Bryant & May and the Burning Man
The match sizzled, flared and settled to a soft yellow flame.
It was touched to the branches that had been hacked from the surrounding ash trees, and soon the inferno roared and leapt upwards, orange sparks pulsing into the starry black sky. Behind the spitting, crackling forest a man was caged within its wooded heart. He grew increasingly agitated as he failed to find an exit and was seared by the heat. His cries were lost in the growing thunder of consumed branches. As his clothes burned away, his skin blistered in the conflagration until he was nothing but a blackened carapace…
Janice Longbright sat up in bed with a sudden gasp.
It took a moment to remember where she was; at home in her dark apartment, alone. She checked the bedside clock; 4:22am. From behind the insistent sound of rain came the mournful howl of an ambulance. There was no point in trying to get back to sleep now. There was nothing worse than lying awake in the dark. She slipped out of bed and went to the bathroom, mopping her forehead with a tissue.
The nightmares were becoming apocalyptic, unlike anything she had experienced before. She turned and checked her back in the mirror. The old Marilyn Monroe T-shirt she slept in was wet with sweat. Her features looked unnaturally pale. Dear God, she thought, don’t tell me it’s the menopause. I need a holiday. Vitamin D deficiency. I should get some sun on my face. Fat chance of that happening. She was broke again, nothing unusual there. This time the dream had been so real that she had to stop herself from checking for burns.
She went to the kitchen and made coffee, then added granary toast, eggs, bacon and – because the Heinz tin was already open – baked beans. She wanted to call Jack Renfield and hear his reassuring voice, but he was spending the night with his daughter and it seemed unfair to intrude upon them. Instead she went online, virtually the only time when she could guarantee a decent broadband speed, and looked up the meaning of her nightmare. The various dictionaries of dream symbolism told her that fire was a sign of destruction, risk, passion, desire, purification, enlightenment, anger and inner transformation, as vague and hopeless as any newspaper astrologer’s predictions.
Longbright pushed the keyboard away and headed back to make more coffee, deciding that it had not been a good idea to eat four pieces of cheese on toast while watching footage of the riots just before going to bed.
The Detective Sergeant was a woman of stoic practicalities, as proportioned and permanent as the grandest public building. She was rarely prone to doubts or misgivings. But on this occasion she phoned someone to get a second opinion.
If Maggie Armitage was surprised to receive a phonecall at a little after five on a Monday morning, she didn’t sound so. ‘You’re up with the lark,’ she said cheerfully. ‘I’m watching a programme about ants. What’s going on?’
‘It’s going to sound really stupid,’ said Longbright, already starting to regret having made the call. ‘Nightmares. The third one in a row, always the same.’ She peered in her mirror, pulling out a knotted curl of bleached hair. ‘I know you know something about, well – ‘
‘You can say it,’ said Maggie. ‘Magic, even if it’s largely apotropaic and not the Harry Potter sort.’ Maggie Armitage billed herself as a white witch from the Coven of St. James the Elder, Kentish Town, a Grand Order Grade Four. ‘I am qualified, you know. I’ve got a diploma and everything.’
‘Maggie, you know I can’t allow myself to believe in that stuff. You’re a bit mad, but you’re good at reading people.’ The two women had known each other for fifteen years, and Maggie had often provided the PCU with advice, even though it was highly unorthodox and inadmissible in court.
‘What’s your dream about?’
‘A burning man,’ she replied. ‘He’s trapped in the centre of a vast, terrible fire and I get to watch him go up in flames. But it’s as if I’m trapped there with him – like I can see through his eyes and experience his pain.’
‘What happens at the end?’
‘I’m not sure, but I think he just dies – and I die with him.’
‘There’s no way out for either of you?’
‘None that I can see. I can actually feel the heat scorching my face and arms. I’m overcome with the feeling that we’re trapped together, him and me, and then I wake up.’
‘Do you have pyrophobia? Fear of being burned alive?’
‘No more than anyone else.’
‘Well, the obvious answer is that you’ve recycled images from the day’s news into your dreams. Have you been watching footage of the riots?’
‘Of course – we all have.’
‘You placed yourself inside the scenes. But the man, well, that suggests something else. How are you getting on with Jack?’
‘All right. I’m still uneasy about dating someone I work with.’
‘So there’s tension,’ said Maggie. ‘You said it yourself, ‘I feel trapped’. I know fear of commitment is a terrible cliché, but it sounds like the relationship is making you feel claustrophobic. I can get rid of the dreams, mix you a nice calming bedtime drink, something with skullcap and passionflower. I make it for Daphne whenever she’s been boxing. I’m letting her stay with me at the moment. It helps with the rent, although I won’t let her summon her spirit guide when Downton Abbey’s on because he always tells us what’s going to happen next.’
‘The dream,’ prompted Longbright. Maggie had a habit of wandering off the subject.
‘Well I can get rid of the symptom but not the cause, of course. That would be down to you. But it doesn’t bode well.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know what you’re like when men get too close.’
‘No, what am I like?’
‘I think you and Jack are going to break up.’
‘Jeez – Maggie, I called you for advice.’
‘I’m sorry, advice doesn’t come with reassurance. Do you love him?’
‘I – care for him.’
‘Hm.’ The sound was pregnant with thought. ‘Of course, there is another interpretation.’
There was a small silence on the other end of the line. ‘I think you know, my dear.’
Longbright tried to recall what Maggie had told her, and inwardly groaned. ‘What, that I’m psychic?’
‘Your mother was, and it generally runs in the female line.’
‘Maggie, that’s what you believe. I don’t share your views, you know that. Beside, it would mean I’m foreseeing someone’s death, and what am I supposed to do about it?’
‘You should know that we’re entering a period of terrible turmoil, and it’s better to consider the possibility before – ’
‘Before it’s too late to save yourself,’ Maggie replied.
So much for the reassurance of phoning a friend. The Detective Sergeant rang off and buried herself behind the cushions on the couch, waiting for the arrival of dawn and a fresh week’s work.