“Try the handle, you know you want to”.
Darren awoke and sat bolt upright in bed.
Sweat covered his freshly laundered cotton sheets and his heart beat like a fist. It was the same dream every night.
He dreamed that he was jogging. In the dream he took his usual route, he opened the stain glass door of his beautiful Victorian house and walked quietly down the tile-laden path to the wrought iron gate, stepped out onto the pavement, then, on turning right, his jog began.
Darren was a competent runner and his pace was fast. It was a matter of minutes before he had cleared his hometown of Dunstable and was running towards the imposing Chiltern hills that surrounded the area.
It was at this point that his usual path took an unusual turn. Instead of forging forward along the roadside, Darren in the dream took a left turn into the fields. He jogged off of the road and onto the grassy landscape that made up the bottom of the Chilterns.
owever, as he started to run up the landmark’s steep incline the scenery started to change. One by one trees started to appear until their canopy obscured the gliders that circle and swoop overhead.
Before he knew it he was no longer on the ascent of a hill side at all and instead found himself snaking his way along a well-trodden path through a dense wood. His pace never wavered. He ran and ran, his heart beating regularly and efficiently like a metronome until suddenly, the trees parted to reveal a small circular clearing.
Right in the middle of the clearing, standing like a monolith, was a large red wooden door. It was not in a wall or a fence, it just stood alone like a regal sentry. Just a door in a frame planted squarely in the middle of a small flat circle of grass.
Beside the door and with the air of a magician preparing to do an elaborate and spectacular trick stood a tall thin gentleman. He was immaculately dressed in a black tailored suit, crisp white shirt and black tie. His features were gaunt and tight but he was also strangely attractive.
He had thick black wavy hair and dark, dark eyes, similar to those of a shark. He carried himself with an air of authority and exuded a certain charm like magnetism, the kind you feel in the presence of select celebrities and politicians.
“Hello Darren, how was your jog?”
Darren didn’t answer. He hated this bit. There was something about the man, something that he couldn’t put his finger on, that filled him with dread. His stomach tied itself in knots and he froze, like a mouse who has just looked upwards, straight into the eyes of a coiled snake.
“Come closer Darren, come to the door”.
The stranger’s voice was soft and smooth and as if hypnotised, Darren’s feet started to move. He urged them to stop but they were no longer under his control.
The tall thin man started to smile. Actually no, the tall thin man started to grin. Darren kept walking until the large red door loomed directly in-front of him.
“Try the handle” said the man with the confident air of a world-class salesman.
Darren’s hand started to move towards the handle but he fought the urge and remained free of the door.
“Go on Darren, I’ll bet your curiosity’s killing you, why not see what’s on the other side”. Said the stranger, his voice partly charming, partly daring.
Again Darren’s hand started to move and again he stopped it.
“Go on, try the handle, you know you want to”. Said the tall man, still smiling.
And that’s when he woke up. Panting and sweating bolt upright in bed. It was the same dream every night. Every night he awoke at three o’clock in the morning and then couldn’t go back to sleep.
He just kept tossing and turning, transfixed by the strange figure and the big red wooden door. What was behind it? Why was the figure so desperate to get him to open it? And why was he so scared?
He had had the same dream every night, for what was getting on for six months now. At first it had been funny, he had told mates down the pub about it and they had laughed together about the tall figure in all of his sartorial elegance.
“Will he do dress down Friday?”, “Does he have a pyjama day on a Sunday?”, “Perhaps he’s on his way to a funeral”. The last one Darren didn’t find quite so funny.
As time wore on so did the jokes. Darren had started to suffer from sleep deprivation and this, in turn, was affecting his health. He had always been a very health conscious individual.
After seeing too many fellow commodities traders fall by the way side as a result of their decadent and debauched lifestyles, he was not about to make the same mistake.
Darren stayed slim and took regular exercise. He had always been a keen runner and at school regularly came first in the cross country squad.
His speeds were still impressive for a man of his increasing years and he could actually outrun most fit sixteen-year-olds. Once he hit his stride he was like a perpetual engine, he could just keep going.
As well as the exercise he used a wide range of vitamin pills, natural potions and he always ate well. As a result, he looked about ten years his younger.
A bit like a young Gregory Peck.
Considering his high position in the company for his age and his apparent youthfulness it would not have been surprising if Darren’s colleagues resented him but actually, he was largely well liked.
He was a fair man who was good with people, a bit like his doppelganger in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird” but the sleepless nights were starting to take their toll. His recurring dream was turning into a recurring nightmare.
He had started to go to bed later and later, partly in that hope that he, if he went to bed, exhausted he would fall into a deep sleep from which he would not wake until morning but mostly because he had become frightened of facing the tall gaunt man.
His tactic didn’t work. He still woke the same time every morning in a cold sweat, sheets knotted around him, gasping for air as though he had just surfaced from an attempted drowning.
Now the dream was starting to affect his waking life. He had stopped running. There had been a time when he could go for miles and miles without even breaking into a sweat.
Now he would be sweating and panting long before he reached the end of the road.
Not through exhaustion but from fear. The simple act of running brought back all too vivid memories of the dream and it didn’t just make him want to slow down and walk, it made him want to curl up in a ball on the floor.
It was also affecting his work life. He was a high flyer in the city. Not one of your typical London barrow boy turned stock market trader, not a wide boy. Darren the other kind. Educated, experienced and in control.
He had made his way to where he was slowly, organically. He was both respected and revered within his industry. He was a man in control, a man of confidence, just like the tall man in his dreams. Now the cracks were beginning to show.
He didn’t know whether it was a result of sleep deprivation or because he couldn’t get the image of the tall man out of his mind but the stranger was now actually starting to appear in his waking life.
At first, there were just glimpses. He saw a monochrome man standing at the end of the wine bar after work, his black eyes boring into Darren, a large glass of Malbec partly obscuring his mischievous grin. At least he thought he saw him but then when he looked back a second later the tall man was gone.
‘Must have been my imagination’ thought Darren “That or the booze”. It’s funny the excuses we make to ourselves, the lies we tell to talk ourselves out of what we actually know to be true. Then three days later at the coffee shop, he heard him.
“Try the door.” said the pretty young Polish girl behind the counter.
“What?!” he replied.
“Try the pour”, repeated the girl behind the counter with a smile. “It’s freshly ground straight into our flasks”.
Only she hadn’t said ‘Try the pour’. What did that even mean anyway? He knew what she had said and he recognised the voice saying it. Not hers’ but another, a smooth and silky voice that he knew only too well.
Since the coffee shop, things had got worse.
The black and white man now turned up on a daily basis. The same immaculately dressed individual that he saw in his dreams. Darren sometimes set to reach him.
He had a plan to grapple the man to the floor and sit astride his torso demanding an explanation but the elusive stranger was always just too far away, just out of reach and if Darren ever pointed the magic man out to a colleague, tried to elicit help in the matter, the tall man would mysteriously disappear.
Now rumours were going around the office that Darren was losing the plot.
Conversations around the water fountain, the receptionists on the main desk who used to be so jovial on his arrival now mysteriously going quiet as he entered the building.
The rumours weren’t helped by the fact that recently he had lost a couple of lucrative deals and cost the company a lot of money. He had even been called up before the board.
They didn’t admonish him; in fact, they were friendly. Friendly in the same way a serial killer is while tempting you into the back of a van.
Darren was at the end of his tether. There was only one thing for it, tonight he would face his fear, tonight he would open the door.
That night Darren went to bed early. He drifted off to sleep quickly, at least that one part of his life was still easy. Minutes later there he was in his hallway, sitting on the second bottom stair, putting his running shoes on.
The same way he used to every morning and now did every night. He shut the stained glass panelled door behind him and started his jog down the mosaic path to the wrought iron gate at the end and then he did a right turn out of town.
The town turned into country and the country turned into hills. It was no time at all before he was through the wood and at the clearing. There in-front of him was the large red wooden door and standing beside it was the stranger.
“Hello Darren, how was your jog?” said the thin man with a smile.
But this time it was different, this time Darren found his voice.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Darren blurted out.
“Oh who I am doesn’t matter” said the thin man with a smile “and as for what do I want, well, I would have thought that that was obvious”.
“What is this door and why are you so desperate for me to open it?”
“Life is full of mysteries Darren, aren’t you just a little bit curious?”
The thing is Darren was curious, very curious indeed but you know what curiosity did and there was also something about the whole situation that filled him with dread.
“It’s not a matter of curiosity” said Darren with conviction “It’s a matter of the fact that you’re ruining my life and I’m not going to let you.
I’ve had enough of you and your inflicted hallucination and I’m not taking it any more. You’re a bully, one of those passive aggressive types and I’ve dealt with your type before.
Don’t think that you can get one over on me, I’ve played your psychological mind game for the last time. I want my life back and I’m going to take it back. You’re just a dog with no teeth, a chimera, a dream, you can’t hurt me”.
The stranger looked on silently, his expression unmoving.
It was impossible to tell whether he had been shaken by Darren’s tirade but either way, it would make no difference to the final outcome, that one was fixed, that one Darren had decided on before he fell asleep, before he had set off for work that morning.
Perhaps it was one that had been predetermined all along. Darren didn’t feel the need to have a long drawn out conversation with the thin man. After all, Darren was a man of conviction, a man of action and not a man of half-measures.
He didn’t get to where he was today through being indecisive and he certainly wasn’t going to be bullied by a dream. He reached out and grabbed the round brass handle.
It was ice cold and it sent a shiver right down Darren’s spine but he did not waiver.
He gripped the handle more tightly and turned his head to look the sartorially clad man straight in the eye. Darren’s nemesis’s expression remained unchanged.
Except perhaps for the emergence of what could only be described as a slight grin.
The door handle turned easily and with a gentle click, the door freed itself from its mooring.
Darren pushed forward as the door opened silently on its hinges. Beside the door, the tall man’s smirk extended into a grin that reached from ear to ear.
DCI Headland stood outside of the imposing Victorian house.
He took his final drag on his cigarette and then in a well-choreographed motion shot a stream of smoke into the air and at the same time, with a sweep of his arm, chucked the used butt into the gutter of the road.
He turned, opening the wrought iron gate with a clatter and made his way along the patchwork pavement towards the already open stained glass door.
He stopped briefly to put plastic covers over his brown leather brogues before marching confidently into the crime scene. He climbed the cream deep pile carpeted stairs and entered the bedroom.
“So it was one of the neighbours that found him.” said the detective inspector to the young police officer standing next to him.
“That’s right sir, she’s also his cleaner, comes in to clean on Fridays. She said that he couldn’t have been dead more than twelve hours, she saw him come home from work last night”.
DCI Headland regarded the twisted corpse in front of him. Twisted limbs and an ashen face. A face exhibited lines that looked like they had been engraved with a knife.
Lines that telegraphed a single emotion.
“How old did you say he was?” Asked DCI Headland.
“Thirty-five sir”. Replied the officer
“Really?! He looks more like seventy to me. I suppose it’s always the same with these city types, fast living, booze, drugs, burning the candle at both ends”.
“Apparently not sir, the neighbour said that he was the healthy clean living type, vitamins, a keen runner, always kept good health”.
“Good health?!” laughed DCI Headland.
“You could have fooled me; he looks like he’s been at death’s door for ages”.