Friday, September 18, 2020

A Pound of Flesh by William Quincy Belle

Chuck Bianchi wakes up missing a finger, with no memory of how it happened; by William Quincy Belle.

Chuck blinked and stared at the ceiling. He turned his head to one side and looked at the dresser across the room. That was his dresser. This was his bedroom. How did he get here? He remembered dinner, cleaning up the dishes, and watching TV. Then nothing.

The digital display of the clock on the side table showed 7:28am. Twelve hours had passed. Had he blacked out? There had been no alcohol, so he couldn't have gotten drunk and passed out. Had he suffered some health event like a stroke? What the hell had happened?

The clock-radio sounded. Chuck slapped the top of the device, and quiet returned. He lay there, arm outstretched, feeling dazed. Something didn't seem right.

He rubbed his forehead, squinting as he concentrated. Try as he might, nothing came to mind. He turned his hand back and forth and examined it. He shifted position. The left leg moved, and the right leg moved. His body seemed to be functioning okay.

He raised his left hand and stared at it, puzzled. It was wrapped in white gauze, and it felt odd. There didn't seem to be a normal level of sensation. Instead, there was numbness. Was this because of the bandage?

He tried to wiggle his fingers. That seemed to be okay, just impeded by the gauze. What had happened? Had he been in an accident? But he'd been at home. Hadn't he?

Chuck rolled to his left side and propped himself up on his elbow. He looked around the bedroom. Everything looked normal, nothing out of place. If there was an explanation, it wasn't obvious.

He swung his legs around and sat on the edge of the bed. He was dressed. Looking down, he pulled on the front of his shirt. These were the clothes he was wearing last night. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees. He turned his hand over, studying the gauze. There was a metal clip holding the end of the gauze strip over the back of his hand. What the hell?

Chuck stood and looked at himself in the mirror over the dresser. Except for the bandage on his left hand, he looked as he always did.

He walked into the bathroom and stood at the sink. He turned on the cold water and reached out with both hands, stopping short when he saw the gauze. Putting down his left hand, he leaned over and used his right hand to splash water on his face. He dried his face with took a hand towel from a side rack, and then stood looking at his reflection as if his image held the key to this mystery.

There was a pill bottle on the shelf under the mirror, beside the cup holding his toothbrush. He picked it up and read the label - oxycodone. There was no other information, no pharmacy, no doctor's name. Chuck looked at his hand and then back at the bottle. He set it down and inspected the metal clip on the back of his hand. Protrusions at either end acting like teeth dug into the gauze, holding it in place. He touched the clip and hesitated.

Shifting the clip, he pulled the metal away from the gauze. He seized the free end and unwound the strip from his hand. The wrapping was thorough. There were some red marks, but whatever bleeding there may have been seemed to have stopped.

Chuck unwrapped the last strip and stared at his hand. He couldn't comprehend what he saw. His little finger, his pinkie, was gone. He twisted his hand to check the stump. The finger had been amputated.

He felt light-headed and almost lost his balance, stumbling before grabbing the edge of the sink. His stomach heaved and he tasted bile in the back of his throat. He rushed to kneel in front of the toilet, lifting the seat. His body convulsing as he tried to throw up, but his stomach was empty, and he only coughed up bitter-tasting acid. He spat, cleared his throat, and spat again. Putting his right forearm on the side of the toilet bowl, he remained propped up, trying to collect himself, wondering if he might vomit again.

Chuck flushed the toilet and glanced at his missing finger. A shiver shot up his spine. He closed his eyes as a wave of fright passed through his being. Holding the injury out of sight, he used his right hand to help himself back up. He picked up the gauze and only half-looked as he wrapped up his hand. The sight of the amputation chilled him to the core.

He fiddled with the metal clip and secured the gauze. He then stood in front of the mirror, arms at his sides, and stared at the ashen middle-aged man looking back at him. Who could help him? Who should he go see?

He pocketed the pill bottle and then walked back to the bedroom and looked at the clock. 8am. Why not the hospital? Maybe they could give him some answers.

Chuck got his cellphone, wallet, and keys, and then put on his shoes. He discovered he had to do things differently. His gauze-wrapped hand didn't fit in his pocket very well, and the bandage prevented him from fully grasping anything. Besides, if he used his hand, was there a risk of bleeding?

He drove to the hospital and hurried to Emergency.

"How can I help you?" a nurse asked, sitting behind the reception desk.

Chuck cast an eye at her name tag. "Betty, I'd like to see somebody about an amputated finger."

"Did you have an accident?"

He held up his hand. "No, I mean, the finger has been amputated and dressed."

"Is this a follow-up? Are you experiencing any pain?"

"No. No pain. I got up this morning and discovered my finger had been amputated."

Betty's eyes flicked back and forth before settling on him. "I'm sorry, when was the finger amputated?"

"I don't know. Sometime last night."

"Where was the surgery performed? Which hospital?"

"I don't know."

Betty remained mute.

"I know. I know. This sounds crazy. I don't know what happened or when it happened. I'm hoping you can help me clarify this."

"May I have your ID?"

Chuck fumbled with his wallet. Having a hand bandaged presented a challenge. "Driver's license. Health card."

Betty typed, clicked, and asked the standard questions. "Dr. Birk will see you in Exam Room 3. Let me take you over."

The door swung open and in stepped a fortysomething balding man in a white lab coat. "Good morning, Mr. Bianchi. I'm Dr. Birk. What can we do for you this morning?" He sat at a side desk, put down a clipboard, turned and smiled.

"I have an amputated finger."

"Let's have a look." Birk rolled forward on his chair and took hold of Chuck's left hand. He looked at the bandage, turning the hand over. Removing the metal clip, he set about unwrapping the hand. He leaned in and studied the finger stub. "Well done. Sealed properly. Little bleeding. This will turn out very well for you. Any pain?"

"I have some oxycodone."

"To be taken only as needed. Have you arranged for post-operative management?"

"Sorry?"

"Change of dressing, physical therapy, counseling."

"Doctor, I don't think you understand why I'm here."

"Oh?" Birk sat upright and gave him a curious look.

"I woke up this morning and discovered my finger missing."

Birk stared at him, mystified.

"I'm not kidding. I woke up in bed, fully clothed, with my hand bandaged. When I removed the gauze, I discovered my little finger was gone. It had been amputated."

"At which hospital -"

"No! No hospital. I wasn't anywhere. I had dinner last night, and then watched TV afterward. The next thing I know, I woke up this morning with no finger."

Birk's gaze darted around. "Losing a finger can be traumatic."

"I have no recollection of anything."

"What kind of accident did you have?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I can't remember anything. As I said, I had dinner last night, and this morning, I have no finger."

"You don't remember an accident? Did you slice it off while making dinner?"

"I don't remember any accident but I remember it didn't occur during dinner," Chuck said, agitated.

Birk rubbed his chin and then turned to a computer terminal. He consulted the clipboard, typed something, and used the mouse to click several times. "You've never been to this hospital."

"No. I'm new to the area."

"Do you have your own doctor?"

"No. Not yet."

"Have you been to any other facility? A clinic, perhaps?"

"No."

"Are you a doctor? Do you have medical expertise?"

Chuck gave him an odd look. "You don't think I did this, do you? Can somebody amputate their own finger, suture it up or whatever, and then forget about the whole thing?"

"That seems farfetched, but we need to explore all possibilities." Birk stood up and came around to Chuck. "I want to examine your head."

The doctor touched the cranium in several places, feeling the skull with his fingertips. He leaned in, moving hair back and forth while examining the top and sides. "Any headache?"

"No."

Birk tilted Chuck's head left and right, forward and back and then turned it in both directions. "Any pain?"

"When I got up this morning, my hand was numb."

"And now?"

"It's throbbing. In fact, the level of pain has been going up."

Birk sat on his stool and came up to Chuck. "Watch my finger." Birk put his finger in front of Chuck's face and moved it back and forth. He reached for an instrument. "Look straight ahead and try not to blink." He leaned forward, squinting into the device, shining a bright light into Chuck's eyes.

The doctor leaned back, pursing his lips.

"Well?" Chuck said.

"Other than your finger, I don't see any obvious sign of trauma. You're alert and responsive, so I can't say there's anything wrong at the moment. Did something happen last night? You're saying you can't remember something as significant as a finger amputation leads me to two possibilities. One, you forgot. Two, you were unconscious when it happened."

Chuck looked at the doctor, startled. "Unconscious? Really?"

"I'd like to take some blood for analysis and do a CT scan of your head," Birk said, typing at the computer.

There was a knock at the door, and it opened.

"Betty," Birk said, "please take Mr. Bianchi for blood and a scan. I've set things up. They're available for him right now."

"Yes, Doctor." Betty gestured.

"We'll leave the bandage off for the moment, Mr. Bianchi. Betty will rewrap it after your scan."

"If you'd come this way," Betty said.

Chuck followed her to another room where he sat for a while until a nurse drew blood. He then changed into a gown. As he waited, he held his hand up and then put it back down, trying to find a position that felt comfortable. It was now hurting like hell, and he had a hard time concentrating. He ran over everything he had done last night. He came up with nothing new.

Betty knocked. "Please follow me."

They slipped into another examination room where a technician got him laid out on a scanning table.

A voice came out of a loudspeaker. "Please don't move, Mr. Bianchi. I'm going to start the scan."

The pain was almost excruciating, and Chuck had to focus to remain still. He listened to the clicking noise as it helped to distract him. This wasn't how he had planned his day.

"Good, Mr. Bianchi. Please be patient; we're almost done."

More clicking.

"Thank you, Mr. Bianchi. You may get dressed now."

Chuck returned to the room and got dressed. His hand hurt. It really hurt. He stood there a moment, and then took out the pill bottle and flipped off the top. He put a pill in his mouth and leaned over a sink with his mouth under the faucet. Would one be enough?

He looked out the door and saw no one, so he wandered back down the hall toward reception.

"All done?" Betty came around the counter and bandaged his hand. "Dr. Birk would like to see you this afternoon at two pm."

The wall clock showed 11am.

Chuck drove home and stood in the driveway, looking at his bungalow, an ordinary, older home with a newly renovated interior furnished with the latest in modern amenities. He walked to the front step and tried the front door. It was locked. He stepped to the bay window of the living room and ran his hand along the screens, looking at the seams. They all looked intact.

Going to the side of the house, he looked at each window. He knelt down and peeked in the basement windows, running a hand over the glass and frame. Everything seemed normal.

He continued around the perimeter of the house, finding nothing untoward. Nothing was out of place. Nothing appeared to have been jimmied.

Chuck entered the house and scoured each room, checking all windows, the back door, the side door to the garage, and then combed through the basement. He marched upstairs and investigated both bedrooms and the bathroom. He opened the ceiling panel in the hallway and unfolded the ladder to the small attic. Other than two vents, there were no openings.

He meandered to the kitchen, contemplating his predicament. Should he go to the police? What exactly would he tell them? He made himself a sandwich, fumbling with packaging with the limited use of his left hand. It was a challenge contending with trivial tasks under this novel restriction. He snorted in frustration at his lack of coordination.

Chuck ate at the kitchen table. He kept glancing at his bandaged hand. It was puzzling. It was frustrating. But he also felt violated. A piece of his body had been taken from him without his permission, without his knowledge. A twinge of queasiness came over him. It was one thing to have a possession stolen, but one's own flesh?

After another pill, Chuck made his way back to the hospital and announced himself at reception. Another nurse led him to Exam Room 3.

Dr. Birk joined him and brought up a computer display. "I don't see edema or hemorrhage. No tumors. There seems to be no sign of a stroke."

"That's a good thing. But it doesn't explain why I can't remember anything," Chuck said.

"I have preliminary results from your blood test. Health-wise, you seem to be okay. We confirmed that you have oxycodone in your system, but that corresponds to the pill bottle you showed me. However, if you were unconscious, I see nothing else, drug, hormone imbalance, or organ malfunction, which could have induced unconsciousness."

The two men looked at one another.

"Now, the question is," Birk continued, "whether there is a psychological phenomenon."

"Pardon?"

"Have you blotted this out?"

"What do you mean?"

"Did you find the procedure so frightful, your conscious mind has erased any memory of it?"

Chuck pursed his lips. "That seems extraordinary."

"I'm merely trying to go through all the possibilities. There seems to be no physical reason, like a stroke, to explain a memory lapse, no drugs which could have caused such a thing. I arrive at a third possibility: You've deliberately forgotten."

"Okay, let's say I've forgotten. Why would I need such a procedure?"

"Did you slice your finger off with a knife? With a table saw? Did you catch your finger in a door?"

Chuck stared off into space. "I can't remember anything. I have what I think is a normal evening, and then nothing."

"It's not unprecedented that traumatic events can cause some to forget a period of time, not just the event itself. Something could have happened later on in the evening, and that event could have caused you to block out the entire evening."

"This is crazy!" Chuck ran his hand over his head, his eyes shifting back and forth.

"I'm sure there's a logical explanation, Mr. Bianchi," Birk said, half-smiling. "Why don't I set you up with an appointment with Dr. Mansfield?"

"A specialist?"

"A psychiatrist." Birk gave him an expectant look.

"Do I have another choice?"

Birk manipulated the mouse, typed something, and wrote on a pad of paper. He tore off a sheet and handed it to him. "You're in luck. There's a spot available in twenty minutes. Go out to the main elevators and go up to the second floor. The psychiatric wing is toward the back of the hospital."

"The psychiatric wing?"

"Yes, this regional hospital covers everything. There's the main reception. They will direct you to Dr. Mansfield's office." Birk stood and picked up his clipboard. "Good luck, Mr. Bianchi. Let me know how it works out."

Distracted, Chuck shuffled to the elevators and rode to the second floor. This couldn't be happening. This was insane. He made a wrong turn but found his way to reception, where he was led to a tastefully decorated office and given a comfortable armchair.

"How may I help you, Mr. Bianchi?"

Chuck looked at the bearded man in a suit and tie, an appearance of intelligence and compassion.

"Dr. Birk suggested I come up to meet you."

"Yes, he called me," Mansfield said. "So, what do you think happened?"

"I have no idea. Try as I might, I can't remember anything."

"Dr. Birk did a CT scan, trying to rule out physical issues, like a stroke. He did blood analysis to rule out drugs. What's left?"

"Dr. Birk asked me if I had any medical training."

"Do you?"

"No."

"Is there a possibility you did this to yourself?"

"Can somebody amputate their own finger, stop bleeding, and do all that's necessary to seal up the wound?"

"The human mind can be a powerful force. People have done things which defy belief, which go beyond the normal bounds of the physical."

Chuck shifted position. "But to not remember anything?"

"Once again, the human mind is capable of many things, even blocking from our conscious mind those things which we can't deal with."

"That may be true, Dr. Mansfield, but you'll excuse me if I have difficulty in believing that such a thing is possible here. It seems too fantastic. Do I picture myself sleepwalking around the house to get a carving knife from the kitchen to sever my finger? Even if I did do that, why would I? Is this where you tell me that my mother dropped me on my head at the age of four, and as a result, I've been harboring self-destructive tendencies which have remained dormant for fifty years?"

"Dr. Birk was playing detective and wanted to cover all the possibilities."

"I understand, but this is too incredible."

"Yes, it is incredible, but it is possible."

Chuck paused, looking around the room, taking in the professional veneer, framed diplomas on the walls, several nondescript art pieces, and well-thumbed books on shelves. "Somebody did this to me."

"Why do you say that?" Dr. Mansfield asked.

"Anything else seems too fantastic."

"Let's say, for the moment, that's true. How would somebody do such a thing, given your circumstances?"

Chuck sat, looking down at his outstretched feet. "I don't know." He made a face. "Gas in the house to knock me out? A drugged drink? Now that I say that out loud, it seems to be fantastic, too." He gave a puzzled look. "That still doesn't answer why anybody would do such a thing to me."

"Do you have enemies?"

"You mean enemies who would go so far as to lop off a finger?"

The two men stared at one another.

"That sounds like something out of a gangster movie," Chuck said.

"I'm at a loss."

"What do I do now?"

"We can talk further if you'd like," Mansfield said.

"I don't know."

"Do you have anything else to do with Dr. Birk?"

"He's at a loss. I'm at a loss. And now, you're at a loss. But I'm the only one out of the three of us whose loss includes a finger." Chuck stood up. "Thank you, Dr. Mansfield. I appreciate you talking with me."

"Feel free to call me."

Chuck left the hospital and went home. He couldn't sit still, so he meandered around the house. Stopping at each window, he looked out at his property, the front lawn, the back lawn, and the narrow strips between his house and the next. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed on the half-hour. He felt a pang of hunger. He checked the time and saw that it was 5:30 pm.

Dinner was routine. He ate but without relish. He felt a sense of apprehension as he arrived at the same point in the day, twenty-four hours after the supposed incident. The incident. Was he going to go into a trance and harm himself? Was some unknown assailant going to render him unconscious and take a knife to him?

He cleaned up the dishes, took another pill, and retired to the living room. Nothing on TV caught his eye. His mind was elsewhere. He clicked through every channel on the remote, pausing to watch ten, fifteen, or twenty seconds before moving on to the next offering. He looked at the time. Was he tired? Was he sleepy? Did he sense that he was drugged?

He stood up and paced back and forth. There was a tension in his chest. He could feel his heart beating as if it were pounding twice as hard as usual. The waiting was agonizing, but waiting for what? There had to be something. He held up his left hand and looked at the bandage. There had to be something because here was the proof.

Chuck stepped out the front door, locked it, and started down the street. He walked with purpose. If he couldn't concentrate, physical exercise might straighten him out or at least tire him out. He turned at the corner and strode down another two streets before turning again. In his mind's eye, he mapped out a circle of streets, avenues, and roads to bring him back home. The lights of each house reminded him of other lives, different from his own, doing what people do: work, eat, and sleep. Had any of them woken up in such a predicament?

He went around a corner and found himself back on his street. He felt exhausted. It wasn't so much a long day as a tense one. Tense? How about shocking!

Chuck returned home, stripped off his clothes, and took a shower. It took extra steps to clean up as he had to hold his bandaged hand out of the water. It was a challenge to wash, using only his right hand.

He toweled off and then paused at the door. Maybe he should have checked into a hotel. But that seemed absurd considering this was his own house. His mind churned, unable to make any sense of this surreal situation.

Flipping off the light, he climbed into bed. He pulled the covers up to his chin and shut his eyes.



Chuck blinked. The clock-radio buzzed. He reached out his right hand and felt around the top of the device. The alarm stopped. He paused, collecting his thoughts. He brought his hand in front of his face. Grasping the edge of the sheets, he noted that this morning, he was in bed. That seemed normal. He pulled out his left hand and stared at the bandage. That wasn't normal, but it proved it wasn't a dream. Yesterday had actually happened.

He threw back the covers and pivoted to get out of bed. His right foot caught on the sheet. He tugged. It remained caught. He pulled up the blanket and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His mind was disengaged, and he stared at the wall in a stupor. Coffee would be nice. He yawned and leaned forward, supporting his elbows on his knees. He glanced down and jumped.

"Whoa!"

His right foot was bandaged. Gauze encircled the ball of the foot with extra wrapping over the outer side. He reached down and ran his fingers over the edge of the bandage, touching the same kind of metal clip. The end of his foot felt numb. Had he received an anesthetic?

He crossed his leg and used his right hand to turn the foot as far as possible. Using his bandaged left hand, he poked at the space with the end of his index finger. He undid the metal clip and unwrapped his foot. His pinkie toe was gone.

Chuck's eyes widened. "What the...?"

He put his foot on the floor and sat up straight. This was madness! "How the hell is this possible? What's going on?"

His heart raced. His stomach churned. Should he go to the toilet? Was he going to throw up again? He rubbed his forehead, feeling a growing fit of panic. He held his hand in front of him. It shook. In fact, it felt like his entire body was shaking. Was he going to have a panic attack? Was he going to pass out?

He rewrapped his foot and got up. Hobbling around, he limped on the heel of his right foot, trying to avoid putting any pressure on the toes. He had to do something. But do what? He had visited a doctor. He had talked with a psychiatrist. What else could he do? Who else could help him?

He got dressed but didn't put on socks. Could he get his bandaged foot in a shoe? It seemed better to wear open-toed sandals. Besides, it would be easier to show his foot to somebody.

He took a pill and then drove to the sheriff's office.

A uniformed officer got up from a desk and came to the reception counter. "May I help you?"

"Yes," Chuck said. "I want to report..." He glanced down at the officer's name tag. "Deputy Baker, I have a strange story to tell."

"You are?"

"Oh! Chuck Bianchi."

"Go ahead, Mr. Bianchi."

"I want to report... something."

"Yes." Baker looked at him good-naturedly.

Chuck held up his left hand. "Somebody cut off my finger."

"Pardon?"

"Well, I think somebody cut off my finger. I'm not sure, but it's the only explanation which makes any sense."

Baker blinked.

"I said it was a strange story. Yesterday, I got up and discovered my finger had been amputated. This morning, I got up and found a toe missing."

Baker started to smile, put a hand to his mouth, coughed, and composed himself. "Would you wait a second? I want to get Sheriff Cross." The officer disappeared through a side door. He reappeared after a moment and gestured. "Mr. Bianchi, would you come this way?"

Chuck shuffled into a back office. A grizzled man with a potbelly stood up from a desk.

"Howdy; I'm Sheriff John Cross. Please have a seat." He pointed to a chair. "You say somebody cut off your finger."

"Well, maybe. I'm not sure."

"How 'bout you start from the beginning?"

Chuck described everything that had happened.

"Dr. Birk's a good guy. I know him well. He coaches my nephew's softball team. And Mansfield's wife leads the local Girl Guide troop. You're in good hands."

"Could somebody have cut off my finger?"

Cross rubbed his chin. "Gosh, I don't know. But a good detective will consider all possibilities."

"The doctors didn't rule it out, but it seems to me to be the most likely."

"Has your house ever been broken into?"

"No. I've never had a hint of trouble."

"Got any enemies, like sadistic ones?"

"I can't think of any. Could this be one of those odd tales of somebody who feels slighted because I looked at them the wrong way on the street and follows me home to seek their revenge for this perceived wrong?"

"Anything's possible."

"But even if there's this somebody, how could they carry out such a procedure without my knowledge? I have no memory of undergoing any surgery."

"Let's visit the scene of the crime."

"Pardon?"

"Let's drop over to your house, and I'll have a look around."

Chuck drove home, and Sheriff Cross followed in a cruiser. He showed him around the bungalow, outside and inside, pointing out windows, doors, and locks.

The two of them stood in the kitchen.

"How long have you lived here?" Cross asked.

"About two months."

"Any issues?"

"Issues?"

"Possible break-ins, vandalism."

"No. This seems to be a nice neighborhood. In fact, it's a nice town."

"Yes, I like to think we've got good people here."

Cross leaned over and touched a cupboard door under the sink. "Do you mind?"

"No, go ahead."

Cross opened the door and peered inside. He stood up, pulled medical gloves from a pocket, and put them on. Grabbing the garbage container with both hands, he set it on its side on the granite counter and folded the top back. He reached in with one hand and rummaged around. He pulled something out and placed it on the other side of the sink. "I believe that is a human toe."

Chuck furrowed his brow, staring at the object.

Cross pushed garbage from the can into the sink, examining each item. Using his thumb and index finger, he placed a second object on the counter. "That's a finger."

He spilled more stuff into the sink before placing a paring knife beside the finger. "I assume that's blood."

Chuck reached toward the knife.

Cross put his hand in the way. "Please, don't touch."

Chuck pulled back, startled.

"I'll want to have them examined." Cross removed his gloves and got out his cell phone. "Dr. Birk? This is Sheriff Cross. Would you come to the Bianchi residence?" As he listened, he glanced at Chuck. "See if Dr. Mansfield is available. I'll be waiting."

Cross watched Chuck and dialed again. "Baker, we have a scene. I want you to come over with a kit. 5761 Lowell Avenue. The front door is open. We're in the kitchen."

Chuck looked between the counter and Cross. "I don't understand."

"Let's try to figure this out together," Cross said. He put his phone away and crossed his arms.

"I don't understand." Chuck fixated on the counter.

"I have to ask: Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"

"Never. I think I've lived a fairly normal life."

"What's normal?"

"Born and raised in a mid-western town. College in the state capital. Worked in New York City. Married. No children. Wife died of leukemia. Early retirement, ended up here for some quiet away from the rat race."

"Any medical issues?"

"Nope."

"Any psychological issues?"

Chuck eyed him. "I went through the same questioning with Dr. Birk."

"I wanted to be thorough."

Chuck waited, saying nothing.

"So?" Cross asked.

"So?"

"Any psychological issues?"

"Oh! No. I think I'm a pretty average guy."

A voice sounded at the front of the house. "Hello?"

"In here, Doctor," Cross yelled.

Double footsteps sounded down the hall.

"Mr. Bianchi, Sheriff," Birk said.

Mansfield nodded.

Cross pointed to the counter. "Gentlemen, for your perusal."

Birk and Mansfield looked at the items, bending for different angles.

"You found this in the garbage under the kitchen sink?" Mansfield asked.

"That's right," Cross replied. "I assume the blood on the paring knife belongs to Mr. Bianchi. We'll test to confirm."

"How are you feeling, Mr. Bianchi?" Mansfield asked.

Chuck threw up his hands in exasperation. "Hey! I'd say I'm pretty much scared out of my wits!"

"Do you or anyone in your family have a history of self-harm?"

"Self-harm?"

"It can be a coping mechanism for dealing with negative emotions. Some people cut themselves."

"No!" Chuck looked shocked. "I would never do such a thing!"

Mansfield looked down for a moment. "There is a condition called body integrity disorder where a person wants, no obsesses, about having a body part amputated."

"What?" Chuck exclaimed. "That's crazy! There's no way I could do something like that! Somebody's doing this to me! It has to be somebody!"

"We're looking at the evidence, Mr. Bianchi," Birk said. "You're the principal witness. You're the only witness, and you claim you can't remember anything. What else can we believe?"

"Sheriff Cross?"

They all turned to the man at the arch to the hallway.

Cross gestured. "Baker, come in. I'd like you to do the paring knife."

"Yes, sir."

All of them stepped back. Baker put his case to one side and set to work.

Cross first looked at Birk, and then at Mansfield. "Where do we go from here?"

"Observation," Mansfield said. "We can only continue to observe, hoping to figure out what's going on."

"Is there a crime?" Cross asked.

"Sheriff, I want you to think about it!" Chuck pointed to the counter. "How could I possibly do that to myself? You talk about self-harm. I've heard of people cutting themselves, but amputating a finger? How could anybody do that to themselves? They'd be screaming their head off!"

"Under normal circumstances, yes," Mansfield said. "But as I said, the limits to what human beings are capable of can be surpassed. The power of the mind over the body has, at times, shown itself to be extraordinary."

"What's the next step?" Cross asked.

They all remained silent, staring at the floor.

"Sheriff?" Baker said.

"Yes?"

"I'd like to take Bianchi's prints."

"If you wouldn't mind," Cross said, nodding to Chuck. "Please follow Deputy Baker's instructions."

Baker took a small device with a flat scanning bed and set it on the kitchen table. "Mr. Bianchi, if you would give me your right hand."

Chuck complied, watching as Baker moved him into place and activated the device.

"May I have your left hand?"

Baker plugged the device into a laptop. He typed and used the trackpad.

"Well?" Cross said.

"The fingerprints on the paring knife belong to Mr. Bianchi," Baker said.

"Hmmm."

"Will there be anything else, Sheriff?"

"I want you to check all doors, inside and out. Look for any unlocked windows."

"Yes, sir."

Baker took his case and left the kitchen.

"Where does that leave us?" Cross asked.

"While we haven't proven any one theory over another - they are all possible - we seem closer to proving one theory more probable." Birk nodded to Cross.

"What do you think, Mr. Bianchi?" Mansfield asked.

Chuck shifted from foot to foot, wringing his hands. "God, I don't know what to think. This is all crazy. I've never been in such a situation, and I do not understand what to do. What is the correct course of action?"

"Would you consider putting yourself under observation?"

"What does that mean?"

"Would you voluntarily admit yourself?"

"You mean to the psychiatric ward?" Chuck sounded incredulous.

"Yes."

"Do you think I'm nuts?"

"Nuts isn't a condition," Mansfield said. "It's a judgment. I can't diagnose your condition without observation."

Chuck shook his head. "This can't be happening."

The three men looked at him.

Chuck hesitated. He felt confused and disoriented. He didn't want to be here and wished the whole thing would disappear.

"Can I think about it?" he asked. "I can't see myself - what's the word? Committed?"

"You go to Dr. Birk for a broken leg. There's no shame in going to me for other problems."

"I suppose."

"There's another consideration," Mansfield said.

"What's that?"

"I'd say we have enough to declare you a danger to yourself."

"What does that mean?"

Mansfield first looked at Cross and Birk. "We can commit you. Without your permission."

"No!" Chuck said, alarmed.

"What else would you propose, Mr. Bianchi? This can't continue."

Chuck wrung his hands in despair.

"I've got an idea," Cross said. "Let's remove anything which can cut - knives, scissors, and let him stay here overnight. Tomorrow, we can reassess the situation."

"What do you think, Mr. Bianchi?" Mansfield asked.

Baker popped his head in. "I've checked the front, back, and side doors. All windows are locked except for a bedroom window. All prints match Mr. Bianchi. I found nothing else."

"Thanks, Baker. That will be all."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, Baker? Please take the three items to hold as evidence. Use refrigeration to avoid spoiling."

"Yes, sir."

Baker packed up and left.

Cross turned to Birk. "I assume reattachment is impossible."

"We've passed the limit," Birk said. "Separation can be no more than twelve hours, but usually only for several hours. Since the parts were not even iced to preserve them, there's no chance at all of such a procedure being successful."

"Do you have a cardboard box, Mr. Bianchi?" Cross asked.

"Yeah, sure. In the garage."

"Dr. Birk, you take the kitchen. Dr. Mansfield, you take the upstairs. I'll do the basement."

The three men combed through the house and filled the box.

"Wire cutters and a hand saw," Cross said. "I found a pair of hedge clippers in the garage."

"Cuticle scissors seemed unlikely, but I took them anyway along with some razor blades," Mansfield said.

Cross bent over the box. "That looks right for the kitchen. I believe we've taken anything which could possibly be used for cutting." He picked up the box. "We have nothing else for the moment." He pointed toward the front of the house. "Shall we?"

They headed for the front door.

"Mr. Bianchi, I want you to call me at any time," Mansfield said. He handed Chuck a card. "This number is active twenty-four hours a day; it's my telephone service. If you call, they will get a hold of me, even in the middle of the night."

Chuck scrutinized the card. "Thanks."

"One last thing," Cross said. "Make sure all windows and doors are properly locked. I'll send a squad car around later this evening to do a check of your premises."

Standing at the door, Chuck watched the men get in their respective cars and drive away. He turned back and looked down the hall, up the stairs, and into the living room. Was there something in the house? An evil spirit? Or had he lost his mind? Was he responsible for all this?

Chuck shook his head. This was too incredible.

He wandered around the house, looking out windows, straightening items on shelves, aligning books, and smoothing out curtains. There was a tension in the air, and he couldn't escape the premonition of something really, really bad. What in the hell was going on?

He limped four blocks to a corner store and bought the local town newspaper. Sitting on the patio behind his house, he didn't get much further than the headlines. He stood up. He sat down and then got back up. Everything seemed so peaceful, normal, with the rustling of the leaves and the birds chirping, and yet he was in a general state of agitation. He thought he'd be safe in this little out-of-the-way town, and now, his life was unraveling before his eyes.

The six o'clock news on TV accompanied his dinner. He didn't pay much attention, but he attempted to keep his mind off of things. After cleaning up, he took two more pills and then vacuumed the house. His foot throbbed unrelentingly, but he knew he couldn't sit still. He systematically went through the first floor, moving furniture in the living room, and getting into corners. Looking up, he ran the nozzle along edges in the ceiling and passed along the valence over the windows. He went through the hall closet, pulling out all footwear.

Lugging the machine upstairs, he vacuumed the master bedroom and the guest room before giving the bathroom a quick once over.

Chuck cleaned out the filter and packed the vacuum cleaner away. He paced up and down in the living room, feeling edgy. Distracting himself by moving worked in part, but his predicament gnawed at him. What would happen tonight? What would he find when he woke up in the morning? He felt a spasm of terror pass through his body. Was he losing his mind? Was he going to go berserk? Would he end up in a headline, the story of a man running naked through the streets, screaming incoherently?

Chuck hobbled down the front walk to the street. More physical activity, less thinking. Choosing his steps carefully, foot, heel, foot, heel, he limped up and down the street before going back into the house. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Would he be able to sleep? He opened the medicine cabinet and hunted through various pill bottles. He had a non-prescription sleeping aid but was never sure how effective it was. For the moment, there was no other choice. He re-read the instructions: one pill an hour before bed. He leaned over to sip water directly from the faucet.

The doorbell rang.

Going back downstairs, Chuck opened the front door to two policemen.

"Mr. Bianchi?"

"Yes."

"Sheriff Cross asked us to come around to check the perimeter. Would you mind if we had a look around?"

"Not at all."

"Don't mind us. We will be looking at all windows and doors to make sure they're secured."

"Thanks."

Chuck shut the door and stood in the hall, listening. He briefly saw figures in the darkness, pushing at frames and turning knobs. Occasionally a voice called out.

The doorbell rang again, and Chuck opened the door.

"All clear, Mr. Bianchi. All windows and doors are secure. Nobody's going to get in without breaking something."

"Thanks."

"One last thing."

"Yes?"

"I'd like you to lock the front door, and I'd like to check it from the outside."

"Fair enough."

Chuck shut the door and turned the lock. "Go ahead," he yelled.

He watched the knob turn, and the door shake.

"All good, Mr. Bianchi. Have a good night," a muffled voice said.

Chuck stood at the front window and watched the two policemen get in their car and drive away. He wandered through the living room, the kitchen, and back down the hall to the front door before going back upstairs. He undressed, showered, and got into bed. The gauze on his foot was still damp, but it would dry overnight. He lay there in the darkness, staring up at the ceiling. He tried to tune his mind out, to stop thinking. A car drove by, and then it was quiet.



Chuck heard an incessant beeping. He reached out with his right hand and smacked the top of the clock-radio. His mind was clouded. He had forgotten how that over-the-counter sleeping aid left him sluggish. It may help him fall asleep, but he didn't like the after-effect.

He rubbed his forehead and froze. There was a distinctive sensation of gauze. Opening his eyes, he stared at his bandaged hand. Yesterday, his hand was bandaged. But that was his left hand. This was his right hand.

Chuck turned his hand over and back, looking at the gauze. He screamed. His thumb was gone.

He jumped out of bed and wailed.

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"

He ran downstairs and stopped in front of a mirror in the hall. With his hands up, he gaped at the bandages. He shrieked.

Chuck yanked open the front door and ran outside. He darted down the front walk and stopped at the sidewalk, looking up and down the street. "What am I going to do?" His voice cracked with desperation. "What am I going to do?"

He held up his hands, and tears welled up in his eyes. He dropped to his knees and sobbed. His body shook from his wailing as he doubled over. He collapsed to the ground and curled up into the fetal position. His body spasmed, moans blubbering from his quivering lips.

Chuck was vaguely aware of a voice. "Are you all right?"

A siren roared up, followed by a door slamming. "Baker, call for an ambulance. 5761 Lowell Avenue. Get Doc Birk over here right away." There were footsteps. "Baker, get those people back."

A hand touched Chuck's shoulder. "Are you all right, Mr. Bianchi?"

The rest was a blur. Another siren. More voices. Questions asked but not answered. Hands lifted him. The word sedative was uttered. And then nothing.



Chuck was aware he was conscious. He opened his eyes. He squeezed them shut several times, trying to focus.

Dr. Birk, sitting on a stool with wheels, leaned in. "How are you, Mr. Bianchi?"

"What happened?"

"We think you had a panic attack."

"We?"

Chuck turned his gaze. Dr. Mansfield and Sheriff Cross stood back, observing him.

"You seem to have suffered a trauma. A neighbor called 9-1-1 when they saw you run out of your house naked. You collapsed on the sidewalk."

"My thumb?"

"Yes, your thumb. That must have come as a shock."

"How? Did I do this? I can't remember anything."

"I think it's time for you to face the truth." Birk pulled a wheeled table covered with a white cloth into view. He lifted the edge of the cloth and pointed. "This is the small finger from your left hand. This is the small toe from your right foot. And this is the thumb from your right hand."

Chuck recoiled in horror. "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" He twisted, struggling against straps holding him fixed in the chair.

"Don't turn away, Mr. Bianchi. You must look."

Chuck squeezed his eyes shut, pushing against a strap encircling his forehead. "No, please," he whimpered. "No more. I can't take it." His body collapsed. He stopped moving. Sobs racked his body.

"Mr. Bianchi," Birk said.

Chuck cried.

Birk glanced at Cross and Mansfield, and then murmured, "Chuck."

"Yes," Chuck said, sniffling.

"Please, try to pull yourself together. You must control yourself."

"I'm sorry. It's just that this is too much. I don't know how I can take any more."

"I understand. It's been upsetting."

As Chuck watched, Birk reached down and fiddled with his right foot. The doctor took off the metal clip and unwrapped the bandages.

"We have a story to tell you, Mr. Bianchi." Birk turned the foot slightly and examined it. "I believe the amputated toe is healing well. Are you experiencing any pain?"

"No." Chuck bowed his head, trying to get a better look. "What story?"

Cross stepped forward with a file folder, turning a page. "Zarossi Investments, half a billion dollars, nearly a thousand investors."

Chuck jerked in the seat.

"I'm sorry," Birk said. "Did I hurt you?"

"No." Chuck continued to focus on Cross.

Birk took the clip from the left hand and began removing the gauze.

"Carlo Tebaldo escaped with tens of millions, disappeared, vanished without a trace," Cross said, thumbing a page. "All depositors lost their investments. Out of all investors, nineteen are dead: six suicides, three heart attacks, and, unrelated to the losses, two to cancer, three to car accidents, one to a boating incident, one to a plane crash, and three to natural causes. Two were elderly, and one died prematurely in his fifties. Eighty-six retirees had to come out of retirement and go back to work. Dozens of families have had to have spouses take second jobs. A number have had to remortgage their homes to make ends meet. Some have had to sell their homes and move in with family. Some have been left destitute and had to start over from scratch."

Saucer-eyed, Chuck stared at Cross.

Birk finished with the bandage and studied the hand, shifting it back and forth.

"My brother invested his life savings with Zarossi, his retirement fund, his nest egg," Mansfield said. "He lost everything, absolutely everything. He swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. The management of his condo building found him five days later after somebody complained of a smell. By then, the corpse was covered with maggots. His wife was away, thank goodness, and missed seeing all this. His children now don't have their father."

"I lost a million dollars," Birk said. "My sister had invested two million dollars. She died of cancer three months ago, leaving her children without an inheritance."

Chuck remained tight-lipped, his eyes darting from man to man. Birk moved to the wrapping on the right hand.

"And me," Cross said, shuffling papers. "My father left me the family farm. I sold it and invested a million and a half with the fund. I lost it all, my entire retirement back-up plan gone. But that's not all. I'm involved with the county pension fund, which covers the police. We have lost tens of millions, which we have to make up over time through local taxes. Obviously, the taxpayers are not too happy about that. Our pension holders are scared to death of seeing themselves without financial support in their retirement. And poor Warren Schmidt, our city comptroller. He felt personally responsible for the losses as he had originally recommended Zarossi. He's taken to drinking and had two official reprimands. If he gets a third, he'll be fired."

"Why are you telling me this?" Chuck asked, his voice cracking with fear.

Cross pulled a sheet from the file folder. "Federal agencies like the FBI, the IRS, and the SEC have the perpetrator on their list, but so far, he has astutely avoided them."

Birk removed the last of the gauze from the right hand. He turned it and leaned in. "Clean amputation. That will turn out nicely."

Chuck winced.

"How's the pain?" Birk asked.

"It hurts. They all throb, and I've been taking those pills over the past two days."

Birk picked up a needle and bottle, proceeding to fill the syringe.

"What's that?"

"Lidocaine, a local anesthetic. It will numb the area." Birk brushed a spot on the back of the hand with a sanitary wipe.

"Numb the area?"

"Yes," Birk said. He stuck in the needle.

"Ouch!" Chuck twitched.

"Sorry."

Chuck watched as Birk injected both hands, and then both feet. "Why my left foot?" he asked.

"I want you to be comfortable," Birk said.

"Comfortable?" Chuck scrunched up his face, scrutinizing them. "Who are you?"

"We're investors," Mansfield said. "Concerned investors. We put our trust in somebody, and he betrayed that trust. And we don't think that person should be allowed to walk away scot-free with our money."

"A group of us found one another," Birk said, "and banded together to change what we could not accept."

"I don't understand what any of this has to do with me," Chuck said.

"Depositors, plus spouses, children, and other family members, the disruption of thousands of lives." Birk glanced at the other two men. "We wondered about the authorities finding the culprit. There would be a trial. He would eventually be found guilty, and he'd do time. But this is a white-collar crime, and with a talented lawyer and time off for good behavior, there's a chance he would see the light of day. We asked ourselves if that was fair. Does the punishment fit the crime? The investors and their families will be impacted for the rest of their lives. How will the guilty be impacted for the rest of their life?"

"You don't think I'm this person?" Chuck twisted and turned, pulling on the straps. "Let me out! Let me out!"

"Patience, Mr. Bianchi," Birk said.

Chuck glanced at each of them, panting from the exertion.

"Shall we move on?" Birk pointed to the door.

Mansfield got up and opened it. "You can come in now."

Chuck watched as a line of people filed into the room.

"Look, Mr. Bianchi, at these seventeen," Birk said. "Look at the faces of some of the people defrauded out of millions, the faces of those who've lost a loved one due to suicide or heart attack. They've had their lives irrevocably altered."

"You can't do this," Chuck yelled, thrashing about. "You have no legal authority! Stop! You can't take the law into your own hands!"

Cross pushed a second table on wheels into view.

Chuck looked down to see surgical knives lined up, the glint of their sharp blades shining in the overhead light. He scanned the room, desperate for an expression of sympathy.

"It is time for your reckoning, Mr. Bianchi. Or should I say Carlo Tebaldo?" Birk said. "It is time for your pound of flesh."

"No! No! No!" Chuck jerked at the straps to no avail.

"You may have escaped the law, but you can't escape your fate."

Birk gestured to the group. Each person stepped forward and took a surgical knife from the table. Birk picked up a small electric saw and flicked it on, its rotating blade whining to full power.

Chuck screamed.

2 comments:

  1. I knew there had to be a catch when Chuck got such immediate and sympathetic medical and police service. Unlikely plot..but these days, with conspiracy theories so rampant, perhaps a kafkaesque satire of the times.

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  2. Collusion on a grand scale among a group of victims with a shared--and seriously warped--sense of vengeance. I agree, it is a tad difficult to suspend the disbelief with respect to the ending and the fact that there are victims hidden conveniently throughout all of the town's service organizations. But I thought Chuck's confusion and terror came across quite well, and the mystery of the amputations kept my attention to the very end.

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