Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination

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Fiction

The Dream Detective

In the beginning, I was not attracted to her at all. Quite the opposite.

I don’t know if it was intentional on her part, and honestly, I’m not the sort of dick who always judges women on how hot they are, but if there’s any situation in which a person’s attractiveness matters, I think everybody would agree it’s a blind date.

Hannes and Mardi, my so-called friends, so worried about my single state, had once more stepped into the breach and invited me to dinner to meet someone “very special.” They had introduced me to several very nice, lovely, smart, sexy women in the past, and all had been good company even though there’d never been the necessary, mutual spark that would ignite a love affair—but not this time.

My first sight of Mardi’s old house-mate Grace was of a lumpy little figure in drab, ill-fitting clothes. Her hair probably hadn’t been brushed since she’d rolled out of bed, her eyebrows looked like hairy caterpillars, and apart from a slash of bright red lipstick, she hadn’t bothered with makeup. “Couldn’t be bothered” was a good description of her in general, and from her sullen look, she was equally unimpressed by me.

As it was only the four of us for dinner, I couldn’t ignore her without being rude. But my first few attempts to engage her attention fell flat.

Hannes kept the ball rolling with some stories I hadn’t heard before—he’s very funny, especially considering English isn’t his first language—until Mardi shrieked for his help in the kitchen, and we were left alone together.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

I could have kicked myself as soon as the words were out. I didn’t want to talk about my own tedious job, so why put her on the spot?

She stared at me for a long moment while I tried to figure out a way of withdrawing the question that wouldn’t make things worse, and finally she said, “I’m a dream detective.”

I thought I’d heard wrong. “Dream?”

She nodded. “Detective,” she added, helpfully.

If it was a joke I didn’t get it. “You mean you solve dreams?”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. You said it.”

“I didn’t say I solved dreams. I solve crimes, and other mysteries, in dreams.”

“What’s your success rate?”

“Quite good, actually.” She made a modest face. “Although, I shouldn’t brag; I have to admit I haven’t done much of anything lately . . .”

She was playing it straight, so I had to do the same. “But you’ve solved a few, over the years?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How long have you been helping the police with their enquiries?”

She looked as if she was about to laugh, but stopped herself, and simply shook her head. “The police aren’t interested in dreams.”

“But—I mean, if you are solving crimes—”

“Dream crimes.”

“What’s a dream crime?”

She sighed, as if I were deliberately obtuse. “A crime committed in a dream.”

“In a dream.”

“That’s what I said.”

This fey game of hers was really getting up my nose. It wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t clever—if it was a game. Just checking, I said, “But not in the real world.”

I was reminded of one of my least favourite teachers by the snooty look she gave me and her retort: “In your opinion, dreams aren’t part of the real world?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who—”

“You don’t dream?”

“Everybody dreams.”

“You’d be surprised how many people say they don’t. Or that they can’t remember. It’s not for me to say they’re lying, but forgetfulness can be a cover for things people find too painful to think about.”

“I dream a lot.” Since childhood, I’d enjoyed my dreams and enjoyed thinking about them; if I rarely told them to anyone, it was out of the fear that my descriptions would be inadequate, and they’d sound boring or nonsensical, instead of the fascinating adventures they were to me.

She leaned across the table, fixing me with eyes that were larger, darker and more eloquent than I’d realized. “Have you committed a crime? In your dreams?”

I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline, as if she’d come too close to a deeply guarded secret. My heart was racing, and I felt a powerful urge to run, the need to hide—and what an admission that would be!

I faced her down, smiling, although maybe it looked more like a snarl. “Is that how you solve your mysteries? You ask everyone you meet to confess to an imaginary crime? No wonder if your success rate is high! Who would dare to say no?”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, staring at me so hard her twin caterpillars became one. Her eyes no longer held the slightest allure; they were like laser-beams, science fictional weapons able to bore right through the bones of my skull, into my brain, where her unnatural vision would find the image of something I had done that was so shameful, so deeply buried, that even I couldn’t remember it.

Hannes came through the door then, thank God, carrying a platter, announcing dinner was served, followed by his wife carrying a covered bowl.

Over the meal, conversation was general, on the subjects of food, travel, movies and then food again when Mardi brought out cheesecake and fruit salad for dessert. It was not the most scintillating conversation; in fact, it was one of the most restrained and boring I could remember ever having around that table, as if we were four random strangers forced to share in a crowded restaurant.

When Hannes left the room to make coffee there was a silence until Mardi turned to speak to Grace as if I wasn’t there: “How’s the job-hunting? Any luck?”

Grace shook her head.

“Still at the charity shop?”

“Two days. They’d have me for more hours, which would be great if I was getting paid, but, you know, I need to make some money.”

“So your dream detecting doesn’t pay?” I don’t know what possessed me to jump in with that.

Mardi stared hard at the other woman. “You told him?”

The chair creaked as Grace leaned back and crossed her arms. Her face was flushed. She spoke flatly. “I had a feeling he might need my help.”

“What?” Mardi’s voice rose almost to a wail. “You’re still doing that? You never told me!”

Hannes poked his head through the door. “Stop it; no fair having fun without me.”

Mardi’s hair was messy, her lipstick eaten away, her face as red as Grace’s—but on her it looked good. “Oh, honey, you won’t believe it, but Gracie—she’s still—you know, remember that dream thing she did?” She groped with her hand in the air above her head.

Grace looked at me and said earnestly, “I don’t do it for money. I would never—it would be wrong; it’s a gift. It would be wrong for me to try to exploit it.”

“Exactly! “ Mardi exclaimed. “Like me and the tarot. I’ll read the cards if someone asks, but I’d never, ever charge money.”

“I’m astonished,” said Hannes, deadpan. “I thought they only talked about these things in private, when all three witches got together.”

“We’re not witches.”

“Who’s the third?” I asked.

“Remember little Holly?”

“From your wedding? Ah, yes.” I recalled the tiny yet perfectly formed maid of honour everyone had wanted to dance with.

He nodded. “The three weird sisters. Or former flat-sharers—but that doesn’t sound so good, does it?”

I wondered if Grace had been at the wedding, too, and sneaked a look at her. I saw a frumpy, shapeless lump who didn’t know how to make herself interesting. I wondered if the idea of the dream-investigation had been her own, or borrowed from one of her smarter roommates. She did not notice me looking, just went on staring at nothing, seemingly undisturbed by the queasy excitement roiling around the room even when Mardi shouted:

“We’re not witches.

“Sorry, darling, how silly of me. You predict the future, and Holly heals people by stroking their auras, and Grace goes into people’s minds to affect their dreams, and all that is completely ordinary and normal and not at all witch-like or weird.”

“You’re horrible.”

“Horribly irresistible.” She scowled at him, then giggled; he invited me to help him get the coffee, and I jumped up, happy for any excuse to leave.

In the kitchen, I asked: “Fortune-telling?”

“I’m surprised she’s never dealt the cards for you. She still has them in a velvet bag. True, she doesn’t often get them out these days, hardly ever since we were married, but back then, when she was living with Holly and Grace . . . they scared me sometimes, I don’t mind telling you, those three women in the same room together, looking like they could read your mind and tell your future from the way you sipped your coffee.” He shuddered melodramatically. “But each girl on her own . . . a different proposition.”

“I wouldn’t want to proposition Grace,” I said sourly. “Is that what you thought? She’s really my type. ”

He gave me a sheepish smile and pressed the plunger down on the cafetiere. “Sorry, man. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We had invited two other people, and at the last minute they couldn’t make it.”

“Two? A couple?”

“Sister and brother. Both single. One for each of you. I swear.”

“Well, better luck next time,” I sighed, and lifting the tray of mugs, followed him out of the room.

***

After I went home that night I did not give Grace a second thought. But she wasn’t done with me.

***

I was a turkey-farmer, somewhere in the country, rounding up my herd and then driving them, on foot, down a dirt road until I reached London, which was like the set for a low-budget TV version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I sold the big birds to an East Ender in a patched coat and shabby top hat (“Aow! God bless you, Guvnor!”) and took my little velvet bag of gold coins to buy myself a drink, but at this point wintry London morphed into Paris in the spring, so I walked into a sidewalk café and ordered un cafe, s’il vous plait. It was as I was sitting there, waiting for my coffee, that I realized, from the nervous clenching in my gut, that I’d been followed.

She was sitting at another table, pretending to read a newspaper, and although she looked nothing like the woman I’d met over dinner—she looked like Edith Piaf, or, rather, like Marion Cotillard playing Piaf in La Vie en Rose—I knew her. I knew she was on to me. But she couldn’t follow me into the men’s toilet, so I was able to get away from her quite easily, although there was still some running and dodging down narrow alleys and in and out of shops before I woke up, heart pounding, feeling I’d had a narrow escape, but with no idea why. Was she police, or a foreign agent? Was I the good-guy spy, or an innocent who knew too much? Dreams feel like stories, but they leave out a lot of the information we’d need to make sense of a movie or a book.

***

Another night, another dream: I was in a theatre, up in the gods, where the rows of seats kept morphing into chutes and ladders, and every time I tried to get out, I ran into a little blonde girl in a blue dress, blocking the exit. She looked like Disney’s Alice, but when she trained her eyes on me like a twin-bore shotgun, I knew who she really was, and knew I was in trouble.

***

Another time, in the midst of a ripping yarn featuring neo-Nazi conspirators and a fabled treasure hidden at the heart of an Egyptian pyramid, I became aware of her again. I never saw her, but felt the disturbing presence of an outsider; someone female who did not belong, an uninvited visitor who was spying on me. Only afterwards, awake, thinking it over as I showered and dressed for work, I became convinced that it was Grace; and I began to wonder what she was after, and how to get rid of her.

On my way home that night—I’d been working late, required to be on hand for a conference call with partners in other time zones—I stopped to buy a few things. It wasn’t the store where I usually shopped, but I’d just remembered there was almost nothing in my fridge when I spotted a sign for Morrison’s, and nipped in.

I found Grace in the wine aisle, inspecting the bottles. At the sight of her I felt disoriented, almost dizzy; that may have been the first time in my life when I genuinely wondered if I was really awake or only dreaming.

But maybe it wasn’t her. The woman shopping for wine was dressed up and looked quite sexy. Had I become obsessed, was I starting to see the detective of dreams everywhere I went?

She turned her head and the recognition on her face told me I wasn’t fantasizing. “Oh, hi! How are you? Do you live around here?”

“Sort of, not too far—but I don’t usually shop here; how about you?”

She shook her head. “I’m on my way to . . . a party. Thought I’d better bring a bottle.”

She wore a snug, scoop-necked top and short skirt, clothes that revealed that she wasn’t fat at all, perhaps a little thick-waisted, but she did have a pair of enormous breasts. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to show them off to me, but, clearly, she didn’t feel obliged to keep them hidden all the time; I wondered what made the party she was on her way to now so very different from the dinner at Mardi and Hannes’. She was still far from beautiful, but just then she had a glow about her that made up for any small deficiencies in her appearance.

I saw her look in my basket, recognize the pathetic shopping of the single man (frozen chips, pizza, bacon, eggs, and a loaf of bread) and felt suddenly defensive, almost angry are her presumption in judging me, spying on me.

Without pausing to think, I asked her, “How do you do it?”

She looked honestly bewildered.

“The dreams . . .” Before I got it out, I’d realized how utterly idiotic my question was. She hadn’t done anything. This meeting was coincidence; my dreams were my own. I stalled and fumbled and finally managed: “I was just wondering . . . You said you were a dream detective . . . I guess you were joking?”

“Oh. No, it wasn’t a joke.” She looked apprehensive. “It was true, but . . . I really don’t know why I said it. I don’t usually tell people. Mardi knows, because I used to do it when we lived together. But not anymore.”

I know that’s not true. I kept my accusation to myself, though, and only said, “Yeah? It’s odd. I’d never heard of a dream detective before.”

She cleared her throat and glanced around at the ranks of wine bottles. “No . . . that’s not surprising. Neither had I. I guess I made it up. I was sharing a house with two friends, one read cards and the other read auras; they did it to help people and it was kind of cool and I wanted something I could do, so . . .” She shrugged and moved away from me to read a price-label.

“But how did it work? Did people invite you into their dreams, or did you just kind of dream your way inside their heads, or—”

“What?” Now she was staring at me.

“How—how did you do it? The dream-detecting?”

“People told me about their dreams and I interpreted them. What did you think?” Her eyes had widened, and I could see that she knew perfectly well what I had thought, and I realized how crazy it was. Why had I imagined for a moment that this less-than-ordinary woman could see inside my brain, even enter my dreams to spy on me?

To distract her from my idiocy, I asked another question. “And it worked?”

She shrugged. “People seemed to think so. They liked it, anyway. It was something I could do, it seemed vaguely useful, I had a lot of free time and no money—”

“So why did you stop? I mean, you must still have a lot of free time and no money, and since you’re looking for a job—why not create your own employment? You’d have it to yourself, you’d be the expert, the only dream detective in England—”

“Oh, shut up. What did I ever do to you?”

I was surprised to realize she was angry. I hadn’t meant to offend her, but she wouldn’t let me explain.

“You don’t know anything about it! You think it’s a joke, but it’s not.

“No, I don’t think that—I really do take you seriously, that’s why—”

“I told you, I couldn’t charge money for using this gift—it would be wrong. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. Have you ever seen a rich and famous so-called psychic? What they’re like? Do you think I’d ever be one of those media-whores?”

“Sorry,” I said, holding up my hands as if her shiny eyes were loaded guns. “Sorry, I didn’t understand; I didn’t mean anything . . .”

She grabbed a bottle off the shelf without looking. “Forget it.”

***

My dream that night began like a road trip, a pleasurable sort of dream I’ve enjoyed for years. As usual, it was set in the American west, a place I’ve never seen except in movies, out on a flat, open highway, Route 66, maybe. I was in one of those big old-fashioned sedan cars from the 1950s, white and shiny, with fins. Inside, the front seat was like a big leather couch, and the gear-shift was stuck out the side of the steering wheel. No seat-belts, no air-bags, just a cigarette lighter and an AM radio tuned to a station belting out songs by Buddy Holly, the Everley Brothers, Elvis Presley.

I myself had more than a touch of Elvis about me, my hair in a quiff with long sideburns, wearing tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a black shirt with pearl-covered snaps, a packet of Camels squashed into the breast pocket. Sitting behind the wheel of that automotive behemoth, singing along to “Jailhouse Rock,” driving through the desert towards somewhere unknown, I was free, and as purely happy as I’ve ever been. Everything was fine, better than fine, it was perfect until, glancing in the rear view mirror, I spotted a little black dot in the distance. Just in case, I checked my speed.

I was right; it was a cop. As the motorcycle drew closer, I told myself not to worry. I was going just under the speed limit, my tax disc was valid, the exhaust and tires were good, there was absolutely no reason for him to pull me over . . . but he did.

Even as I was slowing to obey his peremptory command I was no more than annoyed. It was only when I was stopped, watching the cop dismount, that I remembered there was a dead body in the trunk of the car.

I knew I must not panic, that I had to stay calm and convince the cop I was a good, law-abiding citizen he could have no interest in detaining. He came over to my window, asked to see my driver’s license, told me to get out of the car and step away, keeping my hands where he could see them. I obeyed, but perhaps not quickly enough, or maybe there was something in my attitude he didn’t like, because he became more aggressively authoritarian with every passing second. He sneered at my hairstyle, asked where I went to church, and about my political affiliations, and when I reminded him that this was America, the land of the free, he said I sounded like a limey bastard, and demanded my passport.

The tedious, threatening argument went on and on, and I was relieved to wake up before my guilty secret was revealed.

I found that dream unusually disturbing. I had no idea whose body was in the boot, or how it had come to be there. I didn’t even know if I was a killer. In the dream there had been no guilt or shame attached to the knowledge that I was driving around with a dead body, only anxiety about the consequences if it was found. Did that mean I wasn’t a murderer? Or did it indicate the opposite, that my dream persona was a cold-blooded psychopath?

Over the next few weeks, the dream continued to haunt me. I’d had recurring dreams before, anxiety dreams in which I was forever doomed to miss my flight, getting lost on my way to take an exam, or finding I had to give a speech wearing nothing but a skimpy bathrobe. Now, my pleasurable dream of driving across America had been spoiled, turned into another variant of angst.

After the first time, as soon as it began I was obsessed with the problem of how to dispose of the body. My every attempt to find a hiding place was foiled: There were fishermen on the lake, a family having a picnic in the woodland glade, kids playing in the old quarry, people with their prying eyes everywhere I went.

Gradually I came to understand that the body was that of my former girlfriend, but what had actually happened, and why I was burdened with her corpse remained unclear. I knew that my past connection with her would make me the prime suspect if her body was discovered, but I didn’t actually know how she had died, and I didn’t feel guilty.

In my waking hours I thought more and more about this dream, although I wished I could forget it. I wondered if talking to someone might help, and I thought of Grace.

Another coincidental meeting would have been perfect, but of course that wasn’t going to happen. If I knew where she lived, though, I could make it happen, so in the end I phoned Mardi.

“Her address?” She made my simple request sound outrageous.

“I thought I might send her a card.”

“Oh, really.” Her scepticism was palpable.

“All right, then, phone number.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not? You try to match us up, and then—”

“I did not. Anyway, that was a month ago, and you clearly didn’t get on. In fact—”

“That’s not fair. She was quite interesting, actually. Not my type, but—I’d like to talk to her again. I’ve been thinking about her.”

“Well, don’t.”

I wished we were speaking face to face instead of on the phone. “Why do you say that? Did she say something about me?”

“Of course not.”

But there had been a pause before she answered. “Did she tell you we ran into each other about a week after dinner at yours?”

She made a noise and I winced, remembering how Grace had suddenly taken flight. What had she said about me to Mardi? How bad was it?

“I want to apologize. Please, Mardi.”

“I’ll tell her.” When I said nothing more, she sighed. “I promise. I’ll call her tonight and give her your number, and then, if she wants, she can call you.”

Grace did not phone me, but about a week later, she returned to me in a dream.

I was on the road again, and had pulled into a service station to fill the tank. When I came back from paying, there she was, in the front seat. She was a prettier, idealized version of Grace in a tight-fitting cashmere sweater beneath a trenchcoat. Her hair-style was long, old-fashioned, hanging down in waves, one dipping across an eye like Veronica Lake’s in an old black and white movie. I think the dream was in black and white, too.

“Drive,” she said.

It was night now, and raining, but there was enough traffic on the road for the passing headlights to reveal her to me in occasional, strobe-like glimpses.

“I hear you’ve got a case for me,” she said.

An enormous wave of relief washed over me, and between the pulsing beats of the windshield wipers I told her my story: brief, laconic, just the facts, ma’am. When I had finished, she continued to gaze straight ahead for a while before saying, her voice low, “Pull over.”

“Where?”

“Doesn’t matter. Wherever you can.”

There was an exit just ahead, sign-posting a roadside picnic area, so I pulled off the highway and drove even deeper into darkness, away from the lights and the traffic, to a secluded spot, utterly deserted on this dark and rainy night.

When I had parked, I turned to face the detective. Light from an unknown source gently illuminated her features. She looked wise and gentle and I was suddenly certain she was the one person who could save me from this nightmare.

“Do you know who killed her?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Will you help me?”

“Yes.” She touched my hand. “I’ll take you in.”

“What?”

“To the police. You have to turn yourself in.”

“No.”

“It’s the only way.”

“I can’t. I won’t. They’ll think I’m the killer.”

“You are the killer.”

I looked into her eyes (one half-obscured by a silky fall of hair) and knew she told the truth.

“Give me the keys,” she said. “I’ll drive. They may not go so hard on you if you confess, if you can explain . . .”

But how could I explain something I could not remember?

As in a montage of scenes from an old black and white movie I saw my future: the grim faces of the jury, the old judge banging his gavel, the bleak and lonely cell, the walk—shuffling in ankle chains—to the electric chair, the hood coming down over my face, the soft voice of the priest exhorting me to confess and repent before I died . . .

It wasn’t fair! I wanted to live!

Driven by desperate need, I reached for Grace. My hands closed around her slender neck and squeezed. My reaction took her by surprise, and my thumbs must have been in just the right spot to inflict maximum damage, for she scarcely even struggled; when she could not draw another breath she went limp. I continued to squeeze, making sure, venting my terror and rage on her frail and vulnerable neck, and by the time I let go, she was dead.

There was no one around to see, but I did not want to take the risk that some tired motorist might decide to drive in next to me, and considered simply pushing the detective’s body out of the car and driving away. Then I had an idea: why not get rid of both bodies at once? I discovered a shovel in the trunk, and with it I dug a single grave, deep enough to hold them both. I drove away feeling satisfied, certain the evidence of both my crimes was now hidden so well they would never be found. Even if in future years someone found the bones, there would be nothing to link them to me.

***

I woke filled with regret and sorrow and a sense of terrible loss, but also with the cooler, steadying awareness that I’d done what I had to do, and it was over. I never had that dream again. Case closed. I would have liked to see Grace’s reaction if I told her about it—but not enough to make any effort to find her. More than a year went by, actually closer to two, before I found out what had happened to her.

***

Hannes had asked me to meet him in Waterstone’s at around six—I thought we were going for a drink, and had no idea why he’d suggested the bookshop rather than the pub across the street, not even when I saw him standing, grinning, beside the sign announcing a book-signing. He pointed at the author’s photograph, and still I didn’t twig, didn’t recognize her until the title of the book—Dream Detective—gave me a clue.

“Grace Kearney—that’s your Grace?”

“Not mine, mate!”

The woman in the photo looked ordinary: was blandly pretty, smiling, heavily made-up, the eyebrows plucked into anorexia. “Really? That’s her? Mardi’s old friend? She wrote a book?”

“And sold it for a bundle, and that’s the least of it. Have you never seen her on TV? First it was guest appearances, but now I’ve heard she’s going to have her own show.”

I looked at the picture again, trying to summon up a mental image of the woman I’d met to compare it to, and failing. All I could think of was Veronica Lake struggling feebly in my murderous grasp.

“Are we meeting Mardi?” I hadn’t seen her in months; although I tried to keep in touch, the two of them no longer entertained the way they’d used to, and rarely went out, since their baby had been born.

“No way! She doesn’t approve.”

“Of what, the book?”

“The book, the TV show, the celebrity clients, the publicity, glitz, bling, dosh . . .”

I recalled how badly Mardi had responded to Grace’s telling me what she did. “Grace charges people money to investigate their dreams?”

“You sound like Mardi! Yeah, well, everybody’s got to make a living. But my dear, idealistic wife does not approve. She thinks her old friend has gone over to the dark side. They don’t speak anymore.”

The long-ago dinner party conversation came back to me. “Grace said she didn’t believe in taking money for her gift.”

“That was the old Grace. She changed. Even before all this—” he gestured at the sign and the bookstore beyond. “Something happened. I have no idea what it was, but it changed her, like, overnight.”

I felt a chill, an unwanted memory intruding, and repressed it.

“Does Mardi know what happened?”

He shook his head. “I told you, they don’t talk. ‘She’s dead to me,’ says my lovely wife. Or was it ‘She’s dead inside’—maybe both those things.” He shrugged it off. “Want to go for a drink?”

“Maybe I’ll just get a book signed, first. Since we’re here.” I felt no nervousness about seeing her again, and I was curious. That mousey little girl, a celebrity! Recalling her vehemence about how wrong it would be to take money for using her gift, I realized I had met her at a moment of crisis, sounding out other people and arguing with herself over the decision she had to make. What I found harder to understand was how her imaginary profession could be taken seriously by so many. A TV show!

Picking up a book, taking it to the counter to pay, I reflected that people were eager to believe in all sorts of nonsense. And there was the “entertainment” argument—that justified the regular publication of horoscopes in newspapers, and psychics making their predictions on television. Just a bit of slightly spooky fun. Grace had simply tapped into that. Why not? It might upset someone like Mardi, who believed she could see the future in her special deck of cards, but a realist like me ought to applaud her initiative.

There was a small, orderly queue near the back of the shop. I joined the end of it by myself—Hannes said he’d meet me in the pub across the road—and while I waited my turn I wondered if Grace would recognize me, and decided she would not.

But I was wrong. When I reached the front of the queue and put the book down, open, before her, she raised her eyes to mine, and at once, although there was no change in her mild, professionally pleasant smile, greeted me by name.

I looked into her eyes and saw nothing there. The emptiness was unsettling. “I’m surprised—I didn’t think you’d remember me,” I said, stammering a little.

“How could I forget? After what you did . . . If not for you, I wouldn’t be here now. In a way, I owe my whole career to you.”

A woman standing near the wall behind her took notice and stepped forward. “Really? That’s very interesting! I don’t recall this from your book . . . Will you introduce us, Grace?”

Grace went on smiling mildly at me and staring at me with her dead eyes; without turning she said, “Not now”—and although there was nothing threatening or even unpleasant in her tone, it was enough to make the other woman fall back.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“I think you do.”

If I said Grace was dead, that the woman signing books was only a simulacrum, or some kind of zombie, who would believe me? Yet I knew, and so did she, that it was true. Mardi had sensed it as well. She was physically still alive, but dead inside—and it was my fault.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. While I had stood there speechless, she had finished writing in my book and now she handed it back to me. “Thank you. Next!”

At her command, I stumbled away. I’d forgotten everything else in the horror of my discovery, forgot I was supposed to meet Hannes, and made my way home, alone, across the city. There was no one I could talk to about it, and I could think of nothing else. What had I done to that poor girl?

Poor? I could just imagine what Hannes might have said: “Are you kidding? She used to be poor, and now she’s not. She’s a success! I can’t see how it’s anything to do with you, but she thanked you, right? She’s changed, sure, and maybe her old friends don’t like it, but that’s life.”

Mardi alone might have understood—but if I told her what I’d done to the dream-Grace, she would have hated me, and however much I deserved it, I couldn’t bear the thought.

When I got home, I took a cursory look at Dream Detective, reading a few pages, wondering if it would give me any answers, but there was something smug and flat and false about the paragraphs I skimmed that killed that hope. I turned back to the title page where I found what I later learned to be the author’s standard inscription: My name, and Dream well! Sincerely yours, Grace Kearney.

Her signature was a florid scribble, which I imagined she had worked up as an impressively individual, if nearly illegible, autograph. Yet there seemed to be something wrong with it. A closer look revealed that something had been written in the same space before she signed; two words in tiny letters, hand-printed, almost obliterated by the signature. I knew they had not been there when I bought the book, were not on the page when I opened it before her, and they were written with the same pen—Grace herself was the only possible author. Had she started to write a more personal message, then changed her mind?

Under the brightest light I had, with the aid of a magnifying glass, I examined the page until the half-hidden words became clear:

save me

***

Those words have changed my life. I’ve been asked to do something, and although I don’t know how, I will find a way.

Some things, once broken, can never be mended. Murder, no matter how deeply the killer repents, can’t be undone—except, of course, in dreams.

© 2013 Lisa Tuttle.

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Lisa Tuttle

Lisa TuttleLisa Tuttle was born and raised in the United States, spent ten years in London, and now lives in a remote part of the Scottish highlands. She began writing while still at school, sold her first stories at university, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. Her first novel, Windhaven, was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin published in 1981; her most recent is the contemporary fantasy The Silver Bough, and she has written at least a hundred short stories, as well as essays, reviews, non-fiction, and books for children.

Stories by Lisa Tuttle

3 Responses »

  1. Damn! That was fantastic, and the ending was incredibly unsatisfying. I rarely say that, as I almost always agree with the writer’s (presumed) intentions, but I really need to know more…!

  2. I agree, what a pissy ending.

    Is this an abridged version of the story?

  3. I thought the ending was fine but I would love to see more too.

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