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The ache between his ears is what startled him to consciousness. Felt as if his skull had been drilled with something hard. Eyes falling over the wall against which one shoulder leaned, he noted the streak of murky crimson on the tar-stained cinder block.
Posted halfway down the alley, a streetlight touched the edge of the shadows where he crouched. A roaming feel over his scalp located the ache, there at his right temple. His fingers slipped away with blood on them.
He figured his head had been rammed into the wall. By someone else? But why? Or maybe he had tripped, fallen forward and hadn't had a chance to catch himself before his skull connected to the wall ofwhere was he?
Close by, cars rolled over the tarmac, kicking up slushy white noise. Horns honked. A velvet-gray sky, illuminated by city lights, loomed overhead. He must be sitting behind a building, perhaps a retail business.
A fishy odor tendriled beneath his nostrils. Listening more acutely, he could pick out the clang of pots, perhaps cooking knives slicing across cutting boards, and the muffled gabble of kitchen staff. Must be a restaurant nearby.
There, at the end of the alley, he heard a man's loafers shuffle over the wet pavement and the muffled click of a woman's heels walking double time beside him. She gave an audible shiver and cursed the winter chill.
Shuffling about to sit, he shook his head, which cleared away the bits of haze that fogged his brain.
But the fog did not completely recede. It seemed he could not get his bearings, could not grasp on to any mental affirmation of his situation.
"Where am I? Who the hell did this to me?"
Or was it as he'dthought? He'd fallen?
Blood glinted in the light as he turned his fingers before him. A conclusion sprang to the fore of his brain. Mugged.
He did a sensory appraisal over the rest of his body. Nothing else hurt like his head did. Must have been punched or hit with something.
He wore black leather ankle-height boots, which were soaked from the snowy slush pushed up along the building wall. His gray trousers were crisply seamed, but also drawing up the wet. A white dress shirt bore a dribble of crimson down the front. A suit coat to match his trousers had been tugged down to his elbows.
Were these his clothes? They didn't strike him as familiar. Why did he feel so separate from reality? As if he stood off to the side, a stranger observing the man sitting on the ground.
A quick pat over the trousers found nothing in the pockets, or anything in the coat pockets. No ID or wallet. Not a cell phone or even car keys.
"Robbed," he said resolutely. "Dash it."
An odd taste swirled over his tongue. A slide of his finger across his bottom lip discovered blood. Must have been punched on the jaw. A tongue test didn't sense any loose teeth, nor did his jaw ache as did his forehead.
The chill air began to permeate the thin shirt he wore and he realized he sat surrounded by snowy slush. When had it snowed? It was winter?
Of course it was winter. But why didn't that mean anything to him? Was this a dream? Truly, did he stand outside himself, watching the horror? Would he wake to find himself safely tucked in a warm bed?
The ache at his temple pulsed, as if to answer, No, this is happening.
"Right. Wonder how much the bastard got from me."
Pushing up by the wall, he surprised himself that he didn't wobble and felt quite agile. May have been a quick hit-and-dash robbery, no struggle. He couldn't have seen it coming.
Had he blocked out memory of a traumatic event?
Logically, he knew it was possible, that a hit to the head could fuck with a man's memory. But he knew things. It was winter. He was in a big city. It was night. And he was obviously hungry, for the restaurant smells stirred an aching want for sustenance, though the sensation sat higher than his stomach, and seemed to prod him right beneath the heart.
He stood in the slush-soaked alley looking from one end to the other. A parking lot one way, the bright neon lights of a main street the other way.
Had he been on his way home? This building he stood behind, had he come out of it, or was he on his way inside? What was the place?
He searched the nondescript cinder-block wall. The black metal door was marked with a painted white 4D. Five steps away a dingy green Dumpster displayed the name of a garbage company.
Clasping a hand over his heart, he panicked at the thud of his pulse. He didn't feel attached to this place. Where did he belong?
The horrifying sensation of unknowing put him out of his senses. Briefly, he lost control. His body wavered. Catching his palm against the wall, he stopped himself from keeling forward as the world suddenly took a dive into darkness. Blinking, he fought the wooziness.
And a moment of clarity emerged.
Obviously he needed to contact the police. If his wallet had been stolen, he didn't relish the weeks and months it might take to clear his name of identity theft.
You don't know your name, buddy. How would you know if someone stole your identity?
Christ, what was his name?
A twist of his boot crinkled a small square of yellow paper. It sat on the underside of his boot toeas if he'd stepped on it. He bent to pluck it off.
The first word had begun to blur from the snow, yet he could easily read the small fancy writing.
"Go to the Saint Paul cathedral. Now." He flicked the paper with a finger. "Huh. Saint Paul?"
What sort of thief robbed a man, then asked to meet him at a church?
Yet recognition surfaced. Saint Paul. That was a city in Min-nesota. The capital. Yes, he was here in Saint Paul. I know it.
Staggering forward, he moved toward the end of the alley. Slush splashed with his tromping steps. Shrugging the coat up over his shoulders lessened the chill. A delivery truck cruised past the end of the alley, splattering gray snow to the toes of his boots.
His surroundings did not appear familiar. To search the sky, he could not pick out a major building, but he could see the base of many. Deep within the city, then, for to be farther out, he might have seen whole buildings and perhaps recognized a landmark.
Casing his periphery, he reasoned that most people weren't intimate with the alleys of a big city.
I live here. That fact felt real, like it was truth. But where? How to get home, to be safe.
A tickling cry formed at the back of his throat, but he swallowed the urge. He was a man. Men didn't panic. Even men who had lost their identities. He'd figure this out.
Walking a cobbled sidewalk, he followed the curving line of a large building toward an intersection. A glance up and behind saw a massive lighted sign for the Xcel Energy Center. The flashing marquee advertised the Dixie Chicks in two weeks. Tickets still available.
A country-rock band.
"I know things," he muttered. He recognized the band. "So why don't I know my name?"
Perhaps he required a hospital more than the police? Could emergency-room professionals snap their fingers and give him back the vital memorythe very knowingthat eluded him?
High above the buildings across the street, he sighted a gold cross, seeming to float in the sky, lit from below by spotlights.
"Saint Paul's Cathedral," he muttered, and picked up his pace. The cathedral was huge, a city icon. "I know.Yes, I recognize it."
Compelled for no other reason than at least he could fit one and one togethernote, and the actual churchhe jogged across the street, avoiding a speeding cab that honked as it passed.
There, he hadn't lost his memory. He was
He was a man racing toward the refuge of the holy. A man who didn't want to consider the details he couldn't touch right now.
What would he do when he encountered the thief? Was he able to throw a punch?
He coiled his fingers into a fist, and felt his forearm all the way up to the bicep tighten. Yes, he had muscles. But did he know how to use them? was the question.
Should have found the police. What could go wrong in a church?
And who was to say the note had been written by the thief? A witness might have left it there. Someone who had observed the violence but was then too afraid to deal with an injured man. That made little sense. Why then ask the injured man to walk blocks away to a cathedral? Wouldn't it have been easier, and more Good Samaritanish, to simply call for the cops?
He stopped on the sidewalk before the cathedral. Preceded by a huge snow-littered lawn, it sat upon a hill. Half a mile to his right a busy freeway hummed with activity.
Should he go inside? It didn't feel right.
Apprehension tightened his jaw, and again he tasted the blood on his lip. Yet when the tip of his tongue probed the wet inner surface of his mouth, he found no lacerations.
"How can I fear," he muttered, "when I don't know my own courage?"
And so he stepped forward, taking the hill in sure, determined strides. Bounding up the granite steps, he then entered the dark, cool building.
The cathedral was open, but there was no one inside the narthex as he wandered in, slowing his pace in reverence to the silence. Low lighting fell across the dark wood floor and walls. Open doors to the sanctuary revealed dozens of candles glittering up by the altar, and there, along the sides in the various shrines.
Someone had to be here to tend the candles.
He entered the vast sanctuary. Walking across the back of the room, he noted now that two or three people did sit in the wooden folding chairs toward the front. Choosing the left aisle that paralleled the dozens of rows of wooden chairs, he wandered around behind the first marble pillar.
For a moment, he breathed in the dark and cool quiet. Alone with no thoughts.
What thoughts can you have? What thoughts have you had?
A strange, unfamiliar vulnerability nagged at him. You are stronger than this.
Physically or mentally?
"This way." A voice, female, and utterly unexpected, set him to alert.
He tightened both hands into fists, the act of which startled him so thoroughly, he stepped backward and his shoulder hit a marble pillar.
"Who's there?" he whispered. Heartbeats worked a furious pace. Darting his gaze up and down the wooden chairs and along the tiled floor, he spied no one. "I I found the note."
Determination, and an innate refusal to step back from the unknown, fortified his courage. He stepped down the aisle, toward the back of the cathedral where he had entered, passing another marble pillar.
So he was a curious man. It felt right.
Maybe not so much curious as bold?
A wisp of long black hair fluttered from behind a pillar just ahead. A woman? Couldn't be his thief. No woman could overpower him. He didn't thinkno, he knew he was not gullible to feminine charms. Maybe she had witnessed the crime. And, frightened, and knowing her own inability to help, she'd chosen to lure him here where the holy might grant her confidence.
He quickened his pace. For a few steps the dizziness he'd felt in the alley again threatened. He slapped a palm to the marble, finding it as cold as the outdoors.
"Where are you?" he called in a whisper. Incense hung in the air, and seeped into his pores, escalating the woozy swirl in his brain.
Two columns ahead, he spied long fingers dash out and coaxed him to follow. "Truvin," the soft voice sang.
What had she called him? Truvin? Not a name he'd heard before. Was it even a name? No, she must have said something else.
"If you saw what happened, you can help me. I need some answers," he said, and charged onward.
A welcome rage of heat fired in his core. He may not know who he was, but he did know that he would not be toyed with.
An angel stood in the doorway out to the narthex. Tall, lithe and gorgeous. Long hair streamed from her scalp as heavy as black velvet. The tresses glowed blue with flashes of candlelight, and there was a sparkle in her eyes, palest blue and washed with more ethereal white.
She wore white slacks and a fitted blazer of the same fabric. And those lips, palest pinkhe must have kissed those lips. The feeling radiated deep within him, and it wasn't a random idea. He knew he had kissed her.
But what was her name?
"What are you playing, darling? Don't fright. I'm in no condition to do you harm. And I would not." Or would he? The fact he'd even said such disturbed, but briefly. "Did you leave me that note?"
She nodded, and coaxed him closer with a crook of a narrow forefinger. Then she slipped out of sight.
He dashed through the doorway and to the right. An elaborate iron gate opened to a baptistry.
"Do you know me?" he tried. "I'm sorry, but I don't recall. My brain's not working properly right now."
She glided backward, stepping around a freestanding baptismal font carved from a deeply veined pale marble. The water inside wavered. Curving around to the other side of the basin, she then stopped and merely stared at him.
A study in understated sensuality, her pale lips pursed, a perfect bow. Standing more than ten feet from her, he could scent her; it was different than the incense. A dark, musky smell topped with an even darker note of smoke and earth. Silently, she tempted. In a church, of all places.
Held in the angel's eyes, he disregarded suspicions of robbery, and moved toward the font.
"What did you call me? I can't seem to place my name."
"You don't remember?" Her eyes darted to look over his right shoulder.
He didn't hear the others come up behind him, yet the scent of aggression stabbed at him with an acrid tongue.
Arms wrenched back and behind him, heat burned along his shoulder blades as his muscles were stretched awkwardly. Two large men secured him. A hand slapped across his mouth to contain his shout.