O NEVER STAR
by Becky Bain
(This originally appeared in the fanzine ETERNITY, which is now out print.)
Catherine Chandler lay quite still, staring fixedly at the acoustical tile ceiling. There was a small water stain on the tile just to her left and she concentrated, trying to decide if it looked more like a distorted elephant or an upside down squirrel. The fingers invading her body touched a sensitive place and involuntarily she winced; the pain brought her back to the present and she felt the muscles in her jaw contract.
She should be used to this by now. The examinations took place regularly, twice a week. The doctor listened to her heart, her breathing. Then the baby's heart. Sometimes he did an ultrasound; sometimes he performed other tests she didn't understand, but only endured. Last week, he added a new feature -- a pelvic exam.
Catherine resumed her scrutiny of the ceiling. The indignity of this exam, intimate and extremely personal, was heightened by the casual observers -- the nurse, a white-coated assistant, two business-suited thugs -- and of course, the omnipresent camera mounted high in a corner of the room.
She wanted to scream. She wanted to fight. She allowed herself to picture it -- driving her bare heel into the doctor's throat. The force would drive him back against the wall. The nurse, standing by her head, would step forward to try to restrain her, and Catherine almost smiled as she imagined throwing a hard elbow into the woman's midriff. It would feel good to lash out, to hurt someone.
But there were too many of them; she was outnumbered and the chances of escaping through the use of physical force were nonexistent. So she lay still and endured with dignity what she could not resist.
When the exam was over, she was escorted back to her spare white room; once inside, she listened to the hopeless sound of the door being locked behind her.
**Pale mist drifted by, obscuring her vision. Catherine turned, searching the haze. The shadows threatened and she opened her mouth to cry out, but no sound emerged. She tried to move, but something held her fast.
The eerie silence was punctuated by a sharp crack. A gunshot! Catherine whirled in time to see him recoil and go down.
"Vincent!" This time, her shout had substance. She had no sensation of running, but suddenly she was beside him, kneeling, searching frantically for the injury.
His eyes were open, his expression loving, wistful, a little sad. "I know who hurt me," he said.
She smoothed the hair back from his brow. "Who, Vincent? Who hurt you?"
His gaze shifted, looking past her. "Him."
She turned, looking over her shoulder. A man stood there, impeccably dressed, a pistol smoking in his hand. His face was lean and hard; his eyes glittered coldly. It was a face Vincent couldn't possibly know. She shivered and turned back.
Vincent was gone. In his place lay a baby. A shadow fell in such a way that she couldn't see the infant's face, but she longed to cradle it close, feel its skin against hers, its soft, warm weight in her arms. She reached out and the baby vanished. She lurched to her feet, searching the mist frantically, but no one was there.
And then a chilling voice filled the air, reverberating around her. "The child is mine. Mine. Mine."
She came awake suddenly, gasping, her cry echoing in her mind, and she wondered if she had made the sound aloud. Slowly, she sat up, her sleep-fogged mind registering the setting sun streaming in through the open blinds. She remembered lying down to rest; she must have fallen asleep. It was something that happened frequently of late. She thought the mid-afternoon tiredness was probably a result of her advanced pregnancy, compounded by sheer boredom. She stood shakily, fighting the uncomfortable vestiges of afternoon sleep, and crossed the pristine white room to press her forehead against the cool glass of the window.
Outside, it was autumn. Far below, the leaves were beginning to turn, and she wondered if the air held the warmth of Indian summer, or the first gentle nip of coming winter. She longed to feel the sun on her face, a soft breeze in her hair. Or better, the cool damp of the tunnels...
As she gazed out, lost in wistful reverie, the sun slipped slowly behind the skyline. On the teeming streets far below, cars began to use their headlights and commuters scurried along the sidewalks. Somehow, she'd endured the mind-numbing sameness of another day.
The scrape of a key in the lock drew her attention from the night sky and a glance at the clock on the bedside table identified her visitor even before the smooth white door swung open to reveal the stolid face of the Oriental nurse whose name she did not know.
The nurse never glanced her way, carrying a small tray to the nightstand where she spent a moment arranging things so all would fit on the small surface. Catherine waited impassively, cloaking herself in the silent dignity she'd learned from Vincent.
The door stood ajar, but she made no move toward it. Unhappy experience had taught her that one or more guards would be hovering just beyond it. As if in confirmation, the sound of masculine voices came from the hallway. She didn't try to make them out, couldn't make herself care what they discussed.
She wished the nurse would hurry. She'd been standing too long and her back was aching, but she wouldn't sit until the other woman had gone.
One of the smooth young men Catherine had learned to loathe looked through the open door. "Hurry," he advised the nurse brusquely. "He wants you. Now."
Never before had the ritual of the evening meal been interrupted with any sort of summons, but the nurse responded promptly, completing her task and hurrying from the room with an air of urgency. As she went, she gestured toward the door and the young man nodded, reaching through to pull it shut. Catherine heard his key, closing her in.
Only when she was certain she was alone did she move to the bed. Always aware of the closed-circuit camera mounted high in one corner of the room, she deliberately turned her back, sitting down with as much grace as she could muster. Dinner tonight was roasted breast of chicken, served with boiled new potatoes and french-cut green beans. Dessert was an apple, neatly sliced. The food was adequately prepared and nutritionally balanced, but always only lukewarm by the time it reached her, and Catherine pressed her lips together in barely suppressed resentment; the meal was not to nourish her, but the child she carried.
She ate slowly, washing her tasteless dinner down with sips of water. She was never hungry anymore; it was love for her unborn child that made her consume each meal. Whatever happened to her, the baby must be given every chance to be born strong and healthy.
When the plate was empty she carried the tray across the room, bending awkwardly to place it on the floor beside the door. It would be removed in the morning, when her breakfast tray came.
She turned back toward the narrow bed and something on the floor, almost underneath it, caught her eye. A shiny bunch of keys lay there -- the nurse's keys. In her haste, she must have dropped them.
Catherine scarcely hesitated; during the long months of her incarceration, she had taught herself to remain impassive, no matter what. Slowly she moved toward the bed and the precious keys, her heart hammering. Acutely aware of the camera's eye, she slid her bare foot until it touched the keys. They were cold; she could feel the dull serrations against her instep. They were real.
Surreptitiously, she nudged the keys until they lay half-hidden by a leg of the little nightstand. If anyone came in, the keys would not be instantly noticeable, but if the nurse came looking for them, Catherine could feign ignorance.
Keeping her face expressionless, she pulled down the covers and climbed ponderously between the sheets. As if in response to her roiling emotions, the child within her stirred and kicked; her hand went automatically to her abdomen, stroking it tenderly. "Hush, little one," she whispered for her baby's ears only. "Be still."
As if her unborn child could understand, the frantic movement slowly subsided and Catherine closed her eyes. Sleep would not come this night -- adrenaline raced through her veins, making every nerve tingle -- but her body required rest, even while her mind careened wildly, exploring possibilities.
The keys could be a way out, and she needed that, desperately. She'd overheard the doctor talking and knew her pregnancy was nearing term; she harbored no illusions about her own fate once the child was born. If she wanted to live, she had to escape this place. And this time, Vincent wasn't coming. Her fate, and that of their child, was in her hands.
She dared not try now to make her escape. It was early and guards might still be roaming the stark white corridors. The wee hours, when life was at its lowest ebb, would provide her best chance.
The baby moved again, seemingly as restless as she on this night, and Catherine patted her side, humming a soft lullaby under her breath.
When she could no longer endure lying still, she rose, pacing slowly between window and nightstand. Tiring of that, she moved to the corner, directly beneath the intrusive eye of the closed-circuit camera.
The hours crawled by until at last Catherine knew the time had come. She silently gathered up the keys and stole to the door. She had watched the nurse lock and unlock the door too often not to know which key would fit, and she found it quickly.
She was in full view of the camera; if the guard manning the monitors was alert, her escape attempt ended now. Hands shaking, she slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door opened easily and she glided through, pulling it quietly shut and locking it behind her.
The passage outside was empty. She felt bulky and slow when she wanted, needed, to feel swift and silently graceful. Hand on her swollen abdomen, she eased her way down the hall. The layout of the area was familiar; this floor of the building contained an extensive medical facility, and at one time or another she had been down all of the corridors, undergoing one procedure or another.
The mere memory was enough to make her clench her fists. No one ever explained the procedures or bothered to give her the results; to them she was merely a vessel, a walking, talking incubator. No one cared what she thought, or felt.
There was no surveillance camera in this short section of hallway, but at the corner she paused, willing her pounding heart to slow, her tight breathing to ease. Her goal, the main stairwell, lay at the other end of this intersecting corridor. A camera was mounted above it, pointing down the hall.
Scraping together her nerve and dragging in a deep, steadying breath, she turned the corner. She was utterly exposed to the camera's lens, but there were no sounds of alarm, no signs that her activity had been noticed. Halfway down the corridor she slowed, hugging the wall, her attention fixed on a glass-walled room whose lights spilled onto the short-napped carpet.
She held her breath and peered inside. A single man sat at a console dominated by closed-circuit monitors. His tie was loosened, his jacket tossed casually over the back of a chair. As she watched, frozen in place, he stretched and yawned mightily, giving the monitors a cursory glance as he reached for a tall thermos. He poured himself a cup of steaming dark liquid -- coffee, she surmised -- and glanced at the monitors again before tipping back in his chair.
On the monitor showing this hallway, she could see herself, a pale blur tight against the wall. She didn't know how he could miss her, but he seemed oblivious, his attention focused on the mug cradled between his hands.
Terrified that motion would draw his attention, she didn't dare move. Frozen in place, she watched as he sipped his coffee and glanced from time to time at the flickering monitors. She couldn't stay there forever, though; eventually she'd have to take a chance, and when he reached for his thermos again, she took it. With exaggerated care, she got down on hands and knees and crawled, inch by painstaking inch, past the glass walls. When light from the room no longer touched her, she pushed clumsily to her feet and glided soundlessly the last few yards, feeling safe only when she was no longer in the camera's range. She paused there for a moment, listening, but there was still no outcry; the dim halls were eerily quiet even at this late hour and she closed her eyes in a brief prayer of thanksgiving.
The stairwell door opened easily, silently, and she passed through quickly. There was a security camera here, as well, but it was mounted above the door, aiming down the stairs, so she took a moment to rest and gather her resources.
It was impossible to believe her luck would hold; surely she would be spotted, surely they would come after her, but she had to try. She slipped down one flight of stairs, then another. Still no outcry. Surveillance cameras were mounted on every second landing, looming as enemies to be scurried past as quickly and silently as possible. It was incredible that no one had seen her but she didn't stop to question it. Maybe, at last, luck was on her side. Maybe, somehow, this was meant to be.
Ten floors down she began to try the doors. It was time to get out of the stairwell. Finally, on the fifty-fourth floor, a door opened. Someone, a kid perhaps, had stuck a wad of chewing gum to the door frame, keeping the door from latching.
She yanked it open and darted through and suddenly she was half-running down a plushly carpeted corridor. The walls were wood-paneled, the office doors marked with discreet brass lettering.
There were no cameras.
She stumbled to a stop, turning in disbelief. These were offices, real offices. Attorneys, architects, an accounting firm. Tenants in the building.
She'd made it.
A swift surge of elation gripped her, taking her breath away. She savored it for all of ten seconds before cold, hard practicality kicked in. She wasn't out of the woods -- or the building -- yet.
Ahead, an office door stood ajar. She approached cautiously and peered inside. A small janitorial cart stood in front of a polished oak reception desk; the muffled sound of women's voices floated from the offices beyond.
A cleaning crew.
With a hasty glance up and down the empty corridor to be sure she wasn't observed, Catherine stepped into the plush reception area; its lush carpeting and elegant panelling spoke of a high-class clientele. No one was there and she ventured further into the room, scanning it anxiously.
The cleaning crew must be in the rear of the office suite. For a moment, Catherine considered passing one of them a message, but her faith in human nature had slipped in the past months. Bluntly, she was afraid to trust them. So instead, she looked for a place to hide.
The reception area was sparsely furnished. A pair of graceful loveseats flanked a low glass coffee table. One corner held a tall potted palm; another was occupied by a pair of oak finish filing cabinets. Only the reception desk itself offered any hope of concealment and Catherine tiptoed forward to investigate. The kneehole looked large enough for her to crouch in unobserved and she crawled inside. It was a tight fit; bringing her legs up crowded her swollen abdomen, making breathing difficult. She shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position.
A voice from the rear of the office suite sounded suddenly louder, and she froze, bent awkwardly sideways. When the voice receded she relaxed, and only then did she notice that the carpet held a light scattering of paper slivers, mangled staples, and what looked like bread crumbs. This area hadn't yet been vacuumed.
Panicked, she scrambled out from under the desk and looked for a hiding place that had already been cleaned. There was a door against the far wall and she crept to it, trying the knob gingerly. It was locked.
Whirling, she scanned the area frantically. The only other egress, besides the door to the outside corridor, was a wide passage leading to the rear offices -- where the cleaning crew was.
Stealthily, pulse hammering in her ears, Catherine approached it. There was no one in sight, but lights spilled from an open office door only a few feet away and as she watched, a shadow flitted across the lighted opening. Reflexively she ducked back but no one came, and a few seconds later a vacuum cleaner began to whine.
Holding her breath, she looked again. She could see only one door between herself and the office being cleaned, and a discreet sign at eye level identified it clearly.
There was no other place to go. Catherine darted across the hallway and pushed at the door. It opened with a sigh that was masked by the drone of the vacuum.
The room was dark, but Catherine could smell the sharp odor of cleaning solutions. Sliding her hand across the wall, she located the light switch and risked flipping it up. The place looked spotless; the chrome on the sinks and urinals gleamed. The bathroom had already been cleaned.
A flick of the switch plunged the room into darkness once more, but Catherine had her bearings, and made her way slowly to the short row of stalls. Feeling her way, she found the one furthest from the door and stepped inside.
Knowing where she was, combined with nerves and advanced pregnancy, triggered a basic response; abruptly, she had to urinate. Gritting her teeth, she tried to quell the urge; simultaneously, the whine of the vacuum stopped and she could hear voices in the corridor.
Hampered by darkness and her own ungainly bulk, she stepped up onto the toilet seat, crouching, braced against the stall walls for balance. If anyone glanced in, she would be completely out of their sight. A moment later the vacuum started again, this time in the reception area.
Catherine crouched there, motionless, until the vacuum's whine ceased, the voices dwindled, and the outer door closed with an audible thump. Only then did she ease down from her awkward position, stifling a cry as feeling flowed back into her cramped feet and legs.
Gratefully, she heeded the urging of her body, using the facility for its intended purpose. She didn't flush, afraid the noise would betray her. Instead, she crept silently out to the hall.
All lights had been extinguished, leaving the suite of offices in darkness, but Catherine's eyes were accustomed to it now. She made her way through the maze of offices and cubicles, investigating. Some doors were closed and locked, but others stood ajar, and bright moonlight streamed in through enormous plate-glass windows.
It felt strange to be alone, in the dark, with no hidden eyes watching, but she felt safe. Even if her captors had discovered she was missing, they were unlikely to find her here before morning.
She found a phone in one of the offices and reached for it, planning to call... who? Not the police; she was afraid to trust them. Certainly not the D.A.'s office; John Moreno's face was clearly etched into her memory and she shuddered at the thought of him.
Not Jenny or Nancy; they wouldn't know how to get her out of the building, and besides, whoever she contacted would then be in danger. She couldn't risk her friends.
Maybe Joe? She was sure she could trust him, and his resources were broad. He'd believe her if she told him to be careful. Yes, it should be Joe. She lifted the receiver.
No dial tone. Impatiently, and with growing disbelief, she jiggled the disconnect button. Nothing. Fighting panic, she raced across the hall to another office; that phone was dead, as well.
Had they found her? Cut the phone lines? The thought was no sooner formulated than she dismissed it. If they knew she was in here, they'd have come after her. There must be another answer. In the reception area, she found it.
All the phone lines must go through here. She examined the sleek, modern console, pressing buttons randomly, looking for a way to turn it on. The machine remained stubbornly lifeless and at last she gave up, drooping wearily onto the desk, pillowing her forehead on folded arms.
*It's not fair!* she cried inside. *I've come this far...*
*Life's not fair, Catherine,* a sterner internal voice reminded her. *You can't give up. The baby needs you.*
Odd, how the voice sounded like Vincent's. Or maybe not so odd.
She lifted her head and took a deep breath. Time for Plan B. It would be pure stupidity to abandon her safe haven; chances of finding another unlocked office were minimal, while the possibility of running into one of her captor's minions was quite real. No, she'd have to stay here until morning, until the building filled with people going about their business.
She glanced down at herself -- barefoot, clad only in a short white gown. She couldn't very well mingle inconspicuously with the general public dressed like this, so the first priority was clothing. The advertising firm that occupied these offices was a large one, so Catherine began to search, going from room to room, opening any doors or drawers that weren't locked.
She struck paydirt in the third of the panelled offices. A filing cabinet drawer opened to reveal a zippered canvas gym bag; inside the bag she found a soft pink sweatsuit, running shoes, and even a pair of socks. Not only had she found clothing, but women's clothing, as well. She hadn't expected to be this fortunate, but wasted no time stripping out of the hated white gown.
The woman who owned these clothes was a couple of sizes larger than Catherine; the shirt was baggy and the pants too long, but the waistband went over her bulging stomach easily. The shoes were too big, as well, but far better than bare feet, and Catherine pulled them on. She stuffed the discarded white hospital gown into the gym bag, slung the bag over her arm, and resumed her methodical search.
When she had completed her rounds she crouched near a window, spreading her finds in a bright square of moonlight. She had appropriated a small package of crackers and another of cookies, along with four candy bars and an apple. She wasn't going to starve. Better, she had also garnered almost twenty dollars, mostly in change kept in desk drawers for use in the pop and candy machines.
Her found treasures went into the gym bag. She was stealing, of course, and painfully aware of it, but comforted herself with the knowledge that it was necessary -- her life was at stake.
With her conscience quelled, a weariness created by lack of sleep, advanced pregnancy and the ebbing of adrenaline set in. Gym bag in hand, she made her way to the office nearest the reception area, tucking herself into a corner half-hidden by a filing cabinet, and settled in to wait for morning.
She was startled out of a light doze by the distinct sound of whistling. It was a moment before she found her bearings; when she did, she peered shakily around the filing cabinet. The office she occupied was still empty, and she could hear the whistler farther down the corridor.
Falling asleep had been unforgivably careless and she berated herself silently as she crept out of the office, all senses alert. Stealthily, she crossed the plush reception area and peered out into the hall. It was empty.
This was perhaps the most perilous part of her escape. By now, her captor surely knew she was missing and his men must be ransacking the building. There were not yet enough people about to ensure her safety, yet she couldn't risk an encounter with the owner of the sweatsuit. She needed a new hiding place. Slipping down the hall, she found refuge near the elevator bank.
A pair of public restrooms flanked the elevators and Catherine went into the one marked LADIES. No one followed her and after a moment, she made her way to the furthest stall. Her sense of humor, so long buried beneath despair, stirred weakly, giving her a brief gleam of wry amusement at her surroundings.
Gradually the building filled with people; more than a few of them visited Catherine's sanctuary, but none seemed to notice that the far stall had a permanent occupant. Catherine whiled away the time by nibbling on crackers she didn't want and sipping water from a styrofoam cup she'd gleaned in the suite of advertising offices.
When she judged it was mid-morning, she gathered her scavenged possessions, along with her courage, and stepped out into the hall. She scanned the area cautiously but no one took notice of her. Knowing that few people used the stairs in high-rise office buildings, she pressed the call button for the elevator and waited nervously for it to arrive.
When it did, she scrutinized the few passengers already aboard. Recognizing none of them, she stepped into the car. As it travelled down, stopping at most floors and adding more passengers than it discharged, she eased her way toward the back of the car.
When at last the elevator reached the lobby, she pushed forward, following the flow of disembarking passengers, using them as a shield. She spotted one of her captor's men almost immediately; he was standing near the elevators, scanning the faces. Ducking her head, she veered away from him, heading toward a side door. Even if she was spotted, she didn't think her hunters would try to openly apprehend her in such a public place, but she couldn't be sure. Better to try to get away unseen.
Beyond the plate glass door she could see sunlight, and people on the sidewalk. She had nearly reached it, and the freedom beyond, when a sharp cry rang out. Looking back, she met the angry gaze of the man she had recognized; blocked by a small knot of people, he shoved his way toward her.
Fighting panic, she pushed toward the door, opening it and stepping out into the sunshine for the first time in six months. She already knew where she was going and cut right, heading for Fifth Avenue with its stores and people.
A swift glance over her shoulder revealed that her pursuer had been joined by another. The two men were staying a short distance behind and she wondered if somehow they understood she had determined not to be taken peacefully this time. If she had to return to that stark, sterile prison, she'd go kicking and screaming.
She increased her pace, turning from 53rd onto Fifth, heading north. A few yards away was the door to one of Fifth Avenue's fine department stores, and after only a split-second hesitation, Catherine pushed her way inside.
She wove a rapid path through racks of clothing, putting as much distance and merchandise as possible between herself and her pursuers. Not daring to look back to see if they still had her in sight, she ducked out a different door, trying to lose herself in the crowds.
Six months of inactivity had softened her and already she was breathing hard, but she dared not slacken her pace. She had reached 59th and Fifth -- could actually see the park -- when she spotted one of her pursuers ahead of her.
He didn't see her, not yet. He was anxiously scanning the faces of the people coming toward him, and Catherine instinctively dodged behind a portly, business-suited man who was making his way north, using him as an impromptu shield.
On the corner was another department store and she ducked inside, repeating her earlier ruse. When at last she dared to look back, she saw no one she recognized and felt she could spare a moment to catch her breath. Pushing her way into another store, she detoured through Ladies' Apparel, hoping to find a place where she could sit, if only for a minute.
She passed a bank of triple mirrors and stopped, suddenly aware of her own reflection. Her hair was an untidy, uncombed mess, her pregnancy was graphically obvious, and the pink sweatsuit was far too distinctive. In short, she was entirely too noticeable. If she hoped to avoid recapture, she needed to change her appearance.
Altering course, she found a nearby clearance rack and skimmed through it rapidly. It took only seconds to select a pale green jacket; it would be too big, but she needed that to help conceal her most obvious physical feature -- her pregnancy. Jacket in hand, she stepped away from the rack and wrenched off the tags, dropping them to the floor and slipping the jacket on over her sweatshirt.
She was shoplifting, of course, and not being particularly subtle about it, but she didn't care. In fact, she would almost welcome being apprehended for this particular crime. It was unlikely that store security personnel were in her enemy's employ, and she could always refuse to go with the police. If she raised enough fuss, someone would call Joe.
But no one saw, and, wearing her stolen jacket, she stepped back out onto the street. She hadn't gone far when she caught sight of another hunter strolling slowly toward her, scanning faces as he went. Hands in pockets, she pulled the green jacket more securely around herself and ducked right, toward Madison Avenue. When she dared to glance back, the man had vanished into the crowd.
She made her way north along Madison for a few blocks before veering back toward Fifth. The green lure of the park, just across the street, was almost irresistible. If she tried, she imagined she could just make out the swell of ground above the drainage tunnel.
She longed to abandon all restraint and race across the street, run through the park, into the tunnel, and hurl herself into Vincent's waiting arms. She'd be safe there -- nothing could harm her so long as she was with him -- but she didn't dare.
She knew her enemy. At first only a presence, a menacing specter her guards spoke of in cautious undertones, he had gradually taken on substance. Initially he'd wanted the book; later, after the drugs had been taken away and the interrogations stopped, she had fully expect to be killed. They couldn't afford to let her live; not when she knew as much as she did -- not when she knew about Moreno.
But instead, they had taken her to that small, white room, and left her there. Meals came with monotonous regularity, along with access to toilet facilities, clean clothing, and conscientious medical care. At first, she couldn't understand why her child was so important to them. Then, one day, as she was being escorted back from another unexplained medical procedure, she'd heard a chilling, blessedly familiar sound. Wrenching away from her escort, she'd darted the few yards to a nearby door.
Her lips were already forming his name when she realized the roars weren't real, and her cry died in her throat. The terrible sounds of fury were Vincent's, but on videotape, and in the darkened room, a man sat, rapt gaze fixed on a monitor as Vincent clawed and shredded his way through men who tried to oppose him.The carnage was grippingly horrifying and Catherine stood frozen in the doorway, wanting him to stop, wanting him not to have to do what he was doing, even as her rational mind told her it was too late; this was something that had already occurred.
There was time for only this brief glimpse before her guard caught up, gripping her arm harshly and pulling her away. She'd gone almost willingly; watching Vincent kill was not something she considered entertainment. It was only much later, in the solitude of her room, that she thought to wonder about the man who had been so obviously transfixed by the slaughter taking place on the screen.
Gradually, through overheard comments and remarks, she'd formed an image of the man; cold, ruthless, singleminded. And then, one day, she'd seen his face. It had been at the end of yet another physical examination. The exam over, she was buttoning her gown when the door opened. She had met his gaze and seen the look in his flat, cold eyes. Later, alone in her room, the name for that expression had come to her.
He wanted Vincent's child. Wanted it for his own. And would stop at nothing to get it.
And finally she'd learned his name. Gabriel.
Her steps faltered as a new thought occurred to her. Her escape had been fortuitous; luck had played a major role. But what if it hadn't been luck? What if she'd been set up? What if Gabriel wanted not only her child, but her child's father? Might he have allowed her to escape so he could follow her?
Suddenly panicky, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, turning in a circle, examining the faces around her. None seemed even vaguely familiar, but the thought had taken root and new fear pounded through her veins.
And with it came a fierce determination. She couldn't risk Vincent -- wouldn't risk the safety of his world. Not even to save her own life. Not even for the life of their child.
The hand on her arm sent her heart racing even as she spun around, jerking free in a panic.
A short, slight Hispanic man backed away, his hands raised in a placating gesture. "Take it easy, lady. I'm not gonna hurt you. Just don't stand in front of the door, okay?"
Shaking with reaction, Catherine mumbled an apology and moved away from the shop door she'd inadvertently blocked. She had no idea how long she'd been standing there, gazing across at the park, lost in thought.
Gathering herself, she began moving north, glancing surreptitiously at the faces around her. They changed in a constant ebb and flow, and she concentrated fiercely, knowing she dared not be spotted.
She barely noticed when the elegant Fifth Avenue shops gave way to more modest establishments, but at length she ducked into a crowded clothing emporium, slipping again to a clearance rack. This time, she made off with an inexpensive pair of loose cotton trousers, careful to choose a pair with a generous elastic waist, and a cheap shirt, stuffing them into her gym bag.
Despite her boldness, no one accosted her on her way out of the store and she made her way to a grimy public restroom to change clothes, shoving her discarded sweatsuit into the gym bag.
Lips pressed tight in determination, she examined her reflection in the mirror. The change of clothes helped, but she was still much too recognizable. She pulled her hair back, holding it tightly with one hand. Without its length to frame it, her face seemed to change shape, de-emphasizing her eyes and widening her already strong jaw.
She looked around for something to hold the hair back in a ponytail, but there was nothing handy, and she quickly decided that a ponytail was a half-measure, anyway. She rummaged in the gym bag, looking for a small, zippered pouch she'd seen earlier. One of the items contained in it was a pair of fingernail scissors, and Catherine fished them out and leaned toward the mirror. Grasping a handful of hair, she began to cut.
Ten minutes later, her hair hacked off to her collar in the back, her earlobes on the sides, her bangs shaggy and hanging in her eyes, she examined her reflection. The cut was bad, the overall effect cheap and untidy, but she definitely looked different, and at this juncture, that was all she cared about.
Outside again, she squinted against the afternoon sun and very nearly collided with a tall, dark man wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a neat, yuppie haircut. Her stomach lurched as she recognized him. One of Gabriel's men!
He was looking past her, at someone she couldn't see. She made an abrupt right turn and stopped, pretending intense interest in the nearest shop window. She could see the man reflected in the glass; he'd stopped not more than three feet away and was speaking hurriedly to a man she didn't know.
Her child, quiet for most of the morning, seemed agitated now, kicking and wriggling fretfully, and she crossed her arms, pulling her jacket closer, trying to disguise her bulging abdomen. "Shh. Hush, little one," she murmured under her breath.
Her gaze was fixed on the reflected images of the two men. They hadn't noticed her yet. She dared not move for fear of attracting attention, so stood helplessly as the men moved closer, out of the flow of pedestrians.
"...furious," she heard the strange man say. "If we don't find her..."
"We'll find her," the dark man said. His words were reassuring, but Catherine thought he sounded nervous. She leaned closer to the window, fighting the urge to run.
"Yeah," the other man replied. "I hope so. Simmons has his men searching the west side. Cortes's men are spread out in the south. Your guys are looking over here; I'm getting ready to send a detail up north."
"Good. She won't get far."
The strange man climbed into a car waiting at the curb; the dark one waited until the car pulled away before striding back the way he'd come, toward the south. Neither had given her more than a cursory glance.
Catherine sagged against the grimy glass window, suddenly weak with relief. The haircut and change of clothing had just paid off. She straightened, giving a cautious glance around. The dark man had disappeared into the flow of pedestrians and she saw no one else she recognized, no one who looked suspicious.
The afternoon sun was beginning to slide down the sky and foot traffic had thinned in this part of the city. Catherine was tired but dared not stop, dared not assume she wasn't being watched.
She kept on and gradually left the park behind. Soon she found herself trudging through the streets of Harlem. Sometimes, for minutes at a time, hers was the only white face visible, but no one bothered her -- beyond a few derisive comments made by idle youths hanging out on street corners, no one seemed really to notice her. Something in her manner must have told them that she was as wretched and as weary as they.
The tenements gradually gave way to warehouses and loading docks. The sun had set and the sallow glow of streetlamps contrasted with the brilliant headlights of the heavy trucks that moved past her. At last, unable to walk another step, she leaned against a wall, breathing heavily. Her child moved, putting pressure on her back, and she stifled a groan.
She could see no one who looked as if they might be following her; in fact, no one seemed to notice her at all. She might risk reaching the tunnels now, if she had the strength, but this was an unfamiliar part of the city; she knew there must be entrances to the world below, but had no idea where to find them.
She couldn't stay here, but she was too exhausted to move on. Slowly, she slid down the wall to huddle in the shadows at its base. Maybe if she rested, just for a few minutes...
Across the street stood a gray concrete warehouse. Several big rigs were backed into a long, busy loading dock and she could hear the whine of forklifts and the shouts of men loading trucks. She watched the activity stolidly, most of her attention focused on regaining some strength. Absently she reached into her gym bag for a candy bar.
A long, dark car turned the corner, cruising slowly towards her. The car's windows were tinted, obscuring her view of its passengers and instinctively she shrank back against the wall, remembering a lesson Vincent had taught her long ago. There was safety in darkness.
No more than fifty feet away, the car stopped and a man got out. He crossed to the loading dock and called to one of the men working there. The dock worker approached and the other man moved closer, into the light. With a shock, she recognized him. It was the man she'd seen earlier, the one she'd overheard saying he was sending a detail north. All he had to do was turn his head and he'd see her. Her baby kicked, hard, and she winced, doubling over a little, trying to be unobtrusive.
The car's engine was still running and her pursuer, who was now showing what looked like a photograph, probably of her, to the dock worker, had gotten out of the passenger side. That meant there was still a driver in the car, but because of the tinted windows, she couldn't see him.
He might be looking right at her. Any moment, she might hear him shout, see the car spurt forward to cut off any escape routes. Any moment. She pressed back into the wall, stiff with fear.
One of the big tractor-trailer units rumbled into life. It pulled forward into the street, turning toward her, and she watched it inch past the car, blocking her sight of it -- and the driver's possible view of her. The truck stopped in the middle of the street and the truck driver climbed down from his cab and walked toward the back of the unit.
The driver's door of the cab stood open, the steady rumble of the engine masking all but the loudest noises. The driver was behind the trailer, out of sight. With a sudden strength born of sheer terror, Catherine scrambled to her feet, snatched up her gym bag and rushed across the street, reaching to pull herself up into the truck.
Behind the high bucket seats was a place for the driver to sleep. The sheets and blankets on the thin mattress were rumpled, as if someone had just gotten up, but Catherine didn't hesitate, crawling back behind the half-drawn curtain that shielded the area. Curling small, she drew the curtain a little more, and huddled out of sight of the driver's seat, holding her breath.
She felt him climbing up the side of the truck, settling into his seat. He didn't look back into the sleeper, didn't see her, and a moment later, she felt the strain as he put the truck in gear and set off.
There were no angry voices, no sounds of pursuit. Through the gap in the curtain, she could see out the passenger side window and mark their progress. The truck moved slowly through the city, yielding to traffic lights and other vehicles.
It turned and the view changed, darkened. They were crossing a bridge; she couldn't see well enough to determine which one, but they were leaving Manhattan, leaving the fanatic pursuit -- leaving Vincent.
Deliberately, she turned her thoughts away. She was safe, but only for the moment. She needed more space, more distance. Only then would she have the luxury to think, to plan.
After perhaps an hour's travel, the truck stopped and the driver climbed down from his cab. Catherine waited a moment before cautiously poking her head through the gap in the curtain.The truck was parked, engine idling noisily, in front of another warehouse, and she saw the driver go up a flight of concrete stairs and disappear through a gray metal door.
Catherine thought fast. Her choices seemed clear-cut and simple. Either she could climb down out of the truck and try to make her way from here, alone, or she could take her chances and remain in the truck. Neither prospect seemed particularly inviting, and before she could make up her mind, the driver returned. She ducked back into the sleeper, curling small in the corner as he threw the truck into reverse and backed into an open loading bay.
For the next half-hour she lay in the sleeper, listening to the shouts of the men and feeling the shift and sway of the tractor cab as the trailer was loaded. The dock and the area around it was surprisingly busy, especially considering the time of night and she was presented with no opportunity to slip away.
When the driver finally climbed back into the cab and started the engine, she had resigned herself to travelling at least as far as his next stop, and found consolation in the knowledge that every mile travelled made her recapture less likely.
The rumble of the truck's engine, as it thrummed through the night, was soothingly hypnotic and her eyes grew heavy. She struggled, but eventually weariness won out, and she slept.
"Hey, lady, what do you think you're doing?"
The harsh voice woke her suddenly from a sound sleep. Scrambling backwards, she pushed herself up, uncertain of her surroundings. Inside, her baby thrashed uncomfortably. A light shone in her eyes, blinding her, and she lifted a hand to ward it off.
The light wavered and flickered before going out and she stared, speechless, at the incredulous face of the truck driver. He was a husky black man in his fifties, thick through the shoulders, with grizzled beard and a stained cowboy hat. His eyes were kind, though, and that gave her courage.
Over his shoulder, she could see it was still dark, so she hadn't slept through the night. They were parked on the shoulder of a busy highway; the truck's headlights lit a smoothly mown verge crowded by a tangle of overgrown shrubs and trees. The engine was turned off, and over the sound of cars passing on the highway came the high-pitched chirping of crickets.
"Where are we?" she managed, at last.
The driver opened his mouth, closed it again, and sighed. "Virginia," he answered at last. "'Bout halfway between D.C. and Richmond."
Catherine's eyes closed in an involuntary gesture of relief. As if in response, her child quieted. "No one's following us?" she whispered.
"You in some kind of trouble?"
Instinct told her to deny it, but this man looked intelligent. The very fact that she'd stowed away in his truck answered his question. She nodded warily.
He put out a hand to help her out of the sleeper. "Come on, lady. You might as well ride up front."
After an instant's hesitation she took his rough, calloused hand and let him half-lift her into the passenger seat.
"This the only kind of trouble you got?" he asked with a wave toward her abdomen.
Protectively, she laid a hand over it. "No."
"Didn't think so," he grunted, and started the engine. Not until he had merged with the flow of traffic and reached running speed did he speak again. "Husband or boyfriend?" he asked bluntly.
Catherine peered at him. "What?"
"The guy you're running from. Husband or boyfriend?"
*Neither.* She opened her mouth to say it and changed her mind. "I'm not married," she muttered, truthfully.
He nodded sagely and spent the next few minutes weaving a careful path through a cluster of slower-moving cars. When the highway before them was clear again, he took his right hand from the wheel and offered it. "I'm Phil."
She took it, squeezing gratefully. "Cathy," she replied automatically, and regretted it a split-second later. She had to cover her tracks, make it impossible for Gabriel to find her. She should have used another name. It was too late now, and she comforted herself with the thought that hers was a common enough name, and she hadn't spelled it. For all he knew, it was short for Kathleen.
"Thank you," she said, a few minutes later.
"For what?" he asked gruffly without taking his eyes from the road.
"For not putting me out, back there."
He glanced at her, his grin wry. "Couldn't do that," he said. "It's a long walk, and there's snakes in those woods."
She darted a look toward the forbidding wall of forest, and shuddered. Snakes were better than the two-footed reptiles pursuing her, but not much. "Will you get in trouble?"
"If they see you," he admitted. "Company has a no-rider policy. Insurance."
"I'll have to put you out in Richmond," he said. "Will you be all right there?"
Alone in a strange city with no friends, no family, no identification, and less than twenty dollars, her prospects were less than cheerful, but she nodded. "I'll be okay." Her mind leaped ahead, thinking, planning. Lost in thought, she was surprised when Phil pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of a brightly-lighted truck stop.
"You look hungry," he said when they stopped. "Wait 'til I fuel up, and I'll buy you some dinner."
She nodded reluctantly. "Okay."
She stood by while he filled the two enormous, barrel-shaped diesel tanks and followed him inside, where he paid for the fuel before leading her toward the back of the truck stop and a cozy trucker's cafe.
Over a plate of beef stew, she learned that he was based out of Omaha, Nebraska, and was married with four children. "All grown now," he said.
He'd just finished delivering a load of boxed meat when she'd spotted him in New York; the later stop was in New Jersey, where he'd picked up a load of computer components bound for Florida.
"I might never have known you were there if you hadn't started talking in your sleep," he said.
"What did I say?"
"Nothing I could understand. But you didn't sound too happy."
That wasn't surprising. She'd been having a nightmare, and his intervention, abrupt as it was, had been welcome.
With their meal finished, he walked her back outside and pointed the way to a nearby motel. "I've stayed there," he said. "The rooms aren't much, but they're clean and cheap."
She nodded dutifully, knowing she didn't have enough money for the cheapest room, and Phil touched her arm.
"Take this," he said roughly, and pressed some folded bills into her hand.
"Phil, no, I can't..." she began, protesting. He cut her off.
"Yes, you can, and you will," he said firmly. "I have a daughter not much younger than you, and a little grandson, almost two and a half now." His expression changed, turning almost tender. "You're somebody's daughter; that baby in there is somebody's grandbaby. I hope if my girl or her little boy are ever in trouble, somebody makes the effort to help them."
It had been a very long time since anyone was kind, and sudden tears stung her eyes. "I hope so, too," she whispered. "Thank you, Phil. I'll pay you back someday."
He shook his head. "Don't you worry about that. You just take care of yourself, and make sure that little baby is born safe and happy."
She nodded. "I will."
"And you spend that money on a motel room tonight," he added sternly. "Don't be hoarding it, spending the night out."
"The night's almost gone," she reminded him with a faint smile.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "You do what I say."
"Yes, Phil," she agreed. She rose up on tiptoe and kissed his grizzled cheek. "I won't ever forget you."
If his complexion hadn't been so dark, she'd have sworn he was blushing. She knew he stood watching as she trudged across the vast parking lot.
She checked into the motel and accepted the key the sleepy clerk shoved through the little window. Her room was tiny, furnished only with a double bed and narrow nightstand against one wall, but as Phil had promised, it was clean. She dropped her things on the bed and turned back to the door to secure the locks. They were flimsy things and she wondered if they would hold under any sort of pressure.
Moving to the window, she peered out into the night. Across the way, trucks rolled in and out of the truck stop; beyond, she could see the headlights of cars speeding along the highway. The motel's small parking lot held only a few cars, but all its occupants seemed to be sleeping; there was no movement outside her door.
Despite the nap she'd had in Phil's truck, she was tired, her eyes gritty from too little sleep, and she yawned and turned away from the window.
In the tiny bathroom she stripped out of her clothes and stepped into the shower. The water was blessedly hot, but she couldn't relax; the noise of the spray kept her from hearing what might be happening on the other side of the door.
She couldn't even tell herself she was being irrational, she thought, so she washed quickly and got out. She dried herself with the thin towels provided, biting back distaste as she dressed again in her dirty clothes.
Another peek out the window showed all was still quiet, so she crawled into the narrow bed. But no sooner had her head touched the pillow than all drowsiness fled. She lay stiffly, ears straining for the slightest noise, her body instinctively tensed for action.
Intellectually she knew Gabriel could not have followed her. Whether he had engineered her escape or it had truly been the series of fortunate opportunities it seemed to be, he would never have permitted her to stray so far from New York. She must be safe. And yet...
Rising from the bed, she began to pace restively, pausing every minute or so to peer out the window. He was relentless, she knew. She had taken away something he wanted -- her child -- and he would never give up until he found her again.
Briefly, she allowed herself to imagine the intoxicating possibility of returning to New York, of slipping into the city undetected and making her way to the tunnels.
He'd be there, waiting for her, tall and strong, standing silhouetted in the tunnel, backlit by the golden light of his world. She could run to him, be caught up in his arms, feel the roughness of his cloak against her cheek, inhale the elusive scent that was his alone. She wanted that so badly that for a moment, no risk seemed too great. He would protect her and keep her safe.
Safe. It was a feeling she didn't know anymore. She hadn't been safe for a very long time, and slowly, reluctantly, she faced the crushing reality that New York was the least safe place of all.
She had to keep moving, running, staying one or two steps ahead of the dragnet Gabriel must surely have out by now. Grimly, she swallowed her longing and turned her mind to practicalities.
Her most pressing need was for money. The hundred dollars Phil had pressed into her hand wouldn't last long, even added to the change she'd scrounged in the office building last night. Her mind raced, examining possibilities. Money... yes, she thought she could manage that, but first, she'd need some identification -- and not in her own name. She would have to become someone else.
Stretching out on the bed, she let her mind roam, formulating plans, mentally testing them, discarding what seemed too risky or unlikely to work. Eventually she fell asleep.
The morning sun woke her, streaming brightly through the gap left when she'd parted the curtains to peer out. She blinked hazily, trying to clear the cobwebs of sleep from her mind. An instant later, memory flooded back, bringing her to full alertness. Groaning, she rolled heavily onto her side and pushed herself up.
The parking lot outside seemed unchanged, save for the sunlight illuminating everything. The same cars were parked in the same spaces; down near the far end, a family was putting suitcases into a blue sedan. She breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the curtain back into place.
A few minutes later she left the motel full of purpose. Conscious of Phil's stern admonition to take care of herself, she walked back to the truck stop and ate a good breakfast before setting out on the course of action she had outlined the night before.
By bus, she travelled to the public library, going straight to the periodicals room. "Newspapers, for 1956," she told the pleasant young man behind the desk.
"Any particular month?" he asked, reaching for a request form.
"Late in the year, I guess," she answered slowly. "October, November, December."
"Okay." He returned a few moments later with a small handful of microfilm cans. "Here you go."
"Thanks." At a nearby microfilm machine, Catherine threaded the first of the films and began to scan. She went rapidly, slowing only for the obituaries. It was only minutes until she found what she was seeking.
'Debra Ann Miller, aged 4 months, passed away November 11. Born July 7, 1956, she is survived by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. John...'
Catherine read no further; instead, she jotted down the baby girl's name and birthdate and went on. When she had found four more names, she gathered up her supply of microfilms and returned them to the desk, exchanging them for ones from June, July, and August of the same year.
Back at the machine, Catherine scanned the new films. This time she paused for the birth announcements, verifying that the babies whose names she'd written down had been born in this area. It didn't take long.
"All done?" asked the friendly young man when she returned the second batch of films.
"Yes, thank you." She handed him the films. "Can you tell me how to get to the county building?"
"Sure." He gave her directions, and even drew a simple map. It wasn't far, and though her back ached abysmally, she walked to save bus fare. Once there, she visited the records department.
"I need to get a copy of a birth certificate," she informed a sullen clerk.
"Fill this out," the clerk instructed, sliding a form across the counter without looking up. "There's a ten dollar fee."
Choosing one of the names from the newspaper, Catherine filled out the request form, using information gleaned from the obituary and birth notices. She returned it, with her ten dollar fee, to the clerk.
"It'll be about a week. We'll mail it," the clerk said curtly.
"I won't be here that long," Catherine said, her heart thumping. She hadn't thought of this. "Can't I get a copy today?"
"Lady, it takes a week. You'll have to wait."
Clearly, she wasn't going to get any cooperation from the surly clerk. "Is there someone else I can talk to?" She kept her voice calm, despite the sudden apprehension racing through her.
"It isn't going to do you any good. I told you, it takes a week."
Catherine didn't have a week. "Please."
With a great, put-upon sigh, the clerk trudged back into a warren of little cubicles, coming back a minute later with a tall, balding man in tow. "I told her it takes a week," she was complaining, audibly. "I told her."
"Thank you, Serena. I'll take care of it."
The clerk retired in a huff and the man leaned against the counter, regarding Catherine with a faint smile. His eyes, pale behind gold wire-rimmed glasses, were apologetic. "Sorry about that," he apologized. "I think she's having a bad day."
Catherine's need was immediate and urgent and she was prepared to use whatever means were necessary to secure her child's safety; she started with a diplomatic smile. "We all have bad days," she sympathized.
"Yes," the man agreed. "Now, what can we do for you?"
Catherine pointed to her request form, still lying on the counter. "I need a copy of my birth certificate," she said."Well, like Serena told you, that usually takes about a week," the man explained. "We have to pull the microfiche and make a photostat."
Catherine had a cover story, swiftly composed in the last few minutes, and she launched into it, hiding her desperation. "Yes, I know, but the trouble is, I'm not sure I have a week." She patted her swollen abdomen ruefully and put all her charm into her smile. "My husband got transferred to England; he's been over there for three weeks, and I'm supposed to join him before the baby's born. But I need to get a passport, and I can't find my birth certificate anywhere!" She resisted the urge to bat her eyelashes, and merely tried to look helpless.
"Can you get a passport that quickly?" He sounded genuinely interested, rather than skeptical, and Catherine took heart.
"Yes," she said with an assurance born of past dealings with Immigration. "Since it's sort of an emergency, they can rush it through. But I need my birth certificate."
He glanced down at the request. "Well, it sounds as if we ought to make an exception in your case," he said thoughtfully. "I'll have one of the clerks run down and do this right away. It'll take about fifteen minutes." He glanced at her anxiously, as if afraid that wouldn't be quick enough.
She allowed her smile to widen, letting it light her face. "That would be wonderful," she said gratefully. "Thank you so much!"
It was nearer to a half-hour before Serena came back with the photostat, shoving it ungraciously across the counter. Catherine scooped it up.
Not audacious enough to ask the sullen clerk for directions, she went to the front information booth to find out how to get to her next goal -- the Department of Motor Vehicles. It was too far to walk, so she boarded a bus and sat down wearily. Her feet were swollen, her back ached, and more than anything, she wanted to lie down. Urgency drove her on.
Her immediate purpose was to establish an identity; the birth certificate was a beginning and, at the driver's license bureau, she used it to obtain a state-issued picture I.D. card. By the time she had it safely in hand, the sun was setting, and she trudged wearily back to a cheap motel she'd passed while riding the bus.
The room she was given was small and dark, smelling sharply of disinfectant, and once Catherine wouldn't have spent five seconds there, but now she couldn't make herself care. Exhausted, she collapsed onto the bed, falling immediately into a heavy sleep.
She woke with a start, disoriented, aware only that something had disturbed her sleep. Panicking, she levered herself off the bed, hurrying to the small, dingy window. The small parking lot held a few cars, but there was no one in sight.
Her child shifted and kicked vigorously. "Did you wake me up?" she whispered softly, rubbing the spot with her hand. Predictably, there was no answer, but she stood for a moment with her head bowed, one hand on her abdomen, communing silently with her unborn child, regaining her equilibrium.
Presently she straightened, peering out the window again before moving to sit on the side of the bed. "I wonder what time it is?" she asked no one in particular, already knowing there was no way to find out. She had no watch, and her room was cheap partly because it lacked both a telephone and a television. The darkness and dearth of traffic on the street outside told her only that it was late; a dragging sense of weariness said she hadn't slept long enough, but the jolt of adrenaline she'd produced a few minutes ago had banished all traces of drowsiness.
"I'm hungry," she realized, remembering that she'd only had breakfast the day before. Guiltily she thought of Phil and reached for her zippered gym bag, rummaging through her small supply of foodstuffs. She decided that the apple, now a bit battered and bruised, and a chocolate bar would balance each other out and stifle hunger pangs until morning, when she could get a decent meal. She munched slowly, peering out the window from time to time, thinking over the next steps in her plan.
When morning finally came, she left the motel and crossed the street to a small cafe. She ate slowly, poring over the morning paper, paying particular attention to the classified ads. When she paid her check, she converted five dollars into dimes and carried them to the pay phone outside.
"Yes, I'm calling about the car you have advertised in the paper..."
Patiently she called on the ads she'd marked, asking questions and trying to sound as if she knew more about cars than she did. When she finished, she had a short list of addresses, all within walking distance or near a bus line. At the second stop, she knew she'd found what she wanted.
The car was a 1975 Ford Pinto. The passenger door was dented and the paint had faded until it was more pinkish orange than the original red, but the engine started easily and sounded all right to Catherine's inexperienced ear. The tires looked adequate and, when she took it for a short test drive, it seemed to handle well. Most important, the owner had an air of unreliability that Catherine was prepared to turn to her own ends. "I'll give you five hundred for it," she said, knowing full well the ad had asked for only $450.
As she'd expected, he didn't correct her. "Well, I don't know, lady," he hedged, rubbing his unshaven chin with a grimy hand. "This is a pretty good car, you know? I don't know if I can let it go for that." It was hard to miss the avaricious gleam in his eye.
She gave the car another look and shook her head doubtfully. "I don't know," she said slowly, watching him from the corner of her eye.
He saw an easy mark slipping away and moved closer. "Okay, lady, I'll tell you what. Five-fifty and she's yours."
Catherine pretended to think it over. "All right," she agreed. "If you throw in the license plates."
That, of course, was illegal -- the plates were registered in his name (she hoped) and weren't transferable to someone else, but she also knew it was done all the time. It was one of the things that made investigative work so difficult. He didn't hesitate. "Sure, you can have the plates, but you gotta pay me in cash. No checks."
No problem there -- Catherine didn't have a checking account. Of course, at the moment, she didn't have that much cash, either. She frowned. "I'll have to go to the bank," she said. "Is that okay?"
"Sure, lady," he agreed, magnanimous now the deal had been made. "Hey, listen, I got to run into town anyway. I'll even drop you off if you want."
The offer of a ride was more than Catherine had hoped for, and she nodded, trying not to look too eager. A few minutes later, she was wishing she'd walked, despite her swollen feet and aching back. In addition to not shaving, the young man driving with a bit too much dash and fervor also didn't believe in bathing. In the close confines of the car, he smelled just terrible.
Cracking her window, Catherine concentrated on breathing shallowly, trying not to gag. She was grateful when he pulled up in front of the bank she'd picked out of the phone directory.
"Thank you," she said, climbing out. "I'll probably be a couple of hours; I have some other business to attend to."
"Want me to pick you up?" he offered. Clearly, he didn't want to let his quick and profitable sale slip away.
Catherine let herself look grateful. "Would you? And I could pay you the money right here..."
"Sure, no problem," he said quickly. "Two hours?"
She glanced toward the bank sign -- a lighted display there showed the time to be eleven twenty-eight in the morning. "Let's make it two o'clock," she said.
"Two o'clock. Okay," he agreed. She waited until he drove away before she turned, going, not into the bank, but across the street and into a fast-food restaurant. There, she made use of the restroom.
First she removed the dingy shirt she'd taken from a rack in a Manhattan store only two days ago. From the ever-present gym bag she pulled the white button-down gown she'd had to wear as a prisoner; she hated the very sight of it and had only kept it because leaving it behind would have been evidence for her pursuers, but now it would come in handy. With its neat lines and crisp fabric it was obviously expensive -- only the best for the mother of the child Gabriel wanted, though he didn't value the mother herself -- and would help with the impression Catherine wanted to create.
She put it on, buttoning it to the throat, and examined her reflection in the mirror. Her purloined running shoes were good-quality Nikes and she could hope no one would notice that her pants were thin, cheap, and not quite clean, but even so, the look wasn't quite right. Well, frankly, the look smacked of Omar the tentmaker, but she couldn't do anything about that; it came with being heavily pregnant. She needed something to draw attention away from her body, to her face -- jewelry, or a touch of color. Jewelry was probably out of the question, but she might be able to do something about color.
She brushed her hair and tugged at some of the more unruly strands, wishing belatedly that she hadn't been quite so thorough with the scissors the other day. Still, it was an interesting look, and she'd actually met people who would pay large sums for a haircut like this one, if they thought it was in fashion. Maybe she'd start one.
She stepped outside, glancing toward the bank only to check the time. Eleven fifty-two. Bank officers would be going to lunch soon and that could be a problem, but her appearance was vital if she hoped to carry this off. She spotted an old-fashioned combination drug and dime store just down the street and turned her steps in that direction.
Inside the store she found a colorful display of cheap, gauzy scarves. She pulled a bright pink one from its holder and held it to her throat, checking the effect in the polished chrome of the rack. Perfect.
She paid for it and tied it around her neck. With a grim smile, she pinched her cheeks to give them color, shouldered her gym bag, and marched toward the bank.
Five minutes later, she seated herself gingerly and gazed across a massive desk at a slight, balding man who didn't look much older than she. The discreet brass plaque on his desk identified him as Wayne Eddard, Vice-President. "And what can we do for you?" he inquired.
This was perhaps the riskiest part of Catherine's plan, but she had no choice. Without funds she was helpless, and even if she dared look for work, no one would hire her when she was obviously only days away from giving birth. She had to chance it.
"I wish to make a withdrawal from a trust fund set up in Philadelphia," she said.
"Do you have an account with us?"
"No, but I'm prepared to pay a fee for your bank's services."
Eddard nodded. "How much money are we talking about?"
"Thirty thousand dollars." She said it calmly, as if handling such a sum was an everyday occurrence.
He didn't so much as twitch an eyebrow. Obviously he took her for the wealthy young woman she pretended to be... had once been. "I see. Cashier's check?"
He did react then, with a swiftly covered start of surprise.
"I trust you do have that much cash on hand," Catherine added imperiously.
"Yes, of course," he assured her hastily. Obviously, he did not want to chance losing her business to another bank.
"I'd like to make the transaction right away."
"Certainly," he agreed. "Let me give you an account number... and our wire transfer number..." He jotted the numbers for her and pushed the notepad across the desk.
"May I use your telephone? You can deduct the long-distance charges from the funds."
"Of course," he agreed instantly, turning the instrument toward her.
She'd called Information from a pay phone earlier in the day to get the bank's number, and dialed it slowly. "John Kemper, please," she said when the bank answered.
As she listened to the clicks of the call being transferred, Catherine thought about the trust, and how it came to be. Terminally ill and with no heirs, Margaret Chase had wanted to leave her considerable fortune to charity, but after spending time in the tunnel world, she had changed her mind. With the aid of an attorney Catherine recommended, Margaret set up a trust in order to make funds, up to a maximum of thirty thousand dollars, available to anyone who could provide the trust officer with a six-digit code. She had trusted Catherine to pass the code on to a select few: Peter Alcott, Father, and of course, Vincent. In this way, Margaret assured that the tunnel world would always have access to funds, independent of any one person. Never again would disaster, small or large, strike for simple lack of funds to put things right.
Catherine had never imagined herself using the trust, but she didn't dare try to touch her own money; not only did she have no way to prove her identity, but it was all too likely that Gabriel was watching her bank, waiting for her to try to access her accounts. Neither Father nor Vincent would begrudge her the funds she planned to take from Margaret's trust, and chances that Gabriel's people had made the connection between her and Margaret were slim.
At last the call went through. "Mr. Kemper? I'd like to make a withdrawal from the Chase trust. The authorization code is zero-four-one-two-eight-seven." She waited while he verified the code, then gave him the information he needed to transfer the funds. "Thank you, Mr. Kemper," she said at last. "Have a nice day."
She looked up at Eddard, who was hovering nearby. "He's having the wire sent immediately," she said.
Fifteen minutes later, he handed her a two-inch stack of bills, mostly hundreds. The bank had already deducted its fee."Thank you, Ms. Miller," Eddard said, offering his hand. "If we can be of further service, please let us know."
"I will," she said pleasantly, glancing over his shoulder at the clock on the wall. It was quarter of two. She had just enough time to change her clothes before her ride returned.
He was five minutes late and she was pacing the sidewalk impatiently when he arrived. "Here," she said, thrusting a wad of bills into his hands. "Five hundred and fifty dollars."
He counted it slowly, verifying the amount. "Yeah. Okay, lady. Thanks."
"Come on," she said. "I'll give you a lift home." She didn't much want to ride in a closed vehicle with him again, but if Gabriel knew about the trust, he'd have people here in a hurry, and she didn't want potential witnesses left behind.
After dropping him off at his home, she pointed the car west and didn't look back. For three hours she stayed on major highways, pushing the speed limit. After that, she assumed Gabriel had men in the vicinity, and began to travel the secondary roads. To further confuse things, she also changed direction, cutting back north.
It was well after dark when weariness finally overcame urgency. She found an inexpensive chain motel in the middle of West Virginia and pulled in.
The room was similar to the one she'd had the first night -- spare but clean. She tossed her things onto the bed and made her usual check of the parking lot before trudging to the bathroom and turning on the shower. As she stood under the hot spray, letting it warm and massage the back of her neck, she ran her hands over her swollen abdomen. There was no answering kick, and she faltered. Now that she had time to think about it, the baby had been unusually quiet today -- in fact, she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt it move.
There was no chance to suppress the sudden panic that surged through her. Rapidly, she dried herself and dressed in her cleanest clothes, the pink sweatsuit. After a cursory glance out the window, she sat cautiously on the edge of the bed, both hands pressed to her sides.
"Come on, little one," she coaxed gently, trying to keep the terror from her voice. "Wake up."
There was no movement.
With her right hand, she pushed, pressing on the spot where the baby usually kicked. Sometimes when she did that, the baby would respond by pushing back, or kicking. This time, there was nothing.
She fought back waves of panic. Hadn't she read once that newborn infants could be sensitive to the moods of those around them? Her baby was only days away from being born, and was Vincent's child besides. She thought it had been unusually active lately. Was it possible that it, too, was suffering from the stress of the past few days? Maybe it was, like her, simply exhausted.
Calmer, she gave an experimental push on her side again and this time, she thought she felt an answering flicker.
"Come on," she urged aloud. "Wake up."
She pushed again, strongly, and this time the response was clear-cut and vigorous as the baby kicked hard.
The sudden rush of relief was overwhelming and she sank down, curling on her side. She didn't know what she'd have done if the child hadn't moved. She couldn't go to a doctor, or a hospital. Gabriel would be expecting that, and besides, this was Vincent's child. She didn't, couldn't know what to expect, and therefore had to expect anything. Outside help was out of the question.
It was a knowledge that followed her into sleep, disturbing her rest with nightmares of giving birth alone, in pain and despair. The reality, when she woke gasping and sweating, seemed no brighter. What she needed was a course of action.
Yesterday, she'd been simply running, putting distance between herself and her pursuers. Today, she needed a place to go.
Over breakfast, she studied a map she'd picked up at a gas station. The usual criteria for choosing a destination -- friends, job opportunities, etc. -- were useless, and she ran a finger along some of the major highways, reading off city names under her breath. Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis....
Chicago. Something rang a bell and she stopped, thinking. Of course! Last year, Vincent had asked if she'd be willing to be used as a character reference for Edward Simmons, a young man who'd grown up in the tunnels. She knew Edward slightly but put more trust in Vincent's assessment of him, and agreed without hesitation. Edward had been going to Chicago.
She had never been contacted about him, so either he'd never used her name or his references had never been checked. Either way, the chance of Gabriel being able to trace the connection was nearly non-existent. Her heart beat faster in anticipation and hope.
The drive to Chicago took most of the day and during the long hours at the wheel, Catherine couldn't keep her imagination from soaring into the near future, after she found Edward. The help he could give her would be limited, of course. She still couldn't go home, still couldn't go to a doctor, or a hospital, but he was someone she could talk to, someone who could understand. And he could get a message to Vincent, let him know she was safe. Let him know about the baby.
Maybe there would even be a phone call. The image of Vincent with a phone in his hand seemed slightly incongruous, but there was no real reason why he couldn't use one. He could go to the home of a helper, maybe. She could talk to him herself, hear the wonderful sound of his voice in her ear, say the things she'd been longing to say for so long...
The dreams made the miles pass more quickly. It was late afternoon when she approached the city and its many, sprawling suburbs. Though she'd visited a few times, she'd always flown and taken taxis, so the basic layout of the area was unfamiliar, and it was a while before she felt comfortable enough to leave the interstate highway.
She had no idea where Edward lived, so she'd have to call him, and for that, she needed a phone. She supposed she could find one at a convenience store or gas station, but she really preferred one inside, away from noise and presently she spotted a block of office buildings. There was almost sure to be a pay phone inside one of them.
Her gym bag held all her meager possessions, including her entire supply of cash, so she carried it with her into the building. As she'd expected, there was a pay phone around the corner from the elevators, and she hurried to it.
Pulling the thick, tattered directory from its shelf, she opened it to the "S's" and began to scan down the page.
Shuster... Siddell... Siegel... Silva... Simkins... Ah, there it was. Simmons. The Simmonses took up almost an entire page, but there were only three Edwards. Digging in her bag, she fished out some change and lifted the receiver.
"Hello?" It was a man's voice, deep and rough.
"May I speak to Edward, please?" she asked.
"This is Ed."
"Yeah, that's me. Who's this?"
Clearly, this was not the right Edward Simmons. "I'm sorry, I've dialed the wrong number," she apologized, and disconnected.
Another quarter went into the phone, and she dialed the second number listed. The voice that answered this time was also male, but obviously younger, and her heart leaped in hope.
"Edward? No, he's not here."
"Can you tell me when he'll be back?"
"Sorry, ma'am. He won't be coming back. He's gone back home."
"Home?" she stammered, stunned. "Wait a minute, let me be sure I've got the right Edward Simmons. The one I'm looking for is twenty years old, about five-ten, dark hair, hazel eyes..."
"Yeah, that's him. He stayed for a while, but I think he just got homesick. He went back to New York about three weeks ago."
New York. And the description fit. It had to be the right Edward. And he was gone. Out of reach.
She thanked the young man politely, just barely managing to keep her voice steady, and hung up. She wanted to cry.
Instead, she swallowed the disappointment and, fighting despair, gathered up her things. Unshed tears blurred her vision, but she could still make out the bright square of glass that showed the way outside and she went toward it, ducking her head to dash furtively at the tears that threatened to spill.
She collided with someone else and felt the solid grip of a man's hand on her upper arm, steadying her. Instinctively she shrugged away, peering up through tears and shaggy bangs.
"Sorry, miss," the man apologized, but Catherine only half-heard him.
She was too busy staring. His face was lean, his eyes cool, his mouth thin-lipped and tight. His hair was cut short and precisely styled, his suit faultless. She'd spent months surrounded by grim men with precise haircuts and impeccably tailored suits; this man could easily be one of Gabriel's minions. He was looking at her oddly, and suddenly she panicked.
Whirling, she plunged through the heavy glass doors, ignoring his startled call. Fingers shaking, she fumbled with her keys. When she finally got her car door unlocked and flung herself inside, the man stood on the sidewalk outside the building, watching her. She threw the little car in gear and sped off.
Hunched over the wheel, driving more quickly than was strictly safe, she kept an almost constant watch in the rearview mirror, but there were no signs of pursuit. At last she pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store and slumped in her seat, shaking.
So close. She'd been so close to being able to reach out, to contact Vincent, and now, perhaps, because of a chance encounter, she was close to recapture instead. Fear and frustration overwhelmed her, and, bending her head to the steering wheel, she let the tears come.
It was the baby's strong, rhythmic movement that brought her back, reminding her of her priorities. There would be time later to grieve, to be afraid. For now, there was only the need for action.
For safety's sake, she had to assume the worst -- that the man she'd run into was one of Gabriel's men, and her presence in Chicago was now known. Even now, men might be converging on the area, prepared for a wide-spread sweep of the city; she couldn't hope to escape Gabriel's net twice.
So her priorities were threefold. First, she needed to get far enough away that she couldn't be easily detected. Second, the man had seen her up close. She needed to alter her appearance, which meant changing her hair again. She ran a hand through the untidy tangle and grimaced at her reflection in the rearview mirror. No great loss there. Third, and most important, he'd seen the car and probably had the license number. She had to get rid of it.
Dark was falling fast; the day was ending, leaving little time for the things that had to be done before she could rest tonight. In the convenience store, she bought a newspaper and skimmed the car ads. As in Richmond, a series of phone calls narrowed her selection, and she set out. An hour and a half later, she paid seven hundred dollars cash for a 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit. She left the Pinto parked on a seedy side street, keys dangling from the ignition. With luck, joyriders would leave it far from here, blurring her trail.
A nearby strip mall held a chain discount hair styling shop. It was still open and Catherine made that her next stop. The hairdresser, a vapid young woman whose name tag read "Bunny", made distressed noises over the ragged cut Catherine had given herself with the nail scissors before taking up her own, more suitable, ones.
When she finished, Catherine's hair was shorter than she could ever remember it -- close-cropped on the sides and in back, her bangs short and feathered softly to the side. It didn't suit her; she had too much face for this particular haircut, but once again, it changed her appearance and that was all she truly wanted. She paid Bunny and went out.
In her new car, with her new appearance, she felt safe in picking up Interstate 80 out of town; east of Joliet, Illinois, she turned onto I-55 and headed south.
It was past midnight when she reached Springfield, Illinois. To tired to drive any further, she pulled into a Motel 6 and booked a room. Tonight she didn't bother with a shower, choosing instead to simply collapse on the bed.
She was jolted from deep, dreamless sleep by the sound of running feet; there was a heavy pounding followed by a deep, inarticulate shout. Pushing herself off the bed, she hurried to the window to peer out.
Flashing blue and red lights were everywhere, blinding her, and she ducked back, letting the curtain fall. The pounding came again, and she realized it was someone hammering on a nearby door. Panic seized her.
She'd been followed; the police here were Gabriel's men. They had the wrong room, but soon they'd realize their mistake and come for her. The voice of her fear spread insidiously, making her heart pound and her palms sweat.
She used grim logic to fight the terror. They weren't after her. If they were, they'd be pounding on her door, not someone else's. The police presence here was mere coincidence. It had to be.
She dared another peek outside. The pounding had stopped and she could hear men's voices calling to one another. There were three patrol cars parked at different angles in the parking lot, lights flashing. The voices came from two or three doors down; the angle was too sharp to allow Catherine to see what was happening without opening the door, and she had no intention of doing that.
A uniformed officer came into view and hurried to one of the patrol cars. A moment later, two other officers moved into the parking area. They supported a third figure who slouched between them, hands cuffed behind his back. Catherine watched them place their suspect into the back of one of the patrol cars. That car, along with one of the others, pulled out almost immediately, but Catherine stayed by the window until the third car left fifteen minutes later. Only then did logic truly win out over fear.
Wrung out by the constant dread highlighted by moments of sheer terror, she dropped heavily on the bed. For long moments she simply sat, unable to summon the energy to even lie down. When she did crawl back under the covers, it was to lie with her legs curled as high as her distended abdomen would allow, her arms wrapped protectively around its bulge, shivering in reaction.
Only gradually did the tension ease, and when her eyes closed, she found only a restless, nightmarish sleep. It was a relief when morning came and she could reasonably crawl out of bed.
A hot shower, supplemented by a good breakfast, restored some of her waning courage, and she was on the road again soon after sunrise, putting miles behind her. She continued south and west and was making good progress until, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, her car began to wheeze.
She didn't bother to worry about getting it fixed; there was no time, and besides, it was time to change cars anyway. She simply repeated her earlier maneuver and parked it with the keys in the ignition and set about acquiring a new one. This time, she paid $600 cash for a blue 1982 Toyota Corolla.
By the time she'd completed the transaction it was late afternoon. She'd been up since dawn and had little sleep the night before -- for many nights before. She'd hoped to reach Texas before stopping for the night, but common sense outweighed the constant sense of being hunted. She'd get a reasonable distance away from the neighborhood where she'd bought the car, and find a room.
She preferred the economy chain motels, like Motel 6 or Super 8. They were spare, but they were clean and their reasonable cost helped conserve her funds. Most important, they were busy, making her less memorable.
She made her way through the teeming city, caught up in rush hour traffic. She wasn't familiar with the city, but she tried to stay on main thoroughfares, always heading south and west. She drove slowly, alert to the unfamiliar traffic, keeping an eye out for a motel, but it was a different sign that caught her attention.
Before she'd had time to think about it, she'd turned into the parking lot. A parking place presented itself only yards from the door, almost beckoning. She parked, and then sat in the car, staring at the store's facade. K-Mart wasn't the kind of place she normally patronized; in fact, once upon a time, she wouldn't have been caught dead in a discount store.
She puzzled over her own motivation, and finally it came to her. The simple truth was, she was tired of wearing the same clothes, tired of rinsing out her underwear in motel sinks each night, tired of washing her hair with the coarse bar soap found in motel bathrooms. She needed a few things and now was as good a time as any to get them. Her subconscious had known that, even if her conscious mind hadn't. With a rueful smile, she opened the car door and got out.
Inside the store, she took a basket and began filling it methodically. Toiletries came first. Shampoo, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste. A comb, and a bottle of hand lotion. A box of tissues.
In the lingerie department she picked up underwear and socks. Ladies' wear provided a pair of utilitarian blue cotton slacks with a generous elastic waist and two inexpensive, oversize T-shirts -- one soft pink, one pale green. That was enough clothing for now; she could add to her wardrobe later.
She couldn't think of what else she might need, but her subconscious still tugged, so she wandered the store, waiting for inspiration. Presently she looked up to find herself entering the Infants department.
She paused uncertainly.
Ahead of her, a young couple looked at strollers and Catherine watched as the woman, obviously pregnant, said something to her husband in a low voice. He took her arm, bending his head to hers, and after a moment they laughed softly. Catherine looked away.
There had been no such tender moments in her pregnancy. Vincent had never stood close and felt his child move beneath his hand; Vincent didn't even know there was to be a child. There had been no loving anticipation, no hope, no planning for the future. A wave of wrenching sadness swept her and she wanted nothing more than to be in his arms.
It lasted only a moment. Her child stirred restively and automatically, her hand went to her abdomen. The wistfulness was swiftly replaced by a surge of protectiveness.
The young couple moved on, and with a defiant lift of her chin, Catherine pushed her basket into the aisle. Her baby would be born soon -- in freedom, not captivity. It was wanted and would be loved and cared for.
Something inside her broke free and suddenly, all the warm, nurturing feelings she'd been suppressing for so long surged forth. She swayed, staggered by the force of her own unleashed emotion, and caught at the shopping cart for support.
The baby moved again and, bending her head, Catherine whispered to it tenderly. "I love you, little one," she soothed. "Nothing bad will happen to you. I won't let it."
According to things she'd overheard the doctor say, the baby should be born soon. Perhaps as early as next week it would be here and she could hold it and comfort it and shower it with all the love she had to give.
She was safe now; as safe as she could reasonably expect to be. Gabriel couldn't possibly know where she was, where she was headed. Safe.
And at last Catherine dared to look beyond the next hour, the next day. Slowly, she allowed herself to look into the future, and with the future came reality. When it came, her baby would need things -- diapers, clothing, blankets. What else?
It occurred to her that she really had no idea what a baby needed and she pushed her cart through the aisles, scanning the packed shelves and racks in bewilderment.
The choices were overwhelming. She stopped by a display of garments wrapped securely in transparent plastic and tentatively picked up a package of undershirts. The label said 'newborn', but Catherine had never seen anything so tiny. Could even a brand-new baby be small enough to fit inside one of these?
Someone touched her arm. "Excuse me."
Catherine whirled defensively, instincts bristling.
A dark-haired woman about her own age stepped back, eyes widening. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
Catherine let out her breath in a long sigh of relief. "It's all right. I didn't hear you."
The woman smiled. Catherine smiled in return and her gaze dropped to the woman's shopping cart. A molded plastic infant seat occupied most of it, and scrunched up in the seat, fast asleep, was a dark-haired infant.
"Oh, she's lovely," Catherine said, noting the pink terrycloth sleeper the baby wore.
"Thank you." The other woman beamed with pleasure and Catherine's own smile widened.
"How old is she?"
"Six weeks tomorrow."
"Oh, but she's so tiny!" She glanced at the package of shirts still in her hand. "I guess these aren't as small as they look."
The woman smiled sympathetically. "First baby?" she asked.
"When are you due?"
*I wish I knew,* Catherine thought silently. "Pretty soon," she said aloud. "And I don't have any baby things yet."
The woman's eyebrows rose gently. "Cutting it pretty close, aren't you?"
"I've been sort of busy," Catherine said lamely. "I never had a baby before. I don't know what to get."
"Well, for starters, don't get those," the woman said, pointing to the package in her hand. "Those kind of undershirts will ride up into the poor kid's armpits every time you pick him up."
"What do I get?" Catherine asked, bewildered.
"Here, I'll show you," the woman offered. "My name's Ellen, by the way. Ellen Chapman."
"Ca-Cathy," Catherine stuttered, forgetting her name was supposed to be Debra until it was too late. "Cathy Miller." At least she remembered to use her new last name. "This isn't your first baby, I take it," she added, to cover her slip.
Ellen chuckled. "I have two boys at home with their dad -- five and seven."
Catherine smiled. "That's nice."
Ellen smiled back. "Sometimes, sometimes not."
Over the next quarter-hour, Ellen goodnaturedly guided her in the purchase of everything from undershirts with long tails that snapped in the baby's crotch, to sleepers, to blankets and even a car seat.
"Bottles. You'll need at least a couple," Ellen said absently, surveying the articles piled in the cart. "Are you going to nurse?"
Catherine had been caught up in survival; she had never taken time to consider how she was going to feed her baby. Ellen's casual question sparked a sudden image of herself, head bent low, cradling Vincent's child to her breast. For a moment, she even imagined Vincent there, too, reaching out to stroke the tiny newborn head.
It was an effort to bring herself back to the present. "Yes. Of course I'm going to nurse."
"Then only get two bottles. Plastic," Ellen advised. "And a six-pack of ready to drink formula, just in case. And I think that's everything."
"I hope so." Catherine eyed her overflowing shopping cart ruefully. "And thank you. I don't know what I would have done without your help."
"You'd have managed," Ellen said breezily. "And now, I've got to go. My princess is waking up, and while I'm all for nursing, I'm not going to feed her in the middle of K-Mart."
Catherine laughed, feeling relaxed and happy for the first time in months. "'Bye."
"'Bye. Good luck with your baby." Ellen hurried away and Catherine leaned against her shopping cart and smiled. There was still joy to be found, after all, and still good people to extend a helping hand. She found the knowledge reassuring and the pleasure found in a brief, chance encounter stayed with her all the way to her motel.
The next morning found her on the move again. The back seat of her little Toyota was piled high with her new purchases and she resolved to invest in a couple of inexpensive nylon zipper bags at the earliest opportunity.
Breaking the routine she'd established, she stopped early in the afternoon. She should press on, increasing the distance between herself and her last known whereabouts, but her back ached and she felt strangely restless, so she pulled off the highway in Albuquerque.
Finding another chain motel was easy, but after checking in, Catherine found herself unable to sit still. Pacing between the front door and the back wall didn't help, and after a while she turned her eye on the bed and the K-Mart bags piled on the spread. She wore her new pants and one of her new shirts, but the baby's things were still in their packages.
Maybe she could go through them, put them in some sort of order. Maybe the simple task would ease whatever was bothering her. She hadn't gotten through more than a third of the tiny garments, though, before the restlessness had her on her feet again.
She peered out the window, arching back to counterbalance the bulge of her stomach, one hand braced against her hip as support for her aching back. She scrutinized the asphalt parking lot but nothing seemed out of place, and after a moment she let the curtain drop. She forced herself to finish sorting the baby clothes and began tucking them neatly away in the plastic shopping bags.
She had nearly finished packing the garments away when she noticed that the fabric had the slightly stiff feel she associated with new clothing. She brought a terrycloth sleeper to her face and rubbed it experimentally against her cheek.
It was almost imperceptibly rough and had a subtle scent, faintly unpleasant. How would this stiffness feel against a baby's delicate skin? She frowned, and looked at the plastic sacks, now bulging with clothes.
She could wash them. She should wash them. There'd been a laundromat in a strip mall not two blocks from here. She could go and wash the baby's things, along with her own. She found the prospect immensely pleasing, and wasted no time carrying it out.
At the laundromat, she found herself too restless to sit and watch the machines. While the clothes agitated, she went outside to stretch her legs.
The day had been hot, but the sun had set and a cool breeze was blowing. Catherine tipped her head back, savoring the fresh air. After six months in captivity, being outdoors was sheer luxury.
She began to walk, intending to go to the end of the little shopping center before turning around and coming back. Her plans changed, though, when she realized that the one other lighted window along the storefronts belonged to a bookstore.
It had been literally months since she'd had an opportunity to really read. In the past few days, she'd only had time to skim the newspaper, and before that, she'd been Gabriel's prisoner, starved of all mental stimulation. The lure of printed matter was too strong to resist.
Automatically she wandered toward the poetry and literature section, letting her fingers run along the titles, smiling now and then as a familiar one triggered a memory. The section was severely limited, though, and she found nothing she wanted to buy.
She drifted along the aisles, skimming titles. Psychology and self-help books gave way to computer manuals; beyond those were books on hobbies and collecting. In the back of the store, Catherine found the children's section and paused. So many titles were familiar; just as many were new to her. She picked up a colorful paperback. The cover proclaimed it to be one of a series -- The Berenstain Bears. The artwork pictured a pair of cute bear cubs dressed in people clothes, and she smiled as she replaced it on the shelf.
Farther down was a whole shelf devoted to Dr. Seuss -- one of her own childhood favorites -- and beyond that, a shelf of children's classics: Kipling's Just So_stories, The Velveteen Rabbit, Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Madeleine L'Engle's Time Trilogy. Someday soon, she might read these to her own child. The thought warmed her.
A moment later she paused in front of a series of shelves devoted to books on pregnancy, childbirth and child care. It occurred to her that she really knew very little about the actual process of childbirth -- and with an acute stab of reality, she realized that it was something she ought to know. She browsed, paying special attention to chapters on emergency home births.
The one that seemed most comprehensive and complete was soon tucked under her arm. She added a thick paperback volume on child care and looked for the checkout. She paid for the books and went back to the laundromat and, after transferring her clothes to a dryer, sat down in one of the molded plastic chairs and began to read.
An hour later she was back in her motel room. Newly washed, soft and sweet-smelling, the baby's clothes were neatly folded and packed away; Catherine's own clothing was likewise folded and tucked back into the ubiquitous gym bag that served as her suitcase.
Her chores done, she reached again for the childbirth book, but this time, it failed to hold her interest. The odd restlessness was back and she stood and moved to the window. The asphalt parking lot was unchanged. Her little blue Toyota stood faithfully in front of the door and she thought about the infant car seat she'd bought only yesterday in Oklahoma City. It was locked into the Toyota's small trunk, still in its box. Maybe she ought to get it out, figure out how to use it.
Fifteen minutes later she crouched uncomfortably beside the car's open passenger door and fiddled with the seatbelt. The tongue didn't want to go into the latch and she pushed, grunting a little with the effort. Her position compressed her stomach, making it hard to breathe. She wiggled the mechanism and suddenly, as if she'd merely needed to find the correct angle, the tongue slipped into place and latched with an audible click. She tugged on the belt to make sure it was secure. It was.
She didn't quite understand the compulsion she'd felt to get the car seat in place, but at least it was done. Using the car as a support, she heaved herself to her feet. Her body protested this abuse by sending odd little strains and aches twinging through her. Her back ached, too, had been aching all evening, and she wondered if a warm bath might ease the discomfort.
She locked the car and went inside. The bathroom had no tub, only an oversized shower stall, but that would probably serve just as well.
She stood under the water, letting the warm flow soothe and relax her, when she felt the first tightening in her body. The feeling gradually increased until her entire abdomen was tight; she could feel the rigidity of contracted muscles beneath the skin. After a moment the tightness eased.
Hurriedly, she finished bathing. She'd stepped out of the shower and was toweling off when it happened again. She stood motionless, hands pressed to her sides, until it ended.
She'd had intermittent contractions before, in captivity. At first they had frightened her, but, behaving as if Catherine was a none-too-bright kindergartner, the Oriental nurse had brusquely explained that these were called Braxton-Hicks contractions, and were the body's way of preparing itself for childbirth. The contractions she was having now were similar. And yet, some unexplainable instinct warned her they were different.
The contractions continued, growing progressively stronger, while the interval between dwindled. It was her nightmare come true. She was in labor. She would have to give birth to this baby here, tonight, alone.
The most intense contraction yet gripped her, making her gasp; her hands clutched blindly at the bedspread as she sank to the floor beside the bed. She pressed her face against the mattress and bit back a small, pained cry.
No one must hear her. No one must know.
When it finally ended, she sagged against the bed. "Oh, Vincent, I'm so scared," she whispered aloud.
*You have the strength,* her memory heard him whisper. *I know you.*
And she did. She knew it. It wasn't the pain that frightened her; she could endure whatever came. It was her lack of knowledge. Panting, she reached for the paperback book lying open, face down, on the bed.
After the hour spent studying it at the laundromat, Catherine had the chapter on home births practically memorized, but the brief listing of things that could go wrong was terrifying. What if something happened -- a birth accident -- and her baby was irretrievably harmed because she didn't know what to do?
What if something happened to her? Women didn't often die in childbirth anymore, but it happened. Without medical care, it happened more often. What would happen to her baby if she died giving birth? The authorities would search in vain for the family of Debra Ann Miller.
And what about Vincent? No one would ever tell him. He would never know -- not of their child, or even that she hadn't wanted to leave him, hadn't gone away voluntarily. For the rest of his life, he would wait for her. And wonder. And grieve.
Better that he should have a sense of closure. Better that somehow, her child reached New York, reached him, even with the risk of discovery by Gabriel. Frantically, she scrabbled through the gym bag, pulling her belongings out into an untidy pile, finally coming up with a small, spiral-bound lined notebook and a pen.
Another contraction seized her and she huddled helplessly, breathing hard through her mouth. By the time it ended, she was sweating, panting for air. She crawled up onto the bed and lay still for a moment, gathering her strength, before pushing herself up and reaching for the pen and notebook.
The note she wrote was hasty and barely coherent, touching only lightly on her disappearance. The baby was the most important thing. Vincent's baby. *Our baby,* she told him fiercely, scribbling the words. When she finished, she scanned the message, frowning. It wasn't truly what she wanted to say, but it conveyed the facts. It would have to do.
She had no envelope to put the letter in. Folding it tightly, she scrawled Peter Alcott's name and address on the outside. She wasn't positive she had the house number right and couldn't remember the zip code, but the authorities would be able to find him, and he would see that the message was safely delivered. She propped the note against a lamp on the dresser, dragged herself to her feet, and began to pace, trying to walk through the ever-increasing pain.
After a while, her legs would no longer reliably support her and she sank to the floor, curled on her side. When the contractions peaked, she stuffed her fist into her mouth to keep from screaming.
No one must know. No one must hear.
Eventually the realization that she was lying on carpet sank in. She'd never had a baby before, but common sense and all the things she'd ever read told her childbirth was a messy affair. She mustn't leave any traces for a maid to find. A stained carpet would draw attention. Gabriel might find out.
Painfully, she crawled into the bathroom. The shower stall would be easiest to clean, so she dragged herself inside and crouched against the wall.
When the urge to push came, she knew, from reading the childbirth book, that she wasn't supposed to give into it. She tried to resist, but she couldn't remember why she should, and it wasn't long before she simply let nature, urgent and compelling, take its course.
Squatting, she grunted with the effort of expelling her child. Between contractions, she leaned her cheek against the cool tile wall and gasped for breath.
The contractions grew until she felt nothing but the indescribable sensation of being torn in half. She grunted and pushed. There was an abrupt gush of bloody, mucousy fluid. Her body pushed and pushed, and when it stopped for a moment's rest, her hands went instinctively between her legs. She could feel it -- the soft, firm roundness of what had to be the baby's head.
The urge welled up again and she strained, feeling the head emerge slowly. Another push and it was out; the body followed, sliding wetly. She was afraid to try to catch it, afraid of dropping it, so she just guided it, as gently as she could, to lie on the wet shower floor.
Gasping, she used the back of her bloody hand to push sweat-soaked bangs off her forehead. The baby lay face-down. The umbilical cord, still attached and pulsing, wrapped around one tiny leg and disappeared beneath the incredibly small torso.With trembling hands, she turned the slippery-wet, blood-smeared body. Instinct or some long ago memory brought one hand up to support the head. A boy, she noted as he came over onto his back.
He gave a long shudder -- the first movement she had seen -- and opened his mouth. His chest rose and fell with a first tentative breath that was quickly followed by another, and another. Almost imperceptibly, she relaxed.
He looked fine. He looked healthy. She let her gaze linger on his tiny, red, scrunched-up face. In this moment, the whole world seemed beautiful. She wanted to weep for joy.
Ignoring the birth fluids that covered him, she lifted her son in her hands. Startled by the movement, he gave one thin wail, but quieted as she instinctively cradled him close. He opened his eyes and blinked, gazing at her solemnly.
"Hello, little one," she whispered.
He flailed one tiny fist, his movement jerky and uncoordinated. She settled him into the crook of her arm and caught his hand in hers. All his fingers were there, she noted automatically, and smiled inwardly. So it was true, what they said about new mothers. She'd get to his toes in a minute. Right now, she wanted to marvel over the perfection of his hand, so small and complete right down to the delicate, paper-thin nails that tipped each finger. Not claws, nails. She kissed his fist and let it go.
The other hand was just as flawless. He had five toes on each perfectly formed little foot. His eyes, blinking in the glare of the overhead light, were so dark they looked black, and a sparse growth of downy hair was matted and wet. He was beautiful, and her heart swelled with love.
Crouched in the shower stall, enthralled with the miracle in her arms, she forgot about the afterbirth until another, milder contraction gripped her. Afraid she might drop him, she put the baby back on the shower floor. He whimpered at the feel of the cold tiles, but didn't cry, and she murmured softly, soothing him, as she delivered the afterbirth.
In comparison to the ordeal she'd just undergone, this was easy, and it was only moments before the placenta slid out and onto the shower floor. Grimacing in distaste, Catherine used the back of her hand to nudge it into a corner.
The umbilical cord was still attached, and with a soft, comforting touch to her son's head, she leaned across him and snagged the edge of a white plastic shopping bag, dragging it toward her. On the way home from the laundromat, she'd stopped to buy some of the items recommended in the childbirth book.
The bag held a stack of dark blue terrycloth towels and she pulled them out. Unfolding the top one, she spread it on the bathroom floor beside the shower. She placed the baby carefully in the center of the towel and brought the end up, wrapping him snugly. He seemed to watch her, his eyes tracking unsteadily, following her movements.
Delving into the bag again, she withdrew a package of white shoelaces, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a box of single-edged razor blades. She ripped open the shoelaces and held them carefully by one end, dipping them into the bottle of alcohol. When they were thoroughly soaked, she pulled them out, dragging them against one side of the bottle's rim to draw out the excess moisture.
The umbilical cord snaked out from beneath the towel and she tied the shoelaces around it, spaced a few inches apart and pulled tight. She took a new razor blade from the box, grit her teeth in distaste and sliced through the cord, taking care to cut it between the tied shoelaces. It separated easily and she shoved the loose end of the cord into the corner with the placenta, dropping the used razor blade on top.
With her son's most urgent needs attended to, it was time to turn her attention to herself. She still crouched, naked and smeared, in the shower stall. Her hair was matted and tangled, soaked with sweat; her hands were streaked and smeared with her own blood; her legs and feet were spattered with birth fluids.
Murmuring reassurance to her son, she moved him away from the shower and closed the plastic curtain. She turned on the water and let its warm flow sluice over her, crouching weakly against the wall because her legs were too unsteady to support her. She was bleeding, she noticed, and wondered if she would be able to tell what was normal and what was too much.
When she felt clean, she literally crawled out of the stall, too weak to risk standing just yet, and dried herself carefully before dressing as quickly as she could. The baby still lay where she'd put him, squinting against the harsh overhead light. She paused to touch his cheek in a tender caress, and he turned his head toward her touch, his mouth opening blindly. He made a faint, mewing sound when she took her hand away.
"I know, sweetheart, I know," she crooned. "In a minute. I just need to finish here..."
He subsided as if he understood, and she turned to complete her tasks. The afterbirth and umbilical cord she wrapped in layers of newspaper before tying the whole thing up in the now-empty plastic shopping bag. It would go in a dumpster somewhere, once she recovered the strength to take it. Her shower had pretty much cleaned up the rest of the mess; she used her damp, dark towel to blot up a few spots that remained.
Now she could tend her baby. Her strength was coming back now, slowly, and she pulled herself up by the bathroom vanity. She closed the drain on the sink and filled it with warm water.
Crouching, she picked up the baby, cradling him tightly in one arm while she used the other to lever herself up. Once standing, she leaned heavily against the vanity and an adjoining wall and placed her son, towel and all, into the warm water.
He howled in unexpected displeasure. She didn't know he could be so loud; anxiously she hushed him. No one must know he'd been born here tonight.
She unwrapped the towel and washed him quickly, clumsily, before lifting him, dripping wet and very unhappy, from the now-cloudy water. There was still some blood matted in his sparse fair hair, but it would have to wait until she was steadier on her feet. He was clean enough for now.
She wrapped him in her last clean towel and inched her way into the bedroom. A box of disposable diapers was among the things she had for him and she opened it, spending a few anxious minutes figuring out how to put one on. A soft cotton nightgown, impossibly tiny when she'd folded it only a few hours ago, came next, and she fumbled clumsily getting it over his head. Guiding his jerkily moving arms through the sleeves was another trick, but she managed it, and at last, bone-weary and aching in every muscle, she climbed into bed.
She sank down into the pillows and cradled her son close, nuzzling his head and murmuring softly. He replied with an anxious little cry and turned his head, his mouth opening blindly.
It slowly dawned on her that he was hungry, and she remembered reading that a newborn could nurse only minutes after birth. He was what? An hour old? Maybe more.
She pulled up the front of her shirt and brought him awkwardly to her breast. He rooted blindly for a moment before finding the nipple.
The feel of his tiny mouth on her breast was indescribable and Catherine bent her head low, crooning softly as he nursed. "You're so beautiful," she murmured, stroking her fingers over the downy blond hair on the back of his head. "I wish your daddy could see you." She didn't dare dwell on that tantalizing, impossible wish.
"Someday. We'll go there someday," she promised. "When it's safe."
"...Give her a child...
To tell once and once only...
How once she walked in brightness..."
Continued in Part 2