Is that barbecue sauce?

Obscurity

by Allen Woods

 

He first saw the slick water glistening off the beige sidewalk. It was early, still dark outside, but light pollution flickered on the saturated ground and he could see clearly. He looked down, searching for his hands or feet, but couldn't find either. Multifarious thoughts and explanations ricocheted through his groggy mind, but, to his mild surprise, he didn't care about his missing corporeal appendages. He was two eyes--that's all--and he was there for a purpose--to watch.

His field of vision narrowed and a thunderous beat echoed loudly despite his lack of ears. It sounded like a gigantic hammer slowly pounding the ground. Something emerged from his left side. He turned his eyes and saw a young man. A brown imitation leather briefcase dangled in his right hand and a navy blue umbrella rested underneath his left armpit. The man walked in slow motion and he suddenly understood what he had heard: the amplified sound of his loafers striking and rising off the ground.

The young man stepped onto the sidewalk and tepid water splashed into tiny ripples along the surface. On his right a tall building with dark windows rose toward the sky and cast dark shadows along the street. Yellow flood lamps illuminated the ground every ten feet and he watched as the young man walked underneath the flaxen glow, faded into blackness, and then reemerged. He neared the side entrance of the building, his briefcase softly patting his thigh, and the light from the last flood lamp appeared strange. A tree obscured it, casting a long, hard shadow.

He watched, looking at the tree and noticing how small the young man appeared beneath it. Something rustled--only a squirrel or an early bird, he thought--and the branches hanging over the sidewalk trembled furiously.

A dark wraith fell from the limbs, landing on the young man's head with a vicious blow.

He watched the young man open his mouth and scream, but all he heard was silence. The wraith, which appeared more and more like a man as he entered the light of the flood lamp, stood over his fallen victim like a tiger stalking its prey. He reached back with both fists and slammed them down with a deafening roar--a scream like a wild bull.

The young man tried to shield his face, but he was too slow. The predator smashed downward, breaking the nose and the left cheekbone. A knife suddenly emerged from a sheath on his pants. He wore faded blue jeans encrusted with filth, and blond hair dangled at shoulder length. It was not blond for long. Blood sprayed across his head, mixing with the sweat in his hair and dripping to the pavement. He sliced the young man's throat, almost decapitating him in one stroke, and then straightened his back.

He stood up, a white tank top barely clinging to his lithe chest, and turned his head. The killer looked at him and he looked back. Their eyes met and a thin smile emerged on the killer's face. It was, somehow, sardonic. The killer knew something he didn't. He raised his arms above his head and veins popped out along his forearms. Again, the bull roar bellowed from his mouth and blood fell from the sky like a spring afternoon rain shower. Everything turned cerise.

Then he awoke, panting and wiping the cold sweat from his brow. "I've got to stop eating pizza before bed," Nick told himself as he rubbed the sticky sweat between his thumb and forefinger. He inhaled deeply, trying to regulate his erratic breathing, and stumbled out of bed.

The nightmare was still fresh in his mind, unlike the usual dreams that faded as soon as he awoke. Nick rubbed his mussed hair, struggling to forget the horribly vivid images of the killer's smile. A little morning Jerry Springer will cure that, or at least give him other horrible images to replace the surreal one. He flipped on the television and searched for Channel 17, but came to a halt on the morning news. LIVE flashed in bright yellow letters at the bottom corner of the screen and

Nick was mesmerized. A youthful Latino reporter stood in front of a tall, dark building with a microphone in her hand. Behind her, on the sidewalk, two ambulance technicians lifted a jet-black body bag off the ground. Nick blinked twice, not believing his eyes or the pools of blood curdling on the sidewalk.

He turned up the volume and listened to the reporter announce, "These reports are unconfirmed, but we believe that a federal employee was murdered during the early morning hours here, outside of this building. The police have not named any suspects and details are sketchy at this time...."

"So it's settled?" special agent Robert Bostic asked in his usual detached tone.

"Of course it is," special agent Chester replied. "They don't like it, but the locals never do. It's always the same, even in a case like this one where the crime occurred on federal property. Why can't they understand that we're not here to step on their toes? We're here to solve the case, just like them."

"We can step on whatever we want. We're here to stop this killer and local law enforcement will only get in the way."

"It was a rhetorical question," Chester reminded him, patting Bostic on the shoulder. Bostic turned his head and his eyelids narrowed into rueful slits as he stared at his partner. Chester forgot the rules, momentarily, and quickly withdrew his hand. "Sorry. That attitude is the reason I don't let you smooth things over with the locals."

Bostic leered at him. A few years ago he would have had a smart comeback. He would have cracked a cynical joke or, at the very least, unleashed a heated "Fuck you" in Chester's direction. Now he was beyond even that kind of response. He didn't care at all. Bostic wasn't on this job to interact or make friends. He was there to catch a monster and make him pay for his atrocities.

"What do we know?" Bostic asked as they ambled away from the crime scene. The glow of television camera lights faded behind them as they walked down the street. They reached the corner at the end of the sidewalk and Chester stared back down the lane. It had happened only a few yards away from where they stood, and he felt uneasy.

"The evidence collected by the locals is somewhat confounding. It's as though the killer was careful in some ways, but utterly obvious in others."

Bostic nodded. "So either he's stupid and inept or he's toying with us."

"I agree," Chester continued. "We found shoe impressions in the mulch and dirt surrounding the base of the tree. Nikes, we're checking on which model, size fourteen."

"Our boy is big," Bostic commented.

"Yes, and the depth of the impressions suggests that he either weighs around 200 pounds or jumped from a fourth-story window."

"What else?"

"Hair samples. Long and blond. The victim apparently died from lacerations to the throat, but we're waiting on a coroner's report before we make that conclusion official. No prints though. Not a single one."

"You think he wore gloves?" Bostic wondered aloud.

"That would make sense," Chester agreed, "but we haven't found any talcum powder or evidence of latex. We're bringing in a fibers team, though. If there's anything to find, they'll get it."

"Whose team?"

"Robertson."

"Good," Bostic replied slowly. "He does excellent work. I want the locals shut out of this investigation. They'll only fuck things up. They can provide manpower support if we need it."

"You getting one of those feelings again?" Chester asked. He'd learned to rely on Bostic's instincts when they had nothing else to go on. The closest comparison he used to explain it was a sixth sense. Special agent Bostic had a way of knowing things.

With his index finger, Bostic traced a long scar leading from the corner of his left eye to the dangling lobe of his ear. He slowly followed it, caressing every crevice and nick left by the wound he had sustained four years ago. Then he looked at Chester and his eyes were dour. "You might say that. I think this dog is going to be a tough one to track down."

"I can help," a voice called out from the street and both agents spun around. Bostic instinctively reached for the gun nestled underneath his left arm, but as soon as he saw the intruder he removed his hand.

"I'm sorry to run up on you," the stranger said, almost out of breath. He'd jogged up the street from a parking deck beside the building. "You're feds, right?"

"How'd you get past the police line?" Chester asked, stepping closer to the short man to intimidate him. It didn't work.

The short man held up a federal ID badge pinned to his cotton plaid shirt. "I work in the federal district. The building next door actually, but I have access to any of the buildings. The police thought I was going to work."

"Then that's where you should be heading," Chester demanded.

"But I can help."

Bostic sized up the stranger. His chestnut brown hair whipped back and forth in the strong wind and his informal attire led him to one conclusion: attention seeker. "What's your name?"

"Nick Ruddy."

Bostic leaned forward and spoke directly into Nick's face, "Look here Mr. Ruddy. We have important work to do and you've probably missed your chance to get on TV. Most of the reporters are leaving so why don't you do the same?"

Chester clutched Bostic's shoulder and pulled him away. They marched further down the street, seeking privacy, when Nick called out, "You're looking for a tall man with blond hair and a medium build. He killed the victim with a knife, but only after jumping out of a tree and walloping him on the head."

Bostic paused and stared at Chester out of the corner of his left eye. "Has anyone released details to the media?" Chester shook his head and they both turned around. Bostic's face flashed red and his massive shoulders lurched up and down with each furious breath. He marched back up the street and grabbed Nick by the collar.

Chester squeezed hard enough to get Nick's attention and Nick's eyes opened wide. He didn't know what was about to happen to him, and that feeling was worse than any nightmare he could have experienced.

"How do you know that? Where have you seen him?" Chester demanded.

Plump beads of sweat trickled down the sides of Nick's cheeks and he gulped before answering, "In my dreams."

* * * * * * *

The heat of the interrogation room was unbearable. Nick had seen enough gangster movies and cop shows to know that the police sweated answers out of nefarious culprits. Hot lights beamed down on mobsters until they admitted their crimes. Special agents Bostic and Chester used a slightly different approach.

"You're full of shit, Ruddy! You're holding back! Tell me what you know! I want everything! Who is your accomplice?" Bostic shouted, slamming his fist on the lacquered wooden table provided by the police station. His voice was almost hoarse. He and Chester had taken turns berating him for the last few hours and the latent heat of the plain room had billowed to stifling degrees.

Nick was ready to concede. He would have confessed to anything, except he didn't know what they wanted--or at least believed he didn't know. They had cranked the thermostat up to 80 degrees and Nick's vision was blurred. He wanted rest, a good meal, and most importantly, a cold gulp of water. He wanted those things so badly, but he knew they wouldn't give them to him. Why? Because he repeated the same answer again. "I already told you, I don't know anymore."

"It doesn't make sense, Ruddy," Chester commented, taking his turn to play the role of good cop. It wasn't really his turn per se. Bostic never played the role of good cop. Bad cop wasn't a role either. It was his natural instinct. "You don't really expect us to believe that you dreamed of this crime the night before it happened?"

"Of course not," Nick groaned, resting his brow on his sanguine forearms. He spoke to the table and his strained words came out muffled, "I don't expect you to believe it, but it happened. I know it's true. You think I wanted any of this?"

"No, I don't," Chester replied. "I'm not sure what you wanted. I don't know why you confronted us or why you refuse to acknowledge your accomplice."

Nick groaned and wiped his eyes. He was on the verge of tears. "I don't have an accomplice. Look, I can't explain it, but I somehow saw this killer. He appeared in my dream and I watched him commit the crime as it happened. Then he looked at me. I saw his eyes and we recognized each other."

"What are you saying?" Bostic asked.

"He knows me, too." Nick's neck strained under the weight of his weary head and he laid his cheek on the table. It felt cool and soothing. Nick almost smiled in relief.

Chester looked up and exchanged a tacit stare with his partner. He motioned to the side and Bostic joined him in the corner of the room. "So what do you think?"

Bostic leaned close to Chester's ear and covered his mouth with a curled palm. He whispered, "He's got to be involved. He's probably the brains behind it. The victim was a federal employee."

"A congressional aide?"

"That's right," Bostic confirmed. "Ruddy probably scouted the victim while at work, learned his routine, and gave the killer details on the federal building."

"But why? What's his motive?" Chester wondered.

That question bothered Bostic, also. Not because he didn't have an answer, but because he knew it only too well. "Why does anyone kill someone? In the heat of the moment it's because of emotions. In a situation like this one, where it appears premeditated, there's no reasonable explanation."

"Is there an unreasonable one?"

"Yes," Bostic said grimly, "he's insane. A sociopath probably. Initial info we have on this guy suggests that he lives alone and doesn't have any close friends." They turned their heads and looked at their exhausted suspect. Nick hadn't heard a word they said.

"Suggestions?" Chester asked.

"We need more evidence. I think he'll break if we keep the pressure up. Hold him. We've got 48 hours to hold him on suspicion."

"Can you find what we'll need in that time?" Chester asked. From past experience, he thought he already knew the answer.

Bostic said nothing. He leered at his partner, his expression never changing. "All right," Chester said. "We'll hold him overnight. Maybe then he'll feel more like talking."

* * * * * * *

The svelte mattress felt like a lumpy sandbag under his strained back. Nick tossed and turned for most of the night. He'd never been inside a jail before, let alone spent the night in a cell. It was as he imagined--only worse. Brown stains checkered the floor to the point where feculent grime blended with the shadows of every corner. Urine odors wafted in the air. Loud voices shouted back and forth across the cells and guards responded with raps of their batons against the iron bars.

Nick had wanted to call a lawyer--he planned on contacting the local ambulance chaser on the back of the phone who claimed that if you didn't collect, he didn't collect. Nick didn't know any better. His ignorance was irrelevant, however, because the jailers said he could make his call in the morning.

"Don't I have the right to a phone call," Nick had strongly protested.

"Sure!" agent Bostic had replied and he ripped the receiver off the pay phone in the front room of the jail. He tossed it to Nick and he pinched the twined wires dangling at the end of the severed cord. "You also have the right to shut the hell up. If you refuse that right ... I recommend that you don't refuse that right."

Nick had agreed. Bostic's dour face warned him not to disagree. He wasn't under arrest and they didn't owe him anything. Nick didn't understand the inner workings of local law, but he knew they couldn't hold him indefinitely. Better stay quiet and escape in a day or two without a swollen face. Or without a worse injury, he imagined as he stared at Bostic's hands.

Old scars covered both of Bostic's palms. They were long, horizontal lines that had faded to white. It looked like he'd tried to stop a runaway lawnmower with his hands. Either that or Bostic once served as a model at Madame Lucinda's School of Palm Reading.

So Nick solemnly entered his cell, thankful that he was alone, and the lights soon dimmed. Sleep wasn't easy to come by, but despite the pallet-sized bed, he succumbed just after two in the morning. He slept hard, stirring little once he achieved REM sleep, until a suburban lane appeared before him like a snowy television picture coming into focus.

Black and white images filled his view, but suddenly became a wash of colors. Everything became psychedelic and simmered with bright hues. The morning sun shined overhead, not a cloud in the sky, and the sky was its deepest azure. It was endless, except where it touched the gray concrete of the shady lane. Lush dogwood, elm, and weeping willow trees surrounded the street like a curtain of foliage. Nick couldn't smell a thing, nor could he move, but it didn't matter. He relished the serene paradise.

The meow of an orange kitten caught his attention and Nick shifted his vision. Not his head, but his vision, for he was noncorporeal again.

The cat perched on a low hanging branch of a young elm and an elderly woman reached up to the tree. She cupped her hands and grinned as she urged her pet forward.

Nick felt elated and thought of his grandmother. The good feeling did not last.

Higher up the tree, branches rustled and the old woman strained her eyes. She shielded her face from the sun with a soldier's salute, but she was too slow. She never had a chance to see the knife before it sliced through the sinews of her neck. One chop and she was dead. The momentum of the fall, combined with the killer's strength, was more than enough.

Gotta run! Nick madly thought, but it was no use. He had no legs, no body, and he couldn't avert his eyes. He watched in horror, feeling his heart beat through his invisible chest, as the blond killer licked the blood off his blade. The cat meowed, clinging to the low branch by its front claws, and he lifted it from its perch. He stared into Nick's eyes and squeezed. The kitten gurgled, a squashed scream of instant pain and suffering, until its tiny, hairy tongue popped out of its mouth. The killer raised the carcass above his head and threw it at the bloody corpse. The dead kitten landed on its owner's face.

The killer looked at Nick again and smiled. Shocking pain abruptly pierced Nick's chest and he jumped off his bunked cell bed. He landed hard on the floor, almost squashing a baby rat, but he never noticed. Bright rays of sunshine filtered through the barred window and one thought raced through his tormented mind: It happened again!

* * * * * * *

What's his angle? Bostic wondered as he sized up Nick Ruddy. Nick was diminutive, barely five-five, and highly educated. He worked for the Social Security Administration, but federal employment didn't necessarily entail a history of violence. At least not in everyone's case. Despite the evidence before him, Bostic knew that Ruddy didn't fit the profile. He wasn't likely to kill a roach scurrying across his kitchen linoleum, let alone another human being.

"If you're ready to confess then get on with it," agent Chester urged Nick. "Otherwise, stop wasting our time with more of this nonsense."

"It's not nonsense," Nick rejoined, raising both his hands.

Bostic stepped closer and flexed his shoulders.

Nick lowered his arms, his lips pouting, and avoided the agent's menacing stare. "I'm sorry. Look, I can't explain it, but I saw the killer again."

"In another dream?" Chester questioned sarcastically.

"In another dream," Nick confirmed. "He killed an elderly woman. She was trying to get her kitten out of a tree when he attacked her."

"Where did he come from?" Chester shouted, slamming a fist on the table to break Nick's concentration. Before he could answer, the agent barked, "What did he look like? Were his clothes the same? Did he use a knife again? What about it, Nick?"

"Please stop," he begged. "You're confusing me. It was a dream. I can't recall it all at once. I have to take it slowly."

Agent Chester adjusted the loops holding his belt and hiked up his pants a few inches. He leaned over and whispered in Nick's ear, "Do you take murder slowly, Nick? Do you? You won't confuse us. We know what you did to that boy at the federal building and we'll prove it. You know how? You'll confess. You want to. I can feel it. Name your accomplice."

Nick shut his eyes tightly until they hurt and he saw wavy lines of dark red melt into green. Then there was blackness and he felt cold except for Chester's hot breath breezing against his neck.

The plain door to the room swung open violently, crashing against the wall, and Nick opened his eyes.

A police captain stood at the threshold. A stunned expression covered his face and he waved at the FBI agents. "I need to speak with you."

Chester and Bostic looked at each other. Then Chester looked back at Nick.

"Go on," Bostic said. "I'll keep an eye on him."

Chester nodded and slammed the door shut on his way out.

Nick struggled to breathe at regular intervals as long-awaited sweat finally poured off his glistening brow. He looked at Bostic and sensed nothing. His face was like a stone wall--absolutely uncaring and without definition except for the long scar on his cheek. It appeared old and faded and Nick wondered how he could have gotten it. Not from interrogating a prisoner, he prayed.

"I'm telling you it wasn't me," Nick pleaded. "I only want to help. You're going to see. That woman is dead. He killed her and her kitten."

Bostic didn't flinch. His eyes never blinked and Nick couldn't say for certain that he even breathed. His chest wasn't moving. The tumult of the swinging door intoned again and Nick turned his head.

Agent Chester leaned into the room, his demeanor less confident. His shoulders slumped forward and an air of concern covered his face. It was doubt. "Can I see you for a minute?"

Bostic nodded and walked across the floor.

Nick buried his face in his hands, replaying the events of the dream in his mind.

"What's wrong?" Bostic asked, immediately discerning a problem.

"We've hit a snag. Seems that the locals have found the body of an elderly woman and her cat. Now this doesn't mean that it's the same woman this lunatic is referring to."

Bostic's eyes widened and he rubbed his right fist in his left palm.

Chester had never seen Bostic so animated. "Ruddy said we'd find a dead kitten with the body. We can deny it, but there's no such thing as coincidence. Not with these stakes."

"Fuck! I know you're right," Chester muttered under his breath and he pushed back his thinning hair with both hands. The skin of his forehead pulled taut and he looked directly at his partner. During their short association, he'd come to rely on Bostic's instincts. "What do you think?"

"What do I think?"

"Yes."

"I think that Ruddy is involved. We should run with the original premise. He's the brains behind this spree and the guy he's describing is the brawn."

Playing the role of skeptical jurist--Chester hated when a group of his peers believed conjecture and conspiratorial theories as reasonable doubt--he asked, "Then why tell us? If he's in on it, then he's digging his own grave."

"Regret," Bostic stated simply. It was a subject he understood far too well. "Regret can become monumental. He can't handle what he's become a part of and he's turning on himself. Only he can't come straight out and say it because he's afraid of the consequences."

"Should he be?" Chester wondered.

"We're in a Southern state with an election year upcoming. Do you think the governor will grant clemency when Ruddy is sitting on death row?" Bostic explained dryly.

"Good point. So what now?"

"We play his game. Allow him to continue dropping hints until he gives up his accomplice."

"How do we do that?"

"Leave it to me," Bostic assured him. "He wants to help. I'll let him help, or at least allow himself to think he's helping."

"What's the first move?"

"We'll need an anesthesiologist," Bostic explained.

Chester stared over Bostic's shoulder. He leered at Nick and hated him. He hoped the governor would pull the switch himself when they gave this scum the chair.

* * * * * * *

Coruscant light surrounded him on all sides. It pulsated with blinding life and Nick heard the scream. At first it was high pitched and far off, reminding him of a Robert Plant song, but as the light faded into a narrow dot the scream became a dull bass. It throbbed against his ears and Nick fell to his knees, covering both sides of his head. The light disappeared like the last flickering image of a black and white television set and the scream reached a crescendo before stopping.

Nick opened his eyes. He had legs and an entire body. He looked at the front and back sides of his hands, noting how realistic it all seemed. Where am I? he wondered. It was a dark living room with hardwood floors, and the musty odor of old wood hung on the air. It was someone's house, but not his. Nick pushed off the floor and stepped onto a hook rug. A lingering orange glow radiated from an antique lamp, but that was all.

How did I get here? Nick wondered and then it struck him like a bolt of lightning. His palm slapped his moist forehead and he remembered: This is the dream. I'm dreaming right now.

Raspy breaths echoed in his ears and Nick spun around, turning the hook rug with him. He saw nothing, but he knew he had heard it. Something else was in the room. I'm not alone.

Nick wasn't sure what to do next. He couldn't recall the last time he had a lucid dream. At least I've got feet this time, he told himself and decided to use them. A small kitchen sat to his right and he peered past the open threshold. The sight of unwashed dishes made him cringe. Baked-on grease clung to dingy pans and calcified vegetables lined the sink. Looks like nobody has cleaned this place for years. He searched for other options.

A narrow stairwell ascended on his left. It only went up and Nick saw no reason to ignore it. The oaken steps creaked under his light weight. Thin layers of dust shielded each step and gray plumes swirled into the air each time Nick laid one foot in front of the other. The stairs didn't go very far. Nick thought he could see the upstairs landing, but it was dark. What's up there? he speculated with each successive step. He never considered what might lurk behind him. At least not until he heard a low, rumbling laugh.

Nick twisted sideways and stared over his left shoulder. A man stood at the bottom of the stairs. Nick immediately recognized his faded jeans and sweaty blonde hair. The killer laughed and brandished his knife. He licked the blade with his tongue and crimson blood trickled past his lips and to the floor.

"How does it feel, Nick," the killer spoke, "to know you're gonna die soon?"

Nick didn't hesitate. He bolted up the final few steps, leaping three at a time, but the thunderous stomps of the killer's feet sent shivers through his body. Nick leapt up the last two steps and almost punched his head through the ceiling. He had reached a cluttered attic full of broken furniture and antique trunks. Across the chamber, moonlight filtered through a window.

"I'm coming for you!" the killer screamed and Nick lunged forward. He pulled down boxes and old furniture behind him, trying to create as many obstacles as possible for his pursuer. The light of the moon slightly warmed his body as he neared the window. Almost there! he urged himself. His hands splattered against the panes of glass and he pulled on the small brass lock. Rust coated every side of it and it wouldn't budge.

Nick pulled with all of his fury, but the lock refused to move an inch. "Come on!" he shouted.

"It's no good, Nick." He turned and saw the killer standing across from him. He approached slowly, knocking aside all the obstacles ruthlessly. "You're trapped and now it ends. How are you gonna get away?"

There was only one way. Nick backed up four feet, barely avoiding the outstretched fingers of the killer, and charged forward. He jumped, curling his body into a ball, and crashed through the panes of glass. Nick opened his eyes and saw the ground hurtling toward him. It's only a dream, he told himself and he covered his face with his forearms, but before he struck the ground, something urged Nick to look to the side. At the corner of the street was a sign: GRAYSTOKE LANE. His head touched the ground and everything went black.

Later Nick awoke, gasping for air and sitting up on the cot. A police captain and both special agents quickly surrounded him.

Chester handed him a rag to wipe the sweat and asked, "What did you see?"

"A house on Graystoke Lane. I live near there. I can even tell you what house it is, because I pass it every day."

"And the killer?" the captain asked.

"He was there, but this time he came after me."

"Not the residents?" Chester questioned.

"No, he called me by name."

Chester rubbed his chin thoughtfully and pulled the police captain aside. They whispered, arguing back and forth, as Nick looked at the sentinel standing behind him. Bostic looked down at him, conveying his skepticism with a stoic glare. "You don't believe a word of this," Nick opined.

Bostic didn't answer.

* * * * * * *

As a child, Nick Ruddy constantly fantasized about becoming a police officer and participating in a stakeout. It seemed so glamorous. Getting to stay up late while eating handfuls of sweet foods and maybe, if you were lucky, you'd get to see a pretty girl undressing in the house you watched. Reality proved not as glamorous.

Bostic took him into a condemned house on the other side of Graystoke Lane. The food consisted of stale potato chips and flat Big K soda. Worst of all, Nick felt queasy when he saw Chester and the police bring the "pretty girl" out of her house across the street. She was 80 years old, but didn't look a day younger than 100. That explains why the house was such a mess. The old lady was almost an invalid and Chester removed her from the house by saying she'd won a free trip out of town. Dementia so muddled the woman's mind that she simply nodded and followed the officers to their patrol car.

After that incident, the day dragged on slowly. Nick sat in a corner of the decrepit upper floor and glanced through a book. He couldn't concentrate, however, because too many distractions diverted his attention.

Agent Bostic stood across the barren floor, peering through a high-powered telescope aimed at the house across the street. Occasionally, his left eye peeked to the side, checking on Nick to make sure he wasn't up to anything. He knew the agent was watching, but Nick didn't care. He wasn't going anywhere. Finally, though, after hours of silence, he had to ask, "So what are we doing?"

"We aren't doing anything," Bostic emphasized without turning away from the lens.

"All right. Why don't you tell me what the plan is? Why am I here?"

Bostic sounded flustered. "You're here because I want to keep an eye on you. Other than that, you don't need to know."

"I can guess," Nick proffered. "That device you're looking through."

"What about it?"

"I bet it's more than a telescope. It's probably a heat sensitive camera or something. I've read about that technology."

"And what if it is?" Bostic asked curtly.

"It tells me a bit of your plan."

"Any movement, Watchdog One?" a strained voice squawked over the radio hanging around Bostic's belt.

Bostic peered through the lens more intently and lifted the receiver of the device, "No signs. Everything is clear."

"You've got a trap for him, don't you?" Nick speculated. He tried to sound surprised, like the thought had suddenly popped into his head, but he had suspected it since they set up the equipment that morning.

Bostic menacingly glared at him. His lips barely parted, "Why do you want to know so much, Ruddy? Are you going to warn your partner?"

"I told you, I don't know anything about this killer except what I see in my dreams."

"So you say," he replied skeptically. Chester's plan was simple, though Bostic didn't see why they had to bring Ruddy along. A special agent sat inside the house, disguised as the old woman, waiting for their suspect. Meanwhile, plainclothes officers walked the street. Two dressed as bums, a jogger repeatedly circled the same street, and three friends enjoyed a cool night stroll. Their ruse was obvious if you knew what to look for.

Bostic had the least enviable task, but the most important. He was the focal point for the entire operation. From his vantage, Bostic surveyed the entire street. His eyes shifted between the heat sensitive telescope and the illumination of numerous lamp posts along the lane. He searched for anything out of the ordinary. So far he hadn't seen a peep of their perp and he was growing frustrated. Nick didn't make him feel any more at ease. Bostic kept a close watch on him as well, hoping Nick would slip up and reveal a vital clue about his accomplice--a warning that would tip off Bostic. Again, so far, nothing. Bostic swiveled his head and noticed something he had overlooked earlier.

"What's that book?" he asked and pointed at the gray tome nestled under Ruddy's knees.

"Oh that," he said, and he picked it up. Nick had almost forgotten about it. He'd already read most of the passages that interested him. "I brought it with me."

"Where'd you get it?" Bostic asked, knowing that the locals had seized his possessions.

"Does that matter?" Bostic squared his massive shoulders and threatened Nick with his dour posture. Nick's eyes widened and he raised his hands in a defensive position. "Okay, okay, I get the message. When the police officers made a list of items for the stakeout, I added this book to the list. Nobody saw me do it and I didn't see the harm."

A small explosion of anger burned through Bostic's chest, but he contained his rage. Sometimes, he couldn't understand how locals could act with such stupidity. Giving a suspect contraband! Fucking moron! The pain in his chest passed swiftly and Ruddy's words finally registered in his head, evoking a question. "Why didn't it put you to sleep?"

Nick chuckled, but Bostic refused to see anything funny about their situation, or any other situations for that matter. "The book is about dreams and dream theory. It's really interesting," Nick said excitedly. The book's contents had energized his mind and he had to share the knowledge with someone. He wanted a sounding board to bounce ideas off. "For example, in some Eastern philosophies, they say dreams are a method of communication. One sleeping soul can speak to another while they are unconscious. Native American tribes had a different view. They believed that the body is full of many souls and some could only escape the body while you sleep. Sort of an astral projection of the mind. Then there was this one tribe called Chocnaw that believed images from dreams could take physical form in the real world. Emerging from the obscurity of the mind to manifest themselves on the physical plane," just like me, he finished in silence. I live in obscurity, too. He had gone missing for almost two days and nobody had sought him out. He had nobody to contact--never considered asking for his one phone call that morning.

Nick Ruddy was obscure to the world and as he looked upon the detested FBI agent in front of him, he thought agent Bostic lived in obscurity as well. His scars, his demeanor and his ominous presence all indicated loneliness. In a unique way, Nick

began to see the man who distrusted him as a kindred spirit.

"You don't talk much, do you, agent Bostic?" Nick asked, trying to bridge the gap and form the potential relationship he imagined.

Bostic grumbled softly and rubbed his scars. "I've read a little about dreams, Ruddy, and what I've read suggests something different. Dreams aren't communication or vision quests. Dreams are a cataloging method."

"What does...." Nick began, but a tense finger raised before Bostic's lips stopped him short.

"Dreams are the mind's methods of cataloging the day's events. You dream about things you've thought about. Thoughts that have weighed heavy on your mind."

"So what are you saying?" Nick asked, leery of Bostic's hints.

"What's weighing heavy on your mind, Ruddy?"

Nick shook his head and turned away. I don't have to take that. He sat across three dusty wood planks and rested his back against a nook in the corner of the room. He pulled his book out and opened to a random page. Anything to keep me away from that psycho.

Nick struggled to concentrate on the printed words, but his mind raced with acrimonious passion and soon the bold letters blended together. He yawned and carbon dioxide spilled out of his lungs. Water filled his eyes and Nick's pulse slowed to a crawl. He tried to read and thought he was, but his eyes quickly drooped shut and his chin fell forward. The numbness from the anesthesia continued to flow through remote parts of his body and sleep came easily. Before falling completely asleep, the last thought that passed through his mind questioned, why am I seeing this man in my dreams?

* * * * * * *

Nick opened his eyes and found himself standing on Graystoke Lane. Bostic pressed a shotgun into the back of his neck, pushing him forward. Nick tried to scream, but his voice was gone. He looked at Bostic and saw a wild animal. His eyes glowed red like a furnace and the corner of his pursed lips curled upward in a devilish grin.

"Move it!" he shouted, and Nick felt the barrel of the gun dig into his vertebrae. He did as ordered. They marched across the street and into the darkened house. It was strangely quiet and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until they entered the living room. Dead agents and police officers lay strewn across the floor. Nick wanted to vomit his guts out--the sight of coagulating blood pools sickened him--but he couldn't. He didn't feel sick at all.

"Where is he?" Bostic asked, but he still couldn't answer. Nick raised his hands to the sides of his head and slowly turned around. He felt Bostic lean forward on the shotgun, but something told Nick that he wouldn't fire--or at least he hoped he wouldn't. Frightened, Nick looked at the seething agent and his mouth quivered. He opened it wide, screaming, but no sound came out.

Bostic cocked his head and squinted. "What are you trying to say?"

Suddenly, a blur of movement fell from the ceiling. Blond hair whipped into Nick's face and he stumbled backward. Both of the killer's feet smashed into Bostic's face, crushing his nose, gouging his left eye, and fracturing his skull. Bostic fell on his buttocks and slumped backward. He lay motionless on the floor as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. A wry smile greeted Nick as the killer turned to confront him.

"It's over, Nick," he said and he pulled his blade from the small leather sheath on the side of his jeans. He jumped forward, sawing at Nick's throat, and everything shined bright and white.

* * * * * * *

Nick's arms flailed wildly as his eyes opened. He slapped the rotting drywall that formed the nook as he gasped for air. Beads of sweat left long, glistening streaks across his face. Only a nightmare, he reminded himself, but something much more ominous awaited him in the lucent world. Bostic glowered at him from across the empty room. Nick rose to his feet and dusted off his pants.

"It was ... a ... uh," Nick began to explain, when the reverberating blast of a gunshot intoned the street. Nick looked at Bostic and for a short time their mutual silence shared the same concern. Nick scrambled to a window while Bostic aimed his lens at the house across the lane.

Rapid gunfire from multifarious-caliber weapons echoed between the trees and Nick ducked, barely peeping his eyes above the windowsill. Officers and agents scrambled into the house with their weapons brandished. Garbled yells and orders blared over agent Bostic's radio, but Nick couldn't make out anything they said. Something's going down. That's it, they must have him. He couldn't see a thing, but Nick knew the killer had to be the explanation for the commotion. Why else are they running inside?

Conversely, Bostic had a much better, though unique, view. His heat-sensitive scope peered through the walls of the house. Prismatic heat signals, shaped in human forms, rushed inside and screams followed. What in the hell! Bostic asked himself, and he cringed with each falling body. Odd splotches of heat leaked from each body--white iridescence pouring out of quickly cooling, red-hued bodies--and Bostic realized what he saw. Blood.

More guns fired and the slaughter grew worse. Bostic couldn't stand it any longer. He turned away, covering his mouth with a fist, but it couldn't stop the vomit from belching forth. He spat green bile onto the ground and wiped his lips when Chester's distressed voice came over the radio.

"Bostic...Bostic! We need help! He was waiting for us ... lured us inside.... Can't find him ... could be anywhere. Oh God no! No!" he screamed through the static and Bostic's acute ears focused on a sound he was all too familiar with--a slitting throat. He knew his partner was dead.

Bostic buried his face in his hands and gnashed his teeth. Two fingernails broke the skin on his palm as he balled them into fists and blood leaked to his wrist. It paused there for a second, building in size, and then dripped to the floor.

Nick held his breath. He hadn't heard more gunfire and he knew he shouldn't say anything, but the words seemed to spill out of his throat before he could stop himself, "Agent Bostic, what happened?"

Bostic looked up and Nick shuddered. His face glowed red with rage and he said nothing. His baleful expression begged for revenge and he would have it. He threw aside his trench coat hanging in the corner, revealing a double-barreled shotgun that lay against the wall. It was his personal firearm. He didn't have a permit to carry it in the field, but Chester had never said anything about it--he didn't want to make Bostic angry.

He pumped the shotgun once and stalked across the room. Nick backed himself into a corner and pressed his body hard against the wall. Bostic grabbed his collar without saying a word and almost threw him down the stairs.

"Agent? Agent, what are you doing?" Bostic pointed the gun at the base of Nick's neck, impressing two concentric circles on his skin. He declined any other answer.

A cool breeze brushed across Nick's face as Bostic steered him across the street. It was dark out, not a person in sight, and the night sounded eerily quiet. No insects or cars, only silence. They approached the house and Bostic wrapped his fingers through Nick's belt.

"Agent, what are you doing?"

"Your partner just killed mine. I'm going to take him down and you're my insurance policy."

"Not a chance," Nick shouted and he stopped dead in his tracks.

Bostic leaned on him with the shotgun and said, "You'll cooperate, Ruddy, or I take you down here and now. Don't think I won't do it."

A bitter sincerity intoned Bostic's words and Nick forced his feet to move. His knees quivered with each step and a weakening panic filtered through his muscles like heat exhaustion. He didn't want to go on, but a primal urge forced him.

An odor of gunpowder mixed with flesh emanated from the front door of the house. Nick held his breath and pulled it open, Two dead bodies spilled out. They were plainclothes police officers. A shredding gunshot wound adorned one man's chest and the other had his neck slit from tonsil to tonsil. Nick's throat contracted and he closed his eyes. "I can't do this!"

"Inside!" Bostic commanded and he pushed Nick over the corpses.

They ambled through the small house, finding more and more dead bodies as they walked toward the living room. The darkness made Nick feel better. Though it reminded him of his dream, at least it shrouded most of the bloody wounds in darkness. My dream, he said to himself as though a spark had struck the flame of a match.

Bostic followed Nick into the room and his lips spread apart ever so slightly as he stared at the floor. A man lay face down in a pool of his own blood, but that didn't catch Bostic's attention. The bold white letters "FBI" on his back did. Chester.... He wasn't the first partner Bostic had lost, but that didn't make it any easier. A cold sweat broke out along Bostic's hairline and his forearms tightened in rage. "Where's your partner?" he asked, pushing the gun into Nick's spine. He couldn't remember ever wanting to kill someone so badly as he did in that moment.

"Wait, this is my dream!" Nick shouted.

"Enough of that bullshit!"

"No, really! I just had a nightmare where you had a shotgun pointed on me and we walked inside this room and you asked that question."

"Where is he?" Bostic screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.

Suddenly, Nick remembered. He looked at the ceiling. Wooden beams stretched from one end of the room to the other and the killer was waiting. He dropped, aiming his feet at Bostic's head. "No!" Nick screamed and pushed Bostic, but he was too slow. The killer landed on Bostic, stomping his head into the hardwood floor, and blood squirted from his nose and ear.

"No! Fuck, I was too slow!" Nick screamed as he fell to the floor.

Bostic lay motionless and the blond haired man turned around. Nick jumped off his knees only to meet a fist in the stomach. He doubled over in pain, but the killer held him up. Blood coughed from Nick's throat as he wheezed for air. He turned his head, sucking down more oxygen, when he saw his reflection in a dull sheen. It reflected on a blade. The killer lifted him by the shirt collar. Nick scratched and struggled to escape, but the man was too strong.

"Your memory ain't what it used to be, eh Nick? If you'd recalled your dream a little sooner, maybe you could have saved your little friend."

Nick stared into the man's blue eyes and felt coldness. Evil emanated from him like salt from an ocean. Nick turned his head, feeling too sick to look at the brutal man, but the man grabbed Nick's chin and turned him back. Nick spat at him and he laughed a maniacal giggle. "What was that for, little Nick?"

"Why? Why do any of this? What the hell kind of monster are you?"

The killer grinned and basked in the radiance of his own cruelty. "Why is there always an answer? I am evil for evil's sake. Does mayhem really need a motive, Nick? Or is the result all there is, the reason I do what I do?"

"Bullshit! There's always a reason. Tell me where you came from! People don't just do things like this!"

"Whoever said I was a person?"

Nick's expression became peevish and again he unsuccessfully struggled to escape. The killer licked his lips and pulled him close. "Do you really want to know where I come from, Nick?" he whispered. "You made me. I come from your dreams, Nick."

"No, that's impossible."

"Is it? Is it really? Every person has a dark side to their soul and those evil thoughts flourish in the subconscious. That's where I grew, Nick. You nurtured me from a little boy into what I am now. In a way, I am your son. You tried to trap me, Daddy. Denying everything that I am, but the evil impulses of your psyche could not be contained. I escaped through your dreams. You gave me life and the will to do the things that I do. I slipped out between worlds while you slept, but I'll never go back. Now I am physical and can walk this plane without hindrance. There is only one way I can make sure I never return whence I came."

A lump bulged from Nick's throat as tears gathered in his eyes. The killer slid his knife out of its sheath and pressed it against his throat. "I have to kill you, Daddy. Then you'll never be able to draw me back inside and I can enjoy the simple pleasures of conscious life."

The blade pierced his skin and Nick was praying in silence when the deafening sound of a gunshot rang in his ears. He dropped to the floor and hit his knees hard. His eyes opened and Nick watched as blood spilled out of the gaping wound in the killer's back.

The killer groped at the wound with his hands and dropped his blade. One gasp spewed from his throat--his lungs sat in shreds on the floor--and popped the reddish bubble that grew from his ringed mouth. He collapsed, dying instantly.

As soon as his body hit the floor, Nick saw agent Bostic leaning on his elbows and cradling his shotgun. A trail of blood ran from his left temple to the side of his mouth, but he was still very much alive, merely shaken.

He looked at Nick and set his gun on the floor. "I guess you remembered your dream quickly enough after all."

Nick grinned a little and fell on his back. He didn't move until the ambulance arrived.

* * * * * * *

The cold compress soothed Nick's scarred throat. He was fortunate. The wound was only superficial. It seemed that agent Bostic had regained his senses just in time. He watched the police carry off the killer in a large black bag and the media lights had already pounced on the scene. A bloodbath was always a good lead on the nightly news.

Maybe I'll finally get on Springer, Nick considered, but he didn't really want that. He didn't want anything except to return to his life of obscurity. Perhaps, he concluded, living an unknown life wasn't all that bad if that's how you get notoriety, he thought as his eyes flashed back and forth between the body bag and the army of reporters.

"You okay?" a caring voice called out. Nick looked over his shoulder and saw Bostic standing behind him. He rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. Bostic stepped closer and folded his arms as they observed the crime scene. "I know how you feel."

Nick snorted through his nose. "I'm sorry about your partner, but you have no idea how I feel. I know you all will probably never believe it, but that thing was from my dreams. My dreams! That means I created him."

"Go home, Ruddy," Bostic urged. "This case is over and you're no longer under suspicion of anything. I know now that you weren't his partner. Whatever that monster was and however he got in your dreams doesn't matter any longer. He's dead and you're cleared. We're sorry to have detained you for two days, but I'm sure many people would express their thanks for your assistance with this case."

"Who? The families of all those dead officers? Face it, you thought I was behind this until the very end and the ironic part is you were right."

"Drop it, Ruddy. You'll live longer."

"I can't. Tell me, how should I go on living knowing that I caused such violence?"

He looked at Bostic, but the agent stared off into the distance.

Bostic took a deep breath and spoke to Nick in a grave, yet sincere, tone. "We all have demons to deal with, Nick," he said and he caressed the long scar on his face and stared at the old wounds on his hands. "We've all done things or not done things that have hurt other people. Learn to cope. It's all we can do. That and tell yourself that there's a higher purpose. Believe me, Nick, there are worse things in the world to confront than the monster we saw tonight." Bostic clenched his fists and tried to forget the scars.

Nick looked on and nodded. "I think I'm beginning to see what you mean. It's all a matter of perspective, right?"

Bostic nodded and they both watched in silence as the ambulance drove off to the hospital. They each had faced their own struggles in life and as Nick Ruddy wondered what Bostic had endured to get those scars on his body, he realized that he had the strength to survive his own problems, too.

 

 

Story copyright © 1998 Allen Woods <allenwoods@sprintmail.com>

Illustration copyright © 1998 Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>


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