Chapter 39: The Attack
Nikola was running again. She couldn't see her adversary, but she knew there was someone chasing her. She ran through rooms and rooms of paintings in the Vermes Gallery, but not the Vermes Gallery she knew by day. It was huge, more like a museum than a gallery, the multiple rooms connected by crooked hallways and distorted archways. Paintings hung everywhere. They resembled the famous paintings one saw in art history books, but Nikola knew that they were all fakes. The whole place was fake. It was a giant stage set. Whenever she got close to a wall, she could tell that it was actually constructed of rice paper, which would rip if she touched it.
She tried to escape into a room. Once inside, she stopped and looked around. There was no other exit, and she could feel him catching up behind her. She felt like a deer caught in headlights, momentarily frozen with fear. She overcame the fear and went forward, pushing into a wall. The thin paper of the wall ripped open, paintings flew off in every direction, and dematerialized into smoke before they could hit the ground. She tried to get to the other side, but instead of letting her through, the wall caught her, clung to her body and enveloped her: sticky, clinging like a giant spider's web. She tried to twist herself out of it, but with every move it only engulfed her more thoroughly. As she pulled and squirmed, it tightened, closing in over every available surface on her body. It covered her mouth, and she had trouble breathing. She couldn't even scream.
This has to be a nightmare, she told herself. All I have to do is wake up, and it will all be over. She forced her eyes open, but she still couldn't see, the bedroom was completely dark. Her mouth and nose were still blocked. She put her hands up to her face and felt another hand covering it. She looked up and saw the silhouette of a figure standing over her. She could hardly see him, but she was sure that it was the same man who had been following her all this time. The Intruder. How did he get past Alex? Where is Alex?
Nikola struggled, twisted her body, then pulled and clawed at his hand in an effort to free herself, but his grip was too strong and he held fast. She kicked at him and in response he grabbed her legs with his free arm. He was so much larger than her, that she felt like a helpless rag doll in his hands. He let go of her mouth for an instant to grab a pillow from the bed. She managed to gasp and let out a yelp before he covered her face with the pillow, completely cutting off her air supply. She could only pray that Alex heard it and that he would come. Hopefully he was out there. She didn't remember hearing him come in. She tried to make as much noise as possible before she passed out. She moved every limb available, hoping to hit a wall or furniture, but her attacker adjusted his position so that he could completely immobilize her. He laid his knee over her legs, held the pillow with one arm and her arms with the other. His grip was powerful, and he hurt her where he held her, but that was nothing compared to the quickly increasing pain in her lungs. Nikola blacked out.
She went back into the dream - running for the light at the end of the hallway. Only she was no longer at the gallery, but at the house. It was the house she grew up in, and she was, once again, a little girl. She was being chased, as usual. She glanced behind her and saw the large rounded figure of Frank bounding towards her. Her rival, her tormentor, her cousin, she wished he didn't exist. Ever since her mother's death, there was no one to keep them apart. He was big for his age, and unusually strong. Nikola was his target, and his mother did nothing to stop him. She didn't even seem aware of the torment he inflicted upon her, on a daily basis, in the name of fun. Like the malicious children who catch insects to tear off their wings, he was constantly trying to catch Nikola and ground her. Tie her up, if necessary, but never let her be.
Nikola mourned for her mother as she ran. Mourned for the secret place and their trips there together. Nikola would stay there all the time if she could, he had not yet found it, but occasionally she had to come out, for food if nothing else. He caught her almost every time. Her father was never around. When he was, he stopped Frank, but it was only temporary and he never followed through, so Frank was back to his antics once her father's back was turned. His mother seemed only to encourage him. She had never liked Nikola, and Nikola knew it. Her only ally was gone, and Nikola often wished that she could join her mother. Death couldn't be as bad as this.
She lost her balance, regained it, gasped and started coughing violently. Suddenly she found herself back in her bedroom, doubled over on the bed, coughing with all her might. The pillow was no longer on her face. She could hear a scuffle below her, on the floor.
When the coughing finally subsided, she looked over the side of the bed and saw a large mass writhing and rolling on the floor. From the grunts and other fight sounds coming from the mass, Nikola assumed that Alex had engaged the Intruder, or at least she hoped so.
"Alex?" she called tentatively.
"Call the police!" he commanded in reply. Nikola was glad to hear his voice, the voice of an ally, it wasn't her mother but sounded almost as sweet. "Then get me some rope, and turn on the light."
Nikola got up, painfully, and called the police. Then she ran through the studio frantically, where she found a length of thick rope. When she got back to the bedroom and turned on the light, she could see that Alex had things under control. He was lying on top of the larger man and had him pinned to the floor. The Intruder was still struggling violently, but Alex's grip was solid.
"Help me tie him to a chair," was Alex's next command, issued as soon as the light came on. Nikola helped them up. The struggle continued, and Alex almost lost hold of the man a few times, but with some effort, they were able to get him into the studio and tied him to the strongest free standing chair they could find. Alex looked him over sharply. The big man had a closed, angry expression on his face.
"Who are you?" Alex demanded. He received no answer. He started pacing in front of the Intruder, who followed his every step with his eyes, but hardly even moved his head. His lips were firmly pressed together, visually illustrating his refusal to cooperate. Alex waited a few moments before asking the next question.
"What are you doing here?" Alex received the same cold stare from the Intruder. His brows were furrowed, as if he was considering his options. Nikola watched on, waiting to see if he would speak, before she said anything. Apparently he was not inclined to speak to them.
"His name is Frank," Nikola said to Alex. "He's my cousin. He's the son of my aunt Mary. I remembered him in a dream when I was unconscious. We grew up together. He tried his best to make it unpleasant for me." Alex glanced at her sharply, as if surprised.
"So what's he doing here?" Alex asked Nikola.
"I have no idea."
"What are you doing here?" Frank interjected in a gruff voice. "You don't belong here," He was staring intently at Nikola.
"You're the one who doesn't belong here! This is my apartment," Nikola shouted back at him, fueled by the repressed anger of her childhood. Frank looked away.
"What are you talking about?" Alex asked Frank, then glanced at Nikola. She shrugged to indicate that she had no idea what he meant by it either.
"Nikola! She's evil. She's out to ruin us!" Frank yelled a few moments later.
"Why? How?" Alex demanded.
"Ask her, it's all her doing. She's telling and painting lies, making up vicious stories about Mommy."
"Why would she hurt your mother?"
"She always hated us. She's out to ruin our lives. She'd never admit it, but that's why she came back." Frank glared at Nikola, narrowing his eyes.
Alex again glanced over to Nikola, who shrugged. She had no idea what he was talking about. Alex then turned back towards Frank and asked, "So you came here to kill Nikola?"
Frank pursed his lips and shook his head, "I've told you enough. She probably hired you to help. So who are you, anyway? A bodyguard or an armed assassin?"
Alex's brows furrowed at Frank's statement, he looked Frank up and down, as if evaluating him, and ignored his questions. "Why did you come here the last time?"
Frank shook his head again and looked forward. His lips were still pressed tightly together and he had resumed the closed expression he wore earlier.
"You don't have to talk to me, but the police won't be as nice as I am." Alex put himself in front of Frank, faced him and then bent down until their noses were only inches apart. "They'll get it out of you. Whatever it takes." But Frank ignored him entirely, and turned his head to stare blankly to the side.
Alex straightened up after a few moments and shrugged. He gestured Nikola to another corner of the room, and waited until they were a safe distance from Frank before asking in a low voice, "Do you have any idea what he is talking about?"
"Well, not exactly, but I did see his mother kill my mother. I assume that's what this is about. They must have seen my paintings - the 'Woman in Red' series, and assumed that I painted them to implicate Mary. Maybe that's why he was trying to destroy the other paintings I was making of my dreams..." Nikola stared off to the distance as she tried to piece everything together. "He's trying to protect himself and my aunt from my memories. That must also be why my father keeps the gallery locked. I thought that was strange when I saw him do it..."
"Okay. We'll talk about this later. Let's just watch him until the police get here. Tomorrow we'll see what the police come up with. At least this time we caught him." Alex glanced back at Frank nervously.
"I'm glad that we did. I just hope there aren't any more of him out there." Now that Nikola finally had these few unpleasant answers to explain her lifetime of nightmares, she dreaded any revelations to come.
The police came some time later, took statements from Nikola and Alex, and escorted Frank out. Once the police left, Nikola felt drained, but anxious, and her throat still hurt from the choking. She slowly wandered towards the kitchen area and sat down on one of the stools. Alex followed her silently, and sat facing her, but his gaze seemed far away.
"I can't sleep anymore," Nikola said, slowly descending from her stool, "I'm going to make some coffee."
"Good idea. I don't think I could sleep either," Alex agreed as he walked over to the living room area.
Nikola stared across the studio and through the windows, observing the darkened city, as she listened to the coffee brew. Even in the city that never sleeps, most of the lights were extinguished. It was a few hours before dawn. She remained that way, thinking, but not coherently, until she heard the gurgling sounds the coffee maker always made as it finished.
Nikola poured each of them a cup, added some milk to hers, and took the mugs over to the couch, where Alex was sitting.
"What's on your mind?" she asked as she put the coffee down in front of him.
"I'm just reviewing the events of the day. Tell me about your dreams again."
"I don't know where to start."
"Start with the 'Woman in Red' series."
"I witnessed a murder."
"Yeah, I guess you did. Unless your memory is playing tricks on you." Alex didn't look at Nikola as he picked up his cup and questioned her, he stared straight forward.
"It would explain why Frank is trying to kill me."
"Not really. Or at least not using any normal system of logic. What you're talking about happened thirty years ago. It was written off as an accident. Even if you came out and accused her, it would be your word against hers. It probably wouldn't even be enough to re-open the case, let alone pose a real threat to her." Alex finally looked over to Nikola, and adjusted his posture to face her.
"Maybe she doesn't know that. Frederic said she was slow..."
"I think the expression he used was emotionally disturbed. That might explain it. Frank didn't come off as overly logical, either."
"I don't remember much about what he was like when we were young, except that he was always after me. What I remembered came back in single scenes. That's what happened when I was passed out. It was a continuation of the dream I was having before he suffocated me. It was like many of the dreams I've had all my life: I was being chased. Only in the past, I usually couldn't see who it was, or I could only see a silhouette, but this time I saw him fully, and it was unmistakably him. I knew his name, and his relation to me. It was weird." Nikola stared into her coffee as she spoke, bringing the dream to mind.
"It was more than weird. It was scary. When I walked into your bedroom I was wondering if I was too late." Alex looked at Nikola affectionately, took her hand and added in a soft voice, "I'm really sorry. I should never have left you alone. I wasn't thinking. I'd had too much to drink, and all I could think about was continuing the party. Can you ever forgive me?"
Nikola looked over at him, and thought she actually saw the beginnings of tears in his eyes. How could I possibly distrust this man who has just saved my life? Perhaps for the second time. "Of course, don't be ridiculous. You saved my life. It's not your job to protect me - you have nothing to apologize for."
"But it is my job. I took that on when I agreed to help you with this. He must have been watching the house - there's no other explanation. He knew you'd be here alone. How could I have been so stupid? I knew he was watching..."
"You couldn't have known he'd act so fast. Don't worry about it. You got here in time and everything's okay."
"Well, I'm glad that I didn't stay very long," he said, closing the distance between then and putting an arm on her shoulder. "If anything had happened I never would've forgiven myself."
Nikola started to become uncomfortable with his proximity. She appreciated the concern, but it was too much right now. She got up off the couch and faced him. She could tell that he was disappointed, but the renewed closeness was more than she could deal with at the moment. "It worked out all right. I'm okay."
"Are you? We should probably go to the hospital. To make sure he didn't cause you any permanent injury."
"I said I'm okay. My throat's a little sore, but I'm sure that'll go away with time. I don't really want to deal with a hospital right now. I think that would just make matters worse."
"Whatever you say."
"The note. The one that led us to Grove. Do you think it was sent by my aunt or my cousin?"
"If they thought I was really a threat... Maybe they thought they could scare me away. I guess when I'm in Germany they feel safer. They must know what I'm doing somehow. Do you think my father tells them what I'm up to? Even if he doesn't tell them, he can't very well hide the existence of the gallery. They must have been there and seen the paintings." Nikola sat down in the armchair facing Alex. She spoke her thoughts as they came to her, trying desperately to make sense of it all, trying to find her place in the bizarre and frightening background she was discovering. "They hate me. They really hate me. I finally find a family and it hates me."
"Don't think that way, Nikola. These are just two deranged individuals. They're more afraid of you than anything. It's not your fault. It's their own guilt that's driving them. As a witness, you personify that guilt, but that doesn't reflect on you. I think your father really loves you, and I'm sure your mother did too."
"From what I've remembered lately, I think she did. But she's gone, and now I have to deal with the rest of them."
"There may be more to the rest of them than we were led to believe. From the way Frank was talking, I got the impression that Mary's still alive. I wonder why your father would lie about it..." Alex mused.
"I think he is trying to keep us apart. He must know that she hates me. Maybe he thinks I feel the same way. But, why? What could cause such animosity within a family?"
"You'd be surprised, Nikola, how much animosity is in the healthiest of families. Having a family is not all love and support. There's jealousies, expectations that aren't lived up to, and everything else you can imagine. You can't hate someone you never loved, and there's nothing like living together to bring out the worst in everyone. Surely you've heard the term dysfunctional family?"
"Yes, but I thought that was a small minority."
"It's all families to some extent or another. When people live together, they step on each other's toes from time to time. Of course, in some cases, it's worse than others."
"Well, this seems to be a very bad case." Nikola shifted in her chair and stared at the floor.
"Yes. Hopefully we'll get some more of the story tomorrow. I'm sure the police will have more luck with Frank than I did. I'll check on them first thing in the morning."
"That won't be long now," Nikola said as she looked up at the windows which were turning purple with the first rays of dawn. She was finally tired again after what seemed like another endless day.