A necklace of sharp needles tightened, pierced, and then sank deep into his flesh. Next a scalpel’s blade slid between two upper vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, interrupting the initial blast of pain. A neat, clean, indifferent incision that ran from left to right beneath his hairline and then around and through his throat. He swallowed molten copper and listened to the echo of a gurgling wave that filled his lungs.
His body shot forward and joined a galaxy of sparkling diamonds. Each jewel reflected a separate aspect of his face. His mind reconstructed the torn flesh and shattered bone, pulled the puzzle pieces back together, until he saw himself. One eye swollen to the size and texture of an overripe plum, red-veined and leaking sticky tears. Hair ripped away from his scalp, leaving here and there a pond of purple blood and pus. Ear lobes, drooping with the weight of old age, now resembled sliced and trimmed cuts of meat upon a butcher’s block.
He choked on the odors of gasoline, urine and human feces. Gravity yanked him down into a ready grave. Black space closed in, blinded him and spun him fast, until dizziness dragged him toward unconsciousness.
Yet floating somewhere inside the unforgiving darkness he heard the familiar tap . . . tap . . . tapping of his keyboard. A repetitive and steady rhythm, perhaps too steady to suit the habitual hesitation of its master. Rather more like the staccato snap a pinwheel whispers when an unceasing wind whips it round in rapid circles. Or the incessant flutter of a hummingbird’s wings.
No matter that his ruined eyes squeezed tight against a sudden invasion of light, a harsh fluorescent beam insinuated and insisted, until the needle-studded necklace became a flexible but confining brace, and the clean incision revealed itself as a seeping wound. He realized that the odor, the blood and the shattered bone belonged to the stranger who was now trapped inside his mind, planning his escape, covered in a shroud and begging for absolution.
Gradually the whirring pinwheel came into focus as his friend’s familiar pencil. She held it laced between her fingers, waved it back and forth, struck an edgy drumbeat on her pad of paper with the pencil’s point.
“I’m here,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
“I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m not here. Where? This place? What is it? Gertie, what is this place? I can’t move my arms. Gertie, I’m paralyzed. I’m dying.”
“It’s all right, Harry.” She stood up and hovered over him. He noticed worry swimming in the water of her pale-blue eyes. “No, I take that back,” she said. “Truth is, you’re lying in a hospital bed. You’re busted up, but you’re alive. Your arms are clamped to the bed frame. Be quiet and look around. Focus on one object. That’s right. Just take it slow and gain your sense of balance.”
Harry glanced upward toward the plastic bags of liquid, some cloudy-white, others clear as water, then traced a tangle of plastic tubes that led back to his arms.
“I can’t feel . . . ” His words caught in his throat.
“You’re parched. Here, take this. And take your time.” Gertie placed an ice cube on Harry’s tongue. He swirled it around and let it melt.
“I can’t feel anything.”
“Fentanyl. The murky liquid inside this bag.” Gertie touched the plastic bag as if to confirm its presence. “You were in a lot of pain after the accident. Fentanyl’s a strong pain reliever and an anesthetic. You’re just now coming off the stuff.”
“Accident? You said accident. No. Someone tried to murder me. My neck . . . my throat. He cut my throat.” Harry heard his voice rising to the level of hysteria. His body shook and shivered. An army of people dressed in blue uniforms came running toward his bed. They surrounded him, leaned in close, grabbed him and held him down. His screaming grew louder. In place of words he howled the midnight melody of a desperate beast.
“Mr. Felton,” said an old man’s wrinkled face that almost touched his own. The old man’s breath, sour as it smelled, seemed fresh as new-cut springtime grass compared with the air Harry lately had been drawing in. “Mr. Felton, my name’s Dr. Webster. No one tried to murder you. That’s the medication talking. Sometimes Fentanyl causes hallucinations. We turned off the medication early this morning, and you’re waking up. Just try a deep breath or two.” Harry watched the doctor motion to the other blue uniforms. They let go of him and left the room.
Harry felt the doctor’s stethoscope laid flat and cold upon his chest. “That’s good,” said Dr. Webster. “Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale. Good, your heartbeat’s slowing down to normal.”
“I’m still alive? I drank my own blood and I’m alive?”
“You’re very much alive, Mr. Felton, but you need time to recuperate. Maybe a lot of time. I’ll be back soon to see you. I’ll tell the nurse who’s monitoring your vital signs to bring you something mild to relieve your anxiety once your blood pressure and heart rate stabilize. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to talk with your friend. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Felton. She’s been by your side since you were admitted.”
“She’s here to nag me. She always nags me.”
“That’s right, F. Scott Fitzfelton, you need me,” said Gertie.
Dr. Webster smiled, then clicked his heels on the tile floor as he walked out of the room.
“Gertie?” said Harry.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Gertie, you said accident. What did you mean?”
“The nurses call that milky goop they’ve been pumping into your veins Milk of Amnesia. Between that and the fact that you’re in shock, you probably don’t remember the details.”
“So remind me, why don’t you, go ahead, remind me.”
“You sure you want to hear this right now? Aren’t you tired? You look bone tired. Matter of fact, you look like shit.” Harry opened his mouth and tried to protest, but Gertie slipped another ice cube between his lips.
“Thanks for the compliment. If I can’t handle whatever you have to tell me, I’ll just ask Dr. Dictionary for another pill. So go ahead, remind me why don’t you. Go ahead.”
“You got behind the wheel of a car when maybe you should have known better. What the hell got into you, anyway? You hate driving. Must have been the drug convinced you otherwise.”
Harry turned his glance toward the ceiling and tried to turn a plaster patch into a map. On that map he identified a time and a place.
“The Packard. John’s Packard automobile. That the one?”
“Now you’re coming back home, Harry. You ran that baby right into a telephone pole. You flew through the windshield, and your passenger –”
“Piercehall. John Piercehall. Is he . . .”
“He’s a mess, but he’s alive and renting the Presidential Suite just down the hall.”
“Oh my God.”
“You can talk to God later, Harry. Next person you’ll talk to after me and the nurse will be a cop.”
“Harry struggled again to move his arms. The bed frame rattled and he began to growl.”
“You gotta calm down, show them that you’re calm and in control before they’ll remove the wrist clamps.”
“Are these damned things handcuffs, Gertie? Am I under arrest? You said cop. Did they arrest me? Tell me, please go ahead and tell me.”
“The doctor needed to stop you from digging at your wounds while you were under. Like I said, when you look more like your serene self, they’ll remove the clamps. Think you can act serene?”
“Cut to the chase. Did the cops arrest me?”
“Since when does Harry Felton use cliches like cut to the chase? No, not yet. Only one thing stopping them from locking you up. Well, maybe two things.”
“Please, fer chrissake, cut to the fucking chase.”
“So long as you floated in and out of consciousness, the police chose not to read you your rights. You have to show them you can understand what they’re saying to you first. Or not.”
“And the second thing?”
“The drug I mentioned.”
“I didn’t drink that much.”
“Not the booze. You were well below the legal limit. This time, that is. No, not the cocktail. Your blood test after the accident revealed the presence of another drug. Rohypnol.”
“A roofie, Harry. On the street they call it a roofie. It’s not legal, not even as a prescribed drug, not in this country. In the good ole USA kids use it to help them escape the prison cells we senile control commanders use as traps when we hunt them down.”
“I’m not a kid, Gertie. Look at me. I’m no kid. Please, go ahead and look at me.”
“That’s true. You’re no kid. You’re a foolish, self-pitying, old fart. And although you’re as banana yellow as the next alcoholic who lugs around a dead liver, I know you didn’t pop that roofie into your mouth. But someone fed it to you, someone you might know better than you’re letting on.”
“Look, Gertie, you were right to begin with. I can’t handle this bullshit. So just reopen the valve and let that milky medicine flow into me again. I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying to me.”
“You want more Milk of Amnesia? Tell Dr. Dictionary. But before you do, and before you have to talk to the cops, why don’t you tell me about Railford, Pennsylvania and the lovely lady Gloria Lakeland?”
“It was part of my book promotion tour. I delivered my standard speech.”
“Promotion tour, now that’s funny. That book you say you’re promoting, you published it several decades ago, and it’s been out of print for at least as long as the hair under my arms has been gray.
“But not that Railford, PA, Harry, and not the twenty-first-century model of Gloria Lakeland. The police detectives did some research while you were dreaming. The questions they asked me about Miss Lakeland and you left me puzzled and curious.”
“Questions? Why would the cops ask you? What questions?”
“Look, Harry, adorable as you are, you don’t have any next of kin. I had to beg the doctors and nurses to let me visit you in the ICU. I gave them the old ‘We have a long history’ line. I wasn’t lying, right? The cops became curious, so they tickled me for some information about you. Nothing formal, and nothing — so they told me — on the record.”
“You didn’t answer me.” Harry listened as his voice became a croak and then a gurgle. He began to cough up phlegm. His neck began to ache, and his thoughts traveled backward in time. Gertie grabbed a washcloth from the metal bedside tray, poured some water from a pitcher onto it and cleaned up his face. He leaned back against the pillows and tried to recapture the present moment.
“You want I should leave you alone for a while? Let you sleep? Maybe that’s best.” said Gertie.
“No. You got me all worked up and worried, and now you’re going to leave me here to suffer?”
“That’s right, Harry. Blame me for your sins against yourself. You must be feeling better.”
“Oh, shit. Why did I take that drink?”
“Quit the woe is me nonsense. I told you it wasn’t the booze. And if you don’t want me to leave, then tell me more about Gloria.”
“She’s a rich old lady with bad breath. She wears a lot of gaudy jewelry. Her house looks like a modern art museum.”
“Uh huh. Well, the detectives seem to think you knew gaudy Gloria back in the day when your testosterone level ran high. So now it’s your turn. You tell me, go ahead, tell me. Was it your memories of Gloria Lakeland that drew you back to Railford? Did she recommend you to John Piercehall, or did you recommend yourself?”
“You’re stepping in quicksand when you ask me these questions.”
“Yeah, well that’s pure poetry. But just why did you go back there? It was back there, wasn’t it? You bought a one-way ticket. Remember that? Was Gloria Lakeland the reason you returned? And who might have wanted you drugged and incapacitated?”
Harry stared, but not at Gertie. Gertie’s face he tried to avoid. Instead he returned his gaze to the map on the ceiling. And on that map, just a short distance from a certain bookshop, he watched a younger version of himself lying in a different bed, a different stranger snuggled up beside him, the aroma of her perfume and sex enticing him to float inside a galaxy of sparkling diamonds.