A splash. Darkness. Cold. He was surrounded by rushing water. He was surrounded by bodies, thrashing. Struggling. Doomed. He did not even know which way the surface was.
A large hand caught his, and he clutched it, desperate. Desperate to save, or to be saved, or simply not to be left alone in this hell as his oxygen ran out.
But a pain shot through his fingers and he was forced to let go. As his companion was sucked inexorably away from him into the roiling waters, he used the last of his air in a scream.
George opened his eyes, gasping. He had somehow kicked off his covers in the night. He wasn’t sure what he’d been dreaming about, but he knew it had been terrifying. And cold.
By the clock above his bed, it was around four thirty in the morning. He pulled the covers back over himself, but the heat of his frozen body wasn’t warming them in any great hurry. With a shivery grunt of frustration, he heaved himself out of bed, and went downstairs to make some tea.
Two days later, George took himself to a cafe. He’d been feeling cooped up, newly unemployed as he was. He’d sent a letter to an acquaintance at Oxford, inquiring whether he could take up his old research position, but as yet there had been no response. So he had been left with nothing to do but nurse a budding melancholia in the secluded mustiness of his home, alone. Even if it could hardly be called companionship, he hoped the presence of a chattering crowd might alleviate the worst excesses of his moodiness.
He bought himself a coffee, and added what Ann would have considered far too much sugar. The sweetening almost covered up every other flavor, but the bitterness still made him wince, slightly. It was unusual that he had the opportunity to actually savor a coffee, and on those rare occasions, he was always surprised by how little he actually liked the stuff. But he kept drinking it anyway.
The cup warmed only his left hand, as the fingers on his right were still healing from… recent events. The doctors had told him that while the ring finger of his right hand would never again be quite straight, the breaks should heal nicely if he didn’t jostle them. But at the moment, he couldn’t so much as hold a mug.
He sat at a tiny table near the window, and as he watched, a heavy rain began to fall. He found himself at the bottom of his coffee cup, but he had no desire to leave the warmth of the cafe and step out into that downpour.
As he stared into the dregs, a shadow fell across his table. It was huge, and oddly crooked. The person casting it must have been right behind him, almost on top of him. He turned, wondering what they might want, but there was no one there.
A shiver ran up George’s spine. There was no particular good reason for it. He had no cause to believe himself watched, he wasn’t involved in anything that might be considered valuable to enemy intelligence agencies. Nor was he exactly trailing his coat. Had Mundt come to finish the job? George shuddered. It would be a stupid risk, and a pointless one. Still, George resolved to remain with the safety of the crowd for a few hours more, and perhaps take a few unpredictable bus trips before going home. He could feel the chill of something at his back.
As George returned the coffee cup to the counter, he found that his recently-broken fingers ached.
George was walking to the library when he found himself startled again. Today, there was no rain, but bitter wind and unseasonable cold kept everyone he saw wrapped tightly in layers of thick fabric, so that they were barely recognizable as people. In the fading light, bundled human figures blurred together in a gray mass.
George was focusing downward, as his glasses were little protection from the whipping wind. As he looked up to cross the road, he saw a figure on the other side of the street. A dark silhouette, taller than the surrounding mass by a head or more. George felt a thrill of recognition, though he could not place it, nor could he make out the figure’s features, and stepped forward about to call out.
The squeal of brakes shook him. He’d stepped into the road, and nearly been struck. The driver shouted something nasty at him in an American accent and drove off, and George stood there, heart pounding, realizing what had just happened, for what felt like hours. As he scurried back to the sidewalk, he found his hand was throbbing with pain - had he clenched it in his panic?
When he looked back across the street, the figure was gone.
Over the next weeks, George grew so used to the feeling of being watched, of being followed, of some known-stranger, just out of reach, that he began to wonder whether it was a trick of his mind. If some hostile party really was watching him, he didn’t understand the point. Surely an intelligence officer with a career as long as his own would have acquired a few enemies, but if he was being tailed, why was it so… obvious. And what was the point. If someone was looking for revenge, why not simply kill him? And if they were hoping to uncover some clandestine operation, then good luck to them.
But still, whenever he went outside, he would see shadowy figures out of the corner of his eye, only to turn and see nothing. His paranoia was such that he began imagining them even inside his own home. A darkness in the bathroom mirror, as he cleaned his teeth, flickering for a moment behind the shower curtain. Or strange silhouette in the dancing shadows of his fire. Outdoors, in the city streets, he could use the tricks of evasion taught to him by his trade, and that seemed to make them vanish, at least for a while, some evidence for their corporeal reality. But at home, he had to convince himself that they were a trick of his mind.
Sometimes terror of the shadows drove George out into the streets, where they still followed him, but losing himself in a crowd meant some safety. If he was being watched, the crowd would at least provide some protection, and if he wasn’t… well, if he wasn’t, then the crowd would make him feel better.
George was out wandering late on a Friday evening, walking among the night’s drunks, when he took a turn and found himself completely alone. The street he’d been on had not exactly been bustling, but there had been five or six people, stumbling to the next bar or the nearest bus stop. But then George had turned left, and the street he found himself on was empty. Silent. Without even a lit window. Only street lamps, and the distant sounds of cars on another road.
George thought they were echoes of his own at first. He checked behind him, and there was no one there. But the footsteps became clearer and clearer, and when he stopped still, they continued coming towards him.
George began walking faster.
No matter how many turnings he took, the streets of London were deserted. There were no people anywhere, not a bus, cab, or lit window. All his knowledge of how to hide among the masses was useless to him, there was no one to shield him. The footsteps seemed closer. George began to run.
George was not an athlete. His all out run was no faster than another person’s jog, and his short legs hit the pavement painfully. Within seconds his lungs were burning and his head was throbbing. Pain shot through his newly-healed fingers, but with all of the other pains in his body, George paid it no mind.
The footsteps were keeping pace with him, but not gaining. George felt that he was being toyed with as he heard the quick, strangely uneven tread a few yards behind.
Still the streets were deserted, but George was thinking a lot less about where he was going now, simply taking whatever turnings appeared to him, hoping to god that he could find somewhere to hide.
And then he stumbled. George sprawled onto the pavement, and if he’d had any breath left it would have been knocked out of him. When he hit the ground, he’d heard an ominous crack, but it seemed to have been only the left lens of his glasses. He lay there, waiting for whatever it was that had chased him to claim him. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Then George realized that the noise of human habitation had returned, and felt himself being poked at by a police officer, and ordered to get up. George scrambled to his feed, suddenly more concerned about the scowling policeman staring down at him than about being chased by phantoms.
It took George a few nerve-wracking minutes to convince the officer that he wasn’t drunk, but had simply fallen down, and he thanked god that he hadn’t had anything to drink before going out that night. In the end, the officer let him go with some grumbling. George finally had a chance to take stock of where he was.
And discovered that he was less than six feet from the edge of the river. He shivered.
The night when he was chased seemed to mark the end of… whatever had been happening. George was still cautious when he left the house, in case it had been real watchers and not some trick of the mind, and they had simply become more careful. But he no longer felt as though he were being stalked. Paranoia no longer turned passing shadows into terrifying apparitions, and he was no longer seeing things out of the corner of his eye.
So one evening when his doorbell rang, George was confused, but not particularly concerned. Who would call on him without telephoning first, especially at such a late hour?
When George opened the door, his heart leapt into his throat. A massive shadow stood before him, and he took a step back. Except…
Except it was only a trick of the light. Instead of some shadowy pursuer, he found himself staring up into the face of... of...
“You’re- you’re alive.” George’s throat was dry. He stared, open mouthed, at his once-friend and once-enemy.
Dieter did not reply. Instead, he smirked.
George noticed that Dieter was dripping wet. Water from his coat fell onto the mat in rivulets, soaking it through.
Even though there had been no rain that night.
George’s breath caught in his throat. River trash was tangled in Dieter’s hair, and his skin had a bluish tint to it, and he would not stop smiling, and the drip, drip, drip of water from his coat felt like the pounding of footsteps. Dieter took a step inside, looking down at George and still smiling, his face inches from George’s, water from his hair dripping onto George’s cheeks.
George found that he could no longer breath. His knees buckled, and he was coughing, vomiting gallons of water onto the carpet, desperately gasping for air-
George opened his eyes, gasping. This time, he remembered exactly what he had been dreaming about. There was a pain in his neck, and when he went to check it in the mirror, he saw red scratches, left by his own scrabbling fingernails as he fought to breathe. He must have bent his fingers back as well, because the fingers that Dieter Frey had broken, the fingers that were now healed, ached.
George went downstairs to make himself a cup of tea, because after that dream, he wasn’t going back to sleep for a long while.
He chose not to notice the huge wet stain on the carpet in front of the door.