Yesterday I posted an excerpt that is 40,000 words into a novel I’m writing. Here is how it begins:
The man steps from the unfinished portrait in a lovely room awash in a yellow-green light from the garden beyond the French doors. He is elegant in a white linen suit, pink shirt and a blue silk tie, and hand-made Italian shoes. The floor has an Isfahan rug from the Sixteenth Century, surely too precious to walk on, cut flowers in a Han dynasty vase, a large mirror, and the canvas on a stand and a palette waiting for the artist’s return. The space he occupied in the portrait is blank.
He is impossibly good looking with dark hair and green eyes, a wide brow and firm jaw. He casually inspects the room, picking up objects—a Fabergé egg here, a Swiss cylinder music box there—to enjoy the feel of their weight in his hand. He wanders through the house looking at everything with pleasure. In the kitchen, he pours lemonade in a glass and drinks. Long-lashed eyes widen in surprise as the tartness floods his mouth.
He walks out the front door into the still afternoon across an emerald expanse of manicured lawn, down a winding, wooded drive to a quiet two-lane blacktop road. He turns left without a look back as if what lies behind has served its purpose. He is bewitched by all he sees, blue sky, pillowed clouds, light through the trees, walls clad in lichen, a string of geese honking overhead.
An older woman with a trowel stops her digging and stands to glare as he passes her iron fence and stone lions. This is not a neighborhood that likes strangers, especially on foot. He glances at her and her nose begins to flood and then spills over her cupped hands as she runs for the house. It is an hour and two jumbo boxes of tissues before the flow stops.
Cars passing at long intervals make the maroon and gold leaves dance and twirl on the ground. Heads turn in those cars. Such an elegant figure, they think. Who is he and where is he bound? As the shadows lengthen into twilight, he turns his collar up and walks with hands in pockets.
When darkness is beginning to fall, a police car stops with blue roof lights spinning and an officer gets out. As he approaches, he squares his cap with a tug at the bill. Leather belt and straps creak with official authority.
“Where are you headed, sir?” he asks politely. That ice cream suit belongs in West Palm Beach, he thinks. It’s coming on to flannel and parka time.
“I don’t know.” The man’s voice is pleasing, pitched perfectly between tenor and baritone. He seems mystified he can’t answer such a simple question. A good looking guy, the cop notices. No, incredibly good looking.
“Where are you coming from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Could I see some ID?”
“Something that says who you are.”
The man pats his pockets vaguely, wanting to be helpful but not sure how.
“What’s your name?”
A slow, wondering shake of the head.
The policeman’s suspicion normally would sharpen now, but something tells him this man is different.
“Have you been in an accident?”
“Do you hurt anywhere?”
“I feel wonderful.”
Procedure is clear in cases of mental confusion. Put him in the back of the cruiser, call in and drive to headquarters to sort matters out. But at this hour that means a night in a holding cell. If it is busy, he’ll share space with drunks, some of whom can be violent. That seems wrong. Then tomorrow the welfare bureaucracy gets into the act. He is transported to the hospital and put in the lockdown ward for evaluation. People howl in fear or rage or rock back and forth wordlessly. The few times the policeman was there he couldn’t wait to leave.
He has learned to go by the book. It is protection from nit-picking superiors as well as mouthy arrestees and the lawyers they hire. But he thinks this should be an exception to the rules.
“If I were to drive you back, do you think you could recognize the house?”
The man shakes his head. “I don’t think I could.”
“Your first time there?”
“I don’t know.” He looks apologetic that he can’t be more helpful.
“Do you remember anything?”
He thinks about this. “Something I had to drink.”
This was getting somewhere. “Booze?”
He doesn’t understand.
He still doesn’t.
The cop mimes drinking from a glass and shuddering. “Whiskey, gin, vodka. Was it the hard stuff?”
“It tasted wonderful.”
“Maybe it was drugged.”
The officer takes off his cap and scratches his head, unconscious of the comic weight tradition has given this. He gets the digital camera from the trunk and takes a picture for record purposes. He remembers a former rich man’s estate up the road that is now a sanitarium for wealthy people. It is very posh and discreet; nobody outside your family need know you go off the rails from drugs or alcohol or didn’t take your medication. He knows this because he paid a visit to dispatch a rapid skunk on the grounds two years ago and fell into conversation with a worker. He beckons to the man to follow and opens the passenger door with a look around to see if they are observed.
“Hop in.” He closes the door and walks around to the other side, removing his cap before getting in.
During the drive, the policeman—Sergeant Alex Randall—searches himself. Why am I doing this? From the corner of his eye he sees the man is as comfortable as if riding in a police cruiser is a part of every day.
“I’m supposed to take you to the station house.”
The man waits for the explanation.
“Where I work. Somebody called in sick today. I’m doing his shift.”
It is sufficient and the man turns his attention back to the road.
“But I’m not taking you there.”
The man turns back.
“It’s a shit hole,” says the sergeant.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a place like a hospital. Maybe you got a knock on the head and don’t remember it. I suppose you don’t know what a hospital is.”
“You speak good English. No accent or anything. How come you don’t know what things are called?”
The man just looks at him with smiling eyes.
A few miles up the road a brick wall with ivy begins on the left side and a hundred yards beyond an iron gate stands open. A brass plate in the wall says Templeton Hall. A long tree-lined drive turns circular in front of an imposing Palladium-style stone mansion. Some device has alerted the house and a man in a sports coat with leather patches and a white turtleneck comes down steps wide enough for a Verde opera.
“Is there a problem?” he asks as Randall gets out and puts his cap on. “I’m Dr. Marc Ashford.” His long gray hair has modish swept back wings.
“Are you the director?”
“I’m the executive director.” The distinction seems to be important to him.
“I found him walking on the road.”
“Why bring him here?” It appears he is close to taking offense.
“I thought you could look him over.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I think he’s got amnesia. He doesn’t even know his name.”
“There is a public hospital an hour away.”
“He’d just be a number.”
“I’m sorry…is it sergeant?”
“Can you just take a quick look?”
Ashford reluctantly stoops to look through the window and his manner changes. “Where did you find him?”
“A few miles south.”
“So he’s from one of the big houses.” This changes matters.
“I would guess so.”
Ashford opens the passenger door. “Hello, I’m Doctor Ashford.” The man gets out and takes the offered hand. “You’ve had some trouble?”
“I went out for a walk.”
“Why don’t we all go inside where it’s warm?” Ashford leads them to the grand entrance past where a knot of staff members has gathered. They pass through them and into his office where a blaze crackles in a fireplace. A big desk, overstuffed leather chairs and nice pictures on the walls. Randall removes his cap as he settles in his chair. His dark hair is peppered with gray.
“Now then,” Ashford says, “can you tell me what happened?” You can’t get a linen suit like his for under twenty-five hundred dollars, he is thinking. And the loafers are hand made.
“He doesn’t remember anything,” Randall says.
“I’d like him to answer,” Ashford says acidly.
“I don’t know what happened,” the man says.
“You don’t hurt anywhere?”
“I feel wonderful.”
“You don’t know your name?”
“You’re not concerned about that?”
“I’m getting the feeling I should be.” He laughs easily.
“What is the last thing you recall?”
“Walking and then I was picked up by the sergeant.”
“Nothing before that?”
“A big house. Something good I drank.”
“It could have been spiked with something,” Randall puts in.
“There are several kinds of amnesia,” Ashford says. He is not a hasty diagnostician, but the man might have the form known as global, meaning he has no information whatever. Or perhaps it is dissociative amnesia in which he is unable to remember personal information. These patients typically are aware they have forgotten but do not know what. They can perform simple tasks but not more complex ones like shopping and cooking. This amnesia lasts hours to days and usually comes after a severely stressing or traumatic event.
“The odds are very strong that your memory will return,” he tells the man. “Your appearance suggests perhaps you are in the performing arts.”
“You are very handsome, as you must know, extraordinarily so. Am I right, sergeant?”
“Like a movie star,” the policeman agrees.
“And your clothes,” the psychiatrist says. “They’re very expensive.”
The man looks down at them. “Expensive?”
“Very. What’s the label on your jacket?”
The man looks. “Fioravanti.”
“What does that mean?” the sergeant asks.
“The top of the trade,” Ashford says.
Randall’s radio crackles and he speaks into his lapel microphone. “Unit Four.”
“Sarge, there’s a report of a 10-14 on Wood Road.”
The elderly woman lives alone in an enormous house because she can’t keep servants. Mrs. Kletchner is good for three or four prowler reports a month. “So I can leave our friend in your capable hands?” he asks Ashford.
“Yes, of course,” the psychiatrist says as if there was never any question about it.
A group of nurses are at the door when he comes out. They remind him of groupies at the Bon Jovi concert where he picked up a few extra bucks doing security. Who is that man, they ask.
Kletchner was a cookware magnate and Thelma must have been a trophy wife because he has been dead these fifty years. “Where is Officer Cook?” is her first question.
“He’s not feeling well tonight,” Randall says. He is pretty sure Cook is driving home from a lake with a cooler full of trout.
“Men were looking in my windows.”
She can’t describe them or the car they came in but she doesn’t think they were peeping toms like before; they seemed looking for something rather than hoping for a glimpse of her in her nightgown. Starved for conversation, she chatters on. Her legs hurt and the headaches are worse. The man who delivers groceries was impertinent; the refrigerator is making a funny noise. Randall breaks free and checks outside with his flashlight. No footprints or signs of attempted entry, the same as all the other times.
He drives the cruiser home after radioing that he is 10-7. “Goodnight, Sarge,” the dispatcher says. A cold wind has picked up, stripping off leaves that hurry like commuters for the last train. The moon ducks in and out of the clouds and shadows move in the trees. Randall is not an imaginative man, but he has a bad feeling.
So he is happy to get home and close the door on the night, finding the suitcases just inside the threshold. His pretty wife, Abigail—a strawberry blond with cornflower-blue eyes—greets him with a kiss and the tow-headed five-year-old twins, Michael and Martin, swirl at his knees. “Daddy! Daddy!” Bub, the Lab mix, dances on hind legs and paws the air.
“Has everyone been behaving?” he asks.
“I’m not a mom, I’m a referee,” she says. “Why do boys fight all the time?”
“It’s in the DNA,” he says. “If it wasn’t for males you could lay off ninety per cent of the cops.”
“Ready to go?” he asks her as he picks the boys up and kisses them.
They drive tomorrow to her mother’s place in Wisconsin. She is as efficient as she is pretty, so the question is unnecessary. He follows in two weeks and already dreads the nights with nothing but television when they are gone.
“All set,” Abigail says. “A quiet night?”
“Mrs. Kletchner said someone was at her window.”
“How many times does that make?”
“I lost count a long time ago.”
“It must be awful to be so all alone.”
“Tell me about it.”
“We’ve had that discussion,” she says firmly. “I’m all mom’s got left.”
“I picked up a guy walking on the road. He didn’t know who or where he was. Nice guy; rich by the look of him.”
“You took him to the lockup?” Abigail worked as police dispatcher before he took her away from all that. She says she would still be working graveyard if she’d left it up to him.
“No, I took him to Templeton Hall.”
“But that’s private.”
“Yeah, I was afraid they wouldn’t accept him. Looking rich helped.”
“Why take him there?”
“I don’t know; there’s something different about the guy.”
He downloads the picture on the computer and prints it. “My goodness,” Abigail marvels, “what a handsome man.”
“More handsome than me?” He gives her his profile.
“That’s not possible, dear. Is that what you mean by something different?”
”It’s hard to put into words.”
“That’s another thing about males I’ve noticed.”
“What’s for supper?”