The icy night air sliced at his partly exposed skin, chilling him to the marrow. His body shivered as he drudged onward, dragging his feet, struggling to put one in front of the other. The nightmare of the last hours still raw in his mind followed him on his arduous trek back to civilization where he hoped to find a Good Samaritan willing to come to his rescue. His wished his mind to go dull but the taunting images kept the agony ablaze.
In the pitch dark Steve hauled himself through one thicket after the next. His infrared guided him to a small country road up hill. He drew in a lungful of air to prevent his weary body from forfeiting before he reached his goal. Atop the hill he lay sprawled on the ground to catch his breath; his heart pounding hard against his chest, skipping occasional beats as the excruciating pain endured in the past hours put a strain on the muscle that was near exhaustion.
He pried open his eyes at a crack to establish his surroundings with the aid of his infrared vision. There in the distance, a glimmering light offered a ray of hope. He sent a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens before heaving himself up to stagger to his feet. He leaned against a tree to breath away the stabbing pain before labouring on to the beckoning light.
“Help me, please,” he begged to the young woman at the door before he collapsed onto the porch.
“Oh my God!” the housewife gasped at the ghastly sight before her. With her eyes bulging out of their sockets she called out for her husband who came dashing into the living room.
“Lisa, what’s wrong?” His wife’s guttural cry sends chills up his spine. He followed her terrorized stare to the unconscious man lying at her feet.
“Who is he?”
Numbed with fear, Lisa could only respond with a shake of the head. She reached for her husband’s arm for protection. He in turn held her hand as he carefully squatted beside the body to check for a pulse.
“He’s still alive.” He wrung his hand from his wife vice-like grip to rummage through Steve’s shirt and pants pockets for some identification. He pulled out a wallet and flipped it open. “Steve Austin?” he exclaimed in shock, then glanced up at his wife. “This is the famous astronaut.”
The identity if the stranger revealed, Lisa dropped her guard and joined her husband in probing the body for any serious injury. “Erik, he looks like hell! What do you think happened to him?”
“I have no idea but I sure am going to find out. There’s a phone number to call in case of an emergency. A Mister Goldman in Washington.”
“Let bring on the couch so I can tend to his cuts and bruises.” Erik did his wife’s bidding by gently lifting the limp body to carry him to he livingroom sofa. She in turn spread a quilt on Steve and felt for any sign of fever. “He’s chilled to bone the poor man,” she observed grimly, feeling the small shivers underneath her fingers. “He must have been out in this chilly weather for quite some time.”
“After I contact this Goldman fellow I’ll call for our doctor. I’m sure he won’t mind making a house call this late if I offer to double his fee?” he said winking at his wife who reciprocated the knowing smile.
While Lisa tended to Steve’s wounds with a damp cloth, Erik got on the phone to Washington. Oscar being out of the office, his call was redirected to his house.
Pacing back and forth in the middle of his living room with his third cup of coffee in hand, Oscar was perusing the latest report on the search for the missing agent when the phone rang. He jumped on the couch and practically yanked the receiver off the hook. “Russ, got anything?”
“Euh…is this Oscar Goldman?”
“I’m Oscar Goldman. Who is this?”
“Mister Goldman I’m sorry to bother you this late at night but this is an emergency. My name is Erik Jenson and I have a Steve Austin here who collapsed on my doorstep. He’s alive but in a bad shape.”
Oscar’s head shot up at the news; his eyes shining a mixture of fear of relief at knowing Steve was alive.
“Where are you?” He jogged down the address given and gave instructions not to call any doctor. He would send Steve’s personal physician to administer the proper treatments. “If he should regain consciousness, tell him we’ll be arriving shortly and not to worry.”
“Will do Mister Goldman.” Erik hung up the phone and turned to his wife. “He’s sending an ambulance over.”
“Did he tell you anything else?”
Erik shook his head negatively. “Maybe it’s better this way. He mentioned that this was a matter of National Security. Now I’ve worked in the government long enough to know that there are some things you don’t want to get involved in.”
It wasn’t long before Steve was airlifted to Andrews Air Force Base and driven straight to the Medical Center where Rudy was standing by to give him a complete medical assessment.
In mid morning, Cassie Miller arrived at the hospital after hearing the news of Steve’s return. “How is he?” she asked Rudy as he escorted her to the patient’s room.
“He’s sleeping at the moment. I gave him a thorough examination. The vital signs are strong; there are no signs of internal injuries; no concussion; no burns; no indication as to a possible bionic malfunction. Apart from a few bruises and lacerations he’s in perfect health.”
“That’s not what Oscar told me when he saw him,” she informed as she stood by the bed and gazed at the slumbering patient.
“He was suffering from hypothermia and I did notice a few needle marks in his left arm. We'll have to wait until he wakes up to find out what happened to him.”
Smiling thoughtfully at her Blue Eyes, she reached down and brushed her fingers lightly against his cheek; the mere touch jolting the patient awake to send him screaming with his arms flailing wildly about. “No! Don’t touch me”
“Steve! Steve, calm down, it’s me,” She reassured on a mollifying tone. “You’re safe now. Let go of my arm. It’s okay. You’re back home. No one’s going to hurt you.” She pulled her arm away as soon as Steve’s grip loosened and began rubbing her sore wrist.
“That’s right, Blue Eyes.”
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” he apologized shamefully.
“No, I’m okay, You just scared me, that’s all.”
“I thought you were him.”
Cassie and Rudy exchanged puzzled expressions before staring at Steve dubiously. “What clown?” Rudy probed as he stole a glance up at the monitor.
Steve squished his eyes tightly together to conjure up the face of his tormentor. “He kept taunting me, probing me, poking me. I couldn’t get away from him. He wanted to break me but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I admit I nearly cracked, but luckily I managed to escape before I did.”
“Hey, pal,” Oscar greeted upon entering the room. “You know you’ve made me aged ten years in that last week you’ve been missing. Where were you?”
“I…I don’t know. They must have taken me in my sleep because the next thing I remember is waking up in a meat freezer.”
“He keeps alluding to a clown,” Rudy informed Oscar.
“This guy was loony, Oscar. He kept at me. I thought I could handle him but he kept shooting me drugs after drugs. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
“Did you tell him anything?”
Steve shook his head negatively. “No. I broke out before he could get anything out of me.”
“Are you sure?” Oscar insisted.
Steve took a few seconds to search his memory before sighing heavily, “No.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Drugs. They kept me lethargic I could barely move. I was sick to my stomach,” Steve explained with disdain, his head tossing back and forth as he relived the vividness of the experiment.
Rudy pulled Oscar aside while Cassie tried to calm Steve. “Could be they put him through a brainwashing process. There were three needle marks in his left arm but the toxicological report revealed no trace of any drug whatsoever. Whatever they used must have dissolved pretty quickly.”
“Brainwashing? Steve?” Oscar scoffed knowing Steve would never have let anyone go this far.
“You keep forgetting that Steve is a human being, Oscar. He’s not totally invincible.”
“If that’s true than perhaps he did break after all.”
“That’s a possibility we must consider. Cassie and I will try to get more out of him. If he can’t tell us everything we want to know than we’ll consult with an hypnotist.”
“Good idea. We can’t afford to take any chances. You keep me abreast of his condition?”
“I will Oscar.” Rudy assured with a friendly hand on his arm.
Oscar acknowledged with a nod before stepping over to the bed. “Pal, I have to go catch a flight. You take care now. I’ll see you on Thursday.”
Oscar looked at Cassie and with a motion of the head beckoned her to follow him out of the room.
“Steve, I’m going to get a cup of coffee. I’ll be right back.” Outside the room, she enquired about Oscar’s request, “What’s going on?”
“Right now we don’t know,” Rudy answered. “But I have reason to believe that Steve might have been brainwashed.”
“And if true we can’t let him out of our sight,” Oscar added.
“I can keep him overnight but I suspect he’ll want to leave in the morning and given the situation…”
“Don’t need to explain. I’ll be happy to keep an eye on him. He can either move in with me or I move in with him.”
“Question is: will he agree to the living arrangements?” Oscar winced at the thought of Steve’s flat refusal.
“He will. I tell him it’s either that or I keep him at the hospital.”
“Rudy’s heavy artillery is bound to make him surrender,” Cassie tease.
“It’s settled then. “ Oscar glanced down at his watch,” I really must leave or I’ll miss my flight. Rudy you have my number where I’ll be staying in Denver?”
“Yes. I’ll give it to Cassie just in case.”
“Have a good flight, Boss!”
With two mule-headed people ganging up on him, Steve had no other alternative but to bow to their wishes. He suggested having Cassie over to his house instead, and she in turn brought edibles to fix her Blue Eyes a gourmet feast.
After dinner she treated his aching muscles to a relaxing massage that eased him in the Land of Nod within minutes. She kissed him on the forehead and pulled the bed sheet and quilt to his shoulders before slipping quietly out of his bedroom.
In the hush of night Steve awoke to a loud thud. He sprung up in bed with one loud gasp and nervously scanned the room. Once his breathing under control he eased his head back onto the pillow and ran a hand over his flushed face.
Steve jolted to the sound of the voice coming from a dark corner of the room. “Who’s there?”
The intruder sprung out of the shadows to display his colors. “Remember me?” the clown teased with an annoying squeal.
“How did you get in here?”
“Guess,” he giggled.
“They know about you,” Steve threatened, trying to keep his cool in the presence of his enemy.
“I hope they do. That makes the game all the more amusing.” The clown bounced excitedly from left to right and then motioned to the room across the hall. “What do you say I have some fun with that pretty lady across the hall?” he squeaked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
“Don’t you dare touch her,” Steve warned with a scorching look.
“What’s her name? Cassandra I believe?”
“How do you know that?”
“Why you told me, Stevie boy.”
“I couldn’t have.”
“But you did. And let see what else you told me?” he put a finger underneath his chin and rolled his eyes back and forth in deep concentration. “Oh yes. Your boss’s meeting in Denver.” He put a hand to his mouth and feigned a pity look. “I’m afraid something bad is going to happen to him. And you know why? Because I don’t like him. All grumpy and no fun. Unlike you Stevie.”
Steve flung the covers aside and sat on the edge of the mattress, poised ready to lunge at the pestering buffoon.
“You come and get me, Stevie boy,” he needled with a giddy laugh. Steve pushed on one leg as leverage to go flying across the room and catch the clown, but hit the dresser instead. “Stevie boy, I’m here.” He waved to draw Steve’s attention to the hallway door. “Catch me if you can.” Again Steve shifted into bionic power to leap at the Scaramouch who vanished just as his hands wrapped around his throat.
“Steve? What are you doing?” Cassie exclaimed as she dashed out of her room in a tizzy over the noise coming from Steve’s bedroom.
“Did you see him?”
“The clown.” Steve bounced to his feet and hurried down to the living room.
“Steve!” Cassie was hot on Steve’s heel as he breezed down the staircase to search the main floor for traces of the intruder. “He was here. I saw him.”
“Yes! He knew your name and where Oscar is. I don’t know how he got hold of that information. Oscar’s in danger. I must warn him.” As he picked up the phone to dial, Cassie grabbed his arm and lowered it.
“Don’t. It was only a nightmare.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“Then where is he?” she asked with an eyebrow raised in incredulity. “Steve, come on. Put the phone down.”
He stared at her with a look of defeat and put the receiver back in its cradle. “Cassie I’m telling you, he was here.”
She offered a sympathetic smile and led him back to his bedroom. “Steve I think you ought to speak to a psychologist. This is obviously torturing you. He could help you remember what exactly happened to you during that missing week.”
Steve pulled at her arm. “No. I don’t want to go back upstairs.”
“Okay. You want to talk?”
Steve sank into the couch and buried his head in his hands. “What’s wrong with me?”
Cassie wrapped a friendly arm around his shoulders and spoke softly, “That’s what we want to find out, Blue Eyes. Please let us help you.”
“If I agree to see this shrink, will you come with me?”
She smiled and leaned into him. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. ”
The next day Rudy set up a consultation with eminent psychoanalyst Dr. Jeffrey Green. With Rudy and Cassie present in the room, Steve was put under hypnosis and taken back to that first day of captivity. The gruesome details he gave of his torture made both Rudy and Cassie sick to their stomach.
“I don’t understand this. The injuries aren’t consistent with the torture,” Rudy explained to Cassie. “They couldn’t have done to him what he says they did.”
“Could it have been an hypnotic suggestion, doctor?” Cassie queried the professional after he’d brought Steve’s mind to a level of serenity.
“Hardly but not impossible. He may have been conditioned to believe he was tortured. But my question is why?”
“Their goal may be to drive him insane to a point where he’d turn suicidal or kill someone. He keeps seeing that clown; the same one that apparently inflicted him that barbaric treatment. Last night that creature visited him; told him he knew where Oscar was and that he was in danger. He tried catching it. He was like possessed. The hunted look in his eyes scared the devil out of me.”
“I could try probing deeper but I don’t recommend it right now. He’s exhausted. This could make it worse. We’ll need to set up another appointment.”
“That’s a good idea,” Rudy agreed, turning to Cassie who also nodded her approval.
An hour later Steve escorted Cassie to his car when a man accosted them in the parking lot. Without warning Steve lunged at him and wrapped his hands tightly around his neck. “Die you son-of-a-bitch!”
“Steve! Stop it!” Cassie yelled hysterically, pulling at his shoulders from behind. “Stop it you’re killing him.”
Contrary to Cassie who saw a fellow agent Steve was choking the life out of his clown. “You won’t hurt her.”
“Steve for God’s sake! That’s Harry Stoner!”
Suddenly the haunting image melted into one of an unconscious man. Seized with panic at the mistaken identity, Steve staggered to his feet and ran away.
“Steve! Stop!” Cassie shouted after his friend’s retreating back. Her wails alerted two parking attendants who took over caring for the victim while she hopped in her car and drove after her troubled friend.
Steve halted his bionic sprint once he felt safely out of sight. He wandered aimlessly like a lost soul, sinking deeper into the woods until he came to a steep hill. He teetered dangerously on the edge, contemplating the void beneath his feet. The abyss was beckoning him but he would fight off the urge to dive off the cliff.
“Go ahead!” a voice egged on. “I won’t need to do it for you.”
Steve swirled around and squinted at the familiar face.
“You don’t recognize me, do you old chum,” he flashed a malevolent grin that reminded him of the clown’s. “Come on, think!”
“No, it can’t be. You’re dead!”
“WAS dead. No thanks to you, buddy,” he spat with bitter resentment. He slowly pulled out a gun from his belt and thrust it at Steve. “I’ve been planning my vengeance for five years now and it’s working like a charm.”
“The clown. You were the clown?”
The man frowned in puzzlement “What clown? Uh oh! Seems to me I may have use one too many drug on you,” he said sarcastically.
“Your son’s party six years ago,” Steve recalled. “You were dressed as a clown” Steve exhaled a sigh of relief after deciphering the meaning behind his ‘clown’ vision.
“I was,” the man answered a bit puzzled.
“You were the one who captured me.”
“That’s right. With the help of some willing enemy agents who paid dearly for the information I was able to retrieve from you, Stevie boy.”
“No, that’s impossible. You couldn’t have broken me.”
“Hypnotism and hallucinogens combined work wonders on tough cookies like you, my dear friend. It was as simple as that. We just asked and you answered. Unfortunately you left before the treatment was complete, hence the reason why you have yet done what we programmed you to do.”
The man motioned to the cliff. “This. I guess I need to give you a little shove.”
“You do it and you’re dead!” Cassie snarled from behind, her gun trained on the man’s back. He swirled on his heels and fired a shot in her direction but unfortunately for him the sharpshooter was faster on the draw. She stood motionless with a smoking gun in hand, waiting to repeat her exploit if necessary. “You okay Steve?”
“Yeah,” he breathed out, still reeling from the initial shock.
After ensuring the man was dead, she stepped over to Steve and placed a hand on his arm, shaking it lightly to rouse him out of his trance. “Hey, are you still with me?”
He nodded silently and pulled her into his arms. She could feel his body shiver against hers. She made no move to break the clench knowing Steve needed to release his penned up emotions.
“That was Greg Thomason. He’s a former OSI agent with whom I’d been assigned on a mission abroad. It went sour and he was killed or so I thought he was. He orchestrated this scheme to capture me. They apparently hypnotized and drugged me into telling them what they wanted to know, but I don’t believe it. I couldn’t. Although he did know where Oscar was.”
“You weren’t the only one who knew where he was, Steve. He could have gotten that information from another source. Why did he come after you?”
“Revenge he said. For leaving him behind.”
“But you didn’t know. You’re not responsible.”
“I should have checked. God! Why did I run and leave him behind?” he sobbed, feeling the guilt already consuming him. “The clown I kept seeing. It was him. I recognized the silly grin. He played one at his son’s birthday party a few years ago and I guess I put the mask to the face in my nightmares. But it was so real. Cassie. God it was so real.”
“I’ll call headquarters to send someone over to collect the body and then you and I will go somewhere quiet to talk. I want to know everything than went on during that mission.”
“So you can tell me that it wasn’t my fault.”
“You bet,” she teased light-heartedly, succeeding in wringing a faint smile out of Steve. “I know you Steve Austin. You wouldn’t have abandoned a fellow agent behind if you thought there was the slightest chance he might be alive.”
“You believe that strongly in me, do you?”
“Yep!” she smiled proudly and pulled him into a warm hug.
As they walked back to her car, a maniacal laugh echoed in the wind. In his bedroom, Steve sprung up in bed, drenched in sweat. Had it just been a premonition of things to come on his next assignment?