got to the point where he decided to go-it-alone and start his own practice. That led to Aunt Cicely and in turn to Julia and marriage.
However, they still kept in touch with Christmas cards and the occasional 'phone call. One year's card told him that her father had died, that she had sold the practice and had resumed her career in paediatrics. By then in her late thirties and dedicated to her profession, it seemed ironic that such a gentle woman - so at ease with children - was unlikely ever to have any of her own.
They met occasionally at medical conferences and endeavoured to dine together whenever they were visiting London or Edinburgh but Charles was unprepared for Moira's surprise appearance in Weymouth Street almost six months before that day when he read her obituary in the Telegraph.
Whilst at university Charles had spent several vacations working as a computer operator, more precisely as a peripheral loader, spending 8-hour shifts loading and unloading spools of magnetic tape and replenishing printer paper. The guys earned very good money and on more than one occasion he contemplated abandoning his studies and becoming a full-time op. Just as well he didn't, he frequently reflected, for the giant computers he serviced in the late 1960s eventually gave way to the ubiquitous PC, adding mainframe operators to keypunch girls and others whose jobs had come and gone in less than a generation.
One lasting legacy of that holiday employment was Charles's enduring interest in computers. From his first Commodore Pet to his present top-end Dell he had been a pioneer in the use of computing in medical practice. Starting with accounting, he followed with medical records and other office tasks, leading to his current leading-edge applications in his specialist field, psychiatry.
As processor speeds increased and mass-storage became cheap, Charles dreamt of harnessing the computer to the human brain. If only he could download a patient's lifetime experience and examine it in minute detail he felt he could achieve miracles, especially for patients with severe mental disorders. Perhaps the day would come when he could even correct a flaw in someone's personality, like a programmer corrects a malfunctioning accounting subroutine.
The problem was always the sheer amount of data held within the human cranium. The computer hadn't been built that could match the human brain for speed, capacity and the ability to think. Work done in the '80s and '90s on Artificial Intelligence made great strides and the day came when an IBM computer actually beat a grandmaster at chess. Things were getting interesting. The breakthrough began with the data-compression techniques that led to people copying music CDs and storing the results on their computers as MP3 files.
The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s had the unexpected effect of hastening Charles's progress. Untold amounts of research into AI had been going on in the universities of the Iron Curtain countries, financed by governments whose interest in the technology was heavily inclined towards military applications. Without state funding, that research was coming to a grinding halt with nobody to pay for the vast computing power needed or even the researchers' salaries. Unsurprisingly, the professors and postgraduate students began looking westwards for new employers.
Charles had long maintained professional contacts within the Eastern European countries, swallowing his distaste for the way they used or - more accurately - abused psychiatry, especially with reference to political dissidents. One colleague, a senior consultant at a top Moscow hospital previously available only to the Communist Party hierarchy, buttonholed him after a conference session and solicited Charles's help in finding employment for his nephew, a soon-to-be-unemployed mathematician and first-class honours computer science graduate.
To begin with, these boffins had no idea of their worth on the Western job-market and could be hired for peanuts. True, none of them had ever needed to sell themselves at a competitive job interview and their preparation and presentation skills were non-existent. Thus Charles agreed to help Vassily Petrovich Sarnov find employment in Britain.
Vassily arrived one Tuesday morning at Weymouth Street, wearing his shabby Soviet-era clothing and carrying practically all his worldly belongings in two cheap fibreboard suitcases. After standing the famished 25-year-old two double cheeseburgers with extra-large fries, a giant Coke and two large chocolate milkshakes, Charles pushed away his untouched paper cup of coffee and took his new charge on a round of purchases; shoes, chinos, sweatshirts, underwear and a decent haircut. Sophie had been quick to point out severe defects in Vassily's personal hygiene routine and Charles was forced to instruct him in how to be nice-to-know.
There began a two-way education process; Charles teaching Vassily how to become a reasonably acceptable member of polite society and Vassily opening Charles's eyes to the possibilities that were about to unfold before them. One evening Charles was setting out his hopes for applying computers to psychiatry, should the processing capacity ever be available to do so, when Vassily calmly told him that it had already been done. Charles dropped his lead crystal glass of Glenmorangie on the Afghan rug; he was that startled. Apparently, experiments had been made on several persons from the usual set of unfortunates in Soviet society; the results had been good, though Vassily didn't say for whom they'd been good.
Charles had been planning to pass Vassily over to a friend who ran a specialist IT recruitment agency but those plans underwent a radical alteration as Vassily unwittingly talked himself into a job with Charles's practice. It would be interesting to see what the young Russian could do; after all, it wouldn't cost very much to find out!
Vassily was already familiar with data-compression techniques and had his own ideas on how they could be improved. He was amazed when Charles set him up with not one but three top-spec PCs with every bell and whistle imaginable. There was no point in spoiling the ship for the proverbial hap'orth of tar. To keep Vassily out of harm's way Charles had installed him and his equipment in part of the self-contained basement suite.
This had last been occupied by a pregnancy advisory service that had literally vanished overnight. Charles and Sophie had had to deal with suppliers and other creditors who appeared at their door in search of the missing company. They had also dealt with several frightened young women, many from abroad, who arrived visibly pregnant to avail themselves of the company's services. In its haste the fugitives had left behind the fully equipped operating theatre where most of the advice had been dispensed, frequently after the term permitted under the law.
The point came when a subject was needed for their experiments. To start with, Charles and Vassily had taken turns to have the electrodes taped to various places on their heads. It took them some time to find the optimum positions for the wires to make the best contact with the brain and facilitate the easy flow of data. Nothing was gained by implanting the electrode tips subcutaneously so this method, along with its attendant discomfort, was abandoned.
But whom should they experiment upon? People are understandably reluctant to have their heads "messed about with", as the caretaker's wife put it. The subject would have to be unaware of their real purpose and so had to be a complete stranger. Vassily provided the answer. Being young he spent most of his evenings in London's West End, displaying his considerable prowess as a dancer and as a drinker. Like so many Russians he seemed to have an almost endless capacity for alcohol. Charles accompanied him a few times on these forays but soon declined Vassily's invitations. He had long passed the stage when getting a skinful was anything other than abhorrent.
Vassily also had an appetite for casual sex. With an increasing number of Russian girls working the streets of London he frequently combined all his needs, social and sexual, with a compatriot. He even succeeded in getting price reductions for being Russian. The basement had a separate entrance so it was quite a while before Charles realised that the commercial union was using his premises.
Late one evening Vassily returned with a young trainee tart, fresh from Warrington with an appetite for that town's principal product – vodka. Of all people, a working girl shouldn't drink on the job unless she wants to risk giving the goods away. Vassily plied her with Moscow's finest pot still-strength genuine article and she was soon slouched insensible on the sofa of the basement's reception suite.
He roused Charles from an early night and told him he had found a subject for their experiments. Charles was somewhat uneasy about this and worried about medical ethics and what would happen if it ever got out that he'd been a party to what was virtually kidnap and experimentation on a non-consenting patient.
Charles decided that, at some point, he'd have to maintain the anaesthesia induced by almost an entire bottle of vodka. He realised that the basement's previous tenants had left behind them an amazing stock of pharmaceutical supplies including local and general anaesthetics. As a medical student he'd learned the rudiments of the anaesthetist's trade and had assisted in operations when he was a junior hospital doctor. He'd have to do the best he could.
They succeeded in downloading the contents of the unfortunate girl's memory in a little less than 36 hours. Unprepared for anaesthesia the girl had fouled herself and Charles had to perform the clean-up operation. He searched his flat and produced some panties to replace the girl's ruined thong. Somehow, Julia's sensible Sloggis looked incongruous against the young hooker's working outfit. He'd have loved to have seen her face when she realised she was wearing them!
They had to get rid of her at the earliest opportunity. Charles wasn't going to risk her being sick in his car so he covered the carpet of the Jaguar's boot with newspaper and they unceremoniously put her inside. A short run up the M1 to Scratchwood Services and she was left in a cubicle in the ladies' toilet, apparently one more drunken young woman who'd been used then dumped.
Nothing's ever as worrying the second or subsequent time around and Charles started to relax about their nefarious activities. They worked in shifts; Vassily by night doing the procurement and setting up the brain dump (as they called the process) and Charles monitoring the subject and analysing the data obtained by day. They scarcely gave a thought to the TV news item about the girl who'd been found dead in a yard behind a Hammersmith nightclub and whose post-mortem had revealed traces of anaesthetic in her bloodstream. The coroner had recorded a verdict of misadventure and warned young people against experimenting with drugs.
The results were encouraging and the time came when Charles felt confident enough to try uploading to a subject's brain. On the first occasion he failed to write data back, merely erasing that area of the memory. The girl (for Vassily was firmly heterosexual) would probably live the rest of her life unaware of that lost incident. Soon Charles had refined the process, erasing memories of bullying and child-abuse, replacing them with recollections of parties and Costa Brava holidays, taken from his database of events. He had harnessed the computer in the service of psychiatry and only good could come of it.
5. THE UNEXPECTED VISITOR
Sophie entered Charles's principal consulting room instead of using the intercom, her normal practice. "There's a Moira Blackridge in the waiting room, wants to see you, says it's urgent."
Charles looked up from the psychiatric journal he'd been reading and rose from his desk. What's she doing in London, he thought, the conference isn't until the month after next. Sophie broke the silence. "Well, shall I show her in?" Charles looked at his watch; 11.50am, nearly time for Sophie's lunch break. Perhaps he and Moira could take lunch together. Sophie was looking at him, awaiting his response.
"Why don't you go to lunch early, in fact, why don't you take the afternoon off?" Sophie eyed him up and down and swiftly formed her assessment of the situation, inaccurate though it was. She, like many young people, believed sex was first for recreation, secondly for procreation. Although she was a country clergyman's daughter, that didn't have any bearing on her philosophy. She kept a supply of "morning-after" pills, obtained from a temporary receptionist at the former basement tenants.
She thought her boss attractive enough in a fatherly sort of way and was sure he could do a lot better than the pallid middle-aged woman in reception. She and Charles had spent one night together not long after she started working there. It had been her birthday and he had treated her to the theatre and an expensive supper at his favourite restaurant in Soho's Dean Street. One thing led to the other and a one-night-stand. Charles was initially flattered but soon realised it was nothing more than Sophie's way of saying thank you for a nice evening out.
"Thank you very much, I'll see you in the morning then." She returned to her desk in the reception room just ahead of Charles, collecting her handbag and coat just as he embraced Moira and kissed her on the left cheek. Hmm, she thought, I can guess how their afternoon'll go. Charles saw her look back, twiddle her fingers in his general direction, walk into the hall and close the front door with a loud click. She had pointedly put the catch on.
6. BAD NEWS
Charles flushed slightly at the thought of Sophie's reaction to Moira's arrival but quickly regained his composure. Senior consultants are the epitome of unflappable urbanity, that's what the patients expect. He led Moira into his main consulting room and sat down opposite her across a low table.
"Would you like some coffee or would you like to go for a drink and maybe some lunch? "Neither, thank you", she said. "This isn't a social call." "Then what are you doing in town?" he asked. "You're not due for at least another 6 weeks." He thought she'd aged a lot since they last met only 8 weeks ago. She seemed somewhat under the weather, as if she'd been ill.
"I've been for a consultation. I won't beat around the bush; it's cervical cancer. I'd suffered some heavy bleeding but thought it was connected to the menopause. The consultant gynaecologist at the Infirmary diagnosed a tumour and I've been having therapy for a couple of months, from shortly before I last saw you. He says things are progressing well but I'm unsure. I suppose doctors make the worst patients. I decided to seek another opinion so I came down on the overnight train and saw Susan Pritchard this morning."
Sue Pritchard; Charles almost gaped at the mention of her name, Senior Consultant in Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the Nelson, a very exclusive London private hospital. She was in the same year as Moira at university and was as different from her as chalk is from cheese. Her father was a well-known surgeon and she was determined to follow in his footsteps. Her interest in all things gynaecological extended to frequent practical sessions with fellow medical students, Charles included. "What did she say?" he asked, trying to come to terms with the news that Moira had just broken.
"Says it's early days but she shares my concerns. I'm going back tomorrow afternoon and she'll be examining me again. Hopefully the test results will be available."
You bet they will, thought Charles. Moira was used to the slow turnaround of laboratory tests at the Infirmary, a hard-pressed inner city NHS hospital whose pathology samples were despatched to an outside laboratory. There they took their turn with those from umpteen other medical facilities in the city. Moira frequently had consultations wasted due to late, lost or otherwise unavailable test results. The Nelson had its own first-class path lab that, if Sue Pritchard ordered it, would produce test results leather-bound and in six colours.
"Then you must stay here," he said. "There's plenty of room." "Thanks, but I'd rather stay at the Waterford. I know it and they know me," she said, as if his invitation had been a proposition. Same old Moira, he thought, still guarding her virginity as zealously as she did thirty years ago.
Their conversation went on for some while but the mood wasn't like their usual meetings. They went to lunch but it didn't rank as one of their more memorable meals together.
7. THE BOMBSHELL
The experiments went on and the experimenters became very confident and practised in their procedures. Vassily's data compression and storage techniques developed so far that they were able to reduce the time for a full brain dump and reload to less than 12 hours. There were fewer failures and none so bad as the time when a computer "blue screen of death" had resulted in a subject losing all memory and experience, in the process being reduced to the mental condition of a newborn baby.
Charles longed to perform the procedure on a male subject, being rather tired of manipulating the contents and experience of the female brain. He asked Vassily to bring back a man for once but that caused such uproar as his suggestion was misinterpreted as a slur on the Russian's masculinity.
Weeks passed until one day Moira called Charles and asked to see him the following day. Having no professional appointments scheduled, he agreed and met her at Simpson's-in-the-Strand to avoid re-arousing Sophie's curiosity.
A few spoonfuls into the soup and Moira dropped the bombshell. "It's terminal, Charles," she said, choking back the tears. "Such bloody bad luck, when I've got so much more to do." Her own situation always took a back seat where her professional obligations were concerned.
Charles had never heard her swear before, even mildly. The same word uttered by Charles in front of her father, a lay-preacher, many years earlier had earned him a rebuke. "Can you, I mean, can they be certain?" he spluttered, not knowing what to say.
"Susan's nothing less than direct, as you well know," she said, giving him a look that showed she knew all about his relationship with Sue Pritchard at university. "Even Archie at the Infirmary has stopped trying to fool me."
The psychiatrist and the paediatrician spent the remainder of their lunch discussing the clinical details of her illness and the ever-decreasing prospects of her making a recovery. Whichever way they looked at things, the prognosis was far from good.
Moira returned to her unfinished workload theme. "For years I've thought we were only a short way from a breakthrough with cot deaths; now it looks like I'll never see it. Oh, I wish something could be done." For the first time she was subjective about her condition.
Charles stared at his half-finished and abandoned main course. After a short pause, still looking down, he said, "I think something just might."
It was madness and there was no guarantee of success. He spent days pondering, mulling it over and over. Sophie noticed that he was trance-like at times. In a classic role reversal, patients were asking him if he was all right.
Charles has been struck by a fantastic idea. What if Moira could be given a new body? By now he'd become proficient in downloading a subject's entire mind, correcting personality defects, removing unpleasant memories, then loading the amended version back into the brain. He longed to publish a professional paper and let the world know about his technique. What stopped him was the prospect of the disapproval that would inevitably come from certain sections of the profession.
What would the press make of it? The broadsheets would probably report fairly and objectively, perhaps counselling caution in their leaders. The tabloids, well – he expected he'd be equated with the Nazi medical experimenters whose atrocities would never be forgotten. He became resigned to the fact that he could never completely come clean about his remarkable achievement. That would severely limit the practical application to psychiatry that had been his prime motivation. Maybe in a remote private clinic somewhere with a trusted staff who'd been sworn to secrecy… No, it would have to remain top secret for the foreseeable future.
Back to the matter in hand; what could be done for Moira? So far he'd only dealt with one subject at a time. To transfer Moira's memory into a new body would be a whole new ball game, to use the clichéd buzz phrase frequently heard at psychiatric symposia on the other side of the Atlantic. It would take a lot of planning and time to get right. The problem was, in Moira's case, that time was a commodity in short supply.
By now he was capable of administering the procedure single-handed; Vassily was fast becoming only the procurer of subject material. However, he would have to be involved for some while yet. Charles resolved to broach the subject of extending the technique to memory transfer that evening when Vassily arose for another evening's excess and debauchery on the town.
9. CARDS ON THE TABLE
Charles wondered just how much to tell Vassily; he was none too sure of the Russian's ability to keep quiet. He'd sworn him to secrecy more than once but Vassily could be indiscreet when in drink - and that was virtually every night.
He decided he'd have to level with his young and once again very necessary assistant, as there was no room for error where a dear friend like Moira was concerned. Having persuaded Vassily that a small Soho bistro was a much better prospect for dinner than McDonald's, Charles spent the entire meal telling him about Moira, her worsening condition and his fantastic proposal to give her a new lease of life.
Vassily sat silent as though he were attending a lecture, which in reality he was. He asked no questions as to Charles's motivation for developing the technique. Over coffees and cognacs he started scribbling a shopping list of new computer hardware in his native Cyrillic script. Charles was relieved that Vassily hadn't asked awkward questions. What he'd overlooked (and what was working vastly in his favour) was Vassily's Soviet-era upbringing. People didn't ask questions – it wasn't good for them.
They arose from their meal. Charles fully expected Vassily to accompany him back to Weymouth Street but the Russian clearly had other ideas. After sleeping all day he was ready once again to take on the West End and all it could offer him. Charles decided to walk back, rather than wait for one of the few cabs with their For Hire signs on. He needed to think and the cold night air would help him formulate a plan of action.
10. TOOLING UP
Julia and the children arrived to stay for half term week. Charles saw little of them during the day but the evenings brought back a semblance of normal family life. Vassily's presence took some explaining, as Julia couldn't see why a psychiatrist needed a computer research assistant. She forcibly made her opinion known in front of Vassily who just shrugged his shoulders – it was nothing to do with him. Charles hated telling her lies but could see no alternative.
Saturday afternoon found him and Vassily shopping for computer hardware in Tottenham Court Road, searching electronics stores for machines with the highest specification and the largest storage capacity. There was no room for error in their mission to re-house Moira's mind in another's body.
Vassily had decided to use parallel processing techniques, performing the same computer instructions simultaneously on multiple PCs, comparing the results and proceeding according to the "majority verdict." The intention was to minimise data transfer errors between the two brains; there would be no second chance. They decided they'd need three computers to manage the data collection and deposition for each brain, plus one to monitor and regulate each body's vital signs, a recent enhancement on the original process. That made eight top-spec machines.
Additionally, four computers would provide buffer storage for the transferred brain content, two for each direction. As each section of Moira's mind was collected, that part of her brain would be "flashed" to remove the content. Microseconds later that area would be replaced by data from the brain of the person whose body Moira's mind would be taking over.
It would have been simpler and quicker merely to clear the contents of Moira's brain, leaving her old body a complete imbecile, but Charles foresaw that would attract much more attention than a middle-aged woman claiming to be someone else. After all, he'd dealt with a few of those in his professional capacity. No – they'd have to make a total mind exchange.
Any sale of a top-of-the-range PC late on a Saturday evening in February is cause for celebration but a dozen! The manager was called, a forty-something Asian who fussed and directed his young nephews to fill this fantastic order. He even offered to deliver the shortfall of five PCs, personally collecting them from the company's warehouse in Southall.
Charles was about to sign the charge card slip for the ticket price when Vassily intervened to demand a discount. Charles hadn't seen such hard bargaining since he visited a souk in Tunisia on holiday many years before. Ten minutes of haggling produced a 30% discount, wiping some of the glee off the manager's face but still leaving him poised to take the "Store of the Month" award.
11. THE ASSIGNATION
They needed to test the new process and pretty damned quick - nobody knew how much longer Moira had on this earth. In an ideal world they would perform the technique repetitively and thoroughly before subjecting her to it but that luxury just wasn't available. It would have to be one successful test run then the real thing, assuming she went along with it.
At that point, Charles hadn't even mentioned his plan to Moira. He didn't know how to broach the subject; besides, she might disapprove of the whole venture. He intended to push on regardless of her decision; such was his enthusiasm for their newfound technique.
She gave him the opportunity he'd been looking for when she called from Edinburgh late one afternoon. "When we last met you said something might be done. What exactly did you mean? Were you serious?"
Charles took a deep breath. "I'm deadly serious but I can't tell you over the 'phone. Look Moira, I know I've asked you many times before and you've always refused but would you come away with me for a long weekend in the country? We've been friends for more years than I care to count. Did you know I was once going to ask you to marry me? Oh, I know I'm rambling on but I can't stand the thought of losing you. Besides, I need to tell you what I think might be done."
The line went silent. A full twenty seconds passed before she said, "yes, I think I'd like that." Trying to keep his composure, Charles arranged to meet her off the train at King's Cross on Friday afternoon and then he rang off. A call to a country house hotel in deepest Herefordshire secured a room for three nights. The receptionist asked if it was a special occasion and would he like champagne and flowers in the room on their arrival. Yes, he replied, chocolates too. He smiled. It certainly would be special – his one and only weekend alone with the only woman he'd ever really loved.
12. TEST RUN
That evening, Charles accompanied Vassily on his talent-scouting round in one of London's seedier districts. They needed two subjects for their crucial experiment, as different as could be obtained without spending too much time and trouble. Charles waited in a pub while Vassily went off searching. He returned with a recent arrival from Bolton, a runaway who said she was eighteen but clearly looked a lot younger. They later found a street dweller, an evil-smelling woman from God-knows-where and of indeterminate age. Probably no more than in her late thirties, she could easily pass for sixty.
To avoid leaving a trail, Charles dropped his received pronunciation, reverted to his native North London accent and ordered Vassily to keep quiet inside the taxi. As it was, the driver took great exception to their bringing the malodorous bag-woman into his cab. A twenty-pound note sated his curiosity and he wished them good night as he dropped them a hundred yards from Weymouth Street and they walked away in the opposite direction.
Subterfuge over, Vassily let the motley party in by the basement entrance. The women were expecting a party but not one like this. The stench almost made Charles retch but Vassily clearly had a stronger stomach, being used to Soviet-style standards of personal hygiene.
Mickey Finns were administered and soon both subjects were unconscious. Charles and Vassily started to prepare them for the operation, as they'd started to call it. Electrodes were taped to a number of points on the women's heads, also on their arms and bodies to monitor their heartbeat and blood pressure. Charles was concerned whether the street-woman's general health would take an anaesthetic. He needn't have worried; unbeknown to him, her constitution regularly handled methylated spirits and other household solvents that would fell the average ox.
The time came to make a start. They powered up the computers and Vassily took his seat at one of the original PCs that he had set up as the server, controlling the operation of its twelve slave machines. Charles looked on in amazement. The display screens were all in Russian, apart from those of the computers monitoring the women's vital signs. Asked how and where he obtained the medical software, Vassily tapped his nose and said nothing.
All Charles could discern from the Cyrillic script screens were a number of progress bars that were slowly but surely making their way from left to right with a percentage figure. He felt more like a spectator than a participator in the events. His role was reduced to that of refreshment provider, periodically leaving the room to return twenty minutes later with drinks and sandwiches. I can't believe this, he thought to himself, I used to be a consultant psychiatrist but now I'm a tea boy!
Five hours into the process a potential problem arose. Charles noticed Vassily typing continuously for minutes on end. The Russian pointed to the progress bars on the screens - the procedure was clearly in trouble. What they hadn't anticipated was the different rates at which the data extraction and deposition would take place.
The teenager's brain was giving up its life's experience at a gallop and soaking up the equivalent from the bag-woman whose addled brain worked at a much slower pace. This put the transfer buffer machines under stress. Vassily's frantic activity had been to reassign storage space to help hold the girl's brain data until it could be transferred to its new home; at little more than half the speed it had left its old one.
The medical man in Charles took over and he started to think how the brain-activity rates of subjects could be brought more into line. This was clearly an area where research was needed. It shouldn't present a problem for Moira's operation as long as she was matched with someone with a similarly quick-witted brain.
Once this system tuning had taken place, the remainder of the operation continued without further incident. Unsurprisingly, the girl's shorter lifetime and faster brain resulted in her download being finished long before the last dregs of the bag-woman's memory had settled into their new home.
The operation was finished by mid-afternoon but Charles decided to keep both subjects under sedation until his appointments were over and Sophie had gone home. If she was curious why he made frequent visits downstairs during the day she didn't show it and left without comment at 5pm.
Charles was determined that neither subject would regain consciousness at or anywhere near Weymouth Street. A railway station was as anonymous place as any, and one where people would take no notice of another bag-woman and a young girl who appeared to be the worse for drink. Two unconscious women would have any taxi driver reaching for his mobile 'phone to dial 999 so a black cab was out.
Charles and Vassily manhandled them up the stairs and along the street to a 'phone box where Charles sorted through the plethora of brightly-coloured adverts for exotic and erotic services until he came to a hand-stamped card for a mini-cab firm. After booking a cab to take them to Euston Station he rejoined the trio outside, trying not to look suspicious. Half an hour later a battered Nissan people-carrier with a blown exhaust arrived. Charles took a seat next to the one-eyed Romanian driver while Vassily bundled the women into the back. They made it to Euston just as the first stirrings of consciousness returned to two very confused people.
They went in by a side entrance and left each woman sitting on a large luggage trolley, four platforms apart from each other. Charles and Vassily retired to a refreshment bar to observe events for a while. The bag-woman was beginning to shout and swear but in a Lancashire accent instead of the Cockney she'd spoken the night before. Charles strolled along the concourse to observe the young girl looking silently in wonder at her fashionable teenage clothing.
He returned to where Vassily was drinking a Smirnoff Ice from the bottle and saw a woman in Salvation Army uniform leading the street-dweller away with an arm around her. He just caught the words "what the hell's happened to me?" before they were out of earshot. They would have to be satisfied with this superficial evidence that the subjects had exchanged memories, personalities et al and leave it there. Certainly there was no point in hanging around; someone might have seen them arrive and there were CCTV cameras everywhere. They finished their drinks like a couple of tired commuters, melted into the crowds and made their separate ways back to Weymouth Street.
13. THE WEEKEND
Charles met Moira at the barrier of the Edinburgh train's arrival platform and took her suitcase. They went outside to where he had left his car and he removed the official "Doctor on Call" sign from the windscreen. As a psychiatrist he didn't make emergency calls but that card was worth its weight in gold - and unpaid parking charges and fines. The afternoon leaving-town traffic was already building up early as it does on Fridays but they were soon clear of the inner suburbs and making good progress westwards on the A40.
The Jaguar was in its element on the motorway and they soon reached the point where the M40 turned north towards the Midlands. They continued past Oxford and Witney, on to Cheltenham where their route changed to slower, more rural roads. They arrived at the tiny hotel in time for afternoon tea; a meal in itself, consisting of a choice of sandwiches, cakes and pastries, accompanied by a large pot of Darjeeling.
Charles never enjoyed a meal more than that evening's dinner in the stone-flagged dining room of the 14th Century manor house, his proximity to Moira being everything. He decided not to tell her about his proposal for re-housing her mind in another person's body until the right moment came. Besides, he wanted complete privacy and the conversations of the other two couples in the dining room were clearly audible.
The delicate question of their sleeping arrangements arose after they took their leave of the library where they'd had their coffee and liqueurs. To avoid any suggestion of presumption, Charles had booked a twin-bedded room for their stay. Moira was clearly uneasy about the prospect of sharing a bedroom with him, even though they'd known each other since their student days. She dressed and undressed in the en-suite bathroom and Charles followed suit to save her any embarrassment. Despite this, he felt closer to her than he had ever felt to Julia and wished he'd married her. Before taking to their beds, Charles kissed her chastely on the mouth, as one might kiss a maiden aunt. It was as much intimacy as she was prepared to allow but it was a milestone in itself.
The next two days gave Charles more happiness than he'd known for years. After gargantuan breakfasts of local produce, they explored the countryside by car and on foot. Hereford, Leominster, Bromyard and Worcester all provided them with interest, enjoyed in each other's company. In a quiet corner of Worcester Cathedral Moira took his arm and held it firmly against her breast.
A walk in the Malvern Hills under weak winter sunshine provided Charles with his opportunity. They were strolling arm-in-arm and he slowly related the fantastic activities of the previous few months. As he reached the crux of his proposition he felt her grip tighten on his arm. He half expected her to refuse point blank but was pleasantly surprised when she started to ask questions about the likely success rate. He couldn't bring himself to tell her that they had only performed the procedure once; he didn't lie to her but he didn't tell the whole truth either.
"Who will the person be?" she asked. "What will become of them?"
"What becomes of them is whatever will become of you", he replied, not knowing what else to say. "The main criterion is to find someone young and healthy. You'll have to start again in medical school; you'll probably have to obtain the entry qualifications but after that you should breeze it."
"It seems so selfish but I can't bring myself to refuse the chance, even though it's morally wrong. Goodness, since I was diagnosed I find myself thinking all manner of things that I'd never had thought before."
Charles tried to steer the conversation away from specifics. He didn't want her to know that her mind would most likely end up in the body of a teenage prostitute. "Leave the details to me", he said in a firm voice. "In the meantime put your affairs in order, sell your flat and its contents for whatever they'll fetch and transfer your assets into an offshore account, somewhere they don't ask questions. Then be prepared to come to London at a moment's notice."
All in all, it hadn't been half as bad as he'd expected. The thing he couldn't have handled was developing the procedure and having her refuse it. Charles saw her visibly brighten as the imminent prospect of certain death receded and a vision of another lifetime beckoned. At dinner, he noticed that she was wearing discreet make-up; her self-esteem was returning fast.
On Sunday she asked to attend Evensong and they drove the short distance to Hereford Cathedral. Though not of a religious persuasion, Charles felt comforted by the timeless cadences of the classic Anglican Prayer Book service. He found himself praying for the first time since he was at school. He even agreed to stay for a plastic cup of instant coffee after the service, smiling and making the odd remark while Moira enjoyed her conversations with members of the cathedral's congregation.
They returned to the hotel for dinner, the final one of their stay. Charles knew the memories of that weekend would remain with him for the rest of his life. After coffee and Glenkinchie, Moira's favourite malt, they climbed the stairs for their final night's rest. With the lights out they talked of this and that for an hour or so, each in their own bed. The pauses became longer and they wished each other goodnight.
In the early hours of Monday morning Charles awoke from a deep sleep to find Moira kneeling naked at his bedside with her hand on his shoulder. "Hold me", she whispered.
That evening, back at Weymouth Street, Charles wasted no time in bringing Vassily up-to-date with the situation. Moira's agreement removed the last obstacle to his plans and Vassily was detailed to find a suitable subject to re-house Moira's mind.
He and Charles had little in common, least of all their tastes in women. He favoured what Moira had once quaintly referred to as "painted Jezebels" whilst Charles preferred more refined company. Conscious that just any body wouldn't do for Moira, he was intent on finding the best possible.
Two nights running, on the pretext of taking them to a party, Vassily brought a gaggle of young women back for inspection. Charles was appalled at the results of the Russian's trawl. He couldn't imagine Moira as any of the assembled company of tarts and, though she was the least prejudiced person he knew, she'd have enough to cope with, without a change of race. He knew he'd have to take charge of the selection. They'd never get anywhere if he left it to "Vassily the Lad".
The next evening he told Vassily not to bother and went out looking himself. He thought it would be easy enough to find a suitable subject but, despite a gruelling night involving six bars, he drew a blank. Sure, there were available women who'd accompany him back to his place but none of them Moira Mark Two. Procurement wasn't without its attendant dangers. Late one evening, Charles was ejected from an exclusive Park Lane hotel after a young woman made a complaint about his behaviour.
Success almost came from an encounter at a hotel near Russell Square. A woman in her early twenties asked Charles for a light. He didn't smoke but he spotted a book of matches across the bar counter and used her request to start a conversation. She was in London on business, she said, and knew nobody in the capital. When Charles suggested a nightcap at his place she confirmed the nature of her business by naming her price. A short cab ride and they were at Weymouth Street where Charles soon had her sedated. It must have been a sixth sense that made him check her over; a transvestite had once nearly fooled him. Just as well that he did; he found a small butterfly etched somewhere Moira would never have approved. Not the tattooed type – our Moira, he thought.
The quest for the Holy Grail ended next morning in the obvious place – his consulting rooms. Charles entered as Sophie was placing his coffee and Daily Telegraph on the tooled leather-topped desk. He stared at her silently and she gave him a quizzical look. Apologising, he sat down as she withdrew to the reception.
Why hadn't he thought of her before? Twenty-three years old, demure and pretty in the English Rose style, she would be perfect. Estranged from her parents in their Bedfordshire rectory, Sophie lived in a small flat in Mill Hill, not far from Charles's boyhood home. An undemanding job as his receptionist would also provide Moira with the perfect cover whilst acclimatising herself to her new body.
It gets better every minute, he thought. Sophie was there every weekday and wouldn't have to be kept sedated and a prisoner, awaiting Moira's arrival. He called Moira who told him she needed a couple more days to sort things out and then she'd make the journey south.
There was one more thing to do. Haunted by the near-calamity of the dry run, due to shortage of buffer storage, Charles returned to Tottenham Court Road and bought a dozen fast disc drives of the highest capacity available. He didn't even have to ask for a discount - the store manager volunteered one.
The next few days were a living hell for Charles. His dealings with Sophie grew curt and she wondered what she'd done to offend him. His conscience occasionally got the upper hand and he started wondering why her, why poor insignificant Sophie? Then he'd convince himself that her sacrifice was justified because Moira was a consultant paediatrician, therefore considerably more valuable to society than a PA/receptionist who could easily be replaced by making a 'phone call. Increasingly, he was feeling comfortable with this position, falling into the trap of valuing one human life over another.
Moira called to say she'd be arriving at King's Cross the following afternoon. Charles was determined that she wouldn't know the identity of her new body until after the procedure was over. He thought it doubtful whether she would even remember Sophie from their one brief encounter the day she arrived unexpectedly at Weymouth Street. However, he thought it best that they be kept separate until they were both anaesthetised and ready for the procedure to commence.
He roused Vassily at 1pm, giving him instructions to administer a knockout dose to Sophie after Charles had left to meet Moira. That was the first indication Vassily had as to the identity of Moira's new body donor. He'd never liked Sophie since she'd refused his advances, so he quickly agreed. Charles left the Russian to use whatever means necessary, fair or foul, to achieve it.
Moira was surprisingly bright and cheerful when Charles met her off the Edinburgh train. The tumour seemed to have stabilised, as they sometimes can. Charles noticed her new clothes and accessories, wryly thinking that she'd get little use from them. Still, she'd probably got a lot of pleasure out of choosing them.
"I've not eaten since last night so I'm ready for the op", she told him breezily. He wished Sophie could have been likewise prepared. There shouldn't be too much of a stomach-content problem, as she'd been more-or-less constantly dieting for the past few months, due to her perceived fatness. Charles had once asked her why she thought it necessary for her ribs to show but to no avail. He couldn't imagine Moira entertaining such notions when she was the body's new occupant.
He let her into his apartment and went downstairs to check the situation. Vassily had carried out his instructions and Sophie was lying insensible in one of the basement suite's recovery rooms. Charles didn't ask him if she'd resisted – he didn't want to know.
He returned to Moira. "Do I need to undress?" she asked, "I've brought a gown with me." Probably make her feel a bit more comfortable, he thought, though it wasn't strictly necessary. "I'm going to give you a pre-med to relax you when you've changed. Take your time."
A gown, now there's an idea, thought Charles. He went into the recovery room, carefully undressed Sophie and put a surgical gown on her limp form. Having the subjects in gowns gave a professional air to the proceedings. It also made him feel easier about what they would be doing.
With no scheduled appointments and the door firmly locked against casual callers, Charles led Moira downstairs to the basement suite and into the second recovery room. Vassily had cabled both rooms so the patients no longer had to be in close proximity to each other. Only the vital signs monitoring computers were actually in the rooms; all others had been installed in the largest and best-furnished room. Inside, Vassily was seated at the control console - his command module - radiating self-importance.
Charles first attended to Sophie's anaesthesia, then to Moira's. When both women's breathing and heartbeat had settled into a regular pattern he switched each monitoring computer to automatic. He called Vassily and they attached the electrodes to the women's heads. They were ready to proceed.
Like a pilot and co-pilot doing their pre-flight checks, they called out each aspect of the process in turn; until they were as satisfied as they ever could be that all was well. Charles tightened his grip on the back of Vassily's chair and said, "Go for it!" Once again, the Cyrillic script displays jumped into life and the progress bars began their inexorable journey across the screens. After checking both patients for the umpteenth time, Charles left Vassily in charge and once again took up his refreshment duties.
This was the point of no return and Charles's nerves were at full stretch. He went up to his apartment and poured himself a very large whisky. Downing it in seconds, he poured himself another. That lasted him a bit longer but he still managed to drink a quarter of a bottle in less that five minutes. He carried the tray of coffee and sandwiches down to the basement. Vassily noticed that he'd been drinking and asked for his share. "One of us needs to stay sober", Charles told him. The patient checks grew more infrequent as time went on. There just wasn't anything to do apart from wait.
Charles became aware of a hand on his shoulder. Vassily was standing beside him. "Is over", he grunted in his usual taciturn fashion. Charles had succumbed to the whisky and had spent the rest of the process asleep. God, he thought, what would have happened if there'd been any problems? His mouth tasted like the bottom of a birdcage. To relieve his dehydration he drank a jugful of cold water and washed his face. Both women were sleeping soundly as Charles removed the electrodes. He'd been very lucky and he knew it; he'd also been very foolish.
He knew they'd have to get rid of Moira quickly so he set about removing the gown and getting her dressed. He was in no fit state to drive so Vassily would have to execute the next part of the plan, to get Moira back to King's Cross in time for the overnight sleeper to Edinburgh. Charles wouldn't trust him with the Jaguar so it would have to be the dodgy minicab firm again. He wasn't proud of what he was doing and, stricken with conscience, he took three £50 notes from his wallet and stuffed them into her handbag.
Moira was coming round and, as soon as she could stand, Charles and Vassily got her up the stairs and into the street. He took one last look at her, kissed her cheek and descended the basement stairs. He didn't look back – he couldn't.
Sophie emerged from the anaesthetic in the small hours with Charles by her side. After a nauseous spell she started to improve though her brain was confused. Just how confused remained to be seen and Charles worried that something had gone wrong. It was, after all, only the second time the full procedure had been performed and the first where he could make a detailed post-operative study.
Charles dozed for a while, waking to find Sophie's eyes open, looking at him. "How do you feel?" he asked. "I feel a bit dizzy", she replied in a refined Edinburgh accent, not Moira's voice but younger and softer. Her brain had formed the words and her vocal chords had formed the sound. That was a good indication; a Home Counties accent would have shown a failure. He decided to wait until she was totally recovered before proceeding with the next stage – assuming her new persona.
Vassily returned as day was breaking. He'd taken Moira to King's Cross, got her onto the train and left her without another thought. Cold hearted bastard, thought Charles, though he'd treated her no better himself. Without a word Vassily disappeared to pass the day away in bed.
With Sophie asleep again, Charles went up to his apartment, showered, shaved and breakfasted. He realised he'd made no provision for Sophie's absence so, at 9am, he called a temp agency to arrange a short-term replacement receptionist. Beryl, a homely middle-aged lady who'd once covered Sophie's holidays, arrived a little before 10am and set up camp at Sophie's desk. "Usual girl off sick?" she asked. "You could say that", Charles said with a smile. He had only one appointment and that was in the afternoon, so he'd have plenty of time to attend to Sophie.
By midday, Sophie was feeling a lot better and Charles decided he could start her induction course. She asked for a mirror and gazed at her new face. "Well, I'm a lot prettier than the old Moira", she said approvingly. "That's just it", he replied, "you're not Moira - you're Sophie." She looked puzzled. He gently explained that her old life was over and her new one was about to begin. "Think of it as a rebirth, a chance to start again", he said.
There were acres of detail for her to go through and learn but there'd be time enough without the need to rush things. She ate a light lunch and they talked until Beryl announced his patient. Charles suggested she showered and dressed and he withdrew from the recovery room. She slipped off the gown and he heard her say "Goodness, how thin I am!" He smiled but said nothing.
17. A NEW HOME
Sophie stayed a couple of nights at Weymouth Street and then announced that she'd like to take up residence in her Mill Hill flat. Charles had never been there but with the aid of an A-Z Street Atlas he located Sophie's address, about five minutes' walk from the tube station. He'd have to take her there; she was totally unfamiliar with Central London, let alone the outer suburbs.
He decided they had best wait until evening to make the journey under the cover of darkness. Sophie wanted to donate her suitcase of clothes to a night shelter for the homeless, as none of them fitted or were suitable for a young girl. Vassily was sent to make the donation on his way out for the night. Sophie clearly relished the prospect of her new life with few regrets for the loss of her old one other than missing the children who'd been patients under her care.
They took the Northern Line to Mill Hill East, travelling with commuters returning late to their suburban homes. Sophie said she couldn't believe people did this day in, day out for months and years on end. "You'd better start getting used to it!" Charles responded with a grin, "That's life in the Big Smoke for you."
On leaving the station they walked the few hundred yards to a 1970s purpose-built apartment block, three storeys high, each flat having a small balcony. Sophie's was on the top floor and they walked up the stairs without meeting any of the neighbours. Charles had coached her on how to deal with people who knew her and that she was expected to know. She should only ask their names as a last resort; there were other ways of finding out about them. If pressed, she should say she'd been taken ill at work and had stayed with a colleague. That could be said with a fairly clear conscience.
Sophie opened her front door and they entered the neatly kept flat. She looked around, taking in the artefacts and possessions of her new life. The small kitchen-dining room was furnished in modern Swedish style with a liberal sprinkling of houseplants to soften the effect. The main bedroom was in a similar style but with some older items such as one buys second-hand when furnishing a first home. The bathroom contained the expected assortment of girly clutter Charles had seen time and time again all over the world.
The lounge was anonymously furnished – corduroy three-piece suite, TV and DVD player, compact stereo system and a tall bookcase. Sophie picked up a framed photo of a young man. "Do I have a boyfriend?" she asked, looking at it quizzically. "D'you know, Sophie never mentioned one", he replied, referring to her body's previous occupant. "She certainly wasn't a nun; she made it clear more than once that she didn't accept any restrictions on her life just because she was a woman. But judging from his clothes and hairstyle, I'd say that was your father as a young man."
The shock came when they opened the final door, leading to the unfurnished second bedroom. A faint mewing betrayed the presence of a small black cat that lay by an empty food dish and a water bowl with barely a lick left. Sophie immediately dropped to her knees to attend to it while Charles refilled the bowl with water and searched the kitchen for cat food. With a little coaxing the cat started to eat, much to their relief. Charles had never heard Sophie mention a cat in all the years she'd worked for him. One more day and it might have been a different story.
Charles had been neglecting the practice since Vassily arrived and they began their experiments. He'd missed one major psychiatric conference and had had to decline the chairmanship of a specialist group at the forthcoming event in Boston. He'd still go, but as an ordinary attendee. He wouldn't stay eminent if he allowed his name to drop out the frame for too long. The same applied if he wanted to keep his list of high-spending society patients. He needed all the Aunt Cicelys he could get - there was clearly some work to be done.
All of which begged the question of what was to become of Vassily. Charles decided to put further experimentation on hold for the foreseeable future and work full time at expanding the practice. The school fees bills arrived with sickening regularity three times a year, times two children equalled six bills. Emily would soon be transferring to Julia's old school on the Sussex coast and, within a couple of years, Richard would go on to his public school.
He wasn't paying Vassily a fortune but he no longer needed the Russian, so any cost saving was welcome. When the credit card bills started coming in he began to regret his reckless expenditure of the last few months. He wasn't sure how much of it would be tax-deductible; he'd bought a hell of a lot of computer hardware.
He broke the news to Vassily who remained his usual impassive self. There was also the question of the Russian's visa, which didn't actually permit him to work, so Charles was relieved when Vassily announced his intention to return home. He worried constantly that Vassily would let the cat out of the bag about their experiments, 'loose lips sink ships' and all that. He reminded the Russian about his vow of secrecy and Vassily just nodded as always, leaving Charles no more reassured than before.
One spring morning he drove Vassily to Heathrow to catch the Aeroflot flight to Moscow. He could have let him take the tube but Charles wanted to make sure he left Britain. Shaking hands, Charles wished him good luck and offered him a reference, though what he'd be able to put in one would be very far from the truth.
He returned to Weymouth Street, expecting to have heard the last of Vassily. So it appeared until, four weeks later, he got an email from Vassily's uncle, the hospital consultant. Vassily was dead; he'd got into an argument over a girl in a Moscow nightclub and a Mafioso had half-emptied a clip of ammunition into his chest.
19. ANOTHER VISITOR
When Charles read Moira's obituary he decided not to tell Sophie. There was no point in upsetting her. She had settled into her flat and the job as his PA/receptionist and made few references to her old life. People remarked how medically knowledgeable she was for a layperson. They would never have believed the truth, even if it were to be told.
She was determined to get back into medicine but had a long way to go. Sophie's educational attainments had been modest and she needed to get good 'A'-level grades to gain a place at medical school. She would enrol for evening classes in September but, in the meantime, there was ample opportunity for study in between dealing with the patients. Science textbooks replaced the stack of "Hello!" magazines by her desk-side.
The array of computer equipment had been gathering dust in the basement. Charles helped her by setting up one of the PCs so she could access the Internet for her studies. Only an occasional user himself, he was surprised to find that she'd made extensive use of the web in her old life. The old Sophie was a technophobe who could barely operate the photocopier without help.
The practice responded to the extra attention Charles lavished upon it and, quite soon, everything was back to normal. In fact, he was hard-pushed to deal with all the extra work that was being referred to him. Should he take on a partner? Either that or he would have to decline new patients.
The time came when Charles ceased to think about the experiments at all, that is until the day Sophie buzzed to announce an unexpected caller. Having nothing better to do for the next hour, Charles agreed to see him. "Show him in", he told her.
The visitor was a Mr Simpson, an overweight middle-aged man in a camel overcoat and a cashmere sweater. His elegantly coiffed hair was a shade too rich to be natural. Charles took an instant dislike to him but smiled as they shook hands.
"I hear you've got vacant premises in the basement", he said after he had settled his bulk into a leather club armchair. Charles wondered how he'd heard but simply replied "Yes, I have. Would you like to see them?"
They went downstairs to the basement, Charles leading the way. The large office was still full of computer equipment left over from the experiments. "It's normally let as a medical facility but lately it's been empty, apart from a short spell with a computer firm."
Mr Simpson turned and looked Charles in the eye. "Please don't lie to me, Mr Redstart, I know all about the dubious activities that have gone on down here, first an abortion clinic, then something infinitely more diabolical. You see; your erstwhile assistant was a regular at one of my clubs. He just couldn't keep quiet about his technical prowess and how it was being put to use. At first no one wanted to listen to the foreign nerd and all his anorak stuff but I started paying attention and very glad am I that I did. Let me see; kidnapping, illegal detention, assault." He paused for effect. "Manslaughter, need I go on?"
Charles blanched; his worst fears had come true. He rued the day he'd agreed to take Vassily and everything connected with him thereafter. What's coming next, probably blackmail, he thought. "What exactly do you want?" he said quietly.
"Don't worry, Mr Redstart, I don't want money and I don't intend to go to the police… yet. I don't deny I want something and it's something only you can give me".
Charles looked puzzled. "I'm afraid I don't understand. What do you want if you don't want money?"
"For an intelligent man, a successful professional man, you seem remarkably slow. Let me spell it out. I'm very successful myself but in a completely different business. Clubs, escort agencies." Prostitution too, thought Charles. "In fact, all aspects of the leisure industry. I probably earn ten times as much as you, despite your qualifications and my lack of them. My place in Hadley Wood must be worth 3 million alone. Still, I didn't come here to impress you with my wealth."
"In my business there are, let's say, certain perks for the boss and one of them is unprotected sex. The punters are made to use condoms but not me. Well, some while back, a young Croatian working girl took my fancy and we spent some time together. She went back home and I never gave her another thought; that is until I had my regular medical check-up. The blood test showed I'm HIV positive, dirty little cow!"
Wondering what this had to do with him, Charles said "But I'm a psychiatrist, not a venereologist. I can counsel you but I can't treat your condition."
"Stupid bugger! That body-swap you did; the girl was one of my hostesses; that's where your Russian mate met her, at the Marimba. I want you to do the same for me!"
Charles was stunned. Just how much did Vassily say, how much did Simpson know? Was it enough to ruin him professionally, enough even to put him in prison? All of a sudden he felt wretched. His life passed through his mind in a few seconds, from nothing to eminence and back to nothing again. Just what had he achieved? The houses in Oxfordshire and Weymouth Street, their Tuscan holiday home, those were all Julia's. The Jaguar was leased; even the practice furniture and fittings were on contract hire. If the truth were known, he probably didn't own much more than his clothes and personal effects. As the only child, his Mum and Dad's semi in Edgware and its contents would come to him one day for all they were worth, not a very impressive achievement.
His self-pity was sharply interrupted by Simpson's raised voice. "Did you hear me?" he barked. Charles tried innocence. "That was Vassily's doing – I had nothing to do with the technical side."
"Don't piss me about!" Simpson said, his face within an inch of Charles's. "Want to know what happens to people who piss me about?" He looked as though he was about to demonstrate.
Charles decided to tell the truth. "What I meant was, Vassily wrote the software and operated the computers; I concentrated on the patients. I've only got the faintest idea of how it all works. It would be far too risky."
"Then you'd bloody well better find out, if you know what's good for you. And don't think you can fool me somehow; there's a file with sworn affidavits from the girl and the dosser, whoever's who now, lodged with a Solicitor with instructions to hand it to the police if I don't reclaim it within a month. That's how long you've got to sort me out a new body."
"Well if you think I'm going out looking…"
Simpson laughed out loud and held up his hand, stopping Charles in mid-sentence. "D'you think I'm prepared to put up with whoever you find? End my days in a cardboard box down by Waterloo Bridge? Leave off, I've already picked my new body!"
His mood had lightened and Charles decided to humour him. "Look, Mr Simpson, you've got the upper hand. I just wanted you to know that there are risks, as in any operation. Let me think about it."
Simpson's face lost its smile. "You just don't get it, sunshine, you've got no choice!"
Charles told him he'd need a week to run over things, to check out the equipment. "I'll give you a call - how do I contact you?"
"You don't, I'll contact you. You've got a week, no longer!"
22. DÉJÀ VU
Charles got Sophie to cancel all his appointments for the next fortnight, something he'd never done before. Simpson would always have a hold over him but at least he stood a chance of professional survival. He spent days in the basement, studying Vassily's programs and putting together a plan. One discovery was that Vassily's program coding was in English (well, broken English), unlike the screen displays which were in Russian. Another was that Vassily had made provision for operation with more than two subjects. That would give rise to interesting possibilities, thought Charles.
After four days of near-constant application, Charles felt he had a reasonable chance of pulling off a successful procedure. It was too much for him to bear alone so he shared the burden with Sophie. She agreed to help him with the patient monitoring; it would have been too much for one to handle. Charles decided not to tell Simpson about her involvement, there was no need for him to know.
True to his word, Simpson appeared a week later and asked if everything was ready. Charles said yes and Simpson replied it was just as well, that was the only answer he'd accept. The arrangement was made for the following evening, Charles stressing that Simpson and the other subject refrain from eating tomorrow.
The following day Charles was so nervous that he couldn't eat. At 9pm, Simpson appeared at the basement entrance accompanied by two heavies with a distinctly Eastern European appearance, supporting the limp form of a tall, fair-haired young man in his early to mid twenties between them.
"He's had a dose of Rohypnol, the date-rape drug," Simpson said casually. Charles would have liked to ask Simpson about the young man but decided against. With that inside him God knows how he'll cope with a general anaesthetic, Charles thought.
The gorillas departed and Charles handed Simpson a surgical gown, pointing the way to one of the recovery rooms. "Change into this while I attend to the Sleeping Beauty", he told him. Charles wondered where Simpson had found the young Adonis: he'd certainly assured himself of success with women in his new life, Charles mused.
Ten minutes later, after preparing the young man, Charles returned to Simpson. "Are you ready?" he asked. "As ready as I'll ever be", Simpson replied, "and remember – no funny business."
The anaesthetic was administered and Simpson went under. Charles called Sophie on the internal 'phone and she entered the basement suite by the door at the foot of the internal staircase. He briefed her on the procedure and she nodded her understanding of what was required of her. He clicked the mouse pointer on the screen icon and the process was under way for the third time.
22. MYSTERIOUS DEATHS
The caretaker's wife found Charles dead while on her routine cleaning round. That was not her only shock. In a recovery room she found the body of another man, wearing a surgical gown. Both men had electrodes taped to their heads and arms, connected to an assortment of computers. She had seen enough episodes of "The Bill" to know that she shouldn't disturb anything, though nothing in the world would have persuaded her to touch either body.
The police arrived on the scene within ten minutes of receiving her call. It seemed to them like a bizarre experiment that had gone wrong. The officers, a Detective Sergeant and a young DC, did not and could not grasp the reality of what had happened. Charles Redstart was completely unknown to them but the same couldn't be said for the other man.
Jason Simpson was known as "Teflon Jake" to police officers at West End Central for their inability to make any charge stick to him. Through a carefully constructed network of companies and subordinates he had run his crime empire for over twenty years. Starting as a pimp, he had progressed to protection, extortion, illegal gambling and drugs. Illegal immigrants were a logical next step, one that helped to supply and complement his other criminal activities. Amazingly, he'd never actually been convicted of anything, even speeding. There had always been ways of blocking investigations; it was rumoured that he had more than one police officer on his payroll.
The police were so surprised (and if they would but admit it, pleased) to find Simpson dead that they treated it more like a "clear-up" than as a possible crime. They concentrated all their efforts on the basement and paid scant attention to the consulting rooms and Charles's flat above.
The caretaker was no stranger to petty crime and had had several brushes with the law. He saw no reason to draw the police's attention to the fact that Charles's bookshelves had been cleared. It was bad enough that they'd soon be losing their jobs and their home without having the "filth" accusing him of theft.
Sophie was late in, having had an appointment to see her GP. Her boyfriend was about to move in with her and she needed to sort out her contraception. She couldn't tell the police much that they hadn't seen for themselves. Not surprisingly, she was more concerned about her imminent job loss.
The press had a field day. For them it was the stuff of dreams and could be spun out almost indefinitely. Stock tabloid words such as "kinky", "tryst" and "toffs" were rolled out in sensational dramatisations of events, guaranteed to increase the circulation figures.
Julia bore her loss with dignity but almost broke under the constant pressure of reporters and photographers every time she left the house. Her father took charge of the situation and posted a guard of his biggest farm labourers to clear the way for her. There were complaints from the pressmen of heavy handedness after a camera was smashed and two reporters were punched in the face. The local police, perennially short of manpower, said they'd look into it but nobody was going to upset Colonel Benson-Lake, Lord Lieutenant of the County, or any of his powerful family.
Things were quietening down until Simpson's inquest, where it was revealed that he was carrying the HIV virus. Then his dossier was delivered to the police and the whole thing started again. The affidavits from the victims of the first body-swap made sensational reading and the press was back in top gear.
Countless psychiatrists and physicians examined the women but none were at all convinced by their claims. Their physical health was good and they certainly weren't mad. The general consensus, legal and medical, was that they had concocted the whole thing as a moneymaking stunt. Thus the police and the doctors lost interest in them.
Not so the media. The women may not have started out to make money but make money they did, in copious amounts. They were in demand for TV chat shows all over the world. Offers of employment, even of marriage, poured in from all four corners of the globe.
The house in Weymouth Street was sold; at a substantial profit, it may be added. Julia would be no poorer for the episode, despite the loss of her husband. The biggest losers were Richard and Emily, their children. Away at their boarding schools, they had suffered a relentless ragging by their classmates. Adults can be cruel but children can be crueller.
It didn't take long for the cracks to start appearing in the Benson-Lake family. There were those who said they'd never thought much of Charles and that Julia was well rid of him. Blame dotty old Aunt Cicely for introducing them in the first place. After a respectable period of mourning there'd be no shortage of chinless wonder county types queuing up for Julia's hand (and her money); nice men, her own kind.
Charles's parents took the whole thing very badly. They'd been uncomfortable from the first time they even heard of Julia; at the wedding, the christenings and every time they'd met the Benson-Lakes. They weren't well off but they were respectable. Unable to bear their perceived shame they died in each other's arms in the bed they'd shared for the fifty-six years of their marriage.
It seemed that everyone whose life had been touched by Charles Redstart suffered in some way.
More than a year elapsed and Sophie had achieved four "A"-Level passes, all at Grade A. As a so-called mature student she had been given preferential treatment and had been awarded a place at London University's prestigious medical school.
It was Freshers' Week and the new students were milling around the hall, assessing all manner of clubs and societies. Sophie joined the Christian Fellowship and the Scottish Society, to the delight of the kilted sophomore in charge of that stand. As she walked away he turned to his neighbour on the adjoining stand, that of the Ramblers' Association.
"Don't be surprised if you've got a new recruit there", he said in a soft lowland accent, "she said she enjoys walking."
"Just the sort of girl I'd like to know better", answered the gawky, bespectacled stallholder, indulging in some wishful thinking.
"In your dreams", replied the Scot. "She's with that tall blond guy over there by the Computer Club stand. They're inseparable - you'd think they'd known each other for years." He picked up her application form. "That's funny, it says here her name's Sophie but I swear I heard him call her Moira."
© Brian Smith 2002-2007
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