Chapter 7

-1-

 

Monday, December 25, 1989 - Christmas morning

 

Just as it did in homes in the world Above, Christmas morning in the tunnels began at an early hour. The adults were awakened by the sounds of children whispering and scurrying through the passages on their way to the dining hall. By the time the adults had joined them, the children were pleading to open their presents.

 

Catherine and Vincent joined the proceedings with Jake, who watched the events with wide-eyed wonder. The baby was placed on a quilt near the tree, surrounded by noisy children and mounds of wrapping paper, ribbon and boxes.

 

Catherine was thanked over and over for her generosity as her presents were opened. As the space beneath the tree became emptier, Samantha, who took the role of Santa this year, handed Catherine a small package. She looked at Vincent, but he shrugged. She opened the package and found a small bottle of Magie Noire perfume along with a note, which read: “I hope you like this. I think it smells like a wild night of romance. Love, Sybil. P.S.: You’ll have to excuse me; my husband’s been gone a LONG time!”

 

Catherine laughed as she tucked the gift and the note into her pocket.

 

“What is it?” Vincent asked.

 

She smiled at him. “I’ll tell you later.”

 

Back in their chamber, Vincent started to protest when Catherine handed him a large wrapped package.

 

“I know what we said, Vincent. But one of the helpers saw this in a store, and I couldn’t not buy it for you.”

 

He gave her a look that melted her heart before carefully opening the wrapping paper.    She knew that the paper, along with all the wrapping paraphernalia around the big Christmas tree, would be saved and hoarded for future use. Tunnel folk were born recyclers; Catherine felt they could teach Topsiders a thing or two about environmental responsibility.

 

Vincent finished unwrapping his gift and let out a small gasp of surprise. For a moment he could only stare at it, then at Catherine.

 

“Do you like it?” she asked.

 

“It’s...magnificent.” He stood and shook out the great folds of a beautiful black cloak. It was nearly identical to his old cloak, but the fabric was thicker and softer, the color richer.

 

Catherine stood. “Here, let me help you try it on.” She took the cloak and positioned him in front of a full length mirror, which Vincent had installed at her request but never used himself. She peeked around his broad form as she draped the cloak across his shoulders. Then she watched him pull the hood over his head and stare at himself in the mirror.

 

“You look wonderful, Vincent.” She beamed with satisfaction.

 

He turned to pull her so that she stood in front of him in the mirror’s reflection. “Thank you.” He kissed the top of her head. She turned to him and threw her arms around his neck. He lifted her and carried her over to the bed, settling her on his lap and draping the cloak around their bodies.

 

“This is nice,” she murmured, her voice muffled against his chest. “It’s like being in a cocoon.”

 

Vincent spoke, and his voice boomed through his chest. “Catherine...could you bring me my old cloak?”

 

“Sure.” She stood and picked up the old cloak, which Vincent had draped across a chair. Then she sat beside him on the bed.

 

Vincent pulled a tiny package out of one voluminous pocket and handed it to Catherine. “You’re not the only one who did not observe our ‘no gifts’ rule.”

 

She widened her eyes in genuine astonishment as she unwrapped the package to reveal a small white box. Inside the box, nestled against a bed of satin, lay a beautiful gold and crystal ring. She gazed at it, unable to speak.

 

“It’s a wedding ring,” he said, placing the ring in her palm. “Mouse helped me make it.”

 

She laughed, her voice a bit shaky. “That explains some of the funny looks he’s been giving me for the last week.”

 

Vincent smiled. “He was sworn to secrecy. Perhaps I should have kept it for the wedding, but...I didn’t want to wait.”

 

“It’s beautiful, Vincent.” She turned to him, tears glistening in her eyes. “Thank you so much.” They held each other close.

 

Vincent broke their embrace. “There’s more. Look at the inscription.”

 

Catherine held the ring up to a candle and read the tiny words etched inside: “Omnia Vincit Amor.” She looked a question at him.

“It is Latin. The translation is ‘Love Conquers All.’”

 

She smiled and hugged him again. “It’s perfect.”

 

He held her close. “I’m glad you like it.” He gently pulled away. “Come. The dining hall should be cleared by now.” He lifted Jacob from his quilt, and the three went off to breakfast.

 

 

 

 

-2-

 

Diana awoke Christmas morning to an unheated loft devoid of a Christmas tree or any other holiday trappings. She had no tree because this year the holiday had completely slipped her mind. As for the lack of heat...she jumped out of her warm bed, glad she had remembered to don thick socks the night before, and called her landlord to complain.

 

Two hours later her loft was still like the inside of a freezer, despite a blazing fire she had built, so she decided to go out and find a warm place. Maybe she could call Joe...no, what was she thinking? Her hand hovered over the phone. Despite the recent change in their relationship, she still was reluctant to call him. This was Christmas morning. Joe had family, including several nieces and nephews on whom he doted, and she knew he was planning to spend the day with them. Let him be; everyone who can have one deserves a happy Christmas.

 

She jerked her hand away as the phone burst into loud ringing. She picked it up on the second ring. “Hello?”

 

“It’s me, Diana.” Joe’s weary voice was on the line.

 

“Joe! I was just about to...what’s wrong?” Her instincts kicked in. He wouldn’t call her this early on Christmas morning unless something had happened.

 

“Your boss has been trying to reach you all morning. Your line was busy, so he asked me to try.”

 

“I’ve been on the phone with my landlord. What is it?”

 

Joe sighed. “Lang was found dead early this morning in a shelter over on 125th Street in Harlem. Her throat and both wrists were slit.”

 

“Suicide?”

 

“No way. Her tongue was cut out.” A pause. “We’re waiting on the coroner’s report to see if it was done before or after she was killed. Diana...hey, you still there?”

 

“Yeah, I’m here.” She knew her voice was flat. What she felt inside was beyond her ability to express.

 

“You O.K.?”

 

“I’m fine. Do you need me to come down there?”

 

“I think you better. We’re at Harlem Hospital. There was a message on her...a message for you.”

 

“What does it say?”

 

“Just come down. Please. As soon as you can.”

 

“I’ll be right there.”

 

“And Diana?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Be careful. Be really careful.”

 

The hospital’s emergency room was quiet and empty. Diana checked at the nurse’s station and found Joe pacing in a small conference room. He managed a weak smile when she entered.

 

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said, enveloping her in a heartfelt hug. “Crummy way to spend Christmas morning, huh?”

 

“I can think of better.” She resisted the temptation to kiss him. “When can I see her?”

 

Joe checked his watch. “They should be done by now. Let’s go downstairs.”

 

They were met in the morgue by the pathologist, Dr. Peretz. His report confirmed their fears: the Vietnamese woman’s tongue had been severed before her death.

 

Diana scanned the rest of the report. “Did you find any identification on her?”

 

“Nothing.” The doctor’s bald head gleamed in the morgue’s fluorescent lighting; his watery brown eyes looked tired. “She had a little money, less than a hundred dollars.”

 

“So whoever killed her wasn’t after money.” Joe seemed to be talking to himself. Diana glanced at him and they exchanged a look. She handed the clipboard back to Dr. Peretz.    “Was there anything else?”

The doctor gave Joe a troubled look before answering. “Yes, Miss Bennett. I...think it would be better to show you than tell you.” He motioned her to follow him.

 

The three entered the room where Dr. Peretz had performed the autopsy. A small form lay still beneath a stark white sheet on one of the tables. Diana took some deep breaths and forced herself to feel calm. She’d been down this road before. Looking at dead bodies never got any easier, but at least she was able to do it now without throwing up.

 

The doctor pulled back the sheet to expose Lang’s head. Diana took a good look and nodded. The doctor pulled the sheet back up, then pulled the dead woman’s hands out into the open. ”Look at this,” he said to Diana, arranging Lang’s hands so they lay palm up at her sides.

 

Nothing could have prepared Diana for what she saw. There on the dead woman’s hands, carved deeply enough to expose the bones and widely enough to cover the palms, were two initials: “D” on the right hand, “B” on the left.

 

She backed away, feeling the blood leave her face. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest. “Oh, my God.” She took one more step backward and bumped into Joe, who wrapped one arm around her. Somewhere underneath her horror she felt gratitude for his presence. “That’s why we called you,” Joe said. He looked at the doctor, who replaced the ruined hands beneath the sheet.

 

Diana started to speak, but had to swallow hard first. “Were her hands...was that done before or after…”

 

“Before she was killed,” the doctor said. “I’ve seen a lot of bad things, but this...” He shook his head. “I can barely imagine the pain she must have suffered before she died.”

 

Diana nodded and blinked back tears. Pull yourself together, girl. A practiced calm spread throughout her body as she turned to Joe. “We better get to work.”

 

Joe nodded. “Thanks, Doc.” The doctor bid them goodbye and they left the room.

 

The fight was on the minute Joe pulled his car out of the hospital’s parking garage.

 

“I can take care of myself, Joe. You know that.”

 

“Yeah, I know that.” He glanced over at Diana. Her arms were crossed over the shoulder strap of the seatbelt; her face was a mask of stubborn anger. “But whoever did this…”

 

“Pope. It was Pope.” Her words brooked no contradiction.

 

“O.K., I agree. Pope’s the one we need to find, preferably before he finds you. The bad thing is, you’re a lot easier to find than he is.”

“I’m not leaving my home…”

 

“Fine! Don’t leave. We’ll post a twenty-four hour watch of your building. Not even a cockroach could get in without getting its head blown off.” He paused, trying to get his own anger under control. “Sound all right?”

 

“Do I have a choice?”

 

“Hell, no.”

 

She exhaled loudly. “O.K.”

 

“Gee, that’s great, Diana. I really appreciate all this help keeping you alive.”

 

Silence from the passenger’s seat.

 

Joe gripped the wheel a little tighter and kept his eyes on the road, glancing into the rearview mirror at regular intervals.  “I’m gonna take you home now, and I’ll make the arrangements from there. I’ll stay until the first shift arrives.” He glanced at Diana, whose face had slipped into deep lines of thought. “I know this is tough, but…”

 

“Joe.” Her voice had taken on a note of childlike wonder. “They didn’t take her money. They didn’t even try to make it look like a robbery.”

 

Joe nodded. “I think the whole thing was intended to send you a message.”

 

“And if it is Pope, the message is that I’m next. He probably couldn’t do all this by himself, which means he has people working for him. Which means he needs money.    And if he didn’t take Lang’s money...”

 

“Where would he get money?” Joe stopped for a red light and turned to look at Diana. Their eyes widened in unison. “Your case!”

 

“The robberies,” she said, excitement spreading over her features. “He had to get out fast when we found Gabriel. Maybe he could only take a little money with him.”

 

“What’s the take so far from the robberies?”

 

“Over half a million dollars.”

 

Joe whistled as he accelerated through the green light. “Nice little nest egg.”

 

“We need to put out an APB on Pope.”

 

“But how will you explain--”

“No problem.” She waved a hand. “Nobody ever questions me; they just do what I say.”

 

“If you’ll handle the APB, I’ll take care of everything else.” Joe’s expression was grim.    “That bastard’s not getting to you.”

 

“Joe.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What should we tell Vincent and Cathy?”

 

He frowned. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell them at all.”

 

“I don’t know. They just saw her last night. They...oh God.”

 

“What?”

 

“Sybil. You don’t think there’s any way Pope could get to her?”

 

“Oh, man.” Joe blew out a gust of air. “O.K., let’s just think. The only way is if Pope followed them into the tunnels. And that’s not likely.”

 

Diana gripped his arm. “I’ll call her - no. First, we check for any bugs or wiretaps on my phone. Then I’ll call.”

 

”And tell her what?”

 

Diana gave a tired sigh. “The same thing you told me…be careful.”

 

 

 

 

-3-

 

Sunday, December 31, 1989

 

After much excitement and preparation, the Winterfest celebration was held. This year’s event would be remembered for years afterward in tunnel history. A record number of helpers attended the festivities: Sebastian with a whole new array of magic tricks; Dr. Peter Alcott; Dr. Sybil Lawton, radiant in her fifth month of pregnancy; Diana Bennett and Joe Maxwell, both of whom looked tired but seemed to enjoy themselves nevertheless; and too many other friends to be counted. Even Elizabeth left the familiarity of her painted tunnels to join the festivities for a little while. This was the first Winterfest the old woman had attended in many years, causing Father to dance attendance on her in a vain attempt to get her to stay longer than an hour.

The highlight of the evening was the announcement of Catherine and Vincent’s wedding, to be held on January 12th, the day Vincent celebrated as his birthday.    Father made the announcement, with Catherine and Vincent at his side. For a moment after the words were spoken a total silence fell, immediately replaced by loud cheers and music from the group of musicians who had serenaded the partiers all evening long. Catherine and Vincent spent the rest of the evening accepting congratulations from everyone. Many people swore they were not surprised by the news; in fact, they had been anticipating it for some time!

 

The musicians struck up a slow waltz, and the crowd insisted that Vincent and Catherine have the first dance. Holding Catherine carefully in his arms, Vincent guided her through the moves as their friends watched. Soon other couples filled the floor, and the dancing and music lasted long into the night.

 

In the early hours of the next morning, the first day of a new year and a new decade, Catherine crept into the bathroom and suffered a long bout of vomiting, which she attributed to too much excitement and rich food.

Chapter 8