|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)
About the Author
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You poisoned me."
The words tumbled out in a slurred mumble, not the scream of rage Maggie Lodge intended. The drug had plunged her into a waking nightmare. The office of Dr. Emerson Oxlade, Dream Analyst, was starting to revolve. Bits and pieces of the walls and ceiling were becoming transparent.
"Calm yourself, Miss Smith." Oxlade spoke in stern, authoritative tones. "Remember, you have extremely delicate nerves and are therefore inclined toward hysteria. It is why you came to me for therapy. I am attempting to help you."
Oxlade knew her as Miss Smith because she had booked the consultation under that name. It was her long-standing habit to use a false identity when she made appointments with experts in the field of dream analysis. She had initiated the practice after she had been released from Sweet Creek Manor Psychiatric Hospital, and it had served her well. The proof of its effectiveness was that she had not resided in another asylum since leaving Sweet Creek.
"I did not come here for therapy," she said. "I distinctly told the receptionist that I was booking a consultation. There is nothing wrong with my nerves. I am not hysterical, damn it. I'm furious."
But she knew she probably sounded as if she were on the edge of hysteria. She should have heeded the warning she got last week when she walked into the office for the first time. The space was drenched in invisible shadows.
She had told herself the bad energy had been left behind by some of the troubled people who had come to Oxlade for help with their nightmares. Now she wondered how much of the dark stuff had been laid down by Oxlade himself.
It wasn't the first time she had wandered into a pool of energy that was so murky it was impossible to distinguish the source. But if she made it a rule not to go into any space that reeked of other people's nightmares, she would become housebound. Her sensitivity had already done enough damage to her personal life. She would not allow it to turn her into an agoraphobe.
"I assure you that you have not been poisoned," Oxlade huffed. "My enhancer has some side effects, but most people find them enjoyable, even exhilarating, provided they have someone to guide them through the experience. That is why I am here. I will show you how to make the most of your talent for lucid dreaming. Together we will achieve great things."
"I gave you a very light dose this first time. I've never used it on anyone with your powerful dream talent. Didn't want to overdo it. In a few minutes you will be deep in a waking dreamstate. The enhancer has hypnotic effects. It will cause you to become extremely suggestible. That will allow me to take control of your experience."
"Stop it," she said, trying to fight off the terrifying sensation that her mind was starting to separate from her body. "You drugged me, you fraud. You're no better than the others."
Screaming for help would have to wait. She had to focus on overcoming the visions, and at the moment she could not do two things at the same time. Her priorities were clear: Escape first. Scream later. The inevitable nightmares would no doubt follow, but she could handle bad dreams. She was an expert.
She gazed up at the disappearing ceiling, groping for a strategy.
"Do not fight the effects," Oxlade said. "It will make the process more difficult. Remain calm."
"You will learn to embrace my enhancer, Miss Smith. I will guide you."
He was still speaking in the clinical manner of a doctor who knows what is best for a patient, but now she detected a disturbing element infused into the words. Lust. Not the sexual kind. Some sort of sick desire.
Should have picked up on that unpleasant little quirk sooner, she thought.
But the first consultation had seemed to go well in spite of the energy in the office. Oxlade was the latest in the long line of doctors, therapists, quacks, and con artists she had encountered in the past few years, but he was the one with the most respected reputation. He wrote papers for scientific and medical journals. He gave guest lectures at distinguished academic institutions.
After the first consultation, Oxlade had been eager to have her book a series of appointments with him. Now she knew why he had been so enthusiastic. He was obsessed with her-not with her as a woman but with her talent for lucid dreaming.
It was not the first time she had found herself in such a situation, but none of the other so-called experts had attempted to drug her. Oxlade had slipped past her usually sharp defenses.
The walls and floor were almost invisible now. Oxlade's desk and the bookshelves crammed with weighty volumes and academic journals drifted around her in midair.
"Just another few minutes, Miss Smith, and we will be ready to begin our journey through your astonishing dreams," Oxlade said.
She realized she could hear him but she could no longer see him. That was not good. Cautiously she turned her head on the cushion, searching for her tormentor.
Oxlade floated into view. He was ensconced in his big leather chair, tailored trousers artfully hitched up over his crossed knees, pipe wedged in the corner of his mouth, notebook at the ready. The gold signet ring on his little finger sparked ominously. Behind the lenses of his spectacles his pale eyes glittered with a sheen of unwholesome excitement. The eyes of a reptile.
His head began to change shape. It grew longer, snakelike. His pipe was now a thin, forked tongue.
She knew she was letting the hallucinations gain control. She could not allow that to happen. This was a nightmare. She knew how to handle bad dreams.
You need a plan.
She had to move if she wanted to escape, but the revolving room was disorienting. It affected her sense of balance. Nothing seemed solid or substantial, not even the couch she reclined on.
Getting off the couch was clearly a crucial first step. Thinking logically wasn't her strong suit at the moment, but she was suddenly very certain she could not get out of the office if she did not get off the damned couch.
The room was badly warped. Everything was wrong, but she knew how it was supposed to look. Oxlade tossed you into the deep end of a dream.
She pulled hard on her self-control, forcing the hallucinations to recede. The furniture settled back on the floor. The walls and ceiling grew solid. She took a deep breath and struggled to a sitting position.
Oxlade was annoyed. He leaned forward, his viper eyes glinting. "Lie down, Miss Smith. You will get dizzy if you try to stand."
With another fierce effort of will she succeeded in swinging her legs over the side of the couch. She was profoundly grateful she had worn trousers to the appointment. Not that the choice of attire was simply a stroke of good luck. Countless hours spent in the offices of dream analysts, psychiatrists, and therapists had taught her there was usually a couch involved. She had also discovered that some practitioners were not above trying to seduce their clients on said couches. It was easier to deal with such situations when one was wearing trousers.
When the soles of her T-strap sandals hit the floor she planted her hands on the cushion on either side of her hips and pushed herself to her feet.
For a few seconds she wavered, terrified she would lose her balance.
Oxlade dropped his notebook, jerked the pipe out of his mouth, and shot to his feet. "Miss Smith, I insist you sit down immediately."
She ignored him to focus on the door. Getting through it was step two in the plan.
She tried to walk toward the door and discovered she could not move because Oxlade had grabbed her arm.
"Take your hand off me," she said. It was gratifying to discover she was no longer slurring her words. Her voice sounded stronger, too. She was gaining control over the waking nightmare.
Oxlade tightened his grip. His eyes glittered. "You can't leave. Don't you understand? Everything depends on you."
She tried to pull free and lunge for the door.
Oxlade yanked her back. "You can't walk out on me, you silly woman. I need you."
She swept out her free hand and grabbed the nearest heavy object, a glass ashtray. She swung it awkwardly at Oxlade's head. He yelped, released her arm, and scrambled backward, barely escaping the blow.
"You must calm down, Miss Smith," Oxlade gasped. "You are suffering a fit of hysteria."
She started toward the door again, but halfway across the room she remembered her handbag. She could not leave it behind. Not only was there a little money inside, but there was some identification in her real name.
She changed course and swiped the bag off the console. When she realized Oxlade had not made another grab for her arm, she glanced back over her shoulder. She was just in time to see him reach into a desk tray and seize a syringe. He rushed toward her.
"You leave me no choice," he said. "I must sedate you. Don't worry; I will make sure you get the help you need."
The chilling words came straight from the heart of some of her worst nightmares, the ones that harkened back to her time at Sweet Creek Manor. Another wave of panic washed over her. It would take her a few precious seconds to get the door open. She did not have those few seconds.
Oxlade closed the space between them. He held the syringe as though it were a stiletto.
"I'm sorry to have to do this, Miss Smith, but it's for your own good."
More words from a nightmare.
She dropped the handbag and picked up the large ceramic vase sitting on the console. Filled with water and an impressive bouquet, it was almost too heavy to lift, but desperation gave her strength. She used both hands to heave it at Oxlade.
He tried to dodge, but it was too late. The vase struck him in the middle of the chest. He grunted, dropped the syringe, and staggered backward. Water and flowers cascaded over him, soaking his elegantly tailored suit, shirt, and tie.
The back of his knee came up against the edge of the couch. He collapsed onto the cushions.
"You are hysterical," he gasped. "You don't know what you are doing, what we could achieve together. I forbid you to leave this room."
She seized the strap of her purse, got the door open, and stumbled into the small waiting area.
The flinty-eyed receptionist was on her feet, transfixed with shock. A middle-aged woman sat, frozen, in the waiting room, a copy of Reader's Digest clutched in her gloved hands.
Maggie heard the door of the inner office slam shut behind her. Afraid Oxlade was pursuing her, she spun around-and nearly lost her balance.
Relief flooded through her when she saw that Oxlade had sealed himself inside his office. There was an audible click when he locked the door.
She took a deep breath, slung the strap of the handbag over one shoulder, and opened the door of the small waiting room. She was about to rush out into the hall, but she paused long enough to look back at the stunned woman holding the magazine.
"Take my advice," Maggie said. "Find another dream therapist."
She did not wait for a response. She escaped into the hall, slamming the door behind her. Bracing one palm against the wall to steady herself, she made her way cautiously toward the stairs.
She wondered if the frozen woman would take her advice. Doubtful. People rarely took good advice. She was an excellent example of that particular character flaw. She had lost count of the number of times she had told herself to give up on the search for a dream analyst who could help her learn how to gain better control, yet here she was, fleeing another disastrous encounter.
Emerson Oxlade could have stepped straight out of a horror film-Doctor X, perhaps, or Mad Love with Peter Lorre.
Fortunately, he didn't know her real name.
Five months later . . .
Maggie did her best to ignore the coatrack, but that proved impossible. It loomed in the corner of the office of Sage Investigations, casting an invisible shadow over the cramped, sparsely furnished room. A fedora dangled on one brass hook. A well-worn trench coat was draped over another.
Neither the hat nor the coat was the source of the bad energy in the room. No question about it-the coatrack was the problem. It did not belong in the office. It was wrong.
She told herself the coatrack was none of her business and tried to focus on the reason she was sitting in the office of a private investigator-the third one that day-at ten thirty in the morning.
"Someone is attempting to blackmail my employer," she said. "I want you to find the individual and put a stop to the extortion threat."
Sam Sage leaned forward and folded his arms on the desk. He was not what she had expected. He certainly looked the part. He had the resolute and rather intimidating features and the cold, nothing-can-surprise-me eyes of a man who has shed whatever illusions he might once have had about the world, but there was more to Sam Sage. She was not sure how much more, but the realization that there were hidden depths was vaguely reassuring. She needed a detective who could be counted on to keep secrets.
In spite of his stony, seen-it-all aura, she got the impression she had caught him off guard. It was as if he had expected someone else to walk into his office but she had appeared instead. Now he was trying to decide what to do with her.
Then again, maybe he was simply surprised to have a client. The expensive fedora and the hand-tailored suit, white shirt, and striped tie suggested he had once been successful, but the shabby office made it obvious he was no longer prospering. Sage Investigations was on the second floor of a modest two-story business building. A café and a newsstand were on the street level. On the way down the hall she had passed the doors of a secretarial firm and a small-time bookkeeping business.
The used furnishings reflected the man. Somewhere along the line all the cushioning and decorative elements had been stripped away, leaving just the essentials-a scarred wooden desk, the squeaky chair behind the desk, a couple of client chairs, and a dented metal file cabinet.