Excerpt from The Year King
The strange man was crouched among the flower boxes, sitting so still that Ivy didn’t see him until she nearly stepped on him. Ivy stumbled back, nearly dropping her groceries, and stifled a surprised yell. The man blinked, as though the noise had startled him. He didn’t say a word, staring owlishly at Ivy from underneath a long fringe of dark hair. Under the bangs, his face was dotted with shiny patches of skin that looked almost like burn marks, twisted and uncomfortable additions to the usual complement of features.
Strange people turning up on the front step was not something that usually happened in a place as gentrified as Howth. The man looked as though he ought to be sitting at a bus stop in Finglas in the wee hours of the morning, not in front of a row of townhouses in the middle of the afternoon. Still, there was no reason to think the fellow was creepy based on how he looked. Perhaps he was a friend of Mr. Abernathy’s. Perhaps he was a meter reader from the gas company, though that still didn’t explain what he was doing sitting among the flower boxes. Demi would pitch a fit if she knew.
“Um, hello?” Ivy said, taking a firmer hold on her purse.
The fellow blinked, glancing over his shoulder at the bare branches of the azaleas as though he thought Ivy might actually be talking to someone else.
“Could you possibly tell me; do you live here?” he asked. He spoke loudly and distinctly, as though he were addressing a particularly elderly pensioner, or someone who didn’t speak English.
“Yes,” Ivy said, trying not to look as though she were staring.
“In Number 42B, Thormanby Road?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Ivy confirmed, gesturing with her shopping bag to the townhouse behind her. Like every other house on the street, Number 42 was a trim two-storied townhouse, the abundance of doors and postboxes the most obvious sign that the house had been chopped into multiple apartments.
“Were you looking for someone?” Ivy added. Maybe he was looking for Mr. Abernathy, in the adjoining flat. Or perhaps the red-haired widower the next house over. Aside from the number on the postbox, and the azaleas growing in the flower boxes, there was little to distinguish Number 42B from its nearest neighbors.
“Yes, and it isn’t you,” he said, sounding disappointed. He looked at the jumble of postboxes, then at Ivy, squinting at her. “I’m terribly sorry, but have we met before? It’s far too early, but I could have sworn…” The man trailed off, brushing at a bit of dirt that was clinging to his coat.
“Early for what?” Ivy asked, shifting the grocery bag to her other hip. For a moment she wondered if he was another employee from the call center, because she had gotten off early today. On a usual workday, she wouldn’t have been home until the streetlights were on.
But this hadn’t been a usual workday, even before the strange man turned up in the front garden.
“Maths,” the man said, glumly. “Complicated ones. Well, that’s that,” he added, almost to himself. Pulling a small notebook out of his pocket, he flipped it open and crossed off something on the page. He slipped the notebook back into his coat and hopped off the planter without another word, heading toward the main road at the bottom of the hill.
Clearly not from the call center. Even Bonnie knew better than to hire someone for a sales job who couldn’t provide a coherent answer to a simple question. When Ivy lived in Finglass, dealing with louts had been a depressingly regular occurrence; she hoped not to deal with them quite so regularly in Howth. Still, he seemed polite enough, if you didn’t count the skulking in the bushes. And since whoever he was looking for didn’t live here, apparently, that probably meant he wouldn’t come back.
Looking down the street to make sure he was gone, Ivy unlocked the door and stepped into the flat.