An excerpt from

Sleeping Demons

Peter Jukes

Chapter 1: AWAKENINGS

A deep breath and she could feel the grip on her wrist. She twisted her arm to break free.

“Sophie. Sophie… Stop fighting. Calm down. It’s only me.”

At the sound of her name, Sophie stopped struggling and looked up at the silhouette above, the curly black hair and with it a rush of associations; Danny playing guitar: his dark sideways glance at her in a bar: black chest hair as he moved above her.

“It’s OK,” Danny reassured her. “You were dreaming again.”

Sophie sat up, still hyperventilating. The geography of her bedroom emerged out of the dimness. She could feel their familiar hard futon mattress.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You’re here in bed with me. You’re safe. It’s just the phone.”

On the bedside table, the green L.E.D. on the alarm clock blinked – 4.43 a.m.

Sophie got out of the bed and went over to her pile of clothes where her emergency mobile was buzzing like an angry insect. The nerve ends of her left hand were tingling, but when she held them up to the light her fingers were undamaged, intact. She must have been sleeping on her arm.

Sophie fished out the mobile just in time to miss the call. That was weird. She didn’t recognise the number. It wasn’t the area mental health services. No one else should have that on her emergency mobile number.

Outside, a clatter of metal rails. Lights from the windows of an empty commuter train flickered across a brick wall below - the first train into the city. It must be almost five, Sophie realised. She could barely remember what had woken her up now; only fragments of a dream, like rushes from some unassembled movie.

“You’ll catch your death,” Danny cajoled. “Come back to bed…” 

A voicemail notification flashed up. Sophie crept back into the hallway to hear the message.

“Doctor Lake. This is DI Alan McCrae from Serious Crimes,” said a voice with a vague Highlands accent. “We have a serious incident concerning a patient of yours. We’re sending a car over to collect you now.”

Sophie went back into the bedroom to pull on some thermals, trying not to disturb Danny. He muttered something incomprehensible deep in sleep. Then a pale blue flashing light from outside sent the shadows dancing around the bedroom.

Craning her neck, Sophie could see through the Juliet balcony down onto Finchley Road where an unmarked police car had drawn up just outside Waitrose.

§

A cagey police officer, who introduced herself perfunctorily as Detective Sergeant Kaveeta Chandra (“but call me Kaveeta”), ushered Sophie into the nondescript saloon car, and drove her through the deserted streets, a blue light flashing pointlessly. To every question Sophie asked about the ‘incident’ the young detective stonewalled: “early phase of an investigation… you’ll have to talk to my SIO”. Police jargon, like shrink jargon, was a way of saying nothing. So Sophie just gazed at the frozen city. All she wanted to know was whether it was a crime or accident scene.  For god's sake – please – not another suicide.

As she waited passively in the back of the car for Kaveeta to take her wherever she was going, Sophie thought back over the last emergency call.

A year earlier, 19-year-old Lizzie Sheldon had not been high on Sophie’s risk list. She suffered from insomnia and strange out-of-body experiences which sometimes led to vertigo and fainting fits. Lizzie’s problems were marring her social life, but there was no indication of anything life-threatening. To help her insomnia, Sophie had suggested some light anti-hypnotics, and taken Lizzie through a variety of techniques to improve sleep hygiene; no late night caffeine, food or television: a warm bath to help her body temperature fall as she dried off – counterintuitively, people need to be slightly cold to fall asleep. 

Next session, sat hunched and cross legged in the chair, with an extra layer of mascara and eye shadow to hide (or was it emphasise?) her hollow eyes, Lizzie revealed a crucial bit of the jigsaw – a recurrent nightmare about falling down a flight of stairs. In the dream Lizzie could see her father waiting in the hallway to catch her. For some reason she always slipped through his grasp, hitting the ground with such an impact it woke her up.

For the remaining half an hour Sophie had then explained to the teenager the basics of guided imagery: how, by listening to relaxing music prior to sleep, and purposely rehearsing a dream with a happy ending while awake, this could reduce the stress and disruption of recurrent nightmares. She explained it this way: if you become aware while still in the dream state, you can consciously alter what happens.

Lizzie was fascinated by the idea of lucid dreaming. They agreed a new narrative which Lizzie planned to rehearse every night. In the revised ending her dad would catch her at the bottom of the stairs – hold her in his arms and swing her around.

The teenager summed up her project in a short but powerful phrase: she’d convert the nightmare of falling into the dream of flying. 

 “We’re here,” Kaveeta said as the police car pulled up on a gritted road.

Flashing blue lights syncopated off nearby windows. Two ambulances and some squad cars were parked up near a housing estate. Behind them an ominous unmarked grey van – probably the undertakers. Uniformed police had created a protective perimeter. Most of them had Kevlar vests and cradled machine guns. Kaveeta flashed them an ID and guided Sophie down a footpath.

Two paramedics were coming over a footbridge towards them. Dragon’s breaths formed above them in the sub-zero air. As they passed on the bridge, Sophie looked down to see the icy ripple of dark water. A canal ran along the side of a darkened warehouse. There was a dark trail on water on the towpath immediately below. It led to where ghostly white figures were erecting screens around a spot illuminated by arc lamps. A flash of naked human flesh. A cascade of wet hair. 

For a moment the bizarre thought entered Sophie’s head that it was her body on the tow path ahead, and she was a ghost arriving at the scene of her own death.

Chapter 2: The Dream

Then the air pressure changes – the doors open behind you. With a fluorescent buzz, the lights go off. You turn around and there it is – suspended in mid-air– pale and mournful.

A face with no eyes!

Now you’re flying. Your shoulder hits a window. You try to grab hold. But the glass cuts through your fingers like butter. You feel the cold night all around. You’re falling out into empty air. 

A hard bitter taste, like electricity. Then a warm melting sensation…. Your body broken on the concrete. Blood spattered on the snow.

But the pain is coming back. Skin burning. You’re gagging. You kick out. Water. The sponginess under your feet is mud. You’ve fallen into the canal. The burning must be freezing. You’re fallen through the ice. Feel the ribbed underside. You’re running out of air. But the ice is fractured, breaking.  One push and it will give…

Your blow pushes you down. Water streaming into your sinuses. Headlong into the ooze.

Chapter 3: Self-Storage

With two years of medical training before she switched to clinical psychology, Sophie had seen cadavers in various states of dissection in the lab. But her only encounter with a recent fatality had been while acting as an observer on the emergency air ambulance. A young couple gassed to death in a car – their faces bright and red through carbon monoxide poisoning. An old man hit by a bus – little blood, but a strong meaty smell.  She’d never seen Lizzie’s body. But she’d been through something worse. She’d been there when she died. A year ago, she’d been similarly disturbed by a late night call from the insomniac teenager.

“I'm not afraid of falling,” Lizzie had said dreamily. “I want to fly…”

The next thing Sophie heard was the brief rush of open air before the mobile went dead as Lizzie jumped off a tower block in Belsize Park.

Alerted by the crunch of gravel as they approached on the towpath, a firearms officer turned suddenly. The open barrel of his gun loomed large and threatening, like a wormhole that Sophie could fall into.

 “DS Chandra, serious crimes,” Kaveeta said, flashing her ID. “This is the psych. Dr Sophie Lake. I’m taking her to see the SIO.”

“’Fraid I’m gonna have to clear that,” the firearms officer replied, officiously. “Still got an active threat.”

The officer radioed his commander on a lapel mike. The radio crackled back something about a ‘Code E’ alert. Sophie wished she had put on a thicker fleece.

Behind, a tent of plastic sheeting surrounded the body, and forensic officer started taking photos. Sophie stepped back for a better look.   

The hips of the woman – or perhaps a girl, she looked so slight – were twisted at a strange angle. Her wet cardigan and blouse had been pulled up to expose breasts and rib cage, probably for resuscitation. Little wisps of steam escaped from around her nipples. Fragments of pondweed and ice lay in the hollows of her clavicle. But the canal wasn’t frozen. It must be glass.

 “Double taps. Close formation. Can’t see any exit wounds.” A police duty doctor was writing down the details on a clipboard.

The firearms officer chipped in. “Probably anti-personnel rounds…bet the bullets are still in the body.”

Sophie glanced up to the top floor of the warehouse – a glass box surmounting an otherwise windowless block of ribbed steel. Flashlights flickered around the ragged edges of a broken window. She must have fallen into the canal from up there, and then been dragged out of the water. It was uncanny. Sophie could imagine exactly what that fall felt like.

 “No chance she was conscious after she hit the water?” Sophie asked, without quite knowing where the question came from.

The doctor looked up from his clipboard, amused, bemused. He was young, early 30s, dressed in a lined Barbour jacket and expensive wellington boots.

“The brain only has about ten seconds of reserve oxygen,” he said, a little superciliously. From the accent Sophie guessed private school, good university, nice flat bought with parents’ help. “Once that is cut off, cells start dying immediately.”

Fuck him, Sophie thought. Typical medic, moving from informative to patronising in a nanosecond. He unclipped the death certificate and handed it over to Kaveeta.

“OK. Done a life extinct at 4.43 a.m....”

Another hiss of traffic from the firearms officer’s radio set.

 “OK. You’re good to go. But quick…”

He waved Kaveeta and Sophie through a gate in the side fence. As Sophie followed her over a forecourt a strange phrase came into her head; ‘Is Path Warm?’

§

The SAFESPACE: SELF-STORAGE SOLUTIONS sign flickered on and off as they entered the building. Sophie’s nostrils flared and smarted at a harsh ammonia smell. Another forensics officer was spraying the glass front doors, checking for prints with an ultraviolet light. Kaveeta handed Sophie some foot mittens and a hairnet.

“You know the drill,” Kaveeta said as they kitted up.

Sophie didn’t have the inclination to tell her: “Er… No. I’ve never actually been to an active crime scene before.” After Lizzie’s suicide she was called as a witness to the coroner’s court but never saw the broken body.

Kaveeta clicked on her flash light and started walking down the corridor of white doors. Sophie followed. The place reeked of industrial anonymity. The only thing distinguishing the identical doors were numbers stencilled above them. What did it remind her of? Some film perhaps. It was so familiar. Maybe, Sophie reasoned, she’d been in a SafeSpace warehouse before.

“Up here,” Kaveeta shone her torch on a stairwell. “Hope you’re in shape. With the lifts out, we’ll have to hoof it.”

The detective’s legs looked muscular and toned under black trousers as she strode up the steps. There was no denying the competitive edge in her voice. As she struggled to keep up, Sophie couldn’t help wondering if she was some kind of suspect.

The first floor was a replica of the one below: another labyrinth of vinyl passageways, and Sophie wondered about the feeling of déjà vu. It was a well-known trait in trauma patients. When the mind is shocked or disorganised, images can be lodged in the memory moments before they enter consciousness.

As they passed the second floor Kaveeta’s radio crackled: again, something about a ‘Code E’.

By the time they passed the third floor, Sophie was out of breath, and paused to catch it on the half landing.

 “Keep away from the windows,” Kaveeta warned. “We don’t think he’s anywhere in the vicinity. But don’t make yourself a target.”

Sophie wanted to ask the obvious question: who?  And what the hell did any of this have to do with her? An hour in, nobody had told her why she’d been hauled out of her bed in the middle of the night. Kaveeta was now so far ahead Sophie feared missing her footing and falling. But the detective shone her flashlight down to guide the way. But she arrived at the top floor, Sophie was too out of breath to press for answers.

They went through some swing doors into an open plan office, dark except the glowing broken spire of the Shard and the blue lights of the BT Tower on the skyline.  More forensics officers had set up temporary lights and were on their knees examining the carpet tiles. At the far end of the room, others were examining the broken window. 

He stood out immediately, the focus of the activity, lit by the glow of a computer, wearing a black mountain jacket, silver hair cropped short to trimmed stubble. Sat at the desk with a tense, alert air, he didn’t even look up from the computer screen as Kaveeta led Sophie over. He seemed to know her footsteps by heart.

“Get anything new?” he asked Kaveeta. Sophie recognised the Highlands accent from the phone message – this must be DI McCrae.

Kaveeta brandished the death certificate. “Duty doctor found two nine millimetre rounds in lower back. He put gunshot trauma as cause of death.”

 “That’s going to be fun. We’ve already found three shell casings,” McCrae muttered.  “That leaves a stray bullet. You fancy starting the fingertip search?”

McCrae gestured to the panorama of London stretching out in all directions.

“Any CCTV evidence?” Kaveeta asked, now standing at McCrea’s shoulder. Flickering images of corridors and doors played on the lens of his spectacles.

 “They killed the video system before the covert entry,” McCrae replied.  “Probably disabled any camera on approach. Whoever did this knew exactly what they were doing.”

Sophie moved in for the closer look. On the flat screen were about twenty little windows, each showing frozen frames of empty corridors.

Kaveeta introduced her.  “Boss. This is Sophie Lake…”

McCrae rolled back his Aeron chair. His face younger than his profile: blue eyes, brimming with irony despite the late hour.

“Dr Lake –” He got up and offered his hand. “Alan McCrae. So sorry to disturb you at this time of night.”

His hand was dry, warm – a subtly strong grip. The airwaves crackled with more garbled talk about a Code E. McCrae withdrew his arm to mute the radio. As he did so, Sophie saw the dull glint of gun metal from a holster under his jacket.

 “Happy to help in any way I can,” Sophie said. “But your message mentioned a client of mine. I’ve seen the victim and she….”

“Isn’t your patient. I know…” McCrae interrupted. “Her name is Maya Hanovic.” He waited a beat as if this was particularly significant. “That name ring any bells?”

All Sophie could hear was her heart racing.

McCrae went on: “She worked night shifts here … Maya was the girlfriend of one of your patients ... Gabriel Cody …”

Sophie looked back at the broken window. She could imagine the chase, the shots in the back, the terrifying fall surrounded by crystals of ice into the cold dank canal water below.

 “Cody is our chief person of interest at the moment,” McCrae continued.

Code-E: Cody. The radio messages were morphing into a name..

“Dr Lake …”

The open plan office seemed to be turning, spinning in space. Sophie blinked, as if someone was shining a torch into her soul.

Code-E: Cody.  Oh no, not Gabriel. Anyone but him….

“Whoa. Easy now.”

McCrae had stepped in: his strong hands on her elbow preventing her faint.

The beeping stopped and the strip lights clicked back on. Someone had restored full power. Blinking in the glare, Sophie could see the concern in McCrae’s eyes.

“Look. I know it must be a shock ...”

There was a harsh metallic taste in Sophie’s mouth, and her heart was still racing.

“It’s fine. Just low blood sugar.” she lied.

“Kaveeta. Get us some sweet coffee,” McCrae called to his sergeant, before guiding Sophie back to the chair by the desk.

Sophie sat, taking deep breaths, her chest hurting. It was Gabriel they were talking about. She couldn’t believe it. The former soldier, who sacrificed his peace of mind to defend those he loved. The security consultant who felt insecure at night, terrified by his own dreams. The man who, after years of therapy, Sophie had come to care for, even love ...

“We got your name from his old regiment," McCrae explained as he pulled out chairs for both of them. “They said he’d been your patient for the last five years.” 

“Only three,” Sophie answered, still a bit breathless. “He stopped seeing me a year ago …”

“OK,” McCrae nodded, but looking sceptical. “So when did you last see him?”

“I can’t remember,” Sophie stumbled, sounding defensive.

 Could Gabriel have really done this? Could he have killed Maya? How could she have failed to foresee that?  

“I’ll have to check my notes,” Sophie said, swallowing.” But really – there was nothing to suggest …”

Kaveeta returned with some coffee from a thermos. It mainly tasted of plastic.  Sophie sipped, trying to take it all in. Though Gabriel had admitted in therapy that he’d killed a dozen or so in combat, the violence was never senseless. He saw military intervention in humanitarian terms. Protecting the vulnerable and defenceless …

Or maybe Sophie had been deceived.

Clients were always falling in love with her – the classical ‘transference’ effect of psychotherapy. But Gabriel was the only client who had got under her skin.  Maybe he had failed to spot a ticking time bomb. Such an oversight would be career-threatening. Tonight could mark the end of her world: her job, her flat, her boyfriend, her meaning in life.

“Maya worked night shifts here doing accounts.” McCrae said, casually lifting up objects from the desk in his gloved hands. Sophie realised she was sitting at Maya’s desk. Her traces were all around: a down jacket, a half drunk cold cup of coffee, a handbag with an open purse showing Oyster cards, a membership of a gym, the British library.

“Of course we don’t know for certain Cody’s the perpetrator,” McCrae continued. “We just need to talk to him. That’s all …”

He picked up a book. Sophie could just make out the title - ‘Gothic Image’. As McCrae flicked through it a postcard fell out: some kind of Icon of a Madonna and child both surrounded by shiny haloes. The gold reflected on the inspector’s face.

McCrae took off his glasses. His eyes now looked more grey than blue.

“I just need a break,” he said. “Friends, relatives, anywhere he might have gone to ground …”

How selfish am I? Sophie thought. How sick and selfish. Here I’m worried about my career when an innocent girl lies dead and a dangerous armed killer is on the loose.

Sophie flashed back to the body by the canal. The figures around the glowing plastic tent, like wise men at a gruesome nativity scene.

Another hiss of radio. Kaveeta was nodding to a multi-storey car park opposite, its top floor at the same level as the open plan office.

“Boss. They think they’ve found him.”