“Happy landing!” a frenzied woman screeched.
As I slammed onto the shoulder of the road, the hulking intercity bus belched diesel exhaust and pulled away, headed where? Scattered towns and forgotten hamlets, I imagined, their names printed on furious passengers’ ticket stubs but unknown to me. The crowd stared through the bus windows, some scowling, others shaking their fists.
“What the hell happened?” I shouted. “Where am I?”
I felt dizzy. A bright light glowed in the distance. Walk toward the light, I told myself. The ground seemed to roll and whirl, and my knees buckled. My head began throbbing and my thoughts fractured into disorienting bursts and flashes.
When I tried to focus, odd fragments skipped through my mind: Strange words. Jesus on the moon. Red splotches of . . . something.
What else? Try harder. What did I know? I knew my name, remembered where I lived. I could recall almost everything except what happened earlier today.
Stop, stop walking. My cell phone? In my pocket? No. Maybe fell out on the bus? Or when the passengers threw me off? Too dark to look for it. Walk toward the light.
Wait, stop. Wallet? Yes. Everything in it? Ticket stub? From where? To where? Would the ticket stub help me remember what happened? Too dark to see anything. Keep walking. Toward the light.
My head had cleared by the time I reached the tumbledown little motel with the 24-hour diner and bright, lighted sign that said “Stay Here. Cheap. Cable.” My wallet still held my credit cards, cash, identification, and so forth. But no bus ticket stub. That was in my jacket pocket.
The motel night clerk was a woman, about 80 years old I supposed, with blinding peroxide-orange hair, gaudy blue eye makeup, and teeth the color of corn.
“Cable went bust,” she said. “But I give special entertainment if you pay extra.” She winked and handed me my room key.
I woke early the next morning, still in my clothes, atop a dusty bedspread in a grubby room with dingy gray walls. And without special entertainment.
The phone book in the diner next to the motel showed I’d journeyed to a tiny town about 200 miles south of where I lived. The diner waitress chewed gum and called me “honey” when she poured me a mug of steaming coffee. I took a sip but it made my teeth ache, I guess from the beating I took. What the hell should I do now? I couldn’t call the cops. What would I tell them that made any sense? And for all I knew the bus driver already called the cops on me.
I used the diner’s pay phone to call the nearest rental car company, to get home. They said they’d send a shuttle to the diner to pick me up. I didn't need to phone the cubicle boss about missing work. I'd been unemployed over a month.
Next call: My cell carrier. They said they’d already terminated my account, and were investigating an expensive rash of suspicious charges. They could reinstate the account in a few days, after a review. Or I could pay the $1,472 and get the account reinstated now.
I thought about Patty. Our relationship, almost two months in the making, had begun to wobble. Like a kid learning to ride a bike. She says I don't communicate. I guessed I should call her, but what would I communicate? Hi honey, I'm on my way to Teensy Weensy Rent-a-Car in Cow Pasture County. I woke up this morning in a cheap motel, and all I can remember from last night is I started a fight and got thrown off a bus. Wanna get pizza tonight? I'm still unemployed, so you’re buying!
Sure, that should mend things. Communication. Then again, maybe I’d already called her and just didn’t remember. I wondered what I’d said.
First stop in my Teensy Weensy car, a cell phone store. I bought a prepaid, the cheapest they carried, on sale. I tried to check my old cell’s voicemail, just in case, but got a dropped signal. I tried my home voicemail. Dropped signal again. Nice phone.
My brain was still scrambled when I arrived home. Swollen bruises on my face confirmed I'd taken a thrashing. I felt dizzy again, light-headed. Next step: Call my doctor.I thought I’d made an appointment for a check-up weeks ago, but I wasn’t sure.
Look at the calendar. There. Dr. Zarnotski, 4pm yesterday. Had I seen him? I didn’t know, couldn’t remember anything from yesterday afternoon. I clutched at my home phone. My hand trembled a little as I called. A voicemail picked up, a woman.
“You have reached the office of Dr. Michael Zarnotski. Due to the recent tragedy, the office is closed until further notice. If you wish to send flowers, we will receive them here and forward them to the family. If this is an emergency, please call Dr. Wade Winthorpe at …”
She gave a local number. I jotted it down but hung up the phone and fired up my laptop.
My favorite search engine found a current headline from the local newspaper’s website. “Doctor Murdered in Home” it read. I scanned the story.
“Dr. Mikhail ‘Michael’ Zarnotski was discovered shot to death in his home early this morning … Police called the killing a gangland style execution … Neighbors reported seeing the doctor help his wife and son put suitcases into the family’s SUV two days ago … Neither family member has been seen at home since then … ”
The story included a photo of Dr. Zarnotski. Mid-fifties probably, with a genuine smile and a well-tended goatee. A carrot-top in his youth, but nearly bald now. He was tall and fit, I knew, though the photo showed only his face.
What the hell was happening? Had I seen my doctor just before his murder and repressed something awful in my memory? Was my nighttime bus trip a futile attempt to run away? And how should I interpret my frenzied violence on the bus and explosive headaches afterward?
I remembered the ticket stub and called the bus station. Somebody there must know something that would help me. Maybe something I said or did before boarding the bus. I reached a guy named Gene. He said another guy, named Clement, worked the night shift yesterday. Clement was scheduled for the same shift again today, back at 6pm.
“I’ll call then,” I told Gene. “I hope Clement will talk to me.”
“Clement? Oh, I’m sure he’ll talk to you. Why wouldn’t he?”
Worried and flustered, I called Dr. Winthorpe’s office and described my memory problems, but nothing else. After a moment on hold, the receptionist told me to come in right away.
A crowd filled Dr. Winthorpe’s waiting room. None of them looked as sick as I felt.
“When was the last time you saw Dr. Zarnotski?” the receptionist whispered.
“Maybe yesterday afternoon. But my problem is, I don’t know … can’t say what happened.”
She was still staring at my battered face when Dr. Winthorpe emerged from a back hallway and greeted me. A short, pleasant man, he seemed to realize right away who I was.
“You just called,” he said. “Dr. Zarnotski’s patient. I want to examine you immediately.”
“But, doctor,” the receptionist interrupted.
“I know. We have patients waiting. But this could be serious.”
“Very serious,” she said. “Doctor, this man …”
He had already disappeared, back down the hallway. The receptionist grabbed her phone, and I followed Dr. Winthorpe into an examination room. A nurse joined us. I recounted my story to both of them.
“Quite a bus ride,” the doctor said. “Episodic memory loss, night terrors, maybe even violent sleepwalking. And what’s this, a fresh needle puncture?”
He pointed to a speck on my arm and turned to the nurse.
“I’ll need a blood sample.”
She drew one and left.
“We’ll conduct a quick test right now,” the doctor said. “It might tell us something preliminary. I'll go check.”
He left me sitting in the examination room, more confused and frightened than I’d ever felt in my life.
When he returned, Dr. Winthorpe lingered in the hall and gaped through the open doorway, leaving me alone in the exam room. He blinked before speaking and stayed in the hall.
“Preliminary results . . .” He stammered and flushed. “Preliminary results indicate injection of high dosages of a drug type generally known as neuroleptics, as well as a sedative type generally known as benzodiazepines.”
I sat, dumbfounded.
“A third substance,” he continued, “perhaps a slow release amphetamine, could not be conclusively identified through preliminary testing.”
“A sedative, an amphetamine, and … what is the first drug for?” I asked.
He blinked again.
“Typically, it is used in the treatment of violent, hallucinatory schizophrenia,” he said. “But in your case, based on the unusually high dosage and substance mixtures, in my opinion someone was trying to erase your memory.”
“Erase my memory?”
“Please leave now,” he said. “I'll contact you with anything further.”
And he was gone.
I wandered down the deserted hall, back to the waiting room and the exit. Like the rest of the office, the waiting room was empty now.
Except for two men.
They looked like a couple of bulldozers, built wide and thick, geared to smash anything that got in their way. The tall one stood at least six-two, the squat guy maybe five-ten. They both wore wrinkled suits. They both wore mean looks. And they both were looking right at me.
The tall one showed a badge. “Sergeant Detective Kirkwood,” he said. “Homicide.”
The squat guy gripped my arm so hard my hand went numb. “We need to ask you some questions. The receptionist called and told us all about you.”
They shoved me into a corner. Kirkwood said they were investigating the murder of Dr. Zarnotski.
“You were a patient of his?” he asked me.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“I can’t remember, maybe yesterday.”
“Yesterday, but you can’t remember? You think we’re morons?” Kirkwood stared. The squat guy smirked and pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
“I’m under a doctor’s care. For memory problems.”
Kirkwood considered this. “Are you being treated for a mental disorder, sir?”
I felt dizzy again. “I don’t think so. Not right now anyway.”
“Are you a drug user?”
“No. Do I need an attorney?”
“Where were you last night, from 9pm until just after midnight?”
“Two hundred miles from here, on a bus with twenty other people.”
“You think anybody on the bus would remember you?”
“I guarantee it.”
“Yeah?” the squat guy said. “We'll check it out, Mr. Memory.”
“You had a nasty fight with someone,” Kirkwood continued. He scrutinized my battered face, waiting.
“On the bus,” I told him. “Not with the doctor.”
They verified my contact information so they could reach me. Home address, home phone, email. I described my new cell phone problems, but gave them the number anyway. I promised myself a better phone with more reliable service, tomorrow. Any carrier, any price. Kirkwood handed me his card and said he’d be in touch. I was considered a “person of interest,” he told me.
I thought afterward how tough it might be for the cops to find the bus passengers. Where had they traveled by now? The detectives could track down the driver, of course, but he had his job to protect. I doubted the employee handbook encouraged throwing someone overboard and abandoning him on the side of the road. The driver’s memory might conveniently get worse than mine.
Was there anything I could do to unravel what the hell was happening to me? Yes! Call the bus station again. Maybe the night shift clerk saw something, Clement. His shift would start in less than an hour. I wasn't hungry so simply rested in my car, waiting, thinking, struggling to make sense of the most recent 24 hours of my life. I soon realized I couldn't.
Time to call Clement. I hoped he had shown up for his shift. Gene seemed certain Clement would talk to me, but why? And what might he recall?
Someone answered on the first ring. “Bus depot, you got Clement.”
Thank God. I gave him my name and crossed my fingers. “Clement, I really need your help. I was in the depot last night, but I wasn’t feeling well at all. Maybe someone else had to buy my ticket for me. I don’t remember. You were working … ”
“Yessir,” he interrupted. “Gene here told me you called before. You was the fella who tied on a good one, was sleeping it off on the bench there, then got all rambunctious on Uncle Ned’s route down south. Uncle Ned’s the bus driver, my uncle. He says you was … ”
“Clement, do you remember … ”
“Talk about tying one on. One time, I went over to this titty bar on Route 4. There was these two off-duty strippers and we got to drinkin’ bourbon and beer. Well, I don’t need to tell a fella like you what happened next, but here goes … ”
“Clement. Who bought my ticket last night?”
“Yessir. The tall fella, bald, with the little red beard. Beard reminded me of my cousin Earl, but his beard ain’t little, just red. And he ain’t tall nor bald neither. But I surely remember that little red … ”
The phone signal began breaking up. “Clement, I have to go.”
“Alright then, but you’re missin’ a real fine titty bar story.”
The phone connection dropped and I sank into the car seat. What the hell was happening?
Tall, bald, little red beard: Dr. Zarnotski. My doctor had sent his family away, and then drugged me and put on me on a bus to nowhere, just before he was executed by gangsters.
I tried calling Detective Kirkwood. The call went through. I told Kirkwood what Clement had revealed.
“Talk to Clement yourself,” I suggested.
“You’re already in the clear. We got the story straight from Doc Zarnotski.”
“My God. He’s alive?” “Hell, no. Dead as disco.”
“Then how could he … ”
“He emailed his attorney a letter to be opened on his death. A rambling confession, really. The attorney just called, gave me as much of the story as she could. The doc was dealing drugs. Pills and medical opiates, mostly. Also some antipsychotics. He was trying to cover himself and protect you, with the injection and the bus ride, because of something you saw. We don’t know what. Remember anything yet?”
“No,” I whispered. “Nothing.”
“It’s hard to know everything because the doc’s letter was a mess. He definitely was an addict, pretty far gone too. He’d started selling to a couple of Russian thugs, hard cases. They were pressuring him, threatening his family. No doubt they killed him. One is a big guy with a tattoo on his face. Jesus hanging on the cross. You see anybody like that?”
“I can’t remember.”
I thought about the results of my blood test. “Detective Kirkwood. You mentioned antipsychotic drugs.”
“The Russian mob sometimes uses them on their own enforcers. To calm them, keep them under control. These are not people you want to bump into.”
I asked the question grinding in my gut. “Detective, did you tell me all this because … am I safe?”
He paused a beat. “It’s a dangerous world. Nobody’s safe.”
My appetite for food seemed gone for good, but I drove to a popular chain restaurant to try to eat. The restaurant was bright and lively, filled with the aromas of steaming soup and grilled meat and the sounds of ordinary people having ordinary fun. I wished I was one of them.
Two hours later, I pulled into my driveway, my dinner uneaten, plopped cold into a take-out bag. Home again. Warm, inviting, home.
I got as far as the porch. A noise in the night made me turn and look. A man holding an assault rifle rushed toward me, his dark clothing almost blending into the night. He gripped the rifle in one hand while making a slicing gesture across his throat with the forefinger of his other hand. I pitched the take-out bag and vaulted into the house. Bolt the door, I told myself. Call 911. Panicky and shuddering, I wondered if the cops could get here fast enough to keep me alive. I bolted the door. But I didn't call 911.
Because it was too late. Two Russian gangsters were waiting in my living room. One with a gun. One with a knife.
The knifeman, tall and bulky with jagged teeth and a massive shaved head, stepped behind me. But not before I saw the ornate tattoo covering the right side of his face, ear to nose, temple to neck. Jesus on the cross, red tears of blood dripping from his tortured eyes.
The gunman, holding an automatic pistol, remained seated on my couch. Much shorter than the knifeman, he looked like a rough middleweight brawler: Immense shoulders, a feral gaze, and sandy hair cut too close to hide the white scars and purple scabs mottling his scalp. He pointed me toward the chair across from him.
His accented voice was low and quiet. “Sit. Be comfortable like me.”
I sat, shaking.
The knifeman moved behind my chair, standing so close I felt his breath and smelled his body odor.
“The doctor was selling you drugs?” the gunman asked.
I shook my head no.
“But you saw him sell drugs to us. One time, but many drugs. And saw mad arguing until the doctor gave me my shot, my medicine?”
“I don't know.”
His words “my medicine” finally registered. The guy with a Jesus tattoo on his face and a knife in his hand wasn’t the one taking antipsychotics.
Silent nearly a minute, the gunman fixed a chilly glare on me.
“You don't know,” he said. “Don’t remember anything, from your big injection?”
He surveyed me another moment. “It seems you really do not remember us. Compliments to the dead doctor. But I could not let him live. Or you.”
He motioned to the knifeman, who lumbered to the front window and reached to shut the curtains. The gunman stood and aimed his automatic at my forehead.
“Will be best to close your eyes,” he told me.
Before I could close them, I heard the crack of two shots fired. Both Russians fell to the floor, bleeding and convulsing. The front door exploded off its hinges and two SWAT cops burst in, one coming high, one low, both carrying assault rifles.
That’s when I blacked out.
Kirkwood and his squat detective were watching my house, they told me afterward. Kirkwood’s investigators discovered my personal records were missing from Dr. Zarnotski’s office. So Kirkwood deduced the Russians had taken them and might hunt me down.
When he saw the gangsters enter my house, Kirkwood called in the SWAT guys. They arrived seconds before I did. The man who rushed toward the porch with an assault rifle was a cop trying to signal me to keep quiet and stay out of the house. When the knifeman moved away from me and the gunman stood and took aim, snipers shot them both through the window and the two SWAT guys busted through the door. Kirkwood had tried to call me an hour before but my worthless cell phone kept dropping him.
“You almost screwed up the whole operation,” the squat detective said to me. “Get a decent cell phone.”
The next day, I did. I used it to call Patty and send flowers to Dr. Zarnotski’s family.
Notes: This story is an original work of creative fiction. All people and events described or depicted are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual individuals or events is unintended and coincidental. Specifics about Russian criminal tattoos and the general use and potential side effects of certain broad classes of medical drugs are based on information from several published sources. All descriptive details, however, are fictional and dramatized.