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Friday, August 28—evening
SHE SURFACED SLOWLY, her senses awakening one by one. She felt the pain first—a hammering headache near her right temple. And heat. Humid air pressed in on her carrying the scent of exhaust fumes and the noise of traffic. Engines thrummed and a horn blasted in a staccato rhythm.
Close by, voices shouted. Angry male voices. She caught enough of what they were saying to wonder if their language was turning the surrounding air blue.
Where was she? What had happened? Panic bubbled up as the questions swirled through her mind. Opening her eyes, she managed to get a glimpse of her surroundings before a fresh wave of pain had her wincing and squeezing them shut again. She'd registered enough to know that it was dark out. Not pitch–black, but a sort of twilight–gray. She was in a car. The plastic divider that separated her from the front seat made her think it had to be a taxi.
Opening her eyes again, she gritted her teeth against the pain and took more careful stock of her surroundings. She was half lying on the backseat. The shattered window to her right gave her the first clue that she'd been in an accident. And the two men right outside that window were arguing about who'd caused it.
Okay, she knew where she was—in a taxi. And that there'd been an accident. In the initial impact she must have hit her head and been knocked out for a few minutes. But she was conscious now. How badly had she been hurt?
As she began to lever herself into a sitting position, the pounding at her temple increased and had her gritting her teeth again. But she made it. So far, so good. She wasn't dizzy and shewas almost getting used to the headache, which seemed to be the only source of pain.
"Bottom line. I had a green light.You ran a red," growled a gravelly voice to her right. "And I got a witness—my fare. Hey, lady, you want to tell this guy what happened?"
She carefully turned to look at the man whose round and mustached face had appeared at the broken window. He jabbed a finger at her. "Tell him I had the green light."
"I…can't." Panic did more than bubble this time. It shot through her in sharp arrows.
"What do you mean, you can't? You saw it."
"I don't…remember." When she searched her mind for the details that had led up to the accident, she came up empty. She raised her hands and pressed her fingers against her temples, hoping that might help.
It didn't. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "You yelled at me to look out, that this creep was running the red. And then you screamed." He jerked a thumb at the skinny man standing next to him. "He rammed right into us and caused a six–car pileup. Traffic is stopped in four directions."
She shifted her gaze back to the man who'd evidently been driving her taxi, taking in more details now. He had thick dark hair, a stocky build and he wore a folded, red–print bandanna around his head that made him look like a pirate. If someone had thrust a Bible into her hand, she would have sworn that she'd never seen him before in her life.
She pressed a hand against her stomach. "Give me—" When her voice cracked, she swallowed hard. "I need a minute."
"Lady, are you all right?" It was the other man who spoke. He was tall with the thin build of a scarecrow, and she could hear concern in his voice.
"I'm fine," she said, stubbornly clinging to the hope that she was speaking the truth. But it wasn't merely the accident she didn't remember. She couldn't even recall getting into the taxi…or where she was going…or where she'd been…or…
She dropped her hands into her lap and clenched them into fists as the pain in her head sharpened.
She couldn't…she couldn't remember who she was. "Look," the skinny man continued, "she's hurt. She's got blood on her. I'll call an ambulance."
Blood? As he punched numbers into his cell phone, she glanced down at herself. Sure enough, there were dark stains on the cuff of her jacket and on her skirt. She gingerly probed her right temple and located a goose egg just above it, but there was no sign of blood on her hand when she drew it away. Was she hurt somewhere else? She turned up her cuff, but there wasn't a mark on her arm. Nor could she find any kind of wound when she checked beneath the stains on her skirt. The only pain she was experiencing was a headache—which was getting worse.
"We got an ambulance coming, lady." It was her taxi driver who spoke, and his earlier anger seemed to have faded. "You just sit tight. You're going to be all right."
"You're probably in shock," the other man assured her.
"You just take it easy until they get here."
Shock. That had to be it. Relief streamed through her. Any minute now, her memory would come flooding back. And in the meantime… There had to be clues. She glanced around the backseat, looking for her purse. A white plastic dress bag was the first thing that caught her eye. It lay half on the seat to her left and half on the floor. She realized she'd been lying on it when she'd first regained consciousness. Instinctively, she lifted the bag, smoothing it as she hung it carefully on the hook over the door. Through a clear plastic panel on the front, she could make out a white lace gown embroidered with tiny seed pearls. A wedding dress?
The momentary relief she'd felt was shoved out by a fresh wave of panic. Surely she'd remember if she were on the way to her wedding. But why would she be going to her own wedding in a taxi? Wouldn't she be with family?
Something knotted in her stomach. Maybe she didn't have a family.
She turned to the window. "Sir?" The word sounded like a squeak, and she swallowed hard when her taxi driver's face once more appeared in the window.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Yes," she lied. "Where did you pick me up?"
He frowned at her. "You don't remember that, either?"
"She's in shock, I tell you," the skinny man said. "Don't give her a hard time. Just tell her where you picked her up."
Her taxi driver let out a disgusted sigh. "You flagged me down on Bellevue."
"And where did I ask you to take me?"
His frown deepened, but he reached in through the passenger window and extracted a clipboard. "503 Lathrop. It's just two blocks down on the right–hand side. We were almost there when this idiot ran the light."
"Did not," the skinny man muttered.
Ignoring him, her driver handed her a business card.
"You gave me this when you got in the car."
She glanced down and read the neatly printed name. Kristophe Angelis, Private Investigations. Beneath that in smaller font was an address—503 Lathrop. She read the phone number, too. Nothing on the card rang a bell. As far as she knew, she'd never seen the name before.
The sound of sirens in the distance had the two men turning away from the window, and she was grateful for their distraction. She had to think, to take stock of her situation.
She hadn't called the taxi; she'd flagged it down. And she had a wedding dress. There were bloodstains on her suit. And she'd given the taxi driver the business card of a private investigator. The knot in her stomach tightened. No matter how you tried to add it up, it wasn't good.
Maybe she wasn't on the way to her wedding. She could be a runaway bride. That seemed a more plausible explanation for why she was alone in a taxi with her wedding dress. She'd had a case of bridal jitters.
But why was she running to a P.I.? Her gaze dropped to her suit again. A runaway bride with blood on her suit? That was not good. Her fingers tightened on the business card. Maybe this Kristophe Angelis would know who she was.
The sirens grew louder. "It's the ambulance," the skinny man said. "Naw," her taxi driver corrected. "It's the police. They'll interview a few witnesses and find out you ran that red light."
"I had the green."
"I had the green. My fare will tell the police that—as soon as she comes out of shock."
Police. The word sent a chill through her, and she dropped her gaze once more to the bloodstains on her skirt. They'd want to know how the blood got there. How could she explain that to the police when she couldn't remember?
Maybe she didn't want to remember.
But she had to. Moving to the edge of the seat, she peered down at the floor of the taxi. She did have a purse, didn't she? She'd glimpsed black leather when she'd moved the dress bag. Relief streamed through her. Surely, there'd be answers in there. It was heavy and it took some effort to drag it onto her lap. Opening it, she peered at the contents.
She hadn't thought the knot in her stomach could twist any tighter, but she'd been wrong. Even in the dim light, she could recognize the gleam of metal and make out the shape of a gun. Beneath it lay bundles of bills. The ones she could see on top were twenties.
It was a lot of money. Doing her best to avoid touching the gun, she slipped her hand into the tote, sliding it down the sides of the stacked bills and trying to locate a wallet or anything else that might tell her who she was. But she came up empty.
"You remember anything yet?"
She started, clutching the tote closed before turning to see her taxi driver peering in the window. "No. Sorry." "Shit," he muttered as he turned and walked away. She could see beyond him to where two uniformed officers were talking to the tall, skinny man. A small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. Even as she watched, one of the policemen pulled a notebook out of his pocket and started to talk to the bystanders.
This was her chance, she thought. If she stayed here, she was going to have to explain the blood, the gun, the wedding dress and the small fortune in money in a tote bag. And she couldn't. She slipped one twenty out of a bundle and set it on the seat. The money might not be hers, but she didn't want to leave the taxi driver without his fare. Then keeping her eye on the two policemen, she very carefully opened the door that hadn't suffered damage from the accident. She gathered up the tote and the wedding dress and slipped away into the crowd.