This was not his house.
As the taxi pulled over in front of a ranch in a modest neighborhood, Matthias knew he didn’t live under its roof. Hadn’t. Wouldn’t.
“You gettin’ out or not?”
Matthias met the driver’s eyes in the rearview. “Gimme a minute.”
Nodding, he got out and relied on his cane as he went up the front walk, swinging his bad leg in a wide circle so he didn’t have to bend his knee. Things were hardly Home Sweet Home: There was a branch down in the scrubby hedge that ran under the bay window. The lawn was scruffy. Weeds had sprouted in the gutters, reaching for the sun so high above.
The front door was locked, so he cupped his hands and looked into the windows on either side. Dust bunnies. Mismatched furniture. Sagging drapes.
There was a cheapo tin mailbox screwed into the bricks, and he opened the top. Circulars. A coupon book addressed to “Occupant.” No bills, credit card applications, letters. The only other piece of mail was an AARP magazine that had the same name as that of the driver’s license he’d been given.
Matthias rolled the mag up, shoved it into his wind-breaker, and headed back to the cab. Not only was this not his residence, nobody lived here. Best guess was that the person had died within, say, four to six weeks—long enough so that the family had cleaned up the accounts payable issues, but before they emptied the place out to put it on the market.
Getting into the cab, he stared straight ahead.
“Where to now?”
With a groan, Matthias shifted over and got out his wallet. Sliding Mels Carmichael’s business card free, he was struck by an overriding conviction that he shouldn’t involve the woman.
“What’ll it be, pal?”
But shit, he had to start somewhere. And his brain was like an Internet connection gone bad.
“Trade Street,” he gritted.
As they headed for the downtown area and got caught in a net of traffic, he stared into the other cars and saw people drinking coffee, talking to passengers, stopping at red lights, going on green. Totally foreign to him, he thought. The kind of life where you nine-to-five’d your way into a grave at the age of seventy-two was not how he’d lived.
So what was, he asked his dumb-ass gray matter. What the fuck was?
All he got back was a headache while he strained for an answer.
As the Caldwell Courier Journal facility came into view, he took out one of the ten twenties in the wallet. “Keep the change.”
The cabdriver seemed more than happy to get rid of him.
Taking up res on the periphery of the front doors, Matthias loitered in the sunshine, being careful not to meet any stares—and there were a lot of them: For some reason, he tended to attract attention, usually from women—then again, the Florence Nightingale stuff was something the fairer sex was known for, and he did have scars on his face.
Eventually, he took cover across the street at the bus stop, parking it on the hard plastic bench and breathing in the secondhand smoke from people impatient for their public trans to arrive. The waiting didn’t bother him. It was as if he were used to lurking, and to pass the time he played a game, memorizing the faces of the people who came and went out of the CCJ offices.
He was extremely good at it. One look was all it took, and he had the person in his database.
At least his short-term memory was working—
The double doors pushed wide, and there she was.
Matthias sat up straighter as the sunlight hit her hair and all kinds of copper showed. Mels Carmichael, associate reporter, was with a heavyset guy who had to hitch his khakis up higher around his hips before they hit the steps. The two appeared to be arguing back and forth about something in the way friends did, and when Mels smiled, it appeared as if she had won whatever debate—
Like she knew he was watching, she glanced across the street, and stopped dead. Touching her buddy on the sleeve, she said something, and then parted ways with the man, cutting through the traffic, coming over.
Matthias plugged his cane into the pavement, and tugged his rags into place as he stood. He had no idea why he wanted to look better for her, but he did—then again, hard to look worse. His clothes weren’t his, his cologne was Eau d’Hospital Soap, and he’d washed his hair with the antibacterial stuff because that was all he’d had.
Naturally, his bad eye, that ugly, ruined thing, was what she looked at first. How could she not?
“Hi,” she said.
Man, she looked great in her normal everyday clothes, those slacks and that wool jacket and the cream scarf she wore loose around her neck looking runway fine, as far as he was concerned.
Still no wedding ring.
Good, he thought for no apparent reason.
Shifting his gaze to the right, so maybe his defect wouldn’t be so obvious, he returned the “Hi.”
Well, shit, now what. “I’m not stalking you, I swear.” Liar. “And I would have called, but I’ve got no phone.”
“It’s okay. Do you need something? The police called me this morning with a follow-up, and I think they were still planning on speaking with you?”
“Yeah.” He let that one stand where it was. “Listen, I?.?.?.”
The fact that he was leaving a sentence hanging seemed very unnatural, but his brain just wasn’t producing.
“Let’s sit down,” she said, gesturing to the seat. “I can’t believe they let you out.”
At that moment, a bus showed up, rumbling to a halt and blocking the sun, its hot diesel breath making him cough. As the pair of them settled on the bench, they kept quiet while the kibitzers filed on their ride.
When the bus kept going, the sunlight reappeared, bathing her in a yellow light.
For some stupid reason, his eyes started blinking hard.
“What can I do for you?” she asked softly. “Are you in pain?”
Yes. But it wasn’t physical. And it got worse whenever he looked at her. “How do you know I need help?”
“I’m guessing your memory didn’t magically come back.”
“No, it hasn’t. But that’s not your fault.”
“Well, I hit you. So I owe you.”
He made a motion to his lower body. “I was like this before.”
“Can you remember anything? Prior to the accident, I mean.” As he shook his head, she murmured, “A lot of servicemen have come back in your condition.”
Ah...as in Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, he thought. And part of that fit. The government...yes, he’d had something to do with the Department of Defense, or national security...or…
But he wasn’t a Wounded Warrior. Because he hadn’t been a hero.
“They found my wallet,” he blurted.
“Oh, that’s great.”
For some reason he gave it to her.
As she opened the thing and looked at the driver’s license, she nodded. “That’s you.”
Focusing on the Caldwell Courier Journal emblem that hung over the door she’d walked out of, he said, “Look, all this is off the record, okay?”
“And I wish I had another option. I wish...I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“You haven’t asked me to do anything yet.” She stared at him. “What do you have in mind?”
“Can you find out who that is?” He pointed to the driver’s license. “Because it’s not me.”