He awoke from a dream of nightmarish shrieking to the red spray of molten sparks flooding the darkened cabin of a sedan, his skull flying apart at the seams. He found pale, soft hands upon the wheel, not fully understanding whose they were, or where his sense of dangerous velocity originated from. The acrid smell of burning metal stung his nostrils along with a deafening screeching of metal on metal. The faint odor of roasting flesh and hair hung about him, embers stinging his right cheek beyond tolerance.
He glanced right, seeing the spray of sparks founting into the open passenger car window, slowly, faintly becoming aware that it was that side of the car laid against a highway guardrail. He reached for the left side of his head, convinced it had caught fire, resisting the urge to pat it roughly to extinguish any flame there. A psychedelic kaleidoscope of colors rippled over his brain, bursting behind his closed eyes in painful ecstasy, almost robbing him of consciousness once again. He fought the urge, hanging desperately onto lucidity, head pounding, heart thudding achingly in his chest.
He dare not contemplate what the soft, wet membrane beneath a small dig of jagged, broken bone was just above and behind his left ear, drawing his hand away, glancing at the speedometer: 193 kilometers per hour.
“Motherfucker!” Screamed someone in a strange accent from a short distance off to his left, demanding his attention beyond the roar of metal on metal.
A young Asian man brandishing a large handgun, hanging from the passenger window of a Lexus less than a meter away screamed at him, spittle flying in the wind. The Asian kid leveled the gun at him. He ducked instinctively, slamming on the breaks. A sound like a thick branch snapping was followed by an explosion of fire just past his seat rest, and a blood curdling scream.
He rose just in time to see the Asian boy’s arm dangling backwards at the elbow from the car window, sans the hand gun as the Lexus careened away, crossing traffic, causing havoc with the other motorists. The boy’s screams faded away with distance and the blaring of horns.
A distal humerus compound fracture with complete tare of the transverse ligament, he thought. He’ll die from shock sooner than blood loss from the catastrophic injury crossing his mind. He glanced down at where the driver’s side rear view mirror used to be, understanding that his breaking (the irony not lost on him) caused the possibly fatal injury as the boy‘s arm encountered it during his deceleration. A faint urge to help the poor, careless sonofabitch fleetingly crossed his consciousness.
Then realization struck like a thunderbolt. Peter, Paul, and Mary, he was a doctor. No. A surgeon. A trauma surgeon and not just anyone. The best. He navigated the BMW away from the showering array of the side guardrail, extinguishing the fount of molten sparks.
Hundred dollar bills fluttered about him like butterflies in the surreal windstorm of the aired cabin, swirling out of the open windows. He calmly found the automatic passenger window switch, raising it. He tried the driver one to stem the flow of cash out of that side, only hearing a protesting whine. He quickly realized that there was no longer a driver window.
That was it: he’d been shot in the head. The projectile passed through it, deflected as it shattered the glass, only grazing him. He gingerly touched the spot where the side of his head stung so badly, feeling glass embedded just above his ear. He pulled his hand away, finding bloodied fingertips. The swarm of bills subsided once the passenger window closed.
An exit from the highway came into view. He decelerated yet again, the rear of the sedan sliding out of control as he mounted it. He compensated by spinning the wheel in the same direction as the slide. The sedan slid the opposite way. He compensated again in kind. The sedan traversed the exit curve sideways, tires screaming in protest. He regained control, merging with thinner traffic and tall streetlights now raking the darkness of the sedan cabin.
He glanced into the center rearview mirror finding a man much older and better looking than he imagined. He thought, he could apprehend the events of the evening leading to this… His stomach turned. He belched, retching, tasting beer and tequila, swallowing back the vomit in his mouth. He had been drinking. In fact, he was hammered, whomever he was. Not good. Not good. His mind raced. The situation, his drinking, caused a dire feeling to overcome him that he couldn’t quite comprehend. His mind moved over the events of the evening again, and again.
That was the problem. His drinking. He tried in vain to understand the dire consequences of it. The gravity of intoxication was much more serious for him though he grappled for why. He saw another exit from this secondary highway, taking it. He continued on in confusion, perfunctorily turning here and there beneath the street lights of an affluent South Eastern Chicago neighborhood. Something overcame him. He fished his wallet out of the left breast pocket of his suit coat, allowing it to fall open in his lap. His driver’s license came into view periodically beneath the street lights.
Ian Whitehurst, that was his name. The man from the rearview mirror stared back from the plastic card with a stupid smile. His cell phone rang. He fumbled through multiple pockets before retrieving it.
“Babe…”came a sultry voice.
An audible sigh came over the phone, then, “Who’s with you?”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, ‘You don’t know?’”
“I don’t know.”
Honey? He thought, quickly thumbing the remainder of the wallet flaps for photos. A beautiful, older woman stared back at him. He found another, two older boys and a girl. His heart ached for reasons, he didn’t understand. Peter, Paul, and Mary came to mind, again.
“Listen closely. Have you been drinking?”
“Honey. You don’t realize it now but you have something called Alcoholic Retrograde Amnesia. You haven’t had a drink in over three years.”
Something about her tone, he couldn’t quite place unsettled Ian.
“I need you to get home right now. Can you?”
Ian found himself in the affluent, suburb of Oakbrook, Chicago. The houses slowly grew larger, the lots more spacious than anything, he recalled, yet all was familiar somehow. The surgeon in him turned what this woman, whomever she was, was saying over and over again in his mind. She was right. He was aware of the condition that she claimed, he had.
“Yes,” he said.
“You have to trust me. I swear it will all be better when you sober up in the morning.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’m almost home. I’m not sure how, but, I am almost there, okay?”
“Thank God,” she said.
Ian grew more uncomfortable for reasons, he didn’t understand. He contemplated what she said about his condition. She was right. He did have ARA, Alcoholic Retrograde Amnesia; it plagued him in high school and college. But it didn’t rob him of his anterograde memory. Ian combed this immediate memory again and again searching for his reasoning to distrust her.
“Who is this?” he said, finally.
Long moments passed with a sadness from her that was palpable over the cell phone despite the separation of distance.
“Cynthia, babe… Your…partner, Cynthia.”
The previous 4-6 hours was his life’s only purchase. Maybe it was some cohort of Cynthia’s that had enticed him into going out. That wasn’t all though. He could handle a drink or two. He tried minding moderation, but this guy…Matt, that was it, Matt seemed intent on challenging him somehow. There was something else about the whole affair. They left a strip club together and someone was waiting, waiting to rob them…
Ian had automatically navigated the side streets and cul-de-sacs to the brick mansion, he somehow recognized as his home, pulling into the open garage. He exited the sedan--a BMW he noticed--opening the back door, retrieving the young Asian kid’s hand gun, placing it in the waist band of his pants, in the small of his back. He now recalled the money from the open satchel flying around the car; it must have been struck by the Asian kid’s stray bullet. He quickly gathered most of it up, placing it in the trunk. The first installment someone had paid for his assassination? He wasn’t sure if Cynthia was the instigator but knew, she was involved somehow.
He moved to the doorway, he knew would lead him into the mud room, passing the laundry machines, pausing, gun raised, at the hall at the opposite end. Quietude and dim light conspired to lull him once again. He instinctively rubbed his eyes, causing daggers of pain to prick him back into lucidity, the molten sparks of the BMW cabin flooding his mind again…
Cynthia’s voice stilled him…
“Hello… I have a gun!”
Ian spun round the corner, leveling the gun toward Cynthia’s startled scream. A Cynthia whom wasn’t the woman in his wallet but, a much younger, more beautiful one, stared back, brandishing a Sig Saur 9mm at him. A woman, even his ego was hard pressed to accept as his ‘partner.’
“Goddamnit what is your problem?!” she yelled, lowering the gun, moving toward him.
She froze, raising her Sig Saur 9mm again. He chilled a little at the thought of just how hair triggered a Sig Saur is without realizing why it came to mind. He felt the weight of his, Colt .45, he thought. Better still.
“Fuck! I almost killed you. What is wrong…?”
He moved toward her. She raised the Sig Saur 9mm higher, matching him as they backed into a spacious foyer, slowly turning about each other like equally matched predators. A huge kitchen and living room lay beyond in opposite directions.
“—Stop! Just stop with--with the ‘babe’ shit, okay! I know what happened! …Where are the kids?”
Cynthia blanched a little, eyes widening in confusion, a hint of deep pain played at the corners of them as if he were being intentionally hurtful then… She lowered the Sig Saur 9mm, laughing, laughing so hard, she lost breath, head tilting back.
“The boys and Mary…?
She laughed harder still.
“Oh, you are brilliant. Sick. But brilliant. You really need to stop getting so immersed in your subjects. Maybe it was just the booze. Why did you get so drunk knowing what would happen?”
He stared into her blue eyes, drinking her blond hair, short, lean frame in, the suppleness of it shaping short cotton pajamas and a half shirt--her muscular stomach, and tiny bare feet, toes painted perfectly. He glanced about the huge expanse of this perfect home; it was all too perfect, yet so natural to her. His every muscle, his mind, and head ached--longed for all of it to be true. He lowered the gun since she had, noticing for the first time that the whole left side of his ridiculously expensive suite was soaked in blood.
Cynthia seemed to share his sentiment, her laughter trailing off. She regarded the bloodied suit.
“I’m sorry,” she said moving toward him again.
“No!” He screamed partially raising the gun again.
“Look! This was your idea! Your obsession. You’re just drunk. I told you that.”
He was sober enough now. His lucidity returned in crashing waves of images, he didn’t understand. He and Cynthia writhing under sweat soaked sheets for hours exploring each other’s bodies like teenagers--him awaking to find her making breakfast nude, giggling; the way she always slapped his ass when he left the house, this house. He succumbed, exhausted, placing the .45 in the hip pocket of his suit coat.
“You always insist on playing both ends against the middle,” she said cautiously moving toward him. “You pose as your assignments and clean them out before the job, before taking the payment… Double dipping is what you call it; remember? Hell, you even look just like him. You‘ve had surgery in the past to look like others.”
He smelled her as she closed in, faint rosemary and a touch of perfume, just enough to make him heady.
“The problem with people cleaning their accounts out before being killed is, it happens to make enemies. Enemies of the people that pay you money for a job, not a robbery; it draws attention honey.”
Cynthia slowly, gently, placed each hand on both of his shoulders, tilting her head to gaze into his eyes. He gazed back despite dreading it.
“You’re not Ian Whitehurst darling. You’re the man that killed him. Where do you think this all comes from,” she finished, glancing around, finally embracing him.
So much drove an unnerving dread to sweep over him in her tightening, sensual embrace: Cynthia still hadn’t used his real name. Who else would know of his condition, his vulnerability when intoxicated, his strategy? Foremost of all, the thought fleetingly crossing his burnt, still sparking, and aching consciousness: Cynthia never put the Sig Saur 9mm away. The tip of it lightly brushed his right ear, her grip tightened around his neck now as she whispered into his left one,
“Did you get the money?”
Photographs by Doug Strong.