Classic Round Robin ~ Chapter 2

by JoAnn Baca

 

It was the sound that had alerted him first, and a vague shadow moving through the dimness of the snowy night into the thin light cast by the closest lamppost. He had sensed a threat coming toward them, but what he saw didn’t fit what his senses were telling him. Danger was coming…fast. But…from this?

A figure half-ran, half-shuffled into view. It was wrapped in a moth-eaten coat and several tattered scarves, a pair of mismatched boots on its feet. It was impossible to tell if the figure was a man or a woman, but one thing was certain – whoever it was, was frightened, running scared. Vincent’s nose twitched at the rank smells emanating from the person, a mingling of stale body odor, dried urine, and fear.

He had thought to protect Catherine by stepping in front of her, but the individual kept looking back, so frightened about what was behind, in pursuit, that it paid no attention to where it was going or to the cloaked figure before it. The figure dashed past them, picking up speed in its panic, until it passed out of the light and once more was only a shadow in the darkness of the night.

Suddenly Vincent’s eyes shifted from the person fleeing. Voices…harsh laughter…the clink of chains. This was what he had sensed coming – danger in the form of several young men on the prowl for trouble in the midst of the peaceful park. “Aw, we feel bad! Why are you running away from us?” one of them hooted, clearly taunting the homeless person who had fled before them in terror.

Vincent whirled, grabbing Catherine’s hand, hoping to rush with her toward the shelter of the drainage tunnel. But they had ambled too far from that safety. The distance they had to cover was too great; the men would be in view in seconds. Vincent glanced around. The stand of sycamores they were beside was as old as Central Park. Many of the trees had trunks four to five feet across – ample cover for Catherine, if she crouched low and stayed quiet. With that thought, he urged her down, grateful that she complied without question.

Catherine knelt on the wet ground behind a large sycamore and pulled her coat tightly around her to ensure she was completely hidden from view of the path. But when she glanced around, searching for where Vincent was hiding, she realized with a start that he had stepped out onto the path, in full view of the small group of men which even now was approaching.

“Whoa! What have we here?” drawled a clearly drunk teenager. He slapped a length of steel pipe against one palm as he sized up the stranger before him. “What a pretty lil hood you have on! Lil Black Riding Hood!” He chortled at his own joke as his pals sniggered, beginning to fan out around Vincent. Vincent growled low in his throat and moved to put his back against the grove of trees, protecting Catherine even though the men couldn’t see her.

Vincent growled again, lifting his head so the hood of his cape fell back a bit to expose just a hint of his facial features. In the light from the lamppost, the glitter of sharp canines was revealed.

The leader of the group laughed again, but uncertainly this time. Rousting homeless people and beating defenseless strangers was one thing, but this guy wasn’t cowering, wasn’t trying to run; he was standing his ground.

Vincent hoped to frighten the hooligans into running away, but since the growling hadn’t worked, he pulled off his gloves and threw them aside, then lifted his arms in a threatening fashion, revealing the sharp tips of his claw-like nails. Usually this was the final straw that sent random bullies and would-be attackers back into the darkness…and usually well out of the park.

For whatever reason – the drinking made them feel brave, the herd mentality gave them more courage than they would exhibit individually – these men were not running away. Vincent examined his options and realized he had few. He would have to fight. Running would only draw more attention, as well as leave Catherine without a protector. Could he count on Catherine to remain hidden?

Were he alone, Vincent would have acted by now. By having to consider protecting Catherine as well as himself, he’d allowed these men to decide he was vulnerable. The bravest of the group, who had rounded to Vincent’s left side, ran at the cloaked figure, whirling a length of chain in one hand.  Vincent stepped aside to let the force of the young man’s forward momentum carry him harmlessly past him, but a lucky flick of a wrist made the chain alter its trajectory and ever so slightly slash across Vincent’s face, momentarily blinding him as the last link rapped him across the bridge of his nose.

The sudden burst of pain surprised Vincent, and he shook his head to dispel it while trying to keep all the men in view. But it took no more than that small distraction for one of the thugs to slip behind him, and a second later he was smacked hard with a pipe just above his right ear. Vincent stumbled forward, and in that moment he was pounced upon from behind and ridden to the ground.  In the tumble, his hood was torn off. The light from the lamppost illuminated his face, and the gang of youths beheld the impossible features of something that, to their eyes, was not quite a man.

“What the hell?!” the smart-mouthed leader yelped. “What is that?”

Instead of answering, the others began to pummel the fallen man with their chains, staves and pipes.

*****

Charles Chandler had finished his dinner at Tavern on the Green and decided that a walk in Central Park might be just the thing to banish the cobwebs brought on by a bit too much wine and the over-stuffed feeling of having eaten a bit too much food. “Sam, Wyeth, care to join me for a short stroll?”

Wyeth Harper, the newest associate in Charles’ law firm, was quick to agree to accompany the boss. He had a habit of agreeing to anything any of the partners suggested, whether he wanted to do the thing or not; he figured going along to get along was the way to get ahead. Sam Proctor, the client with whom Charles and Wyeth had been dining, was not in the same frame of mind. “I am grateful to you boys for winning the case, but not so grateful I’d take my life into my hands to walk through Central Park at night!”

Charles laughed and clapped his old friend on the shoulder. “I thought you had more of a sense of adventure, Sam! We’ll see you at the firm’s Christmas party, won’t we?”

“Wouldn’t miss it. Goodbye, gentlemen!” Sam asked the doorman to call him a cab while Charles and Wyeth put on their coats and mufflers.

As they began their walk, Charles drew on his leather gloves and rubbed his hands together. It was more than brisk. After the warmth of the restaurant, the park felt decidedly frigid. But Charles didn’t want to appear to have second thoughts, so he advised Wyeth, “We’ll just take a short constitutional, keep to the main paths, OK? Sam is right, it’s not the wisest thing to walk in the park at night, but I’m one of those old-fashioned New Yorkers who remembers when this park was the place to be seen during the holidays.”

They entered deeper into the park as Charles reminisced. “My wife and I used to come to the park in the evenings and sit under a particular stand of sycamores and people-watch. In the winter we’d bring a thermos of cocoa.” His words drifted out in white puffs of frosty air. “After my wife passed away, I’d bring my daughter. She’d scamper around, build a snowman if there was snow, and I’d sip cocoa and relax, just watching her have fun.”

“Must have been nice,” Wyeth murmured, bored to tears by the older man’s conversation and wishing he were home in his apartment  re-watching the football game he’d taped on his expensive new VHS player. Man, he loved that machine! It had been an expensive indulgence, but so worth it to be able to tape things he ordinarily would have missed because he was working late. He listened to his boss with half an ear, ready to make some desultory comment when necessary, while he mentally imagined what he’d rather be doing. He paid little attention to the path, the trees, the lightly falling snow, the lamplight or the beauty of the night.

*****

“Sally! Sally, wake up!”

The homeless woman lying on the subway grate near the park entrance shifted, the tattered blankets loosening so that her face peeked out. “Chuckie? That you?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Chuckie shifted nervously from foot to foot as he glanced behind him. The older park denizens looked out for each other, even if they preferred to move through their days and nights alone.

“Get up, Sally, come on! There’s some guys roaming the park, looking for homeless to beat up. I barely escaped from ‘em, but they’re not far behind me. You gotta get movin’ before they find you.”

Alarmed, Sally sat up. “Thanks, Chuckie. Here, grab this.” She shoved one of her blankets at him, and he held it for her while she gathered the rest of her meager belongings and hastily shoved them into an old duffel bag she had been using as a pillow.

“Where to?”

Chuckie considered the question. There really was no safe place, but they had one hard-to-find hiding place that might do. “Maybe if we doubled back, we could get behind them, go through the trees and settle down into that deep grove we like to stay in during the summer? I mean, the leaves are gone now, and there’s no steam grates to warm us, but it might be OK for one night, don’t ya think?”

Sally nodded. “It’s better than being a sitting duck out here.” She hefted her duffel bag and said, “Let’s go.”

*****

Catherine, hidden behind the massive old tree trunk, bit her lip to keep from crying out. She knew that, much as she wished to stand beside Vincent and face this threat, she was no match for men with weapons, and trying to protect her would only lessen Vincent’s ability to fight.

How had this evening gone so wrong so suddenly? One minute they were discussing the myths of an ancient civilization, and the next they were facing proof that “civilization” had a veneer far thinner than she would like to admit.

How could she help? She felt in her pockets for something, anything that might prove useful, but there was nothing. Gnashing her teeth in frustration, she tensed and focused on remaining quiet and waiting out whatever was happening, all too aware of her impotence in the face of this threat. Was this the feeling those Below had when something bad came into the Tunnels? Is that why Vincent seemed to always be the one to handle problems caused by intruders? What a burden this was to him, few people knew. And now, here he was, bearing it once again.

Her ears pricked up as she realized Vincent’s growling had stopped. All she heard were thumps and howls from the men who were attacking Vincent. Her heart leapt to her throat, and without thinking, she rose and rushed out of the woods.

 

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