If you haven’t done so yet, please read Tunnel Vision before continuing here.
“I was against Ellis informing you this way, dear Brian, but he was insistant. He felt telling you of the family inheritance before he passed away would make you rather skeptical.”
“That’s putting it mildly, Aunt Sharon. If Uncle Ellis had told me I’d be having visions of dead people beforehand, I’d have thought he’d lost his mind. I’m not even sure that I haven’t lost my mind.”
Brian Vail was standing in the middle of the living room of Ellis and Sharon Vail’s ranch style home in Fullerton, California, a home he’d been in thousands of times since they moved here more than thirty years ago.
Uncle Ellis had always been the “fun” one, good for a joke, teasing Brian about his “high water pants” at every childhood growth spurt, consoling him at the loss of his Mom, always willing to proofread Brian’s manuscripts (since Ellis was a retired English instructor from nearby Cal State Fullerton).
Aunt Sharon was more shy, reserved, proper. She preserved the Vail living room like a museum, so Uncle Ellis created his “man cave” in the bonus room so he and Brian could have a place to relax. In retrospect, with Ellis keeping such a tremendous secret, Brian wondered why he had always been so open and accessable.
“Please come with me. Ellis wrote down everything you’ll need to know.”
Without waiting for Brian to reply, Sharon turned, pulled the small key out of the pocket on her skirt and walked to Ellis’ small home office. Brian stood in the doorway while his aunt walked around the desk and unlocked the center drawer. She carefully removed a sealed envelope, closed the drawer, and handed the envelope to Brian.
“I shall leave you here to read it in private.”
Before she could leave, Brian put his hand on her shoulder. She stiffened at his touch.
“Do you know what it says?”
“In general, though I suspect there are some details on those pages Ellis kept even from me. And no dear, I don’t want to know what it says. The burden of your uncle’s ability has weighed upon me all these years. I want to put it down now.”
Sharon slipped past Brian as the younger man walked around the desk and sat in his uncle’s chair. He tore open the back flap and pulled out several pages and another key. Reading Ellis’ words, he could almost hear his uncle’s voice, see his face, though the vision of empty eye sockets was indelibly impressed upon Brian’s imagination.
“I knew this day would come and I’ve tried a thousand times to figure out how to tell you. If you’re reading these words, then you’ve already started seeing the visions. You’ve seen who will die, talked with the dead, looked through the eyes of other people, and seen other incredibly fantastic things.
“I know. I’ve lived with this ever since I was nineteen years old. That’s when my Dad, your Grandpa, died.
“He probably figured he’d have more time. He didn’t get a chance to tell me or even to write me a letter like this one. But his father wrote a letter to him and that’s what my mother gave me after his funeral.
“I don’t know if you want to call it a blessing or a curse, but this has been something passed down from father to son for generations. How we got this ability is up for conjecture, but the most prevalent theory is that one of our ancestors became mixed up in the occult, although the vision is supposed to have been placed on us by another.
“The vision makes demands upon us. We see warnings, signs, receive requests, and if we attempt to ignore them, they persist and persist until we finally acquiesce or are nearly driven mad.
“I always hid a certain side of myself from you, even as I realized that when I died, you would receive the sight. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of revealing my nature to Sharon, and she was never that good at hiding her feelings. Many times it made for a cold marriage bed, and she could never show you the love and concern that I know she felt for you in her heart.
“My father was the eldest of three boys and he was the only one who received the visions. I was older than your father, so I received the sight, but even though I could see his untimely death, I wasn’t in time to stop it. I’m not sure we can stop the deaths we see, but we can certainly seek justice if need be.
“I never told your mother. How could I? After Steven died, you were all she had left. I couldn’t tell her how one day you would suffer as I have, as all of us have who received the sight.
“It takes its toll, Brian. I suppose my self-abuse in later life has something to do with it. I smoked and drank to excess in an attempt to dull the visions and the memories of so many horrid things. By shortening my life, I have left you to live longer with the ability. I hope you can face it with the courage I have always tried to have, though I’ve failed too many times to count.
“The key is to a safe deposit box. All of the information you’ll need to access it is on the last page of this missive. It contains all of the documentation and research I’ve done on the sight, including my Grandfather’s letter. I hope it will bring you some illumination if not comfort.
“I know you are divorced and have no children. If you die without having a son, then I believe the sight dies with you. It’s the reason Sharon and I chose not to have children. It’s the reason I have kept you so close to me all these years, as if you were my own.
“I deeply regret this, but Brian, for the rest of your natural life, you will always see the visions, always be compelled by forces beyond human control to respond to them or die.
“May you be a better custodian of the sight than I’ve been.
“I love you very much, son.
“Your loving uncle, Ellis.”
Brian read the letter through again three more times. Then he looked at where the safe deposit box could be found, turned the key over in his hand, and then stood. He put the key on his keyring so he wouldn’t lose it, returned the letter in its envelope, and tucked it in his inner jacket pocket.
“What do I do now?”
He walked out of Ellis’ office then turned around and stared. He looked at all the details the room contained, the stack of old papers to one side of his computer, the telephone, some of the titles of books on their shelves.
“Good-bye, Uncle Ellis.”
He turned to find Aunt Sharon standing behind him.
“He loved you, Brian, perhaps more than you’ve ever realized.”
“He said you love me, too.”
Sharon’s face was usually almost impossible to read, but now Brian knew why. Her impenetrable expression began to falter. Tears welled up in her eyes. Brian reached out to her.
“I love you too, Aunt Sharon.”
He pulled her close. She softly sobbed into his shoulder, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough to rid herself of the demons she had lived with all these years. A week later, she put the house up for sale. She had a sister who lived near Boston. Sharon Vail would never step foot in California again.
It was dusk when Brian got into his car and pulled out onto the curving streets in the foothills neighborhood. He turned on his headlights as he approached a stop sign and nearly hit her.
His vision went blank and then only opened up in the center. It’s where she stood, the ghost from the cemetery. Brian managed to stop before striking the apparition but she ran toward his car and slammed both of her hands onto the hood.
“What are you waiting for? Do you want him to get away with it? Find him! Prove he murdered me! Don’t you know I’ll go through Hell every second until you do?”
She wasn’t beautiful anymore. The skin on her face and arms had lesions. Her hair was matted and dirty. Her delicate dress was ripped and frayed. This time Brian could close his eyes, but the visions kept coming.
It was a jumble. A street address, a path in a forest, a shovel, a metal box being buried, the name of a mountain road, names on letters. Natalie Edwards. Charles West.
When Brian opened his eyes again, it was night. He was still at the stop sign, engine running, headlights illuminating the asphalt, but the ghost was now gone.
Brian took his foot off the brake and eased his car forward.
“Charles West and Natalie Edwards. Charles West murdered Natalie Edwards. Somehow, I’ve got to prove it.”
Being a mystery writer, Brian knew where to begin.
The next morning, he verified with the cemetery who was newly buried at the plot he’d stopped at yesterday. Natalie Christine Edwards, the only daughter of Carl and Jennifer Edwards. Edwards was well known in commercial real estate, so they were monied. The society pages had called Natalie one of the most eligible bachelorettes in the state. That was supposed to have changed shortly, but her engagement to Charles West broke up three months before the wedding.
Police reports were a matter of public record, and Brian had plenty of experience researching law enforcement cases during the writing of a novel. The night she died, Natalie had attended a fundraising event for Project HOPE, a non-profit dedicated to providing medical assistance to vulnerable newborns living in poverty zones.
The parking lot was dark and Natalie refused an escort to her car. The security camera caught what looked like a man coming from the shadows and grabbing her purse as she was about to unlock her car door. There was a flash from the muzzle of a gun. Natalie crumbled to the ground. The man grabbed her purse and ran. He was wearing a hood and the video didn’t get a good look at his face. He wore gloves so no fingerprints. Not even enough contact to get a viable DNA sample.
They called it a mugging downtown. Brian knew the man was Charles West, the jilted would be husband of Natalie Edwards, heir to her family’s fortune. It read like a cheap murder mystery, not even worthy of being published.
Except as lame as it sounded, Brian knew it was true. He could see it.
Brian visited the Los Angeles Convention Center on Figueroa at about the same time of night as Natalie was murdered. Just a few small events tonight, so not all that many cars in the parking lot where she died.
He walked over to the space she had parked in. It was empty. Then it wasn’t. Brian could see what happened a lot better than the security camera.
She pressed the keychain fob to open her car door but she never made it.
“Don’t move, bitch.”
She whirled around anyway. “Charles, what are you…?”
He knew he was being filmed, so he had to move fast. No lengthy dialogues. He just shot her.
“No!” Brian ran forward trying to grab Charles, but all he got was empty air. He could barely see. Natalie and Charles were at the far end of his tunnel vision. He could see her bleeding on her white gown just below the heart. He watched Charles grab her purse, turn and run, making it look like a mugging gone bad.
“You bastard!” Brian was screaming at the receding vision. “You won’t get away with this!”
“See that he doesn’t, Brian.” It was Natalie’s voice. Her eyes opened long enough for her to say this, then she returned to being a fresh corpse.
His vision didn’t clear right away. It took about a minute for the tunnel to begin to widen, for the light to change, for him to be able to see the world around him again.
Fortunately, there was no one there to see and hear his apparent madness.
“How did Uncle Ellis stand it?”
Brian realized he was sitting on the ground next to where Natalie died. He stood up and walked back to his car.
“It was Charles. Definitely Charles. Wait. The police report.”
It was nearly midnight when Brian got back to his Long Beach condo near the ocean. He lived a few blocks away, and could smell the sea air, hear the faint sound of the ocean waves reaching the shore.
He’d been born at Santa Monica Hospital and his first home was in Westminster, near LAX. He was a Southern California boy. He loved the silhouetted Palm Trees lining his street. The moon was at its zenith. This would always be his.
“The police report.” Brian was sitting at his desk, the office where he had produced a dozen murder mysteries, seven being best sellers and five having been made into major motion pictures. All of his awards, including two Oscars for Best Screenplay rested comfortably on the hearth above the living room fireplace.
The police investigation included an interview with Charles West. It was just routine, but even though the evidence pointed to a mugging, the cops weren’t stupid enough to leave their bases uncovered.
Natalie had been killed at approximately 10:45 p.m. in L.A. Witnesses placed Charles at Skinny’s Lounge in North Hollywood from nine until around one, including his brother who was co-owner of the place. He’d never owned a gun, although his Dad had taught him to shoot when he was younger.
The murder weapon was what was euphemistically called a “Saturday Night Special,” a cheap, low caliber handgun frequently sold illegally. Ballistics couldn’t match the bullet with anything they had on record.
The visions returned. Brian closed his eyes. He saw the gun in Charles’ right hand as he fired it at Natalie. He saw it in Charles’ hand as he placed it in a metal box, then buried it in a forested area. He saw the name of a road, the address of a cabin. He saw the address of a townhouse. He saw Charles throwing the bloody gloves on top of the box and burying them together.
Brian moved the mouse of his PC. 3:44 a.m. He’d fallen asleep. Had it been a vision or a dream?
Property ownership is also a matter of public record. Randall West. Charles’ brother owned a small cabin near Big Bear. That’s where the evidence was buried. Did Randy West know Charles’ murdered Natalie? Did he willingly provide Charles with his alibi?
The city address was on Chatsworth Street in L.A. It made no sense for Brian to go up to Big Bear. Even if his visions led him to exactly where the gloves and gun were buried, he couldn’t dig it up. They’d never be able to be used as evidence.
It was time to meet Charles face to face.
Just before 9 a.m., Brian walked up to the shaded front door of the townhouse. Color scheme was beige and brown. A large evergreen stood to the right of the front door. He rang the doorbell and had no idea of what he was supposed to say.
“Hang on a second.” The voice from the other side of the door was muffled. The man was wearing shorts and rubbing his hair with a towel, obviously having just gotten out of the shower. It wasn’t Charles West.
“Pardon me. I’m looking for a Mr. Charles West.”
“Well you came pretty close. I’m his brother Randy. Anything I can help you with?”
Tunnel vision. He could see Randy and Charles together behind the bar at Skinny’s Lounge the night Natalie died. It was 9:46 p.m. according to Randy’s phone. Randy patted Charles on the shoulder. For all the partying going on, the brothers looked like they were about to jump out of a plane without parachutes. Charles ducked out the back.
Near midnight the same night. Charles came back to the bar the same way he left. He looked shaken. Half an hour later, Randy introduced Charles to a stunning blond. They left Skinny’s around one. He woke up the next morning in her bed.
“What the hell is wrong with you? You having some sort of seizure of something? I asked what all this was about.”
Brian realized the vision had ended. He saw it. He saw that Randy provided Charles his alibi. There’s no way everyone at Skinny’s could have kept track of where Charles was every second. Everyone said Charles had been there all night because that’s what Randy said. The blond, Brian didn’t remember her name from the police investigation, assumed Charles had been there all night when she hooked up with him.
“My name is Brian Vail. I’m a writer. I wanted to ask your brother some questions about Natalie Edwards. I’m doing a human interest piece for Los Angeles Magazine.”
It was the most credible lie Brian could come up with on the fly. It was also far too easy to check up on.
“You bastard. Natalie hasn’t been gone a month and you reporters are circling her corpse like vultures. Leave her and my brother alone.”
Brian half expected Randy to grab him or punch him, but instead, he slammed the door in his face. Brian stood there for a few seconds. Without meaning to, he muttered, “I know what you did. I know what your brother did.” Then he turned and left. A few seconds later, Randy opened his front door a crack and looked with cold malevolence at Brian as he got back into his car. Then he went back inside and picked up his cell.
“I’m telling you, he knows something, Charlie. I looked him up. He’s a mystery writer. He writes books about solving murders.”
“Shut up, Randy. Cops have ways of monitoring cell phones. Don’t say another word.”
“Okay, okay. Now what?”
“Nothing. Meet me at the usual place in an hour.”
“Right. An hour.”
The usual place was Skinny’s Lounge. The place wouldn’t open until seven at night, so they had plenty of time to talk alone.
“I checked and he’s not writing anything for L.A. Mag. So why would he lie if he didn’t know something?”
“It doesn’t matter what he knows, it matters what he can prove, and he can’t prove shit.”
“I still hate it that you buried the gun near my cabin.”
“No one will find it. No one saw me. Hell, the cops talked to me and let me go.”
“I still don’t like it.”
Brian was sitting in his car half a block away. He couldn’t see or hear the brothers talking, but he knew they would meet. After leaving Randy’s place, he pulled around the corner on a hunch, as opposed to a vision, and waited until Randy left. It was easy to follow him and predictable where he’d go.
He didn’t know what he was waiting for, inspiration maybe. Fortunately, the waiting paid off.
Brian’s vision went completely black, then there was a glimmer at the end of the tunnel. Charles getting into his car in the Skinny’s parking lot, leaving, time passing, Charles pulling back into the parking lot. The space he had before was taken so he parked in the nearest empty one.
Security camera’s covered the well-lit parking lot behind Skinny’s from every angle.
“Look, I can’t tell you who I am, but I heard Charles and Randy West talking. Randy gave his brother an alibi. He wasn’t at Skinny’s Lounge between about a quarter to ten and midnight. Just get a court order and look at the security camera videos of the parking lot. You’ll see he was missing when Edwards was killed.”
Brian dropped the burner phone on the ground and smashed it with his foot. He was just a few blocks from Skinny’s when he made the call. He was taking a chance that the cops would think he was a crank, but he figured they wouldn’t let the possibility of a murder get away if they could prevent it. A lot of crimes were solved because of anonymous tips.
It was pretty anticlimactic after that. Unlike in some of his novels, the bad guys didn’t come after him. Charles convinced Randy that Brian might know something but couldn’t do anything about it.
L.A.P.D. pulled backups of the video footage from Skinny’s parking lot, and indeed saw Charles get into his car, leave the property at 9:51 p.m. and return, parking in a different space, at about 11:50.
Charles “lawyered up” when he was pulled in for another round of questioning. The CSI people found traces of blood in the trunk of Charles’ car that matched Natalie Edwards’. Apparently, the plastic bag Charles put the gun and gloves in had leaked just a bit.
Charles West was arrested for first degree murder and Randy West cut a deal and gave up the location of the gun and gloves. Charles was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for the murder. Randy was sentenced to ten and got out in three. He ended up as a bartender at some dive bar in Reseda.
“Thank you.” Brian was staring down a long dark tunnel at Natalie. She was as fresh and as beautiful as when he first saw her. He was standing at her grave.
“Thank you for helping me. Thank you for saving me, Brian.”
“How do you know my name? We never met in real life.”
“Thank you.” The vision ended and he was alone.
It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from Brian’s shoulders. He was free, but he knew it wouldn’t last.
It was only a short walk to Ellis Vail’s grave. Standing at the headstone, Brian talked to him. “How did you do it? How am I supposed to do it.?”
He waited, but there were no visions from the grave, just silence. Uncle Ellis had earned his rest.
Brian had one more thing to do, find out what is inside his uncle’s safe deposit box. Brian Vail had found a few answers in the last several days, but he needed more.
Brian Vail returns an a piece of flash fiction titled Seeing Means Changing.