Nightmares

 

 

Vincent woke tangled in sheets. His t-shirt soaked in sweat.

It was the same dream, the one that had haunted him every night for a week. The images were unnerving in their clarity. And the face of the woman so familiar now he would recognize her on a crowded street. Each morning her screams would snap him out of his slumber and left him gasping for breath.

He sat on the side of the bed and lit up a cigarette. Stared down at his feet.

The woman’s face continued to haunt him - trapped in a psyche that refused to abandon her to the mists of forgetfulness like all other dreams. As in preceding days, he knew the woman’s face would stay with him for hours. But what truly gnawed at him was that her killer continued to remain in the shadows.

A chill breeze gusted through the open window. He reached for the duvet that had fallen to the floor and wrapped it round his shoulders. Whiskey dregs floating on the bottom of the glass on the bedside table caught his eye. He sipped the remains. There was just enough liquid to wet his tongue. Not enough to feed the craving, quell the headache or soothe a hangover. And he had all three.

     Holding the duvet in place, he walked through to the sitting room. Unsteady fingers twirled the cap off the bottle he took from the cabinet. One swig to his mouth and a double shot into his glass.

 He crossed the room and eased onto the chair in front of desk.

 The forefinger of his right hand hovered above the keypad as if trying to find its bearings. He let it fall on the enter tab. When the screen-saver disappeared the raw mocking truth revealed itself; there were no additions to the ‘Chapter One’ typed some days ago.

 Jeremy, his agent, would be disappointed. Pissed off, more likely.

The publisher was crapping all over him. Screaming for the second novel they’d paid an advance for. Now they were threatening to sue Jeremy if a manuscript was not forthcoming. It interested Vincent they would sue the agent and not the writer. He worried for Jeremy, but what could be done? Writer’s block happened to all authors didn’t it?

But this was not simply writer’s block, this was different. The dreams made it different. Then there was Cassandra. Without her he had no muse. It was she who had given his life purpose. Whiskey had now become a substitute. But as much as he drank to forget, he could not forget. His future was trapped in the past. He could see no way forward. He lacked the will to move on, to stop the slide. 

A need for caffeine drew his bare feet to the kitchen. He flicked the switch on the kettle then extracted a mug from the heap of dishes stacked in the sink. He rinsed it under the tap and wiped it clean with a dirty tea towel plucked from under a pile of empty pizza cartons. The woman in his dream had a nice face. A gentle grace to her movements.

Not unlike Cassandra.

Was that it? Was he trying to replace his lost love? He thought for a moment. But no. The dream woman possessed a reality quite distinct from any other woman he’d ever known. Every instinct in him said she existed in the real world.

He poured hot water into the cup - two thirds only. The rest of the way he filled with whiskey. He carried the mug through to the dining table and slumped into a chair. The smoldering stub of the last cigarette lit a fresh one. Another indifferent start to what he knew was going to be a long and depressingly non-productive day.   

Vincent finished his coffee and sipped on a second glass of whiskey. It had gone nine thirty. He scratched at his stubble. He needed a shave and a shower but lethargy was proving master over such mundane needs. He stumbled across to the settee, turned, and fell backwards.

                                                        ###

It started as a light tap then grew louder and louder.

Vincent tried to ignore the sounds, drifting back into his inebriated coma. The banging continued to a veritable frenzy. His eyes blinked open and he stared at the door.

 It would have to be Jeremy.

 Not a friend. They’d all abandoned him. As had his family. He was beyond redemption, he’d been told.

“How do you save a drowning man who won’t reach for the life preserver?” his sister had screamed at him before slamming the door.

Well, what did he care? He had Jeremy. Not that Jeremy was really a friend. In fact, he was pretty certain Jeremy didn’t really like him very much at all. But Jeremy brought him money. And the money bought whiskey.

Vincent struggled to his feet and opened the door.

“You look like shit,” Jeremy said as he barged in. “Have you had any sleep?” He walked across to the computer and looked at the screen. He spun round. “For God’s sake, Vincent!”

 Vincent reached for the bottle and refilled his glass. “Nice suit Jeremy. What is it? Armani?”

Jeremy shook his head in disgust. “You need a haircut.” He sniffed the air, “And a shower.”

Vincent shrugged and sank onto a chair at the table.

“You’re taking advantage of me, Vincent. Abusing my trust. All right, all right. You’re the best talent I’ve had in a long time. I just hate to see it go down the toilet, that’s all.” Jeremy’s anger waned to frustration, then to defeat. He dropped onto the seat opposite Vincent.

Vincent watched the metamorphosis. He had seen it before. Every second day in fact.        

“I’m having the dreams again, Jeremy.”

“Cassandra is dead.” 

“This is another woman.”

Jeremy looked at him.

“Jesus, Vincent.”

“Another woman, Jeremy. Another woman and it’s the same killer. There’s a fucking serial killer out there. It’s screwing with my head. I can’t concentrate.”

“Maybe you should stop drinking.”

Vincent glared and Jeremy raised his hands as a peace gesture.

“All right Vincent, tell me about the dream.”

“I’m inside an apartment. I don’t know where it is and I don’t recognize the woman, only that she is in her late twenties. The same age as Cassandra. Attractive. Short dark hair. Anyway, she’s just finished showering and is walking into her bedroom, naked, drying her hair. There is a television in the room. The news is on and she stops to look at an item. The killer is hiding in the wardrobe. I can’t see his face. He grabs her. Throws her onto the bed. She is screaming. Thrashing about. Then I wake.”

    Jeremy rubbed his forehead.

    “You write murder mysteries, Vincent. You could be dreaming up a plotline or maybe subconsciously you’re having these dreams because you want to save someone from Cassandra’s killer. Maybe that’s why you don’t recognize this woman as someone you know. You need to save someone, anyone, because you feel you need to redeem yourself somehow.” 

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that? No. This woman is real, I know it. I don’t want more blood on my hands.”

“That’s stupid talk, Vincent. You know that. It’s not your fault Cassandra died. The police wouldn’t listen when you went to them.  But how could you blame them? There was no evidence only a dream of a man killing your fiancée. Not even a description. You couldn’t save her, Vincent. This is misplaced guilt. How many times must we have this conversation?”

      “I could have warned her.”

     Jeremy nodded, “Yes. You could have warned her.”

Vincent waited but Jeremy had nothing more to say. The discussion was over. Vincent hated that. He wanted to argue the point. He needed to argue the point. They had gone to the police together. The police had thought he was mad. They had convinced him not to tell Cassandra for fear she might turn into a nutcase, living each day looking over her shoulder. Not on evidence as flimsy as his nightmares.

He had yielded to their rationale and then what.

Cassandra had lost her life, that’s what. And in the circumstances he had dreamed she would. The police said it was a dreadful coincidence but a coincidence all the same.

      Jeremy checked his watch.

      “I have to go. You need to do some work.  Write about your dreams. Change it later, but if that’s all you can think of right now, begin there.”

        “Maybe you’re right.” Vincent decided Jeremy deserved a few crumbs of hope. “Maybe it’s some sort of creative message.  I’ll start writing up that sequence and see where it takes me.”

       “Good man.”

       Jeremy gave Vincent a reassuring pat on the shoulder and let himself out.

      Vincent downed the rest of the whiskey then collapsed back onto the settee.

                                                      ###

Buildings float by. The city street he recognizes but the name of it escapes him. He centers on the café drifting into focus ahead. Tables line the pavement surrounded by flowers. Lots of flowers. The reds, blues, whites, pinks pulsate in time with his own quickening heartbeat. The woman is there, sitting at the only table with seats. Dressed in white. The satin glistens in the sunlight. She looks towards him. Smiles. Beckons. He’s being pulled towards her. Now the flowers are changing colour. Bright red. The stems wrap around him, clinging, like vines. Tugging at him. Slowing him. A man is behind her. He sees Vincent’s struggle. Laughs. Vincent wants to scream a warning to the woman. His mouth is open but there is no sound. Then he sees the name above the café doorway: Le Brie.

                                               ###

The whiskey glass lay on its side. The contents spilt across the carpet.

This time the dream was more surreal than real, but the images, still vivid. He had seen the café name. He knew the place. He’d eaten there.

And that the woman had been sitting in the full light of day meant she was there for lunch.

Vincent’s eyes sought the clock. Eleven.

He rolled upright with sudden determination. Today, Le Brie was where he would go for lunch. The decision had been easy but dealing with a swimming head was not. Vincent swayed as he made his way to the sink and filled a glass with cold water. Two effervescent vitamin B tablets went in. When they’d stopped fizzing he gulped the mixture down. Shaking his head did not achieve the level of focus he had hoped for.

But if he could brace himself against a cold shower, that might work.

                                                         ###

Vincent sat at an outside table that afforded him the best view of the entrance to La Brie. Unlike in the dream there were no flowers on the tables. Only a glass bowl filled with sachets of sugar and sugar substitutes. He ordered chicken salad and iced water, the healthy food a necessity and the water to clear his head but it did not moisten his mouth. It still felt as if a bucket of sand had been poured into it.

He mulled over his earlier conversation with Jeremy. Maybe his agent was right. Writing about a writer with writer’s block who dreams of women being murdered by a serial killer did have potential. Especially when one of the victims was his former lover. 

The lover he had failed to protect.

 The story could track the writer’s desperate attempt to uncover the identity of the next victim. Not only to save her, but to trap the killer into the bargain. Yes, he thought. Not bad. That does work. Now that the creative processes had kicked in, Vincent’s mind darted in a dozen directions. He ordered a cheese platter, more iced water and a coffee. Ideas began to take shape across the pages of his notebook. The dam had broken. He knew how it would go from here on. Once he started on an idea he always managed to work it through to the end. Each concept triggered another. It had always been like that for him. By morning the storyline would be complete.

As the waiter refilled his coffee, he saw her.

The wind flicked at her hair. Designer clothes clung to her lithe body. He was looking at beauty and elegance. She chatted and laughed with the two women walking beside her.  Vincent liked the look of her. An enchantress, if he were to write her praises. The trio took a table inside but from where he sat he could clearly see her through the open window. His head began to spin. He took deep a breath. Calmed himself.

 What now?

She gazed in his direction. For a moment their eyes locked. It could have been just one of those arbitrary eye-contacts with strangers that occur every day. But her startled reaction surprised him. Recognition? Surely not. Then her gaze shifted. He had seen that type of look many times. She knew the face but not from where. He was a celebrity, after all. A long time had passed since his last book but he had made many television appearances, been featured in newspapers and countless magazines. He had grown used to being not quite recognized.

He thought about telling her straight out of the danger threatening her. He was half-way to his feet before common sense intervened. She would have every reason think he was a nutter. Maybe call the police on him. No. He would watch over her for the time being and decide later what to do. 

                                                 ###

Vincent sat and Jeremy paced.

“Unbelievable, Vincent. You tailed the woman all afternoon then followed her home.  It’s called stalking. You could be arrested.”

 “Okay. What else am I supposed to do? She’s in danger.”

Jeremy halted and fixed his eyes on Vincent. “It was a dream dammit. What if she isn’t in danger? You had a dream, that’s all. You believe it’s real and that’s it, nothing more.”

“Don’t forget the first one,” Vincent said.

“All of this could be your subconscious,” Jeremy said. “You believed you dreamed Cassandra was murdered and then it happened as you believed it would. The dream could have been a coincidence. It happens all the time. Read the papers.”

“No! That is not how it was.”

“Will you at least consider the possibility?”

“I know what I saw, Jeremy. How else would I know this woman? Answer me that? I’d never seen her before until today. She came to the restaurant in my dream and today, at the restaurant, there she was. I recognized her immediately. Explain that.”

“Maybe you went looking for the woman in your dreams and found a close resemblance. Jesus, Vincent, I don’t know.”

“It’s her,” Vincent said, but with less conviction. He was willing to concede Jeremy might have a point. He would not say it out loud. Jesus, what if Jeremy was right. Was he losing his mind?

 “Vincent all I’m asking is slow down. Think about it before you do anything silly and we all end up in jail.”

Vincent nodded. Then smiled.

“Good story though.”

Jeremy grinned. “You’ve started writing?”

“The first chapter, halfway through the second,” Vincent lied. His steady eye contact with Jeremy would have fooled a priest. “You were right. It’s an inspiring turn of events. Right after you left this morning the words began to flow.”

“Well then, I take everything back. If it keeps you writing, do whatever you want. I’ll put aside some bail money, just in case.”

                                                          ###                                           

That surreal floating again. Inside her apartment. She is checking her answerphone. A quick shake of the head. No messages. A jug of water in hand she waters the pot plants. They sit on a rack just inside the door to the sitting room. The empty jug goes onto the table. Chores finished, she undresses as she walks. He savours the sensuous unveiling. Her body is firm. Tanned. A beauty. When she’s naked, she walks into her bedroom and on into the bathroom. He can make out her shape through the steamed-up shower door. She returns to her bedroom, toweling her hair. The towel cast aside she falls across the bed. Eyes closed her right hand touches her breast. A gentle fondle, nothing more. Slowly it moves down her body. Vincent floats closer. He wants to be near her. Share the erotic moment.

Loud ticking disturbs his concentration.

The clock on the bedside table. His eyes swivel to it for just a second.

Almost midnight.

Eyes back to the woman. Face aglow, her eyes remain closed. She is lost in another world with a fantasy lover.

 A shadow falls across her. Vincent screams a warning. And jolts awake.

                                                           ###

In the dream she had been dressed as Vincent had seen her earlier in the day. Something fluttery began in his innards. The clock on the bedside table had shown midnight. Did this mean her murder would take place tonight? He checked his watch. It was almost eleven. What to do?

Should he telephone Jeremy? Or the police?

What was the point? 

 He threw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. It occurred to him he had no idea of the build of the murderer. He had not seen him clearly enough. What if, physically, he was too big to handle. He needed an edge. He took the breadknife from the sink, wiped it dry, wrapped it in a tea-towel then thrust it into his belt. His sweatshirt easily covered the protrusion. He gave a final thought to phoning the police then dismissed it. If they went to the apartment now and saw nothing they would conclude he was an idiot and by morning the girl would dead. After what happened to Cassandra, he would never be able to live with himself not if it happened again. 

 He would prevent the murder and worry about the consequences later.

                                                  ###

Vincent parked down a side street two blocks from her apartment.

A still night. Clear sky.

It was twenty minutes to twelve. Enough time.

He crossed onto her street and moved along the tree line until he was opposite her ground floor windows. For the next few minutes he waited. Observed. Where would the killer be right now? He had to be nearby. Then he remembered the dream. The girl wandered about the apartment before going into the bedroom.

The killer must already be in there somewhere.

Vincent gulped back the sick sensation rising in his throat and steadied himself against a tree trunk. Eyes scanned the windows. Most of the lights were on. He caught glimpses of her moving about in the kitchen and lounge. Not in the bedroom yet. That had to be good.

He crossed the road and slipped down the side of the building, stopping at the first window. It was dark inside. A spare room? The window easily opened. Was this how the killer had entered? Was he inside this room, waiting in the darkness? 

Vincent unwrapped the knife and held it in his hand. If the killer attacked as he climbed in, he would be ready. He leapt up and flung his leg over the sill. A heave and he was in and on the floor, knife at the ready.

The door burst open.

Light blinded him.

Vincent froze, like a possum caught in headlights. The woman in his dream stood in the doorway. A shotgun in her arms aimed directly at him. Her knuckles white on the trigger guard.

                                               ###

Detective Sullivan knelt next to the body. He held the piece of paper at arm’s length and compared it to Vincent’s face, ignoring the shocked look and vacant eyes.

“What do you think, Gil?” Frank Sullivan asked his partner.

Gil Landy said, “I think that I don’t know anymore. It’s identical. How spooky is that.”

     Frank rose with a nod and brushed the dust off his trouser legs.

     “Weird. All the details exactly as Cheryl Reems described. The artist’s sketch of our killer could not have been more accurate. The whole business floors me.”

    “And we never believed her,” Gil said. “He broke in through the window just as she said he would. The knife on the floor is exactly as she described. He was preparing to kill Ms Reems like she dreamed he would. Nightmares, she called them. But accurate down to the last detail.”

     “A premonition. I’ve read about it. Never seen it happen until now.”

     “Well, whatever it was, the fact she dreamt this guy was stalking her and knew when he would make his move saved her life. She didn’t have a licence for the shotgun. It’s her father’s. Do we charge her with unlawful possession?”

      Frank shook his head.

      “No way. The woman told us she was going to be attacked. Even the date. And we ignored it. She had to protect herself because we wouldn’t. The press would crucify us. Both of us would spend the rest of our careers teaching children how to use pedestrian crossings. It was self- defence and we’ll leave it at that.”

     Gil shrugged his shoulders. What did he care?

                                               ###

The man in the shadows across the street watched as a body bag on a gurney was wheeled to the ambulance. Sure he felt cheated but he was still alive. The bitch was walking about with a shotgun. If that idiot hadn’t climbed in through the window, it might be him in the body bag. It was her lucky day.  He would find someone else.

There was always someone else.

 

 

 The End

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"Nightmares, from the Thomas Ryan Collection, Short Stories."

Copyright © 2017 Thomas Ryan. All Rights Reserved.