This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine Heart of the Minstrel II, in 1991. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans and is a sequel to the story Sleep, My Love.
It took long, groping moments to grasp the tatters of reality around her. Alone. Hospital. Alive.
Turning her head was a great effort, but she managed it. She lay in a beige room that smelled faintly of antiseptic and held no other living thing except herself. A monitor beeped quietly, announcing her heartbeats for anyone who cared to listen. Beside her, a liquid-filled bag hung from a pole, trailing a long tube. She followed its windings until she saw that it buried itself in the skin of her arm. It hurt, vaguely. The pale sunlight filtering through the curtained window told her it was day, but no more than that.
For an instant, fear closed her throat. This room was like another she knew--like the heartless, unadorned cubicle where they'd kept her--waiting--waiting for the baby--Oh, God, my baby--
Her breathing quickened as she stared, unblinking, at the ceiling, reaching for the memories even as the pain of them tore through her. She had delivered her son, literally into the hands of her enemies, struggling to give him life and knowing that she was giving him only death by birthing him into their care. Vincent had come, but too late. There had been a needle, and the rooftop. . . .
Catherine Chandler closed her eyes, so newly opened, and let the quiet weeping take her.
His sense of her was fading.
Vincent paced the soft-lit gloom of his Father's study. Ten steps, pivot, ten steps again. Jacob mewed fretfully against his shoulder, a tiny victim of colic. Neither father nor son would get much sleep until the little one's pains eased.
Vincent's thoughts trod as weary a path as his feet. He had believed that with their son to hold and care for, his feeling of closeness to Catherine could only deepen. There had been moments since her death when he was sure he'd heard her voice, felt her touch--times when he'd whirled in a shadowy room and sent his eyes hunting for her, even though he cursed himself for a fool. Not the bond, surely--that was dead--but a sense of nearness, as though she were just on the other side of an invisible veil, that sometime must part. He had wondered if he were going mad...but if so, what sweet delirium, to feel his Catherine so near.
In recent days, though, this sense of her had slipped away. She had become a beloved memory, softly blurring with the passing of time. Father had said this was the final step in his process of grief. But Vincent mourned anew.
With a start, he realized that the baby was asleep, had been asleep for a good while, and he was still crossing and recrossing the study. Dousing the single candle, Vincent padded with his son to his own chamber, there to lay Jacob carefully in the wooden cradle that had been his own. He checked the baby's diaper, fussed with the blankets, and kissed the downy head gently before he turned away to seek his own bed.
With a deep sigh he slipped beneath the quilts and closed his eyes, willing himself to rest while he could. But sleep refused to come, its lure weak compared to the ache in his heart.
Catherine. My Catherine....
When she woke again, a nurse was with her, changing the sheets on which she lay. The woman hummed softly as she worked, gathering up Catherine's limp form as though she were a doll and moving her from one side of the bed to the other. The sheets rustled crisply and smelled of laundry soap. The nurse was plump and moon-faced, but there was a kindness about her lips.
"Hello," said Catherine.
The nurse started violently and laid a hand against her ample bosom. "Goodness! So you're finally awake. You gave me quite a fright."
Catherine smiled faintly. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize, Carol."
Catherine stared. "What did you call me?"
"Carol," the woman reminded her. The shrewd glint in her eyes told Catherine she was not the first patient in this particular hospital who had shown surprise at her name.
The nurse lifted Catherine's unresisting arm and showed her the plastic ID bracelet, on which was boldly printed SMITH, CAROL.
Catherine began to laugh. She knew there was a crazed edge to the sound, but she didn't even care when the nurse hurried out, doubtless to roust a doctor. There was such beauty in it; such comic, circular tragedy in the way her life had led from the bed in Vincent's chamber--where she'd landed because a couple of street thugs had mistaken her for "Carol"--to this bed, only to be Carol once again.
She laughed until the tears pooled in the corners of her eyes and escaped, until she was gasping in weakness. It was good to laugh, to feel the hurt of it in her ribs and hear the sound of her own voice. But she was still so scared.
Jonathan Pope sat at ease behind the wide gulf of a solid mahogany desk, regarding the nervously shifting woman before him. His eyes, which seemed in the yellow lamplight to take and hold something of the bitter grey smoke that trailed from his pipe, were never at ease.
"You have information?"
The woman nodded. "She came out of the coma today."
Her eyes flickered away from him, unable to settle anywhere for long, and he knew she would not be useful much longer. She would run, as she had from the nursery that last night, when Gabriel had finally lost his tenuous hold on reality. And in any case, the nurse couldn't be left at the hospital now that the Chandler woman was awake. She might be recognized.
His plans were well-conceived and already in place. He would soon be able to take over the job himself.
"Has she said anything?"
The woman shook her head emphatically, then hesitated. "Not that I'm aware of. I'm not her primary-care nurse."
Pope dismissed her with a crisp gesture. "Return to your duties, then. Be sure that the woman doesn't see you."
She nodded, and turned to leave the room, just a shade too quickly.
He gave attention to his pipe, refilling it from a soft pouch of tobacco. That done, he pressed a button on the intercom and spoke into it.
He regretted having the nurse killed. She had been loyal--to a point--to both himself and his predecessor. A man who wished to wield unseen power did not kill too often, or indiscriminately.
He rose from the desk and went to stand by the window, looking out into gathering darkness. The gleaming pane threw his own image, ghost-like, between him and the garden of this most comfortable house. Comfortable, to be sure. It had been one of Gabriel's.
Gabriel. What a great waste his death had been, even if it had given Pope all he'd ever desired. A brilliant man, a genius really. Killed in the end by the very obsessions which had fueled his rise to power. Pope looked down at the ring he wore, twisted it thoughtfully around his finger. He had no right to it, he wasn't one of them. He wasn't sure why he'd gone to the trouble and expense of recovering the ring from the police impound. He had simply done it, without reason--and that was bad business.
He had of Gabriel much more than a ring. He had the man's connections, his contacts, his knowledge. And, to some extent, his agenda--minus the maundering cant about power, and the dark heart of man. He considered himself a businessman, nothing more. Just now, the Chandler woman was a piece of it.
She alone--if she still knew the whereabouts of the damning book--could snatch from him the prize he'd waited for all the long years in Gabriel's service. He would not let that happen. He must not underestimate her forces, as Gabriel had. He must not forget the existence of the creature.
Pope had taken the videos of the animal with him when he'd gone. He'd watched the thing move, watched it kill. It was still out there. He must see that Ms. Chandler never reached that particular source of help.
"I've told you all I can, Mr. Carmichael," Catherine said flatly. Finally upright in bed--a small victory that would, she knew, leave her exhausted--she eyed the man who sat beside her, leaning back in his chair like a guest, rather than the inquisitor he was.
It was Saturday; she had awakened on Wednesday. The doctors held out guarded hope for her release from the hospital in ten days or so. She had been poked, prodded, examined and measured to the limits of her feeble strength. More than once she had wanted to scream out against the battering of their questions: Enough! Where's Gabriel? What's happened to my baby? Where--is--Vincent!
But she did not. This was their game, played their way, and her only weapon was silence.
"Miss Chandler." Carmichael heaved a weary sigh, entirely feigned, and leaned toward the bed, as though to establish a confessor's rapport with her.
A trick I used at the D.A.'s office, Catherine mused.
"You say you have no memory at all of your abduction, of the birth of a child, of who may have your child now? I find that hard to believe."
"Mr. Carmichael, what you believe or disbelieve is immaterial." She flicked the words out like a whip as she too leaned forward, mocking him. "I will repeat myself one more time: I don't remember anything beyond an investigation I was pursuing that involved a piece of evidence that came into our hands. I recall that I was pregnant at the time. You say that I was abducted, held prisoner long enough to deliver my child, and then injected with a large dose of morphine that ought to have killed me, but didn't. My survival is considered unexplainable and miraculous."
She shrugged, and gave him a wry smile. Miracles had changed some, if they took the form of comfortable, hygienic imprisonment by one's own government.
"All of that has been over for five months, while I've been lying here vegetating! I have a life to get back to and a child to find. Witness protection is all well and good, but since I can't remember a damned thing, I'm not much good as a witness, am I? And I'm sick and tired of your endless questions!"
Carmichael still stared at her with measured calm, apparently oblivious to her tirade. But the outburst had made her feel better. Catherine folded her arms and watched for his reaction, bracing wearily for another volley.
He didn't give it. He stood up, pulled lightly at the hem of his immaculate suit jacket, and went to the door.
"I'll be back tomorrow, Miss Chandler." The door eased shut behind him.
"It's Ms. Chandler!" she flung furiously at the empty room.
She let her face drop into her hands and counted the even breaths she drew, until the anger was gone.
He watched on the nurses' station video monitor as Carmichael questioned Chandler, smiled when she gave his partner the rough side of her tongue. He studied her as she calmed her temper and leaned back on the pillows, eyes closed. She looked absurdly fragile, with her nearly transparent skin and child's thinness.
In three questioning sessions, she hadn't shown the slightest crack in her claim of amnesia. The doctors said it was possible, even probable. But he didn't buy it for a minute.
Carmichael's footsteps echoed on the tile. "Not a thing. She won't budge."
"She'll be released, then?"
"Maybe." Carmichael brought him out from behind the counter with a wave. "Come on. Let's get back to the office and check in."
He followed, almost submissively. Carmichael was, after all, the senior partner, since he himself had just come off an extended leave from the Bureau. So far, Carmichael seemed to think he wasn't good for much except parking the car.
"She was right about her questionable value as a witness," he said to Carmichael's back, as they exited the hospital. "With Gabriel dead and all the other trails cold, her case is closed unless she cares to shed some light on the disappearance of her child, or the extent of Gabriel's reach."
Carmichael grunted assent, sliding into the passenger side of the car and reaching for the car phone. He spoke into it. "This is Carmichael. Nope, nothing.... She's stonewalling, and we're not getting anywhere with the same old questions. She's more valuable to us loose and under surveillance than squirreled away in witness protection.... Right. I'll call later." He hung up.
His partner waited a beat, then said mildly, "You know, we might do well together if you spoke to me as much as you do to control."
Carmichael held his silence, then let it out on a long sigh. "I know. It's just that I've been with this one a long time, and she's all that's left of something big. Something that could've made our careers, if we'd cracked it. Mine and Higgins'."
"If he'd lived."
"Right. Yeah." Carmichael suddenly sniffed the air, and grimaced. "Chrissakes, Pope. Do you have to smoke that thing in the car?"
"Sorry." He cracked his window, but did not put away his pipe.
The world was ebony, pinpointed with tiny, airless flecks of crystal, and bounded by a circle. If he looked long at a blank spot, it gave up its own points of light that stood still when he stared at them, and danced when he looked away. Aeschylus' words drifted to him from some boyhood tedium, touched still with cadence of Father's voice... the conclave of the stars, those potentates blazing in the heavens that bring winter and summer to mortal men, the constellations, when they wane, when they rise....
"You're quiet tonight," Diana said, beside him.
He didn't answer at once. He had his eye to the telescope; had lost his thoughts among the stars and pitch. It took a moment to come back.
"I'm stargazing. A silent and solitary pursuit." He smiled to show her he didn't mind having company, which was ridiculous since this was her rooftop. Yet he knew that if he'd asked it, she'd have gone inside and left him alone.
She smiled back. "Solitary, unless you're watching meteor showers. I always get the feeling that if I could only get a telescope for my ears, I'd hear them whooping and shrieking up there, having a fine old time."
That made him chuckle. Then they stood in silence again, rather awkwardly. He didn't know why he'd come. He suddenly realized that he had rarely--had he ever?--come to her home simply to spend time with her. She came Below to the public Helper affairs, scarcely quality time. When they met Above it was always a mission, hers or his, and the din of the emergency drowned out any hint of friendship. Yet she was a friend, a good one, and he had few enough of those.
She gave a sudden, twitchy smile and turned away, a whirl of shoulders and titian hair. "I'll make tea. You people drink quarts of the stuff. Bet you could stand one more cup today?"
"It sounds inviting, but could it be coffee?"
At her nearly astounded look, he smiled slightly. "Jacob has colic. I've been awake far more than I've been asleep lately."
She went without a word, and returned presently with two large, mannish cups that steamed in the cool air. He sniffed inquiringly.
"Hazelnut," she supplied.
"Hazelnut." He sipped, and his eyes widened appreciatively over the rim of his cup. "It's good!"
"I'll bring you a bag, next time I come down," she offered quickly, then stopped, as though unsure of the propriety of such a gift.
"That would be wonderful. I know Father would enjoy some."
Another loaded silence. Vincent suddenly felt he couldn't stand this play of manners another moment. He met her eyes, and she stilled.
"What is it?"
"I'm--I'm losing her," he said, feeling the words torn from him. He turned from her, bowing his head wretchedly. "You'll tell me, like Father--`She died months ago. You'll remember her always, but you've already lost her.' It's just that I--" He made a tiny, frustrated sound. He couldn't find words for so ineffable a thing as longing.
"You're not ready to let her go," she said. Her voice was quiet, almost flat, and when he looked up, her eyes were steady on his, blue-grey and uncompromising.
"Do I have a choice?" he demanded. His voice was rougher than he intended, and he found himself clenching his hand so tightly around his mug that he set it aside quickly, fearing that he would crack it.
"Yes," she lashed back. And reached to touch him, a firm clasp on his arm that so few dared, and which he needed so badly.
"You had no control over the fact that Catherine died. You lost her, and it left a big hole--a big, bloody, gaping hole, that wants to heal now. And you don't want it to, because it used to be her place. Letting it heal--letting yourself be whole again--that's the choice."
"But I don't--"
He broke off, and looked at her, frowning.
"When you're ready, it will happen," she said matter-of-factly. "And until then, it's going to hurt like hell."
She picked up his mug and put it back into his hand. "Here, drink your coffee."
He did. They stood side by side, not touching, with the city spread before them. Every once in awhile he would look at her, and frown again.
Good counsel, my friend, he said to himself. But it does not feel right. Not...not yet.
She smelled a line and bait.
Her hands smoothed the unblemished surface of the manila folder in her lap as she lifted her eyes to Carmichael. "Why now, Mr. Carmichael?"
He shrugged. "That brief does not contain pretty reading. Your doctors thought it best not to upset you until you'd had a few days to regain your strength."
She pursed her lips as she gave him a long, sideways look. What a crock.
He caught the look and raised his eyebrows slightly as he stood up to take his leave.
"You'll realize once you've read the file that it's no longer necessary for you to remain in witness protection, whether you regain your memory or not. As soon as the doctors okay it, we'll be sending you back to the real world. I hope your hospital stay will be short." He smiled without warmth.
"Thank you, Mr. Carmichael. I've imposed on the taxpayers' hospitality long enough."
This time his grin was unforced, if unpleasant. "Goodbye for now, Ms. Chandler."
The door folded shut behind him, and Catherine bent at once to the file. Her eyes were haunted, hungry, as they sped over the pages. What of her son? And Vincent?
It took her two hours to read and re-read the file. When she had finished it for the second time, her shoulders were knotted and her eyes bleary. The windows had gone dark.
Catherine munched on a cold chicken leg from the dinner tray served her a long while before. Despite the fact that the brief read like a bad movie--full of carefully dangling trails meant to pique her curiosity and send her scuttling right to the people the FBI wanted tapped--her thoughts whirled somewhere between elation and bitter sorrow.
Gabriel was dead, his power smashed--but so was Elliot, whose love she had never been able to return. And there was no trace of her son. She had to believe he was with Vincent. All she knew for certain was that she was going to find them, her lover and son, just as soon as her body and her will would carry her.
She pushed aside the tray, unable to face congealed mashed potatoes and lime Jell-O, even for the sake of building her strength. She rang the buzzer to summon the night nurse and request a sleeping pill. When it was provided, she swallowed the water offered in a small paper cup, but tucked the pill between her upper lip and gum. She would not take it until she had had some time to plan.
The nurse dimmed the overhead light and went out, with a slight smile and a nod. For an instant her body was outlined against the hall light, before the door closed and blanked the image.
Catherine's eyes flared, and she felt her stomach clutch--something about the set of the nurse's back, her smallness--she closed her eyes tightly and shrank beneath the covers, remembering another silent nurse, another door that had closed on her countless times, countless, and always with the snick of a lock and the grate of a key thrust in and twisted--
Catherine bit her lip until the pain drove out the memory, and thought about Carmichael. He was sure she knew something--and an FBI agent would never give up as easily as he seemed to be doing. The Bureau wanted to know what she knew about Gabriel, and the events that had transpired while she lay here, senseless. She must elude them. They stood between her and Vincent, between her and the baby.
She lay awake a long while, thinking and planning, and all the time, the need for them was an endless moan within her. When she finally slept, uneasily, her anguish smothered in chemicals, she dreamed of Gabriel's skeletal face looming over her hospital bed--here--no, there, in the delivery room, blood on his hands, he tore the baby out of her,cut her, tore it screaming out of her--no, no--Vincent!
She woke herself, trying to say his name.
Vincent jerked awake. His feet hit the floor and he had taken two steps toward the cradle before his thoughts focused and he realized that Jacob was quiet. His brow furrowed as he stared into the darkness.
The baby's primitive wants--hungry, wet, tired, need to cuddle--were a part of the furniture of Vincent's mind now, and he had grown used to listening for the empathic cry that accompanied a dissatisfied wail. Jacob slept peacefully, yet Vincent could have sworn that someone had called out to him, someone who needed him badly.
He listened in the darkness a few moments more. Then, shivering, he climbed back beneath the covers. The call did not come again.
"Just a few more days, Ms. Smith. The effects of so long a coma--"
The small, bespectacled doctor gazed at her pleadingly, but Catherine was adamant. "I'm leaving this afternoon. I'm strong enough now, and there's no real reason for you to keep me here." She smiled at him, almost sympathetic. She imagined it must be very frustrating, to have one's prize experiment insist on escaping the laboratory. "Surely you've learned all you're likely to in the tests you've done?"
He sighed. "I suppose we have. But we can't explain our results. You should not have survived that dose of morphine. Your blood chemistry has normalized now, but our first tests showed some really amazing substances...you're sure you cannot explain any of this? Does your, er, the child's father, have any known irregularities, that is--"
Catherine cut him short with a steely look. "My baby's father is none of your business, Doctor." She shrugged, and put on her courtroom poker face. "As I've said, I can't remember what was done to me during my captivity. Perhaps some drugs they gave me...."
The doctor stared at her unhappily, then sighed as he bent to scribble on a clipboard. "I'll leave your release papers at the nurse's station, then. Goodbye, Carol. And good luck."
Catherine smiled. "Goodbye, Dr. Walsh. Thank you."
When he was gone she started to dress, slowly, taking her time. Even after days of rest and physical therapy, she was still dangerously weak. Her body's infuriating slowness was at odds with the jittery, acid excitement coursing through her.
Once she had dressed, there was little enough to pack, and she knew she ought to lie down and rest.
Impossible, she decided with a sigh, and began to pace.
Her mind ticked over the last week and what was to come. Once the FBI had decided to release her from their protective, curious custody, she'd been left largely alone. Carmichael had appeared and told her what day she was to be released; was there anyone she wanted him to contact?
There was. She'd given him a name and number, and watched her plan begin to unroll. She smiled, remembering. . . .
It was fortunate, she thought, that Al Prasker didn't have heart problems--or at least, he hadn't when she'd last seen him, at her father's funeral.
"Are you all right? Can I get you some water?"
He sank into the chair behind him, groping blindly for the arms to anchor himself. "I--uh--yes, I mean no...C-Cathy?"
She crossed to him, crouched before his chair as she'd done since a child. "Yes, Al. It is me," she said. "Truly. I know you thought I was dead. Everyone did. Does."
"Al, I'm in trouble."
"Yes," he managed feebly.
"I can't explain it all. These past months, when you thought I was dead--I've been here, in witness protection. The man who--well, who murdered me, is gone now. But I want to remain hidden for awhile, until I can figure out what to do. Have you probated my will?"
"Uh--yes, that is, we've begun--"
"Good. Continue with the proceedings."
He gaped at her. "But, but you're alive--"
"No one must know that yet," she insisted. "My will stipulates that Peter Alcott will receive the bulk of my estate, to be used as he sees fit. Peter will channel the funds to me so that my existence is kept a secret for the time being."
"Where will you go?"
The lie slipped easily out of her. "I don't know yet. I asked you here today because I need some money until mine is available through Peter--and because I couldn't let my father's dear friend go on grieving."
Prasker finally managed to shake off the remainder of the shock. He rose to his feet, pulling her up with him. "Oh, Cathy. This is--" he broke off, as though he couldn't trust his voice.
"It's all right, Al. How often are you asked to meet with a dead woman in a government hospital security ward?"
Prasker choked out a laugh, and enfolded her in a hug. As his arms went around her, Catherine slipped a tightly folded piece of paper into his pocket, and prayed.
She felt like a newborn child, or an immigrant taking her first step on the soil of an unknown country. The colors and scents were so harsh, so new, on the outside.
And she was terrified, Catherine realized, as Agents Carmichael and Pope escorted her out of the hospital. One confused glance to left and right told her nothing. It was a grey, muddy spring day. The hospital sat amid rolling, unmarked parkland, and the weather was cool and mild. She might have been anywhere between the Mississippi and the East Coast.
She found herself hunching her shoulders and squinting against the assault of sunlight. Her pulse began a fast, hard beat that she could feel against the tight collar of her turtleneck. How long, since she'd been in a space with no ceiling over it, no walls around it? More than a year.
Below. Below. I want to go Below, she found herself babbling inwardly, and had to stifle the wish. It wasn't to be thought of until she was well away from the FBI. She shut her mind against the openness, letting the agents nudge her along like an animal stunned by a blunt blow. She was relieved--and ashamed of it--when they reached the car.
Carmichael had the grace to say nothing as he handed her into the back seat of a large brown LTD and joined his partner in front. Safe behind tinted glass, she looked out on the distorted world and wondered if Vincent had felt like this, trapped by the boundless, unprotected spaces of the world Above.
She never asked where she'd been kept, nor did the agents volunteer any information, but it took the better part of the afternoon to travel by car and plane to New York. Catherine suffered the wait impatiently, knowing that every moment brought her closer to home.
She had asked Carmichael to drop her off at her father's old offices. It was logical that she would go to her lawyer as the first step in reclaiming her old life. Still, it was a calculated risk--all the time she remained Above, she could be spotted by someone who had known her. And that must not happen--not until a time and place of her own choosing.
She gave not a sign of her growing tension as they began the last leg of the journey--the drive from the Newark Airport into Manhattan. The gritty, garish pace of the city dazed her; she wanted nothing more than to run to the nearest entrance to Below. But she must be careful. She must never endanger Vincent or his world again. Excusing that disjointed terror she'd felt while outside the car, things had gone according to plan. There was no reason to assume that they would not continue to do so.
It was when she shifted her gaze from the strange-familiar streets, and looked again at the two men who were, like it or not, her enemies, that she saw it.
Gleaming dully, black and coiled around his stubby finger, he tapped it against the steering wheel, keeping time with the wispy music that floated from the radio.
Catherine felt her heart slam once against her ribs and her palms go cold. The ring. Part of her mind kicked into high gear, assembling and assessing the new information; part of it floundered and gagged on its own fear. He had worn that ring. Like every other detail of the violence in the delivery room, she remembered how it had glittered on his finger as he stroked her baby's cheek.
She looked down quickly, hiding the raw terror on her face. Her hands twisted into a painful knot in her lap. All right, all right, she whispered inwardly. The plan hasn't changed. Just get away.
The car drew to a smooth halt next to the curb, and Catherine looked up at the familiar outline of her father's old offices. For a crazy moment she imagined that she had never run away from Tom at that party, never been attacked nor saved nor loved, and that she still worked here. Late afternoon, she thought wildly. I'd have been here a whole five hours. Time to go home.
Carmichael opened the car door, and she stepped out, slipping on a pair of sunglasses. She tightened the belt of her raincoat and turned to face the agents, who were watching her with relaxed guardedness.
"Thank you for bringing me back, gentlemen. I'm sure, somehow, that we'll meet again." Her eyes slid to the man who wore the ring. Pope. She was certain she had not encountered him during her captivity.
Carmichael grinned slyly. "No doubt. I can understand your keeping a low profile for awhile, but I'll look forward to reading about your miraculous return from the dead in the papers."
She smiled. She would do nothing to gainsay their assumption that she intended to pick up the threads of Catherine Chandler's life. "Thank you again. Goodbye."
They watched her until she had vanished into the building. Carmichael shook his head. "What would you do first, Pope? I think I'd call my mother, or throw one hell of a party. She wants to see her lawyer." He gave a low whistle, shaking his head, and turned to his partner. "Get to the other car by the parking garage. Follow Prasker if he leaves that way. I'll watch the front."
* * * *
Inside, her heart pounding, Catherine made a beeline for the row of phones at one end of the lobby. Lifting the receiver in a trembling hand, she dialed Al's number. He picked up instantly. "I'm here, Al. Let's begin."
Several minutes later, Al Prasker and a small woman in dark glasses and a raincoat left the building and hailed a taxi. A nondescript car edged away from the curb and merged into traffic after them.
On the sidewalk, Carmichael checked signal from the tracer planted in the lining of Chandler's coat. The transmitter was moving steadily away from him, but he kept his eyes on the front of the building, just in case. Then his walkie-talkie squawked for attention.
The voice was obscured by a crackle of static so that Carmichael had to bring the handset close to his ear. "Prasker and the target went to the Manhattan Central Trust Bank. The woman isn't Chandler."
Carmichael sprinted to the car and radioed Pope. "The transmitter went with Prasker, but Chandler didn't. Anything?"
"A Federal Express truck pulled up to the freight elevator a few minutes ago, but the driver wasn't gone long. I believe Miss Chandler may be inside. I'm following."
Carmichael swore again. "Stay with her. I'm right behind you."
How unfortunate, Pope thought, behind the wheel of his car, blocks away. He kept the truck in sight, but he already knew where it was headed. Central Park.
Shivering, Catherine put on her bomber jacket and sank down among the packages and envelopes that littered the floor of the truck. Her first set of clothes had gone with Al and his secretary. The jeans, tennis shoes, and thick sweater she now wore were more practical for the tunnels. True to her instructions, Al had left a flashlight and a roll of bills in the pocket of the jacket. She couldn't resist a grin at the thought of the agents' faces when they realized they'd lost her.
She would vanish Below. Al, when questioned, could truthfully say he hadn't seen her since the hospital. Catherine Chandler would disappear for the third--and final--time.
She sank down to sit against the side of the truck among the packages and envelopes that littered the floor. She pressed both hands against her face, dimly aware of nausea rolling in her stomach. Soon, soon, her mind whispered. You'll be with him soon.
"Central Park West," the driver called. He braked, then parked close to the curb and climbed out to open the door. Catherine smiled at him as she descended from the truck.
The young man thumbed his cap and grinned. "Take care, lady. Strangest delivery I ever made, and you ain't even insured."
As the truck pulled away, Catherine glanced around to get her bearings. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and set off toward the drainage tunnel, head down. Her heart pounded and her breath came quickly, both with the unaccustomed exertion and with painful anticipation. Far off, she felt the gathering cloud of that odd, flying-to-pieces terror. She walked faster, telling herself she could expect nothing else, after more than a year of captivity of one kind or another. She focused on her surroundings, trying to shut out the drum-like pulse of the fear.
Her way was eerily familiar, yet not. It had been summer when she last came this way. She hunted for the familiar outline of her building, no longer her home. Young parents passed her, pushing baby carriages or toting small, warmly-wrapped bundles in carriers, and each one sent a dart of pain through her. Older children played hard, their shrieks high with excitement. She studied each face as she walked--would she see Kipper, or Samantha, or Eric?
The drainage tunnel loomed ahead. Habit had her casting a glance over her shoulder to see if she was observed before carefully picking her way through the clutter of dead leaves and trash. There were tears, wet and cold, on her cheeks.
She ducked inside and took two eager steps, before her mind registered what her sunstruck eyes were telling her. The entrance had been destroyed. Chalky concrete crunched beneath her feet, and the smooth panel that had been the secret door was gone, replaced with a rude covering of plywood. Hesitantly she stepped toward an exposed pipe.
Her lips thinned as she reached mentally for her long-unused pipecode. She would reach them. They had to be down there, they could not all be dead or scattered. A panicked prayer formed in her mind. Please, God. Please.
She had taken out her flashlight and struck it twice against the pipe when he spoke her name.
She froze. No! No, not when I'm so close.
"Come out of there, please."
It was Pope. Carmichael's voice was lighter, a brown tenor next to this man's rough bass. She cursed softly. She had guessed they would wire her clothes; that's why she'd changed. They must have been onto the Fed Ex truck, too. Why couldn't it have been Carmichael? Him, she might have sidestepped with a lot of bluster about private citizenship and harassment. But not Pope. If he wore the ring, he wanted her for different reasons and didn't care how he got her.
"I am fast losing my patience. If you go into that tunnel, I'll come after you, and not alone."
Catherine sighed silently and swallowed something bitter that rose in the back of her throat. She must not lead a man like Pope into the tunnels.
She stepped out, blinking, into the sunlight.
Pope smiled. In his dapper overcoat, wearing that smile, he looked like nothing so much as a plummy English butler. If you overlooked the .38 in his hand.
"Visiting old, beloved spots, Ms. Chandler?"
She scowled at him and clenched her jaw to keep her lips from trembling. "What do you want with me?"
"Sentimental remembrances of your lover?" he continued, still smiling. And then, in a heartbeat, he was beside her, gripping her wrist like a flower stem in his meaty hand. He slipped the nose of the gun beneath her jacket and sweater and shoved it against her ribs, just where the pressure made her jerk helplessly, like a fish on a hook.
"Or were you looking for something? A book, perhaps?"
That damned book, she thought, with a wild, exasperated anger, even as her feet groped backwards, away from the cold press of the gun. Patrick Hanlon, you were a coward.
"Where is it, Miss Chandler?" he asked mildly, almost conversationally. She turned her face from the bore of his eyes and the feel of his breath.
She opened her mouth. She almost told him. What was that book to her? It was miles away, years ago; it had been part of that other Catherine, the princess in the fairy tale that always ended tidily, with a rescue by the enchanted prince. It had nothing to do with her.
Yet, she didn't speak. Couldn't. Some spark of the D.A. she had been; some kindling of perversity she'd had since she was four, held her tongue.
"I don't remember," she told him flatly, daring him to disbelieve her.
He took that dare. His gaze did not grow hot with anger, but cold. Cold and black. He was forcing her, step by stumbling step, away from the tunnel entrance. He knows, she realized. He knows who might come out of that tunnel, and he's afraid.
"Miss Chandler. Be sensible. Haven't you and yours suffered enough over that book? Isn't it worth trading for...say, knowledge of your child's whereabouts?"
She stiffened. She couldn't help the sickening lurch of hope that rose to her face. He smiled--
And then, suddenly, there was a popping sound, and concrete chunks exploding from the wall behind them. Catherine ducked instinctively as Pope dragged her back, toward the tunnel. More popping, and Pope gave a startled grunt. His grip on her arm loosened, and the cold metal of the gun was gone.
Catherine turned and ran. It felt as though she fled through liquid glass. She slithered on wet leaves, and fell once. She tried to keep her head down, expecting every moment to feel the thud and burn of a bullet in her back.
It did not come. She ran until she broke from the trees and into people, knowing all the while that she had nowhere to go.
"I ran down the Fed Ex truck. Driver didn't know anything. Who'd have thought she'd be desperate enough to shoot you?"
Pope ground his teeth together until they squeaked. Carmichael had found him moments after Chandler's escape, staggering toward his car. He sat with his back against the right front tire as Carmichael worked efficiently over the bullet wounds--entry and exit--in his right arm. The limb was useless.
"No. Someone else--" Pope broke off, hissing. Carmichael tightened the makeshift pressure bandage, and sat back.
"Someone else?" he repeated, rather stupidly, Pope thought.
"Perhaps those Gabriel left behind are not anxious to have her share her information with us," Pope said. He flexed the arm, and wished he hadn't.
Carmichael didn't seem to have his mind on the case. He cupped his hands under Pope's elbows and started to help him up. "Come on. That's just a patch job. You need a doctor--"
Pope shook off the man's help as he lurched to his feet. Ruthlessly, he banished the rush of weakness that accompanied movement. "Later. We've got to stay with her now, or lose her."
"There are people all over the city," Carmichael argued. "She can't dodge our net for long."
"No, and perhaps not theirs either!" Pope snapped. God, to be rid of this annoying little toady....
"Are you nuts, Pope? You're hit! We have plenty of men--"
"Have some of this plethora of men sweep the park in case the sniper is still about. You know the assignment regarding the woman. She's now wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a short leather jacket. Get the description out. Find her. Then the hospital."
Pope met his partner's hostile, appraising look with a cool stare, but Carmichael didn't argue further. He had apparently exercised his nurturing instincts and was ready to let Pope dig his own grave. With a "your funeral, pal" shrug, he reached for the car phone and began hammering out the orders and description.
Pope winced at the pull on his arm when he opened the back door and eased down onto the seat. It was torture, but he managed to pull the belt off his coat and rig a sling. He tugged the coat more securely around his shoulders, hoping to ward off tremors of shock.
In his gut there was the unaccustomed twinge of queasy nerves. He checked the .38, wondering exactly who had been the intended target of the sniper. The Chandler woman might have more enemies than she knew. Or, assuming that the marksman had aimed true, she could have contacted someone and asked for help in reaching the creature. Pope knew, without a doubt, that it had no need of firearms.
And lastly, the most chilling possibility of all--was someone gunning for him, independent of the Chandler entanglement?
He looked at the ring once, turning his hand so that it caught the sunlight. He wore it on his left hand, like a wedding ring. It looked foreign, alien against his skin, and there was the whisper again: You have no right. The gold was bloodstained from his instinctive grab at the wound, right after he'd been hit. He tried to rub away the brown crust, but it had dried and he couldn't do much without water.
In that instant, his plans changed. He would end this quickly. When he found her, he would kill her. The book had not surfaced in five months, and if she were not alive to retrieve it, there was a high probability that it never would. He would take those odds. Then he would go to ground, and find out who had shot him.
He looked at the ring, and if he shivered, he told himself it was the shock.
She had to stop. Her muscles were still sluggish and apt to tremble after her long sleep, and ten blocks had left her wheezing. She couldn't breathe, and she hurt, and they could just kill her now if they wanted, but she had to stop.
Panting, she bent down with her hands on her knees. Her eyes darted all around, looking for pursuers, and for a bolthole. And it came for her again, that horrible, inexplicable terror. . . . If she looked up, at the rearing height of the buildings, she would be sick. Shaking now...her thoughts going blank, her self going blank...a jostle of tourists flowing by, with outsized, pasty faces and eyes like clutching fingers.
Catherine gave a small, gulping whimper. She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted the mineral tang of blood. Pain helped her focus. Fiftieth Street. Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. Traffic crawling by, slow and loud. A street vendor ahead; nauseating scent of sizzling pork. Beyond him, a way down. A subway station--
She was already running, digging into the pocket of her coat. Hadn't there been a token in the handful of change Al had left, she'd seen it, there had to be one--
Yes. She held it, round and hard in her clammy palm, as she shoved her way down the stairs. The man-made tunnel, solid yet shivering with the roars of the trains, closed over her head. Walls. Ceiling. Something to put her back to. She pushed through the crowd and onto the first car she saw, just as the doors banged shut.
Ignoring the hostile stares of the other passengers--some of whom she'd rudely shoved to get onto the car--she groped her way to a seat and sank down. With a hand to her mouth, she forced herself to breathe through her nose. In, and out, until her heartbeat slowed, and the red fever of panic receded.
After a while she raised her head. Her knees still felt like jelly, and the trembling was a tiny motor running inside her, but she could think again, could string one thought after the other without losing them into the terror. What was happening to her?
She scanned the car once--its occupants seemed harmless enough, as subways went--and then closed her eyes with a sigh. She'd lost it; completely lost the edge that had made her one of Joe Maxwell's protegés. And now was not the time to fall apart. She knew that given half the opportunity, she'd run screaming to the first Helper she could find: Help me, help me, they know where my baby is, they're shooting, help--
No. Blood had already been shed; it mattered little that the loss had been to the other side. She was not going to lead bullets toward the Helpers, or those Below, or any of her friends Above. She had to do this herself. Improvise, Chandler, she ranted. Think defensively. Think like Isaac, or Vincent.
Pope had said he knew where her child was, but it could easily have been a lie, told to get her to divulge the whereabouts of the book. Cutting a deal with Pope was not an option--she of all people knew how untrustworthy were the promises of men like him. It was far better to try to reach Vincent. If her baby was not Below, then they could find him together. The question, she told herself, is whether you have the grit for this. Daddy's not here. Vincent's not here. There's trouble, and it's all up to you. Do you have the grit for it?
I don't think so, came the small mental voice, meekly.
Yet she was equally sure she had no real choice. She opened her eyes, and for the first time felt a calm sense of purpose edging out the clamor of fear and desperation. It was something like what she'd felt when Joe would hand her a folder and toss out a casual, "Impossible. But see what you can do."
See what you can do. She glanced around, assessing the car's other passengers again. They had changed since she'd first taken inventory. One girl--petite but coarse-looking, with tangled, carroty hair and square silver earrings--caught her eye. Or rather, her clothes did.
The girl looked up as Catherine approached. "Yeah?" she demanded.
Catherine touched the collar of her leather coat. "Would you trade your jacket for this?"
For a moment the girl stared at her, unblinking. Then she smiled, revealing a chipped tooth. "Who you kiddin', lady? You wanna trade an ol' jean jacket for coat worth three bills?"
A silence, and Catherine could see the girl trying to figure out her angle. Not knowing what else to say, she stayed silent.
"Awright," the girl said, eyeing Catherine suspiciously. As she slipped out of the jacket, Catherine saw telltale needle marks on the pitifully thin arms. The leather coat would probably belong to a pusher before nightfall.
"I get the buttons," the girl said, and began unpinning the first of a dozen, which sported slogans that ranged from Pink Floyd to Greenpeace to "Screw Authority."
At length the exchange was made, and the girl ran a hand down the butter-soft leather of her new acquisition.
"This is real nice." She threw Catherine a look that questioned her sanity. Then she left the car, as though afraid the strange broad might change her mind.
Catherine smiled a little as she sat down again. Her "new" jacket wouldn't do much to cut the cold once night came, and it smelled faintly of marijuana. But Pope hadn't seen it. It was something, she reminded herself. A first step. Even now, in this subway, she was so close to the world Below; painfully close, yet still firmly on her side of the line. How could she cross? Where, with the drainage tunnel entrance compromised? Two pieces of gold to Charon, and welcome to the underworld.... It was maddening.
She'd gone Below hundreds of times--but always through occupied buildings. Her own apartment basement, Helpers' dwellings, even the brownstone where Carol Stabler had died. A couple of times, in a pinch, Vincent had brought her down via drainage grate or manhole, but these were too public, and she very much doubted whether she could lift either one in her weakened state.
The train rattled on, eager upon its tracks, and Catherine wondered, absurdly, whether Vincent might be clinging to its top, head bent against the racing wind, bound for...where?
She twisted in her seat to peer from the grime-streaked windows. Walls blurred past, then slowed as the train drew near a station. Houston Street.
She shut her eyes and let a mental map of the city unroll, placed herself on it, and then looked down the streets and up the avenues. She was entering the Lower East Side, around Canal Street and the Bowery. There were restaurants where she'd lunched and kibitzed with friends, stores she and Jenny had gleefully pillaged for bargains, and flophouses where she'd sought out witnesses and informants. The city's soft underbelly; you didn't go there without thinking twice. . . .
And then it came to her, unfolding slowly in her mind, the solution that had been there all along.
The Beaumont. Decrepit, boozy, dreaming sourly of the glitter-golden days when it had been a waystation for theater-goers, it slouched behind its weathered boards, just this side of demolition. Once Vincent had run there, pursued, and had managed by the skin of his teeth to get Below. That time, she had arrived a bit too late to do more offer her shoulder as he staggered home, Father stumping before them in righteous disapproval. That time, the heroine had missed her cue.
She only hoped she could do better today.
Her train terminated at Grand Street. Coming up out of the subway infused with new energy, she shut out the whisper of panic by thinking of nothing at all except the motion of her Reeboks as they ate up the pavement. Her destination was only a few blocks away: St. John's Shelter for the Homeless.
Catherine ran a hand through her tangled hair and looked down at her shirt, smudged with dirt when she'd fallen in the park. Dressed in the teenager's scruffy jacket, she looked the part. Still, she hesitated before she grasped the door handle and stepped inside.
As she paused to let her eyes adjust to the wan afternoon light, a woman approached, wearing black gabardine and a tired smile. "Do you need a place, dear?"
Catherine started to answer, then faltered as she felt, amazingly, tears press at the back of her throat. Finally she managed, "Yes. I...I need a place. Just for a few hours."
"Of course. Something to eat, first? They're setting up for dinner now."
"No, thank you. Just somewhere to sleep."
The woman led her down a short hallway that opened onto a large barn of a room, filled wall-to-wall with cots. Most of them, at this time of day, were empty.
"Take any bed you like. Have you any valuables you'd like me to hold for you, while you sleep?"
Catherine smiled into the kind brown eyes, and declined. Al's cash supply of $400 was still intact, but revealing that she had it would arouse the woman's suspicions.
"I'll let you rest then." The woman vanished back to her duties in the foyer.
Catherine glanced around, noting the huddled mounds of blanket that indicated other "homeless" sleepers, and chose a bed near the far wall. She slipped her cash into the waistband of her jeans and lay down with a grateful, silent sigh.
Once off her feet, she realized that she had pushed her newly healed body too far. She had meant to go over the plan in her head, shaking it down for flaws and weak spots, but her very bones hurt with weariness. Under cover of darkness she would try to reach the Beaumont, and pray that Pope hadn't trailed her....
Sleep came down like a mallet, and she knew no more.
Vincent knelt in the blue shadows near the carousel and knew with a touch that he was too late.
The girl had been dead for some time, her face obscenely white against her ruddy hair. She was cold and stiffening fast. He turned her over, as gently as though she were alive to feel it, and saw that the slats of the bench had dented her cheek. Around her lay the litter of her death--a bottle, a dusty white vial. A syringe.
His chest lifted and fell once, an aborted sob that did not come again. Too many; there were too many of these castoffs for him to find, and cry for.
He stood, looking down at her. Sixteen, perhaps? Or younger. The years he read in her face might not have been written by time. He bent to slip an arm beneath her shoulders and knees. There were places he could take her where she would be found and cared for. He didn't want to think what might happen to her body, left here overnight--looted for clothes, certainly, and possibly worse. As he lifted her, the leather coat she wore fell open.
He reeled, and nearly dropped his burden as he inhaled the mingled scents that wafted from the coat. Sweat, under cheap perfume. Hairspray. Cigarette smoke. And beneath it all, Catherine.
His legs would not hold him, and he sank down on the bench. He was going mad. He sat in the early night with a dead girl in his arms and the scent of Catherine in his nostrils. Most assuredly, he was going mad.
"Catherine," he whispered.
She woke suddenly, in a freezing sweep of alarm, as someone touched her. She struck without thought, and felt her forearm slam against something soft. There was a grunt, and the unmistakable whine of rusty bedsprings. Then she was fully awake, blinking grit out of her eyes and staring at the old woman on the next bed.
I hit an old woman, Catherine realized, feeling the color rush to her cheeks. I hit a little old woman.
"Don't tell," her visitor whispered, returning Catherine's stare. "Please don't tell." She looked defeated; she looked a hundred years old as she sat, bow-legged, with her white, cottony hair poking out from beneath a blue ski hat. Her eyes were half-ashamed and half-hostile. "They'll put me out if you tell."
Catherine sat up, still fogged with sleep, and told herself that since the old lady had been trying to pick her pocket, she didn't have to feel too bad about hitting her. She groped for her money. Still there.
"I won't tell," she said. "Here." She handed the woman a fifty-dollar bill. Many more of the beds around her were filled, and the light from the high-up windows had gone. "Do you know what time it is?"
The old woman stared in disbelief at the money in her hand. "Dinner 'bout an hour ago," she murmured. "'Bout six or seven now, I guess...."
Catherine stood up, folded her blanket, and left the would-be thief still marvelling over her good fortune.
She slipped outside without a goodbye, hoping the woman who had welcomed her wouldn't remember a brown-haired, green-eyed stray who'd come to sleep for a few hours. She already regretted her impulsive kindness to the old bag lady; that one would surely remember. But with any luck, she would be long gone before anyone began asking questions. She glanced around sharply, feeling all the old, streetwise habits springing to life.
It was full night now, and the crowds had thinned. No one seemed to take much notice of her as she walked west on Broome and then turned south toward Canal Street. She moved quickly, skimming close to the buildings. Eyes touched her back; did any of them hold, follow? There were blocks yet to walk, and this was the downside of waiting until dark to attempt the Beaumont entrance.
She realized only when a wave of dizziness rolled over her that she was famished. Ducking into a small deli, she was grateful to escape for a moment the skin-crawling feel of being watched. A lanky black teenager glanced up indifferently from his fruit baskets.
Catherine chose an apple and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich. As she approached the counter and dug for money, she heard a jingle at the door. Her head came up.
The man who entered was dark-complected, dressed entirely in black leather. He gave her only the neutral glance of one stranger to another before he moved off to the cold-drink case.
She watched him covertly as she accepted change from the clerk. The man's back was to her; he seemed harmless...until his reflected eyes met hers on the clear glass of the display case. He was watching her. Catherine bolted.
"Hey, lady--yo' food!" the boy called.
But she was already out the door, zig-zagging through the darkened city blocks in frantic, thoughtless flight. One of Pope's men; had to be, and she was not going to be caught when she was this close. Her breath sawed in and out of her lungs and the muscles of her torso began to cramp, but she did not stop, nor did she look behind her, until it loomed before her. The Beaumont.
She pressed herself into the shadows cast by the stooped hulk, eyes restlessly scanning the way she'd come. Nothing. She yelped when a hand closed around her ankle.
"Careful there, honey. You almost stepped on me."
He grinned up at her from behind a hoary beard, one of a hundred street people who sheltered in and around the Beaumont. Saluting with the bottle in his other hand, he gave her ankle a friendly squeeze.
Catherine jerked out of his grip. He threw back his head and laughed. "You ain't said a thing, but that's what all the girls say. No luck with the women, and that's a fact."
He took a long pull at the bottle, one eye on Catherine as she squatted next to him.
"Your luck's about to change." She held up a twenty. "Quickest way into the basement?"
The old man gestured with the bottle. "South side. Broken window where they vented the laundry." He made a grab for the bill.
Catherine held it out of reach, and as he watched, added another twenty. "I was never here."
He chuckled as she let him snatch the money. "Honey, with what this'll buy me, I wouldn't remember if Santy himself was here."
Catherine watched as he heaved himself to his feet. Tipping her a wink, he loped off. She waited until he rounded the corner before she turned and hurried around the building. A quick search proved that her money had not been ill-spent. There was a square black opening just below street level.
Yes, very square and very black. Catherine eyed it uneasily, then threw a glance over her shoulder. Her jaw tightened. I hate this.
She sat down, stuck her legs through the opening and felt for a solid surface with her feet. Cringing inwardly, she expected at any moment to encounter something soft and twitching beneath her foot, or to be grabbed and jerked into the dark.
Carmichael stuck his head around the thin curtain of the Emergency Room cubicle. "Pope?"
Pope looked up. He sat bare-chested on the examining table as a doctor tended his bullet wounds with considerably more expertise than Carmichael's. Yet the pain was just as intense.
"They've found her?" Pope clipped the words out through tight lips.
"Yeah. Surveillance marked her on Broome Street, coming out of a homeless shelter. Matron says she didn't make any phone calls, just slept a few hours. She went to a deli, but hightailed out of there like the devil, didn't even take her food. Don't know what spooked her. She's not wearing the leather coat anymore, by the way."
"Was she followed?"
"Our man lost her after she ran, but we've got her pinned within a few blocks. So far as we know, she hasn't contacted anyone except Prasker since we sprung her."
"Good. It would be a good idea to call in everyone available to fill out the search pattern. We won't lose her again."
Carmichael nodded. "I'm on it. You about finished here?"
"Almost. We'll leave in a few minutes."
As Carmichael vanished the way he'd come, Pope wondered if the man had noticed that he was no longer running the show, "senior partner" status notwithstanding.
He got off the table when the doctor indicated that he was finished. He permitted the shot given to ward off infection, but declined painkillers. Numbness was a luxury he couldn't afford until this matter was concluded.
After spouting a few instructions they both knew Pope wouldn't follow, the doctor left him in privacy to dress. Pope donned his stained shirt with a touch of disgust and refastened his shoulder holster.
Soon, Catherine Chandler, he promised silently, as he went to find Carmichael. I'll catch up to you soon. Believe it.
She was in. She made herself move a few steps forward in utter darkness before she turned on her flashlight, and cast its cone of light around her.
Basements generally gave her the willies, despite the fact that they led the way Below. Uneasy thresholds between the manmade and the earthen, they had their own rust smell and their own silence, broken only by slithers and rustles that might--or might not--be alive. Basements spooked her.
Come on Chandler, she bossed herself. As Jenny would say, don't be a weenie.
Despite this sage advice, she recoiled as she stepped on something that went mush underfoot. She jerked her light to it. Only a soggy cardboard box. The floor was strewn with the detritus of neglect--old paper, leaves, rodent droppings--and her light picked out peeling paint over cinderblock walls. This was not the way she and Isaac had entered when they'd made their abortive rescue, but she remembered going a long way down before finding Vincent. So she'd go down, any way she could, and hope for the best.
Ahead and to her left, she saw a black opening that looked promising. Gingerly, she made her way across the room until she stood at the top of a stairway, which notched neatly down into nothing.
He was here once, she told herself bracingly. Maybe on these very stairs, going home. She took a first step, then another, wanting desperately to grab at the railing but resisting, afraid of what her hand might encounter. Keep going, keep going. Don't stop.
So far, her light showed no doors, only more stairs, with a landing at the base. She reached it and shone her light down the hallway that led to her right. This level looked more--well, more basement-ish, with low pipes that were furry with spiderwebs and crumbling insulation. Probably the boiler room. A four-step, suspended stair tilted alarmingly when she put her weight on it and she had to jump the rest of the way down, landing awkwardly. She gave the stairs a peevish kick before she walked on. There might be any number of rooms and passages down here, and only one way Below. Cold fingers of doubt touched her resolve. Why I ever thought this would work....
But she had no real option but to continue. She found another musty room beyond the first, and a long, forbidding tunnel after that. She was no longer headed down. Before, she and Isaac had followed the sound of gunshots, and she'd hardly noticed the tunnels and rooms and stairs, so intent had she been on finding Vincent.
She stopped, and was trying vainly to bring back images of her previous flight through the Beaumont when she heard the unmistakable sound of someone falling on the metal stairs, just as she had. A male voice cursed in the darkness.
No--Oh God no-- Her mind flashed into panic, but her body, fortunately, had more sense. She had thumbed off the flashlight and pressed herself flat against a wall before she had quite registered the fact that it hadn't been Pope's voice. She was quite certain of that.
Pope stared up at the brooding old derelict and knew she was inside. It was just the kind of place where one might find the creature, and an entrance to the tunnels below the city.
Carmichael buzzed beside him like a mosquito. "The men have ruled out the other two blocks. Shops and restaurants, all searched or locked up tight. Still going through a few flophouses--"
"There." Pope pointed. "That building. Has anyone searched there?"
"Not yet. But it's condemned, no phone or power, she wouldn't--"
"I will," Pope said firmly. "I'll search it. We should make sure."
"You'll need backup--"
"No. There aren't enough of us to pair up, and as you said, she's probably not in there. You keep tabs on the search from here. Keep everyone on track."
It went against every rule in the book, and they both knew it. So Pope simply strode away, and listened to hear if Carmichael would follow.
Carmichael swore. "Pope, have you at least got your remote? I want check-ins every fifteen minutes."
"Every fifteen minutes," Pope promised over his shoulder, lying.
She couldn't hear him. There had been nothing since her pursuer had fallen down the stairs. Chills lingered at the base of her spine, along the backs of her hands. She knew he was there, in the darkness. Waiting. Breathing.
The scream was half-born before she cut it off, setting her teeth. Sweat broke from her. She couldn't just huddle here, like a rabbit pinned in a floodlight, until she felt the grab of his hands. Half-sick at the effort it took to force one step, then another, she wished she could take off her shoes and erase their soft scuffing sound. But the parting velcro would echo as loud as a rifle report.
Five steps. Six.
Steady, Cathy. She closed her useless eyes to better envision the lay of the tunnel as she had last seen it, before she'd doused the light. The passage was wide and relatively empty. There might be another stairway at the end, and it would not do to go tumbling off it.
She moved to her left and trailed a hand along the wall. She estimated that she had come perhaps a third of the way down the passage before she heard the scrape of footsteps on the floor above her, followed by the muffled boom of his voice.
"Ms. Chandler! You're here. I know it. It's no use running any more. There are men all over the street."
Pope. Had she been mistaken? Had he been the one who'd fallen on the stairs, or were there two of them?
Catherine's fists clenched and she felt the first lick of anger. Either way, she was done with running. And fear was done with her.
Sprinting back down the tunnel, she picked her way through the pitch-black rooms by memory until she came to the one she'd called the boiler room. Risking the light for a few seconds, she cast it around in search of a weapon.
There, against the wall. A short, thin length of pipe. She grabbed it out of its nest of cobwebs, and wedged herself into the triangle of space beneath the rusted steps. She clicked off the light, and waited.
For what seemed a long while, he moved around the level above, crossing and recrossing as he searched out every corner and hiding place. She'd heard nothing of the "first" man. Perhaps it had been Pope after all. But why would he have gone back up, once he'd come down? With a start, she recalled the shooting in the park. If Pope had been the intended target, and not she....
He was on the stairs now, his steps slow but implacable. The utter blackness shaded to grey as his light reached before him. Then his steps sounded just above her head. She tensed and held her breath.
His spill from the unsteady stairs was worse than hers because of his greater weight. He landed on all fours, with a cry of pain that cut off as Catherine struck.
She swung with all her strength, unable to see what body part would suffer her blow. She hoped it would be a vulnerable one. The pipe connected with a pulpy thud, and she heard the air whoosh out of him.
His flashlight had rolled a few feet away. It threw off a filmy light in which they were both just shadows. She reared back for another strike.
Even as she brought her weapon down, she saw the upward jerk of his arm and the shape of the gun in his hand. He got off one shot that would have hit her dead in the chest, had she not twisted aside as the pipe struck.
He screamed, a high, whining sound--she had hit the wounded arm--but with his left hand, he was already leveling the gun again.
Catherine backed off, fast. Pope struggled to his feet, his breath a whistle of fury. "You can't run far--I'll come after you--"
She darted quickly into the room beyond, hoping for time to hide, and strike again from darkness. But she couldn't see--had there been crates stacked to her right?
As she stood poised on the edge of memory, arms closed around her, dragging her back against a hard body. He lifted her right off the floor, and trapped her legs between his. She struggled, squealing behind the hand clamped over her mouth.
"Quietly, Miss Chandler. Quietly," he breathed. "Wait for him."
The hand now covered her nose as well, and Catherine understood that she would be smothered unless she cooperated. The pipe was still clutched in her hand, but his expert hold made it useless. She stilled, and the hand eased away until she could breathe again. She smelled leather and her own sweat.
Pope's light bobbed closer. She could see his face in it; the craggy shape of his brows and the fury in the eyes below them. As soon as she felt the gathering shift of her captor's muscles, she knew what he was going to do.
Pope was barely six feet away when the unknown threw her. She landed heavily, but took the impact on her shoulder and rolled, just as Isaac had taught her. She came up in a crouch, ready to spring away, but Pope's gun was level, his finger tightening on the trigger--
And then, the phut of a silenced bullet passing narrowly over her right shoulder. She knew she would never forget the surprised, stupid look on Pope's face as the redness bloomed at his throat. He staggered, fired once at the ceiling, and fell heavily to his knees. The gun clattered from his lifeless hand, and he pitched down onto his face.
Catherine whirled, still holding the pipe, eyes vainly trying to pierce the darkness. She knew herself to be as helpless against the other man's bullets as against Pope's. How does it feel, Cathy, how does it feel, because that's the end of a gun and the end of everything and he's not coming to save you--
A light flared whitely, inches from her face, blinding her. She swung the pipe, but felt it caught and jerked out of her hands. An iron hand came down on her shoulder and shoved her roughly to the floor.
"You won't need this, Miss Chandler. I see no need to kill you. It would be best, however, if you stayed just where you are."
He moved beyond her, toward Pope's body. Bending, he played his light up and down the prone figure. Through the brown blotches that still obscured her sight, she made out dark curls, a clean profile--
She stiffened, remembering the strong scent of leather as he'd held her. The man from the deli; the one she'd been sure was watching.
He reached out and lifted Pope's left hand, worrying at it for a moment before he let it drop, so much meat. He straightened up. The ring glittered between his thumb and index finger, and she tasted dread.
He looked toward her, and in the uncertain light his face looked colorless, almost blank.
"Why?" she whispered. "Why did you kill him?"
He smiled. "I didn't do it to help you, if that's what you're thinking. Though it would have saved us both a great deal of trouble if I could have finished him in the park. Unfortunately, I was distracted."
He looked down at the ring, his eyes almost meditative. "I was willing to sacrifice you, if need be, to get to Pope. We don't tolerate interlopers."
The ring disappeared into a pocket, and he looked at her again.
"What about the book?" she challenged. Her voice shook. It had to end; if this man, later, were to hunt her again, all for that book--
He shook his head. "We are not so foolish as to continue using contacts and structures as hopelessly compromised as those recorded in that regrettable volume. It is only carrion-eaters such as this--" he kicked Pope's body, viciously--"trying to make use of another's leavings, who need to fear the book."
Catherine stared at him. He couldn't mean to leave her alive; she'd seen him do murder. He walked toward her, squatted down a few feet away. Still she could not move.
"We're done with you, Miss Chandler." He reached out, and she flinched from his touch on her face, a touch which said, We can find you--we can touch you--whenever we wish it. "Be sure that you are done with us."
He left her. She heard him walk away and up, his footsteps as steady as a sleeping man's heartbeat.
For a long while she sat, shaking mutely, until she could force herself to move. She found her flashlight and stumbled back to the long tunnel. At the end, as she'd thought, there was another stairway.
Down. She didn't know how long it took her to get down the stairs and into the sub-basement that was blessedly familiar. Here was the door she remembered. It had stood open, and from it had flowed that amber light that meant safety.
Sobbing, she grasped the handle in both hands and pulled, knowing that it was futile. All her strength could barely shift it. She could not get in.
No longer able to stand, she sank down on the floor and leaned against the door, weary tears streaking her face. Stone and metal leeched away her meager warmth, and hunger had long since faded to a weak emptiness.
So close, so close. Come on, Cathy, don't give up now. Not now.
Sluggishly on hands and knees, she made her way around the room, slapping her hands against the walls until she found a pipe that disappeared into the floor. With the butt of her flashlight she began to tap a message.
Vincent stiffened in his chair, his head going up in a gesture that was sickeningly familiar. Yet this time the alarm was not silent, known only to him. He saw by Father's eyes that the other man had heard it too. Relief touched him an instant before anger; not madness, then. The sound was real.
Someone was tapping Catherine's signal on the pipes. Catherine. Beaumont Hotel. Catherine. Beaumont Hotel. Catherine--
With a low growl Vincent dropped the chess piece he held and ripped at the straps of the infant carrier that bound Jacob to his chest. The baby sent up a shriek, an echo of his father's mental agony.
"Vincent--" Father's voice cut off as Vincent deposited the outraged baby in his arms.
"Who dares?" Vincent cried, his voice shaking. "Who mocks my grief?"
A white-faced Zach appeared in the entryway. "Vincent, you heard? Pascal had to relay the message, he sent me to tell you--"
Vincent nearly bowled the boy over as he cleared the room in two strides. His feet pounded the stone floor as his heart pumped rage-driven strength into his limbs. The anger was almost sweet; finally, his pain had somewhere to go. By God, whoever tortured him, whoever desecrated Catherine's memory in such a fashion would give account of himself, would pay dearly for this.
It was a long run, but his fury only built with every stride. The white faces of tunnelfolk, gaping, loomed up and then fell behind him, like the Doppler moan of a train whistle. Farther from the home chambers, there were no faces, no impediments. And at last the door was ahead of him, rushing at him. He decided a split second before impact to abandon caution; whoever tapped the message obviously knew of the Tunnels.
Roaring, he flung himself and all his speed at the door. It gave with a high metallic shriek. His hands curved into striking claws; a snarl twisted his features--
And he saw her.
Vincent fell back, his sight actually reeling. He fumbled for the solidity of a wall and leaned into it, seeking to ground himself in something secure, something that was not madness. For madness it was, madness it had to be--
"Vincent?" She managed his name with an ugly sob as she struggled to her feet. Her eyes burned into his, as strong and pure as ever they were.
"Vincent, please. . . ." Her arms made a half-aborted gesture of embrace, then fell helplessly to her sides.
Catherine. He couldn't breathe. His eyes fixed on her, traced the lines of her face. Every sense was telling him that it was she. Her scent, her voice, the colors of her--Oh, sweet delirium--
He reached for her, arms and soul.
And then she was in his arms, wracked by sobs that shook her frail body like convulsions. "I love you, I love you--" she gasped out, over and over. And Vincent, who had felt his blasted heart crack with grief, now felt it leap to life again in an agony of joy.
Catherine stirred in Vincent's lap. He had picked her up to cradle her against him, but then had sunk to the stone floor with her, weak with his own weeping. As she moved, his arms tightened instinctively, mute testimony to his inner vow: I will never lose you again.
She reached for his face, met the stunned, crystalline eyes. She slipped a hand behind his head and drew him down to her kiss. It might have lasted years, their virginal kiss, for the cathartic joining that had given them their son had not been savored, had not been shared so much as survived. As his lips moved on hers, the warmth of him flowed into Catherine. She clung to him as to a lifeline.
Her touch was a benediction to Vincent, a miracle beyond all others she had given him, except Jacob. Desperately, he clutched her in panic-tight arms, letting his lips convince him of her presence. It was impossible, impossible. But so real.
When they finally drew apart, he gazed down at her, lifting a hand to stroke her face. "Catherine, am I mad?" he whispered.
She smiled, and turned so that she could tuck her head beneath his chin and feel his pulse beat under her cheek, and the movement was so purely Catherine that it pained him.
"No, Vincent. I'm here. I'm really here."
He voiced no other questions, had none, knowing only that she was real. That she was his. His hands rubbed gently over her shoulders. She was thinner, her bones fragile beneath her skin and the green eyes larger than he remembered in a gaunt face. But she was alive. Alive. The word danced like a bird amid the swelter of his thoughts. "Catherine."
"You will stay. You will live here in the Tunnels, with me and our child." The words were a demand, but his voice was full of pleading.
Our child. Relief swept through Catherine as she leaned back to meet his eyes.
"Please," he whispered. "Don't leave us."
She looked straight into his eyes, and spoke fiercely. "To the world Above, I'm dead. I gave all that I was and more to that world, to its needs. There is nowhere else for me but here. With you, and--"
"Dear. . .God."
They both turned, startled. Father stood in the ruined doorway. He clutched his cane in one hand and groped at nothing with the other. His face was ashen. He started to fall.
Vincent spilled Catherine from his lap as he leapt to catch his father. He lowered the older man gently to the floor as Catherine came to kneel beside them.
"Father--" Vincent's voice died. What could he say? His parent's dazed eyes were fixed on the weary apparition who grinned crookedly behind the tears that had started down her face.
"I'm realizing that I could have been gentler about this," she said. "It's me, Father. I've come back."
"Have you?" Father gasped weakly. He reached out. Catherine caught his hand and pressed it to her wet cheek.
Vincent put his arms around both of them, and couldn't hold back his trembling. Father began to whisper a prayer.
"Thank you. Thank you, Lord. Thank you...."
Catherine was only dimly aware as she made the final part of her journey home. When Vincent lifted her and she was wrapped in his strength, with the delicious wool-and-candle scent of him surrounding her, she could do nothing but give in to the relentless pull of exhaustion. Even in its grip, she curled one hand tightly around a fold of Vincent's shirt, as though she were afraid he would leave her. She never knew what hurt this gave him when he saw it.
Father went ahead of them, allowing them this time alone, and assuring that others did the same. Very soon she felt herself laid gently on a soft, giving surface. Vincent's bed. Her eyes flared open when he pulled out of her grip.
"I won't go far," he soothed. "Only to fetch some water."
And so it began again, with him tending her in her weakness. She knew this, and an odd sadness washed over her. Yet I would do it all over, for him. . . .
When Vincent appeared again, he carried in one hand a steaming pitcher, and in the other, a baby.
Solemn and wondering, the little one peered at her with her own eyes. Catherine felt a shattering, fine as crystal. She sat up. "Oh," she whispered.
Vincent came and laid the baby in her arms. "I have named him Jacob."
Catherine shuddered as she felt at last the sweet weight of her child. He blinked at her, as beautiful as she remembered and more. "Jacob," she whispered. And began to cry all over again, swaying back and forth in the instinctive way of women with children. "Jacob."
* * * *
The shocks were hardly over. Given leave to summon the community, Father accomplished it by dint of frantic, disjointed banging on the pipes. His message was garbled, but the very hysteria of it had the desired effect. Looking into the rows of anxious, wide-eyed faces, he could manage no more than two words. "A miracle."
And he pointed toward the door to Vincent's chamber where, thus far unnoticed, two shadowed figures stood. Catherine, holding Jacob, stepped into the light, Vincent tall and protective behind her.
She smiled tremulously. "Hello, everyone."
After one silent, electrified moment, a collective cry went up, and the Tunnel folk surged toward them. Vincent just managed to get both arms around her before Catherine and the baby were nearly buried in the welcome of those who had grieved, who could not believe without the assurance of touch that she was real.
She bore it silently, making no answer to the babbled questions that fluttered around her. Closing her eyes, she lifted Jacob higher on her shoulder and leaned back into Vincent's solid chest. Home.
Vincent held his family close. Neither would ever be beyond the reach of his strength again, never while he still breathed. He vowed it fathoms deep, deeper than words, and let himself hold them just a little tighter.
Catherine felt it, and turned from the tumult around them. The look of exquisite pain on his face tore at her heart.
"Vincent." She reached up, and kissed him softly on the corner of his mouth.
It was very late, but sleep would not come. Catherine felt as if joy itself had replaced the blood in her veins and coursed through her body with every heartbeat, filling her, nourishing her. She wondered if she would ever be able to let go of Jacob, or let Vincent get more than two steps away from her.
You will stay. You will live here in the tunnels, with me and our child.
She smiled, dreamily, tasting again the rough quality of his voice as he'd said it. He had changed. She'd felt that at once, and wanted to know how, and why. It might just be the happiest task of her life, finding out. She lay against him now, with the deep rise and fall of his breathing beneath her and the baby asleep in her lap. Inhaling the sweet clean scent of her son, she wanted to cry, but there were no tears left.
The sound of her name rumbled through his chest and sent a lazy thrill through her. "Yes, Vincent."
"What saved you? I...felt you go, on the rooftop." His voice was laced with the pain of the memory.
Unseen by him, a smile traced her lips as she reached to toy with the lacings of his shirt.
"You saved me."
"I? But...I left you. I thought you were dead."
"Almost. The doctors say the morphine should have killed me. But there were--substances--in my blood that kept me alive. Morphine has little effect on you, Vincent. I asked Father."
Vincent began to understand. "You mean...the baby?"
Catherine nodded, a tiny motion against his chest. "I think so. I was afraid for you, for the baby, if the doctors ever truly found out why I survived. They kept asking about the baby, about his father, and I think they suspected. That's part of why I can't return Above. They mustn't find me, or any of the answers to their questions." She ran a wondering finger around the soft cup of Jacob's ear. "Does he always sleep like that? With his face all scrunched up?"
Vincent would not be distracted. "Do you want to?" he questioned, his voice carefully neutral. "Return Above?"
Even Jacob stirred in his sleep, disturbed by the violent word. Catherine's muscles went rigid at the thought. She felt the flick of that monstrous fear-- "No! I don't want to. Ever."
Vincent's arm tightened around her shoulders, and he lifted a hand to stroke her hair. But his brow wrinkled in puzzlement. His eyes tested hers. And, after a moment that stretched too long, she faltered before their searching.
She burrowed back against him, and spoke rapidly. "I don't want to, Vincent. This is my home, now. This is where I'm needed. Even though it's going to take some getting used to, being treated like something between a ghost and a holy relic."
He chuckled, as she had meant him to. She leaned back again to look up at him. "But, Vincent--I want to contact Joe, and Jenny, and Nancy. I can't leave them grieving."
He nodded in instant agreement. "They are a part of us, because you are. We will welcome them." He felt her muscles loosen in relief, and he smiled. "Father took quite a liking to Joe."
Catherine blinked. "Father? Met Joe? This...ought to prove interesting."
"To say the least. There is so much to tell. And Catherine, there's a woman you must meet, a woman to whom we owe our son. Her name is Diana."