He should have been dead.
That’s what they told him, anyway.
The doctors in Hôpital Hôtel-Dieu in the fourth arrondissement of Paris didn’t mince words. He’d been told time and time again how lucky he was to be alive. The internal bleeding alone should have killed him. His head injury was just icing on the cake.
He didn’t feel so lucky—he felt like hell. Every bone in his body hurt. It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. It even hurt to blink.
According to the médecin, the sharp ache that pierced his side every time he inhaled was the result of a rather impressive collection of broken ribs. But the ribs were nothing compared to the unrelenting throb in his head. He’d never experienced a headache so excruciating. The pain was so severe he could see tiny sparks of light when he closed his eyes. The medication they were giving him left a bad taste in his mouth. Chemical and bitter. It was as though he’d licked one of the drainpipes in the dank recesses of Paris’s underground sewers. Not that he’d ever licked a drainpipe before . . .
But possibly he had. Maybe it was one of the memories that had become lost when he’d been mugged. Overnight, so much of his life had slipped through his fingers. Days. Weeks. Months.
Licking a drainpipe seemed like something that would leave an impression, but how would he know when he couldn’t seem to remember his own name?
“Bonjour, monsieur.” The morning nurse padded into the room and swished the curtains open. They’d been keeping his room dark while his head healed. Lights off. Curtains closed.
But today the outside world was rainy and gray, so apparently he was being rewarded with his first glimpse of Paris in two days. Raindrops pattered against the glass, blurring the horizon like a Monet painting.
“You have a visitor.” The nurse smiled as she injected something into his IV drip. The wave of warmth that crept down his body told him it was more pain medication.
Dieu merci. Thank God.
He took as deep a breath as he could manage and swiveled his head a fraction of an inch to meet her gaze. “A visitor?”
Someone had come looking for him. At last.
“Oui.” She straightened the already-straight sheets on his bed and staunchly avoided looking him in the eye. “Un policier.”
A policeman. Not exactly the visitor he’d been hoping for.
Where were his friends and family? His coworkers? Hadn’t he been seeing someone recently, too?
Or maybe he hadn’t. He honestly had no idea.
But why did he keep seeing the same woman in his dreams? Thick waves of long, blond hair. Full, generous lips. Eyes that carried a lifetime of secrets.
He closed his eyes, conjuring up her image again. She wore the same black turtleneck, cigarette pants, and elegant stilettoes she’d worn in his dreams. Her fringe skimmed her eyelashes. He felt a strange and dangerous pull.
Who was she? And why wasn’t she here?
His gaze flitted to the doorway, where a man in a plain dark suit holding two leather notebooks fished a police badge out of his pocket and held it up for inspection.
A detective. Marvelous.
“Puis-je entrer?” He slid the badge back into his coat pocket.
“Oui. Come in.” He supposed he’d have to talk to the police eventually. He’d been the victim of a crime, apparently. A particularly violent crime. They’d want answers.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have any.
“How are you feeling?” The détective unbuttoned his suit jacket and rested a hand on the back of the lounge chair in the corner of the room.
“I’ve been better.” I think.
The detective dragged the chair closer to the bed, allowing the legs to scrape against the tile floor. The hideous noise reverberated throughout his body, from his injured head to the tips of his toes poking out from beneath the covers in blue hospital socks.
“I’m here to ask you some questions about the night of your injury.” His visitor flipped open the smaller of the two notebooks and squinted at one of the pages. “Three nights ago. Is that correct?”
“I think so.” He wasn’t sure. Time had taken on a blurry, disorienting quality since he’d woken up in the hospital. He’d been on a steady stream of pain medication, punctuated by brief moments of clarity. As soon as he’d come close to remembering, he’d feel himself slipping under again, succumbing to sleep.
And her. Always her.
The detective’s gaze lingered on the morphine drip at the head of the hospital bed. “It says here you were found unconscious in the cathedral square at Notre Dame at around three in the morning. Can you tell me what you were doing in that area at that time of night?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.” His eyes were beginning to feel heavy. He fought to keep them open.
“Can’t.” The officer lifted a brow. “Or won’t?”
“The former. I suffered a grade three concussion. It’s left me with no memory of the incident.” Or much else.
“I’m afraid not, but the doctors tell me it’s not unusual to suffer short term memory loss around the time of a head injury.” A blessing, they’d called it. As if remembering how he’d ended up this way would be more terrifying than forgetting who he was.
“What’s the last thing you remember doing that day?” The officer’s pen remained poised over the notebook.
“I can’t answer that either. My memory loss is rather . . .” He swallowed. “Extensive.”
“I see. And do the doctors assure you there’s nothing unusual about that either?”
Why did he feel guilty all of sudden? He’d done nothing wrong. At least he didn’t think he had.
But it didn’t sound altogether good, did it? Was he the type of person who roamed the streets of Paris in the middle of the night? He didn’t think so.
Yet something about the scenario sounded familiar. Once or twice since he’d awakened in the hospital, he’d been struck by an image so vivid, so precise that it couldn’t be anything but real. He’d seen a copper sun embedded in cobblestones and a pair of feet. His feet, surrounded by coins.
It was an odd thing to remember, but the doctors had told him time and time again that head injuries were unpredictable. There was nothing to worry about. His MRI and CT scans were both clear. His brain would fill in the gaps in his memory eventually.
“They expect me to make a full recovery. It’ll just take time. Believe me, Détective, no one wants me to get my memory back more than I do.” It was strange how the human brain worked. He remembered being carted off the grade school playground in an ambulance after his skinned knee wouldn’t stop bleeding. He remembered how he liked his coffee—black. He remembered the metro stop closest to his apartment in Montmartre—Lamarck Caulaincourt. He even remembered the cool fragrance of the orange tree on his balcony.
But he couldn’t remember if he even lived in Montmartre anymore. Nor could he remember his own name.
Whenever he tried, his mind went blank. The pain in his head became unbearable. He kept thinking it’d come back to him when he least expected it, that one day he’d open his eyes and say, “I’m John,” or “My name is Hugo.”
But it hadn’t happened. At least not yet. His identity remained as elusive as the myriad of other things he’d forgotten.
To make matters even more unsettling, he remembered snippets of things that made no sense. The coins. The shoes.
Thinking about her brought a smile to his lips until he realized the détective was staring at him as if he were some sort of science experiment. “So you have no memory of visiting Point Zero on the night you were attacked?”
“Point Zero.” He frowned. “You’re right. I was there, wasn’t I?”
The officer’s gaze narrowed. “That’s where you were found. You remember now, oui?”
He wished he could say yes. But he didn’t remember. He’d simply pieced together what little information he had.
The Paris Point Zero marker was a circular piece of granite inlaid in the cobblestones at the location known as Kilometer Zero. It was the official center of Paris, the point from which all distances throughout France were measured. The place where everything in Paris began.
Tourists often tossed coins in the octagonal center of the marker for good luck. The middle of the octagon dipped into the shape of a sun, and the marker itself sat just opposite the main entry of Notre Dame Cathedral.
He could remember his grandmother taking him there when he was a boy, decades ago. What he’d been doing there at three in the morning just two nights ago was a mystery he couldn’t begin to fathom.
“I don’t remember.” He knew what the détective was thinking. It was written all over his face. “I wasn’t buying drugs. There were no drugs in my body when the ambulance brought me in. The doctors can verify that.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve already checked.”
He balled the bedsheets in his fists. Why did he feel like the criminal all of a sudden rather than the victim?
“We’re doing everything we can to locate the person who did this to you, Maxim. But we’ve got very little to go on, as you can see.”
He took a sharp inhale.
Was that his name? It didn’t sound familiar at all. Nor could he attach it to any sort of last name in his mind. That couldn’t be normal, could it?
Nothing about this situation is normal.
“The entire city is distressed over what happened to you. Notre Dame is one of Paris’s biggest tourist attractions, and now those tourists are afraid to go there after dark.” The detective sighed.
Merde. As if Maxim didn’t have enough to deal with at the moment, now the Parisian tourism industry rested on his shoulders.
“Do you understand that the investigation can’t proceed without more information?” The officer looked at him expectantly. Waited for him to say something.
He had the sudden urge to scream. Why was this happening? How was it possible to wake up in the hospital with an identity he knew nothing about?
“I understand,” he said quietly.
He knew precious little about his own life, but he understood plenty. The police thought he’d been involved in a drug deal gone wrong or something equally nefarious. He was almost inclined to agree. Wasn’t there a saying about nothing good ever happening after 2:00 a.m.?
He didn’t want to believe it. But he also couldn’t figure out why he’d been at Point Zero when he should have been sleeping, or why someone felt the need to beat him within an inch of his life.
The policeman flipped his notebook closed and shoved it in the inside pocket of his jacket. “We’re still searching for witnesses who may have been present at the time of your attack. I’ll be in contact if anything turns up. Once you leave here I’m assuming you’ll return to your address in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”
This stranger knew more about him than he knew about himself. “Saint-Germain-des-Prés?”
He’d moved up in the world. Maybe he was a drug dealer. Or maybe he lived with his grandmother now. She’d lived in a spacious flat on Boulevard Saint-Germain since before his parents had died. He’d grown up there.
Either he’d turned to a life of crime or he was a grown man living with his grand-mère—neither seemed like an ideal option. But as he took in the detective’s dubious gaze, he pinned all his hopes on the second one.
The officer cleared his throat and reached for the brown leather notebook that had been resting in his lap. “The handwriting in this journal matches the penmanship on the forms you filled out for the hospital, and the journal was the only piece of evidence recovered from the crime scene. It’s undoubtedly yours, but I’m gathering you have no memory of it either.”
The detective flipped it open. A phone number that failed to spark even the slightest memory was written in the front cover. Just below it was an address on Boulevard Saint-Germain.
His sigh of relief was audible. “May I have it?”
“Oui. My office has already made a thorough photocopy.” The officer stood and set the journal down on the small plastic tray attached to the hospital bed.
Maxim stared at it, suddenly wary of opening it.
“Call me if you remember anything else. Anything at all.” He nodded in the direction of the leather notebook. “My card is inside.”
The detective lingered for a moment. Clearly he wished to see Maxim open the notebook, either out of some perverse curiosity or to gauge his reaction to its contents. Maxim wasn’t sure which, but he wasn’t inclined to give him the pleasure.
“Je vais.” I will. He meant it. He needed to know what had happened to him and why. Sooner rather than later. How could he walk out of the hospital and charge headlong into the future when so much of the past and present was a mystery? “Merci.”
The detective nodded and buttoned his coat.
Maxim closed his eyes and feigned sleep until the echo of retreating footsteps faded into nothingness. He dragged his eyes open, ignoring the ache in his skull, and pulled the tray closer.
He rested the palm of his hand on the journal’s smooth brown cover, hoping for some sense of muscle memory to kick in. The brandy-colored leather beneath his fingertips was aged. Worn. He’d obviously been carrying this thing around for a while.
The beeps on his heart monitor sped up as he turned to the first page. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find. An autobiography would have been nice.
The page was covered in some kind of family tree. Interconnected rectangles stretched from margin to margin. The names within the boxes seemed as if they were from another time and place.
Natalia Narychkina. Eudoxie Lopoukhine. Anne Leopoldovna.
They meant nothing to him. Yet for some reason, he’d been carrying these strangers around with him in the middle of the night.
The ache in his head blossomed. His vision began to blur around the edges. Trying to read while recovering from a concussion was about as effective as a dog chasing its tail.
He blinked a few times and looked at the chart again. Then he noticed that someone—himself, he presumed—had written a title across the top of the page.
Les monarques de la dynastie Romanov.
The monarchs of the Romanov dynasty.
Well that explained why none of the names looked familiar. These were historical figures. Royalty. None of these people had anything to do with his real life.
Then why are their names meticulously documented in your handy dandy notebook, genius?
He turned the page. The next double-page spread contained an even more detailed family tree. More names. More dates. More Romanovs. What the hell? He’d turned into some sort of Russian history nerd.
He could live with that. It was a strange thing to be into, but it was better than the less appealing options he’d considered after he’d woken up without a memory, beaten to a pulp.
But it still didn’t explain why he’d been at Point Zero in the middle of the night.
Maybe he’d had some kind of urgent nerd emergency. The lines on his handwritten charts were razor-straight. He’d lost his ruler and gone out for a new one. Or possibly another journal since this one seemed full.
He flipped through the rest of the pages, but found nothing new. Just more charts documenting the Romanov Empire and pages upon pages of notes about the royal family.
What the hell was he looking at? He wasn’t just a history nerd. He was obsessed.
His head ached. His gut churned.
As he sat pondering what was beginning to look like his own unhealthy fascination with a Russian dynasty that had died out almost a century ago, a card fell from the notebook into his lap. He picked it up.
Julian Durand, Détective
Préfecture de police de Paris
The detective’s phone number was listed below his name and title. Maxim stared at it until the numbers blurred. His reality, however, remained crystal clear.
This wasn’t a game. This was his life, and he no longer remembered a thing about it.
What the hell am I going to do?
He didn’t have much of a choice, did he? As soon as he was well enough to leave the hospital, he’d find out as much as he could about himself. One way or another, he’d put the pieces of his life back together.
He already knew far more than he had an hour ago. He knew his first name. He knew where he lived. He knew he’d developed some weird, hyperspecific form of OCD.
He should feel encouraged. But he couldn’t help wishing he’d learned something . . . anything . . . about the girl.
Tomorrow, he promised himself. If not tomorrow, the day after. Soon.
The throb in his head grew too insistent to ignore. He needed sleep. Maybe when he woke up his life would make more sense. It could happen, right?
He opened the journal to stick the card back inside. But his hands shook with pain, and the book slipped from his grasp. It landed on the tray with a thud and flipped open to the final page. Unlike the other pages, which contained lines upon lines of handwritten notes, this one contained only a single sentence. Four words.
Maxim stared in disbelief.
Je suis Maxim Romanov.
I am Maxim Romanov.