A line of light. Greenish white, then gone.
The sound of dishes being washed, chink chink chink, or is it bells, distant bells?
Silence, a roaring silence like a never-ending explosion, and a sudden pounding in the chest, hard, like someone’s hitting me with their fists, thumping into me, breaking my ribs. Panic, flight, a jerk in the spine and the legs, prepare to run. Fear.
Everything is white and blurred. I think there’s a TV on somewhere, a screen of some kind. Too much light. Movement, vague circles white out of white, puffy clouds coming closer and receding. Is this death?
A face at the end of a long tunnel, like looking down the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, ridiculously far away and tiny, so tiny it makes me laugh, the breath coming out through my nose.
The face getting closer, a brown sun in a blue sky, white clouds, coming towards me like a dolly shot in a movie, taking up more and more of the sky until all I can see is brown skin and white teeth and eyes that look into mine and a mouth that smiles and speaks, hey, you’re awake, hey Dan, how are you doing, buddy? Welcome back.
And then the clouds cover the sun and the picture goes down to a line like on the old TV at home, a line and then a dot and closedown.
It was the pain that woke me up in the end, a sharp sensation that cut through the last of my dreams. Awake, alive, and hurting. The pain is real, so I must be real.
My eyes felt like they’d been tumble-dried and rolled in sand. I tried to lift my hand to rub them, but it weighed about a hundred pounds. Craning my neck, I looked down at it, lying on the white covers of the bed. Looked like my hand—tanned, gnarly, hairy— but didn’t feel like it. Didn’t feel at all, in fact. Shit, I thought, it’s been chopped off and left on top of the bed. It’s no longer part of me. Am I going to get robot parts?
But the pain. Back to the pain. It was somewhere further down—below the hips, starting around my ass and travelling down to my right foot. Real strong good old-fashioned pain. At least I could feel my legs. I know lots of ex-soldiers who can’t.
Jesus fucking Christ, it was beyond pain, it was getting into red-hot-blade territory, and I must have yelled because there was a sudden movement beside me, to the left of the bed, just beyond my field of vision, and then a voice.
“Ah! Dan! You’re back.”
Sounded familiar, like a dear friend, except I don’t have any friends, let alone dear ones, and God knows it couldn’t be my family.
“Haahmmmfff.” That was meant to be “who’s that?” but my mouth wasn’t working any better than my hand. Fuck, I thought, if my dick doesn’t work either then I’m in real trouble. That made me laugh, which came out through my nose then got stuck and turned into a coughing fit. My lungs, it seemed, had been filled with hot ash.
“Okay, okay.” An arm slipped round my shoulders, lifting me gently. “Take it easy.”
Then the coughing made me belch, and I would have puked if there had been anything in my stomach to bring up other than a bit of foul-tasting bile that dribbled down my chin and neck. I tried to wipe it away, but of course—no hands.
“Take it easy, Dan.” A soft cloth cleaned my mouth, and I was lowered back on to the pillows.
That’s when it twigged. I’m a vegetable. Something has happened to me and I’ve lost the use of my limbs, I can’t control my mouth, I probably have to piss through a tube and shit into a diaper. I always wondered about those guys who come back from war zones like this. Do they know what’s going on—how bad it is? Well, apparently they do. Great.
“Do you have any pain?”
“Mmmmmm.” I couldn’t nod or form words, but I guess the intonation put it across.
“A lot of pain?”
“Okay. I’m calling the doctor.”
He stepped away from the bed, into my field of vision, and for the first time I saw him, five foot eight inches of athletic American male poured into a nurse’s uniform, a handsome face that I recognized from somewhere, a dream perhaps.
He spoke into a phone while I checked his back for wings. No: he appeared to be human, and mortal, which meant I must be alive, if not kicking.
He sat on the edge of the bed and put his warm, living hand on my cold, dead fingers. Maybe not so dead. Maybe a flicker of response. “He’ll be here in a minute. Hang in there, Dan.” He smiled, and I tried to smile back, which led to more drooling. He smiled and dabbed. “Pain relief is coming.”
It occurred to me with a sudden jolt that I had no idea where I was. I’ve heard the question asked in a million movies—where am I, Doc?—but now I couldn’t form the words. I glanced around, hoping for clues. My vision was still blurred, but I made out something that looked like the stars and stripes, high up on the wall. A US base, then, if not actually on home soil.
The pain blasted back, as if my shinbone was being sawn through, and I tensed up, squeezing my eyes shut, all sorts of hell going on in parts of my body I couldn’t identify. A general cacophony of pain. And above it all, a gentle squeeze of my hand.
“Can you look at me, Dan?”
I opened my eyes and squinted out. A handsome face always makes me feel better.
“That’s it. Try and listen. My name’s Luiz. I’m a nurse, and I’ve been looking after you for the last few days, since you got here. You’ve been unconscious for quite a long time, but you’re going to be ne. There’s no brain damage.”
I waited for the but . . .
“Your leg was pretty smashed up. They’ve pinned it back together, and now we’re just going to let it heal.”
But . . .
“The good news is, if it hurts, it’s mending. If you couldn’t feel anything, I’d be worried. The more it hurts, the better.” That sounded like something I’ve said to a lot of young men before, which made me laugh again, with the same messy results. Luiz cleaned me up.
“Okay, okay. You’d better not laugh any more. Take a few deep breaths, it’ll help with the pain until the doctor gets here. I’m just going to keep talking. Listen to my voice, and look into my eyes.”
No great hardship. Beautiful brown eyes . . .
“You’re in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.”
The Navy Med. I’d been here before, maybe four, five times in a career of being shot, blown up, and beaten for Uncle Sam.
“You arrived three days ago after spending two days in a military hospital in Baghdad.”
Baghdad. That rang a bell. Baghdad. That’s where I was. And now I’m here in Bethesda. Baghdad, Bethesda, Baghdad, Bethesda, Beghthesda, Big Bad, Bethlehem, Bthzzzzhzhzzh . . .
His voice muffled, fading, shutters falling again, into a chasm, a deep black chasm that might be death.
In this latest Dan Stagg novel, we find that Dan Stagg is dead . . . at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned.
In the Ring brings Dan Stagg to James Bond territory in an exciting story of concealed identities, beautiful double agents, corruption, power, and passion.
Find more Titles by author James Lear, aka., Rupert Smith