Headaches and Bad Dreams (A Story From the Dark Side), Page 2Lawrence Block
“Teeth,” she said suddenly.
She frowned, upset with herself. “That’s all I can get when I try to see him.”
“The man who—”
“Took her there, strangled her, killed her. I can’t say if he was tall or short, fat or thin, old or young.”
“Just that he had teeth.”
“I guess that must have been what she noticed. Melissa. She must have been frightened of him because of the teeth.”
“Did he bite her? Because if he did—”
“No,” she said sharply. “Or I don’t know, perhaps he did, but it was the appearance of the teeth that frightened her. He had bad teeth.”
“Crooked, discolored, broken. They must have made a considerable impression on her.”
“Jesus,” he said, and into the mouthpiece he said, “You still there? What was the name of that son of a bitch, did some handyman work for the kid’s mother? Henrich, Heinrich, something like that? Looked like a dentist’s worst nightmare? Yeah, well, pick him up again.”
He hung up the phone. “We questioned him,” he said, “and we let him go. Big gangly overgrown kid, God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel. This time I think I’ll talk to him myself. Ms. Belgrave? You all right?”
“Just exhausted, all of a sudden,” she said. “I haven’t been sleeping well these past few nights. And what we just did, it takes a lot out of you.”
“I can imagine.”
“But I’ll be all right,” she assured him. And, getting to her feet, she realized she wouldn’t be needing any more aspirin. The headache was gone.
The handyman, whose name turned out to be Walter Hendrick, broke down under questioning and admitted the abduction and murder of Melissa Sporran. Sylvia saw his picture on television but turned off the set, unable to look at him. His mouth was closed, you couldn’t see his teeth, but even so she couldn’t bear the sight of him.
The phone rang, and it was a client she hadn’t seen in months, calling to book a session. She made a note in her appointment calendar and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She was finishing the tea and trying to decide if she wanted another when the phone rang again.
It was a new client, a Mrs. Huggins, eager to schedule a reading as soon as possible. Sylvia asked the usual questions and made sure she got the woman’s date of birth right. Astrology wasn’t her main focus, but it never hurt to have that data in hand before a client’s first visit. It made it easier, often, to get a grasp on the personality.
“And who told you about me?” she asked, almost as an afterthought. Business always came through referrals, a satisfied client told a friend or relative or coworker, and she liked to know who was saying good things about her.
“Now who was it?” the woman wondered. “I’ve been meaning to call for such a long time, and I can’t think who it was that originally told me about you.”
She let it go at that. But, hanging up, she realized the woman had just lied to her. That was not exactly unheard of, although it was annoying when they lied about their date of birth, shaving a few years off their age and unwittingly providing her with an erroneous astrological profile in the process. But this woman had found something wholly unique to lie about, and she wondered why.
Within the hour the phone rang again, another old client of whom she’d lost track. “I’ll bet you’re booked solid,” the woman said. “I just hope you can fit me in.”
“Are you being ironic?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Because you know it’s a rare day when I see more than two people, and there are days when I don’t see anyone at all.”
“I don’t know how many people you see,” the woman said. “I do know that it’s always been easy to get an appointment with you at short notice, but I imagine that’s all changed now, hasn’t it?”
“Why would it...”
“Now that you’re famous.”
Of course she wasn’t, not really. Someone did call her from Florida, wanting an interview for a national tabloid, and there was a certain amount of attention in the local press, and on area radio stations. But she was a quiet, retiring woman, hardly striking in appearance and decidedly undramatic in her responses. Her personal history was not interesting in and of itself, nor was she inclined to go into it. Her lifestyle was hardly colorful.
Had it been otherwise, she might have caught a wave of publicity and been nationally famous for her statutory fifteen minutes, reading Joey Buttafuoco’s palm on Hard Copy, sharing herbal weight-loss secrets with Oprah.
Instead she had her picture in the local paper, seated in her garden. (She wouldn’t allow them to photograph her in her studio, among the candles and crystals.) And that was enough to get her plenty of attention, not all of which she welcomed. No one actually crept across her lawn to stare in her window, but cars did slow or even stop in front of her house, and one man got out of his car and took pictures.
She got more attention than usual when she left the house, too. People who knew her congratulated her, hoping to hear a little more about the case and the manner in which she’d solved it. Strangers recognized her—on the street, in the supermarket. While their interest was not intrusive, she was uncomfortably aware of it.
But the biggest change, really, was in the number of people who suddenly found themselves in need of her services. She was bothered at first by the thought that they were coming to her for the wrong reason, and she wondered if she should refuse to accommodate such curiosity seekers. She meditated on the question, and the answer that came to her was that she was unequipped to judge the motivation of those who sought her out. How could she tell the real reason that brought some troubled soul to her door? And how could she determine, irrespective of motivation, what help she might be able to provide?
She decided that she ought to see everyone. If she found herself personally uncomfortable with a client’s energy, then she wouldn’t see that person anymore. That had been her policy all along. But she wouldn’t prejudge any of them, wouldn’t screen them in advance.
“But it’s impossible to fit everyone in,” she told Claire Warburton. “I’m just lucky I got a last-minute cancellation or I wouldn’t have been able to schedule you until the end of next week.”
“How does it feel to be an overnight success after all these years?”
“Is that what I am? A success? Sometimes I think I liked it better when I was a failure. No, I don’t mean that, but no more do I like being booked as heavily as I am, I’ll tell you that. The work is exhausting. I’m seeing four people a day, and yesterday I saw five, which I’ll never do again. It drains you.”
“I can imagine.”
“But the gentleman was so persistent, and I thought, well, I do have the time. But by the time the day was over...”
“You were exhausted.”
“I certainly was. And I hate to book appointments weeks in advance, or to refuse to book them at all. It bothers me to turn anyone away, because how do I know that I’m not turning away someone in genuine need? For years I had less business than I would have preferred, and now I have too much, and I swear I don’t know what to do about it.” She frowned. “And when I meditate on it, I don’t get anywhere at all.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Claire said. “You don’t need to look in a crystal for this one. Just look at a balance sheet.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sylvia,” Claire said, “raise your damn rates.”
“For years you’ve been seeing a handful of people a week and charging them twenty-five dollars each, and wondering why you’re poor as a churchmouse. Raise your rates and you’ll increase your income to a decent level—and you’ll keep yourself from being overbooked. The people who really need you will pay the higher price, and the curiosity seekers will think twice.”
“But the people who’v
e been coming to me for years—”
“You can grandfather them in,” Claire said. “Confine the rate increase to new customers. But I wouldn’t.”
“No, and I’m costing my own self money by saying this, but I’ll say it anyhow. People appreciate less what costs them less. That woman in California, drives the red Tosteroni? You think she’d treasure that car if somebody sold it to her for five thousand dollars? You think People Magazine would print a picture of her standing next to it? Raise your rates and everybody’ll think more of you, and pay more attention to the advice you give ‘em.”
“Well,” she said, slowly, “I suppose I could go from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars...”
“Fifty,” Claire said firmly. “Not a penny less.”
In the end, she had to raise her fee three times. Doubling it initially had the paradoxical effect of increasing the volume of calls. A second increase, to seventy-five dollars, was a step in the right direction, slowing the flood of calls; she waited a few months, then took a deep breath and told a caller her price was one hundred dollars a session.
And there it stayed. She booked three appointments a day, five days a week, and pocketed fifteen hundred dollars a week for her efforts. She lost some old clients, including a few who had been coming to her out of habit, the way they went to get their hair done. But it seemed to her that the ones who stayed actually listened more intently to what she saw in the cards or crystal, or channeled while she lay in trance.
“Told you,” Claire said. “You get what you pay for.”
One afternoon there was a call from Detective Jeffcote. There was a case, she might have heard or read about it, and could she possibly help him with it? She had appointments scheduled, she said, but she could come to the police station as soon as her last client was finished, and—
“No, I’ll come to you,” he said. “Just tell me when’s a good time.”
He turned up on the dot. His hair was very short, she noticed, and he seemed more confident and self-possessed than when she’d seen him before. In the living room, he accepted a cup of tea and told her about the girl who’d gone missing, an eleventh-grader named Peggy Mae Turlock. “There hasn’t been much publicity,” he said, “because kids her age just go off sometimes, but she’s an A student and sings in the church choir, and her parents are worried. And I just thought, well...”
She reminded him that she’d had three nights of nightmares and headaches when Melissa Sporran disappeared.
“As if the information was trying to get through,” he said. “And you haven’t had anything like that this time? Because I brought her sunglasses case, and a baseball jacket they tell me she wore all the time.”
“We can try,” she said.
She took him into her studio, lit two of the new scented candles, seated him on the chaise and took the chair for herself. She draped Peggy Mae’s jacket over her lap and held the green vinyl eyeglass case in both hands. She closed her eyes, breathed slowly and deeply.
After a while she said, “Pieces.”
“I’m getting these horrible images,” she said, “of dismemberment, but I don’t know that it has anything to do with the girl. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“You picking up any sense of where she might be, or of who might have put her there?”
She slowed her breathing, let herself go deep, deep.
“Down down down,” she said.
“How’s that, Ms. Belgrave?”
“Something in a well,” she said. “And old rusty chain going down into a well, and something down there.”
A search of wells all over the country divulged no end of curious debris, including a skeleton that turned out to be that of a large dog. No human remains were found, however, and the search was halted when Peggy Mae came home from Indianapolis. She’d gone there for an abortion, expecting to be back in a day or so, but there had been medical complications. She’d been in the hospital there for a week, never stopping to think that her parents were afraid for her life, or that the police were probing abandoned wells for her dismembered corpse.
Sylvia got a call when the girl turned up. “The important thing is she’s all right,” he said, “although I wouldn’t be surprised if right about now she wishes she was dead. Point is you didn’t let us down. You were trying to home in on something that wasn’t there in the first place, since she was alive and well all along.”
“I’m glad she’s alive,” she said, “but disappointed in myself. All of that business about wells.”
“Maybe you were picking up something from fifty years ago,” he said. “Who knows how many wells there are, boarded up and forgotten years ago? And who knows what secrets one or two of them might hold?”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
Perhaps he was. But all the same the few days when the police were looking in old wells was a professional high water mark for her. After the search was called off, after Peggy Mae came home in disgrace, it wasn’t quite so hard to get an appointment with Sylvia Belgrave.
Three nights of nightmares and fitful sleep, three days of headaches. And, awake or asleep, a constant parade of hideous images.
It was hard to keep herself from running straight to the police. But she forced herself to wait, to let time take its time. And then on the morning after the third unbearable night she showered away the stale night sweat and put on a skirt and a blouse and a flowered hat. She sat in the garden with a cup of hot water and lemon juice, then rinsed it in the kitchen sink and went to her car.
The car was a Taurus, larger and sleeker and, certainly, newer than her old Tempo, but it did no more and no less than the Tempo had done. It conveyed her from one place to another. This morning it brought her to the police station, and her feet brought her the rest of the way—into the building, and through the corridors to Detective Norman Jeffcote’s office.
“Ms. Belgrave,” he said. “Have a seat, won’t you?”
His hair was longer than it had been when he’d come to her house. He hadn’t regrown it entirely, hadn’t once again taken to combing it over the bald spot, but neither was it as flatteringly short as she’d advised him to keep it.
And there was something unsettling about his energy. Maybe it had been a mistake to come.
She sat down and winced, and he asked her if she was all right. “My head,” she said, and pressed her fingertips to her temples.
“You’ve got a headache?”
“Endless headaches. And bad dreams, and all the rest of it.”
“I didn’t want to come,” she said. “I told myself not to intrude, not to be a nuisance. But it’s just like the first time, when that girl disappeared.”
“And now there’s a little boy gone missing,” she said.
“Yes, and his address is no more than half a mile from my house. Maybe that’s why all these impressions have been so intense.”
“Do you know where he is now, Ms. Belgrave?”
“I don’t,” she said, “but I do feel connected to him, and I have the strong sense that I might be able to help.”
He nodded. “And your hunches usually pay off.”
“Not always,” she said. “That was confusing the year before last, sending you to look in wells.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
He leaned forward, clasped his hands. “The Ackerman boy, Ms. Belgrave. You think he’s all right?”
“Oh, I wish I could say yes.”
“But you can’t.”
“The nightmares,” she said, “and the headaches. If he were all right, the way the Turlock girl was all right—”
“There’d be no dreams.”
“That’s my fear, yes.”
“So you think the boy is...”
“Dead,” she said.
oked at her for a long moment before he nodded. “I suppose you’d like some article connected with the boy,” he said. “A piece of clothing, say.”
“If you had something.”
“How’s this?” he said, and opened a drawer and brought out a teddy bear, its plush fur badly worn, the stitches showing where it had been ripped and mended. Her heart broke at the sight of it and she put her hand to her chest.
“We ought to have a record of this,” he said, propping a tape recorder on the desk top, pressing a button to start it recording. “So that I don’t miss any of the impressions you pick up. Because you can probably imagine how frantic the boy’s parents are.”
“Yes, of course.”
“So do you want to state your name for the record?”
“Yes, for the record.”
“My name is Sylvia Belgrave.”
“And you’re a psychic counselor?”
“And you’re here voluntarily.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Why don’t you take the teddy bear, then. And see what you can pick up from it.”
She thought she’d braced herself, but she was unprepared for the flood of images that came when she took the little stuffed bear in her hands. They were more vivid than anything she’d experienced before. Perhaps she should have expected as much; the dreams, and the headaches, too, were worse than they’d been after Melissa Sporran’s death, worse than years ago, when Gordon Sawyer drowned.
“Smothered,” she managed to say. “A pillow or something like it over his face. He was struggling to breathe and...and he couldn’t.”
“And he’s dead.”
“And would you happen to know where, Ms. Belgrave?”
Her hands tightened on the teddy bear. The muscles in her arms and shoulders went rigid, bracing to keep the images at bay.
“A hole in the ground,” she said.
“A hole in the ground?”