Richard went home and sat in his living room. It was only 6 o’clock, but he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. He thought for a minute about turning on the TV. He almost made it as far as to pick up the remote, but deep down he didn’t want to watch specials about the horrors of humanity tonight. He was already inside his own little horror show, he didn’t need speculating journalists to seed his already tormented imagination.
No, what Richard needed to finish today was a drink.
A lot of drinks.
He carefully removed his car keys from his key ring and tossed them on the bed. Then he pulled on a heavier coat to fight the cold that was sure to come later that night and walked the three blocks to the bus stop in front of the supermarket. Richard was going to get wasted. He knew this, and he was sure his car would thank him for this much foresight.
His head, knowing a heavy hangover was more than a sure thing, wouldn’t be so lucky.
Richard’s usual bar was only a few bus stops down, sharing a parking lot with a dog groomer, a hair salon, a FedEx Express – what a stupid name. FedEx is already short for express! – and an Americanized-Mexican restaurant that served fries with its tacos. It was an odd assortment of businesses, but Richard knew the bar was of fair quality.
That, and he knew the owner pretty well. Every hour was happy hour for Richard – half price drinks from 6 ‘til close. Tonight that would come in handy, though Richard did feel a little sorry for the beating his friend’s liquor shelf was about to take.
He hopped off the bus and jay-walked across the street to the bar. The bartender nodded his head as Richard entered. He finished drying a glass, set it on the shelf with its peers, and then poured a double of scotch for Richard without even asking for an order.
Richard accepted the drink, raised his glass in a momentary toast, then dropped the entire drink straight down his throat.
“Figured. Damn, I wish I had your liver.”
“After nights like these, you wouldn’t want it.”
Richard took his usual stool and polished the counter in front of him with his elbow. The bartender brought him another drink and Richard picked it up. He held it in both hands and stared at the dark alcohol in the bottom of the glass. He stared and let his mind wander and ask questions to which he had no answers, only more questions.
What if I had come home earlier?
What if we’d never had them over for dinner?
What if I’d mentioned them weeks ago?
After the fifth or six question, they started to come in a flood, too fast for Richard to even make sense of the individual thoughts. He clenched his eyes tight and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his left hand. Then, quickly, he knocked the shot back, washing the torrent of baseless remorse away and clearing his already numbing mind.
Richard slapped the glass on the counter and mumbled in the bartender’s direction, “another.”
Rick’s drink orders came like clockwork, a new shot every fifteen minutes. On nights when he was in, Mike didn’t even have to check his watch to know when closing time was. He’d just count the empty glasses sitting in front of Rick.
No, it wasn’t healthy for a man to drink that much. Particularly not alone. Mike had offered to introduce him around once or twice to some of the other regulars, but Rick refused. His ritual was just that, a ritual. Some people drank to remember – usually men just reaching middle age, grasping for the fading memories of the high times of their youth. Others drank to forget – men in bed-crumpled suits fingering their wedding rings, trying to wash away their mistake with expensive alcohol. Still others drank to escape – a man or a woman with the wrong partner, knocking back shots so their questionable “ride” home would have a reasonable excuse in the morning.
Mike didn’t really care why these people drank. He just knew they were good business and that they consumed more than their share of pricey booze. When Rick first came in a few years ago with friends from work, he struck Mike as the drink-to-remember type. He seemed to have that professional air of “I’ve arrived” about him, but at the same time, he’d look at his younger coworkers with regrets of what he’d lost in order to arrive.
About a month ago, though, something changed. Mike knew all about what’d happened to Rick’s wife, so he expected a certain amount of heavy drinking to escape the reality of the world around him. With Rick, though, things were different.
He wasn’t drinking to remember, not his youth, not his wife. He wasn’t drinking to forget, either. And from what Mike could tell about his too-frequent ritual, Rick wasn’t drinking to escape any more. The way he stared at the scotch. The way he’d clench his eyes after staring for too long. The way he’d hammer the shot back and demand another.
No, Rick was drinking to assuage his inner demons, but they were different demons than Mike had seen in his other regular patrons. At times, it almost seemed Rick was drinking to punish himself. As if the clarity of his usually sharp mind was his hold on reality, and for some reason he saw fit to force that away and make himself stumble.
It was an observation that made sense to a bar tender, but would probably come across to a psychiatrist as nonsense. Still, Mike had been a bartender long enough that he’d counseled enough broken hearts, poor decisions, and mid life crises that he’d probably qualify as a psychiatrist by now.
About the time he’d poured Rick his 9th shot, Mike saw a group of 20-something men come in the bar, already quite inebriated. Mike’s gut told him they were probably a football or rugby team out celebrating some victory or another.
One of the men came to the bar while the rest took a seat near the back of the room. “I wanna buy a round for the house! Beer for all!”
His gut was on tonight. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, pro’lly some food in a bit. Give me a minute to talk to the guys.”
Mike started filling glasses, glad that he’d finished polishing the good pints before the dinner rush started. He brought the first 8 glasses over to the men’s table and pulled out a notebook to take their food order. His cook had just come off break – pub food was pub food, and Charley’s wasn’t anything to write home about – but he’d surely be busy in a few minutes.
He took down their orders, all some variation on a burger and fries, plus another round of drinks for when this one dried up. They were younger than Mike had first pegged them, the youngest being just a few weeks over 21. A more experienced group would have ordered pitchers. It was cheaper.
Mike went to the back to pass Charley the food order and asked his new assistant – Paul was it? – to finish serving the round of beer to the rest of his patrons. It was a slow night, so it wouldn’t take Paul – or was it Saul? – too long to finish. When Mike finished with Charley he poured another scotch for Rick. He should be asking for it pretty soon.
“Another,” from the other end of the bar.
Right on schedule, Mike smiled to himself.
“What, our beer not good enough for you?”
Mike stopped smiling. This was not good.
“Hey, old guy, I’m talking to you. What’s wrong with our beer?”
Mike stepped to the bar in front of Richard and set the scotch on the counter. Then he slapped the counter to dramatically take everyone’s attention off the untouched beer.
“Your food should be ready in a few minutes, would you like me to bring you and your friends another round?” He hoped the question would distract the young athlete enough to get him away from Rick.
“Sure, but first I want to know what this guy’s problem is.”
Richard was entirely unaware of what was going on around him. He was 10 shots into what was likely to be a long night of drinking. His normally sharp mind was blissfully dull as a marble, and fewer of the questions assaulted him each time he loosed his marbley-mind to wander. He had already picked up his scotch and was staring, no more intently than before, but no less intently either.
What if I can’t find her?
“I’m talking to you,” the man said as he grabbed Richard’s shoulder and spun him around on the barstool.
Mikes eyes grew as he saw something in his friend break. The ritual interrupted, and someone stepping in the middle of the flood of remorse-laden questions just begging to be assigned the wrath that was normally drowned in scotch.
Richard jumped off the stool with far more agility than a man with 10 shots of hard liquor in his system should be able. In a fluid motion he grabbed the pint of beer off the table and rammed it into the other man’s jaw, shattering the glass – and probably bone alike – as he drove the man’s face into the floor.
Mike lunged over the bar and tackled his friend, wrapping him in a bear hug and hauling him away from the other man, lying unconscious in a growing pool of wasted beer and blood from his broken nose.
Just like that, it was over. Richard slumped under Mike’s weight and passed out, the exertion and super-human maneuver he’d just demonstrated completely exhausting him. Mike looked up at the crowd that had grown around him – regular patrons staring on with wonder, the other man’s friends staring confused wondering if they should fight or flee, Charley and the new guy standing protected behind the bar.
“Charley, close up. Everyone, you’re meals are on the house, now go home and have a good night. Paul, call an ambulance for our ‘guest’ over there.”
A few people moved to grab their coats, Charley encouraged those that hadn’t moved to pack up and leave.
“The name’s Tim,” Paul – Tim – said as he picked up the bar phone and dialed 911.
Mike let go of Rick and let him lie there next to the bar. He corralled the man’s friends at their table and looked for a clean rag and some ice for when he woke up and realized how mangled his nose was.
Ten minutes later, the man was tied to a stretcher being pushed into an ambulance, screaming, “I’m gonna press charges you prick!”
“I saw you go at him first, didn’t you see that too, Charley,” Mike lied, protecting his friend.
“Um, yeah. Sure,” Charley nodded in agreement.
“Looks like he might be able to press charges on you. I’d recommend you just get your nose fixed up and move on,” added Alan. He’d been off duty when the call came over the radio, but he recognized the name of the bar and Rick’s description, so he showed up to check on his friend.
Meanwhile Richard had woken up with no memory of the incident, only the consistent question, “why was I sleeping on the floor?”
Alan worked his magic with the first officer on the scene and somehow kept Rick’s name out of his notes. Tomorrow when this was written up it would be a drunk John Doe throwing the punch – the second punch, according to the obviously lying bartender – and no one would be the wiser. It hurt to bend his ethics so far, but Alan knew Rick needed the latitude. Particularly after today’s news.
“Need a ride home?”
“No I, uh. Wait, where’s my car?”
Alan laughed and waved to the bartender. Together, they managed to maneuver a very drunk Richard into the passenger seat of Alan’s car.
“I guess the next one’s on him,” said Alan, nodding his head towards Rick.
“Actually, next time you’re here it’ll be on me. Thanks for … you know.”
“Hey, today he needed a break. But if he does this again tomorrow, probably not.”
Alan helped Rick upstairs to his room and into bed. He was happy to find Rick’s keys on the bed, no longer worrying about his car and thankful that his friend had had enough sense to not drive to a bar today. Alan took out a business card and stuck it inside Rick’s key ring. He wouldn’t know what it meant, but he’d know to call.
Alan turned out the lights and locked the front door behind him. Richard had been out again before they’d even got in the house, though. So if either had said “goodnight” it wouldn’t have been him.
Richard’s drunken mind drifted through a sea of psychedelic colors and blurred sounds. Vague memories of having left the bar early tainted his perception of time. In his head it felt like it was the middle of the night, but the little remaining sense he had suggested it was still early, not even midnight yet.
Richard ignored the sensible voice with a bubbly mumble and drifted deeper into the dark sea that was his scotch-filled inner mind. But the tiny voice didn’t go away. It spoke again, in a whisper, and poked through the thick padding of alcohol around Richard’s consciousness.
Suddenly he was sober. Not in the physical sense of the term, but his mind was sharp and clear, and he was acutely aware of the fact that it shouldn’t be.
Like that night so many weeks ago, Richard was again floating in a void, infinite in its expanse but claustrophobic in environment.
He was confused. Having his ritualistic drinking interrupted, there was still a flood of questions – macabre what-ifs – clouding his mind. He tried closing his eyes to block them out, but to no effect. Instead, the effort brought him once again to the strange empty field with the stranger building at its center.
Richard fell to his knees weeping. Then he lifted his head and screamed. He screamed in anger at the cards life had dealt. He screamed in frustration at his pitiful situation. He screamed in rage at himself for allowing either to get as far as they had.
“You seek answers.”
It was a familiar voice. Richard had heard it before, but he couldn’t place it.
“You seek answers.”
The voice came again. Not so much asking a question as stating a fact.
“Yes, I have questions,” he said hopefully.
“No. There are no questions here, only answers.”
That made no sense. How could someone have answers to questions he hadn’t asked? Richard opened his mouth to ask, then fell to the ground.
His mind was on fire! The last time, everything had come to him in a flash so intense it tore him from sleep into the waking world. As drunk as he was now, though, the flash was not enough to wake him. It seared into his consciousness and flooded his mind with a million images all at once. Images as familiar as memories, yet obviously not his own.
He knew this place. He knew its purpose. He knew.
There was no longer any question. Not just any question he had asked, but any question at all. Richard feebly sat up, weakened by the mindfire, but strengthened by the power it seemed to give him.
He thought of all the things he’d never known. What was the song playing when Mary and I first danced? But before his mind could even comprehend the question, he relived the memory of their first encounter. He relived his sense of awe at seeing Mary in that gown. He relived the weightless feeling of her body in his arms as they crossed the floor. He relived her anxiety at accepting his invitation to dance.
Richard forced his racing mind to slow down, willing the fragments of memory to slow their rapid progression across his mind’s eye and focusing on that image. For a fleeting second, he relived their first dance from Mary’s perspective, remembering clearly as if it were his own memory the way he had nervously approached and asked her to dance.
It was more than Richard could bear, and he forced the foreign thoughts from his head, silencing the fire raging through his mind at the same time.
“You have your answers,” came the voice again.
“I know you now,” Richard responded, collecting himself and standing again. “You are Akasha.”
“And this is my library.”
Richard would have stared in the direction from which the voice had come, but it hadn’t come from anywhere. No matter which direction he faced, the voice always came from just over his left shoulder, as if someone were standing behind him and in front of him at the same time.
All the same, it made sense to Richard that this space was merely the way his mind chose to represent it. There was no real direction, no real field, no physical building at its center. It could just as well be a parking lot with an attendant’s booth.
Almost to prove the point, Richard was now standing in an infinite parking lot, devoid of all cars, drivers, and any defining characteristics at all – save the attendant’s booth in the middle. Richard was impressed with the power his mind now seemed to hold over this space, but the parking lot image bored him. So he stood now once again in the field with its rolling hills and gentle breeze.
Richard walked to the building and sat on its grand marble steps. This close he could see the paradoxical nature of the building his mind had thought up. It was maybe 100 feet long and wide, yet peering past the pillars showed an infinite expanse inside its walls.
“How far is it from here to infinity,” he jokingly asked. He could walk around the building in its entirety in a matter of seconds. To cross through it would be impossible.
A dark corner of his mind suggested entering the building. But he knew, for reasons he didn’t understand, that to cross the threshold would destroy the paradox. Every point inside the expanse was an infinite distance from the edge. To pass even an inch within its walls would take him impossibly far from ever leaving again. As pleasant as the thought of just abandoning the hell that had become his life was, that wasn’t the way he wanted to end it.
Still, part of him marveled at the seemingly infinite knowledge that seemed to radiate from the interior of the imaginary building. If he didn’t know any better, it almost seemed to be bursting at the seams.
Richard relaxed and cleared his mind. Then he closed his eyes and thought of the only question he wanted answered.
Where is Mary?
The mindfire took over once more, and in his mind’s eye he flew across the city to an abandoned medical clinic near the river. His mind stood near a service entrance near the back and he knew that Mary was somewhere inside. Even armed with this knowledge, he couldn’t move any closer, as if a dark presence was forcing him to keep his distance.
He tagged the building in his memory so he could ask Alan later, but his inner skeptic had already written it off as the lucid dream of a binge-drinking alcoholic.
Richard closed his eyes again and forced away his fear to dredge up another question.
Is she alive?
Richard shot his eyes open and immediately regretted it as the light coming through his bedroom window blinded him. He groaned as the hangover pierced through the waning clarity of his mind. As excruciating as it had been, the searing mindfire was less painful than this.
Then, inexplicably, Richard shot out of bed and ran to the bathroom. He threw up three times before he even knew what had happened.
Is it a bad thing when your body autopilots to the toilet, he thought to himself. Then he wiped his face off, pawed around the medicine cabinet for a few aspirin, and stepped in the shower.
There was no time to sit around and wait for the hangover to pass today. He needed to call Alan.
Luckily for Richard, he wouldn’t need to wrestle Alan’s number out of his groggy, still somewhat-drunk memory. Alan had left his card.
Alan hung up the phone and stared at it as if it were a snake that would jump up and bite him. It was Rick and he claimed to have new information. Where he had gotten this new information was a mystery, but he claimed to know where his wife was. From the description, it was some abandoned clinic on the other side of town.
A seedy neighborhood, miles away from where she was taken. He’d check later to see if there was any connection between the Drakes and the building. For his friend’s sake, he hoped there wasn’t. Still, it was strange for a man to come up with such a case-breaking revelation, particularly the day after remembering a suspicious couple no one had seen or heard of.
Alan didn’t like where this was leading, but it made him actually suspect his friend might be involved in all this. Remembering a disappearing couple of suspected serial killers? He could have seen their faces in the news somewhere and suggested them to the sketch artist. Still, how would he have gotten their fingerprints on the wine glasses?
Alan shook his head and called in the tip anyway. He hesitated for a moment, and then added the tip was from the missing person’s husband. Rick had gotten one break this weekend, Alan couldn’t afford to give him another. Either they’d find something – which would look bad for Rick – or they wouldn’t – which would still look bad for Rick. In either case, he still needed someone on site to keep Rick from breaking in on his own and trying to investigate the building. Should they actually find something, however remote the possibility, Alan needed to be sure it was legitimate and admissible.
He grabbed his jacket, signaled to the rest of the team, and ducked out the door.
Richard, meanwhile, was running around looking for his keys. He remembered taking them off his keyring before leaving for the bar, but since he hadn’t gone to bed under his own power, he couldn’t figure out where they’d gone to.
First he checked the nightstand. Nope.
Then he checked under the bed. Nope.
He checked the living room. Nope.
Then he saw them, out of the corner of his eye. Sitting alone on the kitchen table.
The kitchen. The one room in the house he hadn’t set foot in for over a month. The one room he knew he couldn’t enter. Damn it, Alan, he swore as his stomach tied itself in knots.
He took a few tentative steps towards the door, but was met by a wave of nausea – ironically enough not caused by his overwhelming hangover. Richard cursed again and slapped the wall.
I want to get there now! He screamed in his mind, too loudly. His headache screamed back at him, searing the back of his skull, throbbing through his temples, and forcing his eyes shut in the most excruciating pain he’d ever felt.
A sudden breeze ruffled his coat and made Richard pull it tighter. Did I leave a window open, he asked, slowly opening his eyes through the fading pangs of his sudden migraine.
Richard was outside.
He spun around, shocked, trying to get his bearings. He saw the river in front of him, just over the railroad tracks. He took a few steps towards the impossible vision and tripped in a pothole – definitely not his imagination. Regaining his footing, Richard turned around and froze.
It was the same building from his dream. But this time, he was here.
How the hell …
Sirens wailed as a caravan of patrol cars rounded the building. Alan jumped out of an unmarked sedan and shouted at Richard.
“How did you get here so fast? You called from home, and you live a good 30 minutes out!”
“I … uh … I …”
“Never mind, just do both of us a favor and stay put. I’ll let you know if we find anything, but if we do I can’t have you contaminating any evidence.”
Richard nodded his agreement and leaned against one of the cars. He had to be dreaming, this was impossible. One minute he was standing in his house, the next miles across town. Had he driven here in a daze?
He pulled his house keys out of his pocket and stared at the naked key ring. No, his car keys were still missing. For that matter, his car was nowhere to be seen. Richard mentally retraced his steps from the phone call with Alan.
I hung up the phone and then finished getting dressed. I grabbed my coat and looked for my keys. I remember finding my car keys in the kitchen. Then …
The headache. The fiery, searing pain of the hangover-induced migraine. Then, he was here.
But I don’t have a headache now. In fact, I feel spectacular. Richard suddenly realized where he’d last felt that kind of pain. In the field in his dreams. The mindfire that coursed through his mind’s eye and first showed him this building.
He closed his eyes and replayed the event in his mind, as slowly as he could. I remember wishing I was here. Then there was pain, but in the pain I suddenly knew … something. Richard, shook his head and the impossible conclusion he’d just reached.
I thought it, and I was here? Is it really possible?
Richard opened his eyes and looked at the two officers who’d been tasked with babysitting. The both watched him with looks of concern, more because they thought he was playing the part of the guilt-ridden husband, not the confused traveler.
Alan came back out of the building, followed by another officer talking rapidly on his radio. Alan holstered his weapon and walked slowly towards the three men at the patrol car. They had found something, Richard could read that much on Alan’s face.
He stood up, “did you?”
Alan just nodded.
Alan looked at his friends with tears in his eyes and shook his head. Richard could only imagine what Alan had seen that would make him weep so openly. His imagination began to race, and the images flooding his mind were too much to bear.
Richard started sobbing. Then wailed out loud. Then he collapsed.
The medical examiner had never seen such a horrific crime scene. Not even in the gratuitous horror films her teenage son insisted on watching. The room was such that the darkest Halloween looked like pastel bunnies and Easter eggs in comparison.
She worked her way past blood-caked instruments into a dilapidated operating room. The victim was lying on the operating table in the center of the room. She was also lying in the trash can in the corner. And she was sitting on the shelf in a jar.
From what she could tell, the victim had been dissected. A closer look at the blood spray pattern told her that the victim had not just been dissected, she had been filleted alive. The victim had more than likely bled out, but she would tell the family it had been quick and painless.
The ME set her kit down one of the few squares of blood-free tile and started examining the body. It had been cut apart with skill. Had this been a legitimate surgery, it was likely the wounds could have been closed without so much as a scar. There had been so much cutting, though, that there would be no possibility of an open casket funeral.
She checked the body cavity for remaining vital organs and checked the liver temperature – it was the same as the room. Judging from the few insects that had begun to stake claim over the remains, the victim had been dead at least a day – two at the most.
The ME passed the information to the investigating detective and started to clean up. The rest of the autopsy, if you could call it that, would take place in her own operating room. At least I won’t have to cut her open, she mused, darkly.
“Hey doc, look at this,” the detective said, gesturing to the remains in the jar on the table. “What do you make of that?”
The ME leaned close and looked through the murky fluid in the jar. Even her tempered sense of dark humor didn’t prevent the shock and nausea that rose with what she saw. Someone had removed the victim’s heart, cut away the middle of it, and stitched a human eye in its place.
“I …” she paused, at a loss for words for the first time in her career. Then she looked the detective square in the eye. “You better catch this bastard.”