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CLASSIC ROUND ROBIN


Chapter 3

by Ophelia


Better than most, Vincent knew that men drew fragile veils between the worlds, hoping to hide from themselves what they did not understand. But even he had to battle a surge of denial. He already felt divorced from reality, as if the asphalt beneath him were a living being, sapping the strength from his body and sending it deep into the roots of the earth. He began to waver but caught himself, his head swimming.

Was it delirium?

The proffered hand felt real enough. It was in fact the only thing that felt real, no small irony considering to whom the hand was attached. He tried to focus on Kristopher’s face, anything to stay conscious and aware.

Kristopher smiled again, as if in relieved sympathy. “They told me you would be here, but I wasn’t sure,” he confessed. “Because sometimes, you know, they’re not . . ." He paused, shoulders shaking with an awkward splutter of laughter, “well, they’re not exactly reliable! But I’m glad you weren’t late!” His words were enigmatic, and his smile broadened again in childlike optimism.

Vincent stared. Here with the man who ignored all boundaries, he grew increasingly uncertain of his own. He had reason, after all: he had history. When had the dreaming begun – if it had begun?

“Surprised?” asked Kristopher, his face earnest, his head tilting. “Shocked?”

Vincent hesitated. “Stupefied,” he rasped.

Kristopher adjusted his ball cap. “Vincent, yes! I’m forever stupefied, astounded, amazed! I know exactly what you mean. But aside from that, well, Vincent . . . ” and his gaze swept up and down the length of the man in the cloak, “you look pretty awful. In a stunning, heroic, tragic sort of way, of course,” he rattled apologetically, “which would make an incredible painting. But first, we have to hurry,” he urged. “We can’t stay here any longer.” He tugged at Vincent’s shoulder. Vincent stumbled forward, certain his legs would not hold beyond a few minutes more.

Thanking the gods for the hope of respite, even in the form of a fever dream, Vincent groaned when he saw the door to which Kristopher led him. Without his customary strength, Vincent knew, the door’s padlock and heavy chain posed a formidable barrier. Feeling hunted and vulnerable, Vincent bowed his head in dejection, his voice a hollowed husk of sound. “Kristopher. The lock . . .”

“Lock? What lock?” muttered Kristopher. The chain clinked abrasively as it slipped through the door handle, and when Vincent raised his eyes, he saw the links coiled snakelike on the ground. He followed, limping, as Kristopher walked through the door and shut it soundly behind them.

Vincent looked for a space where he could rest – where he could fall, if need be. He heard Kristopher pacing about the floor. There was a rusty-hinged squeak, Kristopher seeming to bump into an aged piece of equipment.

“Oh,” Kristopher exclaimed, “a lamp! Great! I’ll light it.” Then Vincent heard the muffled sound of patting, as if Kristopher were looking for something in his pockets. “Oh, um . . . you don’t happen to have a match, do you?”

Before Vincent could respond, Kristopher proclaimed, “Got it!” The sizzle of catching flame soon burned orange in the oil lamp Kristopher held aloft. His eyes were wide and thoughtful as they perused Vincent, shadows and dancing reflections of flickering light competing across Kristopher’s face and throughout the musty building space.

The warehouse, still and eerie, looked familiar and yet changed. Vincent wondered if he would dream such changes to a place he knew. His relief in once again being grounded was of brief duration. With chagrin he realized his enfeeblement progressed at such a pace that, without help, possessing his bearings did not matter. He leaned against a wall and slid down, unable to sustain his body weight any longer.

The pain in his side burned; the dripping sweat was a stinging insult to the laceration on his face. His head dropped back, exposing his throat, all his body’s strain and injury telling on him, pushing him to lose himself, to submerge himself in sleep. He fought to keep his eyes open.

Kristopher began to place blankets pulled from objects in the warehouse around him, careful to avoid Vincent’s injury. Vincent tossed his head back and forth, his anxious, weary protest. “Kristopher . . .”

“You should rest,” Kristopher encouraged him, his voice soft. Vincent huffed in frustration, the urgent things he needed to say muddled and unspoken. “Just a little sleep.” Kristopher grinned. “What could it hurt?”

“Below,” Vincent moaned, his energy allowing now only for telegraphic speech. “Cold – so cold.”

“Cold,” Kristopher murmured, the smile gone. Even in his debilitated state, Vincent recognized Kristopher’s haunted, lingering look toward the door. “No man should have to stay out in such cold.”

Vincent’s thoughts were disintegrating, and he knew his efforts to remain sentient would soon succumb to the weakness of his body. How long could he command his senses? Minutes? Seconds?

Uncertain in which world he resided, or would reside, he knew he must seize upon these moments for whatever good they might bring. Above the psychic wound and physical injury, his purpose stretched toward Catherine, leaning always toward her. Gathering the frayed threads of will left to him, he pictured her, the central, vivid delight of his mind’s eye and of his heart. He would weave a mantle for her; throw it as a warm and comforting thing over her shoulders, a thing that could last for eternity, if need be.

He sustained the image of her for as long as he was able, holding her in the strength of his grasp, in the deepest center of himself. And then the darkness overtook him.

***

“Burning the midnight oil again, Radcliffe?”

The voice, if prominent, rose just above the quiet chatter of the security guards, who had been sipping their coffee and commiserating in the corridor. Catherine felt too tired to be startled. Instead, she heaved a sigh before turning a warm but weary smile over her shoulder. “Joe! I thought you left hours ago.”

Perched on the nearest desk, Joe smiled in return, one hand working his rubber bands while he peered down at her. “I did. Then I came back.” His eyes fell on the massive tome usurping most of her desk top. “The Baransky case?”

Rubbing her temples, Catherine turned away from him long enough to flip the shade of the desk lamp, relieved to be free of its glare. “I’ve never seen a case with so many conflicting precedents,” she groaned. “They’re like mushrooms. I find one relevant decision, and seven more spring up in its shadow.”

Joe nodded, and Catherine immediately wondered what it was he hadn’t shared. “Well, then what I have to tell you might or might not thrill you.”

Uh-oh. Catherine knew that tone, that look; neither usually bade well. “What do you have to tell me?” she asked, her voice wary.

“The good news is the plaintiff’s dropping the charges, and Moreno’s going to let it go.”

“You’re kidding!” Her half-relieved smile was short-lived, replaced with an irritated aura of revelation. She glanced, frowning, at her watch, and even she was shocked. “Joe! It’s practically midnight!”

“And the bad news is that Moreno gave the message to the new clerk,” he grimaced, confirming her suspicions. “At about three o’clock today.”

Ohhhh!” came Catherine’s frustrated cry. She slapped the cover of the ponderous reference closed.

“Moreno called me, and then I called you; you weren’t home.” One eyebrow lifted, and a soft chuff of ironic laughter escaped him. “I figured you might be here.”

Catherine’s forehead tipped forward till it rested, briefly, on the book. “I can’t believe it.” Then she raised her head. All that work. Where is competence when it’s needed? “I miss Edie.”

“Yeah. Edie, and at least eight hours of sleep,” came Joe’s rejoinder. “You’ve been working yourself too hard, Radcliffe.”

Pushing back from the desk, Catherine stood and shrugged. This was the familiar conflict, the push-pull of the commitment. She knew she wasn’t the only one to put in late hours. “It’s part of the job, Joe. We all do it. You work too hard, too.”

“Well, the last couple of weeks have been rough on you. And I don’t think it’s just Baransky.” The uncommon statement and the question in his gaze weighed on her, a complex invitation. She dropped her eyes in response to his penetrating stare, the burden of secrets silencing her. Even she knew that her smile, though affectionate, was a little sad, despite her effort to make it otherwise.

The moment passed, the invitation declined, and Joe’s sigh was audible. “I think you should take a few days,” he said quietly. He gave her a wistful grin. “Catch up on some of those eight hours.”

“Joe . . .”

“I’m not kidding, Radcliffe,” Joe returned, his voice growing more stern. “This isn’t a request. Why do you think Moreno was calling me this late? We’re going heavy on the Markham case next week, and it’s going to be a bear. Worse than Baransky. I need you in good form. Besides,” he added, “I’ll need time myself, by then. One of us has to hold down the fort without toppling over.”

Catherine knew that Joe would be there in the trenches working just as hard as she was, though she had been the one in the trenches tonight. She also knew a save when she saw it. “Thanks, Joe.”

“Want me to walk you to your car?”

The shake of her head was as silent as it was predictable.

“Okay.” Joe wore a look of respectful but resigned disagreement. “Be careful. ’Night, Radcliffe.”

Her walk through the cold of the parking garage, her drive, the elevator ride up to the apartment found her adrift, one name searing her thoughts . . .

Vincent.

Such a strong man. And in some ways, such a fragile man. If the world Above had not called upon her with the distraction of duty, if they had chosen to be apart for these two weeks without the pretext of obligation, how would she have borne it?

She knew even before hearing her own inner voice. You would have borne it. Some way. Some how.

The irony was bittersweet; she only knew of her strength because of her travails, because of him. She had chosen to know herself, to risk discovering her own capacity for love and pain, and the choice re-shaped her, utterly. She lost everything . . . and gained it back again, rewarded with riches of such depth and beauty that they outstripped the very reach of her imagination. Had Vincent not believed in her, and, yes, loved her – there – she braved the thought – would she ever have dared to step into the truth? He was the bridge between her old shell and her true being.

Around what truth did they dance now?

The Baransky case; dearest Melissa and her marital shipwreck; there was no end to important commitments – or convenient barriers. She had felt the growing joy in Vincent, the way he reached for her smiles, her gaze, her nearness. So many nights she struggled to stay awake, yearning for every precious moment they had together. Yet she would give nothing for the sweetness of their parting – the way the press of sleep would weigh her lids with heaviness, the way the rhythm of his breath matched hers as he cradled her against his shoulder. His feather-soft brush of mane would tease her brow, his head inclining to hers. Like her, he would begin to fall toward the dark cushion of shared dreams, only to rouse himself and bid her goodnight.

Good night – as if his pleasure were a guilty thing. As if he had no right to need her, or to want her.

For whom had the curtain of work and commitment become such an easy hiding place? For him? Or for her?

Standing before her apartment door, she rummaged through her purse, barely mindful of where her keys might be. She felt him so strongly.

So strongly. She froze, keys in hand, as a wave of warmth and emotion swept over her with a power that literally stole her breath. The intensity of it – of him – was overwhelming. Fumbling now with jangling metal, she twisted and pulled until she thrust herself over the threshold. Haphazard, purse and keys fell to the floor. She ran to the balcony and threw the doors open to the night. Sheer curtains twisted in the wind, and she stood bereft, looking for a man who was not there.

He was not there.

His absence, a gaping, palpable wound, hurt as if she had been cut off from part of herself. Where power had been, there was now emptiness. Where color and passion and music had been, there was silence.

It was not an ordinary silence. The silence was sudden, impenetrable and complete. She began to shake, chilled to her marrow. Something was wrong.

She stepped away from the balcony, her vigilant eyes darting through the room and across the floor, back and forth, as if she might find him, or at least an answer. Instead, she found only a card that, fallen from the door jamb, spawned more questions. Leaning forward, she scooped it up and stared at it, perplexed, then closed her fists around it, resting her chin on her hands. Stark fear and indecision flooded her, but they were soon tempered by braver company. She lowered her fists and stared into the distance, fierce determination etched in every line of her face.

She would not rest.

She would not wait.

~


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