BEFORE THE MOMENT
Lynne S. Wexler
There are an infinite number of moments that make up a lifetime, or a story. Some of them are critical; after those moments, what follows is inevitable. But what if something, some relatively small thing, were different before one of those moments? Then everything after is changed...
Joe Maxwell leaned his chair back precariously and addressed the tall, willowy woman who stood before his desk. Their relationship was professional, encompassing several cases shared. The work had engendered mutual respect, guarded admiration (for neither gave approval easily), and a sort of dry, deprecating humor both appreciated. They knew it helped to cope with situations any feeling human being would otherwise find intolerable.
"There's a case I want you to help me with, Bennett. It's not your usual thing, but that would only be a relief, right? There's no body; at least not yet."
"It's Cathy Chandler, right?"
"Right. I know what everyone thinks; I know what I'd think if I let myself, if it were anyone else's case. Not a peep in almost three months..."
"You figure she's gotta be "
"Don't say it Diana! Because I don't believe it, and I don't think it's just wishful thinking. Oh, sure, I know hunches are your department; I've always figured myself to have the psychic ability of a grapefruit. But I can't convince myself on this one not that the usual logic has to apply, not even that I'm talking myself into believing she's still alive just because I want it to be true so bad."
"Joe," she interjected gently, "I see enough hurt all the time in my cases that God knows I don't ever need to see any more, let alone inflict any. But, given the facts how can you reach any other conclusion? How do you see her anything else but dead? How, Joe?" The softness of her voice blunted the harshness of her question.
"Yeah, well, that's the tough part, I know. But you do hear about these things every now and then, ya know. Head injuries people don't know who they are they turn up months later hell, even years later sometimes waiting tables at a truckstop somewhere, or teaching at a small school someplace that didn't require heavy-duty background paperwork..."
He faltered as he met her eyes, saw her expression; then he continued in a defiant tone, "Well, you do hear about those cases every once in a while!"
"Yeah. On TV shows with Jack Palance saying 'Believe it or not' or in newspapers where the next story over is 'Aliens cut my lawn at night' or 'Monster captured in Central Park'." Diana paused, drew in her breath, then let it out in an audible sigh.
"Joe, I'm the last person to say you can't go by your feelings. If you told me I had to separate out what I do with my brain from what I get from my gut, my nerve endings, I couldn't begin to be able to do that. But most people think what I do is half voodoo already. I work better alone because I go inside myself to get where I get, but it's also better that way 'cause I spook other people when they watch me work.
"But you have no history of this kind of thing. I've never felt, in the times we've come into contact, that you would have any more in common with the way my mind works than any other cop on the block in this town. So what we have to try to figure is if you really are conning yourself into believing what you want what you NEED to believe because you care so much about Cathy Chandler, or whether you might this one time have a real handle on something, for the same reason because you care about her, you're connected. If you can look yourself in the eye and say the feeling that she's not dead comes from the inside out, that you're not just hiding the truth that you know deep down by cloaking it, by denying it with this feeling well, then, I'll try to help you find her. But Joe if you look inside and find that it IS denial then think again if you want me on this. I'll still take the case; it'll be a different case then, though, won't it."
This was more words strung together than Joe Maxwell ever remembered hearing from Diana Bennett before, except when she was laying out the facts of a case to her fellow officers. Of course that, he realized, was exactly what she had been doing. She had no actual case to analyze. Instead, she was analyzing the presentation of the case, considering plausibles and possibles and probables, as a way to begin to draw the picture. He also realized that he had already answered the question she had put to him. The tickle of excitement he felt as he saw her begin her unique entry into a case, her gathering up the first threads of what she would later weave into a whole he recognized that tickle as not only excitement, but hope the first hope he had felt in many, many long dark weeks. He understood that he had hope again that Cathy would be found, and that she would be alive.
"I do believe it, Bennett," he said quietly, but with that rising hope audible in his inflection. "I'm not just persuading myself. It would be impossible if I were trying to convince myself she could still be alive after all this time with no word. No matter how much I wanted to believe it, I couldn't be that naive. But I DO believe it, and I can't talk myself OUT of believing it!" His voice had risen as his assurance and enthusiasm began to mount.
"I know she's not living happily ever after somewhere, or if she is, it's still terribly wrong, 'cause she can't know who she is or that there are people dying a thousand deaths out here over this. But I am sure she is not dead." He laid the words out carefully, one at a time, as if testing himself in this way also, to see that the grammar, the logic of them, did not refuse to function, to say what he was making them say. The sentence held its proper structure; his voice held its conviction.
"Okay then, Joe. I'll try. I'll look for her. I can't promise anything, you know that."
"Better than most," he nodded, the movements of his head slow, as if gravity were palpable, and he fought it as he fought other forces to continue with this quest.
"All right. You know what I'll need, the kind of access I need. It's gonna be more awkward, since we have no death, no ransom demand, nothing to mark the demarcation between her life and her absence from it."
He nodded again, accepting the assessment and the terminology.
"She's been missing long enough that no one will make any bones about it. You do what you have to. Get into her place, go through her stuff get into her life, her head. See if anything there tells you anything we didn't spot, sends you in a new direction. Take as much time as you need. Your squad is used to you being off on your own, with no timetable, no deadline, just working at your own pace. My boss will be glad I've done something, he won't care what, just to get myself back on track and off this thing I've been stuck on for so long. And I do really feel as if I'll be able to work now. Knowing you're on this has cleared out the fog in my brain!"
"Yeah, I'm seeing the visibility around me go down real fast," Diana responded wryly. "Nothin's gonna be takin' off or landing in here for a while," she continued, two fingers tapping at her temple. But she smiled.
Vincent, as he had done with increasing frequency of late, scaled the wall to Catherine's balcony. As time passed, as his sense of connection to her grew more and more tenuous, he sought ever more desperately to renew it, to reinforce it. He could not reestablish the actual link. The bond existed only as a memory in his mind, and an aching empty place in his soul. But he could and did try to recall as much of its content, and of her essence, as he could retrieve. He searched the tunnels and chambers for traces of her presence there, had conversations that were at once joyous and unbelievably painful with all those Below who could help him. He took from them every scrap, every fragment of memory they could summon to give to him and they scoured their recollections, hearts heavy, as they strove to give him substance to fill his empty space.
But there was only so much he could get of Catherine Below. Most of her time there had been spent with him, after all; her contacts with others had been for the most part peripheral. Much of those moments and hours they had passed together were still shadowy to him, like what he knew of his own very young childhood. It was hard to be sure what was actually remembered and what he had been told often enough for it to feel like a memory of his own. Still, it seemed to be coming back, gradually, his vision of their times together, and he tried as patiently as he could to wait for the pictures to take on the depth and color that let him know they were true memories.
For finding the real essence of Catherine, he had to go Above, had to go back to her balcony and even, as he had almost never done, into the apartment itself. Now that she was not there to bring her warmth, her personality, her life out to him on that small piece of safe, neutral territory that they had shared, he had to penetrate the empty rooms and try to reinhabit them. Her scent, her tastes, the moments of her life were still present. Here he could get a feel for her existence. Here she took food from her refrigerator, prepared and ate it (such as it was). Here she bathed, and here prepared herself to face her world and its challenges. Here she sat, reading, listening to music, musing; restoring herself from the strains that life put on her.
Here she thought about loving him. That he knew. That he remembered. It was that, more than anything else, he came to find. Here he sensed the presence of the woman whose love for him had flowed to him through the bond, and by standing in this space, it was almost as if he could feel that flow still continuing around him, as if he had stepped into a stream, invisible, yet still palpable.
No one came here now. At first, when she disappeared there had been an almost constant traffic. Police investigators of all kinds had been in and out, looking for obvious clues, then for subtleties, finally for anything at all. They had found nothing at all. Their numbers diminished as each new approach ran its course and led nowhere. Finally no one came back. Few had come in the late hours anyway, but Vincent had been wary as long as they were still coming, and he had not minded having to stay clear of the apartment as long as he had hope that their efforts might succeed. As it became evident to him that they would not, he grew impatient with the intrusions into "their" space Catherine's and his. Once the police stopped coming and quiet returned, so did Vincent.
He knew how to fix the catch on the French doors so that the door would stay closed unless the latch was moved. Thus he could get in, but the rain and wind could not. He felt safe there. He felt somehow that Catherine's spirit remained in her private place, and watched over him there. So it was with a jolt that he heard a key in her lock on this evening as he sat on her sofa in the comforting darkness. He had a moment's wild, unreasoning burst of hope and elation, thinking he would he must! see Catherine come through the door. But his catlike reflexes carried him to the balcony in the few seconds it took for the door to open; a lifetime of caution was not to be overcome lightly. That instant of hope was sustained for a heartbeat longer as he discerned a woman's silhouette backlit by the hall lights. Then the crash back to earth, as he perceived the specific form of the woman, and caught the color and texture of her hair in the dim light of the doorway.
He didn't know who she was; he only knew who she wasn't.
Still, he was curious. He waited, in shadow outside the French doors, as Diana entered the room for the first time.
Vincent was intrigued, despite his momentary disappointment. The woman had come in, closed the door, and stood now in darkness, not moving. She might simply have been unsure of her way in an unfamiliar setting, yet Vincent did not feel that this was so. He sensed from her, rather, a stillness, an inward-turning, combined with what almost seemed to him an extension of her senses, like antennae. She was, without movement, feeling her way into the apartment.
Although Vincent had known Catherine to be extroverted, gay, even boisterous upon occasion, still he thought of her as essentially a quiet person. Certainly here in her apartment he had difficulty picturing her otherwise, unless with friends. But her quiet bore little resemblance to the stillness of the woman before him now. He almost felt uneasy, as though she might catch a glimpse of him with that inner sight he recognized in her. It was somewhat akin to his own higher perceptiveness, lost to him during his dark time, but now returning by imperceptible degrees as he healed. He had enough of this special sensitivity back so that he felt a prickling, a bristling at the nape of his neck and a vulnerability arising from his strong hunch that she whoever she was might feel the same. Unlike him, she would need to seek a cause. He wanted to continue to observe her, find out why she was there, but not at the risk of becoming the subject of her observation. He drew further back into shadow, prepared to retreat over the balcony wall the instant he felt it advisable.
Diana stood a few feet inside the apartment. She tried to do no more at first than breathe breathe in the atmosphere, the aura of the place. She caught not only the obvious traces of Catherine's perfume and scented toiletries but the indefinable aroma that was peculiar to this place. Every living space acquires such an aroma over time. It represents what those senses smell, and to a lesser degree, taste can convey of a personality, whether of an individual or of some kind of family unit. It is unique to each such place, and Diana wanted to smell, to taste, to take it in through her skin, her pores. All this before she would begin to look with her eyes. Because somehow this might help her determine how to look, what to look at. It was why she sometimes preferred to start such an investigation at night so she could choose when and what to see, by bringing light only when and where she felt ready for it.
Eventually she began to move slowly, deliberately into and through the apartment. She stepped lightly, trying not to intrude herself too much into the setting, merely to focus on its elements. As she approached objects a photograph, a glass egg, a shelf of books she looked at them, trying to see them not with her own appreciation of them, but rather how they added up to an ever more substantial pattern for the sensibility of the person who had brought them together here. As in a quantum picture of the universe, where nothing is complete unto itself, no object existing without some external verification, these objects of Cathy Chandler's added up to a miniature world with Catherine at its center. Like a hollow mold, Diana could see the shape of the person within, even though absent, by re-forming her setting around her. And if she could bring Cathy Chandler back into three-dimensional life although only before her own eyes Diana might then be able to see the seam in the mold, the breaking-out place in the shell, and so find a point of departure for Catherine, and for herself.
It was mid-afternoon the next day. Diana returned to the apartment overlooking Central Park. With her was one of the evidence-gathering team brought in when Catherine's disappearance was no longer a matter of conjecture. Diana had read the reports and knew that the apartment had been found in disarray. A ruthless search had obviously been conducted there; the police search had compounded the devastation. After all of this, Joe Maxwell had come. He had told Diana about this visit when they spoke this morning, after her first look at the apartment.
"I hadn't been there, oh, not more than a coupla times, I guess. But I had to get a look at the place myself. Yknow; see if I couldnt just kinda pounce on something the guys had missed, just because I knew her."
"She always kept keeps the place immaculate. Like something in a magazine. Maybe she has help. Maybe she's too busy working to mess it up. Maybe when you have stuff like hers it looks good all by itself, without any help. Whatever. Seeing the place all tossed like that almost made me sick. It looked wounded. Does that sound too stupid?"
"No. Not at all. Go on."
"I knew the evidence team was done, so I started trying to clean it up a little. It was impossible. I could stand up things that had been knocked over, put drawers back, but it hardly helped at all. Ch, a little, sure, but it just made it more obvious how wrong the place looked, with stuff all over. So I called Jenny."
"Jenny that would be Jenny Aaronson? The old friend?"
"Yeah, that's her. Cathy would have lunch with her, talk to her on the phone fairly often. She came by the office to pick Cathy up a couple of times. We'd met, just to say hello in passing. I couldn't think who else "
"Sure, Joe. And she came over?"
"Uh-hunh. That was the first confirmation she'd had that Cathy was officially missing. She was very upset, naturally, and wanted to help any way she could. She couldn't help the way I'd been hoping; I'd had this idea in the back of my mind that she might know something about Cathy's whereabouts. Didn't know how much I'd been counting on there being something like that until I found out she didn't. Then I realized I'd been putting more stock in the possibility than I'd let myself know.
"Anyhow, she came over as soon as I called her. She took one look at the place and nearly keeled over. She got herself to a chair and sat down hard! Then she just looked around for a few minutes, shaking her head, making these little clucking noises with her tongue then she got up and started in."
"So, she helped get the place back in order?"
"Helped? She did it all! I just picked up and fetched and carried and generally followed orders. I felt like a junior law clerk again! 'Put this over here that goes in there take that and put it in the other place' my head was spinning! What is that, something genetic women can do?"
"Don't look at me, Joe. If it's genetic, I missed my turn for it when it was getting passed out."
"S'okay. When everything got back where it belonged, did she or you see anything helpful? Anything that should have showed up and never did?"
"Not that we could see. Anyway, though I didn't tell Jenny, obviously, I knew what they were looking for. So I wasn't looking for anything in particular to be missing of her own stuff. Just some kind of clue."
There had been none.
Now Diana Bennett stood, frowning down at the report in her hand. She asked the tech, "Weren't any prints taken on the balcony? I'd've thought there'd be something out there. Even if it's just hers."
"Well, sure. We didn't put in anyplace where we ONLY found hers. No point."
"And there was no point putting it in for the other thing, either..."
"What other thing?" she queried sharply. "This is supposed to be a complete report. You don't pick what to put and what to leave out!"
"Hey, hey, okay, okay! Cool down! I know that! It's not like that. It's just that there was a jumble of prints on the balcony wall itself in both directions, coming and going, like, and this is the seventeenth floor."
"Funny but it still doesn't tell me why it's not in the report."
"Because they were inconclusive."
"You mean, smudged, couldn't make 'em out?"
"No. Not that. They were clear enough, the ones that didn't overlap. But they weren't human."
"Not. Human. Prints." He spoke patiently, as if to a young child.
"Animal? Primate? What? Nobody ever said she had a pet; I can't hardly picture a monkey in here, but if the prints look like something holding onto the balcony..." She trailed off as the unacceptable picture rose before her, then dissolved. Impossible.
"I see your point."
"Thought you would. We couldn't make it make sense any way we turned it either. Couldn't even figure out how to put it into the report. Any explanation we tried, we just saw ourselves explaining the explanation from here till a year from Tuesday, so we made a judgment call."
"I can't exactly say I blame you, but you really should have found a way to include it somehow an asterisk somewhere for anyone interested enough to follow up on it. Something."
"I told you, didn't I?"
The graceful, flowing signature appeared and reappeared throughout the apartment, in a book of poetry, a volume of Shakespeare. Sometimes there was just the initial.
"So Shakespeare knew everything, hunh, Vincent? Do you think if I read enough of this book, he'll tell me where to find you?" She did read some of the poetry, playing music that was set on Catherine's stereo. It gave her a feel for the apartment's owner, but no directions as to where to find her or the elusive Vincent.
Then she came to the photograph. She held it, as if she thought she would be able to absorb its message through her fingertips. And in this moment, her special powers came into play. An intuition, a hunch she had long since stopped trying to find the right words to define her gift, if gift it was. She knew. She knew she needed to look behind the picture. She did so. And there was the note.
"Below. Come Below. Now what can that mean? Below what?" She pondered the problem for a time, then decided, "Let's start with the obvious. Let's go downstairs and see what's below this apartment." A quick check established that all the apartments below Catherine's were occupied, and none by Vincents. The thorough questioning that had been done as Catherine Chandler's disappearance was investigated had ruled out the other tenants; Diana did only a cursory review. She felt sure that if Cathy (or her abductor) had been that close, it would have been discovered, either by good solid police work earlier, or by her own empathic "voodoo," as she had termed it to Joe.
"So lower. Lower than the apartments. The basement? Nah; they checked that first thing. And third thing, and probably fifth thing as well. So. So...is there something lower than that? Something below the basement? Would that be below enough to be Below?"
Diana descended on the elevator, carrying Cathy's keys with her. She entered the storage area and found the shed for Apartment 21 B. Briefly she allowed herself to react like an ordinary citizen; she marveled at how little junk there was, and how tidy the storage space. There were some cartons, and that was about it. She sighed inwardly, casting her mental eye over her own possessions. Though she kept her life and living area fairly spartan, somehow it always seemed faintly untidy, rumpled, although clean, like her person. Wisps were always escaping from her hair, threads from her clothing; so it seemed with her household contents as well.
Giving herself a brisk shake, she returned to the business at hand and her professional mode. Looking around her again, she tried to discern whether anything suggested itself in this small, unpromising area. She began moving each object that would move at all, maneuvering each into a different position, so that she could see the floor and/or wall (if any) that it had concealed. And then "Well, look at that," she murmured. "Now what have we here?"
A small door, almost like the opening into a coal chute, lay before her. She tried it; it opened easily. "I wonder if they still use coal in a building like this?" she wondered. Her thoughts abruptly took another direction. An eerie, bluish light emanated weakly from the other side of the wall; it would have been hard for an observer, had there been any, to have determined whether the light in Diana Bennett's eyes was reflected from the opening or came from within her. "The threshhold Below," she said to herself, her voice almost too quiet to contain the quiver of excitement it held. "But children? A concert? Down there?" She remembered the rest of the message behind the photograph and wondered. "Below, with a capital B. Like it's the name of a place, not just a direction. There are tunnels allover the place in this city, from what I remember hearing, or reading, or whatever. Bums and homeless people sleep and even live sort of in the outer edges of 'em, have forever. But could there really be some kind of community down there?"
She leaned her head and shoulders through the opening, placing her feet firmly and bracing her hands against either side of the crude doorway. "A place with children. Children who give concerts!" She peered into the light streaming from the gap but could not see past it into the darkness beyond. She could, however, see the top of a ladder at her feet. "A place with kids, with people who care about kids; they'd have to be able to take care of them it they got sick or anything. First aid, at least; maybe a lot more, it they want to stay independent, not have to answer a lot of questions, come up with documentation. They sure as hell aren't going to be on any HMO, or medical card. Bet they can take care of lots of things cuts, minor injuries. Ten days, she was gone that time." Diana switched gears easily, as she followed her thoughts back to the primary subject. "Shed been sewn up, not by a plastic surgeon, but not by an amateur, either. And no infection." She gazed again into the blue light, and her eyes reflected it back, adding their own liquid brilliance to its mysterious, luminous beauty .
Diana returned about ten minutes later, having gone back to the apartment and found a flashlight. She was uncertain about what else might be useful, but decided not to try to arm herself against the unknown. She would just take a look. As she took the first awkward steps onto the top rungs of the ladder, having to hold on to the bricks until she got low enough to grasp the side rails, she wondered if this were wise. She should undoubtedly let someone know where she was, for if she needed help, no one would be able to find her. "No one I know, anyway," she thought. Alongside a natural touch of nervousness: inextricably combined with excitement, was a sense of calm, of security even, which both did and did not surprise her. There was a place at the very center of her being that knew, with complete confidence, that she would not go unfound if she truly needed help. There was a certainty, all the way down to her soul, that Vincent would know; and if he knew, she would be safe. She found this extraordinary, and absolutely not open to question.
As she reached the bottom of the ladder, she made sure that she could reach back up before jumping lightly to the ground. The air was somewhat murky; the light from the basement above her head created rays that cut through the bluish light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. What immediately surrounded her was almost featureless: walls and corridors of brick, dimly lit and indistinct in the hazy glow. She tried the flashlight, but it illuminated spots only; nothing of significance appeared in the beam she played around her. She saw, or thought she saw, occasional chinks in the brickwork, but they were difficult to pick out. She did not catch the gleam of watchful eyes, although they were there.
Suddenly she felt an urgent need to get out. She scrabbled for the bottom rung, hands clutching and missing in her haste; almost frantic, she got a firm grip on the rung, and pulled herself up with a speed that left her breathless, and very surprised. "What the hell was that?" she demanded. She stood, panting slightly with the unanticipated and therefore unprepared for exertion. "Why the hell did I bolt outa there? I wasn't scared; there was nothing down there. Or at least," she reconsidered, "nothing frightening. That's funny all by itself, come to think of it," she continued. "Because I did kinda have the feeling I was being watched, and I was in a strange, dark place one of your basic nightmare scenarios but it didn't feel like danger so what, then?" She looked deep within her, eyes screwed tight with concentration. Then her brow smoothed; her face cleared. "Too soon," she breathed. "It was too soon for me to be down there. I'd've spooked 'em. They're down there, all right but that note was to Cathy, not me. I can't crash this party on someone else's invitation. Diana Bennett," and a slow smile crept over her face, "you want them to think your mama didn't teach you any manners?"
"Joe, do you know anything more about men in Cathy's life? There's something I keep bumping up against..."
"You mean besides what you've already heard about? No, the only two guys I know about in connection with her are Tom Gunther and Elliot Burch, and you've got the stories on them. I don't count that Stephen Bass character, he was way in Cathy's past, and he's been locked up for the duration."
"Run Gunther and Burch by me once more, Joe. Maybe there's an angle we've missed."
"I don't think so. I'm sure not with Gunther, anyway. He was from her bad old corporate-butterfly-no-social-consciousness-beyond-charity-of-the-week days. She dropped him after the attack and the mysterious ten-day absence, along with the job at Daddy's firm and the whole life-style that went with it. Far as I know, she hasn't even seen him in the two years she's been working here."
"Well, now that's more complicated, but we looked at him real hard when she turned up missing, and all we found was that he was at least as frantic about It as we were. The history: okay, they met socially, and at first they clicked, big-time. Did you ever hear about his idea of a quick lunch at your desk when you're too busy to go out? Remind me to tell you some time."
"Anyhow, it got cut short and cold when it turned out he was behind the harrassment of some old folks in a building he wanted to raze to make way for a big project. I think he didn't actually know, hadn't ordered the rough stuff, but the goons were working for him. Ultimately it was his responsibility. That's how Cathy saw it, and that was the end of that.
"Later, when Burch was the one guy who could give us the goods on Max Avery, he refused to talk to anyone but Cathy. He came through, at no small cost to himself, and she forgave him up to a point. She gave him credit as much as he deserved but they didn't get back together. Then she was involved somehow in that business about Santo Yrisado, when his father was killed in the helicopter explosion remember? Meant for him, obviously. I don't know all the details there; it was all pretty sketchy. The Feds wanted it that way, and I guess it was pretty painful, so Cathy didn't want to get into it much either. But the upshot of it is, Burch is in love with her still. But she isn't in love with him."
"You sound sure of that, Joe."
"Yeah, I am. Because you know what, Bennett? I think you're right. I think there's someone else; has been, maybe as long as I've known her. In fact..."
"I'm remembering a conversation we had, about someone she was worried about, a lot of deep feeling there. Didn't make much sense to me at the time; she seemed pretty wrought up over someone when I never even knew there WAS someone. Guess I kind of dismissed it. But it's been lurking in my subconscious "
"Never saw you as the lurking subconscious type, Joe," Diana said, head down, mouth quivering.
"Okay for the sarcasm, Ms. Bennett," he replied, his face crinkling one-sidedly, corner of mouth and eyebrow lifting. She liked the mocking tone; it was more like his usual mood. He continued following his thought, becoming intent again as he went on.
"If Burch had been clean all the way down the line, I dunno; it might have gone another way. But I think even then there was someone else somewhere in the picture, and when old Elliot's hands turned out to be dirty, that did it. This other guy this mystery man had the field all to himself."
"Too bad, hunh, Joe," Diana murmured, more to herself than to him.
"Nothing, Joe," she responded. There was no point in pursuing that line of thought. His pain was obviously based in more than friendship, loyalty, and his sense of guilt and responsibility for Cathy's disappearance. The coded book and its contents might still be indecipherable; Joe's feelings for Cathy Chandler were far less so. They were not, however, going to advance the case, and so were best left undisturbed.
"So, Bennett have you come up with anything on Mr. X? Do you think he's involved in the disappearance? Could this be like when she went missing for those ten days?" His voice had started to rise, his words to come faster, and Diana realized that he was getting excited in a way she had better not let continue. She hated to pour cold water on his hopes, but better sooner than later.
"No, Joe, not directly. Wherever she was for those ten days, it was obvious when she came back that someone had been taking care of her, and I don't believe it was the bad guys. They turned up again later, didn't they, and they were just plain bad. They killed the other girl, the original intended victim, and they tried to kill Cathy. So, whoever took care of her when she was slashed, there were good people involved. She was probably hurt too badly at first for them even to find out who she was to get word to her dad. Remember, her purse was found in the Park. They had no ID, no emergency phone numbers, names, nothing. And if they're people who need to stay out of sight themselves, for whatever reason well, they might have done just what it seems they did do just take care of her till she was strong enough to leave, and send her back. She's never talked about it, has she?"
"Never. I figured she might not remember that can happen with severe injuries or that it was just too awful to remember. And there was never an opening to ask her about it."
"I don't think it's either of those things, Joe. I think she does remember, and that it wasn't awful. I think she got found by somebody who does lead a secret life anyway, and she's been a part of that life since then. And Vincent's been part of her life."
"You've never heard that name? Not even a passing reference? Think, Joe. Think hard."
"I'm sure. Never. Where are you getting that name from, Diana?"
"There are some inscriptions in books; a note about meeting somewhere just a few things. But what I get from them is a long-standing, stable, loving relationship. I'm filling in a lot of blanks here, Joe. There's more of me in this idea than there is evidence to base it on but that's why I'm in this, right? This is me now, doing what I do."
"Right. So you believe that this guy, this Vincent is an important part of her life, but he's not behind her being gone? Help me get this the way you see it, Diana."
"She could have felt threatened enough by what happened to you and the guy who gave you the book and by the book's implications, to have gone to ground where she felt safe. Where she was SURE she would be safe. But if it were that, then she would have found a way to let you know. Even if she wasn't planning on coming back soon or at all and even if she wanted to keep her location a total secret she wouldn't have left you hanging like this. She would have found a way to let you know she was alive and safe. Don't you agree?"
"Absolutely. Cathy is a considerate person by nature, and she's a good friend, one who's come through for me more than once. Yeah, she'd have found a way. You're right." His discouragement, following on the hope he had begun to allow himself, was hard to look at, but Diana waited for it to pass, and for his thoughts to start moving on to the next phase. She could offer no comfort to ease the transition. She simply watched his face, and saw when he had finished processing the information and his feelings. He came back to the salient point, as she had known he would.
"So who is Vincent; where is Vincent; why is he a deep dark secret, and does he know anything we don't know, even if he isn't part of the problem?"
"My questions in a nutshell, Joe. I'm starting over with my investigation "
"Calm down, Maxwell, you'll pop something. I mean, I'm coming at the whole thing from a different angle. I'm going over her place again, looking for Vincent's traces this time, not Cathy's and not the kidnapper's, if any. I'm looking for a different pattern now, and it's like you said when you brought me into this maybe this will lead in a new direction. Maybe we'll just get some extra help if I can find this guy. As you put it so well, maybe he knows something we don't. Something about Cathy, about who else she knows, where she might go anything we haven't tried."
"Right. Go for it."
She was there again.
The stranger in Catherine's place was back. As she had done on previous visits, she took her time, deliberated before moving around, went up to things and touched them, held them, seemingly at random. But Vincent knew now it was not random. He understood that what she was doing was a process. He had felt purpose in her apparent drifting from spot to spot; not exactly a conscious purpose, but rather a purposeful letting go. She was allowing her perceptions to lead her, floating on that same river of emotion and awareness that he himself felt in these rooms. He didn't know how he knew this. He didn't think she knew it either, not to put into so many words. Still, he knew he was right.
Something was different about it this time. She didn't turn on any music, as she sometimes had before. She didn't look at childhood toys, at things that had come with Catherine into the apartment when she moved in. The tall, red-haired woman stayed away this time from everything that had added up to the sum of Catherine Chandler's life before he had known her.
Suddenly it struck him that this was precisely the difference. She was looking only at things that connected Catherine to him and him to her. Somehow the woman had made the connection and made it accurately! He felt alarmed now, not merely uneasy. More than his own life and safety were involved here. He had a strong urge to run to seek the security of the tunnels for himself, and to assure himself that they were still secure. He steeled himself instead to stay and watch, realizing that it was all the more important to determine how much she knew, how far her special abilities might take her. To prepare a proper defense, he had to know the nature and full extent of the threat.
Yet he was confused. The danger she represented was surely genuine but he didn't FEEL threatened. He sensed no hostility, no aggression no directed intent of any kind from her, beyond a simple wish to KNOW. Taking him completely by surprise came a surge of empathy, a feeling of connection, a sameness of purpose with this woman. She was looking for Catherine, by whatever means she could find. All other avenues had been exhausted. Now, because of her extraordinary capabilities, she had found the one no one else from her world had seen. She knew, if not who he was, at least that he existed. She knew something of his special nature as well, for he would not have been a total secret, his very being known to no one in Catherine's life, had he been a normal man, no matter what kind of fugitive he might be from that life. The woman was now looking for him, in order to help in the search for Catherine.
In a rare moment for Vincent's usually decisive mind, he absolutely did not know what to do. With the same intense desire he had felt only minutes earlier to run, he now wanted to tap on the glass doors once again, to call gently to a woman within, hear her respond and somehow he felt sure she would by gladly speaking his name "Vincent!"
For a split second his soul felt the possibility of wholeness return. Then reality came back in a cold rush, and with it caution, prudence all of Father's words. He still trusted the instinct that told him the woman with the large, haunted eyes meant him no harm, and might join with him in some way yet unfathomed to deepen the search beyond what either of them could achieve alone. He made up his mind, however, to feel his way carefully, to choose his time when he understood more fully what was happening.
And so he decided to make a judicious retreat after all. He thought that he would make sure the sentries Below were alerted to be especially wary for the immediate future, and then just wait and see what developed. Since he planned to stay away from the apartment for the time being, he decided to take something with him.
Once the woman left, he looked about, trying to decide what would best meet the need he felt that he would not be able to gratify by entering Catherine's home for a while. In the end, he settled on the first thing he had given her. He took from her bedside table the copy of Great Expectations.
Diana entered Catherine's apartment, as she had done so often in recent days. She stepped inside with assurance, but hesitated as she got past the threshhold. Something was different. She began looking carefully around her. What was troubling her was at the fringes of her awareness. Clearly, there was no intruder. What she felt, she identified rather as an absence than a presence.
"What's wrong here, Bennett?" she asked herself. "What's wrong with this picture?" As she searched, to isolate her areas of examination, she turned lights on, where possible, one at a time, then turned them off behind her, so that pools of light sprang into existence, and were swallowed again by darkness. She saw nothing out of place; going from the living room into the bedroom, her puzzlement grew. All appeared as she had last seen it. Nothing was missing or was it? "Think!" she insisted to herself.
She closed her eyes as she stood in the doorway, facing the bedroom balcony doors.
She pictured the room as she had last seen it, in as much detail as she could muster. As she stood there, almost trembling with the force of her concentration, suddenly she froze. Her eyes opened wide, and she stared at the French doors.
"Damn! Damn, DAMN, DAMN!!" She continued to stare, unseeing now, at the doors; then she shook herself slightly, and focused on the room around her. There was something missing; in fact, there were two things missing, one tangible, the other intangible. Her gaze travelled the room, glancing over vanity and closet doors, bed and night table
"There! That's it! That's where it was! Yeah, but what?" She quizzed her mental picture. "A book. There was a book there. He took the book away with him..." Her voice had grown softer and softer. She repeated, ever more softly still, "Damn! I thought I felt his presence here the same way I felt hers. He was part of her life in this apartment, and he was still here the same way she was. But that wasn't it, was it, Vincent? You were there, right there outside those doors, watching me, weren't you." Her tone was heavy with defeat, because she now realized that had she addressed him aloud before this night, he might actually have answered her. When she had thought she sensed a trace of his presence, it had been no trace. He had been there, watching her try to see him! Only now, sensing his absence, did she realize that he had in fact been as near to her as the other side of those balcony doors. He had been there from the first time she had come, and so his presence had been part of the ambience all along. Only when it was withdrawn did she recognize this. It was a bitter and frustrating recognition.
"And now you've taken your book and gone away. Aw, Vincent I'm sorry!" she whispered. "We need to talk to each other. I need your help, and I think no, I'm sure you need mine. If you knew where she was, you'd be there, not here keeping vigil. You can't just take off and look for her I don't know why yet, but I know you can't. So you need someone who can. I could be that. I could do the legwork on the street for you. We want the same thing. But how do I let you know that now? Damnit, Bennett you blew it!"
She let out a long breath, venting exasperation, anger, despair, and a saving touch of wry humor at her own expense. "For someone who's supposed to be so tuned in, you can miss the obvious real good, Bennett," she admonished. "Okay. So now what? If he took the book, it means he's probably not going to come back here at least for a while. So I've got to reach him somehow. It's gotta be those tunnels. That's just gotta be the 'Below' in the note. I'll go back down there. I'll leave messages. I'll pound the walls. I'll stamp my feet. I'll yell, and holler, and hold my breath until I turn blue! I've just GOTTA get through to him!"
"I don't think," came a low, softly thrilling voice, "that it will be necessary to go quite that far." He spoke from just outside the French doors.
"Vincent!" The joyous speaking of his name came, indeed, as he had anticipated it would. But he had to remind himself that whatever this woman knew, or thought she knew, it did not go as far as his appearance.
"Don't try to see me," he said quickly. "Not yet. We need to talk first. You have me at a disadvantage..."
"Diana. Diana Bennett. You came back!"
"Evidently. I wasn't going to, as you surmised. Then, I somehow felt sure that you would assess the situation just that way, and I needed to know what happens next? What would you do? Because I felt sure too that you would know what I had done. It's all very strange..."
"Well, yes and no. I'm a police officer you knew that."
"I supposed so."
"Well, I work on special cases: kidnappings, sometimes murders, serial killings cases where the normal procedures don't work, and where we need to understand what's going on, because if we don't the situation gets worse. I work by immersing myself, and trying to get into the head, the mind of the perpetrator."
"But not in this case."
"No. Not here. There's nothing to go on as far as that goes; we have nothing. Do you?"
"No." The word was spoken quietly, but Diana could taste its bitterness on her own tongue.
"Right. So I've been trying to get in tune with Cathy Chandler, just to see if there was anything left out of what the cops had been working from. There was. There was you but somehow I knew you didn't have the answers either. So you had to be struggling with the questions too. I just hoped our two versions of the questions, our two different perspectives, might give us a dimension neither of us could see alone. Binocular vision?"
"Yes; I see."
"Very good. But hey, wait a minute. If you've been here long enough to hear me threaten to have a temper tantrum, why didn't I know you were back? Why didn't I feel that you were here again?"
"I...shielded my self, my thoughts, from your perceptions. I don't know how I do that, exactly. I've only ever done it with one other person, as she occasionally did with me."
"Catherine yes." His voice, as he spoke her name, told her all that she had known it would. But she desperately wanted to see on his face what she heard in his voice. She leaned the side of her head against the panes of the French door.
"Can't we do a little better than this?" she asked.
"Perhaps. But not here, not now. This place is too..."
"Too," she agreed. "We need to find someplace a little more neutral. There's already so much going on here we might have a hard time talking through it. And we do need to understand each other."
"Although I've gotta say, considering well, everything that we've got a better start than we had any right to expect."
"Yes, I think there is a solid basis for communication between us. But Miss Bennett..."
"Diana," she interrupted. "It's a little late to be formal, doncha think?"
"Yes, I suppose you're right," he said, a throaty growl in his voice that she understood as a chuckle. The sound sparkled along her nerve endings. "Now, as to where to talk: I think we might best meet at the basement entrance."
"Entrance to what, Vincent?" she asked slyly.
"Why, the entrance to the basement, Diana," he replied, a smile in his voice.
"Then FROM what?" she insisted.
"All in good time," he answered calmly. "We have other things to discuss first. More than where we physically meet, we must focus on the place where our concerns meet. After we talk about that, we may think about what intrigues you."
"Youre right. Sorry. I'm so excited to actually meet you, for a minute I lost track of the whole point of this. Okay, when shall I meet you there? Ten minutes?"
"Make it twenty. I must observe certain precautions."
"Yeah, getting seventeen floors down the side of a building and then to wherever your side of that tunnel comes from, and back over here it's not quite as direct as getting on the elevator."
"You seem surprisingly well-informed, and even more surprisingly matter-of-fact about these things."
"Well, I've been putting jigsaw puzzles together for a living for a long time, most of 'em pretty strange ones. I've learned to trust it when the pieces fit, even if the picture doesn't look like anything I've seen before or ever expected to see."
"As to that, Diana..." His voice grew more tentative. "I asked you not to try to see me yet, and you have honored that request. I thank you for your patience. I feel that, somehow you have learned a great deal about me. However, my appearance cannot have taken shape in your puzzle picture. You have no precedent." These last words were spoken almost bleakly, no hint of laughter present now.
"I don't know what you look like. That's true. But I think I know a couple of things. Your fingerprints from here on the balcony " He started noticeably; clearly he had not thought about something as concrete as this..."did not come up as well, as human, by the usual bookstandards." Although he said nothing, she sensed gratitude for her phrasing. "Didn't come up as anything else, either. So I'm not expecting you to look like any kind of a what, a version of a regular guy." She shrugged, hands out, palms up, indicating her difficulty in finding a way to express what she felt. "But I've seen your writing, your choice in books, and now I've heard you speak. And I know how Cathy Chandler feels about you. Everything in this apartment tells me that. So whatever you look like, it's it's gotta be an okay way to look."
"Very well," he said, and she was glad to hear that hint of a chuckle back in the sound. "We will meet in twenty minutes at the foot of the ladder. I will be there to help you down, and you may face me then, if you wish to do so. If you would prefer to wait a little, that will be all right too. Do not think I would be offended if that were your choice. It might be easier for us to deal with the matters at hand, without taking the time for adjustment, if you need it, and explanations of which I've none to offer, in any case. The choice shall be yours."
"Thank you, Vincent. I'll see you in twenty minutes." As she turned back toward the interior of the apartment, walking quickly to the door, she thought [Oh, yes, Vincent, I most definitely will SEE you!].
In an anonymous building, Catherine waited. While others basked in the warmth of her personality, derived from the ambience of her home, she shivered in the psychic chill of a featureless room. Physically, she was kept warm enough, properly nourished for two; medically monitored. Otherwise, she was destitute of all comforts. She had no pictures, no books, no music. She had no colors. She had a window, but was too high up to see anything but other faceless buildings, and the sky was distorted by the tinted glass. They had stopped questioning her on a regular basis some time ago. She was no longer sure exactly when. The only thing that marked the passage of time meaningfully was her own body. As she registered changes, she had a sense of time elapsed. The pregnancy, she knew, even with the sensory deprivation and the resulting disorientation, was advancing too quickly to be normal. [What would be normal for Vincent's baby?] she queried herself. No one could answer that not Peter, not Father, not Vincent. Sometimes she thought this should have made the pregnancy more frightening; but somehow it didn't. The very qualities that made it unique reminded her continuously that it was Vincent's baby she carried, and that could only be a source of comfort. Fear returned when she thought ahead to the end of the pregnancy. They no longer sought information from her. They knew she was pregnant. Someone wanted her to have this baby, and not for humanitarian reasons. She guessed that whoever held her had gotten a look at Vincent. She knew that the move to this second location had come after her tapping the standpipe in the first room. She had been heard; Vincent had tried to rescue her, and had been seen. It was the only thing that made any sense. It struck cold terror to her heart. She longed desperately to do something. She could do nothing. She waited.
Diana reached the entry point quickly, although the elevator had seemed to be moving more slowly than on previous occasions.
"Cut it out, Bennett!" she told herself sharply. "You are not a schoolgirl on a blind date! Sure, it's mysterious, and, okay, romantic; his voice is sexy as all hell. But it's life and death for Cathy Chandler, for him, for whoever else he lives with down there; and as for you just keep reminding yourself: he's somebody else's date, not yours!"
She had a slightly better grip on herself, but the excitement was still nearly unbearable. She was tempted to go straight down the ladder to meet him, but he had said he would be there to help her down. The thrill this thought sent into her, weakening her knees for a moment, almost convinced her that she should most definitely not wait for him, but should avoid his touch, that nearness, at all costs. Once more, she took a firm grip on herself. She decided to follow his instructions, enjoy whatever sensations came with the moment, and then set all aside. His concern for his missing Catherine would help get them on track very quickly. She also knew that beyond the adolescent feelings she was indulging right now, she cared about him, enough to want intensely to help him stop hurting. They would be about their business soon. She could afford to let herself play fantasy games on her own behalf this once just for a little. "After all," she reminded herself, "it's not often I get fantasies in my work. Usually nightmares. I'm entitled, when I get the chance which ain't often."
Although she had thought she was on full alert, she was taken by surprise. Suddenly he was there, below her in the shadows.
"Come down, Diana," he called softly.
She was a little less awkward this time getting onto the ladder, for which she grateful. Adolescent though it be, she did not wish to look clumsy in his eyes. While too coltish to be truly graceful, she had an economy of motion, and thanks to the nuns of her school days, good posture and carriage. Her height might have made her self-conscious for it was less fashionable when she was growing up, but she was so inwardly focused that she lacked just that kind of self-awareness. She did not visualize herself as seen through others' eyes except for now. Had she tripped or lurched with Vincent watching, she would have been most uncharacteristically mortified.
She descended smoothly. When she neared the bottom, she felt very large, strong, totally unthreatening hands encircle her waist. She pushed out a bit, away from the wall, and was easily lifted and lowered the rest of the way down. For a brief instant she was held more against him than not; the warmth and solidity of him were reassuring rather than dangerously stimulating. She felt a sense of peace, of rightness, in his presence. She turned slowly, looking up to see his face. He was still cloaked and hooded, the folds keeping his face a shadowed mystery. She could feel his eyes upon her; her face was in the light. She continued to look up, letting him assess whatever her face might be telling him, letting him read in her eyes the answers he sought. After an unquantifiable span of time, he raised his hands, pausing a moment with them grasping the edges of the hood, allowing her to see them clearly: fur, claws. She remembered with her physical being the feel of them at her waist. She waited, without flinching.
He continued the interrupted gesture; slowly he drew the hood away from his face. She saw first the golden mane of hair, catching the uneven light from above them and the softer, still less distinct light diffused from behind him in the tunnel. Next, his eyes. Blue; light blue, shifting shades of blue in this shifting illumination. Blue into forever. And, almost incidentally after the eyes, the rest of the face. Her own eyes widened slightly, not in fear but in wonder. The noble look of a lion was the only comparison that came to mind. Beauty in the soft golden stubble below incredible cheekbones; beauty in the upper lip, not cleft as a human's would be, disfigured, but divided naturally, like any cat's. As she began to breathe again (she had no idea how long it had been since she had stopped), she got a sense of him, whole, as he stood before her. The face that face with the cascade of gold surrounding it was matched by the height, the breadth of shoulders and chest, the strength of legs and trunk.
She perceived this without looking him up and down in any overt way. She also got an impression that the clothing under the cloak was a match for the man. Not costly, but rich, in texture and line. Totally suited to the wearer. He was magnificent. He was perfect. He was unimaginable.
"You were right." She breathed out the words, more than speaking them. "No precedent."
From somewhere he had produced two stools. They sat, knee to knee, talking earnestly.
They shared all they knew of Catherine's disappearance. He gave her information about the time immediately preceding it, filling in gaps in what Joe had been able to tell her. She gave him details of the police investigation, and Joe's single-minded crusade, which had brought her into it, after the normal channels of inquiry had withered and dried up. Each had a fuller picture, had some of the nagging questions that had plagued them answered all but the one question, the only question. They knew that she had been taken; they knew why. They did not know how, or by whom; and they did not know where she was.
At last they leaned back, away from each other, disappointment taking its place in the space between them like a third participant in the conversation. They felt totally connected, and immeasurably enriched by this new-found communion; yet both felt empty, and profoundly weary. The hope each had lodged in the other had been unfounded; they could not complete each other's puzzle, for it was the same puzzle. It had fewer gaps, but the still-missing pieces were the crucial ones. Catherine's outline was more clearly defined, but her setting, and the shadowy figure figures? in the background still anonymous.
They looked at one another, each seeing in the other's expression a mirror, reflecting back identical feelings. Then, tentatively, each smiled, just a little; encouragement, camaraderie, and a shared empathic tie. Not a bond, like Vincent's with Catherine; they did not feel each other's feelings within their own psyches. Rather, they both had a higher awareness of the world of feelings around them, including each other's, and they knew that they shared this different perception, with almost no one else of their acquaintance. It was a comfort, just to know that someone else saw the world in the same way. It lessened the loneliness. It also gave them a renewed, if cautious optimisim. Together, they would go forward. They might not have the sure knowledge they had hoped for, but they would know if they were on the right track. And for the first time in their lives, they would have someone against whom to check their impressions, with whom to confirm what to the rest of the world was nothing but illusion.
After an agreement for message exchange here, for Diana to reach Vincent, via helper for him to get word to her Vincent saw Diana reascend the ladder and disappear into the basement Above. She had, of course, asked to see his world. He had replied that the decision to allow access to strangers was not his to make alone. Understanding, she had asked that her case be considered.
"I really think it's the only thing that makes sense now, Vincent, don't you? We can't always be" here she smiled slightly "pussy-footing around when we talk." He had lowered his head for a moment, hiding the smile that touched his face as well. "You shouldn't have to censor yourself with me, and I should know the people that Catherine knew all this time. That whole side of her life has to be part of my take on her. So many hours, experiences, friends I can't really know her without knowing them, can I?" He could not argue this, nor did he wish to.
"I agree with you, Diana," he said, spreading his hands. "I can only repeat that the decision must be made by all concerned. This is how we live, how we have survived all along. I will put your case to those who must hear it as soon as possible. Be patient once again, if you can; please."
"Sure. Not that I really have a lot of choice. I'll bet that if I tried to get in on my own, knowing about this entrance would do me next to no good. Am I right?"
"No good whatsoever," he agreed, the warmth of his voice belying the sternness of his reply. "The ways change when they need to; they change at intervals, just on general principle."
"Good idea. And I suppose there are look-outs, too."
"Of course. You were observed, though not identified, when you came down the first time."
"I knew someone was there. I could feel it. I didn't want to wear out my welcome before I even had one, so I got out quick."
"That too was noted"
When she had gone, Vincent joined the sentry on duty within the nearby corridor.
"What do we do about her, Vincent?" The youthful voice was serious beyond its years.
"Do we have to close up Catherine's entrance?" A plaintive note had crept in with this thought.
"No, Kipper; not as yet. We must be especially watchful, but so far she represents no threat. She is not aware of any of the ways in past this point. She is only curious."
"But who is she? What's she doing down here anyway?"
"She is looking for Catherine."
The boy's eyes grew large in his small face. "Do you think she might be able to find her, Vincent?"
"I can't say, Kipper. But she has found her way to us; no one else had done that much. I feel she has something different from the others. I think perhaps..."
"I think perhaps she may prove to be a friend. We must wait and see. And we must remain vigilant until we are sure of her. I think it will be soon."
Vincent knew as he spoke that this was overly cautious; he was sure of Diana right now. But Father, and the Council, still had to have their explanations and be convinced. Kipper would not have understood, nor did he need the confusion of this complication. For him, as for all the children, Vincent's word came from on high literally and figuratively. If Vincent had said "I trust Diana now, but the others will have to believe in her too," Kipper would have been puzzled; "But if you know she's all right, Vincent?" Better to simply say "we must wait a little, and watch," and leave the child with his certainties: adults knew, at least about the big things, and they agreed. When the time was right, he could accept Diana with the assurance that all the fixed stars in his universe held their course. Life had few enough certainties. Let the child feel secure in his for as long as he could.
Vincent approached Father with uncharacteristic hesitation. "I have a case to put before the Council, but I wish to use you as a test audience first, Father."
"A test, Vincent? Why? Is this going to take extra persuasion? Do you want my voice with yours when you go before the Council?"
"Always, Father, if you are convinced you should give it. But it is unusual."
"There is a woman..." Vincent hesitated.
"A woman, yes, Vincent," Father prompted.
"She does not seek refuge with us."
"Then she would be a Helper?"
"Possibly... Possibly, in future, she would wish to serve in that capacity. For now, her need is to know us, to be acquainted with our world."
"But Vincent," Father broke in, beginning to sound disturbed, "I don't quite follow. If she doesn't need our protection here Below, and is not to be a Helper at this time, then why should she know about us? Who is she? How do you know of her? And what," sounding thoroughly alarmed now, "does she know of us?"
"So many questions, Father. I will answer, if you will permit me to do so in my own way. However I begin, I fear I will alarm you further before I can ease your fears."
"I will try to let you tell me, Vincent, and curb my apprehension. You know I trust your judgment but you must know too that I have been greatly concerned, in this period since Catherine has been away at the amount of time you've been spending Above, alone ."
"Recently I have not been altogether alone, Father. Not exactly."
"And how is that exactly?" The tension was beginning to show in the strained quality in Father's voice. "How do you know this woman?"
"She is a policewoman." Vincent spoke matter-of-factly.
"A a " Father almost sputtered in his distress. "Vincent have you gone mad? A policewoman? Not yet a Helper, not in danger, and a policewoman? Has your illness made you lose all reason?" He was nothing less than horrified.
"I truly do not think so, Father." Vincent tried to reassure his parent by keeping his own emotions under strict control. "I did say it would seem to get worse before it began to get better."
"You did, and that was certainly a correct assessment. Your judgment is not altogether gone. But Vincent, what can you be thinking of? How can you imagine this could be acceptable?"
"Hear me out, Father, please!" Vincent spoke now with an urgency made all the more telling by the lowering of his voice almost to a whisper.
"Yes, Vincent. Go on. You must tell me of this. I see there is much you need to share. I will listen."
"Thank you, Father." Vincent saw with relief that the storm had passed although this calm might be no more than its eye. If his story did not convince, the fury would arise again, and who could say what devastation would remain in its wake? He began to speak.
Almost an hour later, after much low, intense conversation, punctuated by short bursts of raised voices, then brought back down to the level of a hum they drew back, exhausted, The two heads, one grizzled, the other golden bright, had been bent close, sometimes touching, for so long that the watcher above them on the upper level of the chamber had become almost frantic with curiosity.
Jamie had come in, having heard Father's voice from a short way down the corridor. His tone had caused her to enter without calling out to signal her presence, concerned that he might be in some kind of difficulty. When she saw that Vincent was with him, her immediate fear had subsided, but something about the pitch of both voices as the conversation continued had caused .apprehension to return. There might .be no direct danger here, but everything was not all right. She remained perched at the rail, wishing she could hear words, not just voices, in a totally unfamiliar state made up of impatience, anxiety, and boredom. She had just about decided to leave, as she was getting nothing but frustration for her pains, when the confrontation ended. [Now that they're not practically whispering in each other's ears, maybe I'll be able to figure out what's going on!] she thought.
"What you have told me makes sense, Vincent, if and it is an enormous if I can take at your evaluation the nature of this woman's character and her special gifts. I think, before I can even let this come to the Council, let alone speak in her behalf, that I must meet this 'Diana Bennett' for myself."
"I had fully expected that you would, Father."
"I will not, of course, be in a position to judge what you say you are able to sense empathically. I think that I will be able to judge her on the basis of honesty,"
"Judge her, Father?"
"If you prefer evaluate, or read, or assess, those words are appropriate. But for something as momentous as you are asking that she be allowed to come to us freely, ask us questions about Catherine, see us in our own setting to better understand this aspect of Catherine's life that she hold our entire existence in her hands yes, Vincent, I must indeed judge her! Surely you see that I can do no less!"
Vincent bowed his head. "Yes, Father," he said simply. "I do see, I accept your decision now, and will abide by your judgment."
"Which reassures me more than almost anything else you've said in the last heavens, almost two hours!" Father laughed a little, deliberately lightening the mood, clearing the air between them of its desperate seriousness. "All this heavy conversation has left me quite drained," he said almost playfully. "I think I need refueling. I find I'm famished, Vincent. Are you hungry? Let's see what we can pilfer from William's private stash of goodies."
"Pilfer? Stash? Why, Father, I fear all this talk of unorthodox proceedings is corrupting you!" The corners of Vincent's mouth twitched, and his father was relieved to see a twinkle in those eyes, so long darker than their bright color should have allowed. "Lets."
Perhaps the adrenalin rush of this new acquaintance, this new take on everything she had thought she could be sure of, had made some new connections in her brain. She didn't know how else to account for the new train of thought. But she had to tell Joe. Diana approached the conversation with heavy heart. She hated what she knew, and what she had to share with Joe Maxwell. But she had no choice.
"Joe, you know that sick feeling, when you wake up from a nightmare, until you can convince yourself it isn't real?"
"Well, I woke up from one last night. Only I couldn't make it go away, and I still can't."
"I still don't believe she's dead, Diana!"
"No, it's not that. I don't even see that it gets us any closer to finding her, not directly. In away, it's almost bigger than that."
"Bigger than what? What're you talking about?"
She took a deep breath. "To quote that great American poet, Alice Cooper, 'Welcome to my nightmare.' There's still a step we're missing in the way we've figured things. Joe, what's the only thing that makes any sense as a reason for Cathy's disappearance?"
"The book." His voice was heavy with guilt.
"Right." She ignored the emotion and went with the meaning. "Who knew you had the book? At first?"
"No one. Just me and whoever blew up the car, presumably."
"Right. Now who knew Cathy had the book?"
"Nobody." Joe ticked off on his fingers. "Me. Cathy. The bad guys."
"And?" she prompted. "Who told them? Who else knew? You, Cathy, and "
"And nobody. She wasn't about to tell anyone, 'cause we didn't know who might be involved, until we could decode the book. She told no one except Moreno, of course... Diana, don't even think it! And don't ask me to think it! That's just not possible!"
"Joe, did anyone search your hospital room?"
"Dunno. I was so out of it they could've blown up another car next to my bed. I wouldn't have noticed. Probably not, though; considering what had happened to me, I'm sure our guys were keeping a pretty close watch."
"And did you have a lot of visitors?"
"No. They were keeping me pretty quiet. Just Cathy and later..."
"Okay. Now, when you got home, do you think the place had been searched?"
"Hard to be sure; if they were being careful, I might never know. I still wasn't exactly my sharpest just then, you realize."
"Yeah, but blowing up a car isn't exactly trying to leave no trace. If they had searched, you and they would both have known what they were looking for, and they wouldn't have cared if you spotted it. So why take the trouble to be neat?"
"So they didn't search my place."
"Why didn't they, Joe?"
"Because they already knew I didn't have the book."
"How did they know that, Joe? Who else knew, early on?" she insisted. [Add it up, Joe] she said to herself; [you're a real two-plus-two-equals-four kinda guy. I know you don't like the numbers; neither do I. But we can't make 'em into anything but what they are.] She waited him out, not wanting to prod any further. She knew he would get there, however reluctantly, however much he wished to resist reaching the inevitable conclusion.
"She told Moreno. I told her to tell him." He spoke in a flat, uninflected tone. "Later, she took the book to Burch, 'cause we were getting nowhere, and it did seem to relate to banks, business deals; at least that seemed likely. But Moreno knew before that. Burch could've had her kidnapped, I guess, but by then he wouldn't have needed to; he had a copy of the book and he knew we didn't know what it meant. And he wouldn't have known that he didn't need to search my apartment to get it before."
"No. Back at that stage of the game, the only person who knew who had the book was"
"Moreno." He interrupted her, saying the name with a queer twist in his voice. When she looked up at his face, for she had avoided meeting his eyes till now, his expression had the same quality as his tone. He looked older, suddenly. She wondered if he would ever again have the raffish, happy-go-lucky manner that was so appealing in him, and had made him seem only a few months ago? younger than his years. [Now], she thought, [even if we can get Cathy Chandler back, he'll never be the same. He can't trust his own instincts any more. Betrayal can really screw you the worst.]
"Vincent, Vincent, why do you insist on this? I have agreed to meet Miss Bennett; indeed, I suggested it first."
"But what is wrong with my talking to her where you have been meeting? At Catherine's entry? I feel it showed good sense and discretion on your part that you have kept her access limited in this way. Why risk so much now? How could you ask to bring her here to my chamber, when the whole point was to await the Council's approval? You force me to question your thinking once again, Vincent!"
"Father, she is empathic, but she's not a mindreader or a sorceress. I can blindfold her and bring her here by such a circuitous route that she would have no idea where she was or how she got here. I assure you we would not be exposed in that way."
"But why, Vincent? You still haven't explained why."
"Remember what I told you. She found the note, and from what it said so little! she intimated the existence of a community of involved, caring people. She already understands so much about us the most important things, really with no hard physical evidence at all. What I feel she must get is a reality to go with that intuition. She should see you not merely as one man, isolated from any context, but as the man you are, in the life you we live. Nowhere can that be shown better than in this chamber. With her unique understanding, I think she will gain so much... Father, her awareness of just what we would be putting into her care will be so much greater if she sees the heart and soul of our world. And I think too that you will be able to make a far better assessment of her, seeing how she responds to all this chamber represents."
"I am torn, Vincent. As the leader of our community, I cannot break, or even bend, its rules to suit my whims. And our most central rule, the one on which our very survival depends."
"I know, Father. But consider everything: what is at stake, not only against this course, but in its favor: the safeguards I can employ; the fact that I trust this woman. Remember, I do not ask to bring her in, eyes open, and show her the way here. Her first, last, and only sight of us will be of this chamber. Please, weigh all the factors. If Diana cannot impress you as she has me, the Council will never even hear her case, let alone approve her entry here. I promise you if you refuse, I will not try to go to them over your objection. But if she does not get in, and we cannot truly work together, then I fear her help Above will still not get us to Catherine. And if we do not get Catherine back if I do not get her back... "Vincent broke off, unable to choke out any word beyond this. Father knew that for Vincent, there very likely was no word, no life, beyond this.
"Very well, Vincent. It shall be as you wish."
"Thank you, Father."
Jamie, who had monitored both the leaders of the tunnel world since that first ill-heard conversation, now looked down once again into the well of Father's chamber. Again, the two heads, dark and light, were together. This time, however, the communication in words was over, at least for the moment. The two were holding each other close, finding comfort and strength in their profound love for one another. The young observer sighed, and withdrew. She would learn no more today.
"There's something funny going on around here, Mouse."
"Tell funny. Tell Arthur, too. We like to laugh."
"Not that kind of funny, Mouse."
"What kind of funny, then, Jamie?"
"Funny weird. Father and Vincent have been spending half their time with their heads practically glued together, talking and talking. There's something about a woman. I've heard a name Diana Bennett. Mean anything to you?" Mouse shook his head vigorously.
"Vincent wants to bring her down, I think, and Father's worried about it. I can't make any sense of it, 'cause all can hear is bits and pieces."
"You listening to Father and Vincent? Don't know you're there? Not talking to you?"
"I know, Mouse." She had the grace to look slightly abashed. "But I've gotta keep track of things down here. If I always waited to be told, or just went where I was supposed to well, Winslow wouldn't have been the only one gone that day. And there's other times like that. You know I'm right!" She spoke fiercely, and Mouse nodded again.
"Know it. You take care of lots."
"I asked some of the kids who've been on lookout recently. Kipper got this look on his face."
"What kind of look?"
"Oh, like 'I know, but I'm not telling you, don't you hate it.' That kind of look."
"Oh." Mouse's face showed his understanding. "Lots of people give Mouse that look. But mostly Mouse finds out anyway."
"Yeah. Jamie too. Let's both keep our eyes and ears open, Mouse. I don't like it when people are sneaking around with bringing Topsiders Below. I don't like it one bit."
"Arthur and me we both keep watch."
"Well, with all three of us on it, we can't miss."
"Please understand, Diana, and do not be upset."
"That's the third time you've said that, Vincent, and I'll only answer it once more. I'm fine. I'm not afraid, or nervous well, maybe a little, but I would be no matter where I was meeting him. And I dont resent the precautions. It's okay, it's fine, it's swell, it's "
"I believe you, Diana. I will not bring it up again."
"It's just that "
"We're here, Diana. You may wish to close your eyes for a moment after I remove the blindfold. The light is not bright, but you may still need a few seconds to adjust."
"Thanks. I'll try, but I'm so eager to see..." She succeeded in keeping her eyes closed for perhaps three seconds; then they opened, and opened wider. "Wow!"
"Yes. It is a very special place. In many ways."
"So many books! But how does he find anything? It looks like it looks like my place would, if I had this much space and this many books!" The rueful note in her voice made Vincent laugh.
"Perhaps you and Father will have things in common that would never have occurred to me!"
"Such as, Vincent?" Father spoke from the doorway leading toward Vincent's chamber.
"Housekeeping philosophy, apparently, Father," Vincent rejoined, still amused.
"Oh, dear. Well, let this be a lesson to you, Miss Bennett. Given half a chance, things will take over.
"That's why I basically try not to keep anything around except what I'm using."
"But I do use all of this!" Father protested, and all three broke into genuine laughter, as Vincent and Diana chorused, "Of course you do!"
"Well, Miss Bennett. Please, come and sit down. Would you like some tea?"
"Thank you, tea would be nice."
"Vincent, would you be so kind as to get some for our guest for all of us?"
"Certainly, Father." Vincent was not entirely easy about leaving them, but he knew it was necessary to the undertaking.
"Alone at last," Diana said, shifting a little uncomfortably in her seat. Now she was genuinely nervous. She knew that the man before her expected this, and did not attempt to mask it, but she thought that if she seemed disproportionately so, he might think she had something to hide. It was a fine line which made an awkward tightrope.
"Please try to relax, my dear," he said.
"I thought Vincent and I were the ones who read minds," she said, only half joking.
"It doesn't take a mind reader. I want to understand you, your motivation for asking to be allowed to come Below. Vincent trusts you, and that goes a long way with me a very long way. But since Catherine disappeared, his need has been so great, his anguish so overwhelming "
"You're afraid that leaves him open to anyone who promises any kind of help."
"In essence yes."
"I don't blame you. You've got a lot at stake here. I thought I knew how much, but I had no idea..." She trailed off, looking around her again, shaking her head slightly in amazement. "How long have you people been down here? This looks like the work, the accumulation of a lifetime... Oh, I'm sorry." She interrupted herself, intercepting and correctly interpreting the slight frown on his face. "I shouldn't be asking any questions now. Habit." He nodded.
"I understand you are a police officer."
"Missing persons? Vincent tried to explain, but I'm still a little unclear... "
"Basically, it's anything really serious and unsolvable. Kidnappings, murders, serials ugly stuff, usually. People at total risk or already gone. .I'd really like to be able to bring one home safe, whole, physically and otherwise. Knowing Vincent hell, even before Vincent, just knowing Joe " She looked at him, eyebrows raised, and continued when he nodded his recognition of the name "I'd especially love for it to be this one. Believe me, I'm due. Overdue, in fact." This last was spoken more to herself than to him. It conveyed a great deal to him, nonetheless. Her eyes, which had seemed for a moment to be looking at a far different scene, met his again, and held. He looked back, and then there was a shift. Neither of them could have defined it, but both were aware of it. Without slumping, Diana relaxed in her seat, the easy chair living up to its name at last. Father leaned back as well, confident that Vincent's vulnerability had not led him astray. As Vincent returned with the tea tray, he glanced quickly back and forth between them, and released a small sigh of relief.
"Here's our tea," he said, almost casually. As he set down the tray, something caused him to look up. He did not miss the flicker of movement from the upper level, but couldn't be sure whom he had seen ducking out of sight. He had few doubts as to the mystery observer's identity. His only real question was: Which one of them? Or was it both?
Father tried in vain to quell the storm of protest that had broken out. As he lifted his hands, trying to regain control of the meeting, he was able to speak to Vincent without being heard by anyone else.
"I know now how you felt when you approached me," he said ruefully. "Knowing you'd have to get past this stage before you could even hope to have a rational discussion..." He shook his head. "I almost wonder that you even tried."
"It was necessary." Vincent was half-turned away from the circle of agitated, gesticulating Council members. "I only hope they calm down as quickly as you did. With William on the scene, I doubt it."
"I'm afraid you're right," his father agreed. "Once William gets to the boiling point, he's like one of his pots. There's a lot of steam, and heat, and sizzle generated, and he doesn't cool off until all of that has had a little time to dissipate. And there are a number of the others who generally feel as he does. They're a bit quieter about it, because they're letting him take the lead."
"Yes, you're right. They seem to be settling somewhat. Shall we make another attempt? Do you think they're ready for an explanation now?"
"Not only ready, Vincent. They are about to demand one. I just pray what we give them will pacify them and persuade them."
"As do I, Father."
The meeting had continued for a considerable time. After the initial flurry of dismay and automatic rejection, there had come a long period of attentive listening. Once the group understood that their decision would be final, their violent objections had diminished. Father had been able to make clear to them that he had reacted the same way, had expressed the same fears and concerns, but that Vincent had been able to respond to all of these, and that he was now convinced of the wisdom of accepting Diana Bennett Below. "As what?!" had come the question, his own question, from William (of course).
"As a friend," had been the reply.
"Please," Vincent had pleaded, "let me tell you about her. I will tell you what I know of her, from what she has told me, what I have witnessed, and what I feel in my heart. Father will confirm that he believes I am right about Diana about what kind of person she is, and what she hopes to accomplish by coming here. We will share all this as fully and freely as we can. Then it is in your hands."
There could be no objection to this, and Vincent was bidden to proceed. He took a deep breath and began. When he finished, he answered questions put to him, those that had not been answered during the narration. Father then related his experience of meeting Diana (though not its location), his impressions of her, and his conviction that no harm, and possibly some real good, could come to their world through her. He finished by adding his petition to his son's.
Now all fell silent. It was a comfortable, a familiar silence. This stage of the proceeding was known to them. Sometimes they needed no time for reflection. Usually that was when approval came easily, almost by acclamation. In more equivocal moments, they waited for no one could have said what, exactly. Someone would shift position, a throat would be cleared, and everyone would realize they were ready. Father would call for a motion, or a vote, and a decision would be made. This time it took longer than usual.
After some minutes, the signal came. William stirred in his seat, coughed slightly. Father and Vincent exchanged the briefest of glances; of course it would be William. But what would he say?
"I still have a few doubts," he began. "But I trust your judgment, especially since you both seem so sure about this woman. As long as she's guided in and out, and kept as much as possible to one area, one access route, so that we could close her out without too much trouble if we had to " looking at once apologetic and defiant "I don't see where it can do much harm. She's figured out so much already; better we have some control over her; know where she's going and what she's seeing. I vote aye."
Other voices followed in William's resonant wake. Mary said "She sounds like a very sensitive person. She would be a good Helper; think how much Catherine has been able to do because she has an official position. This Diana might be able to do some of the same kinds of things." Her voice trailed off briefly as she met Vincent's pained eyes, then rose firmly again. "Think of what they'll be able to do working together, one in the District Attorney's office, one in the police!"
"Quite right, Mary!" Father responded, just a shade too heartily.
Cullen was the next to express his opinion. "As long as she understands how it is with us down here, and doesn't push. One reason some of us are here is because we value our privacy. And even if we're really easy-going with people," (several of the others looked at each other and smiled) "when you live as close together as we do here, you have to be careful not to get in other people's faces too much. Y'know what I mean?"
"Yes, Cullen, I believe we do," Father rejoined gravely. He did not let the smile he felt peek through. Cullen could be prickly at times. It wouldn't do to offend him needlessly. He was especially sensitive to slights, real or imagined, since the incident of the treasure ship. He had had a hard time forgiving himself; he still sometimes looked for hostility in others. Pascal voiced the opinion held by what might have been called the other faction, if this had been the world Above, and the two sides adversarial instead of seeking consensus. He simply said, "lf you two think she's all right, and you take the precautions you've said you will, it sounds okay to me." Murmurs and nods indicated agreement from many.
Vincent kept an eye, unobtrusively, he hoped, on Jamie and Mouse. They stood together, at one side of the circle, talking to each other, as the conversation went around the room. After William had spoken, it had been pretty much a foregone conclusion how the eventual vote would go. Jamie generally inclined, like William, toward caution. With William's approval announced, Jamie would normally follow suit, not because she was ever less than independent, but because she typically saw things from the same perspective.
It was not her vote, per se, that had Vincent concerned. He knew that she had witnessed Diana's unauthorized visit Below. He knew that she and Mouse between them probably knew just how much Vincent had taken upon himself, without anyone else's approval save Father's and that too could be troublesome. The Council might think again if it were informed just how irregularly its two leaders had behaved. Their judgment, Father's and Vincent's, might be somewhat more suspect in light of such behavior. Vincent held his breath. If a revelation were to come, it would almost certainly be now.
"It would seem that we are ready for a vote," said Father, pitching his voice to carry above the general murmur that now pervaded the chamber. The conversation subsided, and then ceased. In the pause that fell between the cessation of talk and Father's next words, Vincent suddenly found his watching met by Jamie's clear gaze. She looked directly into his eyes, her face serious, but unclouded. Although her expression did not relax, its steadiness calmed his anxiety. After a moment, she gave an almost imperceptible nod. He inclined his head a fraction in response, and gratitude. Once again, she had trusted him. He hoped, profoundly, that he might always be worthy of such trust.
The vote was taken, and, after all, approval was unanimous. Diana was to be welcomed, though her knowledge of the ways in and out would be limited. Catherine's entrance, one near her own building, and the drainage tunnel would be shown to her. She would be taught enough pipe code to summon help or convey basic needs, and she might be introduced to a few more Helpers. This, everyone agreed, would permit her to reach them as needed, without compromising security overmuch. As to her mission, everyone agreed to talk freely to her about Catherine; what they might choose to tell her of themselves was entirely up to each individual. Everyone seemed well satisfied.
The bicycle messenger she knew as Benny found Diana on the corner outside her loft.
He screeched to a perfect stop, handed her a small envelope, smiled, and was gone, maneuvering his way back into traffic with a fluid ease that left her impressed despite her usual imperturbability. How many of them, she wondered, come and go before our very eyes every day and none of us the wiser. She opened the envelope and smiled as she read the message within: "Welcome."
Thwack! The dart missed the center of the target, joining its fellows in an irregular ring which left the bull's eye completely void. Joe looked at the target, muttered a distracted "Shit," and returned his attention to the woman who stood before him once again. "So?"
Diana returned his gaze calmly. Her manner seemed, as always, contained. He could not see, and she hoped he could not sense, the tension she was channeling to the fist she had clenched in her deep right-hand pocket. "So nothing new, I'm afraid. So far."
"What about Vincent?"
"Nothing new," she repeated. "What I told you about before that's all there is. I still think he's real, and important in her life but I can't find anything more to take me anywhere on him. Look, you're as close to her as anyone these days, and you never heard of the guy. Same with Jenny. You both had no inkling, a coupla hints, maybe, that there was someone; that's as far as it went. Jenny didn't know his name either. It's pretty amazing, actually. But there it is. All the clues that identify him are in the apartment, and they don't lead anywhere outside it. How they managed it, I can't figure out. I almost began to doubt it myself, in spite of the name showing up. I mean, what woman could be that involved with a guy, and tell no one, and leave no traces of when, where, how? For a little bit, I thought maybe what I found was from way in her past, just mementoes. But then I thought about the ten days again, and it still adds up the same way.
"Besides, it explains the total apparent lack of a social life for two years. I mean, I know what kind of a boss you are, and that she was trying to prove herself and all; but two years? All the woman seems to do is come to work, put in long hours, and go home. No dates, no activities a few events with her dad before he died, a few with Jenny or a couple other girlfriends. But two years? This secret love thing covers that. I know, anyone working for you is gonna be dead tired, but not for two solid years. The woman had to have something in her life that wasn't showing up. Vincent does seem to be the answer to that."
"Yeah, well, we knew that two weeks ago. You telling me all that leads you nowhere?"
"'Fraid so, Joe. As I said, the clues to his existence are there, but that's all. They don't point anywhere, lead anywhere outside of that apartment. However they met, wherever, where they spent time together, if they did no answers for any of that."
Joe repeated his earlier expletive, with more feeling. "Does that make it more likely he could have helped her or caused her to disappear?"
"I don't think so. He was a mystery for a reason for this whole time, not just now. I don't see how her having vanished and remember, there's a reason she vanished when she did ties in with his being secret all along. Besides, I come back to what we agreed before."
"That if she was with someone friendly, there would have been some word for me."
"Right. I had hoped this Vincent would be looking for her too, and we could put our heads together. You know that's what I was expecting to come up with when I went looking for him."
"Yeah. You still think he might know something that could help us? If you could find him?"
"Y'know, now I tend to doubt it. If she's not with him and we agree we don't think she is and if their time together was so confined that there's no trace of it anywhere in the outside world then where could he look that we haven't? See what I mean?"
"The only place he knows about that we don't is wherever they spend time together and she's not there."
"Exactly. So, I'm frustrated but I don't think we're any worse off than we were before." The fist remained tightly clenched in her pocket, although her voice betrayed no tension; she spoke lightly, almost casually. She awaited his reply, now afraid to breathe.
"Guess that makes sense as much as any of this does," Joe responded after a moment's reflection.
"So does this mean you're giving up?" He asked the question in a simple uninflected tone; it would have sounded offhanded enough to suggest unimportance to another listener. Diana heard not disinterest, but despair.
"No, Joe. I don't give up." Her answer, too, was quiet, without special emphasis. It came easily; she was glad to be able to speak truthfully to him at last. It had been painful to lie. Only knowing that the larger truth, that Vincent did not know where Catherine was, made the lie possible at all but it hurt, all the same. She was relieved to have it behind her.
"I can't tell you exactly how, right now, Joe, but I keep looking. I keep going."
"Thank me when I find her, Maxwell."
"So how do we go with this? Do we just wander around and meet people, casually? Do I make appointments? What?"
"This is your area of expertise, Diana. What do you usually do?"
"I usually approach as near to one-on-one as possible. With families, you often have to meet them together; you may be able to get them alone later. But this is different."
"How different? In what way?"
"Think about it, Vincent. Up there, sure, I'm walking into a stranger's home. But I'm still on familiar ground; I'm still in my own world. I have to feel out the atmosphere, the dynamics, if ya wanna get jargony about it but I know how things work in general. Here, all bets are off. You seem like nice, decent people, from what I can tell but even that throws me. Most of the world Above, especially what I see of it, is not nice and decent. And I'm on sufferance here anyway. I'm here because people are letting me be here. Normally, I'm the cop. I have the right to go anywhere, even if people don't want me there. See, it's all upside down and inside out, and I don't want to rub folks the wrong way. So how do you think I can approach them so they'll be okay with it, be comfortable?"
"The fact that you are asking this shows the concern that will put them at ease with you, I think. It will probably work out best if we simply go to where people are working, and spend a little time with them in ones and twos. I think... "
"Whatever you say, Vincent," she agreed, her gravity matching his. They both worked hard at not laughing. This day (which found Diana feeling something she finally identified, much to her surprise, as stagefright) followed by a scant two days her visit from Benny, and by only one her report to Joe Maxwell. She still felt some guilt about deceiving him, but assuaged it with the idea that she was actually working to bring about what he hoped for most. A message had reached her, slid under the door of the loft building's entryway, arranging this meeting with Vincent.
As they began the process, Diana met people who made cloth and candles; painted furniture and peeled vegetables; carried bundles and cared for babies; sewed and sang, tended and taught. Everyone talked with her about Catherine, some easily, with smiles and tears equally free-flowing; some as though the mechanisms for both talk and tears were stiff with lack of use. She had her basic lessons in pipe-talk from its master, who found her a quick study and a quiet companion. When he broke off from time to time to listen to the ongoing conversation of the Below world, she sat without fidgeting or asking extraneous questions. He approved of this in a person, finding it rare.
It was Pascal who told her about the early, abortive rescue attempt, too painful for Vincent to describe: how Catherine had managed to signal her location, all traffic on the pipes having been silenced to allow them to hear just such a message; how Vincent, at last able to release into action all the pent-up rage, fear, and frustration, had raced to the warehouse where she was being held. How he had burst into the building, solid walls, steel doors, and armed men as nothing before the fury of his assault; how he had paused on a landing and looked out a window, only to see her being hustled into a limousine on the street below. How he had hurled himself through the window onto the roof of the car, roaring out his fury. How his memories of the next few seconds were sketchy, but almost certainly included the snapping of a head on its spinal stalk, and most definitely included reaching into the car again, only to feel his hand close around a knife blade. In the next instant, he snatched his hand back, the car accelerated, throwing him off, and he recovered himself only to see the car already down the block, disappearing into the misty night too quickly for even his incredible speed. He was helpless to do anything but scream out her name in renewed anguish.
As the gentle little man related this sequence of events, Diana seemed to experience them as though she had been there, seeing it all through Vincent's eyes. It was perhaps the most devastating part of the whole story, and she ached for Vincent's pain. Pascal could see this in her face, and it did much to win him over; anyone who cared for Vincent deserved his help. So, after she had had some time to absorb this new piece of the story, and had determined that they had made every effort to glean any scrap of information the warehouse might have offered, and been sure that the trail had gone totally cold again (while bitterly regretting that she had not been part of the investigation at that point, when her special talents might have found something they could not), they went on to chat a little about Catherine as Pascal had known her. Diana felt, as always seemed to be the case, the warmth the young woman had inspired here. While she felt ever-closer to understanding who and what Catherine was, she was not a whit closer to where she might be.
"Joe, they want me to take another case."
"But Diana "
"I know. But think about it. I'm stopped. Not just stuck stopped. I can make a lot out of a little, but I can't make something out of nothing.
"You said you weren't giving up!"
"I'm not. This is a new situation for me, Joe. No body; no crime scene; no clues. And no perp. No trail to follow. I got as far as Vincent, but that turned out to be a dead end. That's half the picture."
"Half? Whaddya mean, half?"
"Consider the source. Moreno agreed to have me on the case mainly as a concession to you, and so no one could say the department hadn't done everything it could to find Cathy Chandler. Knowing what we know about Moreno, he has to have been holding his breath. Now some time has gone by; I've come up empty; he can legitimately say 'Enough.' The case they want me to work is right up my street a kid, kidnapped for ransom, but with some real creepy overtones. The kid's still alive, they're sure of that; we've got a real shot at getting her back. I'm being told carefully, 'cause they know how I am but told, all the same. I'm needed on this one, I can pull it off, and I'd better do the job and earn my paycheck."
"But you've never left a case unresolved, Diana."
"I know that better than anyone. But remember who we're dealing with here. He can say he did his best for you and Cathy, he can say this wasn't really my kind of case to begin with, but he was ready to try anything, and now it's time to get back to business. And you can't really fault him on the face of it. You and I know he's got a hidden agenda. But we've got one of our own, and he doesn't know about that. So I take the case. Maybe I can save the little girl, and that's worth doing."
"'Course it is. Sorry; I'm just so one-track about this... "
"I know. It's really weird for me. But I truly am facing a blank wall right now. I've got feelers out on the street and up here." She raised her hands slightly above her head and waggled them a little. Joe smiled grudgingly. He couldn't help it; the picture of Diana with antennae gently waving above her head was too vivid.
"If anything anything at all comes in to me, from either direction" they smiled at each other "I'll be back on it, you have my word."
"And youll let me know? Whatever happens?"
"Even if nothing happens, I'll keep you posted. You keep an eye on Moreno. You're the one in a position to do that. If you spot anything from your end, you let me know."
"You got it. Damn, it's hard, thinking of him like that. Gonna be harder playing it like I don't know anything, don't suspect anything."
"You've got to, though, Joe. It's our only chance for any leads from that direction."
"I know, believe me, I know. I'll manage somehow. For Cathy's sake."
"And your own, and everyone else in this city. If he's dirty, who knows where it goes?"
"I don't even like to think about it. I'll stay with it in the office. You do what you can what you have to."
"Right. Hang in there, Maxwell."
Diana was more uncomfortable than she had let on to Joe. It was true; never before had she taken on a second case while she still had one before her unconcluded. It was all the more complicated, because while Moreno thought she had simply tried and failed, and while Joe thought she was trying, but had stopped for the time being, she knew that the case was in fact still very much ongoing. She was in frequent touch with Vincent, and was in the early stages of her quest for information from the people dwelling in that other world Catherine had belonged to. There might still be no leads after all that, but she had not finished with her information-gathering. Given that, how could she take on another case especially one of this kind, the kind that always absorbed her to the exclusion of all else? And yet, she could see no way around it, except to ask for leave time, and she didn't have it coming right now, and couldn't justify it on a hardship basis. This time spent on the Chandler case had practically been a vacation for her, compared to her usual work. No, she was in a totally new situation, and would have to find a way to deal with it.
"I can take a break from Cathy's case; all I'm doing is trying to find out more about her, getting to know her better. If there were some actual clue, some trail to follow coming from Below, Vincent and his people would have known it, would have pursued it. I'll explain the situation to Vincent. He'll understand." She regretted the disappointment she foresaw for him, but knew that he would, in fact, understand, in a sense of that word that would be new to her experience. That thought, at least, was comforting.
Diana was not at all sure that she herself understood. These were indeed uncharted waters. She was still exploring the Chandler case but not in her usual solitary fashion. She was not brooding, alone in her loft or at the crime scene not any longer. Instead, she was involved in a process of reaching out to people, trying to draw them to her, make them like her, or at least trust her, and share their impressions; before, she had always concentrated single-mindedly on her own. It was a new and different process. Perhaps she could work on two cases at once as long as only one of them was of the old kind. Perhaps going outward would not be the same as going in, and she could do both. She would just have to try it and see.
And so began a period in Diana's life unlike any she had known. It seemed to her almost schizophrenic. Before, she had been, by normal standards, solitary. Her life had been lived in two phases working on a case, and not working. When not working she had had some social contacts her sister, her brother-in-law, her niece. There was not a lot of family to draw her in, involve her in their busy lives. There had been a few men most recently, there had been Mark. But as he had finally discerned, she had never been able to let them all the way in, let them get truly close. She couldn't afford to. She couldn't let herself be that open, that vulnerable, and then go and do her work. The shields could never come all the way down, because when she worked, they had to come up again, and they had to be impenetrable. Otherwise she would not have been able to let down those other, those special guards inside her, the ones that allowed her to open her mind to the sad, sick, frightening people she hunted. These were very particular doorways inside her mind; she visualized them as tall but narrow openings in thick, solid walls. They gave her a clear vision to the other side, allowed a free flow of thoughts and feelings, but no spillover beyond their parameters. They permitted access, but she could slam them tightly shut, deny that access if need be. And this was a place where she had to be undistracted, emotionally all her own. It had always been like this for her. Now it was all different, and she was at a loss to know how this would work or if it would.
Diana prepared for bed, substituting a long, shapeless shirt for the sweater (only slightly shorter and less shapeless) she had worn that day, keeping her socks on. (Her feet were always cold.) As she gave her face a quick swipe and brushed her teeth, she looked at and past her reflection in the mirror, not really seeing the oval face, the delicate coloring and red hair, the eyes almost too big; the beautiful mouth often compressed into a tight, determined line. She followed her thought. Schizophrenic isn't the word. That means something specific nowadays; a chemical imbalance, an electric misfire in the brain. Causes the world to be distorted. They hear voices, see things that are as real as, or more real than the world around them, and they react to that inner vision. That's a lot of my targets. When people used to say schizo, they meant split personality. That's not right either. What do they call that now? Multiple personality disorder? Something like that. And it's usually more than one other person. Most often it's several, or lots, and maybe only one or none know all about the person's whole life. It's a protection against what can't be faced. Maybe that's me sometimes, but that's not my life right now. Just the opposite. It's more like I'm a spy, one person living two lives. I can be myself Below, 'cause I don't have to hide anything there.
It's like I'm undercover in my real life! "Pretty funny," she murmured to herself, still gazing at, but not really looking into, her own eyes. "More than that, though. I'm divided inside myself. It's not just one set of facts with one bunch of people and another with another.
"I've got pictures up on my bulletin board again; pictures of a pretty little girl; her room, her toys; her folks. I've got the first ransom note and I've got one creepy feeling that goes with it. I've got the marks of forced entry into her room, and the basic M.O. That's on my wall. I've got notes in my computer; but there, where I would usually have all my thoughts about the case, and anything else that might be on my mind, because all that might be on my mind would be about the case somehow, even if I didn't see any connection right away now, I'm censoring myself, even on the computer. Because I'm also gathering well, not evidence, exactly, but data about Cathy Chandler. Oh, sure, I've got two files going in the computer that should solve it, make it easy, all right. Just boot up the right disk. The one about Cathy or the one about little Alyson. But that's not how it works.
"I'm used to putting down whatever I'm thinking, and it all feeds in, all goes in one direction. This is really hard! Really, really hard. Maybe I need a third disk for my thoughts, not about either case? No. I'll splinter in little pieces if I try to separate myself like that. What the hell am I going to do? How do I make this work? I can't make it work. But I've gotta... "
She wandered from the bathroom into the darkened living room of the loft.
"I can't make it work, make a new way for me to function. I've just gotta let it happen. I've gotta find a different way to think about it altogether but not force it. If I keep trying to push, to squeeze myself into this new box, I'll explode. Okay, Bennett, let's just think this through. You couldn't back out on Alyson now if you tried; you're into it. Your mind, your senses, your gut everything's doing its thing. You really may be able to pull this one out, and God, would that feel good! The trick is what to do inside myself with the other half of my life.
"This must be a lot like what it was like all the time for Cathy. So that's the way I'm getting into her not with my spooky stuff; just identifying with her circumstances like any normal person would. Okay, so far, so good. My evidence-gathering on Alyson is my own patented Diana Bennett shtick too. Got the regular stuff God, to be so used to this kind of crap I can think of it as regular got that from the department; go to the scene and get my own sense of who, what, how, why come back here and let it start to flow together, follow it where I see it leading. That's my job, that's what I do that no one else does, and this is the case I'm doing it on. What I'm doing on Cathy's isn't about that now. I did it as long as there was any of it to do and it led me to Vincent and to Below. But what I'm doing now isn't Diana Bennett technique. And it's not straight police technique either I haven't just gone back to the beginning of the investigation 'cause I've found more witnesses to question. It's something else, something...
"It's social. That's the word I'm looking for. Weird! I'm meeting people, getting to know them, and finding out what they know about Catherine but it's social! I'm going with Vincent, not alone. I'm on their ground; yeah, ground literally! And I'm meeting them, not like questioning witnesses, but like making friends, and talking about another friend. And if, from all of that, comes something else some hint, some clue, some thread then I go back into police mode. But for now, I'm just making friends. Talking with friends. Like anyone might do..."
The idea startled her. It also soothed her. She finally felt that she had untangled the knot that had been tied up inside her for what seemed an eternity, but had really only been, she realized, a matter of a few days. She thought that she could, at last, go about her life again. She had sorted it out, at long last. Alyson was her case now. Below was, in an odd sense that somehow felt right, her social life. She let out a bark of laughter, startling in the dark loft, had there been anyone there to hear it. "Leave it to you, Bennett, to come up with this for a social life!" Another short burst of laughter broke from her, then abruptly choked itself off, cut short by the darkness, and by the gleam of the faint light from the street reflected off the white edges of the photographs clustered on her wall.
Vincent was waiting for Diana when she arrived at the agreed-upon entrance near Alyson's family's apartment building. Diana had needed to go there again; another note had come, which mentioned something in the child's room. Diana needed to be in the place, try to feel the significance of this detail to the kidnapper, and she came away feeling a real sense of movement, of getting deeper into his psyche, his motivation. This provided satisfaction, but also left her with that special feeling that usually sent her back to her loft with an absolute, passionate need to be alone with her thoughts. She had intended, in fact, to tell Vincent that she couldn't spend time with him Below this afternoon and make her escape as quickly as possible. Had she been able to find a messenger, she would have sent word that she wasn't coming at all, but there had been no chance. So she kept the appointment, planning only to make her excuses and go home. But when she saw Vincent, a warmth, a sense of comfort, washed over her with a force that almost shocked her. What both surprised her and seemed entirely natural was the way he enfolded her in a warm, understanding, and infinitely comforting embrace. They stood together, without words, explanations, reasons, for an uncounted length of time, probably mere seconds, perhaps a few minutes it didn't matter in the slightest. When it was supposed to end, it did. It was that simple. It was a wonder.
"Boy, am I glad to see you," she said.
"And I you. You are having difficulty with your case?"
"No, as a matter of fact it's going pretty well. 'Course, what that means is, as far as we know the girl's still alive, and I've got more to go on to figure this guy out. The bad part is he's still got her; the good part is, I think I know enough now to get to him, and my gut tells me he won't kill her. I don't think he knows how close we are. Some of 'em do. They're like the other side of the coin."
"I see." There was a world of understanding, of empathy in the simple phrase. She remembered what he had only hinted at regarding his own divided nature. What would it be like, she wondered, the thought turning her momentarily cold, to have one of those guys as part of you? All the time? She shivered involuntarily; he put one arm back around her shoulders and squeezed briefly, reassuringly. She moved away from the thought, but not from Vincent.
"Usually at a time like this I need to be alone. I was going to tell you..."
"If that is what you wish, of course..."
"I don't think so. This may not work out; I may have to go back to doing it the way I always have. But I'd like to try this just to see. Let's go ahead with what we were going to do, and I'll see if I can function this way. If I can't, you'll take me home and I'll crawl back into my shell for the duration."
"You do not have to do what does not feel right, Diana."
"I know that. But, see, with you, I can be sure that if I need to pull back, you'll understand right away, no big deal, and I'll be okay till I get home. Not like with most people. Not like with anybody else."
"Thank you for your trust."
"That goes both ways."
When they reached the tunnels, Diana at first saw people she had already come to know a bit. They made the almost ceremonial visit to Father's chamber, were given tea and an equally warm and soothing welcome. Mary brought cookies with the tea, and stayed for a few minutes' conversation. Diana was quiet, but not withdrawn. She checked herself during these moments, examining her comfort level. She found herself surprisingly at ease. This was pleasant she was rarely what she would have described as at ease, least of all when on a case. That thought led to another. If she was at ease, could she still do her job? Would the keen, cutting intelligence and identification process work if she were relaxed and interacting with others? This was crucial, far more important than her own social growth. This was at the heart of what she was, what good she could do in the world.
She became aware of silence around her, and looked up to see polite concern on Mary's and Father's faces.
"Is everything all right, my dear?"
"Diana is. working on something right now, Father, and I believe she is a bit preoccupied with it. Is that right, Diana?"
"Yeah. I mean yeah, sorry Vincent, Father. I get distracted at this stage of things. Don't usually try to be sociable."
"Well, you do whatever feels right, Diana; we'll understand," Mary said. "Just let us know that's what it is, so we won't pester you with questions."
"Maybe I should just stay away."
"Nonsense," Father said briskly. "If being here can be of any help, by all means, come. You don't have to make small talk. We all understand a need to be let alone, down here."
"Yeah, I guess you do." A slight but genuine smile brightened her face.
"Sometimes just being among people who do understand, when you know they care about you, makes all the difference. Without any talk at all. Remember you're welcome here, and you don't need to entertain us with chit-chat!"
"Remember," Vincent echoed. "You may come here for the comfort simply of being here. You may think your thoughts in peace, in solitude if need be yet not alone."
"Not alone..." It was almost too much to take in. "I'm grateful. The only thing is, I still don't know if I'll be able to do the work this way."
"Well, you should soon be able to tell, I expect. For the moment a little more tea?"
A quarter of an hour later found them walking along a corridor Diana had not yet visited. They were on their way to thank the supplier of the cookies.
"I think you'll like William," Vincent said, a suggestion of laughter deep below the surface of his words, "You're both very direct,"
"Now just what do you mean by hey! What was that?" A flicker of motion had caught her eye in a side tunnel. Vincent didn't even look around.
"It was probably Mouse,"
"A mouse? It was at eye-level, Vincent!"
"Not a mouse, Diana. Mouse. You'll meet him when he's ready, but he'll be in the vicinity long before you actually get a look at him,"
"Tell me about him,"
"In time. For now, just be sure that he is a good friend, a kind, gentle person. He's also not like anyone else you've ever met,"
"That seems to be the rule down here,"
They smiled at each other openly, He was pleased to see the strain, for the moment, entirely gone from her face, and to feel it gone from her aura, He only hoped that this would prove to be good for her, would not interfere with her job; he knew, if she had to choose between her own comfort and doing what might save lives, which way her choice would go. He knew only too well; he had had to make a similar choice too often. He voiced none of this, merely continuing to hope she would not have to choose at all,
They found William in his kitchen, preparing vegetables for the evening meal. He had already made and sampled a sauce or gravy. [Whichever,] Diana thought. [It's brown.] He had a dusting of flour on his beard and eyebrows, and a brown spot on the tip of his nose. [Dippin' into the ladle,] she noted, amused. She tried not to show it, but to appear as solemn and respectful as did Vincent.
"William, I would like to introduce Diana Bennett, of whom you have heard, in Council and elsewhere, no doubt."
"It's about time," William grumbled. "Nice to finally see you, young lady." He spoke more kindly as he said "I'm glad you're helping to look for Catherine. We all miss her; we're all very concerned. About him, too." He jerked his head in Vincent's direction as he returned to his work.
"He doesn't eat enough; hardly sleeps at all, 'cording to what I hear. Out 'most every night, looking... Aw, will you look at that!'" he exploded. "Something's been at these carrots! Half gnawed away, some of 'em! Vincent, you've gotta talk to Mouse again. I know we've got no mice or rats; you know what's left." His words were ominous, "If I catch that Arthur in my larder..." He left the threat unspecified.
"I will do what I can, William, I'm sure Mouse didn't deliberately allow"
"Makes no difference. The vegetables are ruined. If he needs some for him to chew, he just has to ask; I won't say no. But he can't let Arthur run loose, That damn little beast takes one bite out of every carrot in the bunch; look at this!" He waved a bunch of carrots in Vincent's and Diana's faces; they were indeed gnawed in many places,
Diana ventured, "Most of them seem okay. You could probably use them; I know it's a lot more trouble to cut away the chewed parts," She choked slightly on the words, fighting hard not to laugh. William gave her a suspicious glare, looking out from under his eyebrows.
"Sure, if somebody has the time to cut 'em up in little piddly steps like that, I've got an army to feed here; I can't be fussing over every carrot'"
"I could do it while we talk a little about Catherine? Could we, Vincent?"
"I don't see why not. We're here to spend time with people, but we have no wish to interfere with what needs to be done, We would be glad to help, William'"
"Sounds all right to me, I can always find time for people who know how to make themselves useful. Now, Catherine was like that, once she got to know about things down here for all that she's just a little bird of a thing, she appreciates good cooking. You'd be amazed what that little girl can put away"
After a surprisingly comfortable hour with William as dinner moved from preparation to readiness, and an equally enjoyable hour more while it was eaten, Diana and Vincent were talking again as they headed back to her entry point.
"William doesn't just cook big he's good," had been her first remark once they were alone.
"Yes. It was very wise of you to tell him so. Even more important, he had seen that you really liked his food. If you had complimented him after only picking at it, he would never have respected you again."
"You didn't do much more than pick yourself. He said you hadn't been eating."
"I have little appetite these days." The words were flat, and the voice without its normal rich timbre.
"You can't keep up the search without enough food, or sleep not forever. I know. I've gone that route lots of times. You can do it for a while. You can probably do it a lot longer than most. But not forever. Not even you. And if you crash who's there for Catherine?"
"Thank goodness you are, now. That helps, more than even you can know, Diana. I promise you I have slept a bit more, and more easily, since I've come to know you, known you were looking too. I will try to eat more if only to avoid the terrible wrath of William." His voice again held the richness of tone, the shades of feeling she recognized.
"You'd better," was all she said, but she echoed the heartier sound in her own voice. "Or I'll sic William on you myself."
"Anything but that," he responded, recoiling in mock horror. "I promise."
"Good." They parted in a gentle glow of good food and friendship.
When Diana and Vincent were next together, they were in his chamber, speaking intently. Several days had passed, days she had spent entirely caught up in her case Above. She had only peripherally even been aware of the amount of time that had elapsed, so involved was she in the unfolding events.
"We're almost there, Vincent." Her voice was hushed, but excitement was evident in it to Vincent, who was now so tuned in to the subtlest nuances in her speech. "He's called twice more. He let the kid talk to the mother the second time - she's okay. She's a brave little girl - she's only eight, but she's got control of herself. She seems to understand instinctively what keeps him from getting crazier; shes almost motherly when she talks to him, like when she gave the phone back to him. There was a quaver, but she said something like 'Now it's your turn to talk again. You talk nice to my Mommy, and she'll be nice to you too.' And he did. He almost let us trace him; he seemed to want to talk to the mom. Not like he wanted to torment her - like he wanted a mom for himself. Luckily, she was strong too, and played along really well. I was proud of both of them."
"So you think you are near the end?"
"Definitely - but it's hold-your-breath time for sure. He's still a psycho, and we still can't be sure what the one wrong move or word would be that would set him off the other way."
"We are all praying for you, Diana."
"I know. That is so strange for me, Vincent, to know there are all these - all these people who know about me, know about what I'm doing, and care about me. But you know this was the real test. And it did work."
"You were not divided, to the detriment of your work, then."
"No. I wasn't. During the last - what's it been, three days? - during the last three days, I've scarcely been conscious of the existence of anyone or anything outside of my loft, my bulletin board, my computer, and Alyson's home. I don't know what I ate - or if I ate. I know coffee - endless coffee. I probably slept a few hours in there somewhere; I can't say. It took over, same as always. My focus was total. The world didn't exist. Neither world - Above or Below. I did my work, my way."
"I am very glad, for everyone's sake."
"Me too. I didn't want to think of giving up - all of you, all of this."
He didn't even have to say "But you would have." It went without saying.
"But, you know what else, Vincent? Maybe I am a little schizo - or whatever I should call it - after all. Because as completely as I was concentrated, as totally as everything else was blocked out - I still, somewhere deep, deep down - felt you, and behind you, all the others I've met, and even those I haven't met yet. You were just - there, way down deep - literally. A little touch of comfort, of something there supporting me, of my not being all alone with my own self and this thing I'm dealing with. I was afraid before that if I felt anything like that, I wouldn't be out there as far as I needed to be. That if I was anchored instead of adrift, I couldn't go wherever it needed to take me. But it wasn't like that. I was as free as ever, but without that little edge of panic. You know, I may actually have been even better, because I didn't have to wonder if I was going to lose myself in the flow. Now, I know I'm safe, so I can let go completely. I don't have to hang onto myself by so much as a fingernail, because I'm still connected, without any effort. That's amazing - to be so free, because I'm connected."
"It is what has kept me sane for most of my life," Vincent responded simply. Diana looked back at him with wonder for once open in her face.
"I see that now," she whispered. "God, yes. I understand."
They sat quietly for a moment. Then - "Vincent? What's wrong? What is it?" A short, sharp motion of his hand silenced her, and she waited for him to be ready to explain the odd look she had seen on his face. It had twisted in a way totally unfamiliar to her; she had thought she knew all the expressions of that face.
"A flicker...a twinge...almost a pain."
"Where? What kind of pain?"
"Not really a pain. Or rather, yes, a pain, but a good pain. I'm sorry. I am being very unclear..."
"Take your time."
"As when something has gone to sleep, and is coming back to life."
"Pins and needles?"
"Where?" she repeated.
"Here." He placed his right hand over his heart.
"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked, alarmed.
"Quite sure. I don't mean a pain like a heart attack, Diana. It was...a flickering..." His eyes, lowered as he tried to find the means of expression he sought, lifted now to hers, and a light had come into them that could have made her envious, if she had been that kind of person. "It was...the place inside me where Catherine lives."
She looked at him, stunned. "You're sure? Forget that - stupid question. Of course you're sure. You could hardly mistake that for anything else, or rather anything else for that. Could you?"
He shook his head gravely, but the joy had not left his eyes. It was intensified by the film of tears that now swam over their blue surface. "Too brief to get any sense of direction; too brief even to get a clear reading of her feelings. Just - a strong, unmistakable sense of her- her life, her presence."
"Vincent - I'm so glad. It's a start; and it's a huge step forward. You must be so relieved, to feel sure she's alive, really sure."
"But I was always sure of that, Diana."
"How? When your bond went dead -"
"Still, I knew she was not. Even though I could no longer feel her, I just knew that if she were truly gone, there would be - more. I don't know what. Just more. A void, rather than a flatness, perhaps. I cannot explain."
"Don't try. No need. No point. Vincent - the next time it happens, if it lasts long enough - I'd like to hook up with you. Maybe I'll get something you won't, just because you're so involved in the emotional aspect of it. Maybe I can get something more matter-of- fact - like a sense of place, or direction. I'd like to try."
"It is what we had been hoping to do, is it not?"
"Exactly. Even if I can't get anything that concrete, I'd like to see if I could get a sense of her too, through yours. Once I can wrap up Alyson's case, I'll try to stay as close as I can."
"Fine. Youre welcome to use a guest chamber, and stay down here altogether for a time, if you wish it. The rest of the community is still waiting to meet you."
"Sounds great. I'll be ready for a break after this one, and nobody - not Joe Maxwell or any six other guys - is gonna keep me chained up."
In an antiseptic white room, Catherine Chandler fought hard to control her breathing, to maintain an expressionless demeanor. She knew the monitors would have picked up the involuntary jolt that had passed over her body; she only hoped that after so long with nothing to see, the watchers had grown inattentive. If they had spotted it, what would she say? Just one of those moments when, drifting into sleep, one jerks awake again for no reason. It was common to everyone, she knew. They would believe her. She would tell them nothing else. She would feign not even knowing what they were asking about, in fact. But she knew. The knowing brought such a rush of hope and joy that she feared once again what her reaction might reveal. She took another deep, calming breath, turned onto her side, turned her face into the crook of her arm - and smiled.
"Time to celebrate, Bennett! You did it!"
"He helped this time, Joe!"
"Only because you read him right and knew how to handle him when he made contact. You know the guys on the detail wanted to go a whole nother way."
"Yeah, I'll remember that conversation for a while. Thanks for backing me up like that, Joe."
"Well, hell, you were brought in because this is your specialty. It was too stupid to believe that they weren't going to do it your way. Idiots!"
"Delicately put. And accurate. When I think what he probably would've done if they'd rushed it when I got a location..."
"Don't think about it."
"Can't help it, once in a while. I try to get rid of it ASAP. Listen, Maxwell, I need a break; I'm taking some of my vacation time, and I'm not even sure when I'll be back. Howd'ja like that?"
"I'll cope. Hey, it's no skin off my nose. You're not in my department anyway."
"Hey, that's right. I've been seeing so much of your shining face lately, I almost forgot."
"Sorry 'bout that."
"Hey, it's an okay face. Hell, I guess any face would look good to me right now. Knowing Alyson is safe, and we didn't even have to take the guy out. She'll be able to get over it a lot faster without a scene like that would've been coming back to haunt her."
"Get back to my face. I'm trying to be insulted here. Any face would look good, huh? Thanks a bunch."
"It's a nice face, and put a sock in it, Joe. I'm gonna disappear for a while. You want a coupla beers and a burger or something before I go? My treat?"
"It'll be hard to eat with a sock in it, but yeah, let's give it a try. Where you going, anyway? You make it sound like you're gonna disappear off the face of the earth."
"Something like that."
"It is truly time to celebrate, Diana."
"Is there an echo in my life?"
"I don't understand."
"Sorry. Inside joke - very inside. Inside my own head. My conversation with Joe started the same way."
"And he doesn't even know how much there is to celebrate."
"For sure. I wish I could tell him, Vincent. He cares so much; he's the reason I'm here in the first place, because he cares about Cathy so much."
"I know, Diana. But you have nothing to tell him that he could understand or accept, unless you were to say you had one of your feelings that Catherine is alive and near to us. You could tell him no more than that, and even that would not be strictly true, since you havent felt it yet yourself. It would only confuse him."
"I know. But the certainty that she's alive, within reach, somehow... It would be good to see his face, telling him that."
"It will come, and more. When you tell him about her, youll be able to tell him everything. That she is alive, that she is well, and that she is safe with those who love her."
"You're sure of that too?"
"Yes." The single word carried all the conviction of which he was capable, though he spoke as softly as ever. "But it will not be easy. Somehow, I feel sure of that as well."
"There I'm with you, and I don't need psychic powers for that one. It's never easy."
"Never." She, too, conveyed intensity without volume. Then
"Hey, what happened to our celebration? We got into the gloomies, and that's not right. Alyson's home safe and sound, and Catherine's closer than she's been in months. The world's not such a bad place to be, tonight."
"Agreed, shall we toast the much-improved present and the much more hopeful future?"
"In tea? Why not? I can use it; after celebrating with Joe, my head can stand a little clearing." They clinked their cups, laughing softly, and sipped their tea.
As they talked, first Vincent, then Diana became aware of movement, low to the floor, near the entry to the chamber. Diana raised her eyebrows; Vincent shook his head slightly rather than explaining immediately. "I wonder," he said, as if continuing their conversation, "if Arthur would like a cookie." As he said this, he took one in his hand and dropped his arm down alongside the chair. The dangling morsel was suddenly removed deftly from his fingers by tiny, nimble hands. "I wonder if Mouse would like one too?" he continued, not even looking down at the raccoon nibbling assiduously, turning the cookie in its clever paws. A shaggy, fair-haired head appeared behind Arthur, crouched low, as if trying to appear no larger than his masked companion. He took the cookie and drew back, more skittish than Arthur. "Thanks."
"You're quite welcome, Mouse. Won't you join us for a little while? I don't believe you've met Diana properly."
The young man and his raccoon both tilted their heads to the left, and contemplated Diana with bright, curious eyes for a brief moment. Then Mouse said quickly, "Not now. Gotta go. Projects. In the middle. Just followed Arthur. He must've smelled the cookies."
Mouse gave a little laugh, hurriedly reached for Arthur, and skittered away.
"Wow! He moves fast. What is that?" Diana shook her head, laughing outright. "I mean, I know it was Mouse, but - what IS that?"
"May I?" Father joined them, and was made welcome with another cup of tea. He continued the explanation. "He came to us very young, but past the point of ordinary language acquisition. He had apparently had too little family life to develop the social and conversational skills, but his mind is quick, and he has real gifts. I don't want you to think he's - are you familiar with the phrase 'idiot-savant?'"
"I'm not sure it's still the current term, but in any case it doesn't apply to him. He is a mechanical genius, but he is also quite bright in other ways. He simply doesn't waste words. His language is his own sort of shorthand."
She nodded again in response to an inquiring look. "Among his other gifts are those of friendship and loyalty. If he accepts you, you will be blessed with those in full measure, and he won't count the cost if you ever need his help in any way." At this point, Vincent excused himself to meet an obligation to a class he was teaching, knowing Diana was in good hands, pleased at how comfortable his old and new intimates were with one another.
"That's quite an endorsement. I hope I meet the test, whatever it turns out to be."
"Provisionally, you will find he'll accept you on our say-so; you're Vincent's friend and mine, so you must be all right. As he comes to know you, he'll make his own decision."
"That's only fair."
"And he and Jamie are friends?"
"Interesting. So many interesting people down here..."
"Yes. We take each other for granted most of the time; it is - refreshing, seeing ourselves through someone else's eyes, someone new. Especially since you are not here as a new member, trying to fit yourself in, to be inconspicuous."
"But I have been trying to be inconspicuous!"
"Yes, my dear, but not in the same way. Those just joining us tend to make themselves over in our image, you might say. They adopt the wardrobe, learn the behaviors, find an occupation as soon as their natures and circumstances permit. You are being unobtrusive, but not trying to disappear into the mix altogether. You remain yourself. I think," he mused, "that you would do so even if you did wish to join us permanently. It is your nature to remain true to yourself. Others, less confident, more wounded, perhaps, need to fit themselves to our pattern, to belong as completely as possible. You could make a place for yourself here at any time you wanted to, I think you know that now; yet you would never lose yourself.
"There was a time when that would have depressed me. I would have thought the chance to lose myself in a world where people are good to each other was a fantasy too good to be true. Now that I have the reality, I'm finding myself better company. Funny, isn't it?"
They shared a companionable silence as they finished their tea.
Tea was served elsewhere in the city. It was good tea, it was hot; it provided no comfort beyond itself. There was no warmth in the rooms where it was being drunk, neither Catherine's cell/cum hospital room, nor the penthouse, equipped with monitors and controls, presided over by a man with a face chiselled in stone. He watched her drink, and sipped his own fine blend. She drank, and sensed his watching. And they both waited. For the first time, she felt she had the advantage. She knew what they were waiting for, and he did not. She had never seen him, but she knew he was the enemy of all she valued, all she held dear.
She waited for contact, and steeled herself to give away nothing to him when it came, not by so much as the rattle of a teacup. She placed hers gently back on its saucer. It made no sound.
There was to be a children's concert. Diana's invitation had been oral, not written, since she was staying in the guest chamber. The irony was not lost on her, however. The invitation behind the photo, with its flowing 'V,' had led her to the basement of Catherine's building, to the storage area, to the little door, and the ladder, and the light. It had given her her first glimpse of Below, and her first chance to show its denizens her sense of the proprieties.
She had not felt free to enter that world uninvited; now she belonged. And all because there was to be a children's concert. This time she was the one going to hear it, because the previous invitee was ... unavailable. Irony, indeed. Her incredible new life was, in a sense, directly at someone else's expense. Since she was doing all she could to remedy that situation, however, she could not feel guilty. She noted the strangeness, and the symmetry. Life was like that, if you were aware enough to notice.
She dressed with a bit more care than usual, wearing a long, old-fashioned high waisted shift dress that Mary had supplied. It was in a faded plum color she would never have thought would look good on her, but in the glow of that special light, things were different. Her hair was pulled back at the neck, and then spilled loosely. She wanted to look nice, but comfort still came first. Vincent came to escort her to the chamber where the concert would take place, and a light but festive supper would follow. He was gracious as always, even courtly, but a bit subdued. She recognized that he, more than she, would be drawing parallels. She thought about offering a comforting remark, and saw that there was none to be given. She put her hand on his proffered arm, and they walked along, talking about the program to come, and greeting the others they met on the way.
"The children did beautifully," Diana said sincerely after the performance. "It's amazing, what you do with them down here. Kids Above don't know from this kind of music to listen to, let alone play. Well, most of them, anyway," she amended. "Sure as heck not the ones I come across!"
"Your sample may be somewhat skewed, I think," Vincent suggested, smiling. "The general population-" He broke off abruptly, his face going blank, his eyes seeing nothing before him.
"Vincent? Is it happening again?" Diana whispered urgently, trying to get his attention without breaking his concentration. He nodded stiffly, as though it was an effort to respond in this realm.
She drew him to a side alcove, sat him down unresisting and, crouching down in front of him, and took both his hands in hers. They lay limp for a moment, and then he returned her grasp firmly, his gaze still elsewhere. She closed her own eyes, and sternly stilled her breathing, ordering her racing heart to slow down, and focused all her self into the surface of his palms where her fingers met them, and into his fingers pressing her hands. Time stopped.
She was familiar with the place inside herself where she went when she concentrated this way. Now, however, she was in a space within a space that wasn't a space at all. She understood that this was the point in Vincent's self where the connection to Catherine had its origin; she began to sense that presence, and feel a flow out from the point in a definite direction, though not one she could have named with any word she knew. It flowed out, and it flowed back. She agreed that there could be no mistaking; Catherine was there, a consciousness, not a memory. What was almost overwhelming, and what she welcomed and wished would go away, was the joy that emanated from both ends of that ribbon of awareness. It was a wonderful, a beautiful thing, but she had no part in it, and it was blinding her as to an identifiable direction, one that could be named, and followed. Then it was gone, and the contact with it.
Diana almost fell, but Vincent's hands still held hers. She stood up shakily from her crouch, then sat down beside Vincent, who looked at her wordlessly, his head moving a little from side to side, as if still looking for what he had been able to perceive a moment ago, and at the same time acknowledging that it had disappeared. She nodded at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "I felt her too. I know what you know. We're all together in it now."
He inclined his head, and then put one arm around her shoulder; they sat side by side for some time. Father came over, concerned about the sequence of poses he had seen. When they looked up at him, he saw in both their faces that something momentous had happened. He could see that it was a good thing, but not the final thing that was needed. They were recovering from the power of the experience, but could not yet act on it. Concrete, geographical knowledge had not yet come to them.
In that other part of the city, Catherine too was trying to control breathing that, despite her best intentions, was ragged, and audible to her own ears. She hoped it was less so to any witnesses. Her heightened sense of being watched was banked down; she usually assumed that meant that though the monitors were still on, no one was looking at her at that specific moment. She had been sitting on the edge of the bed, letting her thoughts drift, recalling music and poetry, things that she loved and that took her away from this place. Suddenly she had felt as if she were literally lifting off the bed, rising into the air and floating on the music; it seemed that she heard it, not just in her memory, but also with her actual senses. It seemed like a concert, like many concerts she had heard below, with Vincent. She could almost see the candle glow instead of the awful empty light... She had gripped the edges of the mattress with all her strength, to keep her physical responses from going off the scales. At the same time, she could not but let her heart rejoice, feeling once again the living, glowing bond from herself to Vincent and back again. She also was aware of something unfamiliar, yet equally benign, within it. She schooled her face to remain impassive, but bathed in that light, that music, for the moments that it continued, and worked even harder to prevent her expression from showing the agony of loss when the light went out, when the music was stilled. It was easier than it might have been had she not now been so certain that it would all return. She could only hope that the timing was right - that it would return before her captor understood it, and that he had seen no light, heard no music now.
Father had not been the only observer after the concert. Jamie and Mouse had not yet given up their careful surveillance of the newcomer; she had been allowed to enter their community, but her status and function were still strange to them, and their trust remained held in abeyance until they understood her better. Since they had both avoided the interviews she had been conducting, they had perhaps made her winning of that trust pretty much impossible; they realized this, but preferred to continue to stay objective for a bit longer.
Now Jamie was definitely suspicious again. She found she did not like the closeness she saw growing between them; she was particularly disturbed by the scene she had just witnessed. It was time to stop keeping watch at a distance; she needed to know what was going on.
Diana saw the approach of the young woman called Jamie with a touch of apprehension. Young indeed she was, but there was clearly a formidable strength of character there, and right now an even clearer sense of purpose and determination. Diana took a deep breath and prepared to meet her calmly, to keep her face open and untroubled. She needed to make Jamie see that they were about the same things, and she could not do that by allowing herself to be put on the defensive.
"What was wrong with Vincent back there?" came the demand, unperfected by introduction or salutation of any kind.
"Nothing was wrong. Just the opposite. Something really good happened. He's started to feel the connection to Catherine again. It comes in little bursts so far, without a warning, so it's a shock to the system when it happens, and it's hard when it cuts off, too. I'm sure you can understand, knowing him so well, and how much it means to him. I'm Diana Bennett, by the way, since we're finally talking," she said matter-of-factly, putting out her hand. Jamie looked down at it for a moment, shook it firmly twice, and then released it.
"Jamie," she responded. "You say Vincent's starting to be able to feel where Catherine is again? Then why-"
"No, unfortunately, not where she is, not yet. We're sure that'll come; we just don't know when. The moments are too short, and there's too much emotional overload when they come. That's where I come in, or hope to. I don't know how much you know about me, a lot, I'm sure, maybe more than I even think, but never mind that now but I have something kind of like Vincent's empathic ability. I use it in the work I do as a police officer - looking for missing kids, stuff like that -" She glossed over the more involved description she sometimes gave, staying with the part that she felt would matter most to Jamie, the similarity with Vincent and the possibility of this helping to locate Catherine.
"When he gets one of these flashes, I'm trying to hook into it. We figure maybe since I'm not involved emotionally, I can get more of a sense of direction from the contact. See?"
"Yeah. Think it's gonna work?" The question was not offensively skeptical, but caution still reigned.
"We hope so. Even if I can't pin down a location either, I'm getting a better feel for Catherine. Maybe I can let them be involved in each other, and sort of take a look around where she is myself. See what I'm getting at?"
"Yeah. Think you can do that?"
The question this time, while almost identical in words, was less mixed in its message, expressing a need for information rather than doubt about the believability of the speaker.
"We hope so." She repeated the answer, because it was the only truth she had to offer, and knew this was what Jamie needed to hear, and would always insist on. If she hoped to win that long-withheld trust, this was the only option.
"Okay then. As long as he's all right. That's really good news, that he's getting it back, the connection with Catherine. Really good. Maybe he'll finally get the rest of the way better now. Okay, see ya."
Diana watched as the girl walked away. She had suddenly seemed much younger as she ended the conversation and departed without amenities, as she had begun it. Jamie might be less socially challenged than her friend Mouse, Diana thought, smiling to herself at the PC designation that came to mind, but she didn't waste words either. Diana Bennett approved.
"May I have a private word with you?"
"Of course, Father." Diana was a little surprised by the slightly strained quality of his voice. She had never known him to be ill at ease. His confidence came from a lifetime of being the one who knew what was best for his world and its inhabitants, or from being sure enough of himself to trust his instincts when in doubt about his actions. Yet he seemed hesitant now. My turn to put you at ease? she wondered.
"How can I help you?"
"In a way, I needed someone's help with this more some time ago, but I would still feel much better if you took charge of it. As a policewoman, it should be rather in your line..."
He seemed to be feeling his way into the subject, trying to find the right way to actually say what he was talking about; she waited for him to find it. She was good at that.
"I don't know if Vincent ever told you about this incident, but some time ago, we had an - an extremely unpleasant encounter, here, Below, with a group of - people..." There was an unmistakable shudder as he continued to grope for the words.
"If you could cope with me..."
"Oh, you, my dear," he responded, with the ghost of a responding smile, "you were a pussycat." She let out a little yelp of combined laughter and protest. "You were harder for yourself than you ever were for us," he went on. "You always meant us good. These people couldn't be talked to. They couldn't be reasoned with. They - we tried - I tried..." He stopped talking, eyes haunted. "I waited too long, was too sure my way was the right way. I will have that on my conscience till the day I die."
"They killed someone? Here?" She was appalled at the thought. She remembered the system of lookouts. She remembered names she had heard mentioned with special undertones as they were spoken. She remembered about Jamie and her weapons. She sighed inwardly, recognizing something she knew only too well in her everyday life. "Nothing is free," she murmured. "Everything costs. Even peace. Maybe especially peace."
He looked at her curiously for a moment. He nodded, and then continued. "There was a point when I felt - impotent. My methods, everything I had believed in, had been useless. I asked Catherine for something I felt would give me back - I don't know, control, I suppose. It was a very primitive instinct, one I'm ashamed of now. Perhaps the psychology of it is even more embarrassing than that." A rueful smile touched his lips for a moment, then his face grew grave again. "I asked Catherine to bring me a gun."
"You're kidding!" There was no suggestion of humor in Diana's face or voice; the exclamation was one of astonishment.
"I'm afraid not. She did, in fact, bring her own gun down, although she had serious doubts about the wisdom of it. She was instrumental, as so often, in saving us from even greater tragedy than that which occurred, although that was bad enough. It was horrifying.
"The gun, in the end, however, was not part of the solution, as you might have suspected all along."
"It didn't seem as though it could have been; not here, somehow."
"No. It was - wrong here. I knew that; I just didn't know what else to do; I lost my way for a time."
"Don't blame yourself for that, Father. We all do, and most of us don't have a way that seems as right as yours. It must have been terrible."
"Yes." He paused a moment, seeming lost in that time that was so hard to remember; then he came back to the present. "I don't ever want to feel like that again. I hope I never do.
"But even if I do, I'll know the gun is not the answer. And it has been a source of worry for me ever since. We value each other's privacy here, as you know. People do not intrude where they are not invited. Still, having this - implement - down here, where it could conceivably get into the wrong hands, has troubled me. What if a child -" He broke off.
"Right." She didn't want to follow that train of thought either.
"Also, for some time, I was very uneasy about it after Catherine's disappearance. Before you came along especially, I..." He turned his face away, seemingly again unsure as to how, or if, to proceed.
"What?" she encouraged gently, feeling that he needed to express this distress to another person in order to dispel it.
"I was deeply concerned about Vincent's depression. I did not know for a certainty whether he even remembered about the gun. There was much he did not remember at first, after his -" He hesitated a fraction of a second, then went on, "his illness. Obviously, I couldn't ask him if he remembered about the gun being here; if he didn't, I clearly did not want to remind him of it. If he did, I didn't want to call his attention to it. He was in such terrible pain, and there seemed so little hope; I feared there might seem to him to be some sort of ironic justice in its being her gun, you see..." He trailed off again, once more in a place she had not been, and one she wanted them all to be free of.
"I understand. I'll take the gun."
He looked back at her, and his face said everything words could not have encompassed; about what had happened, and about what he feared.
"It'll be okay," she whispered. He nodded again, and buried his face in his hands. She reached out a tentative hand; this was not a man you clapped on the back, not someone you touched thoughtlessly, easily. He was warm, and demonstrative, but he was the one who normally initiated or invited the contact. She looked at him. He was still, not weeping, even silently, not asking for comfort. Maybe he still didn't feel he deserved it.
She put her hand gently but firmly on his shoulder, and felt the tension in it lessen. She smiled inwardly, grateful to have had the chance to lighten his burden even this little. He had lightened hers so much.
"There was something - strange - about the connection this time. Something Ive never felt before." Vincent was sitting beside Diana in the chamber she had made her home away from home, having just had another flash of the bond reestablishing itself, but too briefly for Diana to hook into it.
"Well, this whole process is different from what happened before, isn't it? Couldn't it just be that? Like nerves regenerating give all kinds of funny signals, itches and twitches in places that don't even seem related to where the cuts were made, know what I mean?"
"Only too well; I've had enough injuries to understand that part of the healing process. Father will tell you at exhausting length and with many complaints about how many. No, this isn't like that. When I've felt Catherine these last few times, aside from the sheer power of it (and his eyes lit as the memory came), it is the bond I remember. You recall, when the first flicker came, we used the analogy of a limb that's fallen asleep and is coming back; the sensation is strange, but when the foot or the arm does awaken, it feels like itself. So has the bond, until now. It still does; I don't quite know myself how to express this..."
"Take your time."
"The bond is as I have known it; underneath the incredible joy and surprise and relief, it flows like a river that has gone underground and rises into the light again, infinitely brighter for that light, but essentially and eternally the same river."
"Okay, I accept that. What's different, then?"
"I don't know. There is something more, something added. It's almost as though there were another identity involved..."
"Well, that's gotta be me, isn't it?"
"No. I feel your presence there when we can catch the moment together, but it is somehow both part of it and separate at the same time. You are with us, but you are still you. You participate, but do not add anything to the nature of the bond itself . Do you see?"
"Yes. I don't exactly feel it the way you do; I sort of ride along on the current, to stick to the river metaphor. I'm there, but I'm not inside it, even though I'm experiencing it through you, not on my own. God, this is complicated!"
"Yes, and so simple at the same time. So what the added factor is, I cannot say. It puzzles me; it even excites me; yet it does not trouble me. I think perhaps Catherine knows of this, knows what it is, and whatever her distress, this is not a part of it. I can only trust that I will understand in time. I do feel, Diana," he said, speaking more gravely now, "that time is closing in on us. I may be getting this from Catherine; obviously she knows much that we do not. There must be a reason for this long captivity; the book that initiated her kidnapping cannot possibly still be that reason. Whatever it is, it must have a limit, a term." His face twisted slightly as he spoke this last.
"I dont know. I only know that thought has significance. I do know, somehow, that we no longer have much time. We must find her soon."
Time was much on Catherine's mind. The pregnancy was certainly not nine months old; but that did not signify. It had its own duration, its own completeness, and that completion was almost accomplished. She could feel it. The child was ready, ready to be separate and its own. She knew this did not mean it was ready to be parted from her - only from her body. But she knew too that her captor meant to go the further step, and she could only hope that the connection to Vincent, which had been strengthening daily, would be firmly enough established soon enough to thwart that intention. You have to be able to find me, Vincent. You and whoever that other presence is. Funny -its still our bond; but theres someone extra on both ends of it right now. Maybe that's our best hope. You have her help - now! How do I know it's a 'her' - and I have his - and I know it's a him. They have to be enough. It has to be soon. She looked out her window for the thousandth time, the ten-thousandth, perhaps, wondering where he was - but not despairing as before. You will find me, Vincent. But it's got to be soon, now...
"Talk to me about Jamie, Father."
"What do you wish to know?"
"Whatever you feel like telling me. When I look at her, it's like..."
"Never mind. Just - when you think of her, what's the first thing that comes to mind?"
"Many things: strength; impatience; integrity. She's been here most of her life. She's fiercely protective of us, of our world. Very distrustful of Above, and any incursions therefrom." He smiled. "She may be even more suspicious of outsiders than I am."
"Is that because she had bad experiences Above?"
"I don't feel it's my place to go into that. Jamie rarely - no, actually, as far as I know, never - speaks of that phase of her life now, even with those of us who've known her since the beginning. I don't think she's ever shared it with anyone from outside our community - not even Catherine."
"Were they close?"
"After a fashion - eventually. Jamie was very hostile toward Catherine for a long time, and tact is not much in her vocabulary, at least not with those who don't need it."
"Don't need it? I don't quite follow that."
"Jamie is strong, as I said, and by that I mean both physically and in her character. She's good with the children, although as they get nearer the age when they ought to be able to control themselves and think in rational terms, her tolerance decreases. She's fine with old people, too. Anyone who is genuinely not capable of physical endurance, stamina, agility, she treats with kindness. Not thinking maturely and for the good of the community and acting accordingly is harder for her to tolerate, because it's more subjective, more a matter of choices. She is, however, capable of understanding and making allowances. After all, she's seen it happen to her ideal. Her very example of goodness and selflessness."
"Of course. He's been drugged, he's been injured, he's been ill. She knows that even the best of us are not impervious to weakness. But when the weakness seems to her to be self-indulgent - well, then she has no patience, and forgiveness is hard to come by too."
"You said she's good with children and old folks. What about kids her own age? Is she sociable?"
Father thought for a moment. "You must realize, Diana, that while we have a full range of people in our world here, there are not necessarily a great many at any one level. Adolescents and young adults are not our largest group. Jamie gets along with her peers, but I think has little in common with most of them. The girls are taken up with what she would see as 'womanly' duties - not because we insist on dividing the work of the tunnels that way, you understand. Everyone knows what needs to be done and finds what it suits them best to do. Most of the girls do seem to gravitate toward the less physically demanding - and intrinsically more traditional - types of work. Jamie has always been very physical. A tomboy, in the world's terms, I suppose. She has, in her time, taken her share of cleaning and crafting-type chores, but her aptitudes and interests lay elsewhere."
"Sentry duty," he confirmed gravely, but with a twinkle apparent in his eye. "She is excellent - alert, quick, keeps a cool head, thinks of what needs to be done first, and what must come after. She's also" he continued, quite serious now, "excellent with several kinds of weapons. Archery is her specialty. She uses both a standard bow and arrow and a crossbow. Quite effectively." He was positively somber now. It took no further question and no special insight for Diana to know that Jamie's skills had not been tested by target practice alone. The thought of one so young having had to kill, even while living this supposedly safe and sheltered life, was sobering.
"Getting back to something you kind've started to say "She wanted to change the subject a bit, get off the gloomy track they seemed to have gotten onto.
"Mm? What was that?" Father responded, coming out of himself again, as she had hoped.
"You suggested Jamie's relationship with Catherine hadn't all been sweetness and light."
"Hardly that, at least not at first," Father replied with the beginnings of a smile. "She saw something of what I saw - how it took Vincent away from us in some respects - how it actually put him at risk on a number of occasions, many of the things that troubled me, in fact. And for her, it was even more black and white. From my perspective, I could see the positives, at least a bit more. I feared greatly what that love might do to him, but I could also see the flowering in him, in a place left arid and barren for so long..."
"Did Jamie start to see that too? Was that what won her over?"
He smiled, with his whole face, for the first time. "Too subtle. No, I would say Jamie came over fully when Catherine saved Vincent's life - and mine. It didn't hurt, either, that the situation also involved Catherine with Mouse - being on his side against the others."
"I've met Mouse - sort of."
"I recall hearing. Yes, that is how one generally encounters Mouse."
"And he and Jamie are close? Yeah, you told me that when I asked you about him. Interesting."
"Yes, well, they seem to understand each other better than most of the rest of us understand either of them. Obviously, Jamie communicates normally, but she's still very much a loner. I spoke of her as being a tomboy, not having a lot in common with the girls her age. Another thing she doesn't seem to have in common with them, at least not so far, is a typical interest in boys. And since the boys her age are very much interested in the girls..."
"She's not really in tune with them any more either."
"Exactly. Mouse is different. They've found their own wave-length, you could say."
"Reminds me a lot of someone I used to know. In more ways than one."
"A kindred spirit, eh?" He asked the question without mocking, sensing a place in her about which she might feel protective, even defensive. It struck him as familiar. "I think she might find that too, if she gets to know you. She came to love and admire Catherine greatly. Was in awe of her, in some ways. I think she both aspired to and despaired of ever becoming a woman in the way that Catherine seemed to be one. With you, I think she might see someone she could realistically think of as - I won't say a role model. I don't want to put that much of a burden on you! More of a pattern, perhaps. An example of a woman who follows a different kind of path. I think Jamie sometimes worries how she'll ever be fulfilled in a woman's role; it seems to involve so much change from who she is now. You can show her that there can be a different way of doing it - one closer to her own nature."
"Hey, Father, I'm not about to take on a teenage girl as some sort of Girl Scout project..."
"I know, I know," he hastily broke in. "I don't mean for you to - what - 'take her under your wing' or any such idea. I just mean it will be good for her to see you, get to know you a bit - see an alternative way one can live, and be a woman, and go about one's business. A way not like Catherine, and not like Mary, and not like Rebecah. A way that looks more like her. That's all. Goodness," he suddenly chuckled, "you know who you sounded like just then?"
They looked at each other in a rare and welcome moment of perfect understanding.
Almost three weeks had gone by when Diana finally returned to her loft. She looked around her, content to be home. Then she looked around once again, a slight uneasiness beginning to nibble at the edges of her peaceful state. She tried to determine what was amiss. Then she laughed aloud. "Couldn't stand it, huh? Can't really say I blame you."
A Helper had been recruited to come in every few days, to make sure the place was all right, and to water the precious rosebush Diana had taken from Catherine's balcony several months earlier. As she thought about it, Diana marvelled at the passage of time. It had indeed been months, but it seemed at once like the blink of an eye - and like lifetimes ago. In any case, the rosebush was doing fine. But the Helper had not stopped with her original assignment. She had exercised that facility that Diana had denied possessing, in a long-ago conversation with Joe Maxwell. The loft had not been rearranged; nothing important was out of place. The Helper had been discreet, and respectful of Diana's working habits. Everything was free of dust, which it wouldn't normally have been after this long; more than that, though, it was somehow tidier-looking. Without being rigidly aligned, things seemed to belong where they were instead of having haphazardly landed there. It looked like a woman lived in it. Diana chuckled again, ruefully "Joe, I don't know how they do it either. It's nice, while it lasts!" The thought of Joe Maxwell made her mind take on a new direction. I need to see him, she told herself. I can't not, after all we've been through together lately, gotta touch base after my 'vacation. And I'm gonna have to give him some kinda hint. Her inner conversation stopped there, as she began rehearsing ways to tell Joe that something had changed, without telling him what. More to the point, without telling him how - how she knew, how she was pursuing further knowledge; how her own life had changed as completely as Cathy Chandler's after her sojourn in the world Below, and for almost the same reasons. One thing's for certain, she went on in her ruminations. You won't be able to hide it from him this time. Fist in your pocket won't do it. He'll know something's different. So what are ya gonna tell him? As she wandered around the living space she knew so well, trying to isolate what the little changes were that made the effect so different, she tried to find a way to account for the changes she knew Joe would pick up on in herself.
"Well, hi yourself, Diana! Finally resurfaced, huh?"
"Why do you put it like that?"
"Well, you said you were going to disappear, and you really did. I tried to call; message machine basically said Thanks, but don't bother;' and I don't recall getting any postcards..."
"It wasn't a postcard kind of place. Just real peaceful, quiet; soothing. Just what I needed."
"You do seem better. In fact, you seem better than I ever remember you looking. It's like - now, seeing you look this rested and - I dunno, healthy, I guess - I realize you always looked -" He fumbled for a way to say what he meant without being, as he saw where his own words were leading, totally insulting.
"Tired and unhealthy. It's okay, Joe, I know. I see it myself." He looked down and to the side, in a gesture she remembered well, his way of getting past an embarrassing moment.
"So, what've they got there, where you went? Mud baths? Seaweed wraps? Secrets of the ancients? What?"
"Nothing like that, Joe," she laughed. "Just very nice people who make sure you have what you need, then leave you alone when you wanta be alone. Good food, comfortable bed, no phones, no beepers; no nasties. That probably has as much to do with it as anything. I didn't go all that far away, but I got totally away from my regular routine."
"Yeah; but there's more. Isn't there?" He had been studying her face closely as she spoke; in the days before she had found her new sense of herself, before she had gotten used - at long last! - to being a human being with other human beings - she would have been acutely aware of, and uncomfortable with, this scrutiny. Now she acknowledged to herself that she hardly noticed it. This might have troubled her, thinking that her instincts had gotten soft; but she understood that it was because she was, as Below, with a friend.
"No flies on you, Maxwell. You're right. I'm feeling good about something else, too. It probably shows now 'cause I can share it with you; I've really been looking forward to that, in fact. It's nothing hard yet, Joe; I can only give you what I know; but I promise you I do know it. It's real."
"And it's about -"
She could see that he was practically holding his breath as these words came out in a whisper.
"Right. It's about Cathy. I know she's alive."
"My God." He sank into his chair, a blank look on his face. "My God." He looked up at her. "Nothing hard, you say. No physical evidence: you haven't actually located her,"
"Then what? Just a feeling?"
"Yeah, but like an earthquake might be just a feeling if no buildings fell down and no one else was there to feel it with you. More like a - a disturbance in the Force, okay?"
She smiled a little as his face went through contortions - laughter, joy, puzzlement - and went on in the same deliberately light tone, to keep him from pouncing before she finished. "Cosmic proportions, galaxy far, far away, like that - except she's not far, far away. She's close. I know that too. It's almost more frustrating. But only almost. It's - something's changing, something's happening with her; that's probably why I can feel her now, sorta kinda; don't ask a lot of questions now, Joe, I could get tangled up here. In any case, I feel sure this whole thing is gonna break soon. We just need to be on our toes.
"Has anything happened in the office? Anything with you-know-who?" They both looked around self-consciously, aware of the possibility, however remote, that there might be another listener to their conversation.
"Nah. Business as usual. If you hadn't suggested (he leaned on the word slightly, trying to make the exchange seem of less importance) a connection there, it never would even have occurred to me. Maybe that was a false lead altogether." He raised a quizzical eyebrow, as if to say "Can't hurt to try; if someone is bugging me, better make it sound like something trivial or that I don't believe it any more, period."
She lowered her eyelids in a gesture of agreement.
"Okay. Well, it's back to my own little world now. Just wanted to say hi, let you know I'm back in the land of the living if anything comes up you think I might be able to help you with. Hope if it does I can do you more good the next time."
"Just knowing you tried helped, Diana. Made me feel absolutely sure I'd left no stone unturned, you might say."
"Yeah, turning over rocks and looking for the creepy-crawlies under 'em is pretty much what I do. Sorry I didn't find a worm for ya."
They smiled at each other; then she lifted her hand in a little wave, and turned. He saw the crossed fingers behind her back as she went out the door. His smile broadened as he looked down, face hidden from view, and went back to the work on his desk.
They weren't exactly pains, at least not yet. They were definitely something, though, that was for sure. They were strong movements, at intervals, not close enough together to count. Not yet. But she knew the time was not far off, and she wasn't sure they were ready, her still-unseen rescuers. She wasn't sure the link was solid, solid enough to guide them to her and the baby. Not yet, she said to herself, and to the child. Please, not yet.
Vincent came awake to find himself sitting bolt upright. He tried to identify what it was that had brought him so abruptly out of sleep. The tunnels were quiet. It was late; a few sporadic tappings could be heard from time to time, but he knew that after a lifetime spent in the presence of those sounds, they only contributed to his peace of mind; they had been among his first lullabies. He tuned in his extra-sharp senses; there were no sounds of distress, nor the residue of any. He lowered himself back to his bed, still on the alert for anything out of the ordinary. Something had to have roused him; he hadn't felt anything like it since... He sat up again, head cocked, straining with both external and internal senses. Had she called to him? Had he once again, at long last, responded to her cry? He settled back on his elbows, head still up, trying to calm his emotions and focus, concentrate. He had just about convinced himself that he must have, after all, dreamed whatever it was that had awakened him, when it came again. It was not a cry of distress, not from the tunnels, nor from Catherine; but it was coming from Catherine, all the same. And it was coming from another source, as well... Yet it, too, this other source, was in the same place, exactly the same place... He sat up once more, slowly, as though drawn up by an invisible string, and looked within, trying to finally sort out this duality. And then he saw it. It was so clear, so simple - so impossible. But there it was. There could be no mistake. He understood what it was and he knew his connection to it was as certain as life itself. He still didn't understand how this could be so, but that wasn't important just now. All that mattered at this moment was the rhythm that was starting to establish itself, and the timetable that rhythm would soon dictate. He still had time - a little, anyway - and he needed to get help.
Catherine bit her lip, and fought down the sounds that were trying to escape. She glanced over her shoulder, furtively, looking up at the camera aimed at her bed. She took a deep, deep breath, and tried to ease it out, but just then a pain came, and the breath came out a moan. She looked again, despite her best intentions, at the camera, and made another sound, one of mixed fear, pain, and exasperation at her own inability to control. She knew now that they had to be aware of what was happening. They would be coming for her soon.
Diana was dreaming. She was in the tunnels, but their lovely golden light was absent. She couldn't see, but she could hear the tapping that was ever-present in the Below world. Still, that didn't sound quite right either. The slightly hollow, gently clanging timbre wasn't there. Nor was it rhythmic, conveying meaning as it should. Instead, it was just a steady, insistent tattoo, seeming to demand something of her, yet refusing to tell her its message. It continued, becoming still more persistent; she woke to its continuance in the world of her loft. The darkness too was real, mitigated by a faint wash of moonlight from above. She looked to the skylight, and started violently at the sight of the large figure splayed across the glass.
"Vincent?" For a moment she was frozen in the confusion of the reality of the dream and the unreality of this reality. She knew that Vincent had determined how to come to her apartment this way; he had done so on one other occasion, just "for a visit," he had said. She knew it had been primarily to assure himself of the route, in case of later need. It had also been a beautiful evening, and when, after full dark had fallen, he had arrived with a package of candles from Rebecah and a book from Father, she had sensed that these gifts, though genuine, had provided an excuse. He ached to share the city, the Above night, as he had done before. He could still have gone to Catherine's balcony; he could even have had Diana meet him there. That would have been all wrong, of course. This was a sort of substitute - a safe space, and one unburdened with emotional baggage. It had been a friendly, peaceful couple of hours, and interesting to spend time with him in her world instead of his. But he hadnt made a habit of it, and he certainly would not be paying an unannounced social call in the late hours of the night, not even if he were lonely or troubled. She shook off her confusion and, shivering with the chill of being awakened out of warm sleep, scurried to open the skylight and admit him.
"What? What is it, Vincent? What's happened?"
"Happening. It is happening, now. We must go quickly! Quickly!" He spoke distractedly, the urgency unmistakable, but without explanation.
"What's happening, Vincent? Try to tell me while I'm getting dressed. I'll only take a minute, but I need to know what we're doing. What's happening?" He seemed to shake himself out of another world, much as she had just done, and looked directly at her for the first time. He appeared to realize now what the situation was - that it was the middle of the night, that she had been in bed, asleep, and that he had told her nothing. He paused for a moment, at a loss as to how to explain all that he needed her to understand. Then he said, "Stop. Come here to me." She looked into his eyes, stepped forward, and took both his outstretched hands. They held each other's gaze for a few seconds, then both closed their eyes and concentrated on the pulsating, vibrant current of - how to describe it? As though you could feel light moving over and past and through you. As though it were that river that Diana had seemed to feel so long ago in Catherine's apartment, that Vincent had felt there, that had drawn him back when Catherine was gone. It was her presence, her personality, her essence, alive and warm and urgent now, enveloping them - and there was something else. Diana's eyes opened wide, and she shook her head as if to clear it, murmuring, "But that - that doesn't make sense. That - I don't get it - what... "
Vincent shook his head in turn. "I begin to understand, or think I do, but I can't make out how, or why this should be. But Catherine understands; you can feel her joy as well as her fear. We must hurry! Time is short; we will worry about explanations when she is safe - when they are safe..." He trailed off for a moment, shook his head again, and said, "Finish dressing, quickly! We know how to find her now, don't we, and it is not far, but we will certainly face obstacles when we get there, and we must reach her before - before..." Once again he shook his head." We cannot waste time now trying to understand. We know what is at stake, no matter how it came to be, or what it all means. Ready?"
She nodded; it had taken only seconds to pull on a pair of sweats, her boots over the socks she had worn to bed, a sweater over her sleep shirt, and her fatigue jacket. Absently, she patted the pockets for her key, and felt an unfamiliar weight in the right-hand one. Memory clicked, and she thought to herself, Maybe that's just as well...
She said, "I'm ready, Vincent. Let's go. Let's go get her!"
They were almost running; Diana's long legs allowed her to almost keep up with him, stride for stride. He periodically checked himself to allow her to catch up when he got ahead. Finally he took her hand, and they continued moving. He was almost pulling her along with him when they reached the block they wanted, the handclasp allowing them to move in synch, for this way she was feeling the bond as he did. Here it was, where the pulse they both felt so strongly originated.
"Well, this is definitely the building," she gasped, barely enough breath left to speak the words. He looked up, and her eyes followed the direction of his look. He looked back at her, and she nodded.
"So, now we've got to get in and get to her as fast as we possibly can. You'll need to go on ahead. Don't worry about me; don't even try to keep track of me. I'll be right behind you, and I don't want to slow you down. She's having that baby, and once she does..."
He made an abrupt gesture with his hand, clearly not permitting any continuation of that thought. He then looked at the building's street level. He pointed; she followed the direction, and nodded again. There were the big, fancy main doors at the center of the facade, revolving doors and wide standard doors around them. There were some windows with businesses' displays to each side. At one side, beyond these there was a false doorway, purely cosmetic, for balance. It mirrored a real door, a simple utilitarian one, on the other side.
"Service entrance - or servants' entrance," she said wryly. He responded with the ghost of a smile. His eyes were distant. Then he looked at her directly again. "Diana..," Despite the urgency they both felt, he seemed to be hesitating.
"What is it, Vincent? Are you okay? Is there something you feel that I haven't?"
He shook his head. "It's not that. There is a lull right now; I know you've felt it. We still have a little time - enough. But, Diana..."
"What is it? Tell me!"
"Diana - I am going to have to reach her as quickly as I can, however I can. I am going to have to do - whatever I must - to protect her. You are going to see things - things..." Again he broke off.
She answered firmly. "I'll see you getting to Catherine. I'll see you not letting anyone stop you getting to her. I'll see myself getting there as well. I think that's gonna be all I'll have time to see. I've pretty well made up my mind on that."
"Diana -" He could not continue for a moment. He had taken her hand again; now he brought it up to his lips, pressed them to it for a moment, and whispered "Thank you."
"Later. We've got work to do, the first item of which is getting through this door."
"Yes. I will begin with that."
The men on duty heard a strange creaking sound, and thuds. They looked toward the door, and at each other, and that was all the time there was. Then the door came crashing down. They were still raising their weapons when the creature was upon them.
Diana heard everything: the breaking of the door, the quick shouts, the growl and roar of a ferocious animal. And the other sounds, the smaller, slightly sickening sounds of bones breaking, of bodies flung and hitting surfaces. And as Vincent progressed up the stairs, at the landings, she hurried past those bodies, not seeing as she had promised not to see, the limbs at impossible angles, the heads turned too far, the blood everywhere... She had known for a long time that this would have to come. She knew, despite hopes that it might work out another way, that it would almost certainly end in such a gauntlet. She knew that as an officer of the court, as a human being, she would have a basic decision to make; and she had known for a long time now what that decision had to be. It didn't make it a lot easier, not if she really looked at them; so she tried not to see them at all, to step around them, as she would have any garbage left on a landing. It became easier; because now the pulse she had earlier felt only through Vincent had become so strong she almost didn't understand why the building itself was not throbbing with it. She was definitely feeling it on her own now. So she followed the trail of bodies and blood; followed Vincent up the stairs; followed the current that was leading them to Catherine and the child that was being born in blood - innocent blood, not like this on the stairway. She felt almost as though she participated in some ancient ritual, Aztec perhaps; up the stairs, through sacrificial blood, to new life coming - but that life had to be saved, and restored to the ones who had created it - not snatched away, mother and child torn from one another, and the mother killed, the father devastated. Whatever it took... She moved on up the stairs, past the men who had been guarding the way, who had tried to stop Vincent, and she did not see them.
In the antiseptic white room, the most ancient of rituals was almost complete. Gabriel had tried to hurry it, to interrupt it when he too felt time closing in. He had ordered the doctor to do a Caesarian; Catherine had protested, wanting, needing desperately to bear the child naturally, and also needing to prolong the time as much as possible, to allow the rescuers to arrive. The doctor had been prepared to follow orders, but the labor had progressed, and they continued, events moving faster and faster now. A final, body-and-soul-wrenching push, and the baby completed its passage from her body, and she felt both incredible relief and an overwhelming emptiness. She saw Gabriel take the baby, look at it, and then look at her - a look so cold, so void of human feeling that she could hardly bear to see it. Then she realized that they were about to take the baby from the room, from her, without her ever even having seen him. She shook her head, pleading, holding out her arms. "Please..." Gabriel looked at her again, nodded to the doctor, then looked away, as if bored. She saw the baby, saw his perfect face, looked into his incredible, aware eyes - and then he was withdrawn again.
"No! No...!" She heard Gabriel say something to the doctor; it seemed to be "Finish it." Then the baby, the nurse, Gabriel were gone; the room was cold, and quiet, and empty. The doctor was holding a syringe, and saying, "You won't suffer." She let her head fall back, despair and exhaustion overcoming her at last, after the long, long struggle. Then someone else was in the doorway.
"No." The word was not shouted, but it had the power of absolute conviction. The doctor froze, back to the door, caught between conflicting imperatives. Without turning to see the woman whose voice he heard, he knew that there was a gun. He lowered the syringe, and Catherine, whose eyes had opened again despite her exhaustion, saw fear in his face - fear of the master he was disobeying - but greater than the fear, she saw relief, and perhaps the first suggestion of happiness she could remember there. Then her eyes went to the doorway, and the doctor's face flew from her mind as though he no longer existed, despite his nearness. She saw a woman she did not know, but whose presence she had felt, and could not now fail to recognize. She was tall, red-haired, with wide, brilliant eyes. And just behind her...
The doctor had moved to the foot of the delivery table, taking care of the aftermath of the birth; Catherine was only vaguely aware of this. All she knew, all she cared about was that she had a clear line of sight to the doorway, and that her eyes were now locked with those of the man she had been waiting for; waiting for since the birth began; since the kidnapping; since the slashing and the abandonment in the Park; since the restlessness and dissatisfaction with the life she had been living; since her own life's first breath, echoed now in the new life just begun. She spoke his name then, not crying out, but in the low, sibilant tone that held all the richness of her heart. He moved a step, to come to her, and then stopped when she held up her hand. "Vincent - the baby. He's got the baby. You must stop him! He's evil, he twists everything, and he mustn't get away with our baby!"
"Our baby..." He echoed the words, his voice an awed whisper. "I felt it, I thought I felt it, but I could not imagine..."
"I know. But hurry now, Vincent! We'll have all the time we need, after you get him back! Hurry!!" The effort to rise up off the table, foiled by the doctor's movements, brought Vincent back to the moment. He knew he was not finished with what he had to do; he had to leave Catherine again, now, just when he had found her, when all along he had thought that once he found her he would never be separated from her again, not for an instant. He felt a hand on his arm; Diana said firmly, "Go, Vincent. I'll take care of her; you go get your son!"
On the roof, the helicopter pilot was growing more nervous by the second. He had heard sounds he recognized and did not like, and other sounds he could not identify, and liked even less. He, like all those who worked for Gabriel, was utterly loyal because he was utterly terrified. Still, Gabriel was not here, and those noises...
The door opened, and Gabriel stood for a moment, looking coolly about, even now. Then he started for the chopper. A wind blew past him, something hurtled by him, got ahead of him, and suddenly Vincent was there, at the 'copter, standing just in front of the doorway, to one side. Gabriel saw that the pilot, who was of course armed, would have to either shoot out his own front window, or lean out around the doorframe, thus putting himself into Vincent's grasp, in order to fire at the man/Beast. The pilot did not appear to want to do either of these things; instead, he seemed to be awaiting the outcome - and revving his engine. Gabriel saw that he would have to make his own escape.
"You can't reach me in time to keep the baby safe, even with your speed; you have to let me get to the chopper."
"Not with my son. You may go; you may get into this helicopter and fly away to hell itself, or wherever else you may call home; but not with my baby. You must put him down, and walk away; then I will let you pass."
"And I can trust you?"
"As you can yourself."
"That's not what I would call reassuring." A slight smile played about Gabriel's thin lips.
"It should be. You can trust yourself absolutely, and you know it. You can trust in the fact that you would always do what is evil, what is devious, what is cruel, unless you had some reason to do otherwise; but then there would be some underlying reason that it was still in your own interest, and was still, in truth, evil, cruel, devious. Absolutely trustworthy"
Gabriel chuckled, nodded. "Yes, I see. Quite right." He nodded again, slowly. "Very well. Although I still think that I should have him. He was meant to be mine."
"Very well." He spoke the words of agreement again. He looked into the face of the newborn, who had remained strangely quiet through all the rushing and confusion, through the noise of the helicopter, and the conversation in voices that both had the quality of carrying without shouting over that motor. The baby looked back at him, calm and somehow knowing. Gabriel put his cool lips to the child's forehead, sighed once, and put the baby, wrapped in his receiving blanket, down onto the rooftop.
"Now you may approach the helicopter. I will step away when you get near, and you may leave. Leave us in peace; never come near me or mine again. Do you understand me?"
"Oh, yes. I understand. But I'm afraid a lifetime of suspicion isn't allayed quite that easily, even by - well, by you." He smiled again, his look almost apologetic. "Forgive me for seeming to doubt your word, but I would feel much more comfortable about this if you would step away from the chopper just a little. If you move quickly (which you certainly can!) toward the tail, you'll still be out of the pilot's reach, and I'll feel more confident that I'll make it into the 'copter. I guess it's that if I were in your position, and I saw me getting close enough to lay hands on, I might have a sudden change of heart. That's me, I know, but I'm afraid I can't help projecting at least that much."
Vincent hesitated for a moment, looked around quickly, ascertained that they were still alone on the roof, and gauged what Gabriel had said. Then he nodded, and moved back to the position Gabriel had indicated. This gave the pale, cadaverous man a clear pathway to the door of the vehicle, which continued to vibrate, poised like a living thing, waiting impatiently for the chance to escape. The pilot's hand was trembling on the stick, both from the strain of holding the 'copter at that point between stillness and flight, and from sheer tension.
Gabriel acknowledged Vincent's move with a tilt of his head to one side; then he looked down again at the baby. "It's funny, sometimes, what your priorities are. They're not always what you think. Right now," he said, not moving toward the helicopter, "I want to get over to the bird, there, and get away from this roof. I still mean to do that. But it seems that even more than I want that, I want this baby. And if I can't have this baby, then the next thing I want is for you not to have this baby." And he took a step back toward the little bundle he had laid down; he stood just beside it, looking again into the tiny face, the bright eyes; and he raised one foot above the child's head...
The third voice to be heard on the roof repeated the one word it had spoken a short time before, in the delivery room. Diana's voice too had the quality of carrying over wind and rotors. Both men's heads turned, and the moonlight and artificial illumination of the rooftop landing pad both caught the gleam of the gun she held steady in her two hands, stance solid, and grip firm. Gabriel looked at her for an instant, then down again where his foot was poised above the baby's head, and descending.
"This is Cathy Chandler's gun." The words were spoken quickly, but clearly; they caught Gabriel's attention, and he glanced up just in time to register, in that split second, the slight movement as she squeezed the trigger, the retort of the gun; the fact that he would not, after all, be able to bring down his foot...
The bullet caught him squarely in the chest, and spun him away from the child, back and down. Diana and Vincent were both on the spot in an instant. Both reached out; in the end, Vincent snatched up the baby from the cold surface of the roof, while Diana looked down at the cold face, and determined that this was now the cold of death, not merely its masque.
"Cathy Chandler's gun," she repeated in a whisper. "I hope you heard that, you bastard."
"Thank God. Thank God, Vincent!" Both heads turned toward the doorway. They saw Catherine, supported by the doctor; she had a clean gown on, and a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, but her feet were bare. She looked, in the moonlight, almost as pale as Gabriel, but her face was alive with a light of its own; her fear had already been allayed by what she saw when she got to the door and looked out. Now she was aglow with relief and happiness. The doctor steadied her, and she made her way on her own to where they stood, their feelings clearly matching hers. Vincent had put out a hand to brace Diana, who had gone suddenly weak with the release of tension. She perceptibly straightened, freeing him from the need to support her. He held the infant in one strong arm; now the other went out, and Catherine moved into its circle. He gripped her shoulder gently but strongly, holding her without pressing painfully, although he would have liked to bind her to him so tightly that she might never be able to move away by so much as an inch. She clasped him around the waist with both arms, turning in to his chest, and to the baby. Thus they stood for a moment, forming a circle of safety, of protection and love.
Diana stood to one side, surprised that she did not, as she expected, feel left out. She was filled with their joy; she still felt the connection to them, to all three of them, and knew that they felt her there too. She was, as before, not a part of the current of the bond itself, but a rider on its surface, welcome to share in its warmth, and look down through its clear waters and see the wonders it contained. She was supremely happy. She was also cold, and was glad when, simultaneously, the helicopter took off, and the doctor moved forward, both breaking the spell that held them in place.
"We still have to get you out of here, away from all of this," she said. "You need to be in bed, warm and safe. Father and Mary will be in their glory, with you two to take care of," she added, smiling. Catherine's brows rose slightly, then she returned the smile. Everything was understood. Nothing further needed to be explained, at least for now. She could at last relinquish control to Vincent and to...
"You're absolutely right -?" Her voice left the question in the air. They all looked at one another, and laughed at the absurdity.
"Diana. Diana Bennett. And we'll get into all that later too. First things first, right?"
"Right. But thank you. For everything, even though I know that I don't know yet what everything is."
"Okay. Fine. Now let's take care of business." Diana was suddenly a little embarrassed; too much emotion, too much on the surface, too much gratitude to handle all at once. And she was acutely aware, with a rush of fatigue, of how much was still to be gotten through this night before they were home free. It was only about an hour before dawn.
The doctor was still standing to one side, uncertain what was to happen next. Diana took the decision from him.
"You help us get her down to the street; we'll take it from there. Then I suggest you find a new life somewhere very far away. He's dead," with a nod toward the still form lying on the rooftop, "but there may be others you won't want contemplating your existence."
The doctor shuddered involuntarily, glancing toward, then away from Gabriel's body, and moved forward to put an arm under Catherine's elbow. She drew back for a moment, looked into his face, and then allowed him to help her begin moving back toward the door.
They took the elevator down. No reason, now, to think about the stairs, the landings, even if Catherine had been well enough. It was clear that they were alone in the building. Diana stopped for a moment in the control room at the top before continuing to join the others. The monitors showed no movement anywhere. They also showed no indication of any signal being activated elsewhere, either with the police or any private guard service. Clearly Gabriel had felt secure with his own arrangements, and had certainly not wanted any official observation of his operations.
This was the business district. Nothing but other tall, blank, anonymous buildings in this area. There would be no casual passersby, no homeless finding shelter in a more human-scale doorway; there were probably not even any police patrols on this block in these hours of the night. There was nothing here for anyone to want. It would be full morning before anyone was likely to notice the broken door, and find the incredible remnants of that night's work. Diana muttered thanks under her breath for such bits of good fortune. Then she had another thought, and muttered again, her words this time nothing like thanks.
"You go on; I've got a few details to clear up," she said. They were in the lobby now; they instinctively stayed close to the wall where the elevator door had opened. The lights in the lobby, though dimmed for the night, still seemed to expose them too much for comfort.
"Go on," Diana repeated. "There's no one around to see you. Get out and get Below as quick as you can. I'll join you as soon as I'm done here."
Vincent, still holding the baby, and helping to support Catherine, nodded agreement, and said, in his turn, "Thank you, Diana. There is no way to say it...
"So don't try, at least not now! Just go, and we'll all figure everything out later. I'll be there. Go!" With one last, speaking glance from both of them, they followed her instruction. She saw them move cautiously but steadily out of the building, partway down the block toward what she knew was the nearest tunnel entrance. The doctor went that far, then left them, going on his way alone, with one quick backward glance before he started running. Then she went back to the elevator.
Her search was made easier by Gabriel's supreme confidence that no such search would ever be made. He had secured the tapes in a locked cabinet, but she had no difficulty in finding it, opening it, or retrieving its contents. She could not, of course, be certain that there were no copies, but it seemed unlikely. They were surveillance tapes, collected as they were made. The setup here was complete and elaborate enough for him to have done anything he needed to do by way of processing, compiling, editing; there did not need to be any backups. She could only hope that this judgment proved correct; there was no way to follow up on any other possibility. She didn't try to examine the tapes in detail either. Luckily, he seemed to have kept only selected ones, so the quantity was not unmanageable. She found a roomy briefcase, dumped its contents, and put the twenty or so tapes into it. Then she took one more moment to scan the room. In the process of looking for the tapes, and making sure he hadn't put any aside separately, she had opened all the other cabinets, all the desk drawers; she could do no more. The important thing was that there be no tape, no freeze-frame, no photograph, no description - nothing of Vincent. She had one more thought. She glanced out the window; the sky was lightening. Day was almost here, and even in an office building, there would be people soon. Still, she had to do this one last thing. She went over the room one more time, and when she came away there were computer disks in the capacious pockets of her coat. She had not tried to see what might be on them. She simply took everything that was there, and then did something not normally in her nature. She used the gun again, not firing it, but smashing the computer equipment with the butt, so that whatever was in the hard drive was irretrievable. She was not a physically violent person, but there was an undeniable satisfaction in this, and a certain symmetry, too, in this second use of Catherine's gun to destroy Gabriel's works. She looked around once again, and then left it behind her. She had done all she could. She felt good - exhausted, but good.
By the time Diana reached the tunnels, many things had happened very quickly. She did not think that Vincent had stopped to alert anyone as he was leaving, responding to the call of the bond and its two sources. He had not, after all, known what he would find, when he would be back, or how accompanied, no matter what his hopes might have been. He had come for her to help him with the rescue, and that had been all he had been able to think about. Obviously, however, he had stopped at the first opportunity to signal on the pipes when he got safely below with his precious burdens.
She left the building that had held Catherine for so long, and now held only death, and followed where she had seen Vincent go, into the tunnel entrance nearby. Once she entered the shadowy doorway, she realized that she did not know how to get beyond this point. She still was unfamiliar with most of the system, away from those areas close to her home bases. She had no time to worry, however; her need had been anticipated. A familiar figure emerged from the darkness and beckoned. Jamie stood waiting as she approached, then turned and started to lead the way. Then she stopped and turned back, facing Diana resolutely. Her expression was grim, and for a moment Diana feared that something had gone wrong. She looked intently at the girl, and relaxed slightly. This was no indication of tragedy; the body language and facial expression had more to do with personal discomfort than anything cataclysmic. Diana suspected she knew what was to come, and tried to school her expression to attention and slight concern, but no trace of amusement.
"What is it? Is something wrong?" It seemed to her that it might be just that much easier for Jamie to respond to a question than launch into what she needed to say on her own.
"No. Everything's okay. Father and Mouse and some of the others met them a little way in, and they brought a stretcher. She's probably already to the hospital chamber by now - I mean, probably are..." For a moment, her focus went somewhere over Diana's shoulder, into the past of only minutes ago, to the amazement of Catherine's return, and even greater amazement of the child that came with her. She paused, her mouth slightly open still, her expression a mix of astonishment, confusion, and joy. Then she shook herself almost imperceptibly, returning to this moment, and this other woman, to whom she had something she needed to say.
"Vincent didn't say a lot; there hasn't been time yet, and he mostly had to tell Father and Mary about Catherine's condition, and the - the baby and all. But he did say he couldn't have gotten them without you."
Diana shook her head slightly; trying to minimize the drama of the situation, reduce it to something that could be dealt with more naturally; but Jamie wasn't ready for that yet. She needed to speak her piece, and Diana did nothing further to interrupt.
"He said he might have saved Catherine, or the baby, but not both, and maybe neither one. It was too confusing, with both of them in danger, but not together, and both of them calling to him. He said you really did more than he did, once you got to where they were."
"Whatever I did, we would never have gotten to them at all without him; we wouldn't have found them, and we wouldn't have reached them in time even if we got near. He did the most important part; I just did some of the practical stuff. Detail work."
Jamie nodded. Clearly she understood what was being said, and what was not. She had, Diana suddenly recalled, done some of that same kind of 'detail work' herself in the past. They regarded each other with a respect born of the deepest kind of understanding. This was no psychic connection linking minds sharing that special ability. It was more prosaic, but in its way no less meaningful. It was the understanding of minds that worked alike. They saw themselves in much the same ways, and perceived their functions in the world similarly as well. They took care of business. Diana voiced the shared thought:
"Guess we're both kinda no-nonsense gals, right? We look out for our own."
"We look out for our own," Jamie echoed. "And we do what's gotta be done."
"Exactly." The phrase was, perhaps, clichιd; but clichιs, she reflected, were clichιs precisely because they carried the weight of truth, and had done so for so long. "What's gotta be done."
"So..." Jamie paused again, looking back at Diana with less troubled eyes. "I haven't been all that friendly to you up to now."
"Friendship comes over time. You find things in common, or have experiences together, things that let you know you understand each other, can trust each other. It builds if it's supposed to. I didn't expect to have it before I earned it."
Jamie looked her gratitude at Diana. "I still could've been nicer."
"I never thought you were being not nice to me, just that you didn't make nice to anyone till you really felt that way about 'em. I understood that. I'm kinda that way myself."
"Yeah. Not as much, 'cause you just can't be, living Above. Here you pretty much know everybody, and they know you, and you know where you stand with each other. So you can just be honest. The ones you like, you like, and the ones you don't much care about you don't have to play games and pretend you do. You just show them common courtesy, and help them if they really need help, but otherwise, you go your own way. Above, life is a lot more political, even when you've got the reputation of being a loner, like me."
"Yeah. You still have to act more with people, and wear masks a lot, or go out of your way not to have to deal with it. People won't just let you be who you are and go about your business; it's all this first name stuff, and people insisting on shaking hands and then having handshakes like limp pasta, and asking how you are when they don't give a damn, and have a f- "She stopped herself abruptly, seeing the first full-blown grin of her experience on Jamie's face; she rephrased slightly, grinning herself. "And have a blankety-blank nice day."
Jamie laughed out loud. "Boy, I'm glad I don't live up there!"
"Now you know why I like it down here so much!" Diana laughed in her turn. "Among other reasons!"
Jamie continued to chuckle, as they started moving along again, heading out of the transitional area in the back of the old building's sub-basement, and into the tunnels proper. "I would like to know more about what you do, though. It's interesting. Catherine's a lawyer, so she's fighting the bad guys, but she does it with books, and writing, and rules, and all dressed up, in front of people. I think I might understand more of what you do."
"Could be." They continued talking as they walked back toward what they both, each in her own way, considered home.
Diana woke, deliciously lazy, from a deeply refreshing sleep. The soft light, the gentle tappings, were as much a part of her subconscious sense that all was well as her mother's heartbeat must have been in the womb. She smiled to herself at the analogy. There was a lot of birthing stuff in her life lately, she thought. She remembered the ending of the night, or rather morning, just past.
When she had reached the hospital chamber with Jamie, they were all neatly ensconced, as though everything had been ready and waiting for them all along. Catherine had been tucked, protesting only slightly, into the chaste, white bedding, after seeing what the rest of the arrangements were: her son was in a cradle right beside her bed, at the foot of a rocking-chair in which Mary sat vigilant, although relaxed. Vincent, whose protests would have been more than slight had they tried to banish him, had not needed to fight: he was in another cot, set almost beside Catherine's. The heads were close, and hands could reach across the space between, but the beds angled out, so that they formed a triangle with the rocker at its foot, and the cradle within it. Everyone could see everyone, Vincent and Catherine could reach and touch one another, and the baby was surrounded with love and caring. It was the ideal arrangement. The medical concerns could be looked to, but no one was isolated. Diana reflected back on the room she had last seen Catherine in. It too had had a bed of sorts, with white fittings; but anything more different was impossible to imagine. That room had been sterile, for all the evidence of birth; this was warm and nurturing, despite the whiteness of the sheets. It was safe haven.
Now she stretched hugely, taking her time to awaken. Normally she woke abruptly even though sleepiness did not depart immediately. She was always wary, she realized, even in her own home. She had so taken it as natural to her that it was only now that she understood it had to do with the conditions of her life rather than her metabolism. Learn something new every day, she thought, smiling wryly. Even I can unclench, given a place as safe as this - of course, there is no other place as safe as this. A pang of regret for the realities of life in the other part of her world flicked through her; she shrugged it off. Both worlds were real. It wasn't as if she would have to go back to Kansas when she left here, never to sleep the sleep of Oz again; she just had to adapt. Knowing there was security like this so close at hand, and that she could sleep so untroubled, and wake so peacefully, might even carry over. She did not, after all, have to awaken at home in a state of readiness for attack. It had become part of her defense against the onslaught of the ugliness she knew in the waking world, but so much had changed now. The waking world had different proportions to it. She felt sure there would be a carryover that would have good effects - like on the circles under my eyes that I thought were permanent, she thought, smiling to herself.
"Glad to see you up, dear!" Mary's cheerful voice broke her train of thought. "I've checked on you a few times, but I knew you needed to sleep until you woke naturally - it was a very long night, wasn't it! I've got some tea ready, if you'd like it now."
"Yes, I'd love some, thanks Mary. What time is it, anyway? I've lost track totally." "I'm almost afraid to tell you, for fear you'll jump back into action without a proper start."
"You can tell me. I'm going to consider it morning no matter what. I'm a changed woman!" Diana laughed. Mary beamed, "That's good, dear! I'm glad we've had that kind of effect on you. You needed so desperately to be able to relax. You were so tense, it almost made me nervous being with you, not for my sake, you understand," she hastened to explain. "For yours."
"I know. It's okay. But what time is it? Really, you can tell me. I can take it." She spoke bravely, straightening her spine as if preparing for the firing squad.
Mary smiled, "It's about 3:30."
"In the afternoon?"
"Of course. It was after that in the morning when you got back here."
"Right. It is still the same day, isn't it? You're not gonna tell me I slept the clock around."
"No, not quite as drastic as that. Well, that wasn't so bad after all. You've taken it quite well. I'm relieved."
"I really didn't care, you know? Nobody knew where I was, what I had gone to do, so nobody was waiting for word from me. The only place anybody's likely to be wondering where I might be is work, and a lot of the time nobody there knows exactly where I am at any given moment anyway." She sobered somewhat, and then added, "I do need to get back Above soon, though. There's somebody who deserves to know what I know - most of it, that is." She smiled reassuringly at the older woman, who smiled back, and nodded.
"Yes, it's Mr. Maxwell, isn't it? He's never stopped caring about Catherine."
"He's the reason we've got her back, in a way, assuming I was really necessary to making it happen -"
"Which you were, according to both Vincent and Catherine, absolutely essential," Mary added.
"Well, without Joe, I wouldn't have even known about it. Wouldn't have been involved at all. And the last he heard, I knew she was alive, but not where, or how to get her back. He's gotta be going crazy, and he can't even let on, because it turns out his boss, one of the big guys in the department, Cathys boss, was part of it."
"No! Really? Oh, how terrible! How awful for all of you -someone you knew, someone you trusted! I can't imagine anything worse than that!"
"Neither can I. And Joe's taken it really hard, and he's had to go on as if he didn't know a thing about it. It's been awful for him. I can finally make it better, at least the most important part. We'll worry about Moreno later."
"I can't imagine... But here I stand, and you still don't have your tea! I'll just be a moment." Mary bustled away, still shaking her head at the idea of so terrible a betrayal.
Diana sat a moment longer before getting out of bed, and she too shook her head at the ugliness of that aspect of the situation. Then she stretched her arms up over her head, flexed every muscle in turn, like a cat, and stood up to belatedly begin her day.
"No, it doesn't really surprise me that the bond returned in full force," Father was saying as Diana entered the hospital chamber some time later. It appeared that all the night's participants had shifted their internal clocks temporarily to a different time zone; they all appeared to be just getting their day started as well. Makes sense, Diana mused. We all ended it at the same time, after all. She smiled at the family group, and they smiled back, several hands raised in greeting. Cups of tea were in evidence here, matching the one she had brought with her from her chamber after washing and dressing. Father continued what he had been saying.
"The effects on Vincent of the internal struggle were always both physical and psychological. He was distracted, depressed, volatile; there were mood swings, outbursts. I never knew the exact nature of the problem, couldn't isolate it to metabolism, hormonal changes, chemistry; I felt sure it was all of that and more. It was terribly debilitating physically, of course. We almost lost him more than once, after all." He looked at his son, sitting now on the edge of Catherine's bed, with his newly regained love using him as a pillow; she was propped in a partly reclining position against his broad chest, her head nestled against his shoulder, his arm around her. Vincent's chin rested on Catherine's head, and he seemed to radiate contentment, an expression on his face matched by hers, despite the total difference of their features. The baby slept peacefully in the cradle at the center of the room, and waves of peacefulness seemed to emanate from that point.
"After this last time, in the catacombs, the damage seemed to be even greater. The physical wear and tear was horrendous, but the psychological trauma was more profound. The key, actually, was the memory loss. The thing that seemed the most distressing was most indicative to me of a kind of physical damage that might in time repair itself."
"Really? That was the part that devastated me, and scared me the most, once I knew he wasn't going to die, I mean." Diana realized that she was hearing Catherine's natural voice for the first time - no strain, no fear, no physical discomfort; it was low, soft, but musical. She found she liked the sound of it. She smiled, and waited for the physician's reply.
"When he had trouble with words, and names, I thought it was very much like what stroke victims experience - aphasia. It suggested to me that the activity in the brain had been so heightened that it had actually burned out some circuits, you might say. That some of the pathways by which the brain communicates with other parts of itself had literally been burned out."
"Yes, that does seem like - what it felt like," Vincent agreed musingly. "It was as though I knew that I should be able to find my way from one point in my thoughts to another, but the bridges I looked to cross were gone, the familiar paths destroyed."
"Exactly. But the brain is resilient. When connections are broken like that, it finds detours. It makes new connections. There are parts of the brain whose function has never been fully mapped. We do know that where there is damage, parts that have been essentially inactive take over those functions lost as a result of the stroke or accident. The one unknown element in all of this was the exact nature of the bond, of course. Was it physically based or not? I think we have at least a partial answer now. I don't presume to know everything about it, but clearly there is a physical component. As Vincent has recovered physically, as his brain has reconnected itself to itself, that place where the bond resided has either healed, or relocated. That function too has been reestablished."
"Even better than before," Vincent said softly. "Were even more closely linked; and of course, we are now also no longer alone in the bond."
"The baby is part of both of you; it's only to be expected that he would share in your gift." Father beamed at them, his gaze coming to rest in wonder on the child. "My grandson! Who would have believed it possible?"
"I would." Catherine's voice was still soft, but it was firm with absolute conviction. "I might not have thought as far as this," and she inclined her head toward her son, the light in her face radiant, "but I knew Vincent could have so much more of love, of the fullest experience that life could offer - that he deserved it, and would never - never - be anything but the man I knew and loved if he tried for it."
"And so it proved," Father replied, looking at her seriously. "You knew better than I in this case. I only regret that my fears held him back, held you both back for so long."
"They were my fears as well, Father; I cannot blame you for them, or reproach you, ever. You had nothing but my safety and well being, and that of everyone involved, in mind. I think, in the end, that it all worked out as it had to. Perhaps even the anguish was necessary to get us all past the place where we had become trapped. Perhaps there was no other way."
"Perhaps not, Vincent; still, we'll never know if it might not have been easier, had I not been so resistant. I might have encouraged you to trust yourself, rather than reinforcing your fears."
"As you say, we will never know, and I think its fruitless now to go back over that ground. Were here; we have arrived safely, and miraculously, with our son - and a friend we could never have known, without whom our lives would be much the poorer - one who even shares in no small measure in the bond itself."
Diana felt her face suddenly warm; everyone was looking at her, beaming, and she was still basically a private person. This was embarrassing!
Catherine smiled, mischievously now; then the smile softened, and she said lightly, "Let the poor woman alone! We're smothering her with all this gooiness!"
Everyone, including Diana, laughed at this, and the moment shifted into something less emotional and more comfortable. The baby woke, and everyone's focus went to him.
A few moments later, the child was in his mother's arms, nursing contentedly, as she and Vincent looked down at him with the universal delight of new parents. Father smiled benignly and went off to attend to other duties; Mary left them alone, but stayed close in case they needed anything. Some time later, Diana took her leave, already thinking hard and carefully about exactly what she was going to tell Joe, and what she would leave out, and how to make that work. She had conferred with Catherine, and they were agreed: as little as possible, but as much as he really needed. He deserved that. She was about to leave, to face the task, when Vincent called after her. He wanted a moment before she left. She was always willing to spend time with him, and settled into the chair in Father's chamber, where they had gone for their conversation.
"I've never experienced anything like it. Never in all my life," Vincent said, wonder still in his voice. "I was answering Catherine's call, yet I had enough control to know that there was time to get you - and I had the conscious thought that I needed help. That I had to come and get you, that I needed... " He repeated, still trying to understand, "your help." I never thought before about needing anyone's help; at such times, I dont believe I ever thought at all."
"But it had been different for a long time now, hadn't it, Vincent? I've been part of this for weeks now, months, even, if you count from that first time I came to the apartment and we were already getting things from each other, even though we may not have realized it right then - not to know it for what it was, anyway."
"You're right. You had become part of the search, part of my thinking about everything to do with Catherine's disappearance and our efforts to find and recover her. You had become part of the bond itself, in a way; you have been there in it with us; I knew she had become aware of you, and had accepted you as a friendly presence. I knew, you might say," almost chuckling now, "that she would be expecting you on that visit we were about to make."
"I've gotten to taking invitations - even implied ones - from you folks very seriously; I sure as hell wasnt going to miss this little party if I had anything to say about it."
He grew serious again. "I also knew that you would be seeing things on the way that I would prefer no one would ever see; a side of me, the results of my actions -"
She broke in. "I knew too. I also knew you would be doing what it would take. No less, but no more. You might not have been sure of that. I've gotten that impression more than once during the time I've known you - that you think when that side of you takes over that you just - go on a rampage. Not true. You've never, ever hurt anyone you didn't have to-"
She waved away the interruption she saw coming. "I'm not counting sibling rivalry, adolescent clumsiness, or drug-induced hallucinations, okay?" She smiled at the shock she saw written on his face. "Whattaya think people were talking about with me all the times you weren't there? I know enough on you, big guy, to -" She broke off abruptly, seeing that even the clearly teasing tone in her voice didn't mitigate the pain that accompanied the memories they had both invoked. "Sorry. I guess you can't really kid around with that stuff. But I did need you to know that I was counting all that, and I stick by what I said. None of those times was your Beast side taking over on its own; when it has, when you've - unleashed it, I guess, too protect Catherine or the people down here, it's always gone right back into its little cage as soon as there were no appropriate targets left. When the threat was over, the Beast went back to wherever he came from. So I was sure," she repeated, "that you would do whatever it took to get to her. And I was pretty sure it would have to be - what it turned out to have to be. I didn't really think that anything less would be enough. It would have been nice if it could have. But it couldn't. It wouldn't. They wouldn't have let themselves be stopped by anything less. If they'd been fighting cops with guns, they would have ended up just as dead. They wouldn't have let themselves be taken alive. I think they would have figured with a boss like that, life wouldn't have lasted long, or been worth living, even if he had gotten caught. A guy like that could have made things happen even from prison. No, Vincent, I didn't have any real question in my mind. Everyone who got in your way knew what he was doing, and chose his own fate, as far as I'm concerned. You had to do whatever it took to get to Catherine and the baby. Period!"
"Thank you, Diana. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. But more than that; I must thank you for their lives, as well. For all my strength and determination, I dont think - no, I know that I could not have saved them both. I might not have been able to save either. Not alone. You stopped the doctor from killing her, allowing me to get to the roof to stop him from taking the child. And it took both of us to stop him from killing the baby when he knew he couldnt keep him. I owe you -" He shook his head slowly, tears at last escaping, now that he had the freedom to shed them, no longer had to worry about staying in control. "I owe you everything. My life."
"And I owe you mine. So we're okay."
"What do you mean? You were never at risk in that way."
"Not like when you've saved Catherine's life before, no. Not like someone would have killed me if you hadn't gotten there. But still. You gave me a life I never had. You let me be a part of this life, this community. And that's -" She paused, a momentary look of apprehension coming over her face, making the wide eyes look suddenly wounded. "That - Vincent, am I making a wrong assumption here? Was that just while -"
"No, no, Diana!" he interrupted, seeing her trouble and seeking to reassure her immediately. "No, never think that! You are one of us, as much as you want to be, or need to be, always! You are accepted, and you are loved. You must know this," he finished gravely, looking deeply into those eyes, which had lost the haunted look that had momentarily filled them.
"Yeah; I know." She almost whispered the words, relief roughening her voice. "It's like with you and the Beast thing; after a lifetime thinking of yourself one way, even with all the proof we've had, it's hard to accept that it's different. But it is. I've got - all this now." The warmth in her voice enriched the simple words with a world of meaning. "And you've got your self. Your whole self."
"I know what youre saying, Diana; but I haven't taken it in properly yet. It will need more time before I can accept all that it means."
"I think it may take less time than you're thinking; seems to me Catherine is going to have a lot to say about that." She was smiling broadly now, with a wicked glint in her eye. "If there was any way to tell, I'd bet you were blushing right now, Vincent, my man."
"You are most probably correct, my lady." Where her term of address had been gently mocking, his was positively courtly.
"Now I'm blushing."
"I can see that you are. Its charming."
"Good. Fair is fair. But I do not doubt that you are correct, all the same. And as you are finding it a pleasing strangeness to have a family, a community, to be surrounded by loving friends; so I expect to find it at least as pleasing a strangeness to come to understand this new self, this new possibility. That I can truly love, and be loved... " He fell silent, the thought too overwhelming for words.
"I don't think Catherine ever doubted it, Vincent. I think she'll be able to make you see yourself through her eyes now. And maybe I helped make it a little easier, because for a while you've partly been seeing yourself through mine. What you've seen there has helped convince you too, hasn't it?"
He nodded his acknowledgement. "I hadn't thought about it in precisely those terms, but youre right. And more than that. Youve changed me."
"How? No! I haven't done anything -"
"But you have. What I began with when this conversation started: that I came for help: That I was thinking rationally enough to know I would need help, and that you were here to give it to me. That you would be able to cope with what you would see me do, and would be behind me, without question. And that I could trust you totally in this kind of situation, where conscious thought never was part of the equation before; all different. Your presence in my life, in my mind, has changed how even that part of myself functioned. You think that the Beast was not as wild as I believed; in fact, you helped bring it under control. Everything affects everything, Diana. We are both infinitely the better for each other's being there. We are most fortunate. I am very thankful."
"Me too. And you know what? I have to go and thank the person who had the most to do with this!" At his puzzled look, she shook her head, laughing. "How quickly they forget!"
Then she said, seriously, "Remember who's responsible for me being here in the first place?"
"Of course. How could I forget? And he does not know yet any more than that you believe Catherine is alive and safe. How much will you tell him? I leave it up to you and Catherine, of course. But he does deserve every bit of reassurance and thanks you can give him. Strange," he mused, "that I owe everything to a man I will probably never meet. I hope that you can find a way to convey my gratitude."
"He'll know. He knows there is a Vincent, a someone in Cathy's life; he'll have some idea what it must mean, for someone who doesn't have an ordinary life to escape into, to get back the thing that meant everything to him. And who's to say; maybe there will be a way you might meet, sort of, anyway. Maybe you two could talk somewhere safe. Or not," she added, seeing his dubious expression. "Whatever. Never say never, that's all I'm saying."
"After all thats happened, that should probably be my watchword as well. I will contemplate the possibility, Diana. You go and tell Joe Maxwell that he has done something that he can hold close inside himself all his life and be proud."
It was going to be delicate. He would want to know everything; she would have to tell him a lot, and refuse to tell him a few crucial things, and he wouldn't like that. A lot also depended on whether the wreckage of last night's work had been found yet, and whether Joe had made a connection - or would, when he heard of the rescue - and on Moreno. She sighed, feeling some of the weight of the world descend back onto her shoulders; it wasn't all over yet. Still, the most important part was that it was resolved in the best possible way, better than anyone could have imagined or hoped less than 24 hours ago; she could certainly handle the rest. She squared her shoulders, shaking off some of that weight, reducing it to a manageable portion; then she set off into the world of daylight.
Diana paced in the small area she had allowed herself in front of Joe's apartment building. She didn't want to be conspicuous, so she stayed in the mouth of a garage entrance across the street. No attendant was on duty; she was unobserved there. She was furiously impatient to tell Joe her news, but had stopped herself in her tracks when she had neared the building where he was still at work. It had dawned on her just in time that it was impossible to have the conversation they were about to have in the office. Joe would never be able to contain his excitement or his curiosity. They needed time and privacy. She had, instead of going in, therefore, called him from a nearby pay phone, and arranged to meet him at his place. She tried to sound her laconic self, but to convey enough urgency to get him out earlier than his usual work habits dictated. He caught on quickly, and started questioning her, but she cut him off firmly. He subsided, acknowledging the necessity, but she knew he had to be turning himself inside out waiting long enough before leaving so that possible watchers would not find it remarkable. After what seemed an age, but had been about an hour, she saw the familiar form approach, with something much more like the familiar bounce back in his step. His face was alight with hope and impatience in equal measures. When he spotted her, the smile took over completely. It was, she reflected, a really nice smile. She expected to see quite a lot of it over the next couple of hours. She raised a hand in greeting.
"Hey yourself, lady. How's it goin'?"
"Better and better. You wanna go somewhere for something to eat, or just talk?"
"You're kidding, right? Upstairs, now, Bennett, and talk to me! You've got something I'm finally gonna want to hear, right?"
"Right." With this confirmation of what he had suspected, he let out a yelp of sheer exuberance; they were in the elevator by now, and alone. Then he lowered his head slightly, and when he raised it to look back at Diana, she was touched, although not really surprised, to see a softly shining track running from each eye down his cheeks.
"Hey, I'm Italian and Irish! I'm supposed to be emotional!"
"Absolutely. Be my guest. It's the least you're entitled to. After all, you got me into this, so you're as responsible as anyone for the results."
"So tell me. Tell me everything." He was letting them into the apartment now, and as he locked the door, he turned to her, eager face open and expectant. "Is she really all right? Really?"
"Better than all right. She's fantastic. She's beautiful. And..." She paused. "It's so hard to know what to put where. Where to start, how to explain some of it... " She held up both hands, palms out, took a deep breath, and said, "I'm just going to start telling you stuff, in whatever order it comes to me, and when I run down, you can ask whatever questions I haven't answered, and I'll do my best to make sense out of it. Some of it is just so..." She broke off, not knowing what to say, and then plunged on. "Catherine is alive and well. She's in a safe place where no one will find her, and she's with people who love her and are taking care of her. And her baby."
"Is it the same place she went before, for the ten days? Were you right about that? Is that guy Vincent with her? Her WHAT?"
It was almost like a cartoon, she reflected, the way he pulled up short and backpedalled to that word that she had dropped simply into place. He had been so happy, so caught up in his thoughts, so full of the questions he had been waiting to ask, that he had only heard it a moment after she had spoken it.
"Her baby." She repeated it, paused to let him be sure that he had understood it correctly, then went on with the speech she had been preparing as she paced. "The guy who had her was who we thought - Moreno's boss."
Both their faces twisted momentarily in identical disgust. "He took her for the book, to start with - well, we knew that." She went on quickly, not wanting to revive his old guilt. She added, to move that guilt to a more appropriate target, "Cathy said Moreno was there. He set her up."
Joe's rage was almost visible in the air between them; he set his jaw grimly, then just nodded. "Later." She knew what he meant.
She gave a quick nod in agreement, and then went on. "They used drugs to try to get her to talk, and in checking her blood, the doctor who worked for the guy - his name was Gabriel -" Joe's brows lifted inquisitively; she knew he was asking many questions here, not the least of which had to do with her use of the past tense. "Later on that too, Joe. Let me just get the basics out first."
"So. In checking her condition, the doctor found out she was pregnant. She had only found out herself a very short time ago. Vincent didn't even know yet. Nobody knew. At first the guy didn't care. He just wanted to know about the book, and to hell with the pregnancy."
She could see Joe's jaw move as he ground his teeth, but he waited for her to go on. "At first they had her at a warehouse, and she found a way to signal for Vincent and his friends. They tried a rescue, but they didn't make it, obviously. But Gabriel got a look at Vincent over his surveillance cameras." She paused, waiting for a question. When it didn't come, she said carefully, "You remember I had figured that there must be some reason no one knew about Vincent, and someplace secret they saw each other. Turns out that it's got nothing to do with criminal background or illegal aliens or anything like that. Vincent is - physically kind of different."
"So you've met him."
"Yeah." She held her breath. This was the moment she had dreaded; this was the place for the one question that might damage her friendship with Joe Maxwell beyond repair, might even lead to consequences she did not want to contemplate. When she released her breath, finally; the question hung in the air, unasked. He understood. He understood everything. He had made his choice. She relaxed for the first time since she had begun her trip to meet with him. She continued her story, lighter of heart by the weight of the friendship saved.
"When Gabriel saw Vincent, he was intrigued. When the doctor told him the pregnancy didn't seem exactly normal, he became - obsessed, I guess you could say. He had some kind of sick fixation on the baby. I don't know what he thought, but he made up his mind he was going to get that baby for himself. That's why he kept her all that time. He knew after the first few days that he wasn't going to get anything from her about the book. It was the baby he wanted. God knows why."
Joe's expression suggested that he thought the deity might not be the only one to have an answer to that, but he maintained his silence. Diana, increasingly grateful for his trust in her judgment, continued.
"After the rescue attempt, they moved the whole operation downtown, to a big building Gabriel must have owned. Much more sophisticated setup; after all, now it wasn't just about questioning her for a little while. It was about housing her through the pregnancy. So there they were, until she was about to deliver. Then..." Another delicate moment. "Then Vincent got a location for her. He had been keeping tabs on the investigation, and he had known about me way before I knew about him." This was a slight exaggeration, but it sounded reasonable, and might remove some of the sting of her deception. Even if he was prepared to overlook it as justified by the results, she didn't want him to feel any more left out or lied to than she could help.
"When the time came, he called for me to go with him and we went to try to get her."
She looked toward Joe again; he waited still, his face now unreadable. She hoped she hadn't misunderstood his forbearance. "There was no time to do anything official, you understand. It was a matter of seconds. We got there, got to her just in time, and got out."
She did not believe this incredibly abbreviated summary would go unchallenged, but for the moment he seemed to be letting it pass.
"We took her to where Vincent and his people live, and she's there now. Vincent's father - adoptive father, really - is a doctor, so everybody's fine."
"He's the one who took care of her face?"
"And she has a baby."
"She hasn't been gone that long. You said she just found out before she disappeared. How far along was she?"
"You said the doctor said it wasn't normal."
"Well, that was the main thing, I guess. That it was going faster than usual. Vincent is - different, but he's not weak. Actually, he's very healthy and strong, and the baby seems exactly like any full-term baby. Normal size, normal appearance, alert, everything's fine. If you didn't know how short the whole thing was, you'd never have any reason to think there was anything unusual about him at all."
"Yeah. It's a beautiful baby boy, as they say."
"Does he have a name?"
"Gee, I don't think so. Not yet. At least nobody used one that I heard."
"Nobody? Sounds like a crowd. How many people we talking about here?"
The question sounded casual, but Diana went on guard. Here was - maybe - the beginning of the time when she would have to make instant decisions, and use every ounce of perception she had, to try to meet Joe's real needs, but fend off his natural curiosity and doggedness. He would want to know everything, and she could not give him that.
"Catherine, Vincent, the doctor, and a lady named Mary who helps him when somebody's sick. They were just trying to get some rest, make sure no problems cropped up after a thing like that - having a baby and escaping from a nutcase don't usually go together so good."
"No, I can see that. You're sure she's all right?"
"Seems absolutely fine." She was touched by the way he jumped back to the question cared about most, against all his investigative instincts. She knew that her reassurance meant that he would go back on the offensive, however, and she braced herself.
"You said they had her in a building downtown?"
"You know, Joe, it's the strangest thing. Vincent woke me out of a sound sleep, and practically dragged me to the place; he was sort of explaining as we went, and I had all I could do to keep up with him and try to understand at the same time. I wasn't really paying attention to where we were going. When we got there, it was just one of those faceless glass buildings in the business district." She looked away for a moment, then raised her gaze and met his eyes. She summoned all her nerve to hold that look, hating as she did to lie to him. And of course, he knew. What was in question here was whether he would accept the lie as his answer, trusting her to be telling him as much as she could, even without knowing why she could not tell him all. It was asking a great deal, she knew. Then she saw a change come over his face. Now what? she asked herself.
"A glass building in the business district, huh?" His expression had hardened into something unreadable. She took a deep breath, while trying not to let it show that she did. They had found the building, and the carnage it contained, she was sure.
He spoke again. "Where did you actually find her?"
This was the moment. She went deep inside herself for a split second, examining every instinct she had ever had about this man.
"She was in a delivery room setup near the top of the building; I stopped the doc from following orders and injecting her with a lethal dose of morphine. Gabriel had already taken the baby to the roof. He had a chopper waiting. We stopped him from taking off with the baby, and he was going to kill it rather than let us have it back. I stopped that too."
She waited, as the words hung in the air; the picture they painted, she realized, would take a few moments to sink in. She saw Joe's face alter as he fully understood the import of those last few sentences. She wondered, in what seemed a very long suspended moment after he had grasped it all, what the next question would be. It was none of those she had anticipated in that brief but interminable pause.
"Which way did you come back down?"
It sounded almost casual, but she understood immediately that it was significant in two crucial ways. She answered the surface question without hesitation.
"We took the elevator right down to the lobby. With Gabriel out of the picture, nobody else was interested in us." Which was, in a sense, true. Now, would he ask the other half of the question?
"So you didn't see anybody as you were leaving." It was a statement, not a question, and wanted no elaboration.
"No one but the doctor; he came down with us, then took off like the proverbial bat. I don't think he was really such a bad guy. Cathy says he just did what he was told, and Gabriel would have scared Dr. Frankenstein."
Diana was just filling time, giving herself an instant's breathing space, and giving Joe that same instant to decide what he wanted to do next. Would he go back to the question he had left unasked, put it into words that could never be taken back? He had asked how they came down, if they had seen anyone coming down. He had not asked how they had gone up, or what they had done to get there. She noticed that she was holding her breath again, and released it in some irritation at herself. She never used to be this vulnerable. She realized why as soon as the thought came to her. She had never before had anything at risk.
"Well, then. I guess that's all you can tell me about that part of it."
There was an odd look on Joe's face now, as if he had to learn a new way to live with his own thought processes. He had had at least as many decisions to make as she, she considered. She had had to decide what to answer; he had had to decide what to ask - and what not to. He had the harder role in this dialogue. She was protecting something whose value she fully understood. He was backing away from values he held to be of the highest order, taking the rightness of it on faith. She was overwhelmed by the honor he was doing her. She vowed, in her very deepest soul, to try to be worthy of that incredible trust. She felt a startling wave of gratitude, and something more personal, wash over her, and surprised both of them profoundly by stepping forward, taking his face between her hands, and kissing him soundly on the mouth.
"What the hell was that for, Bennett?"
"People almost always spoil their best moments; they say just the right thing, then they go and start talking again, and mess it up. I just figured I'd keep it from happening this time. Do you mind?"
"I guess not. But listen, you might need to keep an eye on me a little longer. I'm starting to feel kind of chatty, and I could still develop a talking jag. You might have to stop me again."
"I guess I could do that, if it was absolutely necessary."
"Hold that thought." They talked on, relaxed now, and happy to be free of the terrible burden of fear and helplessness that had held them in thrall for so long. They spoke of Moreno a little; they agreed that with Gabriel dead, they would need to watch for other signs of the organization whose presence they suspected might be infecting their city. If nothing showed up, well then, they would just have to find a way to tie their former friend the D.A. to the evil he had done. They did not need to solve the whole problem immediately. There would be time, from now on, for so many things.
They changed to more pleasant subjects. She was planning on a few more vacation days, but this time she did not intend to disappear. She was going to explore the scenes of her own life anew: "See what it feels like to play tourist around here instead of cop for a change."
"You're kidding." A glance into her face. "You're not kidding!"
"Nope. It's been years since I just enjoyed New York like a person. After all this, I think I'm ready."
"Could you use some company for some of it? Or would I be in the way?" Quickly giving her an out if she wanted one.
"Nah - it'd be nice. Anyway, tourists never travel alone, you know that."
"True. Should I carry the cameras?"
"We'll see how it works out, okay?" They laughed together, relief over everything, the outcome of events, and their personal accommodation, adding to the pleasure they were finding in each other's company.
"Now - when do I get to see Cathy? And the baby?" He did not ask where she was. He did not ask where the meeting might take place. He most particularly did not add "and Vincent," so Diana did not need to stop his mouth before the moment when he might speak again. But that was exactly what made her want to.
So she did.