Authors: Steve Mosby
The Nightmare Place
Sometimes, there's a thin line between love and hate. Or at least that's one theory for DI Zoe Dolan, tracking the Creeper - a stalker who's been breaking into women's homes and attacking them. But the Creeper's violence is escalating and there's no pattern, no clue as to how he's getting in, and no clue as to who's next. Until Jane Webster gets a call to the helpline where she volunteers. It's meant to be a confidential service and Jane is torn - it could be a hoaxer, but the soft voice at the end of the line has the ring of truth about it. He says he loves these women - but it's a love that ends in blood. When Jane tells the police, it should be the lead that Zoe needs - but it only pulls her further into a case that is already taking her dangerously close to the past she's never fully escaped. For Jane, Zoe and all the other young women of the city, suddenly nowhere is safe. Particularly their own bedroom at the dead of night...
For Lynn and Zack
THE NIGHTMARE PLACE
For me, it’s the waste ground.
It’s a real place, and although I haven’t been there in years, I dream about it often. The nightmares first started in my mid-twenties, and continue, on and off, to the present day, always arriving during periods of stress. When I wake up afterwards, I feel grim and empty and
, tangled in bed sheets damp with sweat. I can shower that away, of course, but the residue stays on my skin for hours, like a stain.
As in real life, it’s an expanse of open tarmac, perhaps a hundred metres square, the surface scattered with dust and rubble, nails, bolts, broken glass. There used to be a factory here, a long time ago, and remnants of it remain. There are ridged steps of brick in places, while in others the land has been gouged out. It’s as though the factory was not demolished so much as blown sideways by an enormous blast of pressure, and that its foundations gripped the land so hard that some were left behind, while others ripped out scoops of ground to drag away with them.
Old wire-mesh fences run down either side, the metal thin and rusted. On the far side, across from me, there is a small embankment. A footpath leads over it, worn into the hump of grass by the trudge of countless feet. Without walking across, I know what’s at the other end of that path, beyond the thickets of trees: the school I used to go to. And without turning around, I know that the Thornton estate is behind me, a malevolent presence pressing at my back.
It’s a real place, and even though I haven’t been there in years, I know it well. As a child, I walked across it so many times that the sight is as worn into my memory as the path on the embankment.
But I’ve never seen it like this.
In my recurring nightmare, the sky is an impossible aquamarine colour, a strange mixture of blue and green that reminds me of being underwater. The colour permeates the air all the way to ground level, as though the whole scene is a construction at the bottom of an illuminated fish tank. Above me, the clouds are vibrant and bright, moving far too quickly across the sky, and there is a rush to the air, as though a wind is blowing. But I can’t feel it. Nothing moves but the clouds.
And that includes the figure.
It is standing in the centre of the waste ground, and is always the same: grey and colourless and wraithlike. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, because it’s ragged at the edges, as though it has been frozen in the act of moving very quickly towards me. For now, it seems to just hang in the air.
The sensation is of being out of time. This is what the world looks and feels like when it has been paused.
I have no idea what the dream means, only that it means something. My subconscious is showing me a photograph: holding it in front of my face, demanding that I recognise it, like a cop in a TV show sliding across the photo of a murder victim to unsettle a suspect.
Look at this.
Something terrible happened to me on that waste ground, but I have no idea what.
Memory can sometimes be a very strange thing indeed. If our minds are like houses, then most of what happens to us ends up distributed in the usual rooms; while we might not recall something immediately, there is always the feeling that we could pass through a doorway and there it would be. Even if we have to shift the furniture around a little – search for what we want – it’s there somewhere.
And yet it doesn’t always happens like that. Sometimes the things that happen to us are so awful that they get stored piecemeal, scattered about, or else are hidden carefully away. Occasionally our minds lift a trapdoor, throw an experience down the set of dark steps below, and bolt the cover back in place. Only a trace of it remains in the air. Perhaps we catch the scent of it from time to time, nervously aware that something is wrong, but we have no way of discovering what.
Those experiences still come out, of course, but they’re outside of our control. They sneak up on us at odd moments. They emerge when we’re asleep. For me, it’s the waste ground. That’s my nightmare place.
I have no idea how long the dream lasts. The clouds move, and the rush in the air increases, and the figure remains in place, and I begin squirming inside, because I realise I’m waiting for something to happen. That’s what the rushing sound is. What I’m feeling is the sensation of
– of moving not only swiftly, but in a direction, towards a moment when something awful will happen. When everything will start up again, and that figure will streak towards me, and I’ll finally see its face.
And just as it is about to, I wake up.
I lie there afterwards for a time, my heart pounding, or else I sit on the edge of the bed. Regardless, the same words are in my head each time, the same phrase repeating itself.
Something is coming.
Something awful is going to happen.
He is a very lucky man.
It’s a good thought. When he allows himself to believe it, it’s as though the clenched fist of his heart relaxes, splaying its warm, tingling fingers slowly through his chest. And of course, it’s true: there are many ways in which he is lucky. He’s young and in good health, for one thing, especially given his size. For another, he has a good job. Not only does he have a roof over his head, in fact, but in these difficult times he owns his home outright. No mortgage. No hassles or worries.
And most importantly of all, he has Julie.
He listens to her gentle snoring now, and feels that warmth inside him spreading further, just from the
of her, lying so close to him. Julie Kennedy is a marvel, and whenever the thoughts of suicide rise up, he reminds himself how deeply in love they are. There is no way any man couldn’t fall in love with her. She is twenty-three years old – considerably younger than him – and exceptionally attractive, in the sort of way that even people who dismiss or deride conventional beauty would be forced to acknowledge, however grudgingly. Her hair is long and thick, the colour of butter or sunshine, and her skin is smooth and gently tanned. A slim figure allows her to look good in anything, but she is – endearingly – unaware of this. In another existence she could easily have been a model or a film star, although in this one she does low-key admin in an office. She deserves better, of course, and it’s surely not what she dreamed of growing up. But she never complains. And anyway, she’s still so young; there’s more than enough time for her to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
He met her through work. What struck him in the first instance was not her physical beauty, which is almost too intrinsic, too
, to be something you’d notice, but the kindness that accompanied it. Her manner surprised him; she was gentle and shy, and not remotely arrogant or dismissive in the way he’s found some comparably attractive women can be. From the way she presented herself and talked to him, it was clear she didn’t see herself as a prize, even though it was equally clear to him that she was one. And now, however many months later, here they are.
It’s hard to believe how lucky he is.
But then they do say that fortune favours the brave. He remembers his mother saying that, knitting needles clittering together:
get no toys
. His father was the same. At school, despite his size, he would find himself paralysed with fear on the rain-swept rugby pitch, terrified by the thought of the hateful contacts and collisions. He despises violence, and slightly fears other men; he always has.
You have to go in hard
, his father told him bluntly, with little patience for his snivelling son;
that way it hurts less
. A punch always feels harder if you’re flinching when it lands, whereas if you’re angry and throwing one back, you hardly notice. It’s easier said than done, but he’s found there is some truth in that. Hesitate, and you’re lost. Drive forward, and you make the world hesitate instead, as though it’s suddenly unsure what to make of you.
It’s not totally within your control, of course, but to a large extent it’s true. He’s a lucky man – but then you really do make your own luck.
It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, the contrast between his relationship with Julie now and one he had only last year is marked. Back then, he wasn’t half so brave. It pains him, actually, to remember how timid he used to be, and how that whole awful affair ended.
Her name was Sharon. She was the same as age as Julie is now, and also very beautiful. Sometimes he finds himself attracted to unconventional-looking women, but he is always aware that it’s a defence mechanism: a hangover from his schooldays, when the pretty girls would never look at him, and it was far better to concentrate his mental energies on someone he might stand a chance with. When he first set eyes on Sharon, it was like seeing one of those schoolgirls grown up.
She worked in a beauty store, surrounded by fingerprints of soft dust in the air and the swirling aroma of fragrance. She wore tight dresses that showed off her figure, and kept her long black hair tied up in firm, glossy coils. He told himself that she was out of his league, and a part of him wanted to hate her for that. Perhaps a part of him even did. And yet, despite his best intentions, and the knowledge that she was unattainable, he found himself engaged in a careful pursuit. Over the course of a month, he gently courted her. It would happen almost by accident. He would find himself in town, for some reason, across the road from the shop as she emerged from work. Excuses would be found to drive past her house. After Sharon came into his life, his day-to-day actions became like trains, running on tracks and timetables that were increasingly outside of his control.
Deep down, he knew this was dangerous behaviour, and that he needed to change it. Lying in his cramped bedroom at night, he felt ashamed and worthless. But he couldn’t stop, and actually, it seemed like something in the world didn’t want him to. He discovered she was single. While he had been elated at that, he had also placed his head in his hands and felt the addict’s low wail:
why won’t it stop being there for me to take?
Even in those early days, it felt like there was a kind of inevitability to their coming together.
And so he continued to circle her, moving closer by increments. He knew he didn’t have a relationship with Sharon
, but he did have something. A genuine connection existed between them, and just because she was unaware of it, that didn’t make it any less real. He would wake from the bad dreams, and thoughts of her would make him smile.
You are lucky.
He came to anticipate the brief contact they would have. In his head, tentatively, and without her knowing, she made love to him.
Like her life, he knew her house very well from the outside. It was a neat semi-detached property in a warren of curling, leafy streets. Out front, there was a sprawling field, with pairs of old skewed goalposts dotted about at angles, and a thatch of thick woodland beyond. To the rear of the house, a rectangular garden stretched down to a low picket fence and another road. A triangle of washing lines hung loosely from three metal posts. But the field was the easiest place to watch her from.
When reality encroached, he would thrash back and forth across the bed at night, disgusted with himself. In those moments, he blamed her and hated her, and he vowed to stop, to improve, to put this behind him and become better, normal. Yet whatever he promised himself, he was still faced by that addict’s curse, and days later, he would find himself close to her work again, or her home, or the leisure centre where she swam three nights a week. Just wanting to see her again. No harm in that, surely? Except there was, because the longer it went on, the more unsatisfying it became. Because addiction always escalates.
One day, he had an idea for something else he could do.
It was dangerous, but thrilling, and he stayed up late that night almost by accident. All evening the excitement kept rising in his chest, even as he refused to acknowledge it. By not preventing what was going to happen, he allowed it to. And at two o’clock in the morning, his heart thrumming in his chest, he walked outside into the cool night air and drove to her house, still telling himself he wasn’t going to do anything.
He parked on the road behind, in the shadowy space between two street lights. Sharon’s garden gleamed with night-time frost, but her house, along with all the others, was black and still. When he turned the engine off, the world was suddenly heavy with silence, and every nerve ending in his body was singing with anxious life.
In the garden, washing hung on the lines: a triangle of tattered grey flags in the darkness. And once again, there was that feeling of inevitability. If he wasn’t meant to do this, why did the world keep making it possible? It had only been a fantasy, after all. An idea, until now. But if the universe kept leaving its doors ajar, who could really blame him for pushing them open and stepping inside?
Outside the car, his nerves made the night air shockingly cold. He left the door slightly open behind him. Her back fence was only three feet high – the most cursory of nods to marking a boundary – and he simply stepped over it.
He did so, alarmed now by the danger he was placing himself in. Everything else he’d done could be justified, but being in her garden was a clear intrusion. In a sense, it was ludicrous. If he were caught, he would be the one judged a threat, when in truth, she held all the power. Even though he was the one exposed and vulnerable, running hunched up her garden, taking this risk for them both.
He reached the lines and hesitated, trying to make out the details of the washing that hung from them. Dresses. Jeans. Blouses. Tea towels. He’d told himself he’d settle for anything – just something that was
– but now that he was here, he knew he wanted something more intimate. He crept slowly along the line, checking items between finger and thumb, moving closer to the house. That was when the security light came on.
It was so bright it might as well have been a torch shone directly into his eyes. His shadow stretched back across the grass, elongated to monstrous proportions. The sudden light was like a stranger clicking fingers in front of his face, and he literally froze where he stood. It was even a heartbeat or two before the panic set in.
The light was just above the back door. In all his visits here, how had he not noticed that before? The answer would come to him later. It was because he hadn’t allowed himself to acknowledge that she might want to protect herself from him, or someone like him. But for now, his thoughts were startled silent, and he simply stood where he was as the figure of a man appeared in her kitchen window, leaning on either side of the sink and staring out at him.
Staring right into his face.
And then – finally – he turned and ran.
All in the past now, of course, but remembering it still sends a spread of panic through him: cold fingers lacing over the warm. Even lying close to Julie, and with everything between them going so well, he wants to reach back and shake that earlier version of himself for being so timid. It wasn’t just the security light. It was the fact that he’d wasted time, and failed to realise that he’d missed his opportunity with Sharon. A girl as lovely as her was hardly going to stay single for ever.
The important thing is that he is no longer half as timid now, and he won’t let an opportunity like that slip through his fingers ever again. Now, he is a very lucky man indeed. So he lies there thinking about Julie, and listening to the soft, gentle sound of her snoring. And after a few peaceful moments, he reaches up and lovingly touches the underside of her bed.