Classic Round Robin ~ Chapter 4

by Nom de Guerre

 

The city's finest were already there, to Charles' relief. They had to hustle to keep back the crowd that milled about excitedly in front of the Tavern.

This would be a humiliating way to go, thought Charles, suffering a heart attack in the arms of a smirking new-hire in front of half of New York. He would have fallen if not for Wyeth; the younger man was surprisingly solid under that lightweight exterior. Better take another look at the kid's personnel file.

The truth was, it was time to cut back on the drinking. Because he was seeing things. Since the attack he had been haunted by terrible images he hadn't told anyone about, because he was just imagining these things even though they felt as real as the cold sweats that woke him in the middle of the night all too often now. Images he could not shake; his beautiful child, his only child, crying out, bleeding, falling. Dying.

Alcohol could do that to you, Charles knew. So could guilt. Add in a handful of heart meds and a fellow could get into a hell of lot of trouble if he didn't pull himself together.

Wyeth was shouting something at the cops. They weren't paying a bit of attention. Neither were the photographers. Photographers? Thank God. That meant the flashes of blinding light must be coming from them, not from inside his head.

In fact, he realized now, there were photographers everywhere; the chaos in front of him had nothing to do with the chaos behind him in the park. It centered instead on a strange and stunning figure being reverently handed out of a purring limousine into the eerie orange glow of a hundred fog lights and the bright violet pops and clicks from the waiting paparazzi.

*****

The gloves were gone.

The softening depression in the snow where they had fallen would have been overlooked by anyone who didn't know what he was looking for, but Mouse knew what he was looking for, and they weren't there.

It was not his style to panic but it wasn't his style to hang around in harm's way asking for trouble, either. Right now, too much excitement seemed headed this way; too many people, too loud, too close and maybe getting closer. Time to pull an Arthur and make tracks.

The hissing fragments of the smoke bomb were now cool enough to pick up so he pocketed them, then crunched back and forth across the sooty debris.
Wait!
Covering tracks and making tracks-- was it possible to do both at the same time? It seemed so; how did that work, exactly? That was an interesting thought for later, not for now.

And Vincent's gloves: where'd they get to? That was an interesting thought for now and later.

Because Mouse loved thoughts that had some staying power to them, thoughts that did not disintegrate as soon as you put your mind on them. Too many interesting thoughts just completely dissolved, like the egg roll Arthur had been given for his birthday, and which he had immediately dunked in his water dish. The tantrum that followed had been epic. Lucky for everyone Mouse was so good at thinking and finding and fixing. Above, on the other hand, was a giant mess, much worse than anything Arthur could get up to. Well, Above would have to take care of itself, or not. (Usually not. Okay good.Okay fine.) He had a busy evening ahead. Time to get Below.

*****

Sally was not impressed. She stopped dead in her tracks as if they were not running for their very lives, and skeptically assessed Chuckie's magnificent find. The fancy CamelHairCoats kept going, of course, heading for the restaurant and the safety of their own kind. Cowards.

"These're too big," said Sally. "These'd fit yer fat head."

He could never think of a smart retort when Sally was in a mood. "Give 'em back then," he said, and immediately regretted it as Sally responded with a stream of tobacco juice in his direction and defiantly clutched the gloves to her ample chest. Chuckie scowled and turned back toward the noise and the lights in the distance.

This was what you got when you let a woman into your life, he reflected miserably: grief, and drama, and not one speck of appreciation. ‘Things have to change,’ he said to himself. ‘Every man has his limits.’

But for some reason he was relieved to hear her familiar wheeze closing in on him from behind.

"I'll keep 'em for a little while," said Sally, huffing along beside him. "It don't mean we're engaged or anything."

*****

Kay told her driver to leave the engine running, then wove through the crowd to collect a fuming Charles from the back of the paramedics' van. He broke off arguing with them when he saw her.

"Tell me you did not call Catherine," he said. His voice sounded querulous to him, agitated. Old.

"Of course I called her," said Kay. "She didn't pick up. I didn't want to leave anything alarming on her machine so I didn't leave a message."

Between the security detail for the diva, the discovery of another gang-related attack in the park, and the rather more unusual animal-at-large report, the police had ordered the two attorneys and the homeless couple not to leave until their statements had been taken. That did not look like it was going to happen anytime soon, so Kay took command and inside of 30 seconds she was able to escort Charles to her waiting car unchallenged.

Stowed in the warm back seat of Kay's car, Charles edgily shook off her concern. "I'm fine," he said evenly. "I was just winded. I'm not going to the emergency room and that's final."

Kay decided to change the subject, for now. "You're going to be in the Times tomorrow," she told him. "You're in half of those shots. That's how close you were to her. The last of the great mezzo-sopranos. How marvelous."

*****

Father's silence was worse than anything Catherine had steeled herself to hear from him.

He had struggled down the stairs as quickly as his hip would allow, and then when he got to the bottom, just . . . stopped. His grey gaze swept across his bleeding son; and then he looked at Catherine--looked at her and then through and beyond her, into some dark arena whose players only he could see. He said nothing, but in his face, Catherine suddenly saw it too.

She would have recoiled but it was too late; in one instant, in the infinite space between two heartbeats, time itself cracked open wide, the veil between the worlds swept aside and she saw everything. The consuming effort it required to hold the center that she, and Father, and everyone who loved Vincent had fought for and clung to so ferociously, all came apart as, in front of her eyes, Father seemed to wither, suddenly becoming impossibly old and devastatingly frail in his mortality. And as soon as she thought this, she saw the rest, the truth unspooling out in every direction in a dense, unending tapestry:

Everything I believe in, Father was thinking, and Catherine heard every word as if he were speaking them aloud, everything it means to me to be human, to keep hoping and fighting no matter what, to face evil not without fear but without despair, every reason to love in spite of the certainty of loss: is all contained, somehow, in the mystery, the miracle, of what Vincent is--

Yes, thought Catherine, her mind racing to keep up. I see it now.

And she did see, abandoning words for vision, letting go, letting the torrent of pictures and sensations come over her and carry her out far beyond her depth yet bearing her aloft by the sweet relentless clarity of it.

She saw it, saw the divine inevitable in play, saw all at once how the pieces fit together, saw some unknown key had at last turned in the waiting lock as it was always meant to, the ancient machinery of all mysteries had suddenly been revealed to her sight, because--

It's not an unknown key! thought Catherine in an explosive rush of thrill and fear; I am that key!

This love, our love, has unlocked and set in motion something beyond my comprehension, sherealized, her thoughts tumbling over one another, struggling to grasp something for which she had never before needed words. There is a larger Mystery within our mystery; my only hints of it, our Bond; our Bond only one thread among infinites; this thread, the only one I am able to grasp; and now I see its continuum far, far beyond my own life . . . .

Yes, her mind heard Father interrupt her, you do see at last. But . . . .

But Vincent, saw Catherine, the heart, the center around which this Great Wheel turns, does not see this--he cannot see what we see. He does not know what he is!

No, Father finished her thought. He can see, and feel, everything you see and feel, Catherine--everything but this. And whether his unknowing is a tragedy or a mercy or both, is between Vincent and the Creator; it is not meant for our—nor for any--mortal understanding.

She saw this was true, she saw everything in this instant, in this infinite space between one heartbeat and the next, this two-way mirror the price of sight. The pain was so intense that it took Catherine a moment to realize the long, low keen of suffering was coming from Vincent and not from herself.

*****

Vincent watched the two people he loved most grapple silently with a reality that could never be spoken aloud, and reflexively braced himself to provide psychic anchor for Catherine. Her connection with him had, in some accident of timing and distress, overrun its usual feedback loop between the two of them, and instead had raced along the conduits of his connection with Father, leaving her wide open and unprepared. She was reeling from the shock of some unexpected awareness. He flinched inwardly at the force of the collision, but, strangely, he could not parse any of the particulars, as if Catherine had stepped behind some great mirroring veil through which he could not follow and which threw back at him instead only odd fragmented shimmers of his own reflection. He could feel her heart swell and break, and swell and break again on some alien shore whose contours and coordinates remained hidden to him, and it unsettled him deeply.

Another wave of nausea overtook him then, and for a moment he was blinded by a red froth of pain behind his eyes. Some sound must have escaped him in spite of clenched teeth and monumental will, because all at once there was movement--voices--and then his senses were flooded with her, the comfort of her, herwarm murmuring breath, her fragrant hair against his face, herloving hands under his.

*****

Chuckie had been ready to take off again as soon as he saw the cops but Sally had spotted the fancy broad who was the reason for all this fuss, and she looked like someone Sally wanted to meet.

"HEY LADY," she bellowed over the crowd. "MY FIANCE HERE WANTS YER AUTOGRAPH."

"Would you shut up?" Chuckie's voice was a strangled squeak. "Now everybody's looking this way."

"Could you act normal for just like two seconds," said Sally. "She's coming over here."

*****

As her driver maneuvered the Bentley through the slush, Kay slid her manicured fingers under Charles' glove to check his pulse. He made a slight humph of irritation but didn't pull away. After a moment she released his wrist and squeezed his gloved fingers.

"I spent three days at my sister's so you could pretend to be helpless in the kitchen," she said.

"She wasn't supposed to end up alone, Kay," he said helplessly. "I promised her mother. Best schools, biggest wedding. Most spoiled grandchildren. A happy life. I've failed her."

"She won't be alone," said Kay quietly. "And she will be happy. She will. I can feel it. But you have to tell her."

Staring out the window, Charles didn't answer. Kay put her head on his shoulder and waited until she felt him relax a little. When her driver's eyes met hers in the rearview mirror, she silently mouthed, Peter's office. Quickly.

The driver smoothly shifted the big sedan over a couple of lanes and turned west. Charles, lost in his own thoughts, did not notice.

*****

It had stopped snowing for the moment; so, at the ripple of applause, Helena obligingly eased the velvet hood of the cape away from her face so she could smile back at her fans. Between the jewels that glinted from her ears and throat and the gleaming halo of tawny hair framing high wide cheekbones and almond shaped eyes of a startling blue, she glowed like some medieval icon rendered in enamel and gold leaf. But Helena was absolutely real; and at Sally's shout, she looked straight at the homeless woman, and turned in her direction. A chilly gust caught the hem of her cape and the shimmering fabric billowed outward on either side of Helena's frame, revealing the iridescent violet of its shot silk lining as it curved up and out, looking, for a moment, like wings.

If Chuckie hadn't happened to see Sally cross herself just then--seen it with his own eyes--he wouldn't have believed it. Sally didn't even realize she had done it.

*****

Father worked quickly and did not ask any questions beyond the essential: What day is it? What year? How many fingers am I holding up?

He did not request any assistance from her and; still disoriented from what had just passed between them, Catherine didn't offer, instead curling up tightly in a nearby chair.  Although Vincent was as stoic as ever, Catherine knew he was being buffeted by her mental and emotional confusion as well as by Father's anger; and she tried to calm herself, to give Vincent a break. A rest. But she was too unsettled by what she had seen--should she call it a vision?--so she focused instead on the moment-to-moment details of Father's examination, finding comfort in the familiarity and certainty of his clipped questions; his sure efficiency; his tidy sutures. How everything went back into his medical bag just so. His precision.

When he was finished, Father cupped Vincent's face in his hand and seemed about to speak, but didn't. Nodding curtly at Catherine as if it caused him physical discomfort to do so, he collected the bag and his cane and made his way toward the stone steps leading out of his chamber.

Catherine looked over at Vincent but couldn't read his expression, which only heightened her anxiety. She cried out then, involuntarily: a small yelp of anguish and guilt.

At the sound, Father turned and looked at her, not with the anger she had expected to see but with such compassion and sorrow that her breath caught. You see, thought Father. You know now. You and I are not going to live forever. And then what? Vincent will be alone.

Father--I saw. I see, she thought frantically. More than I want to. Perhaps more than I can bear.

At this exchange she was startled to feel something shift in Vincent, and she flushed, wondering how much of her vision he had picked up on through the Bond, and what he had made of it.

Forgive me, Vincent. Forgive me for seeing what was not mine to see; and forgive me for shrinking back in fear from the power--the responsibility--of this terrible, beautiful gift of sight.

But she could not feel any response from him; in an instant he seemed to have withdrawn into one of the many places inside himself that remained beyond her reach.

*****

The flamboyant young artistic director of the opera company had just sailed in to the Tavern, providing a welcome distraction for Helena's hovering admirers. Tucked into her usual table with a few moments to herself before she was expected to hold court, Helena turned her attention back to the mysterious treasure in her lap.

The gauntlets were heavy; two kinds of leather (deerskin? and?) You could go falconing in these, she thought, stroking the curious design and skillful seaming. They'd look right at home in nearly any production at the Met this season. How on earth had a homeless immigrant come by them?

These were a gift from my fiancé, Sally had told her. I could never part with them. Unless . . . .

The homeless woman had eyed Helena's floor-length silk velvet cape with a shrewd twinkle. Unless . . . .

Funny, thought Helena, that after so long away from the country of her birth she could still recognize a fellow Slav in an instant, in any crowd.Tough, toothless, soulful and profane . . . the woman had smelled to high heaven, yet heaven is surely smiling on us both, tonight.

Helena had immediately spied the baroque crucifix and saint's medallion nearly hidden in the grimy folds of the tattered sweatshirt around Sally's neck. Helena recognized it: St. Regina, patron saint of those trapped in poverty; those suffering torture; also the patron saint of the shepherdess.

O Mamo nie płacz nie, Helena had whispered to Sally then. Oh Mother do not cryNiebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie, Sally had finished the prayer without hesitation. Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always . . . .

More than fortuitous, realized Helena. Fated. And in that moment she had suddenly understood: she was to return these to their rightful owner. The thought was placed in her mind so surely and precisely that Helena knew it for a certainty.

*****

They covered the entire distance to Catherine's threshold in silence. At one point a chilly gust caught the thick hem of his cloak, bringing them both to a sudden halt when it got tangled momentarily around her ankle and calf. In the seconds before it fell away, the heavy wool bound her briefly to Vincent's side, her belly and breast yielding softly against the sweet solid warmth and scent of him, her full weight coming to rest against the iron expanse of his hip and thigh. She ached for Vincent to reach for her then, to seek--or offer--comfort in some clear way, but he gently steadied her and returned her to arm's length. She knew he had powerful reflexes in place to keep her from absorbing through their Bond, those feelings he deemed destructive--anything in himself that he considered his darkness. She had learned from experience that, oddly, that included not only psychic but physical pain.

When finally they arrived under her building, Catherine gathered her courage.

You . . . you couldn't see what I saw, Vincent? My vision?

Vincent hesitated, the crystalline blue of his eyes darkening to ink. No, Catherine. Not exactly. But I felt, I feel, your . . . .

She held her breath, and his gaze, for as long as she could, waiting for him to supply readily the words she could not find, but he seemed momentarily consumed with thoughts of his own and did not continue.

My . . . awe, thought Catherine, searching for it.  Illumination . . . Consecration? I don't have words for it. Help me.

She hadn't seen this look on Vincent's face before and couldn't read it. She could tell he was turning something over in his mind, carefully, even warily; but any urgency he felt, he tempered. I'm listening. Tell me.

Shaken, Catherine faltered under the questioning intensity of that look and said aloud, "I'm not . . . .  I'm not the most religious person. I'm not even sure I know anymore what I believe." She stopped, uncertain. This is not a conversation we've ever had before, she thought. Am I--are we--ready to have it now? Vincent?

Drinking in these last few moments of her nearness, Vincent steeled himself as always against the tumult of words and feelings he must contain, and he carefully veiled his thoughts from her perception. Catherine, there are things I believe now, things I did not believe before, things that I now know, because of what we are--because of what we share between us; things that I could never have imagined before that night.

But he voiced none of this.

"I can only tell you what I am certain of," he said instead.

*****

 

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