The crisp white mini blinds danced back and forth with a soft melodic clatter on the window sill in the warm breeze. Katherine was stretched out on her stomach on top the sheets, a moan escaping her lips and disappearing into the feathers of her cotton-covered down pillow. All she needed was a spurt of energy. Just enough to make it to the coffee pot in her tiny kitchen apartment. And who had opened that infernal bellowing window with its clanging blinds?
The window was cracked just about two inches, just enough for the blinds to sway to and from to make a knocking on the sill. The sound raised havoc in her sleepy mind. Fresh air, though, was a Godsend, slipping through the opening in a light breeze that was full of flavor – the only nicety from the third floor city window. Somewhere below, a horn was blowing, a car’s impatient reminder of a busy crosswalk beneath her lodging that held walkers that were too slow for the road-raged drivers. She could picture the flashing hand on the monitor at the side of the road as the horns gave way to a safe-to-walk beeping -- also a nasty distraction from a dream world all too often interrupted by day-to-day drivel. She hated traffic. She hated the city.
Sighing into the pillow, Katherine raised her head and allowed a yawn to escape. Just a minute or so more would be a good thing. Rolling over, she looked over to the snoring wolf next to her. Her eyes grew wide.
Oh no! A sleeping wolf. Again. Just what is this crazy malarkey stuff all about? I’m so sick of it all! Memories shot into her brain in the time it took her to gasp and frown at the strongly muscled form beside her on top the sheets. Starring at the wolf in horrific fashion, she thought about how she’d seen it after work outside her building. It had been as though the animal were waiting for her there in the shadows of the sunshine. Friendly and persistent, it had followed her home. No one around her had thought that strange, which was very odd! And this led, of course, to . . . the sleeping wolf in her bed again.
She pulled breath in quickly through gritted teeth. How had this happened again? When would it all stop? What did it all mean?
Rather than huddle down into the sheets as she’d meant to do, she decided to gingerly roll over on her side to look at this wolf more closely this time -- since it was asleep anyway -- just to catch the reality (which was recently questionable in her mind) of its breath and the movement of its stomach going up and down with that breath -- before giving way to new panic. She needed to think about it. She needed to see it clearly. She needed to understand it. She knew all too well that the cool hardwood floor touched by her bare feet would mean instant reality, and she’d have to begin the painful process of dealing with ... a wolf in her bed. Yet again.
Katherine slid away from the animal now, edging off the bed, careful to keep from touching it. Not even a strand of her long mouse-brown hair should be near enough to tickle its nose or any other part of its full dark coat that might arouse it from sleep. No sense starting something she would not be able to handle. When she was nearly out of the bed, slithering with the motion of a scared snake . . . Do snakes scare easily? . . . she wondered, and then stopped in a frozen don’t-make-a-move-or-you’re-out stance, her eyes going even wider and breath caught in her slender throat.
What was this? The wolf’s eyes were open. This was a first! Was her fear causing hallucinations? Had she zoned out for just a second? Eyes now stared over at her with an amber glow. A glow, for crimity sakes! It was the light in the room. It had to be. Katherine glanced nervously up at the window. Dingy day. Soundless day. (Where was the beeping crosswalk? Where were the sounds of traffic? Where was the sunshine?) She noted that it wasn’t the light.
Looking back at the bed beside her, the truth struck her – as it always did at this moment. The wolf was gone. It had never been there. No glowing eyes. No city apartment and sun shiny day. No beeping crosswalks. No blaring horns. Yes, Katie, keep convincing yourself of that. Not real, she said to herself, holding the panic at bay.
But she was wrong, of course. In the animal’s place situated on the pillow was a single tarot card -- the card entitled The Hanged Man. “I’m at a crossroad,” she whispered. And then, “No. I must’ve put it there in my sleep.” I hope I put it there in my sleep.
Now perched on a stool at her breakfast bar, Katherine sipped her coffee, and looked out over the lawn in front of her small cottage in York County, Pennsylvania. She wiggled her toes in the bunny slippers that should have been put away a month prior and replaced by the only-in-the-summer flip-flops.
April. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wolves with glowing eyes. She was irritated. It wasn’t April. It was June. She hadn’t been at a building working in Philadelphia. Why, she’d only been to Philadelphia a few times since moving from a Baltimore suburb to her little house in the York County woods, and had never even been in a tiny apartment over a busy street -- anyplace! So, just why was this wolf showing up in her bed in Philadelphia when she didn’t have a bed in Philadelphia?
Katherine wrinkled her nose, took a swig of highly creamed and sweetened Starbucks coffee, and then pulled a card. The old tarot deck had been calling her ever since she’d risen from the ... vision? Dream? No. Certainly, not a dream. A vision. Had to be. Throwing back the hair from her face and swallowing hard, she turned over the tarot card.
Death. Hmmm. People always freaked when she turned over Death, but there was no real sign of impending disaster with the card – unless coupled with another complementing card. It nearly never meant death when she pulled it. It just didn’t mean that to her. Card meanings were personal for a reader. Each reader had his or her own feelings associated with the cards, even though there were standard meanings as well. The extra added psychic feelings were what made a reader good. The knowing. The clicks. Without them, just any old body could read the cards. For her, the Death card usually meant change. “I could use a change,” she mused in a soft whisper. Still, she stared at the card, looking hard at the skull of a face peering out of armor and riding the pale horse of death. The eyes of the skull on the card were black and dead.
“Not amber,” she said in a whisper. “Not glowing.”
She thought how she would tell a caller from the Hotline what this meant in the world of psychics and paranormal knowledge.
Not to worry. Death is not about death, but change – permanent change. A time of
clearing away of the past and starting new. It might tell you of a friendship or
love running its course.
“That certainly fits.” She thought briefly of Bryan and his asinine sense of timing. Just when she’d made the leap to take her artwork seriously, to move to this remote wonderful cottage with him – and to spend a great portion of her inherited money in the process to keep them afloat – he’d decided to elope with some well-to-do Wall Street type. A growl rumbled in her throat followed by a sigh of despondency. He would leave me alone ... with this wolf in my bed.
“Well, so what Bryan.” The flat statement was filled with the finality of a lost love. Time to move on. “Who needs a gold-digger anyway?” she said to a pink bunny slipper, kicking it off her foot with force and across the floor with an anger only the slipper would know. Not that her grandmother’s money would keep her in style for more than a year at best, but those kinds of men were always at hand to exploit what they could. I’m better off.
Katherine quelled her anger at Bryan as the caffeine pulsed into her bloodstream fully waking her body and mind to the day around her. Thank God for Starbucks. In moments, though, her thoughts slipped back to the wolf with the amber eyes and of her strange visions of late. Now that the sleep had fully left her, it was difficult to picture the animal in her mind’s eye. It was like the edges of a faded photograph, the color muted and disappearing into cracks and bends of abused paper -- all the while disguising the photo’s true intention of clarity and the nature of things as they really were. Only with the wolf in her bed, the background of the scene was crystal clear and the center image blurry and not quite in focus. Except for the amber eyes.
There was no doubt that it was always the same wolf, but . . . other than the eyes, she could never quite remember the look of it – even though she would often try to stop and take it all in. Only the feel of it was clear to her. And the card left behind each time . . . The Hanged Man. A card of crossroads, a choice between things – between two people, or two lifestyles – a decision. How did it fit with the vision?
Sitting quietly and gazing out the cottage bay window in her kitchen at the lush green wooded landscape, Katherine did not really hear the birds sweetly singing or the insects clicking and sounding their monotonous messages. Her thoughts were primarily of this wolf. It was difficult for her to work. It was difficult for her to paint. It was difficult for her to . . . sleep. She was afraid of sleep these days. A yawn interrupted her sip.
A new sigh escaped her mouth as she swallowed the warm coffee. She hated that wolf really. It was an intrusion in her life. With the wolf came another . . . strange sensation of knowledge that was also uncomfortable. It was that of a male confidant, or owner, or partner of some kind to the wolf. An alliance of wolf and man. She’d not seen the man yet. But she knew the man somehow. He was right outside her vision. So masculine, tall and ... blonde or light-ish hair? That wasn’t clear. A sweet smile possibly. Just a hint of jasmine about him for sure.
She frowned at her coffee cup. The smell. It was not the fragrance of jasmine exactly, but the elusive feeling one gets when a special scent is somewhere nearby but not close enough to identify its origin. A feeling of jasmine. Was that possible? He was magnificent, of course. The man, that is. How could a dream man be any different than magnificent? She sat her cup down, clattering the spoon beside it.
The worst part was that she was falling in love with him. The man. And she’d not seen the man. Only his dog. Wolf. Partner. She shook her head. Face it Katie, you’re mad. There is no dog. No wolf. There is no man. All your oars are not in the water. Your elevator is not going all the way to the top. You’re a few french fries short of a Happy Meal.
Her thoughts shifted entirely to the man who was not there. The vision behind the vision. He controlled her thoughts somehow. He beckoned her into areas of her mind previously denied to others. And that was unforgivable. That was a private place. She shared this place with no one.
Maybe I’m losing my mind. Yup. That’s it, for sure.
A rustle and a bump pulled her mind from the daydream. She glanced back to the living area of her house, squinting through a new gloom. It was then that she noticed the absence of light through her kitchen window, an ominous cloud over the cottage covering the light with a gray blanket of shadows that seeped inside as well. “That was quick,” she whispered to herself, “looks like a storm is bubbling up.” Dismissing the sound -- which surely was her imagination -- she looked up at the clouds outside her window and then out onto her lawn disappearing into a wooded expanse beyond.
Suddenly, her heart lurched with the intensity of a slap in the face. A man was at the edge of the forest. Watching her. Seeing her through the gloom, forcing his gaze over the distance right into the very depths of her home. Of her mind. She was sure it was the man behind the vision! Or . . . nearly sure. That’s not possible. I’m truly losin’ it! Get a grip, girl! That’s an intruder!
When the wolf charged from her living room and into the kitchen knocking her from the stool to the floor, she knew she was not crazy. She was about to die.
Nolan Rice held the rifle close to his side as he padded along the pathway some 100 yards from the small cottage at the edge of the thick wooded forest. He’d seen the woman from a distance before during his strolls through the area -- interesting look to her. An appeal – of sorts. Brown hair, long. Good body. Beyond that, he could not tell too much about her appearance from the distance. And, as one never judged a woman totally on looks, but rather on the dimensions of thinking and the appropriate ability to mentally react in an intelligent manner with instinctual grace, the visual aspect of her was muted.
He could not stand a stupid woman. Unfortunately, most he encountered since Elaina were predictably that. The world would be better off without them in most cases. Of course, since Elaina, the world would do better without women entirely. A pain shot through his temples making him wince just before the familiar scent of jasmine assaulted his nostrils. Jasmine. The smell of Elaina. Or, rather the smell after Elaina. He fought the pain and regrouped his thoughts to the present.
Nolan leveled the scope of the rifle towards the cottage, magnifying the quaintness and personality of the structure that shouted creativity and color. It was a theatrical place. Trite in his opinion. Flowers and garden-like nonsense situated about a porch. Rockers and hominess. He scoffed at the cottage and anyone silly enough to think that such amenities would take away the evils of the real world even for a moment.
He could see movement now within the house just behind the sheer blowing curtains at the front east side of the building. When the barking reached his ears followed by one quick female scream of terror, he dropped the rifle to his side again, darted from the path and sped directly to the cottage. He’d seen an attack before. Unprovoked. Uninvited. But very real, indeed. He never knew what set the dog off, but trouble usually accompanied such outbursts of aggression. Still, regardless of the nature of the woman in the cottage, she’d not asked for this; and it was his responsibility to stop any attack before it started.
Bursting through the unlocked front door of the cottage and darting immediately left into the kitchen area where sounds of scuffling could be heard, Nolan stopped abruptly. His breath was coming hard from the run and his eyes went wide with disbelief. There on the floor was a woman wearing only a smattering of clothing and one obnoxious rabbit slipper. His hundred pound German Shepard straddled her body, licking her face with vigor as the woman kicked and gurgled to get away.
“Chief!” he yelled and stepped forward, reaching out to grab the dog’s leash that hung from a collar. “Heel!”
The dog looked up at its master and growled; then resumed licking the woman’s face. It sounded as those she was growling as well. Not pleasant, he thought as he pulled the growling dog off her.
Katherine was on her feet in seconds, her face a mask of internal and external rage and fear. “What the hell is going on here?” Her voice was loud even in her own ears, the panic still lodged in her throat and her heart still pounding blood, though she was happy to see a dog rather than the wolf she’d initially suspected.
The smell of jasmine was strong in the air, surprising her with its intensity and the scent nearly choking her. She glanced around quickly trying to place the origin before returning her gaze to the huge dog, the man (who felt uncomfortably familiar to her) and the rifle hanging at his side. The vision was pushed to the back of her mind momentarily.
The man was handsome – in a stiff sort of way – with light brown hair pushed back away from his face and eyes that seemed just a tad too big for his face. Eyes that would be expressive beyond anyone’s ability to hide from them. Eyes that could easily search a soul. She shivered at anyone looking that deeply inside her. His build was medium as was his height, and his clothes shouted money – or possibly class? Again, she noted that he seemed familiar and that thought spurred her first impression of him as she saw him at the base of the woods. She’d thought he was the man in her vision behind the vision! But closer, she promised herself that this could not – would not – be. How could it be? There was . . . no . . . man!
The dog chuffed, ears perked high and head tilted. The man looked stunned. The strap of the rifle hung loosely in his hand with the nose of the gun touching the floor. The hair on Katherine’s arms and at the base of her neck stood straight up as though a bolt of lightning had secretly touched her nose sending a stream of electricity to each and every strand of hair.
“I’m sorry about this,” the man began, straining as the dog pulled to get away from his grasp. “Chief broke free from his restraints and I’ve chased him all this way. I was a bit worried because he’s not the friendly sort.” He struggled to pull the large Shepard, but the dog had other ideas. Snapping gently at his master’s hand, he pulled free and plopped his stocky body down on Katherine’s feet. The man’s eyes narrowed and if it were possible to actually touch distaste or frustration in the air, this would surely be the place and the time to feel such things. She watched his fingers tighten on the rifle strap.
Unable to speak, her focus was regained as a course wind kicked up suddenly and blew the front door shut behind them with a loud slam. Katherine jumped. The man jumped. The dog barked one time, wagged his tail and then settled back down on Katherine’s feet. The gust of wind broke the grip of fear and electricity in Katherine’s body and she pulled her feet from beneath the dog, stepped toward the man and gently took the rifle from him.
He smiled at her but made no move to stop her from taking the gun. “I’d no plans to shoot you, I can assure you. That’s not my style.”
His voice was deep and though not accented, it was rather aristocratic. Snobbish even. Though there was an attractive air to it, Katherine knew immediately that this was a voice that could grate on her nerves under the wrong circumstances. Like now, she thought noticing his obvious discomfort of the situation and her presence around his dog.
“Well, let’s hope not,” Katherine answered making sure that a curt tone of her own spilled out. She, now with recaptured composure, looked down at the dog. “Not a friendly sort? Broke away from you, you say?” She bent down and scratched the dog’s ears.
“I wouldn’t do that,” warned the man, but only halfheartedly as he watched with some amazement as the dog warmed to Katherine. “I don’t understand this at all. He hates most women.”
“Hmmmm. I think he’s just misunderstood.” She was cooing over the dog now and looked up to see the strange man visibly sickened by her actions. Standing, Katherine handed the rifle back. “Well then, your dog is safe and sound; and your rifle unfired. Thank you for stopping by.”
A small amused smile touched the edge of his strong-looking face, though she could tell he was fighting it. And just what was he smiling at, anyway, she wondered, noting that he was looking at her eyes with a quick shift to the floor in front of her and back to her face. It was then she remembered her attire: short pink silk tap pants, low-cut matching top, no bra, no stockings, no makeup, hair a mess, and....a single bunny slipper. With all the composure she could muster, she repeated, “Thanks for stopping by.”
He turned away then, yanking at the broken leash of the dog and hit his leg sharply on the end table. Her tarot cards lay face down on the table and fell to one side. He reached down and turned over a card that had spilled to the opposite side of the pile from the others. With a jerky motion he pulled his hand back as though it had been burned. He clung, however, to the card, staring at its face in what appeared to be bewilderment.
“Do you believe in this sort of thing?”
A sharpness and an implication of belittlement in his tone startled her. The tone also insulted her, bringing up a new kind of electricity from her stomach. An electric fire that paled that of any dragon in folklore. How dare he question her about the tarot!
“It’s a passion of mine,” she said simply, an impatient toss of her hair telling him that there would be no other explanation. He didn’t deserve it. She turned away from his burning eyes to retrieve the flung bunny slipper. Putting it securely on her foot as though this were the most natural thing for a young pajama-clad-in-front-of-a-stranger woman to do, she added, “and yes, I do believe.”
The man gave a harsh laugh. “It’s all mystic nonsense. And such nonsense can be dangerous. You’d do well to just throw this paraphernalia away.” With that, he dropped the card back on the table, turned and dragged the dog against his will from the cottage, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Katherine stood there with her mouth open and then, with more dragon fire in her heart, stamped her bunny foot hard on the floor. Grumbling, she picked up the card he discarded, “What does a stuffed shirt like that know about tarot anyway?” She stared hard at the card. It meant something. Whenever someone else pulled a card from her deck, she’d found that a profound meaning was attached. “The card of Justice. Hmmmm. Reaching decisions ... building a case ... collecting evidence ... Well, well, well, Mr. Brown Eyes, and just what are you trying to understand?” She looked down at her feet and whispered, “Besides my bunny slippers, for crimity sakes.”
In the small squad room of the Glenbary Police Department in Central Pennsylvania, Lieutenant-Detective Nolan Rice leaned back on his swivel chair as far as it would go with his hands pressing both temples. “I can’t do this,” he said to the combination secretary-dispatcher. “I can’t keep waking up all night long with crazy dreams and then expect to think clearly enough to solve cases during the day.”
“I hear ya,” the middle-aged woman at the microphone said, not looking up from her payroll spreadsheet to one side. “Drugs. You need drugs.” Then she added with a snort, “sleeping ones, that is.”
“I need something,” he whispered as he massaged his forehead and then his neck. Finally, he moved forward dropping his feet and the chair to its normal position with a plop. Reaching for a cold cup of coffee, he pushed aside a deck of tarot cards, spilling them to one side. “Damn things,” he muttered and swigged the stale drink.
His dreams were obsessive and crazy; and they were making him crazy. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that the feelings inside the dreams were inspired by some silly romance movie – with a twist of macabre thrown in just to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Filled with cheap shots. Hands popping out of a grave with music that startled the heart. The jumping of a cat into the scene when you least expected it, with its screeching howl and sharp claws tearing at some unprepared damsel in distress. Who shouldn’t have been in the damn basement to begin with.
And if that weren’t enough, now he was investigating the things he saw in the dreams like some amateur paranormal researcher from television. Like the stuff were real. He was turning into a real nut case.
Nolan leaned back again and tried to bring the latest dream to mind. With clarity for once, for there was never clarity. Things were always clear during the dream, but smoking and just outside intelligence upon waking.
The dream always began the same with him strolling casually into an empty cold room. He would recognize her voice ringing in his ears, though he'd not heard her voice like this before. Hot amber eyes touched his face from somewhere. He'd not seen the hidden woman to recognize the color of her eyes -- nor the certain madness that would be knowingly mirrored there. She was a feeling without face or figure. Her unseen hands would reach for him, aggressively it seemed, and he could feel his own inner desires move forward to meet her.
Nolan, in his office chair, in the light of day, shivered at that part. It was always scary to him – how easily he drifted to her side without judgment, without question, without justice. But in the dream his quick mind ranted at his innocence and he always pulled back away from her just in time.
He would then wake sweating, his long legs tangled in cool sheets, struggling for leverage from the female mirage stalking him through the night. He'd felt her often these last weeks -- not clearly, but in a peripheral sense, hidden by crowds and cars and everyday life. She was at the station, on the streets, and at far tables in the diners he frequented. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs leftover from the nightmare that often hung about him all day. It was all part of the dream madness.
This morning has been particularly difficult. The daylight shining into his window had startled him when he finally noticed it, pushing away the nightmare and replacing it with the panic of being late for work. Morning light was a certain indication of an exhausted body and mind oversleeping -- he always rose in the dark to walk his dog in the nearby wooded area and then to rush off to start his work day.
Right before waking everyday he would hear her words and the he would see the cats. There were always cats. Lots of cats. All black – which couldn’t be a good sign. All sizes. All manners of meowing. All black. And he hated cats. He’d always hated cats. They made him sneeze. The woman would say, "I just wanted to tell you that I will always be there for you when you need me; and to thank you for being there for me when I need you. And I will need you." She would smile at him and quietly turn away. Except that she wasn’t really there. And then there would be a card on his pillow. A tarot card.
Nolan would smile a dream smile at that point, and know that the nightmare was just a dream, the discomfort stilled by a dream explanation. One heard only by the heart. When she would walk from the dream, Nolan would feel obsession. Oh, how he hated that!
Upon waking entirely, however, he would find that there was no card. No woman. No cats. Only a feeling of something unsaid, not known, hidden, gone. Something important. Life threatening and evil. It was like a vision. Of what, he was not sure. And the obsession he felt for the woman was becoming part of his daylight world as much as his night sleeping world.
He picked up the Justice card from the Tarot Deck he’d purchased. This was the card he’d dreamed of this morning before waking. It was also the card that fell from the deck of cards he saw at the woman’s cottage at the edge of the woods. That was bizarre.
Nolan tapped the card on the table absently. He’d already looked at the picture. It meant nothing to him. A king-looking guy on a throne holding a sword and a scale. It was a bunch of hocus pocus. Still, the same card in two places? One in a dream and then one in reality? Coincidences did not fare well with the detective. And his dog’s behavior had been highly irrational adding still more intrigue to the situation.
Then he smiled. Did real women wear rabbit shoes?
“I gotta get to work on that kidnapping, Jeana. That kid isn’t going to find herself.” He sighed hard and stood, shifting his hidden revolver beneath his suit coat.
“Yup,” replied the secretary-dispatcher. “Want me to get my gyspy outfit out, make ya feel more at home?”
“Very funny.” With that, Nolan stacked the cards in an orderly pack, and left to interview the mother of the kidnapped girl for the 2nd time in two days.
He could feel a storm brewing.