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Headaches and Bad Dreams (A Story From the Dark Side)

Lawrence Block




  Headaches and Bad Dreams

  About The Author

  A Word About Ehrengraf

  Headaches and Bad Dreams

  Lawrence Block

  copyright 1997, © Lawrence Block

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales are entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by electronic, mechanical or other means, is forbidden without written permission of the author.

  A Note From The Author

  All I can remember about the origin of “Headaches and Bad Dreams” is that I was on a train when I got the idea for it. It seems to me I was on my way home from Connecticut, though I couldn’t tell you what I was doing there. Whatever it was, my wife was there doing it with me, and this idea came to me in a sentence or two and I recounted it to her in a sentence or two. “There’s this psychic,” I said, and she heard me out, and said it sounded good to her.

  I wrote the story at the request of Elaine Koster, who was running Dutton and New American Library at the time, and who wanted a kick-ass anthology in celebration of NAL’s 50th anniversary in 1998. She decided to call it The Best of the Best, which strikes me in retrospect as strikingly presumptuous, because all the stories were to be written for the collection, and who could say ahead of time that they’d even be competent, let alone the best of anything?

  Best, schmest. I think this one came out pretty well, and I hope you enjoy it.

  A Story From The Dark Side, by Lawrence Block

  Three days of headaches, three nights of bad dreams. On the third night she woke twice before dawn, her heart racing, the bedding sweat-soaked. The second time she forced herself up and out of bed and into the shower. Before she’d toweled dry the headache had begun, starting at the base of the skull and radiating to the temples.

  She took aspirin. She didn’t like to take drugs of any sort, and her medicine cabinet contained nothing but a few herbal preparations—echinacea and golden seal for colds, gingko for memory, and a Chinese herbal tonic, its ingredients a mystery to her, which she ordered by mail from a firm in San Francisco. She took sage, too, because it seemed to her to help center her psychically and make her perceptions more acute, although she couldn’t remember having read that it had that property. She grew sage in her garden, picked leaves periodically and dried them in the sun, and drank a cup of sage tea almost every evening.

  There were herbs that were supposed to ease headaches, no end of different herbs for the many different kinds of headaches, but she’d never found one that worked. Aspirin, on the other hand, was reliable. It was a drug, and as such it probably had the effect of dulling her psychic abilities, but those abilities were of small value when your head was throbbing like Poe’s telltale heart. And aspirin didn’t slam shut the doors of perception, as something strong might do. Truth to tell, it was the nearest thing to an herb itself, obtained originally from willow bark. She didn’t know how they made it nowadays, surely there weren’t willow trees enough on the planet to cure the world’s headaches, but still...

  She heated a cup of spring water, added the juice of half a lemon. That was her breakfast. She sipped it in the garden, listening to the birds.

  She knew what she had to do but she was afraid.

  It was a small house, just two bedrooms, everything on one floor, with no basement, and a shallow crawl space for an attic. She slept in one bedroom and saw clients in the other. A beaded curtain hung in the doorway of the second bedroom, and within were all the pictures and talismans and power objects from which she drew strength. There were religious pictures and statues, a crucifix, a little bronze Buddha, African masks, quartz crystals. A pack of tarot cards shared a small table with a little malachite pyramid and a necklace of bear claws.

  A worn oriental rug covered most of the floor, and was itself in part covered by a smaller rug on which she would lie when she went into trance. The rest of the time she would sit in the straight-backed armchair. There was a chaise as well, and that was where the client would sit.

  She had only one appointment that day, but it was right smack in the middle of the day. The client, Claire Warburton, liked to come on her lunch hour. So Sylvia got through the morning by watching talk shows on television and paging through old magazines, taking more aspirin when the headache threatened to return. At 12:30 she opened the door for her client.

  Claire Warburton was a regular, coming for a reading once every four or five weeks, upping the frequency of her visits in times of stress. She had a weight problem—that was one of the reasons she liked to come on her lunch hour, so as to spare herself a meal’s worth of calories—and she was having a lingering affair with a married man. She had occasional problems at work as well, a conflict with a new supervisor, an awkward situation with a coworker who disapproved of her love affair. There were always topics on which Claire needed counsel, and, assisted by the cards, the crystals, and her own inner resources, Sylvia always found something to tell her.

  “Oh, before I forget,” Claire said, “you were absolutely right about wheat. I cut it out and I felt the difference almost immediately.”

  “I thought you would. That came through loud and clear last time.”

  “I told Dr. Greenleaf. ‘I think I may be allergic to wheat,’ I said. He rolled his eyes.”

  “I’ll bet he did. I hope you didn’t tell him where the thought came from.”

  “Oh, sure. ‘Sylvia Belgrave scanned my reflex centers with a green pyramid and picked up a wheat allergy.’ Believe me, I know better than that. I don’t know why I bothered to say anything to him in the first place. I suppose I was looking for male approval, but that’s nothing new, is it?” They discussed the point, and then she said, “But it’s so hard, you know. Staying away from wheat, I mean. It’s everywhere.”


  “Bread, pasta. I wish I could cut it out completely, but I’ve managed to cut way down, and it helps. Sylvia? Are you all right?”

  “A headache. It keeps coming back.”

  “Really? Well, I hate to say it, but do you think maybe you ought to see a doctor?”

  She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I know the cause, and I even know the cure. There’s something I have to do.”

  When Sylvia was nineteen years old, she fell in love with a young man named Gordon Sawyer. He had just started dental school, and they had an understanding; after he had qualified as a dentist, they would get married. They were not officially engaged, she did not have a ring, but they had already reached the stage of talking about names for their children.

  He drowned on a family canoe trip. A couple of hours after it happened, but long before anybody could get word to her, Sylvia awoke from a nightmare bathed in perspiration. The details of the dream had fled, but she knew it had been awful, and that something terrible had happened to Gordon. She couldn’t go back to sleep, and she had been up for hours with an unendurable headache when the doorbell rang and a cousin of Gordon’s brought the bad news.

  That was her first undeniable psychic experience. Before that she’d had feelings and hunches, twinges of perception that were easy to shrug off or blink away. Once a fortune-teller at a county fair had read her palm and told her she had psychic powers herself, powers she’d be well advised to develop. She and Gordon had laughed about it, and he’d
offered to buy her a crystal ball for her birthday.

  When Gordon died her life found a new direction. If Gordon had lived she’d have gone on working as a salesgirl until she became a full-time wife and mother. Instead she withdrew into herself and began following the promptings of an inner voice. She could walk into a bookstore and her feet would lead her to some arcane volume that would turn out to be just what she needed to study next. She would sit in her room in her parents’ house, staring for hours at a candle flame, or at her own reflection in the mirror. Her parents were worried, but nobody did anything beyond urging her to get out more and meet people. She was upset over Gordon’s death, they agreed, and that was understandable, and she would get over it.

  “Twenty-five dollars,” Claire Warburton said, handing over two tens and a five. “You know, I was reading about this woman in People Magazine, she reads the cards for either Oprah or Madonna, don’t ask me which. And do you know how much she gets for a session?”

  “Probably more than twenty-five dollars,” Sylvia said.

  “They didn’t say, but they showed the car she drives around in. It’s got an Italian name that sounds like testosterone, and it’s fire-engine red, naturally. Of course, that’s California. People in this town think you’d have to be crazy to pay twenty-five dollars. I don’t see how you get by, Sylvia. I swear I don’t.”

  “There was what my mother left,” she said. “And the insurance.”

  “And a good thing, but it won’t last forever. Can’t you—”


  “Well, look into the crystal and try to see the stock market? Or ask your spirit guides for investment advice?”

  “It doesn’t work that way.”

  “That’s what I knew you’d say,” Claire said. “I guess that’s what everybody says You can’t use it for your own benefit or it doesn’t work.”

  “That’s as it should be,” she said. “It’s a gift, and the Universe doesn’t necessarily give you what you want. But you have to keep it. No exchanges, no refunds.”

  She parked across the street from the police station, turned off the engine and sat in the car for a few moments, gathering herself. Her car was not a red Testarossa but a six-year-old Ford Tempo. It ran well, got good mileage, and took her where she wanted to go. What more could you ask of a car?

  Inside, she talked to two uniformed officers before she wound up on the other side of a desk from a balding man with gentle brown eyes that belied his jutting chin. He was a detective, and his name was Norman Jeffcote.

  He looked at her card, then looked directly at her. Twenty years had passed since her psychic powers had awakened with her fiancé’s death, and she knew that the years had not enhanced her outward appearance. Then she’d been a girl with regular features turned pretty by her vital energy, a petite and slender creature, and now she was a little brown-haired mouse, dumpy and dowdy.

  “‘Psychic counseling,’” he read aloud. “What’s that exactly, Ms. Belgrave?”

  “Sometimes I sense things,” she said.

  “And you think you can help us with the Sporran kid?”

  “That poor little girl,” she said.

  Melissa Sporran, six years old, only child of divorced parents, had disappeared eight days previously on her way home from school.

  “The mother broke down on camera,” Detective Jeffcote said, “and I guess it got to people, so much so that it made some of the national newscasts. That kind of coverage pulls people out of the woodwork. I got a woman on the phone from Chicago, telling me she just knows little Melissa’s in a cave at the foot of a waterfall. She’s alive, but in great danger. You’re a local woman, Ms. Belgrave. You know any waterfalls within a hundred miles of here?”


  “Neither do I. This woman in Chicago, see may have been a little fuzzy on the geography, but she was good at making sure I got her name spelled right. But I won’t have a problem in your case, will I? Because your name’s all written out on your card.”

  “You’re not impressed with psychic phenomena,” she said.

  “I think you people got a pretty good racket going,” he said, “and more power to you if you can find people who want to shell out for whatever it is you’re selling. But I’ve got a murder investigation to run, and I don’t appreciate a lot of people with four-leaf clovers and crystal balls.”

  “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” she said.

  “Well, that’s not for me to say, Ms. Belgrave, but now that you bring it up—”

  “No,” she said. “I didn’t have any choice. Detective, have you heard of Sir Isaac Newton?”

  “Sure, but I probably don’t know him as well as you do. Not if you’re getting messages from him.”

  “He was the foremost scientific thinker of his time,” she said, “and in his later years he became quite devoted to astrology, which you may take as evidence either of his openmindedness or of encroaching senility, as you prefer.”

  “I don’t see what this has to—”

  “A colleague chided him,” she said, brooking no interruption, “and made light of his enthusiasm, and do you know what Newton said? ‘Sir, I have investigated the subject. You have not. I do not propose to waste my time discussing it with you.’”

  He looked at her and she returned his gaze. After a long moment he said, “All right, maybe you and Sir Isaac have a point. You got a hunch about the Sporran kid?”

  “Not a hunch,” she said, and explained the dreams, the headaches. “I believe I’m linked to her,” she said, “however it works, and I don’t begin to understand how it works. I think...”


  “I’m afraid I think she’s dead.”

  “Yes,” Jeffcote said heavily. “Well, I hate to say it, but you gain in credibility with that one, Ms. Belgrave. We think so, too.”

  “If I could put my hands on some object she owned, or a garment she wore...”

  “You and the dogs.” She looked at him. “There was a fellow with a pack of bloodhounds, needed something of hers to get the scent. Her mother gave us this little sunsuit, hadn’t been laundered since she wore it last. The dogs got the scent good, but they couldn’t pick it up anywhere. I think we still have it. You wait here.”

  He came back with the garment in a plastic bag, drew it out and wrinkled his nose at it. “Smells of dog now,” he said. “Does that ruin it for you?”

  “The scent’s immaterial,” she said. “It shouldn’t even matter if it’s been laundered. May I?”

  “You need anything special, Ms. Belgrave? The lights out, or candles lit, or—”

  She shook her head, told him he could stay, motioned for him to sit down. She took the child’s sunsuit in her hands and closed her eyes and began to breath deeply, and almost at once her mind began to fill with images. She saw the girl, saw her face, and recognized it from dreams she thought she had forgotten.

  She felt things, too. Fear, mostly, and pain, and more fear, and then, at the end, more pain.

  “She’s dead,” she said softly, her eyes still closed. “He strangled her.”


  “I can’t see what he looks like. Just impressions.” She waved a hand in the air, as if to dispel clouds, then extended her arm and pointed. “That direction,” she said.

  “You’re pointing southeast.”

  “Out of town,” she said. “There’s a white church off by itself. Beyond that there’s a farm.” She could see it from on high, as if she were hovering overhead, like a bird making lazy circles in the sky. “I think it’s abandoned. The barn’s unpainted and deserted. The house has broken windows.”

  “There’s the Baptist church on Reistertown Road. A plain white building with a little steeple. And out beyond it there’s the Petty farm. She moved into town when the old man died.”

  “It’s abandoned,” she said, “but the fields don’t seem to be overgrown. That’s strange, isn’t it?”

  “Definitely the Petty farm,” he said, his voice
quickening. “She let the grazing when she moved.”

  “Is there a silo?”

  “Seems to me they kept a dairy herd. There’d have be a silo.”

  “Look in the silo,” she said.

  She was studying Detective Jeffcote’s palm when the call came. She had already told him he was worried about losing his hair, and that there was nothing he could do about it, that it was inevitable. The inevitability was written in his hand, although she’d sensed it the moment she saw him, just as she had at once sensed his concern. You didn’t need to be psychic for that, though. It was immediately evident in the way he’d grown his remaining hair long and combed it to hide the bald spot.

  “You should have it cut short,” she said. “Very short. A crew cut, in fact.”

  “I do that,” he said, “and everybody’ll be able to see how thin it’s getting.”

  “They won’t notice,” she told him. “The shorter it is, the less attention it draws. Short hair will empower you.”

  “Wasn’t it the other way around with Samson?”

  “It will strengthen you,” she said. “Inside and out.”

  “And you can tell all that just looking at my hand?”

  She could tell all that just looking at his head, but she only smiled and nodded. Then she noticed an interesting configuration in his palm and told him about it, making some dietary suggestions based on what she saw. She stopped talking when the phone rang, and he reached to answer it.

  He listened for a long moment, then covered the mouthpiece with the very palm she’d been reading. “You were right,” he said. “In the silo, covered up with old silage. They wouldn’t have found her if they hadn’t known to look for her. And the smell of the fermented silage masked the smell of the, uh, decomposition.”

  He put the phone to his ear, listened some more, spoke briefly, covered the mouthpiece again. “Marks on her neck,” he said. “Hard to tell if she was strangled, not until there’s a full autopsy, but it looks like a strong possibility.”