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Chapter I

Lafayette O'Leary came briskly up the cracked walk leading to Mrs. MacGlint's Clean Rooms and Board, reflecting on his plans for the evening: First, he'd grab a quick bite, then check to see how his plastics experiment was coming along; after that, a look in on his penicillium notatum NRRL 1249.B21 culture, and then . . . He hefted the weighty book under his arm. Professor Hans Joseph Schimmerkopf's book on mesmerism ought to be good for at least a week of evenings.

As O'Leary put foot on the sagging veranda, the front screen door popped wide open. A square figure five feet eleven in height confronted him, a heavy-duty broom held at port arms.

"Mr. O'Leary! What's that mess you've got percolating on my hot plate back in my third-best western exposure?"

Lafayette retreated a step. "Did I leave my polymers cooking, Mrs. MacGlint? I thought I turned them off—"

"Them fumes has faded the colors right out of the wallpaper! Not to say nothing about running up the electric bill! I'll put it on your bill, Mr. O'Leary!"


"And all this reading at night! Burning light bulbs like they was free! My other boarders don't set up all hours, studying Lord knows what in them un-Christian books you got!" She eyed the volume under O'Leary's arm with unmistakable hostility.

"Say, Mrs. MacGlint," O'Leary edged back up on the porch, "a funny thing happened last night. I was running a little statistical study, using ball bearings, and I happened to drop a couple of them—three-quarter-inchers—and they all rolled right to the northwest corner of the room—"

"Prob'ly marked up my linoleum, too! And—"

"I knew the floors slanted but I hadn't noticed how much," Lafayette gained another foot. "So I made a few measurements. I'd say there's a two-inch discrepancy from wall to wall. I knew you'd want to know, because Section Four, Article 19 of the Building Code—the part that covers Hazardous Conditions Due to Settlement of Foundations—is pretty clear. Now, the inspector will have to check it, of course, and after the house is condemned and the roomers find other quarters, then maybe they can save the place by pumping in concrete. That's pretty expensive, but it's better than breaking the law, eh, Mrs. MacGlint?"

"Law?" The landlady's voice squeaked. "Building Code? Why, I never heard such nonsense . . ."

"Do you want to report it, or shall I? I know you're awfully busy, keeping everybody's affairs in order, so . . ."

"Now, Mr. O'Leary, don't go to no trouble . . ." Mrs. MacGlint backed through the door; Lafayette followed into the gloom and cabbage aroma of the hall. "I know you got your science work you want to get to, so I won't keep you." She turned and puffed off along the hall. O'Leary let out a long breath and headed up the stairs.


On the shelf behind the curtain in the former broom closet which served Lafayette as kitchen alcove were a two-pound tin of salt-water taffy, a cardboard salt shaker, a ketchup bottle, a can of soup and two tins of preserved fish. He didn't really like sardines, he confessed to himself, unwrapping a succulent taffy. Too bad they didn't can consommé au beurre blanc Hermitage. Tend-R Nood-L Soup would have to do. He started warming a saucepan of soup, took a beer from the foot-square icebox and punched a triangular hole in the lid. He finished off the candy, then the beer, waiting for the pot to boil, then set out a bowl, poured the soup and put two sardines on a cracker. Munching, he picked up his book. It was a thick, dusty volume, bound in faded dark blue leather, the cramped gilt letters on the spine almost illegible. He blew the dust away and opened it with care; the old binding crackled. The title page announced:

Mesmerism, Its Proper Study and Practice; or The Secrets of the Ancients Unlocked.

By Herr Professor Doktor Hans Joseph Schimmerkopf, D.D., Ph.D., Litt. D., M. A., B. Sc., Associate Professor of Mental Sciences and Natural Philosophy, Homeopathic Institute of Vienna. 1888.

O'Leary riffled through the tissue-thin pages of fine print; pretty dry stuff, really. Still, it was the only book on hypnotism in the library that he hadn't already read, and what else was there to do? O'Leary looked out the narrow window at the sad late-afternoon light, yellowing into evening. He could go out and buy a newspaper; he might even stroll around the block. He could stop by the Elite Bar and Grill and have a cold beer. There were any number of ways a young, healthy, penniless draftsman in a town like Colby Corners could spend an evening in the sunshine of his happy youth.

A rattle of knuckles at the door announced a narrow-faced man with thin hair and a toothbrush mustache slid into the room.

"Hi, Laff, howza boy?" the newcomer rubbed knuckly hands together. He wore a purple shirt and white suspenders supporting trousers cut high above bony hips.

"Hello, Spender," O'Leary greeted him without enthusiasm.

"Say, Laff, you couldn't slip me a five until Tuesday?"

"I'm busted, Spender. Besides which, you owe me five."

"Hey, what's the book?" Spender edged in beside him and poked at the pages. "When do you get time to read all this stuff? Pretty deep, huh? You're a funny guy; always like studying."

"This is a racy one," O'Leary said. "The press it was printed on was smashed with crowbars by a crowd of aroused peasants. Then they ran the author down and gave him the full werewolf treatment—silver bullet, stake through the heart—the works."

"Wow!" Spender recoiled. "You studying to be a werewolf, O'Leary?"

"No, I'm more interested in the vampire angle. That's the one where you turn into a bat—"

"Look, Laff, that ain't funny. You know I'm kind of like superstitious. You shouldn't ought to read them books."

O'Leary looked at the other speculatively. "What I need now is some practical experience—"

"Yeah, well, I'll see you, boy." Spender backed out the door.

O'Leary finished his repast, then stretched out on the lumpy bed. The water stains on the ceiling hadn't changed since yesterday, he noted. The opalescent globe shielding the sixty-watt bulb dangling on its kinked cord still contained the same number of dead flies. The oleander bush still scraped restlessly on the screen.

He flipped open Schimmerkopf's book at random and skimmed the print-packed pages. The sections on mesmerism were routine stuff, but a passage on autohypnosis caught his eye:

" . . . this state may readily be induced by the adept practitioner of the art of Mesmeric influence, or of hypnotism, as it is latterly termed, requiring only a schooled effort of Will, supported by a concentration of Psychical Energies. Mastery of this Force not only offers instantaneous relief from sleeplessness, night sweats, poor memory, sour bile, high chest, salivation, inner conflict, and other ills both of the flesh and of the spirit, but offers as well a veritable treasurehouse of rich sensation; for it is a commonplace of the auto-mesmerist's art that such scenes of remembered or imagined Delight as must be most highly esteemed by persons sensible of the lamentable drabness of Modern Life can in this fashion be evoked most freely for the delectation and adornment of the idle hour.

"This phenomenon may be likened to the hypnogogic state, that condition of semi-awareness sometimes achieved by a sleeping person who, partially awakened, is capable of perceiving the dream-state images, whilst at the same time enjoying consciousness of their illusory nature. Thus, he is rendered capable of examining the surface texture and detail of an imagined object as acutely as one might study the page of an actual book, throughout maintaining knowledge of the distinction between hallucinatory experience and real experience . . ."

That part made sense, O'Leary nodded. It had happened to him just a few nights ago. It was almost as though his awareness had been attuned to a different channel of existence; as though he had emerged from half-sleep at the wrong floor, so to speak, and stepped off the elevator into a strange world, not totally different, but subtly rearranged—until the shock of realization had jarred him back to the familiar level of stained wallpaper and the lingering memory of Brussels sprouts boiled long ago. And if you could produce the effect at will . . .

O'Leary read on, looking for precise instructions. Three pages further on he found a line or two of specifics:

" . . . use of a bright object, such as a highly polished gem, as an aid to the Powers of Concentration, may, with profitable results, be employed by the earnest student of these pages . . ."

Lafayette considered. He owned no gems—not even glass ones. Perhaps a spoon would work. But no—his ring; just the thing. He tugged at the heavy silver ornament on the middle finger of his left hand. No use; the knuckle was too big. After all, he'd been wearing it for years now. But he didn't need to remove the ring; he could stare at it just as well where it was, on his hand.

Lying on his back in the twilit room, he looked up at ancient floral-patterned paper, faded now to an off-white. This would be a good place to start. Now, suppose the ceiling were high, spacious, painted a pale gold color . . .

O'Leary persevered, whispering persuasively to himself. It was easy, the professor had said; just a matter of focusing the Psychical Energies and attuning the Will . . .

Lafayette sighed, blinked through the gloom at the blotched nongolden ceiling; he rose and went to the icebox for another warm beer. The bed squeaked as he sat on its edge. He might have known it wouldn't work. Old Professor Schimmerkopf was a quack, after all. Nothing as delightful as what the old boy had described could have gone unnoticed all these years.

He lay back against the pillows at the head of the bed. It would have been nice if it had worked. He could have redecorated his shabby quarters and told himself that the room was twice as large, with a view of a skyline of towers and distant mountains. Music, too; with total recall, he could play back every piece of music he'd ever heard.

Not that any of it really mattered. He slept all right on the sagging bed—and taffy and sardines might get boring, but they went right on nourishing you. The room was dreary, but it kept off the rain and snow, and when the weather got cold, the radiator, with many thumps and wheezes, kept the temperature within the bearable range. The furniture wasn't fancy, but it was adequate. There was the bed, of course, and the table built from an orange crate and painted white, and the dresser, and the oval rag rug Miss Flinders at the library had given him.

And, oh yes, the tall locked cabinet in the corner. Funny he hadn't gotten around to opening it yet. It had been there ever since he had moved in, and he hadn't even wondered about it. Strange. But he could open it now. There was something wonderful in it, he remembered that much; but somehow he couldn't quite recall what.

He was standing in front of the cabinet, looking at the black-varnished door. A rich-grained wood showed faintly through the cracked glaze; the key hole was brass lined, and there were little scratches around it. Now, where was the key? Oh, yes . . .

Lafayette crossed the room to the closet and stepped inside. The light was dim here. He pulled a large box into position, stepped up on it, lifted the trapdoor in the ceiling, climbed up and emerged in an attic. Late afternoon sun gleamed through a dusty window. There was a faded rug on the floor, and large, brass-bound trunks were stacked everywhere. Lafayette tried the lids; all locked.

He remembered the keys. That was what he had come for. They were hanging on a nail, behind the door. He plucked them down, started for the trapdoor.

But why not take the stairs? Out in the hall, a white-painted banister gleamed. He went down, walked along a hall, found his room and stepped inside. The French windows were open, and a fresh breeze blew in. The curtains, billowy white, gleamed in the sun. Outside, a wide lawn, noble trees, a path leading somewhere.

But he had to open the cabinet, to see what was inside. He selected a key—a large, brassy one—and tried it in the keyhole. Too large. He tried another; also too big. There was only one more key, a long, thin one of black iron. It didn't fit. Then he noticed more keys, hidden under the last one, somehow. He tried them, one by one. None fitted. He eyed the keyhole, bright brass against the dark wood, scarred by near misses. He had to get the cabinet open. Inside there were treasures, marvelous things, stacked on shelves, waiting for him. He tried another key. It fit. He turned it carefully and heard a soft click!

A violent pounding shattered the stillness. The cabinet door glimmered, fading; only the keyhole was still visible. He tried to hold it—

"Mr. O'Leary, you open up this door this minute!" Mrs. MacGlint's voice cut through the dream like an ax. Lafayette sat up, hearing a buzzing in his head, still groping after something almost grasped, but lost forever now.

The door rattled in its frame. "You open this, you hear me?" Lafayette could hear voices, the scrape of feet from the neighboring rooms. He reached, pulled the string that switched on the ceiling light, went across to the door and jerked it open. The vengeful bulk of Mrs. MacGlint quivered before him.

"I heard voices, whispering like, and I wondered," she shrilled. "In there in the dark. Then I heard them bedsprings creak and then everything got quiet!" She thrust her head past Lafayette, scanning the room's interior.

"All right, where's she hid?" Behind her, Spender, from next door, and Mrs. Potts, in wrapper and curlers, hovered, trying for a glimpse of the source of the excitement.

"Where is who hid?" O'Leary oofed as the landlady's massive elbow took him in the short ribs. She bellied past him, stooping to stare under the spindle-legged bed, whirled, jerked the alcove curtain aside. She shot an accusing look at O'Leary, bustled to the window and dug at the hook holding the screen shut.

"Must of got her out the window," she puffed, whirling to confront Lafayette. "Fast on your feet, ain't you?"

"What are you looking for? That screen hasn't been opened for years—"

"You know well as I do, young Mr. O'Leary—that I give house space to for nigh to a year—"

"Laff, you got a gal in here?" Spender inquired, sidling into the room.

"A girl?" Lafayette shook his head. "No, there's no girl here, and not much of anything else."

"Well!" Mrs. MacGlint stared around the room. Her expression twitched to blankness. Then she tucked in her chins. "Anybody would've thought the same thing," she declared. "There's not a soul'd blame me . . ."

Mrs. Potts sniffed and withdrew. Spender snickered and sauntered out. Mrs. MacGlint moved past O'Leary, not quite looking at him.

"Respectable house," she muttered. "Setting in here in the dark, talking to hisself, alone . . ."

Lafayette closed the door behind her, feeling empty, cheated. He had almost gotten that cabinet door open, discovered what was inside that had promised such excitement. Ruefully he eyed the blank place beside the door where he had dreamed the mysterious locker. He hadn't had much luck with the professor's recipes for self-hypnosis, but his dreaming abilities were still impressive. If Mrs. MacGlint hadn't chosen that moment to burst in . . .

But the trunks upstairs! Lafayette thought with sudden excitement. He half-rose—

And sank back, with a weak smile. He had dreamed those, too; there was nothing upstairs but old Mr. Dinder's shabby room. But it had all seemed so real! As real as anything in the wide-awake world; more real, maybe.

But it was only a dream—a typical escape wish. Crawl through a trapdoor into another world. Too bad it wasn't really that easy. And the cabinet—obvious symbolism. The locked door represented all the excitement in life that he'd never been able to find. And all that fumbling with keys—that was a reflection of life's frustrations.

And yet that other world—the dim attic crowded with relics, the locked cabinet—had held a promise of things rich and strange. If only this humdrum world could be that way, with the feel of adventure in the air.

But it couldn't. Real life wasn't like that. Real life was getting up in the morning, working all day on the board, then the evening's chores, and sleep. Now it was time for the latter.


Lafayette lay in bed, aware of the gleam of light under the door, tiny night sounds, the distant stutter of an engine. It must be after midnight, and here he was, lying awake. He had to be up in six hours, hurrying off to the foundry in the gray morning light. Better get to sleep. And no more time wasted on dreams.


Lafayette opened his eyes, looked at a brick wall a yard or two away, warm and red in the late orange sunlight. The bricks were tarnished and chipped, and there was moss growing along one edge of each, and between them the mortar was crumbling and porous. At the base of the wall there was grass, vivid green, and little yellow flowers, hardly bigger than forget-me-nots. A small gray insect appeared over the curve of a petal, feelers waving, and then hurried away on important business. O'Leary had never seen a bug quite like it—or flowers like those, either. Or for that matter, a brick wall like this one . . .

Where was he, anyway? He groped for recollection, remembering Mrs. MacGlint's, the book he'd been reading, the landlady's invasion; then going to bed, lying awake . . . But how did he get here—and where was here?

Quite suddenly, O'Leary was aware of what was happening: he was asleep—or half-asleep—and he was dreaming the wall, each separate brick with its pattern of moss—a perfect example of hynogogic illusion!

With an effort of will, Lafayette blanked out other thoughts; excitement thumped in his chest. Concentrate! the professor had said. Focus the Psychic Energies!

The bricks became clearer, gaining in solidity. Lafayette brushed aside vagrant wisps of distracting thought, giving his full attention to the image of the wall, holding it, building it, believing it. He had known dreams were vivid; they always seemed real as they happened. But this was perfect!

Carefully he worked on extending the range of the scene. He could see a flagstone path lying between him and the wall. The flat stones were grayish tan, flaking in flat laminae, almost buried in the soil, with tiny green blades sprouting between them. He followed the path with his eyes; it led away along the wall into the shadow of giant trees. Amazing how the mind supplied details; the trees were flawless conceptualizations, every branch and twig and leaf, every shaggy curl of bark as true as life. If he had a canvas now, he could paint them . . .

But suppose, instead of letting his subconscious supply the details, he filled them in himself? Suppose, for example, there were a rosebush, growing there beside the tree. He concentrated, trying to picture the blossoms.

The scene remained unchanged—and then abruptly began to fade, like water soaking into a blotter; the trees blurred and all around dim walls seemed to close in—

Dismayed, Lafayette grabbed for the illusion, fighting to hold the fading image intact. He switched his gaze back to the brick wall directly before him; it had shrunk to a patch of masonry a yard in diameter, thin and unconvincing. He fought, gradually rebuilding the solidity of the wall. These hypnogogic phenomena were fragile, it seemed; they couldn't stand much manipulation.

The wall was solidly back in place now, but, strangely, the flowers were gone. In their place was a cobbled pavement. There was a window in the wall now, shuttered by warped, unpainted boards. Above it, an expanse of white-washed plaster crisscrossed by heavy timbers extended up to an uneven eave line silhouetted against an evening sky of deep electric blue in which an early moon gleamed. It was a realistic enough scene, Lafayette thought, but a bit drab. It needed something to brighten it up; a drugstore, say, its windows cheery with neon and hearty laxative ads; something to lend a note of gaiety.

But he wasn't going to make the mistake of tampering, this time. He'd let well enough alone, and see what there was to see. Cautiously, Lafayette extended his field of vision. The narrow street—almost an alley—wound off into darkness, closed in by tall, overhanging houses. He noted the glisten of wet cobbles, a puddle of oily water, a scattering of rubbish. His subconscious, it appeared, lacked an instinct for neatness.

There was a sudden jar—a sense of an instant's discontinuity, like a bad splice in a movie film. O'Leary looked around for the source, but saw nothing. And yet, somehow, everything seemed subtly changed—more convincing, in some subtle way.

He shook off the faint feeling of uneasiness. It was a swell hallucination and he'd better enjoy it to the fullest, while it lasted.

The house across the way, he saw, was a squeezed-in, half-timbered structure like the one in front of which he was standing, with two windows at ground-floor level made from the round bottoms of bottles set in lead strips, glowing amber and green and gold from a light within. There was a low, wide door, iron-bound, with massive hinges; over it a wooden sign hung from an iron rod. It bore a crudely painted representation of the prow of a Viking ship and a two-handed battle-ax. Lafayette smiled; his subconscious had seized on the device from his ring: the ax and dragon. Probably everything in the scene went back to something he had seen, or heard of, or read about. It was a fine illusion, no doubt about that: but what was it that was changed?

Odors, that was it. Lafayette sniffed, caught a scent of mold, spilled wine, garbage—a rich, moist aroma, with undertones of passing horses.

Now, what about sound? There should be the honking of horns, the clashing of gears—motor-scooter gears, probably; the street was too narrow for any except midget cars. And there ought to be a few voices hallooing somewhere, and, judging from the smell, the clash of garbage can lids. But all was silent. Except—Lafayette cupped a hand to his ear . . .

Somewhere, hooves clattered on pavement, retreating into the distance. A bell tolled far away, nine times. A door slammed. Faintly, Lafayette heard whistling, the clump of heavy footsteps. People! Lafayette thought with surprise. Well, why not? They should be as easy to imagine as anything else. It might be interesting to confront his creations face to face, engage them in conversation, discover all sorts of hidden aspects of his personality. Would they think they were real? Would they remember a yesterday?

Quite abruptly, O'Leary was aware of his bare feet against the cold paving stones. He looked down, saw that he was wearing nothing but his purple pajamas with the yellow spots. Hardly suitable for meeting people; he'd better equip himself with an outfit a little more appropriate to a city street. He closed his eyes, picturing a nifty navy-blue trench coat with raglan sleeves, a black homburg—might as well go first class—and a cane—an ebony one with a silver head, for that man-about-town touch . . .

Something clanked against his leg. He looked down. He was wearing a coat of claret velvet, breeches of brown doeskin, gleaming, soft leather boots that came up to his thigh, a pair of jeweled pistols and an elaborate rapier with a worn hilt. Wonderingly, he gripped it, drew it halfway from the sheath; the sleek steel glittered in the light from the windows across the way.

Not quite what he'd ordered; he looked as though he were on his way to a fancy-dress ball. He still had a lot to learn about this business of self-hypnosis.

There was a startled yell from the dark street to O'Leary's right, then a string of curses. A man darted into view, clad in dingy white tights with a flap seat, no shoes. He shied as he saw O'Leary, turned and dashed off in the opposite direction. O'Leary gaped. A man! Rather an eccentric specimen, but still . . .

Other footsteps were approaching now. It was a boy, in wooden shoes and leather apron, a wool cap on his head. He wore tattered knee pants, and carried a basket from which the neck of a plucked goose dangled, and he was whistling Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Without a glance at O'Leary, the lad hurried by; the sound of the shoes and the whistling receded. O'Leary grinned. It seemed to be a sort of medieval scene he had cooked up, except for the anachronistic popular tune; somehow it was comforting to know that his subconscious wasn't above making a slip now and then.

From behind the tavern windows, he heard voices raised in song, a clash of crockery; he sniffed, caught the odors of wood smoke, candle wax, ale, roast fowl. He was hungry, he realized with a pang. Taffy and sardines weren't enough.

There was a new noise now: a snorting, huffing sound, accompanied by a grumbling, like a boulder rolling slowly over a pebbled beach. A bell dinged. A dark shape trundled into view, lanterns slung from its prow casting long shadows that fled along the street. A tall stack belched smoke; steam puffed from a massive piston at the side of the cumbersome vehicle. It moved past, its iron-bound wooden wheels thudding on the uneven stones. Lafayette caught a glimpse of a red-faced man in a tricorn hat, perched high up above the riveted boiler. The steam car rumbled on its way, a red lantern bobbing at its tail gate. O'Leary shook his head; he hadn't gotten that out of a history book. Grinning, he hitched up his belt.

The door of the Ax and Dragon swung open, spilling light on the cobbles. A fat man tottered out, waved an arm, staggered off up the narrow street, warbling tunelessly. Before the door shut, Lafayette caught a glimpse of a warm interior, a glowing fire, low beams, the gleam of polished copper and brass, heard the clamor of voices, the thump of beer mugs banged on plank tables.

He was cold, and he was hungry. Over there was warmth and food—to say nothing of beer.

In four steps he crossed the street. He paused for a moment to settle his French cocked hat on his forehead, adjust the bunch of lace at his chin; then he hauled open the door and stepped into the smoky interior of the Ax and Dragon.

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