But when her stepfather discovers her secret, he does something much worse. He forces Chloe to shapeshift into other people to commit robberies for him so no one will connect the crimes to them. And if Chloe refuses he will hurt her baby sister, Dani.
Chloe knows he will do it. He’s already killed her mother.
When her new friend Tash and Tash’s older brother Shaun find out about her powers, Chloe sees a glimmer of hope. Will Shaun’s plan to free Chloe and Dani work? Or will they too pay the ultimate price?
When Chloe Morris walked out of school on Tuesday afternoon, Paul’s car was waiting just outside the gate.
Chloe didn’t see the car at first. She hadn’t even expected Paul to be there – he always said working on Tuesdays was a waste of time. Not enough cash-flow. She and Tash were walking toward the Ashton Street gate when Tash’s older brother Shaun caught up to them.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Need a lift home, Chloe?’
Chloe looked up at him and shook her head, smiling. ‘No thanks. I’ve got to pick up Dani.’
‘Your mum still sick, hey?’ Shaun asked.
Chloe nodded, her smile fading. ‘Yeah. Some days she can’t even get out of bed, she’s so tired.’
‘Our mum says any time you need help, just ask,’ Tash said, then added, shading her eyes with her hand, ‘Hey, isn’t that your step-dad’s car over there?’
Chloe’s stomach clenched as she looked where Tash was pointing, pushing her glasses up onto her nose. Paul had parked a safe two car parks away from the crossing, just this side of the student car park entrance. Nondescript grey Commodore sedan, ordinary, forgettable-looking man sitting in the driver’s seat reading the paper, a bored parent waiting to pick up his child from school.
‘Hope nothing’s wrong,’ Tash said, concern in her voice.
Chloe forced the smile back onto her face and scrambled to think of an acceptable lie. There was only one reason Paul would be picking her up from school. ‘Nah,’ she answered. ‘Mum probably sent him shopping and he came past on the way home.’ She glanced at Shaun, but he was already heading across to the student car park where two other Year Twelve boys stood leaning against a dark blue Ford. Chloe recognised both of them; like Shaun, they were part of the Shale Bay under-18s basketball team. Funny how one family could produce two such different people. Shaun, tall, lanky, sports-mad, his blonde hair bright in the sun and Tash, short, not-so-lanky, with curly reddish-blonde hair and a massive collection of books.
‘Guess I’ll see you tomorrow then,’ Tash said.
Chloe nodded. ‘Yeah, okay. Seeya.’ She watched for a moment as Tash followed Shaun toward the student car park, then she pulled in a deep breath and walked quickly through the gate and across to Paul’s car. Apprehension shivered through her; her limbs felt leaden and there was a ringing in her ears, but she knew better than to say anything. Paul didn’t care how she felt. He just cared that she got the job done. Silently she opened the back passenger door, dropped her bag beside the empty baby seat then slid into the front seat beside Paul and clicked on her seat belt. Equally silently Paul folded up his paper and started the car.
They drove for five minutes before he spoke. ‘Service station. Attendant’s female, should be an easy mark. I’ll stop in for fuel, you do your toilet thing, then I’ll drop you off round the corner. You’ve got fifteen minutes. Your bag’s in the back.’
Chloe nodded, her stomach twisting. She didn’t need to glance at the small green canvas bag nestled behind her seat. She knew what was inside; runners, socks, undies, shorts and shirt. Boy’s clothes, big enough to fit someone two or three years older than Chloe. Folded within the shirt was a cloth bag, black with a drawstring, made reluctantly by Chloe on her mother’s sewing machine six weeks ago.
Concealed within that black bag was a small gun.
Chloe felt her heartbeat speed up as Paul swung the car into the service station and braked beside the Unleaded bowser. He got out and plugged the fuel hose into the car’s petrol tank. Chloe took a deep breath to steady her voice, and walked into the shop.
It was fairly small, but it looked larger because of the light let in by the wide windows across the front. Shelves lined both long walls and another ran down the middle, forming two aisles. Three glass-fronted fridges filled the end wall, stocked with bottles and cans of drink and racks of chocolate bars, and advertising posters filled the walls above the shelves. There were several other customers at the counter; a man in a suit paying for his fuel and a young mother with a baby in a stroller waiting to pay for a loaf of bread and a bottle of Coke. Chloe stepped into line behind her, waiting patiently for her turn.
‘Excuse me,’ she said shyly to the attendant as the mother wheeled her stroller out of the shop. ‘Could I, um… use the toilet please?’
The woman behind the counter smiled at her. ‘Sure.’ She reached into a shelf below the till. ‘Lock it up when you’re finished, okay? It’s around the back.’
‘Thank you, I will.’ Chloe took the key and went out and around the corner, glancing at Paul still filling the car. She knew he would top up the tank completely. He had said weeks that he may as well, since he would be getting his money back anyway.
The bathroom was small, with just a toilet and a tiny basin, but it was surprisingly clean and smelled of pot pourri; Chloe saw a bag of the fragrant petals and herbs hung high on the wall, out of reach. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, counting to sixty. Then she washed her hands carefully, dried them on a paper towel from the dispenser, and closed the door gently on its latch so that it would not lock behind her.
‘Thank you,’ she said politely to the attendant as she handed back the key. Paul came in just then and she waited while he paid for the fuel. Chloe saw him unobtrusively checking out the cash tray as he took his change. She glanced around the shop. There were two girls there from Newtown High, Shale Bay’s other high school, standing in front of the chip rack, and an older woman came in as Paul and Chloe went out. Please be gone when I get back, Chloe thought as she got into the car and reached behind her seat to retrieve the canvas bag before clicking her belt on.
Paul drove sedately out into the traffic, turning left at the next street and left again. He stopped the car just short of the third corner which would bring them back onto Gallagher Road.
‘Out,’ he ordered. ‘Back here in fifteen minutes.’
Chloe nodded and shut the passenger door, giving Paul a sketchy wave before he accelerated away. People noticed others acting strangely, suspiciously; Paul had taught her that the trick was to look as if you had every right to be where you were and doing what you were doing.
So Chloe took her time, swinging her bag as she walked around the corner and across the service station’s rear parking lot. No-one could see her from the front of the shop, but Chloe kept scanning the area from the corners of her eyes as she opened the toilet door and slipped inside.
Locking the door, she stripped off her Shale Bay High uniform, piling it quickly onto the closed toilet seat and folding her glasses on top. Then she pulled on the boy’s clothes from the bag. They hung from her like sacks.
Not for long, she thought, and shut her eyes.
The DNA was there within her, different strands ‘stolen’ from people she had come into physical contact with over the years, even if just for a second or two. She had no control over that. Her only defence was to touch as few people as possible, now that she knew what she was doing. Randomly she selected two male strands, combined them within her mind, then willed the cells of her own body to adopt the new DNA, to physically change to meet the new code.
It hurt. It always did. She gritted her teeth against the pain as her bones lengthened, her muscles burning as she forced her body to change from small fourteen-year-old girl to taller, heavier, older boy. Her face broadened, her shoulder-length dark-brown hair lightened to a short mid-brown, her limbs lengthened to fill out the shirt and shorts. The change from female to male was worst though. She felt… wrong, freakish, edgy.
But at least no-one would recognise her now.
Swiftly she stuffed her own clothes into the canvas bag and wedged it behind the cistern – it was a safe bet that no-one would be using the toilet for the next ten minutes. Then she grasped the black bag in her larger hand, the gun within pressing against her palm, and stepped out of the bathroom.