Epitaph For A Dreamer: Private Eye Short Fiction By Lamont Turner
Lamont Turner, author of Epitaph For A Dreamer, is a New Orleans area writer and father of four. His work has appeared in numerous print and online venues including Jitter, Yellow Mama, Serial, and Dark Dossier among others.
He was an unexceptional little guy, this Mr. Paul M. Precock. I tried to pin down his angle as he squirmed in the chair across the desk from me, crossing and uncrossing his legs and tapping furiously on the arm rests with manicured fingers.
A cowlick stood up and waved at me as his head bobbed in response to my questions, but his hair was clean and neatly parted. His face was clean shaven but for a patch of blonde fur on the edge of his rather weak jaw. This was a man of fastidious tidiness, no longer able to live up to his own standards.
“You say this girl of yours has vanished,” I said. “I don’t want to sound harsh but are you sure she isn’t just avoiding you?”
“She would never do that!” he insisted, taking a break from his tapping to give himself a hug. “She loves me!”
Watching him rock back and forth with his arms wrapped around himself made me think of somebody waiting outside the morgue where they’d been summoned to identify a body. Whatever had happened to his girlfriend couldn’t have been worse than the fate he’d cooked up in his head for her.
“When did you last see her?”
Watching him rock back and forth with his arms wrapped around himself made me think of somebody waiting outside the morgue where they’d been summoned to identify a body.
“A week ago,” he said. “She comes to see me every night, but I could tell something was wrong that last time. She seemed evasive, like she had something on her mind but was afraid to say it. When I woke up, I knew she wouldn’t be back the next night.”
“When you woke up?”
“Yes. You see, Alora only comes to me in my dreams.”
That was it then. He was one of those. I’d get one or two every few months. Women who were certain their husbands were trying to kill them, and men convinced their wives were sleeping with everyone on the block made up the bulk of them, but I’d had Martians mentioned more than once.
“I’m a private investigator,” I said. “What you need is a psychiatrist.”
“I knew that would be your reaction,” he said. “I’m not insane. There’s more to it.”
“You stopped having wet dreams,” I said. “What are you, thirty? Most guys leave that behind when they’re old enough to start having nightmares about bill collectors. You look like you might have some social skills, and maybe a little money. Go out and find yourself a real girl.”
“She is real!” he shouted, jumping up out of his seat with clenched fists. I stood up too, enveloping the little man in my shadow.
“Sit down before I knock you down,” I growled. He wilted back into his seat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, dabbing at his forehead with a wad of tissue from his coat pocket while he tried to catch his breath. An inhaler came out of another pocket, and he sucked on it until the color came back into his face. I sat back down.
“You were right about me having money,” he said. “My father is a rich man. Find Alora and you can write your own check.”
“I’d like to take your money,” I said. “I really would, but it would be fraud. I can’t find someone who doesn’t exist.”
That’s how we left it. Precock went off, probably to track down some sleeping pills, and I returned to the chess game I was losing against the app on my phone. I didn’t give Precock or his dream girl another thought until about a week later when Alora walked into my office.
As far as dream girls go, she was a tad deficient, with the body of a twelve year old boy and hair that looked like something you’d find glued onto a cheap Halloween mask, but I could see how she’d be a good match for Precock. The thing was, she didn’t think it was such a good pairing. She’d come to me for protection.
“You say this Precock guy has been stalking you?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t talked to him the week before.
“He is,” she said, “but not the way you’d think. I know this sounds crazy, but he’s been invading my dreams.”
“Oh no,” I said. “That doesn’t sound crazy at all. Happens all the time.”
“You’re teasing me,” she said, her face turning as red as the shapeless sack of cloth she was trying to pass off as a dress. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
“I don’t know what to believe,” I said. “If I had any friends, I’d say one of them was playing a joke on me.”
“It’s no joke!” she said. “I thought I was rid of him, but now he’s back. It’s getting so I’m afraid to go to sleep. The worst part is, it’s like I’m a character in his dream, rather than in my own. He thinks I’m his girlfriend, and I have no choice but to go along with it.”
“So, you met a guy who creeped you out, and now you’re having nightmares about him,” I said. “What makes you think a private investigator is going to be any help?”
“I’ve never met him outside of the dreams,” she said. “And the reason I came to you is he mentioned you. Is it true he came here asking you to find me?”
“I did have a guy come in wanting me to play dream doctor, but I told him I didn’t write prescriptions for whatever it was he had, and sent him on his way. That’s pretty much the same message I have for you. I don’t know what game you two are playing, but deal me out.”
“It’s not a game,” she sobbed. “Now I know whoever he is, he’s real. He was here in this room. I’m not crazy.”
“That’s debatable,” I said, “but yeah, he’s real. If you think this guy is a threat, take it to the cops. I’m not sure they’ll be able to make any more out of it than I can, but it’s more in their line.”
“I wish I’d never volunteered for that experiment,” she said, rising to leave.
“Experiment?” I asked against my better judgment.
“That’s when it all started,” she said. “I volunteered as a test subject for a study on sleep deprivation. It was a way to get extra credit for a psychology course I was taking. They kept me awake for three days, and when they finally let me sleep, he showed up.”
“Now that is interesting,” I said. “Maybe instead of going to the cops you should see a lawyer.”
“I signed a wavier,” she said. “Besides, how would a lawyer protect me from this man?”
“Listen,” I said, “There’s nothing I can do about your dreams, but I could look into whoever was conducting these experiments for you. Maybe some of the other heads they poked around in came out fried. If they did something reckless, that waiver you signed might not mean much in a courtroom. For all we know, this guy works there and gets his kicks out of implanting suggestions in people’s minds. Maybe he thinks if enough women dream about him one might take a tumble for him in the real world if he tracked them down.”
“Alright,” she said. “If you think that’s the way to go. To be honest, I was just looking for confirmation that he was real when I came here, but if you think you can help…”
“I don’t know if I can,” I said, “but you’ve got me curious enough to try. Let me check it out. We can talk about my fee if I come up with anything.”
She nodded and wrote down the information I requested, though she didn’t seem hopeful. She leaned over the desk to push the pad she’d scribbled on at me, and I got a better look at the dark circles under her eyes. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a joke. Her story might have been bunk, but her agitation was sincere.
Having a girlfriend with press credentials comes in handy. Sometimes, the bad guys clam up as soon as they smell a reporter, but more often than not, they invite you in, looking to get ahead of that scathing article by putting their spin on it. You just have to play it right. After a little research, Maggie suggested we claim to be investigating allegations of animal abuse.
“Unless they’re really abusing the animals, that might get us a tour,” Maggie said, looking up the number of Hexagon Labs to arrange an interview.
“And what if they are?” I asked.
Maggie wrestled with the problem for about half a second before dialing Hexagon’s number and leaving a vague message for the director, claiming to be from PETA.
“That should inspire them to clean up before we get there,” she said, grinning. “We’ll have a few other animal rights groups give them a call and then show up at their front gate unannounced tomorrow with a photographer.”
“Where are you going to get the photographer?” I asked. “I don’t think the Enquirer is going to send one out unless you plan on having “PETA” call your editor too.”
“I can get the camera,” she said. “We just need to teach you which end to point in which direction, Mr. Photojournalist.”
It was more than just fun to Maggie. As soon as I’d given her my pitch, she was in. Her instincts told her there might be a story in it, and that made me feel a little more confident I wasn’t jousting with windmills. There was something askew about Hexagon’s itinerary that was apparent to both of us. Their website sold them as pioneers in sleep therapy with an almost new age vibe. It sounded like the kind of crank science you’d see advertised on a late night infomercial, yet a little digging revealed they’d been doing research for the military since the 1960s.
Maggie didn’t stay over. We would have to break out of our usual vampiric routine and get up while the fast food joints were still serving breakfast. We reasoned if she’d stayed we’d have been up all night doing things couples tend to do, but it was a mistake. It ended up costing me the fifth of bourbon I used to try to put myself to sleep, and a lot of frustration.
Maggie was about as green as I was when I picked her up the next morning. We spent the ride out to Hexagon Labs hiding our bloodshot eyes behind dark sun glasses and trying not to subject ourselves to loud noises.
“Here,” she whispered, tossing a ballcap emblazoned with the Enquire logo in my lap. It weighed about an ounce, but it still hurt.
“I have to wear this?” I asked.
“You’ve got to look the part,” she said. “Right now you look more like you’re trying out to be the Wolfman.”
“The comb was hurting my scalp,” I said.
“And the razor?”
“Couldn’t stand the buzzing.”
“Alright,” she said, checking her own hair in the rearview mirror. “Let me do all the talking and I’ll get us in. Just fiddle with the camera every so often and look around like you’re searching for a shot.”
She was true to her word. Half an hour later we were sitting in the lobby outside of the director’s office getting ugly looks from the receptionist who finally gave up on trying to seem busy and went to work on her nails. She’d finished her left hand and was about to get to work on the right when a box on her desk started talking, telling her to send us in.
Once in the office, a man with three chins, bulging eyes, and very little hair squeezed out from behind his desk to usher us into a pair of leather chairs. The plaque on the desk said it belonged to Doctor Curlin. Maggie waited for him to drop back onto his Lilypad before launching into it.
“We’ve received multiple tips that there’s some pretty horrendous experiments being conducted on animals here,” she said. “So many in fact, my editor decided we couldn’t ignore it. Are you conducting animal experimentation here?”
“Of course not,” Curlin stammered. “I can’t imagine who would propagate such nonsense. We have an advisory board that reviews all of our experiments to ensure they are completely ethical.”
“Then you shouldn’t mind if we take a look around,” Maggie said.
“Of course not,” Curlin said, his face scrunching up like he’d just tasted something bad. “We have nothing to hide here.”
He dented a button on his desk with one of the sausages he used for fingers and summoned someone named Amanda. It took Amanda less than a minute to appear, bowed under the weight of a white lab coat that hung down to her ankles and the glasses that ate up most of her face between the tip of her nose and her hairline. Looking down at her from across the room, I would have thought somebody’s toddler was playing dress up if not for the gray hair pulled tight into a bun nearly as large as her head. She moved with urgency as she came to stand before the director to await her orders but with her baby feet, it had still taken her awhile to get there.
“This is Doctor Whale,” Curlin said, pausing for a moment to let us get past it. Despite our diminished capacity, or maybe because of it, Maggie and I managed not to snicker. “She’ll show you around and answer any questions you might have. As I said, we are completely above board here. I’m certain you’ll conclude this is the result of a malicious lie, or perhaps some juvenal prank.”
We were led through a maze of tan carpeted hallways and tan paneled walls, struggling to mimic the short stride of our guide in an effort not to trample her. A metal door, opened with what seemed an impossibly long code, led to more hallways, this batch with white floors and glass walls. Behind the glass there were beds, some occupied with sleepers, slumbering in webs of wires and cords spit out of glowing metal boxes. Doctor Whale quickened her pace as we passed, trying to set an example by keeping her gaze on the hallway in front of her.
“This is where we keep our animal subjects,” she announced, pausing at an opaque glass door toward the end of the hall. She spent about half an hour punching in another code, and the door hissed open, sliding into the wall. Another door was behind it but, thankfully, this one opened with the press of a single button. The room beyond smelled like a holding cell after a disinfecting. I fiddled with the lens on the camera, trying to distract myself from the remnants of the bourbon trying to climb up my gullet, while Whale flicked the switch that lit up the cages.
There were three dogs of no particular breed and a chimp, all snoozing away in the same kind of contraptions we’d seen while on our march through the maze.
“As you can see,” Whale said, “the animals are being well cared for. The cages are clean, and they are being fed according to the prescribed guidelines.”
“This one looks dead,” I said, staring at the chimp. It had that all pervasive slackness only present in corpses before they go stiff, but for all I knew that’s how apes look when they nap.”
“That subject has been in a constant state of REM sleep for over a week,” Whale said proudly. “We’ve learned quite a bit from this experiment.”
“Do apes dream?” Maggie asked, nudging me aside to get a look at the chimp.
“This one certainly does,” Whale said. “We’ve made sure of it. We’ve developed a technique for harvesting and projecting the dreams of others into an unconscious mind. This little fellow has been fed a steady stream of human dreams since we put him under.”
“You mean to say you can record dreams?” Maggie said, finally finding her story.
“Not so much recording as streaming,” Whale said. “We haven’t found a way to document or observe the dreams being broadcast. Currently, we must depend on the second sleeper to relate the experience.”
“So, you’ve done this with two human subjects?” Maggie asked. “You can’t be getting detailed descriptions from a chimp.”
“Of course not,” Whale said. “We chart the subject’s brain waves and search for correlations in the patterns of the human test subjects. At present, only this particular animal seems capable of receiving the transmissions, but we’re trying to obtain other apes for study, and hope to determine why the process always fails when we use two humans.”
I nudged Maggie to let her know I’d gotten what I’d come for. There was a lot more I wanted to know, but I wasn’t going to learn it on a guided tour. Maggie got Whale to agree to a proper interview, hopefully to be conducted in a room that didn’t reek of Clorox, and with a reporter who wasn’t hungover. Whale, pleased by the promise of recognition, chatted away as she led us to the lobby but I wasn’t listening. I was busy thinking about what Alora’s lawyers would uncover with their subpoenas. It was a sure bet Precock and Alora had been part of an attempt to work Whale’s trick with humans and that it hadn’t failed. To the contrary, it had worked so well they weren’t able to turn it off.
I never got the chance to share what I’d discovered with my prospective client. After an afternoon spent trying to reach her, Glenn, a friend of mine from the homicide division, shared the details of his latest case while we were expanding our bar tab at Vic’s. A few sentences into it, I realized my client and his corpse were either one in the same, or Alora Earnest was a lot more common of a name than I would have suspected. Glenn claimed to be stumped, which wasn’t really an indication of the involvement of a criminal mastermind; Glenn tended to get distracted easily. Still, what he described would have probably thrown anybody who hadn’t just come back from a tour of Hexagon Labs.
Alora had been beaten to death in her bed, apparently by somebody who hated her enough to have replaced her face with the lamp from her nightstand. The killer had also apparently either been a contortionist, or composed of very little mass, having achieved egress to the room via an air conditioner duct. Most confusing of all, at least to Glenn, was the presence of hairs the lab boys insisted hadn’t come from a human head. Alora hadn’t owned a pet.
I was pretty pleased with myself when I got Glenn to agree to pay our entire tab if the hair had come from a chimp, but I wasn’t sure what my next move should be, other than it should involve tracking down Precock. It was possible Hexagon was aware some of their experiments had leaked out onto the street, and they wanted to do some cleaning up before it became a problem. It was possible our little act that morning had made them act with greater urgency, which made it my responsibility to make sure Precock didn’t eat any lamps.
It had taken more effort than I’d expected to track Precock down since he didn’t work and didn’t seem to have any friends. He did, however, have a social media account he hadn’t logged onto in about a year. His last three posts were about some statue he’d donated to the library, so I assumed somebody there would know how to reach him and headed down there. It paid off. I found him out front, seated on a concrete bench in the shadow of a pile of junk stuck in a concrete meteor. I guessed the monstrosity was the statue he’d donated. I followed the brick walkway up to it and sat down beside him. If he knew I was there he didn’t show it. His eyes didn’t leave the page he was focused on. I lit a cigarette and blew a cloud between him and his book, but that just made him scoot down the bench.
“Catching up on your reading, Precock?” I asked.
“Doverman? What are you doing here?” he asked, his book bouncing off his shoes and onto the pavement. “Did you change your mind about taking my case?”
“Sort of,” I said, “but we have a different goal now.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, pulling off his reading glasses.
“Now it’s about keeping you alive. What can you tell me about Hexagon Labs?”
“I volunteered for some experiments there,” he said. “What do you mean keep me alive? Am I in danger?”
“Maybe,” I said. “They got your dream girl, and I can’t see them going to the trouble and then leaving the job half done.”
“What do you mean?” he shouted. “She was real? You found her?”
“She was real,” I said prying his fingers out of my bicep. “She was the one who found me. Now tell me, were you aware of any other people participating in this experiment?”
“I never saw anyone else,” he said. “It was always just me and Doctor Whale in the room.”
“I was hoping there were some other people on the list they might have to work through before they got to you,” I said.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It was only just the two of us. In fact, I quit showing up because she was making me uncomfortable.”
I asked him what he meant and he told me about waking up to find her hovering over him, holding his hand. He thought she might have even kissed him once, but had dismissed it as a dream. I suddenly felt like a man who’d stumbled on an instruction manual and realized the dresser he thought he’d been building was supposed to be a coffin. I’d assumed somebody at Hexagon had murdered Alora to quash any bad publicity and the lawsuits and lost contracts that would come with it. Maybe it was a lot more personal than that. There was a good chance only one person at Hexagon knew about it.
I told Precock to find a hotel to hole up in and to use the hotel phone to inform me of his location, and then headed for Hexagon Labs.
This time I didn’t bother with subterfuge. I explained to the receptionist that one of their scientists had gone rogue and that they were about to be hit with a lot of lawsuits that didn’t just involve chimps and dogs. Unless Curlin was lying, and judging from the color that went missing from his face, I’d bet he wasn’t, it was just as I’d suspected. Hexagon knew nothing about their experimental procedure being performed on humans.
We found Doctor Whale hooked up to one of her own machines, slobbering on herself while her fingers tried to dig a trench in the slab she was sprawled on.
“She’s dreaming,” Curlin said, looking at some squiggly lines on the monitor.
“She’s trying to hook up with Precock,” I said. “She’s trying to find him.”
It became quickly evident I was wrong when something heavy collided with my back, knocking me forward onto the floor. I rolled over to see the chimp that was leaping at me stop in mid-air and drop as the guard we’d brought with us hit it with his taser. The helmet the ape was wearing clanged on the floor as it landed and curled into a ball. As the ape went out, Whale sat up. She leapt off the table, snapping the wires off her head as she joined the ape on the floor. It took her a minute to figure out which body she was in, while she snarled at me and beat her fists on the floor, but it ended with her rocking back and forth while she sobbed into her hands.
“Why?” the director asked, regaining just enough composure to get the one word out.
“He was supposed to have chosen me!” Whale shouted into her palms. “I was supposed to share his dreams, not her! In his dreams I could have shown him how much I loved him. I could have made him love me.”
Her voice faded into a whimper. The guard looked at Curlin for the go ahead to cuff her, but she wasn’t the one Curlin was worried about.
“Get some people in here to get that animal under restraint,” he ordered, nodding at the chimp. “We’ll have to get someone from V.S. in here to make sure it hasn’t been damaged.”
The guard stepped out into the hall and started talking into the black button pinned to his shirt pocket just as Whale was looking up. Seeing only the director between her and the wires dangling from the table, she jumped up and made a grab for them, slapping them against her forehead before the director could stop her. I stepped away from the ape as the thing on its head lit up before giving off a loud pop. Curlin moved a lot faster than I would have imagined possible when one of his company’s assets was in danger of going up in smoke. He ran over and jerked the helmet off the ape’s head, throwing it down as it spit sparks in his face. I could tell by his expression as he knelt over the chimp that it was still alive. Whale, however hadn’t been as lucky. She’d fallen back over the table to stare through the ceiling with her dead eyes. I let the guard grab her wrist to look for a pulse, but I’d seen enough corpses to know he was wasting his time.
About a week later, Precock showed up at my office with his checkbook. I told him I’d turned his case down, and he didn’t owe me anything, but he said Alora had insisted. He claimed she said it was only fair I be compensated for tracking down her killer and saving the man she loved. When I asked him how it was he had the ability to communicate with the dead, he told me Alora had been appearing to him in his dreams since a few days after she’d been murdered. He said it was rough going at first, but she’d decided to make the best of it, and had even fallen in love with him for real.
I’m not one to take advantage of the mentally ill, but Precock had enough money he wouldn’t miss a few grand, and he’d threatened to keep coming around to pester me about it until I relented. As he sauntered out of my office, swinging the cane he said Alora told him to buy for himself and whistling Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” I wondered if he might not be sane after all. Maybe there was a chance Alora really was stuck in his head somehow.
As I threw on my coat and headed off to the bank, I thought about Doctor Whale and what it was that chimps might dream about.
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