Ix stumbled out of the alley, hand pressed to mouth. The night routine of the red light district had just begun. Clubs had lines forming at the entrances. Conspicuously inconspicuous young men paraded up and down the sidewalk in jackets with hidden pockets. Streetwalkers of many different breeds were planting themselves on a promising corner, sounding off a songbird chime advertising their assets.
The street Ix shuffled down already had a few shifters working. Really, they were too good to know from a simple glance. But that was what made them stand out. They were too good. Ix stumbled by an exotic beast with an elaborate, teased mane that would not have lasted thirty seconds outside a salon in normal circumstances. Ix crossed the street to get away.
Ix took the form of a young, bedraggled woman in club finery, fashionably androgynous. The form’s original owner had boarded a cab a few blocks back, so Ix was in no trouble of collision. Ix did not want trouble tonight.
There was a shifter alighting the steps of a high-class club, bedecked in glass heels and slinky cocktail dress. Un (it had to be Un) was arm-in-arm with a minor celebrity. Ix could not place his blandly handsome face and maintain form. Ix pretended to stumble drunkenly, hand to stomach, eyes to the ground.
The movie star said something. Un laughed musically. Ix wondered where the laugh had come from. The best shifters, the ones that commanded the highest fees, knew how to compose a character rather than copy.
Ix slipped, heel catching on an uneven curb. Unable to help it, Ix looked up.
Un caught and held their gazes for a moment, an eternity. Disgust and shame deformed the other shifter’s face.
Ix made a retching motion and dashed to the nearest alley. Squatting among discarded bottles and candy wrappers, Ix breathed hard. Holding a form was getting harder and harder. Hopefully Un would be borne along by the group, leaving Ix the opportunity to change.
“Excuse me? Miss? Are you alright?”
Ix swallowed. The voice was unfamiliar, but kind. Ix shifted subtly before turning, sucking features from a torn magazine page nearby.
The man at the opening of the alley had “target” writ in every line of his body. Ix could see the bulge of his wallet in his front pocket, no chain. His clear, honest eyes wanted to be lied to. He hunched over, clear concern in his body language.
Ix found a voice that belonged to a DJ serving two clubs down. “Looking for some fun tonight?”
The man straightened up. “Excuse me?”
Ix hastily recovered. “No, no, it’s not like that. I’m a shifter.”
“Oh. One of those. You know, I’ve been here three days and I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of you yet.”
Ix rose to a stand. He had probably seen a handful on his detour to the alley without knowing, but it was best to let him think he had scored something unique.
“You want a good time?” Ix shuffled closer. “I can be whoever. Here, look.”
Ix tried shifting to a sports model but got her muddled with a girl glaring across the street at them. A long, aquiline nose clashed with a rosebud mouth. The man’s eyebrows rose at the sight, but his body language still spoke of an urge to run, find some other entertainment.
“Try me!” Ix gasped. “I can be anything you want! You don’t like girls? Here!”
Ix shifted into the actor who had been on the club steps with Un. Close enough, though his features would not bear close inspection.
The man laughed. “Oh wow. That is a trip.” He paused, tapping a finger on his jeans, looking from the alley to the club.
Ix felt a wash of relief. “Not too much. Fifty for two hours. One-fifty for the night.”
“That’s so cheap.” He sounded almost disappointed.
Ix played the one hand left.
“Fine.” Ix shrugged and turned around.
“I don’t have a whole lot. I was going to hit some clubs. Are you still going to be here in a few hours?”
“I don’t know,” Ix answered truthfully.
The man reached a decision, grinding his fist in his palm. “Okay. I’m game. Is there a hotel, or…”
“I know a place.” Ix stepped past him, taking his hand.
The man danced away, laughing. “Hey! Your hand is cold.”
Ix linked arms and walked, afraid to touch him again.
“May I have your name?”
“Ted. Short for Theodore.”
“Shall I call you Theo?”
He seemed tickled by the idea. “Yeah. Something different tonight.”
Ev was in an alcove with a handful of working girls. Laughter caught in throat as Ev traced their journey with a spiteful gaze. Ix hunched down, praying Ev was not in the mood to expose the charade.
“This is the place?” Theo looked dubiously at the hotel.
“You want somewhere more upscale? It costs.”
“Naw. It’s fine. They just told me the DeRose was the place to hook up.”
“With regular girls.” And the other shifters. Ix was not about to take him into that wasp’s nest.
The room was two flights up. Ix kept looking back to see if Theo was still there. He was strolling along with a mildly bored look on his face.
Once they got in the room, Ix ushered him over to the bed.
“So how do we do this?”
Ix took a breath. The form was beginning to wear, so Ix shifted to a pornagraphic actress whose handbills were plastered over the building across the street.
“I take requests. Anyone you want to see.”
Theo put a hand to his chin. “Let’s see…my ex?”
“Do you have a picture?”
Theo produced a much-folded piece of paper from his wallet depths, fishing past crisp fifties. Ix gripped the picture and willed sun-bleached hair and freckles to appear. Theo crowed and clapped his hands.
“That’s amazing! You only need a photo?”
Ix nodded, trying not to sweat. Truthfully, the other shifters didn’t even need photographs. But Theo didn’t need to know that. Theo was charmed instead of revolted as Ix shifted a form every five minutes. It was going so well that Ix didn’t even remember falling. Life simply went from vertical to horizontal in the space between blinks. The ache Ix had been ignoring spread like a warm blanket.
Theo peered down, water glass ready to douse Ix back to life.
“Hey. You okay?”
Ix wanted to answer truthfully. Instead, Ix took his proffered hand and stood.
“I can do more. Just give me a break.”
Ix wandered over to the sink. Theo sat on the bed, bouncing a little.
“I almost forgot, what do I call you?”
“Call me whoever I am when you call me.” Ix dabbed a towel at features that slithered traitorously from one shape to another.
“But I mean…are you male? Female?”
“Neither.” Ix shut the bathroom light off and walked back into the room, shifting into the blocky form of a local senator. Theo laughed, but it did not made him forget his questions like Ix had hoped.
“So…what do you look like when you’re not…you know?”
Ix sighed. “Nothing. This is all I am. You don’t need to worry about getting anyone pregnant or seeing the ugly side of me. I am who I am in the moment.”
Theo looked slightly melancholy. There were many different breeds of john. The johns with a conscience eventually outgrew the girls, usually after an attempted rescue that landed the object of salvation in the hospital. Ix really hoped to avoid that.
“So, you have sex like that? Do you even enjoy it?” Theo frowned, the bed creaking as he rearranged himself. “Can you make more of you? Sorry if this is a lot of questions. This is my first time, after all.”
The vertigo came back. Ix willed it away and shifted to an underwear model who frequented the club Ix worked at. Used to work at.
“I enjoy it enough. It’s all I can do.” It was too honest, too dirty. Ix needed to steer the talk back to business but it was so hard to shift and talk at the same time—
Theo caught Ix on the way down. “Oh my god. Are you sick?”
Ix couldn’t lie anymore. “Yes.”
“Oh.” Theo looked understandably reluctant. “Is it contagious?”
“Not to you. But the other shifters won’t come near me.” Ix put a feeble hand up. “Please put me on the bed.”
“You know, that’s the first request you’ve made all night,” Theo joked as he laid Ix out on the stiff mattress. His eyes were worried. “You’re sick. So is that why…all the shifting?”
Ix tried to sit up. “I can hold it for long enough. Tell me who to be.” Failing, Ix fell back on the covers.
Theo shook his head slowly.
“Are you dying?”
Ix wanted to cry. Couldn’t. “Yes. Please?”
“I don’t want to make you. Why are you asking?”
“It’s all I can do.”
Grimfaced, Theo sat at the side of the bed, looking down at Ix. Then, with footsteps that fell like years, he went to the television and turned it on.
The box was tuned to a channel that required payment to view. Without asking, Theo switched it to a public channel. A young woman dumped a glass bowl of shallots into a pan and started frying. Ix gasped and claimed her form. The camera shifted over to an old italian man. Ix shifted, struggling with the wrinkles. The program switched over to a map of Naples, so Theo changed the channel. A shopping network. Two youngish women hawked jewelry and perfume in the name of a B-list actress. Ix seesawed between the two of them, switching from blonde to brunette in a stutter. Theo switched the channel. An old technicolor movie. Ix could not name the actress, but she was alone in the middle of a brightly lit church. Ix felt the relief of her smooth skin and clear eyes.
Theo scooted a chair up to the bedside, eyes shuttered. He let the movie play. Ix held the form until the struggle became too much. Suddenly Theo was staring down at his own double.
“Please.” Ix struggled to make the words. “Please stay with me.”
Theo took Ix’s cold hand. “Okay.”
Theo stayed until Ix looked like nothing. Nothing at all.