By Jonny Nexus
I scratched idly beneath the waistband of my shorts and made a surprising discovery. This body was hung like a horse!
"---and you understand the breakfast requirements?"
"Sorry?" I stuttered.
"Breakfast requirements!" barked the body's owner, "do you understand the breakfast requirements?"
I thought rapidly. "muesli at eight, followed by---"
"---seven-thirty! Muesli at seven-thirty, followed by a selection of fresh fruit!"
"Fresh fruit, right..."
This guy was a wanker. Big time.
"And you understand that my body is to be occupied for at least sixteen hours a day?"
"That's sixteen waking hours a day! No sleeping on the job!"
"No problem."
Actually it was, but I figured a dash of bullshit would stall my other clients.
"Now, the next item on the checklist..."

I put his shades on, tugged at the hem of his expensive suit, and strode out into the crisp, noonday sunshine.
This was a body. This was a hell of a body. This was a body to die for.
This was also someone else's body.
"Phil?" chimed a woman's voice from behind me.
I spun round.
"Phil! It's me, Silvi! Remember?"
She was gorgeous. Stunning.
"You forgotten, haven't you?"
Ah. Should I tell her the truth? After all, Phil was - at this moment - in his apartment upstairs, packing for his journey to the mineral fields of Siberia, inhabiting the robust budget-rent-a-body he'd hired for the trip.
"Remind me," I asked her. A small pang of guilt flared. Conscience? Professional ethics? I quelled it anyway. After all, this wasn't really lying.
She smiled, revealing two rows of perfect, white teeth. "Five years ago? At the resort at San Aqua?"
"San Aqua... Yeah..."
"I knew you wouldn't forget," she purred.
"We had some erm... good times..?"
She looked misty-eyed for a moment. "Yeah we did."
Ha! Looked like I might have more fun with this body than I thought. I tried not to think of rule number fifteen on the checklist.
The smile slowly dissolved from her face. "So why did you do it Phil?"
"Why did you leave me like that?" she screamed.
Oops. "Well, erm... you know..?" I smiled wide and hopefully, wondering how well Phil had cleaned his teeth.
The stinging slap that followed suggested that perhaps smiling wasn't the best tactic.
"You bastard..." she whispered, starting to cry.
An elderly passer-by frowned and scuttled away from us down the pavement.
Phil's cheek was really starting to throb right now. Shit, if it bruised it could be very awkward. Was that item five on the checklist, or item seventeen? Probably both.
I put a tender expression on Phil's face, and pulled her tight to his chest.
"Hey! No point crying, "I crooned. "Look I'm really sorry for what happened."
She looked up and sniffled. "Really?"
"Yeah. Honest." I paused for a moment, patting her shoulder. "Why didn't you call me, or visit?"
She cried a bit more. "I wanted to, but I couldn't. I didn't have your number, your address. I didn't even know where you worked."
I held her at arms length and looked into her eyes. "You don't know where I live, or anything?"
"Oh." I shrugged and let go of her shoulders. "See ya then."

You've got to understand that I didn't often get the chance to walk a body like this. I mean I was usually down at the low end of the market. My usual client was some scrawny runt of a citizen who'd hired a hunky, sex-god body for his two-week summer holiday.
This was my big break into the executive end of the market. So I had to play it cool. Get this right and I could wave goodbye to bodysitting accountants. Which - short of having a body of my own - was about as good as it could get.
Yeah, that's right. I didn't have a body of my own. Why else would I have got into the bodyminding business? See, I used to have this small mobile catering operation.
Alright, it was a hamburger stand!
Anyway, I wanted to expand, move into sushi, so a got a small loan. Only problem was they needed collateral - and the only thing I had was my body.
Well how was I supposed to know that Japanese stuff would go out of fashion? Anyhow, the business collapsed, I defaulted on the loan, and they repossessed my body.
They were very polite.

I was late for my appointment at the health club and the client was highly pissed.
"You're supposed to be in your cube!" he shouted. "I dialled for you and you weren't there!"
The cube was where I lived, if you can call it living. A storage unit for bodiless minds, it was - obviously - fairly essential for someone like me. I rented one cheap at the club in return for helping their members exercise.
I muttered an apology and told him I'd only be a minute. Then I nipped round the back looking for Sal, the transfer attendant.
I found him lounging in his office reading a highly dubious magazine. He shoved it into his desk drawer and threw himself to his feet when he saw me.
"Sorry sir," he warned politely, "I'm afraid this area is for club personnel only."
"Sal! It's me Dave," I told him.
"Dave?" he queried, grinning. "That really you in there?"
I nodded quickly.
Sal looked me up and down, and whistled appreciatively.
"Nice body. Yours?"
"Oh yeah, it was on sale in a shop. Only one careful owner, twenty-five years on the clock---- what do you think?"
"Sorry." He thought for a moment. "Hey haven't you got a client at the moment?"
"Yeah, that's the problem. Look I need to dump this body for a while. Can you put it in a drawer?"
He frowned. "What? Look Dave, in case you've forgotten, it's the clients who're supposed to bring the bodies in!"
"Some of the other trainers have their own bodies!" I protested.
"Yeah, and they don't get a cheap cube like you do!"
"Sal, I'll owe you, okay?"
He grinned ruefully. "One of these days you're going to juggle too many balls..."

The client's voice exploded from the earpiece I was wearing.
"Go for the burn! Go for the burn!"
I increased my pace, wondering why the tosser couldn't just watch the vid while he was in the cube like everyone else. Oh no, he had to watch me the whole time.
I really hated the jogging track. Thump, thump, thumping around the tight wooden banking was marginally less interesting than watching a good coat of emulsion drying.
"Go go go!"

Afterwards I switched straight from the cube to the body, hauled the drawer open from the inside and came face to face with a face from the past.
"Ah!" I uttered, still lying in the open drawer.
"Not so fast," he told me pushing the draw back in.
For a moment there was blackness, and then I was back in the cube. Bastard!
His consciousness appeared beside me, a point of nothingness next to mine.
"What the hell is this?" I snarled. Actually I didn't, because you can't snarl when you're telepathically linked. But if you could I would've done.
"Take too long to explain. Look I've got a bod over at the Western Medical Centre. Zap over there, get in it, and meet me in the Hurldon club at eight."
He sensed my dissatisfacion.
"I'll make it worth your while, 'kay?"

The Hurldon club was posh with a capital P, but luckily the body that Frankie had left for me was good enough to get me past the doorman - once I mentioned Frankie's name of course.
Eventually he arrived and joined me at the table.
"I see you've got yourself something to drink," he observed dryly, casting his eye over my double brandy, and the several empty glasses scattered across the table.
"Yeah," I slurred. After all, when the only living you get to do is in other people's bodies your opportunities for drinking are seriously limited. Since Frankie had practically forced me into this body, I figured that the least I could do was to get it well and truly hammered.
"Typical!" he snapped.
"So you just going to sit there and get smashed?" he accused.
I thought for a moment.
Frankie waved a waitress over and ordered a drink, giving her a quick burst of charm in the process. She smiled longingly at him - and ignored me totally.
Wrong body, I guess.
I leant forward and asked the question that had been crawling around my synapses since I saw him that afternoon. "I ain't seen you for, what... five years."
"Must be," Frankie agreed. "P'raps more."
"Right. So in that case---" I prodded the air a few times to add emphasis. "In that case... how come you're still using the same body. I mean you used to trade in and switch to a different one every few months."
Frankie smiled. "I suppose there's something about this body. Seems to fit me better, you know how it is."
Actually, considering my situation, I thought that was rather tactless.
"Besides," Frankie continued, "back then my business was a bit more... interesting. It was kindof handy to switch to a new face now and then. Now I'm more legit - so I don't have to worry about getting done over. Not usually anyway. Which is where you come in."
"What? I suppose this time I get done over?"
He leant back, spread his palms wide and grinned. "What's the problem? I'll be supplying the body."
I swirled the last of the brandy round the bottom of the glass, then threw it back down my throat.
"Perhaps I don't like pain."

Frankie had not been pleased when I stormed out of the club. Mind you, the doorman wasn't that wild about me puking on the pavement outside, either.
I stormed back into the health club and into Sal's office.
"Sal," I shouted as I hopped into an open drawer and began pulling it shut. "I'm dumping this body, right here, right now. So don't give me any grief."
His face loomed over me and began to speak, but I cut him off.
"Look Sal, if you've got a problem call Frankie - it's his stiff."
The drawer clicked into place, extinguishing the light, and I switched into the cube.
Now, I thought, just switch to Phil and...
It's gone.
I scanned through the club's contents list. Two occupants: the body I'd just dumped and some bird. I scanned through again. The same. I even scanned through the guest drawers on the top floor. Nothing.
It's alright, I thought jubilantly, I'm drunk, I just can't think straight. The jubilation lasted for hundreds of milliseconds until I remembered that it's hard to be drunk when all you are is so many electrons in a RAM chip.
I had to face it.
Phil's bod was gone.

I carefully dropped myself into the chair beside Sal's desk, drunk again now that I'd returned to the body Frankie had stiffed me with.
"Where's the body?" I asked in alcohol enhanced misery.
Sal shrugged. "Search me."
"Sal. Don't do this to me!"
He looked away and pretended to study his finger nails.
"Sal. Please. Please!"
He examined a final finger, then lowered his voice. "It's Frankie. After you left, he phoned some of his people, and got them to come and take your body away. Sorry."
He almost looked upset. "Was it an important body?"
I couldn't even bother to answer that, so I contented myself with sneering instead.
"So what you going to do?" he asked.
I picked up his phone. "Guess I'd better call Frankie."

The mirror in the bog at LasLas was the first chance I'd had to size up this body. Actually it wasn't so bad - so, so face with a fair physique. It was the kind of body I could've really settled for, permanent like.
It wasn't like I was asking that much. All I wanted was okay looks, no major health problems and a reasonable something in the downstairs department.
Forget it. Time to get back to reality. Being one stiff down was not the ideal time to start dreaming of my ideal body. I splashed water over my face, then made my way back into the bar.
Ricky was still perched on the bar stool where I'd left him. This time I wanted a witness, in case Frankie tried anything. Ricky was a pratt - but he was available, and besides he was pretty loaded money wise, which never hurts.
"So when's he supposed to be arriving?" he sniffed over his cider, pushing his lank, greasy fringe away from his eyes.
I shrugged. "He just said to wait."
The sad thing about Ricky was that he used to be pretty good looking. And that was without trying. Anyhow, one day a dealer saw him, figured out how much potential his body had, and made him an offer. Ricky - who was pretty hard up - took the money, spent a small portion of it on his current, shitty body, and now lived off the rest.
"Is that him?" asked Ricky, excitedly, pointing at a lean, dangerous figure carving effortlessly through the couples on the dance floor.
I looked back to my drink. "No."
"Oh." He sounded quite disappointed.
He thought for a few seconds.
"So what do you want me to do?"
"Sit still and shut up."
"Well if you're going to be like that!"
I waved a hand to shut him up. "No. When he arrives. Then you sit still and shut up."
"Oh. Right."
He took a cautious sip of his cider.
"Why what?" I replied wearily.
"Why d'you need me here, if I'm not supposed to say nothing?"
"In case he tries anything on."
"Will he?"
"Will he what?"
"Try anything on?"
"Might. Probably won't."
"Oh. I thought it'd be more, like... interesting."
An evil thought emerged spontaneously from the deep strategy portion of my mind, entered the evaluation processes, was rejected by the morality override, appealed, won, and finally made it to the vocalisation units.
"Well there is another approach we could take."
Ricky was hooked. "What?" he asked eagerly.
I paused for effect. "Thing is, at the moment, it's Frankie doing all the running."
"Yeah." His eyes were shining.
"And that's 'cus he knows everything about what's going on."
"So if we could change things, make it so he thought he knew the situation, but he was actually completely wrong. That would give us an edge."
"But how can we do that?"
I hesitated until he was practically out of his chair with anticipation, then spoke.
"Let's swap bodies."

"I'm Dave's legal representative!" I barked aggressively at Frankie, "so I'd appreciate it if you would address all your comments to me.
Frankie looked straight at Ricky, and growled: "Dave! What the fuck's going on?"
For a horrible moment I thought Ricky was going to answer, but he paused long enough for me to jump in. "I must insist that you address all your comments to me!"
Frankie sat back on his stool, glaring hard at me. Great! I'd got him rattled, on the run.
He leant forward, grabbed my tie, and butted me hard in the face.
Perhaps this wasn't so great.
"You bastard!" shouted Ricky, "that's my fucking face!"
"Ugh?" grunted a confused Frankie.
Ricky's body's nose chose that moment to burst, showering blood down onto his shirt and tie.
"That's fucking silk!" screamed Ricky. "It fucking costs!"
Frankie looked back at me. "Dave?"
I stood up and glared at Ricky. "I don't know what the fuck's going on Dave, but this is out of order." I took a pace, then turned theatrically. "Get yourself another bloody lawyer. And you," I jabbed my finger to within inches of Frankie's face. "I'm having you for assault."
I left Frankie looking from Ricky to me and made for the exit. As I left I heard a final, despairing cry.
"That's my fucking body!"

After two minutes hard running away from LasLas I came to a grinding, breathless stop. Ricky's body clearly wasn't built for speed. And besides, Frankie had seen it.
I hailed an electro-cab and told the auto-driver to get me to the nearest Budget outlet. It obeyed smoothly, gliding through the empty, night streets.
Two minutes later it slid to a halt outside a dilapidated office building with a faded, tacky sign above the entrance.
Typical Budget operation, I thought to myself.
The girl inside looked up grudgingly when I banged on the counter, laboured across the four feet that separated us, blew and cracked a large pink bubble, then finally deigned to offer me service.
"I'd like a body please."
"Really?" she drawled sarcastically, glancing over the dozens of Budget-Rent-a-Body posters blue-tacked to the walls.
She picked up a battered comp-pad, jabbed at the screen with a long, pink fingernail, and examined the list that flashed onto the screen. "What sort of model would sir be requiring?"
"What have you got?"
She paused, then began to read the list in a bored monotone: "Utility, sports, physical labour, vacation... pleasure?"
I considered the situation. "Have you got anything that looks kindof corporate?"
She gave me a questioning look that I presumed meant: This is Budget, and you want something posh? But finally she turned her attention back to the pad.
Tap, tap, tap. She held the pad up to me. "How's that?"
I took a look at the picture displayed. Not quite corporate, more government worker - but it would do. "I'll take it."
She tapped the order into the pad. "That'll be a thousand deposit, two-hundred a day - in advance - and we'll need your body for collateral."
Thousand deposit. Two-hundred a day. Goodbye to my savings. Hello Mr Overdraft.

I stepped out of the drawer, trying the body on for size. Seemed okay. I opened my eyes and looked around. Fuzzy. Distinctly so.
I looked towards the blur that I presumed was the girl. "It's short-sighted!"
The blur shrugged at a corner. "The picture showed it wearing spectacles."
"I thought they were for effect!" I protested.
She shrugged again and handed over an object. I focused on them - figured they were glasses - and put them on.
The world immediately sharpened to its normal crispness. The girl smiled at me.
"You get the glasses for free."

Okay, lets consider the situation, I thought to myself. I've lost Phil's body. Mad Frankie wants me to do a job - I don't know what - and I've refused, twice. Now he thinks I'm trying to screw him. I've pissed Sal off. I've nicked Ricky's body and illegally used it as collateral to hire another.
On second thoughts, let's not consider the situation, I decided.
I'd worry 'bout the others later. First I had to figure out what was the deal with Frankie. And the one who could tell me that was Shelly.

"If you've come to suggest that we should start again, you should have hired a better body," she told me witheringly as she bit into her fried chicken. "And you should have bought some classier food."
I ignored her and continued feeding my face. Typical bloody Budget - they always send their bodies out with empty stomachs, just to save a couple of quid. I made a mental note to fast on my final day. I was returning this sucker empty!
"And I suppose they supplied the clothes?" she sneered.
I nodded, but said nothing. I remembered from way back that it was best to let her prattle on 'til she got bored.
"And those glasses! What are you trying to say there?"
"They're real actually," I admitted.
"It's short sighted?" she screamed incredulously, laughing so hard that a piece of chicken went down the wrong way. I slapped her hard on the back whilst smiling at the disapproving occupants of the fast-food joint.
"Thanks," she croaked.
I let her recover for a moment. "Thing is, I need a favour."
"Really? And there was me thinking you'd been pining for me the whole time."
Actually I had, but I wasn't going to admit that. "It's about Frankie."
"Frankie? What makes you think I've got anything to do with him?"
"You ran off with him."
"That was ages ago, and it only lasted a few months. There's been loads of blokes since then!"
For a moment she almost looked concerned. "I 'spose that wasn't really what you wanted to hear, was it?"
She shrugged. "Tough."
I tossed the remains of my chicken into the grease-covered carton. "Look. Are you prepared to help me or what?"
"Might do," she replied smiling, wrinkling her nose in the way that used to drive me wild. Hell, it got me pretty uptight right now.
"Would it help if I said please?"
"No. But thanks for offering." She sat back and grinned. "Okay, what's the problem?"
"Frankie's got some kind of job he needs doing."
"By you?"
"Well what is it?"
"What's what? The job or the problem?"
She leant over the table and playfully punched me on the arm. "Either you fool!"
"Well I don't know what the job is, and the problem is that I don't know, and I don't want to know."
"Why don't you want to know?"
"'Cus Frankie's trouble."
"But he's trouble already, and you don't know why. Wouldn't it be better to know why you were in trouble?"
"No. 'Cus then you're in big trouble."
She fixed me with that killer babe look of hers. "You know what your problem is? Other than this problem of course."
"No." I insisted, thinking: And I 'spose you're going to tell me.
"You need to relax more."

"This is what you call relaxing!" I hollered above the waves of sound that echoed around the interior of the joint. Christ, I hoped that Budget didn't do a hearing test on returned models. I couldn't afford to lose any of the deposit.
"Yes!" screamed Shelly in answer to my question. "Is that what you call dancing?"
"Yeah!" I insisted, shifting into a particularly involved sequence that began with me throwing my arms backwards, proceeded with me shimmying downwards in a rapid twirl and ended with a triumphant leap.
Well that was the plan, and the girl wasn't badly hurt, and personally I think her boyfriend was just looking for trouble.
Five minutes later when Shelly had finished laughing, we'd ragged ourselves to one of the corner booths and resumed our conversation.
"You got any suggestions 'bout what Frankie's up to?" I asked.
"I might have," admitted Shelly, "but not yet. If I tell you now you'll only get wound up. You need to be more relaxed."

"Am I relaxed enough now?" I asked grumpily.
Shelly stirred beside me and tucked the sheet under her armpits. "Getting there."
A silence settled. The sex had been a disaster. She'd been reasonably sympathetic, confining herself to the observation that Budget obviously didn't specialise in the more endowed model, and ignoring the fact that I wasn't really upto to making any use of the meagre inches they'd supplied.
It was all bloody Budget's fault. They should have warned me, or mentioned it in the bloody spec sheet, or something. Bloody Budget.
Five bloody years, I thought. Five bloody years I've waited for this, and it has to be with this shitty rent-a-body with a three-inch dick. Bloody Budget.
Shelly sat up abruptly. "Come on, get up."
"We're going back out. Get dressed."
She got up, pulling the duvet off the bed, wrapping it around herself, and walking into her bathroom.

"Who the fuck are you?" I growled at the brunette who'd walked straight into the bedroom and started throwing my clothes at me, one by one.
"It's me you dork!" she replied, hitting me full in the face with a rather smelly sock.
"Who else."
I prodded my alcohol befuddled thought processes into action. "Where'd you get the bod from?"
She sat down daintily on the end of the bed. "It's mine, got it about six months ago, for work."
"I've got a pretty posh job now, and a blond bimbo wasn't really the image I wanted to, like - project. So I bought this one. I use this for work, and my old body for leisure."
"You have two bodies?"
"Why not? It means I have to pay more in trainers fees to have them exercised, but other than that it's no problem. And besides, it's pretty handy for times like this."
"What like this?" I queried drowsily.
"Well I can go out and party, get totally hammered, come home, make mad, passionate love, get totally hot, sweaty and knackered - then switch bodies and go back out partying."
She started to drag me from the bed.
"So come on then!"

"You'll like this," she told me as we walked through the entrance of the nth club of the night, shortly after we had sat and watched the sun-rise. The bouncer on the door was ugly... and familiar. Very familiar. And fucking ugly. I remembered a less repulsive face, with a straight nose, and unscarred skin, but the resemblance was clear, the possibility of a mistake negligible. That face was one I'd known intimately.
"Hey! Isn't that your old body?" asked Shelly with what I considered to be a stunning lack of tact.
I think that it was around then that the tenuous threats that held together what I loosely termed my sanity began to unravel.
Read the conclusion to this story
in Issue 2 of Critical Miss...
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copyright © 1998 Jonny Nexus