From Sugar Coated (Book 5)

PROLOGUE

The noise distracted Gary Kemmerman and he nicked his right index finger with the point of the knife. In the fluorescent glow, the blood looked darker than the tomato he'd been slicing. He set the utensil down, turned on the cold water, and rinsed the wound as the phone rang again on the counter to his left.

Before the receiver reached his ear, he heard sobbing. "Mom!"

"It's Gary--what's wrong, Melanie?"

"Get Mom and come!"

"Becca's at the hospital."

"Oh--" she gasped before she could finish-- "please come!"

He hesitated, expecting more; turned off the water without looking, heard voices in the background. One he recognized. "Are the police there?"

"I didn't kill her!"

"What--" The line went dead.

He didn't take a coat or lock the door and was calling for Becca as he ran out into the April twilight.

CHAPTER 1----FOUR MONTHS EARLIER. . .
December 5th, 11:45 AM

"A ghost," Janet Zadakis said, her bulk filling the chair arm to arm. "That's what the trooper I talked to--a major, no less--called our John Doe. The officer was not happy." She reached into the tote bag on her lap.

Sitting behind her wooden desk in the hospital's small social services office, Brenda Kowalski fingered the gold cross at her neck. "Back up, Janet. Why would he say that?"

Zadakis found what she'd been looking for. "Ah, here it is." She pulled out a large manila envelope. "Better not lose it--toughest job I've ever had."

Holding the envelope, she set the bag down beside the chair.

"No one's ever seen a case like this. I got bumped back and forth." She raised a finger at each point. "No fingerprints. No DNA match in any database. Foolish to try dental records. No hits in PennDOT's facial recognition system--at least not the way he looks now. And the cops have no missing person's file that fits."

She waved the hand. "I've run out of fingers. Car's VIN number was traced to a dealer in--" she pulled sheets partway out of the envelope, found the one she wanted-- "Bridgeport, West Virginia. Where's that? Dead end, they say. Some guy walked in eight months ago and bought it off the lot for cash. Manager sold a clunker and wasn't asking for ID. They might arrest him, but that won't help us. He didn't recognize the photo, and God knows where the car's been since."

She slid the papers away.

A small statue of Jesus was standing on the desktop beside a file tray, and Kowalski brushed it with a knuckle. "The man's lucky we have a Level 1 Trauma and Burn Center. I don't know how he stayed positive through it all."

"Think it's Jesus?" Zadakis motioned toward the statue.

Kowalski moved away from it. "So what did you do? After the trooper said that?"

"All I had left was a citizenship and identification form. Imagine--it asks for his mother's maiden name!"

Kowalski joined the laugh.

"The major called Judge Willard's office. President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in our district."

Kowalski frowned. "A judge? Robes, bench, and all?"

"He greeted me in a suit, we sat in chairs, friendly like." She waved. "Who else can grant status with the sweep of a pen?"

"He help?"

"Not till I explained." Zadakis shifted in the chair.

Kowalski leaned forward, elbows on the desk. "You make him cry?"

"Just about. Guy driving peacefully on the pike, hit by a tanker, thrown clear by the explosion, skin grafts, facial reconstruction, throat work, leg shortened--and amnesia. I shouldn't have laughed before, but asking for his mother's maiden name when he doesn't know who the hell he is or ever was?"

"What'd the judge say?"

"Can't keep him in rehab forever. If he had medical insurance, no one knows it. No reason to lock him up. . . . Anyway, the judge came through. He's kind of nice." Zadakis set the envelope down in front of Kowalski. "This'll please Mr. Doe. Bet you can't wait to tell him."

"I can't wait to call him by a real name." She collected the envelope.

"Real?"

"From now on it'll be as real as it gets for him." She glanced at her watch. "You did good. Let me buy lunch. Our guy is due here at two. Wanna stay?"

"Nah. I'm a behind-the-scenes person."

They both laughed.
* * *
He'd met her several times. Tall, thin woman. Short dark hair tight against her head. Always wearing a gold cross hanging above her small bosom. He wondered if she wore it in the shower. From her pause and the way she worked her mouth, he anticipated the question.

"Have you chosen your new name?" Sitting behind her desk, Kowalski looked at him and spoke again before he could. You've amazed everyone." She glanced down but didn't open the thick folder in her hands.

He saw the questioning look. She must expect a response. They all did. He glanced through the window, across the Susquehanna River toward a marina on City Island, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was frigid. Boats had been dry docked in covered racks on shore. Snow was everywhere. One day, he might buy a boat. After. Thinking about it, he couldn't prevent a small smile, but said nothing, and rubbed the scar on the left side of his neck.

She motioned toward the movement. "The doctor said you could start itching any time. You know--"

". . .I'm fine." He'd been left with the face and voice of a stranger. Fingers that had lost sensitivity. Thirty pounds lighter. But back from the dead and given opportunity.

"You're the first case like this I've come across in my fourteen years here." She set down the folder, leaned back in the chair, and the headshake continued. "It's awesome. God has to be on your side. Thrown from the explosion and an ambulance happens to be passing." She peered at him. "Do you feel blessed?"

He nodded. Wind rattled the windows.

"Against all odds you make a complete recovery--and then get a whopping cash settlement to boot."

He opened his mouth and breathed in before speaking, unaware he was fingering the scar. ". . .Accident wasn't my fault."

"That's what the witnesses said. You could've gone to court and gotten much more. The lawyer told you."

". . .It's enough."

She heaved a breath. "But you were responsible."

He didn't react, just gazed at her.

"Not for the accident," she said, "but you were the one with the will to live, the guts to get through what you had to."

". . .Thank you." He lowered his eyes. The room was too warm. He was ready for cold. For action. So much money--it would help. He'd exercise, regain strength, but keep off the weight. Without it, he looked different.

"Have you remembered anything this week?" she asked.

He squeezed his lips, shook his head, shrugged, hoping it would be the last time that would be asked.

She leaned toward him. "Odd that you don't remember certain things, but others--"

". . .I'm toilet trained, can read, even know how to use a fork." Immediately, he regretted having said it.

She straightened as if she'd been slapped, and frowned. "Well. . . ." Then her expression changed. "Sorry. It must be very difficult for you. Please, understand I'm trying to help."

He nodded and flexed his fingers; he did that often, or they stiffened.

She smiled at the statue, reached into the folder, and slipped out the envelope with the photos. The first time they'd been shown to him, he'd fought not to react. He'd known why the two fragile paper images had survived: he'd kept them beside his heart. Now he slowed his breathing. That envelope had been singed, edges blackened on one side. The replacement was fresh, cream colored.

She held up a photo in each hand, her questioning face between them. "Such a pretty woman. Red hair, a really nice smile. The EMTs said they were in your shirt pocket--she must have been important to you. The doctors said your memory might begin coming back by now, and so I thought. . . ."

He frowned at the images, shook his head, lowered his eyes, said nothing. He knew they'd checked the fingerprints on the photos, ran the woman's images in newspapers in hopes she--and thus he--might be identified.

Kowalski slipped the photos into the envelope, and the envelope into the folder.

". . .Maybe I keep them? In case. . . ."

"Of course. They're yours." She shook her head.

Because of the sorrow of it all? he wondered. He wasn't sorry. Weeks of lying dazed from pain and drugs, things stuck into and fastened onto him, unable to see through bandages, only his imaginings in vivid color, had clarified why this had happened and what he had to do.

He'd spent untold hours fighting drugs and pain, picturing the two of them together, him helpless, watching. Once he knew he'd survive, he'd begun planning. He'd been given all the time he needed.

"Well, do you feel ready to return to the world?"

Kowalski's words brought him back. ". . .Harrisburg Hospital has been good to me. I'm thankful. But. . .yes."

"They say you were alone in the car so you must have been driving. Do you feel up to taking the driver's test next week?"

He nodded.

"If you pass, you'll get a temporary Pennsylvania license, with your photo, good for fifteen days." She smiled and leaned forward, the cross swinging. "But we got a judge to grant you valid identification--a court order good in any state. We'll help you apply for a social security card. So you can get a job, rent a place, open a bank account."

She nodded as she spoke, but her hair never moved. "For now, show the hospital as your address. Anyone needs to call, have them ask for me. You've been here four months. We feel like we know you."

She was peering. He remained silent. She chuckled. "The state uses facial recognition technology to compare applicants in its database. Even if you were in there before, they won't be able to identify you now."

". . .I'm. . .not handsome."

"Well, I don't know what you looked like before, but--" she tilted her head and smiled-- "you have a sweet face. The doctors did a good job. Women will find you attractive."

". . .Thank you."

"What will you do out there?"

He clasped hands and leaned closer. ". . .I am lucky. The money will let me find a town I like, buy a house." He lowered his voice, offering what he'd saved for this moment. ". . .But I know what I want to do for a living."

Without looking down, she found her pen and opened the folder. "And what's that?"

". . .Work in a hospital. Help patients, like I was. Help doctors, like those who saved me." He smiled. "And nurses."

She chuckled again. "The nurses like you. Why not stay right here? I'm sure we'd find an entry-level position. It would be a new start."

He thought through the answer. ". . .You say I was heading east?"

She fingered the pen. "When the accident happened. Yes."

". . .Maybe for a reason." Without thinking, he stroked the scar. "So I'll try. . .somewhere east."

"Why not have that scar removed?" she asked, pointing with the pen. "The doctor said--"

It might have been his smile that stopped her. He wiped it from his face. ". . .It's. . .a reminder."

She concentrated on the note she was making as she spoke. "Would you like a letter from us--for when you're asked. . . ?"

". . .Thank you."

She wrote some more, then slipped a document from the folder and set it on top. "So," she said as she looked up, "tell me your new name. You'll sign, I'll notarize, and the world will know that's you."

He'd practiced signing a few names. He squinted, deciding.

"Oh, my, I never asked: Are you able. . .to write?"

He raised his hands, palms up. The color of his skin was mottled, but the fingers worked. He curled them as if he were squeezing a neck.

"I'm so happy for you," she said.
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