(Originally published with the title, AMNESIA, under the pseudonym, David Best.)
HOW THIS BOOK CAME ABOUT
Of all the books I’ve written, this is one of my favorites. I remember, years ago, driving past a creepy-looking mental hospital in rural Tennessee and wondering what kind of strange things could be going on in a place that appeared so sinister. This book is the result of that brief encounter. When I was doing the research for it, I tried to arrange a visit to that hospital, but was denied access at every administrative level. That made me want to write the book even more. Eventually, I managed to find someone who once worked there. From that person I learned a great deal about that specific hospital and the operation of mental hospitals in general. Of course, all the characters and events in the book are entirely fictional and only inspired by my research.
THE PAIR OF armed sheriff’s deputies standing guard in the hospital hallway were bored. You could see it on their faces and in their posture. Probably it was because the crimes committed by the man they were assigned to watch had occurred many years ago and in a different state, making it all an abstraction to them. They hadn’t lived through the seventeen months of horror themselves, so it was old and yellowed news.
In the control room, the first color photo that was about to be shown to the patient in the MRI machine flashed up on the laptop controlling the display program.
“Jesus, I never saw anything like that before,” the MRI tech said. “I may lose my breakfast.”
On the screen was a dreadful array of bone and blood, sinew and skin. Through the gore, a displaced eye could be seen dangling like a spent flower.
“He did that?” the tech said, jerking his head toward the window that allowed them to see the lower third of the patient waiting for his brain to be scanned. The rest of the patient’s body was inside the putty-colored machine.
“With a hammer,” the gaunt man supervising the test said. “He likes hammers. As nearly as they can figure it, she was his second victim.”
“How many were there?”
“Fifteen, they think. Could we get started? I’ve got other things to do.”
“Sure,” the tech replied, working the MRI keyboard.
“How long does a run take with this model?”
“Ninety seconds. I’ll get ten baseline images, then I’ll show him your photo series as we acquire ten more images. We’ll finish the run with a final ten taken as his brain returns to baseline after he’s seen the final picture.”
“I’m particularly interested in his prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.”
“No problem. We’ll be doing sixteen different planes of section simultaneously, so you’ll get a good sampling of the area you want.” He flipped a switch that turned on the mike communicating with the scan room.
“Mr. Odessa, we’re going to start now. We’ll need you to hold your head perfectly still for about a minute and a half.” The tech flipped off the mike and looked at the man with him. “Why is he cooperating so well?”
“We have an understanding.”
The tech began the run. In a few seconds, ghostly slices of Vernon Odessa’s brain began to appear on the imaging screen.
The gaunt man’s question about the length of the run had caused the tech to wrongly believe he didn’t know much about this type of analysis. “Those are purely structural images,” the tech explained. “After we get the functional series, a computer will calculate the difference in blood flow stimulated by the photos you’ve brought. The integrated images will appear on that monitor behind me.”
The gaunt man’s eyes flicked upward to the MRI machine beyond the window as the run commenced. He was excited, but it wasn’t obvious because he was a master at hiding his feelings. Observe and learn, but never let others learn about you. His patient, Vernon Odessa, was a prize, a psychopath of the gaunt man’s very own, like a pet he could control and study whenever he felt like it.
The seconds struggled by.
“Moving into functional mode,” the tech said finally. He flipped the mike switch. “Mr. Odessa, you should now be seeing the first photo in the mirror directly above you.”
To control his anticipation, the gaunt man tried to imagine what was going on in Odessa’s brain.
The photos flicked by on the laptop at six-second intervals until the tech said, “Tasking finished and returning to baseline.” He looked up at the man beside him. “We should see the integrated results in about forty seconds.”
His hands perspiring, the gaunt man turned to the monitor behind him.
Time in the control room now began to pass like a frozen river.
Then there they were, morphing onto the screen in succession from the front of Odessa’s brain to the back.
Incredible… the deep-brain EEGs he’d done earlier were correct. The frontal cortex and the amygdala on the functional MRI images were both glowing red with activity, like a normal brain… not dead like the brain of other psychopaths.
What then made this man kill?
It was puzzling, but so exciting.
The logical next step in his research slowly unfolded in his mind like the birth of something hideously deformed. And he found it appalling. But even as he stood there, marshaling all the reasons it couldn’t… shouldn’t be done, he knew that it was only a matter of time before he gave in.
THREE MONTHS LATER
THE CAR slowed and pulled onto the shoulder halfway between the sparse light poles that illuminated the dark highway. Leaving the car’s headlights on and the engine running, the driver got out, went quickly around to the passenger side, and opened the door. Inside, the young woman sitting with her hands folded in her lap looked at him with the most vacant expression he’d ever seen, which, considering what he did for a living, was saying a great deal.
He reached in and took her by the arm. He could have told her what he wanted, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Eventually responding to the persistent pressure he was exerting on her, she hesitantly moved toward him. When he had her out of the car, he released her. Without a word he hurried back to the driver’s side, slid behind the wheel, and sped away without even looking in the mirror.
Her name was Molly, not that it mattered anymore. She stood for a moment, watching the taillights of the departing car fade into the thin fog that had begun to move onto the highway from the river bottoms. She had no words to describe the image, but somewhere deep in the parts of her brain that had once served her love of poetry and Impressionist art and the color of leaves in the fall, neurons nudged each other in appreciation.
Though she was now totally alone and in a very unsettling place, she wasn’t afraid, for she didn’t know what that meant. She began to walk, moving toward one of the light poles along the highway, attracted to its brightness as an occupant of pond water might seek the sun. Feeling a sharp sensation on her bare arm, she looked down. There was a tiny something on her skin. She reached over with her other hand and nudged the object. But it was attached to her, so that without intending to, she flattened it and smeared her skin with a formless material much the same color as the objects that had gone away into the fog.
Already, Molly was learning. Though she didn’t yet know the words mosquito and blood, it was a start.
HALF A mile away, in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler, Jesse Ragland checked the time: three A.M.
Jesse was hauling a load of potted palms from Miami to a Missouri distribution center. The contract called for him to be in Kansas City by nine that morning. Five hundred miles to go and only six hours to get there. No way he was gonna make it. And with a 250-dollar-an-hour penalty for every hour he was late…
Damn… he should not have stopped to see Cheryl in Corinth. He’d never paid for a piece of tail in his life, but this one was sure gonna cost him. Despite the gathering fog and the curve ahead, Jesse nudged his speed up well beyond the limit for the chicken-shit road he’d had to take to get back to the interstate.
AS MOLLY walked along the shoulder, she nearly stepped on something, but it hopped out of her way just in time. Then it hopped again.
With nowhere to go and nothing better to do, she followed the curious object.
When she was close enough, she bent to pick up the thing, but it hopped again, coaxing her a little farther onto the highway. By now, Molly and the toad she was following were standing in the middle of the westbound lane.
Suddenly, the area was flooded by light.
She turned and looked in that direction. Coming toward her were two bright spots followed by a huge, dim shape. Molly cocked her head and watched the thing like a curious cocker spaniel. Then it emitted a horrible, loud noise that hurt her ears. Reacting with only the elemental circuits available to her, Molly shut her eyes and put her hands over her face.
When Jesse rounded the curve and saw a woman standing directly in his path, he wet himself and leaned on the air horn at exactly the same instant.
What the hell was wrong with her? She wasn’t moving.
At the speed he was going, and with the shoulder on each side of the road so narrow, if he tried to swerve around her, he was going right into the swamp. He slammed on the air brakes, knowing he’d never be able to stop in time.
The tractor trailer jackknifed and skewed sideways on the highway, sending five tons of screeching metal and rubber sliding to where Molly stood. And when it was over, she was standing there no longer.
MARTI SEGERSON hurried along the flowered carpet, her heart pounding.
She should never have checked her bag. If she’d kept it with her, it wouldn’t have been lost and she’d already be in there listening to Oren Quinn’s talk.
Reaching the Magnolia Room, she grabbed the brass door handle and charged inside.
Oh great… the entrance was in the front of the room and at least a dozen heads turned to look at her. Feeling as though she’d audibly broken wind in an elevator, she moved quickly to the rear, where she looked in vain for a seat on the end of a row. But there weren’t any.
Resigned to standing, she shifted her attention to the podium and was surprised at what she saw. Oren Quinn was a genius—a Ph.D./M.D., board certified in neurology and psychiatry, the holder of a half dozen lucrative electronic patents, a world authority on memory, and the author of three New York Times best-sellers on the many curious neurologic syndromes he’d encountered in his practice.
But the man on stage didn’t look like the photo on the flyleaf of his books. This guy was gaunt and old, with silver hair and dark circles under his eyes.
Marti turned to the man standing nearby. “Is that Oren Quinn?”
“In the flesh.”
Of course, Ann Landers hadn’t looked like her picture either. Still, Marti felt a twinge of irritation that Quinn was intentionally misleading his readers about his appearance.
And you’d never misrepresent yourself, her inner voice said sarcastically. Needing to stop thinking about that, she turned her attention to what Quinn was saying.
“. .. While it’s true we know very little about where memories are filed in the brain, it is possible to electrically stimulate recall of a specific memory if the current is accidentally delivered to an appropriate point in the neural circuit where the memory is stored. This was shown years ago in the classic work on the temporal lobe of epileptics.”
Though Quinn looked ancient, Marti noted he still had a strong speaking voice.
He continued, “I think it’s highly likely that, as this stimulated recall occurs, it spreads over the visual cortex and re-creates the same pattern of arousal that occurred when the patient first experienced the event being remembered.
“It therefore follows that if we could record all the electrical signals produced by the visual cortex during the recall of a memory, and send those signals into a computer equipped with the proper programming, it should be possible to turn those memories into movies that recreate everything the patient saw when the event in question initially occurred.”
This generated a buzz in the room.
At the middle aisle a small, dark man with a full head of wavy hair stood up and approached one of the mikes scattered through the audience for questions.
“Dr. Quinn… aren’t you forgetting something?”
The moderator, who’d been sitting off to Quinn’s left, leaned into his own mike and said, “Identify yourself, please.”
“Dr. William Lane, from the Nelms Institute for Neuroscience.”
“Thank you. What was your question?”
“Everyone knows that memories are not accurate reproductions of past events, but are a quiltwork made from pieces of several actual events stitched together with some parts that never occurred. They merely seem accurate to the one having them. So how could your extremely fanciful scenario of memory movies ever come to pass?”
Good point, Marti thought. It was a goofy idea.
Instead of answering the question, Quinn looked away from the guy at the mike and focused his gaze at the back of the room.
“Dr. Segerson, perhaps you could respond to that.”
The sound of people turning in their seats so they could see who Quinn had thrown the question to was actually not very loud, but in Marti’s ears it sounded like an avalanche.
Me? He wants me to respond?
She felt her face flush. She had never even met Quinn, had never had any communication with him or anyone else about this topic. Why the hell was he bringing her into it? She looked at Quinn and then at the many faces turned toward her. This was bizarre. She was just there in Washington to interview for a job at the Gibson State Mental Hospital in Tennessee.
A part of Marti wanted to run for it … just get out of there, but the door was too far away for an easy exit.
What was the question? She couldn’t remember … something about … memories and the visual cortex.
“Do you plan to speak sometime in this century, Dr. Segerson?” Quinn said.
And that made her mad. “First, let me say that Dr. Quinn and I have never met, nor have I ever heard his speculation before on memory movies, so I’m certainly not his shill, nor do I necessarily believe such a thing is remotely possible. But as for the objection that’s been raised to the idea, I think it’s possible that the errors present in any recalled event are laid on as the memory reaches consciousness. At more basic levels, such as any activated circuitry in the visual cortex, it could well be that there the activity is a far more faithful re-creation of the initial event.”
Everyone then turned to look at Quinn.
Now that she was out of the spotlight, Marti wondered why on earth she’d said she didn’t believe Quinn’s idea was possible… no… she’d said it wasn’t remotely possible. Way to go kid… insult the one man who could get you in close. Stupid.
“Thank you, Dr. Segerson,” Quinn said. He looked at the man who’d asked the question. “You see, even someone who isn’t my shill understands how it could work.”
There were a few more questions for Quinn from others in the audience, but Marti was so unnerved by her sudden forced participation in the event, she barely heard them. Then, with a generous round of applause, it was over.
In his letter responding to her application, Quinn had suggested she come to Washington and interview for the job right after his talk. So, while he exchanged a few last words with a couple of men who caught him as he stepped off the dais, Marti waited for him by the door.
The group spoke for several minutes until Quinn excused himself and headed for the hallway.
“Good morning, Dr. Segerson,” he said, as he swept by. “I see you arrived late.”
Hurrying after him, Marti said, “The airline lost my bag.”
“Have you always had trouble arranging your priorities?” he replied, not looking back at her.
“You’re construing far too much from an isolated event.”
Quinn suddenly turned to face her. “So you’ve never been late for anything before?”
“Never is a strong word.”
“So is isolated.”He gestured to two upholstered chairs facing each other across a small table. “We can talk here.”
“In the hallway?”
“Do you need a more private place?”
“I don’t need it. I just thought… Sure, this is fine.”
A moment later, with each of Quinn’s bony hands draped over the armrest of his chair, and Marti’s hands resting on the shoulder tote in her lap, Quinn said, “Why did you find it necessary to strike out at me before answering Dr. Lane’s question a few minutes ago?”
“I was angry at being put on the spot like that.”
“It was a risky thing to do.”
“Was it? Are you a man who holds grudges?”
Quinn stared at her without answering, his eyes boring into her. Should she have apologized? Is that what he was looking for? Somehow, she thought not; that he might find backtracking a sign of weakness.
Finally, he spoke again. “In most psychiatry training, the residents must themselves undergo therapy. Was that the case with your program?”
“And what did you discover about yourself during therapy?”
“Why is that important for you to know?”
Suddenly, Quinn’s deep-set eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not your patient, Dr. Segerson. Stop trying to deflect my questions back to me.”
Marti’s mind shifted into a gear more suitable to rough terrain. What to tell him? She’d hidden the primary purpose in her life from her therapist and even her closest friends. No one knew how much she was driven by hatred, how she longed to strike back, how she’d waited and waited. And now the opportunity was so near… “I learned that my obsession with perfection is a constant attempt to please my father, whose criticism of everything I did as a child came from his wish for a son.”
Marti waited to see how Quinn would receive this fabrication. It was exactly the kind of thing most psychiatrists would love to hear. But Quinn wasn’t your average psychiatrist.
Quinn mulled her lie over without giving any indication of approval or disapproval, then he said, “Gibson State is an underfunded facility in a rural area of Tennessee that has no cultural amenities. The nearest large city, Memphis, is seventy miles away. The favorite pastimes of most of the local males are drinking beer and shooting animals for the fun of it. The women quilt and gossip. Our existing psychiatry staff consists of the dregs of the profession—licenses restricted because of substance abuse, poorly trained foreigners who can’t phrase a question properly, and people who are just not very smart. You come very highly recommended, and all indications are that you could have any job you wish, so I have to wonder, why would you want to work at Gibson?”
Marti wanted very much to ask him why he was there, but her behavior had already been far too overbearing. So she let that one go. “I’ve never liked city life. Rural appeals to me. And, of course, there’s your large population of the chronic severely ill. There aren’t many places where I could get the kind of experience they can provide.”
“They’re kept so sedated they’re more dead than alive. I don’t know what you’re going to learn from them.”
Marti longed to suggest that maybe these people were being overmedicated, but once again, she kept the thought to herself. “Still, I’d like the experience.”
“Dr. Segerson, I don’t think you’re being totally candid. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t hire you, but a copy of all applications to Gibson go to the State Department of Mental Health, where I’m sure they’ll see that your credentials are far better than any of our current staff. There’s also a statewide initiative in place to give preference to female applicants.”
“So you’re saying—”
“If I don’t hire you, it’ll generate a blizzard of paperwork that I don’t have time to fool with. So get out the horns and paper hats. We’ve got a new member of the Gibson family.”