Rumbling cattle wagons pulled by an old wood-burning steam train gathered speed again as in completed the turn through the town. It continued to descend further eastward, through dark shadowy forests.
A solitary figure leapt from the accelerating train as it passed, but did not slow, at the empty starkly light platform.
A stout middle-aged man withdrew from a grimy window in an opposite alley, which surveyed the scene. He rose and threw another log on the fire, poured himself another drink and contemplated the glass, before glimpsing back out to watch the former stow-away intensely as he made his way to the house.
He opened the door. “Peter, since when do you stowaway on trains?”
“Since I don’t want to be spotted. How is he, Paul?”
“Good.” Peter donned his white smock and flung his stethoscope around his neck before heading down to the basement where Steve was strapped in a bed in what resembled a hospital room. “And how are we feeling today, Mister Austin?” Peter asked offhandedly.
In a semi-conscious state, Steve blinked heavily his drooping eyelids as he tried to focus on the swaying foggy figure walking up to him. He mouthed the word ‘thirsty’ that he managed to exhale in a whisper.
“Of course.” Peter took the jug of water and poured in half a glass. He assisted Steve by holding his head forward and lifting the glass to his lips. “Easy now. Tiny sips.” When Steve removed his mouth from the rim, Peter eased his head back on the pillow. “Better?”
Steve gave a weak nod and gulped down a breath before he asked in a feeble voice, “Unstrap me, please.”
Peter placed the sound receiver end of his stethoscope against Steve’s chest to study his heartbeat. “I’m sorry Mister Austin. We can’t take that chance. You’re still in a vulnerable emotional state.”
“What…what are you tal…talking about?” Steve mumbled, staring at Peter quizzically.
Peter cast an amusing smile at his patient, then removed the earpieces from his ears and wrapped the stethoscope around his neck. “Don’t you remember?” he taunted while he reached for a syringe and a flask set on a tray on the night table.
Steve leaden eyes widened at the syringe held in Peter’s hand. “No…no more…drugs,” Steve pleaded with his last ounce of energy.
“It’s for your own good. We wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” Peter administered the medicine into Steve’s left forearm.
“Where’s…Rudy? I…I…want…to..speak…to..Doctor…Wells,” Steve exhaled every word before drifting off.
Three weeks later, Oscar drove to the National Medical Center to visit Steve who had been lying in a coma for the past sixteen days. They were all in the dark as to the reason for the drug overdose, but given Steve’s depression before the incident, the suicide theory was brought forth.
“Rudy, how is he?” Oscar asked the doctor who was reading the heart monitor.
“Sixteen days, Rudy.”
“I know. There is strong brain activity, therefore hope that he’ll come out of it.”
“And when he does, will he be the same?”
Rudy hung his head and heaved a rueful sigh.
“Guess that answers my question. I’ll notify his parents.”
“Oscar, don’t. Give it a few more days.”
Oscar pondered, thrusting his hands into his pant pockets, torn between his sound judgement to contact Steve’s parents and Rudy’s suggestion to give it more time. He nodded his approval and left the room after casting a last glimpse at his comatose friend, hooked on an artificial respirator.
As he glanced back at the monitor, Rudy noted a slight increase in the pulse rate. He turned to Steve, whose eyelids started to flutter. An elated grin hung on his ears as he called out for a nurse to stop Oscar from leaving the hospital. Gently, Rudy began to tap Steve on the cheeks to elicit a stronger response. “Come on Steve, open your eyes.”
Oscar hurried back into the room. “ Rudy what’s going on?”
“I think Steve has finally decided to rejoin us.” Rudy informed happily. “Come on Steve, wake up,” he coaxed with gentle taps.
Steve’s eyes flickered and opened halfway. He winked away the haze to establish a clear image of the two figures hovering over him.
“Steve, can you hear me?” Rudy asked while flashing a light in Steve’s eyes to study the corneal reflexes.
Steve moaned his response and annoyance at the glaring light stinging his eyes.
“Steve I’m going to extubate you, so I want you to give me a big cough, alright?” Rudy held the tube with his left hand while keeping his right close to Steve’s mouth. “Okay, here we go.” Steve coughed and gagged at the tube’s removal from his airway.
Oscar placed a hand on top of his friend’s head and smiled. “Welcome back, buddy.”
“Do you recognize Oscar?” Rudy asked the groggy patient.
Steve blinked heavily, moistened his lips and gave a weak nod of the head. He inhaled deeply and exhaled, mouthing a question. He took a second deep breath and exhaled his question in a whispering voice, “What happened?”
Oscar and Rudy threw each other a troubled look.
“Don’t you remember?”
Steve blinked in a rapid motion, trying to jog his memory but his mind drew a complete blank. “No.”
Rudy put his hand on Steve’s shoulder and leaned closer to him. “We’ll talk about it later. You get some rest. We’ll be back to see you.”
Steve nodded and closed his eyes. Rudy beckoned Oscar out of the room. “ At first glance, I’d say he’s suffering from retrograde amnesia.”
“Is it permanent?”
“I can’t say. We’ll know more in a few days. Let us be thankful that’s all there is. With the amount of pills we pumped out of his stomach, he should have been long dead.”
The next day, Steve remained in a state of confusion. He had no recollection whatsoever of his alleged suicidal attempt. Oscar’s trusted secretary Peggy Callahan dropped by the Medical Center on her lunch break to visit with her friend.
She entered Steve’s room to find him sleeping. She pattered up to the bed, being heedful not to make the slightest noise for fear to disturb her friend’s restful slumber. Today, instead of reading to a comatose man as it had been her daily ritual since discovering him near death on his living room floor, she indulged in her own pass time: needlepoint.
Ten minutes into her embroidery, Steve opened his eyes. Following a quick sweep of the room, they rested upon the petite woman, sitting quietly, cross-stitching. He fashioned a serene smile at this charismatic lady whom he considered a devoted friend and confidant. “Hi,” he uttered weakly.
She lifted her eyes from her work and carved a broad elated smile at the fetching baby blues gazing at her. “ Hi yourself, tall, fair and handsome. How are you feeling?”
Steve closed his eyes and swallowed dryly. “Not bad, considering.”
She pursed her lips to refrain a gush of emotions from rushing to her throat. “You had us worried for awhile.”
“Callahan, I want to..to ask you a question.”
“Rudy tells me you…you were the one who found me.”
“That’s right,” she answered with a gulp as she felt her emotions of that horrific night raring to spurt out. “You had been missing for three days. And, I don’t really know why, I just drove by your house one day on my way to work and something inside just impelled me to stop and check once more. When I knocked on the door, it opened by itself. I peeked inside and saw you on the floor.” She paused to recover her composure. “There…there were pills scattered around and you held a bottle of antidepressants Dr. Wells had prescribed for you.”
Steve reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly. “Believe me, I never…I never tried to kill myself,” Steve breathed out with intense emotion. “I know I’d been shattered by my father’s death and I admit I sank into a slough of despond but..but not to the level of taking my own life.”
“Steve I want to believe you. Lord knows I want to…”
Her face cringed. “What other explanations are there?”
“Som…someone could have tried to kill me and…and disguised as a suicide.”
“I don’t know,” Steve exhaled, closing his eyes and shaking his head in despair. “I just know I couldn’t possibly have committed this deliberate act. I just couldn’t.”
Callahan’s heart went out to her despondent friend. She risked placing a hand on his cheek, afraid the gesture might be considered improper between friends. When he closed his teary eyes and sighed at her light touch, she began to stroke his cheek in a loving motion. He reached for her hand and held it to his face. He opened his glassy eyes and stared pleadingly at her. “Please, I need you to believe me.”
She smiled and nodded. “I do, Steve. I believe you.”
Steve returned her smile and allowed Callahan’s soft touch to lull him to sleep.
“Those magic hands strike again,” whispered Rudy as he slowly walked up to the bed.
“He’s still so weak,” she remarked worriedly.
“Give him a few days.”
“I don’t believe he tried to commit suicide,” she stated firmly.
“I’d like to think otherwise myself, which is the reason I called upon Doctor Winslow. She’s a parapsychologist who once worked with Steve after his automobile accident.”
“Is that when he kept hallucinating about a twin brother?”
“That’s right. She’s licensed to practice hypnotherapy. She can have him regress to an earlier stage, when the incident occurred and thus provide us with clues as to what really happened.”
“I hope it works.”
A week later, Steve’s condition was deemed satisfactory enough for Rudy to approve the hypnotic session.
Callahan was assisting Steve in propping himself up into a sitting position when Margaret Winslow showed up with her two escorts, Rudy and Oscar.
“Hi Steve!” she greeted with a beatific smile.
“Margaret, it’s good to see you again.” Steve extended his arm to clasp her hand.
She leaned forward to clench him into a warm friendly hug. “You’re looking well.”
“I’m getting there.”
“Still no memory?” she asked on a more solemn tone.
He gave a dejected shake of the head.
“I earnestly hope I can help you remember.”
“We’ve exhausted every options, except the hypnosis. So let’s give it a try.”
“Okay. Lie back, you’ll be more comfortable.”
Steve wiggled under the covers while Callahan fluffed up his pillow to make him more comfortable. “Thanks,” Steve said, throwing her a grateful wink.
Rudy pulled up a chair for Margaret while Oscar pressed the record button on his portable tape recorder.
“Okay Steve, I want you to close your eyes and try to void your mind of all thoughts. Relax…breathe deeply and slowly. Take even breaths. That’s it…slowly…slowly.” She waited until Steve was plunged into an alpha stage before implanting a suggestion. “Steve I want you to go back to September twenty-first. You are leaving Oscar’s office and are driving home.” She paused to study the eyelids movements. “You have arrived. You are walking up to the door, you unlock it and step inside.”
At that instant, Margaret noted the rapid eye movement beneath Steve’s eyelids and a drastic change in his breathing rate, both indicative of a disturbing occurrence. “Steve, what do you see?”
Steve was panting and gasping for air, his head swivelling back and forth. “I…I can’t breathe. Chl… chloroform.”
“Okay, go forward in time,” she instructed calmly while maintaining an even inflection in her voice. “After the smell of chloroform, where are you?”
“Hospital room. Why am I here? Weak,” he mumbled as he wetted his lips and swallowed dryly. “Thirsty,” he whimpered. “Head hurts. Where am I ? Rudy?”
“Steve, do you see anyone in the room with you?” Margaret continued to probe, scanning every tiny fluctuation in Steve’s facial expression.
“Are they talking?”
Steve knitted his eyebrows. “Yes.”
“Can you make out what they’re saying?”
“Yes? Get back…at Oscar Goldman. JB project.”
Oscar frowned. “JB project?”
Margaret wagged a finger at him and shushed him. “Steve do you know who these two men are? Have you seen them before?”
“No,” he breathed out.
“Do you know their names?”
“Pe…Peter and Paul.” Steve’s face puckered. “No…no…no more drugs,” he wailed, pleading with the man holding a syringe in his hand. Steve’s respiration increased dramatically and he started to retch. “Sick,” he lamented between gags.
“Okay Steve, it’s over now. You’re back at Rudy’s lab. You’ve been found and you’re going to be just fine. Relax, you’re in good hands…that’s it. Breathe deeply.”
Everyone heaved a long sigh of relief when Steve’s respiration gradually stabilized to a normal rhythm.
“Now when I count to three and clap my hands, you will open your eyes and remember everything that happened during those three missing days. One…two…three.” Margaret clapped her hands and Steve blinked open his eyes.
“Do you remember?” Margaret asked.
Steve nodded. He turned to Oscar. “They wanted to kill me for turning down their project.”
“So those men were Peter Hoffstead and Paul Lanlon?”
“They didn’t mention their last names.”
“Would you be able to formally identify them?” Oscar asked Steve expectantly.
“Yes, I think so.”
Oscar smiled gratefully and placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Good job.”
Steve turned to Margaret. “ You are attributing the credit to the wrong person.”
Margaret smiled and leaned closer to Steve. “I just gave your subconscious a small shove, you did the rest.”
“How about we let the patient get some rest,” Rudy suggested when he noted that Steve’s eyelids were beginning to hang heavily.
Oscar stopped the tape recorder. “I have everything I need on tape. Steve, I’ll be back tomorrow to pick you up.”
“Ladies, may I escort you out?”
“With pleasure Mister Goldman.” Margaret draped her arm around Oscar’s and both waited for Callahan to say her goodbyes.
Steve gave Callahan’s hand a gentle squeeze. “See you tomorrow at the office?” he asked with an affectionate gaze.
“I’ll be waiting.”
Days later, Lanlon and Hoffstead were apprehended and incarcerated. At the trial, they were both shocked to learn that the man they had left for dead was still alive and slated to be the main witness. After the sentence was pronounced, Lanlon came up to Steve and exclaimed, “You’re supposed to be dead!”
Steve smiled and turned to Callahan standing next to him. “I had a guardian angel watching over me.”
She smiled back and leaned her head against his