A Time To Love

 

 

The stained glass window in Vincent's chamber

 

 

 

“A Time To Love”

 

A Story of “Beauty and the Beast”

 

By Judith Nolan

 

Artwork by Kathy Fidge

 

This story is the sequel to “Dreams of the Heart.” It was written for all those who love the continuing story of Vincent, Catherine, and all the people they care for and love. A love that transcends all the laws of time and space.

 

It is truly a love for all seasons...

 

 

Again, a very warm ‘thank you’ to all those who have joined me on this journey; I couldn't have done it without you guys. But especial love and ‘Vincent’ hugs to my tunnel sisters, Victoria and Jean. And an extra large hug to Carole what can I say, except, please accept my eternal thanks for sharing the light and the love...always...

 

This story is also dedicated to everyone who has made the continuing dream of “Beauty and the Beast” possible. Without the dreams and the hope, none of our achievements would be possible.

 

So we will keep the BATB flame burning…forever…

 

(Please do not reproduce by any means, this story)

 

“A Time To Love” is an amateur fiction fanzine and, as such, does not intend to infringe upon the copyrights of RON KOSLOW FILMS, REPUBLIC PICTURES, CBS TELEVISION, WITT THOMAS PRODUCTIONS or any other holders of “Beauty and the Beast” copyrights.

 

Catherine – “I owe you everything…” Vincent – “You owe me nothing…”

 

 


Turn! Turn! Turn!

 

To everything, turn, turn, turn,

There is a season, turn, turn, turn,

To everything there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

A time to be born, a time to die,

A time to fight, a time to heal,

A time to love, a time to hate.

And a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late…

To everything, turn, turn, turn,

There is a season, turn, turn, turn,

And a time for every purpose under heaven…

 

The Byrds

 

 


The rainbow comes and goes

And lovely is the rose.

 

The moon doth with delight

Look round her when the heavens are bare.

Water on a starry night

Are beautiful and fair;

 

The sunshine is a glorious birth;

But, yet I know, where’re I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

 

William Wordsworth

 

 

Azrael sat hunched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his knees, his chin held in the upraised cup of his palms, blindly staring at the painting before him. A painting he could see only in his mind, yet one he knew in every intimate detail. Every curve, every graceful line, touched him anew with the exquisite pain of longing and the reality of hopeless despair. He had painted without rest for three days to produce the final work.

 

Had he truly sat like this, for hours at a time over the weeks since Diana had left?

 

He couldn’t remember clearly, the constant ache within his chest inhibiting clarity of thought, remembrance of what had gone before. Not even working in the garden, moving to the slower rhythms of the plants, tuning his chaotic thoughts to their easy measure, could ease his mind. He had abandoned the effort entirely a week ago.

 

So he sat and stared and waited. For what, he could no longer say…

 

“She won’t be coming back, you know,” his mother commented angrily from the open doorway behind him, but he made no move to acknowledge her presence. “It’s been over a month now. If you’re expecting anything more from the woman, you’re a bigger fool than I thought. She was grateful to be gone from this place … and from you.”

 

When Azrael didn’t reply, Emma advanced indignantly into the room to stand beside her son, running a disgusted, but critical eye, over the painting. Only this morning she’d finally stumbled upon his secret gallery, when she could not find him anywhere. Not in the garden, which was looking sadly neglected, nor in any of the usual places he liked to frequent, keeping out of her way.

 

She’d been astonished at the quality of his work – it far outstripped her own – horrified he’d been pilfering from her dwindling store of precious canvasses and paints. They’d been gifts from an absent husband who had not returned for nearly two years now. She’d hoarded them like a miser’s gold, and now this…

 

It sparked an unreasoning anger within her. The boy was besotted and a fool!

 

He is blind! How can he see such things so clearly?

 

She wanted to destroy the paintings, every one of them. But avarice over her precious canvasses would not allow her; they could be reused, if she was careful. Nor could she bring herself to finally sever the last traces of emotional connection with her son and possibly demolish her own fragile hold on reality.

 

But this painting that he sat before now … He must have sat here like this, day after day, just staring and waiting. She wanted to attack it, rip it to shreds.

 

It isn’t fair! The woman had left of her own free will, but still she haunted them, gave her son no rest and her no peace.

 

Diana, the huntress… She drew a frustrated sigh and expelled it harshly. The painting was positively indecent!

 

Stepping delicately from the steaming waters of the sulphur pools, every line, every curve of the younger woman’s body had been lovingly portrayed, every naked detail carefully rendered, as if her son had actually seen her thus, wantonly exposed for all to see. Her arms were raised, fingers combing out the sodden strands of her hair, her whole stance one of unconscious innocence and incomparable beauty.

 

“How could she…?” Emma’s lips curled in patent distaste at the woman’s obvious shamelessness before the blindness of her son. “It’s obscene.”

 

In the background, Azrael had painted himself. He stood watching, blindly staring, a decorated bowl in one hand and the other hand empty, both outstretched in a disgusting attitude of yearning supplication. For what?

 

What had they been to each other, in those long hours they were alone together, that he would portray himself thus? As if he’s lost something precious…

 

“You would not understand,” Azrael muttered.

 

He would not speak of what had led him to paint the woman like this, but Emma had her own suspicions of how Diana had persuaded her son to release her.

 

He hadn’t listened to his own mother when she had counselled him to get rid of the woman. He’d been adamant she would remain with him. But suddenly Diana was gone, and her son would not explain why.

 

Emma’s deep annoyance showed in the sudden brusqueness of her clipped speech. “What can the likes of her be to you? You’re just a blind fool. You can’t see her for what she really was. She left you, remember?” She turned to glare at her son’s down-bent head, but he still made no move to explain his actions. “And you also know that she is one of The Others. You told me yourself, the day you returned without her. Those same people who murdered your father, destroyed the only man who could protect us from them. If you want to see her again, then go to them, make them pay. Let her see your power. Then she will understand.”

 

“If she was truly one of them, she would have brought them down here by now. Perhaps I was wrong; they still have not come.” Azrael moved at last, his fathomless black eyes rising to stare at his mother. “She did not tell them of us. No one has come.”

 

“Probably some kind of sick game they’re playing.” Emma shrugged on a bitter laugh. “They will come when the time is right. For them. Your father always said they wanted to destroy all he’d created, all he had built up over the years. If you give them the chance, they will destroy us as well, and the blame will solely be yours, because you cannot get one stupid woman out of your head.”

 

“But I know Diana is different.” Azrael’s eyes shifted sideways to the painting, to the portrait he had painted from the pictures he’d perceived in Diana’s own mind. “Perhaps she does not choose to remember the way down here. The Others have never come this far before.”

 

“But they were searching for her when you encountered them, so they must know the way down here.” His mother fell to pleating her skirt with restless fingers, her face haunted. “Each year they grow bolder; they come nearer. I can sense them watching me, talking in whispers, laughing at me. But when I turn, they slip away.”

 

She shook her head. “Once, when I was walking with your father in the higher tunnels, we saw the one with the blond hair. The boy was talking to himself like a demented fool.” She shifted her shoulders restlessly. “No doubt he is harmless, but he has come close enough to us to know we are here, and he can guide The Others here. Perhaps one day, he will bring your father’s killer to you. Your father told me he’s their warrior-king, the one they call Vincent, the man with the face of a lion. The Master said when he finally comes, he will destroy us all. You must not allow it! Do you not love me at all, that you sit here and do nothing?”

 

“I will do what is necessary, when it is necessary.” Azrael turned his entire attention back to the painting, to the window of hope he had created out of bleak despair. “I will be waiting for them.”

 

“You never used to talk like this until she came.” Emma sighed. “Perhaps it’s past time for just sitting here and waiting for them to come to us.” She bent down to peer into her son’s face, hidden by the curtain of his long hair. “Perhaps it’s finally time we made them pay for what they have done. Or have you lost your nerve?”

 

Azrael looked up to his mother’s set expression and, for the first time in many weeks, an emotion ruffled the numbness of his senses. But it was not the same emotion that had driven him before, haunted him since his father had left. It was not a need, a burning desire for revenge against a faceless enemy, the bogeymen who inhabited the darkness. Now he had seen the face of that enemy, that unknown someone who had destroyed his father and brother, and he could not forget what he had seen.

 

She had been beautiful…

 

No, the emotion that touched him now was fear. Fear of what he would be forced to do, fear of dying before he found Diana once more and told her of all that he’d kept locked deep in his heart for so long. And if he had to go to The Others to seek her out, then maybe it was finally time to do that.

 

But now, a fresh fear of his mother had been born. She was slowly going mad with grief and loneliness and could no longer see beyond her blind hatred of The Others. She would keep on pushing, demanding her revenge, finally forcing her son to take an action he could no longer accept as justified or right…

 

 

“I feel like a fraud, coming down here to examine a perfectly healthy woman.” Peter Alcott straightened from Catherine’s bedside. “But any excuse is better than none.”

 

Catherine laughed, as she sat up to pull the folds of her cotton shirt over her abdomen after Peter’s thorough examination. At five months pregnant she glowed with health and vital happiness.“I wish we could see more of you.” She tilted her head at him, as she rose to her feet. “You work yourself far too hard. You should take a holiday.”

 

“My patients would all have strokes while I was away.” Touched by her loving concern, Peter turned her words into a joke against himself. “But you know me. I’m not happy unless I’m working. A holiday with nothing to do would be a nightmare.”

 

“Stay the night, then, at least. We need you.” Catherine came to take his upper arm with insistent fingers, and Peter slanted her a glance of inquiry.

 

Catherine smiled. “I know Father is keen to share some of the new advances in those magazines you brought him. Vincent is the only one of us who has the remotest idea of what he’s talking about when he gets started on them. And, at least, he can still beat you at chess. He won’t play with me now, because Vincent has sharpened my game, and Mouse’s play scares him.”

 

“You drive a hard bargain.” Peter laughed, covering her hand with one of his. “I will admit to a desire to reacquaint myself with that son of yours. Every time I see him, I’m sure Jacob had sprouted another six inches.”

 

At his words, Catherine smiled, her thoughts turned inwards for a moment, concentrating on the two heartbeats that beat in a timeless rhythm with her own. Jacob was helping his father and Richard inspect the site for a whole new set of chambers for the ever expanding community, and his mind was full of importance as Vincent helped him with the finer points of measuring and assessing the suitability of new site.

 

“Don’t be late home…” A warm smile of deep abiding love lit Catherine’s features.

 

Watching her, Peter marvelled anew as the strength of the connection Catherine shared with her family. He knew she was communicating with them through their special bond, a wordless communion that made him realise all his medical training had taught him nothing of the unseen connections of the human spirit.

 

Bringing her abstracted attention back to his lined face, Catherine touched his cheek lightly with her fingertips. “I’m sure Jacob will be delighted to see his Uncle Peter. Besides, Easter is coming in a couple of months. Surely even hard working doctors are allowed to rest on Good Friday.”

 

“Only those who don’t have patients intent on making themselves ill with too much celebrating.” Peter gently turned aside her loving concern with an indulgent laugh. “They never seem to sleep. But what of your own news?” Peter tilted his head. His eyes fell to the still slender contours of her body, hidden beneath the leather and cotton of her tunnel clothing. “Is it still to be a secret?”

 

“I think so, for now, Peter. Vincent and I have discussed it, and we want to keep it as a surprise. Father and Mary know, but no one else. We are aware of the risks involved, so we don’t wish to give our friends and family cause for concern.”

 

“Then I shall make sure I’m here for the delivery as well.” Peter hugged her, kissing her hair. “I wouldn’t miss this event for the world. You do my old heart good, to see you so happy and content.”

 

“We will be fine, Peter. But it will be wonderful to have you here this time.”

 

Peter cupped her cheek in his hand. “Your parents would be so proud of you, if they could see you now.” He envied this young woman her certainty, but at the same time he felt the wonder of all that Vincent and Catherine had accomplished together. “I wish I had your certainty of all that life has to offer,” Peter spoke his thoughts. “All that you have accomplished, all you and Vincent have been through. And yet you did not turn away from the path, even when it became so difficult and extremely dangerous for both of you.”

 

“Love, Peter.” Catherine smiled at him gently. “All it ever takes is love. There is no other emotion so powerful, or all encompassing.”

 

“So true…” Peter bent his head to kiss her cheek lightly, before drawing her back into his arms to hug her with fierce devotion. “You always manage to give me hope for this tired old world of ours that I usually view with a very jaundiced eye. Because of you two, I have even begun to believe in miracles again.”

 

“You should always believe in miracles.” Catherine drew back to smile up at him. “They are all around you. You only have to know where to look.”

 

“I don’t believe in miracles.” John Russell sat slumped in one of the chairs before Joe Maxwell’s desk. “They’re for fools and dreamers. And for some investigators I know…”

 

He turned to glare at Diana Bennett’s cool air of self-possession, where she sat in the chair next to his. He grimaced, as he looked away again. “Nobody disappears in very odd circumstances for days and then manages to surface again, unscathed and without explanation. It’s against the laws of nature, not to mention common sense. I say it was all a cover-up, some ploy for sympathy. Or an excuse for her total screw-up.”

 

“You’d always manage to find the manure in the finest perfume, wouldn’t you, Russell?” Diana raised a denying shoulder. “Where were you when I needed you? Keeping some rats company, right?”

 

“If you two want to scrap, then take it outside my office and on your own time.” Joe looked up from the papers before him. “The Snapper file is closed. Follett has plea-bargained himself out of the death penalty in return for a guilty plea. Diana’s contributions have been noted and approved and so have yours, John. So let’s just leave it alone. We haven’t got time to go over old ground and silly grievances again.”

 

“Just doing my job.” Russell shrugged, taking instant offense at Joe’s tone. “Detective work, remember? It’s what I do.”

 

“Not very well sometimes,” Diana murmured softly, well aware that all of the man’s grumbling and snide remarks stemmed directly from the fact that he still despised her for finding him trussed up in the back of the tunnel under the park. He’d been in a foul mood ever since.

 

“Still want to know who she’s protecting and why.” Russell addressed the ceiling. “Secrets like that can be dangerous things, and Bennett has too many for my liking.”

 

Diana shrugged at Joe’s disgusted expression. Not once since she had rescued him had Russell spoken to her directly. It was always in asides and demeaning comments that were calculated to cause the most doubt and damage. Diana smiled coolly at his obvious need to deride her reputation as an investigator.

 

Joe looked up to see them both studiously ignoring each other. He sighed and shook his head. They were like two alley cats, fur all on end, both seeking an opening to attack, as they stalked around each other, stiff legged and hissing.

 

He considered John’s comments for a moment and knew he was right. The secrets of the tunnel world far beneath their feet were dangerous, but only in the context that their potential discovery was the greatest danger of all.

 

He was simply grateful Diana had been brought back to the surface by Mouse and Elliot, without any real need for explanation of their presence Below. Burch said he told her that he’d followed the trail from her purse at the drainage entrance to the comb and the trail of blood that led ever downwards.

 

Curiously, Diana herself seemed disinclined to demand an explanation. She seemed to accept everything at face value, strangely reluctant to question anyone further. She remained closed mouthed about her own adventures.

 

Though Mouse would have taken some extra explaining away, he’d quickly melted into the darkness, the moment they had reached the upper levels. Diana had appeared to accept Elliot’s explanation that the tinker was some homeless boy, who knew the underground places like the back of his hand, and he was on Elliot’s payroll for investigating the substructures and footings of any Burch Properties future projects. He said it saved time and a great deal of money.

 

Joe had laughed when Elliot had told him. “Please, don’t let Mouse hear you say that. I live in fear of that boy’s love of plastic explosive. If he gets to thinking he’s necessary to your line of work, he’ll no doubt come up with some fresh, crack-pot scheme to assist you in your new projects.”

 

“Lord, I hadn’t thought of that!” Elliot had passed a hand over his eyes. “I’ll keep it very much in mind.”

 

“We all have secrets,” Joe answered John’s snide remark now.

 

He glanced at Diana, looking cool and unruffled. Like she’s discussing the weather. He could see why her air of cool self-possession irritated Russell. It had grated in Joe’s own senses more than once. Perhaps she did have more secrets than she was admitting too. She always played her cards extremely close to her chest. He reminded himself never to get involved in a game of poker with her.

 

“Secrets are my stock in trade,” Diana remarked. “I can keep them better than most.”

 

She looked up at Joe then, her eyes cool and considering. It took a moment for him to realise she was looking beyond him, frowning at some other place only she could see. For not the first time, he wished he knew just what she was thinking and seeing…

 

In Diana’s mind, John Russell’s words conjured up an image of a face. A face framed with long auburn hair. A face in which black eyes considered her with a helpless longing and a quality of bleak despair that haunted her dreams.

 

Try as she might, Diana could not rid herself of the conviction that, in some way Azrael needed her, even more so after the month that had elapsed since Elliot Burch and his odd little companion had brought her back to the city. She was becoming distracted and given to moments of sudden contemplation of past events, and her work was beginning to suffer.

 

She didn’t believe for a minute that Burch employed the boy. What kind of a name is Mouse anyway? She shifted in her chair; worrying at the thought she was being left out of something truly wondrous. There was far more going on here than anyone imagined.

 

Catherine Chandler and her mysterious protector were somehow linked with Elliot Burch and his odd assortment of companions. The Others who’d melted away the moment she’d stepped into the torchlight. Like they had something to hide and didn’t want to be seen or followed.

 

But she had no way to reach Azrael, no way to allay her sense of unease, her growing fear that there was something was terribly wrong. No way at all that she could see, unless…

 

 

“We see too little of you, Peter.” Vincent clasped the other man’s shoulder companionably. “You should come Below more often. And not just to visit Catherine.”

 

“He’s afraid his patients won’t miss him.” Catherine stood within the circle of her husband’s free arm, her gown of white silk and lace shimmering in the candlelight. “He likes to feel needed.”

 

“Well I need him to explain some of these new medical advances to me.” Father limped up, carrying an armful of magazines Peter had brought down for him. “When I read these, I realise just how out of touch I can get in only a few short months.”

 

“Stick to what you know, Jacob.” Peter looked at the three of them, shaking his head as he looked beyond them, to where William and his helpers were setting out the evening meal. “You have created something far more enduring down here than the fickle world in which I live.”

 

“What is wrong, Peter?” Vincent tightened his grip in his friend’s shoulder, his eyes narrowing, as he surveyed the doctor’s tired face and sensed his restless disquiet.

 

“I’m sorry…” Peter gave him an apologetic smile. “Holidays like Easter and Christmas are never a happy time for me. Too many memories…”

 

“Elaine?” Father asked, putting aside the periodicals on the table behind him. “Even after all these years?”

 

“Seems like only yesterday sometimes.” Peter passed a hand over his eyes. “I watch all of you. I see Catherine and her child.” His eyes dropped to her waist and his mouth twisted. “I see the promise of things to come. New life that has so much potential…and I cannot help, but remember that I could possibly have had all that too…once.”

 

“Your wife’s death was an accident.” Father sighed abruptly. “A simple accident. You could not have prevented it from happening.”

 

“I still feel guilty, even after all this time…” Peter looked from Father’s sympathetic eyes to Vincent’s intent regard and then down to Catherine’s concerned gaze. “You would think that, after so many years, I could begin to forget. But then something happens to remind me, and I can see her face so clearly once again. Surely a doctor should, at least, be able to save the life of his own wife.”

 

“Could I save Margaret from her pain?” Father thumped the end of his cane on the floor. “Do you think I didn’t wish that I had the skills, the knowledge to save her? Some things cannot be changed, Peter. Some things were always meant to be. No matter how much we strive against the cruel hand of fate.”

 

“But it is that same hand of fate that gave two wonderful people a chance at living the love they share.” Peter moved his shoulder beneath Vincent’s clasp, feeling all the strength of this unique man’s love for his beautiful wife. “I’m sorry. I’m just being a depressive old fool on such a night filled with so much friendship and love. But talking of the holidays made me realise how quickly they lost their magic for me a long time ago.”

 

“Then need to find.” A blond head inserted itself into the conversation, Mouse’s gaze deeply thoughtful. “Should always search for what is lost. Only way to find it again. Mouse good at looking and finding.”

 

“Mouse certainly has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter.” Father laughed suddenly, as he shook his head. “Come and stay with us for Easter, Peter. I promise you, you will be surprised. William creates the most stunning egg hunts, and you can always rely on the children to lighten your heart and your mood.” 

 

“Easter, lots of William’s good food and drink. Christmas, lots of presents.” Mouse nodded sagely, his eyes sliding sideways to where Jamie was talking to Shannon, and then further to where Mary was feeding Jacob his supper. “Lots of good things to seek and find. Easter eggs are good to eat.”

 

“No surprises I don’t know about first.” Father admonished the boy, his frown promising dire retribution at the slightest sign that the tinker was not listening to him. “I have had enough of your big ideas.”

 

“Always tell Father.” Mouse bobbed his head and kept his own counsel.

 

You know, you almost tempt me.” Peter laughed at Mouse’s pensive expression. “I don’t remember the last time I actually took a holiday.”

 

“Your patients will all be there when you get back.” Catherine took his hand. “And we will not allow you to become bored.”

 

“With Mouse in charge of the entertainment, I doubt anyone will have the time to be bored,” Vincent interposed smoothly, as he watched the tired strain ease from Peter’s face at the thought of another holiday he wouldn’t have to spend alone.

 

Catherine took his hand and kissed it, her eyes filled with gratitude. “Let’s make this a holiday to truly remember.”

 

 

“You want what?” Elliot started up from behind his desk to stride around it and confront Diana, as she sat on the couch before him. “That’s impossible! And totally out of the question, as well. No, I won’t do it!”

 

“Why?” Diana shot back instantly, unintimidated by Elliot’s incredulous stare and aggressive stance. “You presumably hired him when you came looking for me. So why can’t I do the same? You said he’s on your payroll, so where’s the problem? I’m prepared to pay his going rate. It can’t be that much.”

 

“You don’t know what you’re asking.” Elliot’s mind raced to try and keep one step ahead of Diana’s quietly reasoned argument. “Besides, I don’t have the remotest idea where he is right now. I don’t have anything on at the moment that requires his…his area of expertise. He could be anywhere in the city.” Desperate inspiration flashed into his mind. “He could have gone on holiday, for all I know. Or gone off to visit a sick relative in another state.”

 

“Look, I don’t have time to play games.” Diana raised her shoulders in frustration. “You manage to find some extremely odd-ball kid, a boy with the briefest vocabulary I have ever heard, to track me down beneath the city. By the strangest of coincidences, despite odds that I wouldn’t even begin to calculate, he actually pulls it off. Don’t you find that strange?” Her eyes narrowed. “I may have been heading up to the surface at the time, but you were certainly on the right track in coming down that particular tunnel. And you have never explained just how you came to be there in the first place. There aren’t too many maps to that place.”

 

“I’ve already told you, more than once. We found your purse and then your comb. We looked for you for days. We took a wild guess about the direction. The blood trail took us a long way down before it ran out.” Elliot leaned his hips against the desk behind and folded his arms across his chest. “We could have easily ended up on the other side of Hell, for all we knew.”

 

“Oh, no, Mr. Burch.” Diana considered him closely. “I think you knew exactly where you were going. I know I heard the boy mention something about a map to the tunnels down there. He bragged to you that he knew more than the man who compiled them. And he seemed to be operating quite adequately without any map when we first met. He didn’t look lost or scared. On the contrary, he looked as if he was enjoying himself immensely. An intriguing and curious Mouse, for sure.” She sat back on the couch. “And he managed to disappear very conveniently when we had found our way out again. At a wild guess, I would say he was more at home beneath the city than on its streets.”

 

“I wouldn’t know anything about what he does in his own time.” Elliot shrugged. “Not my concern.”

 

Diana’s frown deepened. “And you still haven’t accounted for the others you were travelling with. The ones who managed to vanish like smoke as soon as I appeared. I suspect Catherine Chandler’s protector from the carousel was among them.” She raised a dismissing hand, when Elliot went to speak. “Don’t try to deny it. But we will leave your explanations of them…for the moment, if you agree to what I ask.”

 

She sighed abruptly, pursing her lips at Elliot’s closed expression. “Now, I have no interest in where you found that boy. I don’t care even if he’s some sort of escapee from an institution. I am aware that you and Catherine Chandler have some sort of secret that only the two of you appear to share. Her child could be yours, for all I know. You were very close once. An old flame rekindled, perhaps?”  

 

“Don’t go there; that is none of your business,” Elliot warned. “And Catherine’s life is also none of your concern. She’s a private citizen now.”

 

“Well, I still have my suspicions about that guy she’s been seeing for some time. His name is Vincent.” She watched Elliot for a single flicker of reaction, but his face remained disinterested. “Actually, I think he’s the father of her baby. But he seems to have done a very convenient vanishing act too. Any comment?”

 

“Nothing printable.” Elliot shook his head. “So, I think we are wasting each other’s time, don’t you, Miss Bennett? Now, if you don’t mind…”

 

“I think this Vincent character eliminated the three men in the park at the carousel that night, and also Steven Striker, Gabriel’s hitman. Notice, I did not say murdered. Joe and I could have been killed, if not for what Vincent did that night. More of a public service, just as I eliminated Gabriel. I don’t lose any sleep over that man.”

 

A momentary flash of awareness in Elliot’s frowning regard confirmed Diana’s suspicions in an instant, before he managed to mask the betrayal with a grimace of annoyance. “Right…” Diana nodded. “I thought so.”

 

“What’s your point, Miss Bennett?” Elliot snapped.

 

“My point is, elimination is the art of investigation. If I take away every other possibility, then whatever I am left with is the truth, no matter how screwball or off the wall it may appear. I trust my instincts, and they tell me that Elliot Burch knows far more than he’s telling. You know exactly where that boy is, and you will tell me.”

 

She pulled her detective’s shield from her shoulder bag and tossed into onto Elliot’s desk. It landed with a metallic clang that echoed through the silent office. “I can keep secrets, too. In fact, I am paid very well for just such a service. Now I’m not here as an investigator for Joe Maxwell’s office or the city of New York. But there are things I need to discover, things I need to find out, and you are the only person I know who can help me do that. I don’t have a lot of time, especially if you won’t help me.”

 

She raised her shoulders eloquently. “If you don’t agree, then I shall be forced to find other means to achieve my goals. Do you think your secrets could stand up under the concentrated gaze of the D.A.’s office?”

 

“You certainly know how to deliver a low blow.” Elliot forced back an ironic laugh…Joe Maxwell investigating the world Below… He shook his head ruefully. “But these things may not be so easy to arrange. I only stumbled on the boy by accident.”

 

“Then set a trap for a Mouse,” Diana advised shortly. “Surely it can’t be that hard. Where does he live, sleep, and eat? And please do not take me for a fool by saying he’s out of town or suddenly got religion.”  

 

“I would never accuse you of being a fool,” Elliot muttered. “But you drive an impossible bargain.”

 

“Time is an imperative.” Diana stood to retrieve her badge with a tight smile. “We both know you can stumble over the little rodent again. I will pay handsomely for his services. Don’t make me go searching on my own account. I might find things you don’t want me to see.”

 

“I’ll contact you.” Elliot straightened. “But I can’t promise anything. It could take me days to find him, if at all.”

 

“Oh, I think you know exactly where to put your hand on him.” Diana slanted him a straight look. “I think you even know precisely where he is right now.” Her eyes narrowed. “And, for that matter, where Cathy Chandler and Shannon O’Neill have disappeared to, as well. My sources tell me you and Cole’s widow have become quite an item. Now she is one lady I would love to talk to. I have a million questions that need urgent answers.”

 

She paused, letting Elliot absorb her statement. She was grateful he didn’t try to deny it. “But don’t worry, I have no interest in them…at present. I have more than a few secrets of my own, as I said. I know how to keep others. Just find me the boy, and we will forget this whole conversation ever happened.”

 

“I have been threatened by experts, Miss Bennett.” Elliot circled his desk and sat behind it, going back to the work Diana’s arrival had interrupted. “You will have my answer in a few days.”

 

“Tomorrow, Elliot. Tomorrow would be most convenient for me.” Diana turned away on an impatient grimace. “I get the feeling I am running out of time, fast.”

 

 

Vincent

 

 

   

She was a phantom of delight

When first she gleamed upon my sight

A lovely apparition, sent

To be a moment’s ornament;

Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;

Like twilight’s too, her dusky hair;

 

But all things else about her drawn

From May-time and the cheerful dawn;

A dancing shape, an image gay,

To haunt, to startle and way-lay.

 

William Wordsworth

 

 

Sheltered within the drooping branches of the sprawling tree, Azrael leaned back against the abrasive trunk and closed his eyes. He kept the hood of his cloak pulled down over his face, almost to his chin. The sun’s light, even at dusk, was too strong for his eyesight, sending a dancing brightness to blind his inner vision, distorting the pictures he received from the many minds that still surrounded him. He would wait out the comforting shelter of the night. When the new dawn finally began to break, he would creep back to the tunnels.

 

But, not yet…no, not yet… 

 

He had come to the surface as often as he dared in the last month since Diana had returned to The Others. Even now, he felt the keen loss of her going and wondered once more, if he had, indeed, been wrong about her.

 

Could it have been as she said, that she only knew the voice of the man who came to find her? That she was not one of The Others, at all?

 

This one question chased itself endlessly through his mind, driving him ever upwards to the city park, to try and discover the truth. On these furtive trips, he’d been acutely aware of other eyes watching him, assessing him, but he had kept to the darkest shadows where only he dared go, and he passed unmolested. No one had come to challenge him.

 

But if he was mistaken about Diana being a part of The Others, then what else could he be mistaken about? Without the truth, he could not get any peace from the endless whisperings of his mind.

 

He could see her again, stepping from the sulphur pools, just as he had painted her. Diana and his special place… The black waters had been a refuge when his parents had fought bitterly and without a care for whom they hurt. And that had occurred often in those days, before his mother had finally subsided into resentful, sulky acceptance of his father’s domination. But she loved him deeply in her own way, so she would obey.

 

Azrael had loved it there in the pools, in his innocence he had swum naked, loving the feel of the water flowing against his skin. When she discovered him, his mother had abhorred that pleasure as well, demanding he cover himself in her presence. And then, his father had taken his sight and made his playground a place of fear and danger to his newly blinded eyes. One terrifying time he had almost drowned, trying to reclaim what had been his exclusively…

 

His mother, terrified and screaming, had forbidden him to ever go there again. She could not live through losing another child…Azrael moved his shoulders now in resignation. Zadkiel was gone, too, and only he remained, to fulfil his father’s vaunting dream for his sons…

 

Seeing Diana there, at ease with the fathomless black waters, showing no fear, had given him back some of his childhood magic. He had seen it all anew, through her eyes. His chest tightened.

 

If only he could sense her in the park now… Sometimes he almost captured fragments of her thoughts, fleeting and impossible to pin down. Her intuitive mind was still very young and untutored.

 

He was very aware of what had drawn Diana to the park before. But the presence that hung there now, the evil that had permeated his inner vision, was gone. Azrael could only wonder if Diana had found the killer she sought. Trudy Klein’s carefree image came back to into his photographic memory, and he hoped she had not died in vain. But he did not know…

 

That was the one point that troubled him the most. He did not know the truth, and without speaking to Diana again, he would never know it… Had he done enough, by releasing her back to her world, to save the children…

 

 

Above Vincent, outlined in the candlelight, Catherine arched backwards in delicious ecstasy, as her husband moved beneath her, bringing his seeking hands up to define the rounded thrust of her breasts, tracing the blue lines of the veins beneath the satin skin with desperate urgency, as their bodies swayed together, rising and falling in a mindless rhythm.

 

Against the cradle of Vincent’s hips, Catherine’s fingers restlessly sought the heated communion of their bodies, relying solely on touch for the warm curve of her abdomen intruded into her line of sight. But her blind seeking only served to heighten her awareness and, through her, was reflected into Vincent’s senses, then echoed in an ever upwardly curving spiral of sensation.

 

The shadows on the wall of their chamber danced with a frenetic pulse that flowed through Catherine, as she lowered her eyes to look down at him, her smile as blindly needful as the soft growl that escaped her husband’s tautly drawn mouth. Candlelight gleamed on his canines, his lips parting against the touch of Catherine’s restlessly seeking mouth, as she brought his hands up to her lips, running her tongue against his wedding band, before he grasped her shoulders as her centre of gravity shifted forward.

 

“I love you…” He looked deeply into her half closed eyes, seeing the shifting shadows of a desire that was endlessly seeking fulfilment, a desire reflected in the intensely darkening depths of his own gaze. 

 

A tender smile of knowing flittered across Catherine’s face then. “You are all mine,” she whispered.

 

“I cannot think of a time when I didn’t love you…” Vincent sighed, as her smile stroked across every part of his being.

 

“Together, we have everything…” Catherine moved forward and back, eliciting a softly tortured moan from him, glorying in the feel of Vincent’s broad muscles bunching and flowing beneath her, heightening her awareness as they sought a common goal together.

 

Gently, with infinite care, with hands that trembled, Vincent defined the ripening swell of Catherine’s belly, touching against that cradle of life with a need to understand and accept all the changes in her body.

 

“It’s too late to wonder how this happened.” Catherine’s smile bewitched him in the candlelight, her breathing shortening to short gasps as she linked her fingers through his and he supported her weight easily on his corded forearms.

 

“I can guess…” Vincent could sense the awesome power building within him once more, a wave of energy that seemed to fill every part of his being, flowing outwards into his extremities and beyond, into the supple body of the beautiful woman poised above him.

 

Ebbing and flowing, the shadows of their lovemaking rippled across the walls, seemingly stirred to more frenetic life as a soft cry echoed from Catherine, a formless whisper of longing and intense need. A need and a release coiled into itself inextricably as she flew ever upwards, drawn and goaded onwards by her husband’s seeking mouth, as he lowered her gently against him, his tongue at once both an exquisite agony and a sublime ecstasy against the burgeoning fullness of her body, as he sought to release them both from the torment of need.

 

On a groan torn from the deepest parts of his soul, Vincent felt the world begin to tip and sway beneath him, the sudden, heated release of his desire impelling Catherine after him into that place where nothing and no one existed but their own hearts and souls, linked one to the other in an unbreakable union that had stood the test of time…

 

 

“This is not happening!” Joe lowered his forehead onto his upraised palms on a groan. “I do not have the patience or strength for this…”

 

Elliot watched him with a sympathetic gaze from his seat before Joe’s desk. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I couldn’t trust such a message to the telephone. Diana has to be stopped. She cannot insist on doing exactly as she pleases. Surely you do have some power over her?”

 

“You are kidding, aren’t you?” Joe raised his head. “You tell me. How do you stop a runaway freight train?” He laughed in exasperated derision. “Bennett does exactly as she pleases, always has. Short of locking her up and throwing away the key…” He shook his head. “I am tempted…”

 

“Lean on her, then.” Elliot grimaced with frustration. “Get the city, the police commissioner, even the mayor, to order her off the case.”

 

There is no case!”  Joe spaced the words clearly and precisely. “The Snapper case file is closed. Bennett is not operating on anything more than her own instincts. And if she wants something this badly, it’s better not to stand in her way.”

 

“But the woman must be stopped…somehow!” Elliot raised his hands in blind supplication. “Surely you have some authority to call her off the scent.”

 

“On any case I am currently dealing with, maybe.” Joe laughed shortly. “But Bennett works privately, like your Cleon Manning. I don’t have the power to order her to so much as pour me a cup of the questionable coffee they serve around here. The part of playing God is taken, I’m afraid.”

 

“There must be something we can do.” Elliot blew a harsh breath, balling his spread hands into fists and shaking them impotently. “We can’t allow her to go trailing off Below with a serious oddball like Mouse for her guide. Lord knows where they’d end up.”

 

“Lost…” Joe expelled his breath through his nose. “Now there’s a thought. If only… So, how do you propose I stop her?”

 

“I’m fresh out of ideas,” Elliot complained.

 

Joe’s brows drew together in interrogation. “What I want to know is why does she want to go back down there all of a sudden. What’s so all fired important that it’s waited for over a month before she decides to do something about it, and now it’s like someone has lit a fire under her.”

 

“Good question.” Elliot shot back, with a tight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Why don’t you ask her?”

 

“I might just do that…” Joe mused suddenly, looking into the middle distance for a moment. “What do we have to lose? Good idea, Burch.”

He searched through the organised chaos of his desk. “This should get us some answers.” He held up a bulging file. “This case is right up her alley. If she refuses to accept a role in the investigation, I’ll pull the indignant D.A. on her and demand to know what she’s playing at. She’s never refused a juicy case like this before.” His lips curved into a grim smile of intent. “And, if she still refuses, I’ll add the sweetener, that if she doesn’t want to take it, John Russell will snap off my hand to grab it. And if she doesn’t swallow my arm whole to get at it, then I’ll know something is very wrong with her.”

 

“Good luck with that.” Elliot sighed. “In the meantime, I’ll put some of Manning’s best men onto watching her every move. Surely she can’t slip past everything we throw in her way. She’s not that good.” He shook his head. “And I’ll get a message to Vincent about this whole sorry mess. We can’t worry Catherine in her present condition. If you don’t come through, then I don’t know what we’re going to do. The safety and security of people we both care about will be at serious risk.”

 

“You aren’t seriously expecting Father to sanction such an idea?” Cullen frowned direfully at Mouse. “There’s nothing down there, but darkness and giant rats.”

 

“I know what I know.” Mouse’s cherubic face was set into stubborn lines. “Diana Bennett has been down there, and she knows. So I want to know too. I have seen, people and things. Lights that shouldn’t be. Heard whispers. Know they’re there.”

 

“You stay away from that Bennett woman!” Cullen took the boy’s shoulder in a hard grip. “She’s nothing but trouble, dangerous trouble. She’s police, and you don’t want to get involved with them again. She’ll lock you up for sure. How would you like that?”

 

“Got to know, got to see.” Mouse twisted away from his friend’s warning hold, moving out of arm’s reach. “There’s one who hides from us. Goes Up Top. All dressed in black. Seen him. I know. He comes from way down there. Diana said, when Elliot found here, she said she had a guide from Down There.”

He nodded quickly. “He’s the one. He lives down there. Want to know where he goes and why. Need to see, need to understand.”

 

“You’ve seen someone suspicious and you haven’t told anyone!” Cullen started after Mouse as he backed away hurriedly. “You little fool!”

 

“No problem.” The tinker turned into the darkness of the tunnel behind him with an offhand shrug, avoiding Cullen’s furious gaze. “He’s one of us. A Below person, just from further down Below. No harm, just sad, very, very sad. Mouse fix. Mouse knows how to.”

 

Mouse!” Cullen roared at the shadows as the boy vanished before his eyes. “You don’t know anything, you little idiot! Mouse! Come back here, right now! Father’s gonna want to know everything you know! And I ain’t gonna be the one to tell him that you’ve gone off on your own without permission again. Mouse!…are you listening to me, boy?”

 

“Got to see, got to know for myself… See you later, Cullen, perhaps.” Mouse’s disembodied voice floated back on a flicker of moving shadow. “Tell Father some other time. He’ll only yell at Mouse. Hurts my ears with all his talk. Talk, talk, talk, never stops to listen to Mouse…”

 

“This whole affair is getting out of hand.” Father looked from Vincent’s considering eyes to Cullen’s angry face with a sigh. “I knew Diana Bennett’s presence down here would only create trouble. Now you tell me that Mouse has gone off on some crackpot expedition of his own. I can only hope he doesn’t come to any real harm before I can get my hands on him and wring his foolish neck!”   

 

“I don’t suppose there’s any way we can catch up with him.” Cullen looked across at Vincent hopefully. “I mean, he’s only been gone ten minutes or so. Surely he can’t have gotten that far.”

 

“Mouse knows the tunnels better than even myself. If he choses not to be found, then he will not be discovered.” Vincent straightened away from his position on the corner of Father’s desk. “I will send Zach to instruct Pascal to broadcast a message in the hope Mouse will hear it. But I am not hopeful of his obeying my instructions to wait for us. Once his mind is made up, there is no changing it.”

 

“What could he possibly hope to find down there?” Father turned his gaze back to Vincent on a worried frown. “Surely he has explored as far as it is possible to venture without getting dangerously lost. Perhaps that is all it is. This man he said he has seen, perhaps he is simply lost, as well.”

 

“Once Paracelsus hinted that there was far more Belo, than we have ever discovered. Other worlds, other realms to be explored.” Vincent raised his broad shoulders in frustrated puzzlement. “He lied about many things. Perhaps there are other secrets that we can only guess at. Diana Bennett survived despite the odds, despite all reasonable explanation. Someone must have fed and housed her, cared for her, so she would survive.”

 

“Here be dragons…” Father pushed his fingers through his hair in agitation. “I cannot escape the conviction that somewhere, somehow, John Pater is laughing at us. He enjoyed playing the puppet master. That man had no conscience and fewer morals.”  

 

“Perhaps he was simply protecting something he loved, in his own twisted way.” Vincent shrugged. “I can only hope Mouse doesn’t stumble onto more than he can handle. For my own sake, I will go and organise a thorough search of the upper tunnels, but I think Mouse will be far below by now. With luck, we may flush out his mysterious stranger who passes through our world with no one seeing him but the boy. If we capture him, there will be questions asked, and he’d better decide to tell us what we want to know.”

 

“Thank you, Vincent.” Father passed a hand over his tired eyes. “That boy will be the death of me yet. Please, can you also ask Pascal to keep sending the message until he receives an answer from Mouse. And I want to see that boy the moment he returns. I have a few choice words I am keeping for his sole edification.”

 

“I’ll go and tell him. You get going, Vincent,” Cullen offered.

 

“Then we will meet at the junction in ten minutes.” Vincent gathered up his cloak and left the chamber swiftly.

 

Cullen looked back at Father. “That boy needed to be hog-tied until he learns a little common sense. Heaven knows what he’s up to right now. Only hope he hasn’t gone and broken his fool neck so far down there, we won’t be able to find him.”

 

 

Azrael halted abruptly in the shadows, sensing the sudden presence of the fair-haired boy as he moved silently along the tunnel. He’d stayed far too long in the park, hidden beneath the tree, waiting, hoping for some miracle of sweet, forbidden contact. The dawn had broken, and the sun rising into the sky before he could tear himself away. Now it was almost too late to slip beyond the alert outer guards of The Others and down into the safety of his own world.

 

He felt the boy before him pause suddenly, heard him mutter as he turned his shaggy head to scan the shadows in which Azrael had been impelled to seek refuge. He felt his gaze pass over his skin.

 

In the distance, the pipes clattered a repeat message, and the boy stopped moving to listen to the staccato sounds. Azrael could feel the vibrations in the pipes against his back as he pressed deeper into his scant cloak of concealment. He knew he should have learned their language; it was of vital importance now.

 

He felt the boy’s eyes pass over him again, and the whirl of his chaotic thoughts nearly drowned out Azrael’s keen senses, as Mouse crept forward to investigate. Azrael held his breath, forcing his body deeper into the darkness.

 

Inwardly, he berated himself for lingering Up There and for putting himself and his mother in danger of discovery. The Others would not hesitate to kill him if they discovered him in their midst. And now, this scrap of a boy with the jumbled, riotous thoughts was forcing him to remain in the proximity of imminent danger.

 

Mouse was sure he was no longer alone. Nothing moved; there was no immediate sound beyond Pascal’s continuous message calling for him to return.

 

Mouse would return when he’d discovered the truth and not before.

 

There! He cocked his head. Metal scraping on rock, the faintest of sounds, the soft creak of leather and the scuffing of boots on the tunnel’s sandy floor.

 

“Vincent…?” Mouse questioned tentatively, taking another forward step towards the concealing shadows that seemed to hide a familiar bulky shape. “Is that you, Vincent?”

 

Vincent! Breath hissed unwarily between Azrael’s taut lips at the sound of that one hated name.

 

The boy knew his father’s killer! 

 

Nails curling tightly into the palms of his hands, Azrael fought down the urge to explode from his hiding place and wreak longed for vengeance, to still the restless stirrings of his father’s ghost. His head was spinning with the pain of the boy’s crazy thoughts, images and impressions Azrael couldn’t control or understand, but—

 

“I’m over here, Mouse.” Vincent’s abrupt communication cut like ice across Azrael’s startled senses. “Stand still.”

 

He’d been concentrating so closely on the boy’s whereabouts, he hadn’t heard the other’s stealthy approach. Now he was truly trapped unless he took instant action to clear an escape route. The suffocating fear of being trapped galvanised him into action. As swift as thought, Azrael whirled around, lashing out at Mouse who stood directly in his path.

 

Hey! You’re not Vincent!” The tinker was utterly startled by the screaming apparition suddenly appearing before him, flinging him bodily against the wall with a sickening thud.

 

With an agonised cry of pain, Mouse collapsed to the tunnel floor, clutching his side, gasping for breath, as brightly coloured lights danced before his eyes. Above him, Vincent moved silently to stand guard, watching the stranger closely, through narrowed eyes as he placed himself deliberately in the attacker’s path.

 

As large as himself, the stranger looked to be as dangerously powerful and deadly. But he seemed oddly at ease.

 

Deep inside the shelter of his hood, his head turned questioningly in Vincent’s direction, as he moved his feet for a better stance, and Vincent looked into the man’s eyes of utter blackness with wary curiosity. Dressed like himself in tunnel costume, but all in black, he presented an uneasy enigma.

 

Where had he come from and where was he going? Questions chased each other around Vincent’s mind, as he watched and waited for the stranger to make his next move.

 

He deliberately kept his mind and body as calm as possible, so he wouldn’t alarm Catherine. He had left her asleep in their chamber, and he was not going to have some dark stranger upsetting his world. With every fibre of his willpower, he kept the beast within him, securely caged, as he circled and watched, looking for an opening to take this man down, because he wanted him alive.

 

“Vincent…” Azrael tested the name softly on his tongue, tasting the keen essence of it. “The conqueror,” he mused slowly, sensing the warrior-king’s puzzled thoughts at Azrael’s sudden appearance. “Do you truly have the face of a lion? Do you have a lion’s great heart, as well?”

 

He frowned when Vincent didn’t answer. But there was something else disturbing about him, a guarded calmness, an utter awareness of self that was completely at odds with the mind of the hardened killer Azrael had been trained to expect.

 

There were dark places within this man, deep pain to be touched on only lightly, but these were overlayed with clear, tantalising thoughts of a woman and a child, their soothing touch reaching out, a spiritual connection warming and comforting the darker reaches of his great soul.

 

There were others there too, spirits yet to be…

 

“You will not deny me my revenge!” Azrael’s own soul twisted suddenly within his chest, and a shiver of dread and loneliness flooded through his senses, leaving him bleak and alone.

 

Alone, except for his father’s killer...

 

The corrosive need to finally exact revenge surged through him, blotting out all reason, all whispering doubts. To kill this man surely would finally bring relief from the torments of his father’s ghost and peace to his own troubled mind.

 

Vincent turned at bay in the same instant Azrael struck. He dodged aside, leaving only thin air for the intruder’s powerful fingers to snatch at as he charged past.

 

The tunnel wall was an unforgiving buffer when Azrael smashed into the rock surface, pain momentarily blinding his inner sense of sight. Turning slowly, on a groan of agony over his wrenched shoulder, he managed to orientate himself again on the quiet movements of Vincent’s costume, and he stepped cautiously towards the sound, blindly aware of his shortcomings against a superior foe.

 

Balanced on the balls of his feet, assessing the likelihood of another rushing attack, Vincent watched him, more puzzled than ever. His attacker had made no effort to avoid smashing into the wall. It was as if he wasn’t aware it was there until he crashed into it, so intent was he on his charge.

 

It is almost as if he cannot see me...

 

Warily, he circled away from the other man, now deliberately blanking out his mind, concentrating on the staccato rhythm of the pipes to the exclusion of all else. Hesitantly, the stranger stalked the tunnel’s confines, finding Mouse easily and hauling the boy to his feet, despite his vocal protests of pain and chagrin at being roughly manhandled.

 

“This is between you and me, Vincent.” Azrael held Mouse firmly in his hands. “I’ll let the boy go, but you are mine. Do you understand? We have to end this, now.”

 

“There is nothing to end.” Vincent put one finger to his lips to still Mouse’s protests, as he eased away to Azrael’s right, still keeping his thoughts deliberately neutral. “You came here uninvited.”

 

“You destroyed all that I lived for…” Azrael’s voice caught on a half-cry of despair. “And you took away all I had dreamed about. Everything. You took it all and left me with nothing…but darkness and despair. It’s all your fault, Vincent, and you alone must pay for that.”

 

“Let Mouse go!”

 

Mouse squirmed in Azrael’s tight hold, kicking out at his captor’s legs, distracting his attention from his immediate surroundings. Azrael leaned in to subdue him, clamping his broad arms around the boy’s slight frame, crushing the breath from him with deliberate intent. Suddenly a deeper blackness flooded Azrael’s senses, a curtain falling across his inner vision, as he pitched forward towards the tunnel floor, blood starting to rush from the cut at the base of his skull where Vincent hit him solidly with a lump of rock.

 

Vincent was taking no chances, and his aim was brutally accurate and frighteningly sudden. A soft gasp of pain was the only sound Azrael made, as he slid to the floor in a heap of dark cloak and auburn hair.

 

 

 

   

On my own

Pretending she’s beside me

All alone I walk with her till morning

Without her, I feel her arms around me

And everywhere the trees are bare

And I pretend that she has found me

 

Without me the world will go on turning

The world is full of happiness that I have never known

I love her, I love her

But only on my own

But only on my own…

 

Michael Crawford

 

 

“So you won’t take the case?” Joe sat on the corner of his desk, one leg swinging free. “You’re happy for Russell to get all the credit? That’s not like you, Diana. I demand you tell me why.”

 

“Why do I get the impression you’re trying to distract me from something more important?” Diana accused levelly. “That you also have some other agenda in all this. Don’t push it, Joe. It’s none of your business what I do on my own time.”

 

“I’m simply trying to say that this is a craziness that has to stop, before someone gets hurt.” Joe leaned down to place a warning hand on Diana’s forearm, where she sat in the chair before his desk. “If you carry on like this any longer, it’s going to affect your work. You should be grateful you escaped from that place with your life. Why, in heaven’s name, do you want to go back there?”

 

“Is that the best excuse you can think of, Joe?” She met his gaze squarely, her eyes challenging. “Tell me. Why would Elliot Burch come running to you with such a trivial matter? I thought it was simply a private thing between him and me. It had absolutely nothing to do with you and yet, here you are, warning me off the idea. Why, Joe?”

 

Joe stood to retreat behind his desk to shuffle papers, his mind racing furiously. Why, indeed, Joe? He didn’t dare ask how she knew Elliot had been to see him. But he couldn’t deny it, not when she was waiting for him to betray himself.

 

“Okay, well, he…he was concerned about your welfare, that’s all. As I am,” he finally replied, somewhat lamely and earning himself a look of utter contempt. “You’re letting one little incident cloud your judgement. Your emotions are still too involved in this. That was a frightening position to be in, miles beneath the city and nowhere to run. You have to step back and get a better perspective on things. Then you will see that this idea of yours is totally unworkable. You cannot go haring off after some pipe dream.”

 

Even to his ears, it sounded like a reasoned argument. Women were such emotional creatures after all, and— 

 

“Hogwash, Mr. District Attorney of Manhattan.” Diana’s eyes blazed with cold fire. “Utter and complete hogwash. You and Burch are up to something. Something you don’t want to share with me. He didn’t waste any time running to you with tales. Well, until you’re prepared to tell me what you know, you can take your concerns and insert them where the sun—”

 

“I told Burch you wouldn’t listen to reason.” Joe raised one hand defensively. “It was more his idea than mine. I told him you wouldn’t take kindly to my interference, but I am concerned about you, Diana, even if you hate the idea. You haven’t been the same since you were kidnapped. I just wish you would confide in me. What happened to you down there? Do you need to see a shrink or take some time off?”

 

He raised his hands in appeal. “And, why, exactly, do you want to hire that nut-ball kid Burch found somewhere? What is this sudden obsession with some mouldy old tunnels below the subway? Surely there’s is nothing down there but rats.”

 

“Spying on me is not a good idea.” Diana got to her feet abruptly. “You might get more than you bargained for. Stay out of my business, Joe Maxwell, and I’ll stay out of yours…and Burch’s all-too-private affairs. I know he has things he likes to keep hidden. Where I go and what I do on my own time is my business. And tell Burch to call off his dogs. They’re getting on my nerves.”

 

A cold sweat broke out on Joe’s brow as Diana swept out of his office, shutting the door behind her with a decided snap.

 

Damn Burch and his fancy ideas!  

 

Raking his fingers through his already disordered hair, Joe leaned his elbows on his desk and dropped his face into his hands. This day was no better than all the rest. Headaches from beginning to end and copious cups of black coffee didn’t seem to help.

 

Catherine…her sweet face hovered tantalisingly before his inner sight. Perhaps it was past time to go Below once more and lay out all his suspicions and worries before Catherine and her husband. Surely Vincent could make some sense out of the whole mess. If only Bennett hadn’t got so deeply involved in this whole crazy mess. “She’s just too nosey for her own good.”

 

 

“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it!” Cullen peered over Father’s arm in worried puzzlement. “From a distance, with his hood up, this guy could pass for you, Vincent.”

 

“This, at least, solves our mystery over who kidnapped Diana Bennett after the fight at the junction door.” Father frowned. “This man must have knocked James out, as well. But what was he doing up there?”

 

Vincent looked down with compassion at the man stretched unconscious on the hospital bed. “We will ask him when he wakes up. But I have never seen this man before. He creates a dangerous mystery that could threaten us all. Where has he come from, and how many more are there like him? And why was he so intent on trying to kill me?”

 

“Well, his skull is certainly as hard as yours, Vincent.” Father straightened from his task of bandaging the man’s cut head, making a faint attempt at levity that fell flat. His words were meant to cover his own worries, which were very real and frightening. Where there was one such stranger, there were bound to be more.

 

Was his fragile world now to be invaded from Below as well as Above?

 

“But he’s so pale and sad.” Shannon stood beside Catherine at the head of the bed. “And I’ve never seen any man who looks this beautiful. He looks…so unearthly…” She reached out to smooth the shock of auburn hair from the man’s damp brow.

 

“Diana…” the man breathed in a wretched tone, turning his head restlessly beneath her touch. “Diana…?”

 

The name hung in the air, wistfully tentative, fraught with vibrant meaning. Father and Cullen started visibly.

 

“Surely he can’t mean Diana Bennett?” Shannon looked from the man’s closed eyes to Catherine’s startled gaze for confirmation. “What could she know of our world down here?”

“It appears more than we have guessed.” Vincent frowned at their mysterious patient. “And obviously more than she was willing to tell Elliot or Joe. When we rescued her, she was tight lipped about where she had been held and who by. Perhaps she, too, has deeper secrets she wishes to keep. Undoubtedly this man was her guide to the surface. Does he now search for her?”

 

“If Miss Bennett knows of this man’s existence, then does she suspect ours?” Father turned the implications over in his mind, looking at each of his companions in turn. “She is far too astute for my liking.”

 

“I hope, for all our sakes, that she knows nothing about us,” Shannon replied fervently, looking back at the face of the man in the bed. “But Elliot and Joe must know of this as soon as possible. We can only hope and pray that Joe has some influence over the woman’s actions.”

 

Diana stood in the junction entrance to the tunnels, scanning the solid metal door with deepening frustration. As before, there were many scuff-marks going over the door sill, if she cared to take careful note, and she knew this was the way into Azrael’s world beyond. He had known how to come and go through this door. It looked as if the whole world had crossed the threshold.

 

Everyone, but her… It only remained to find her way in and solve the mystery that had been eating away at her ability to concentrate on her current caseload.

 

Sitting and staring at her computer screen, her mind elsewhere, was becoming a tiresome habit. One she was determined to break. Get behind this door, discover the facts, settle her mind on the salient points, and then she could get back to her life.

 

Couldn’t she? Applying cold, hard logic, to an emotional obsession, was the only way to cure it. Azrael had probably forgotten all about her by now, anyway…

 

“The Others… Up There… Down Here…” Diana whispered all the crazy phrases she’d heard spoken during her ordeal, and they still made no sense.

 

Just who were these Others who Azrael feared so much, and how did their world relate to his? Diana reached to finger the antique comb in her hair.

 

Elliot Burch had said we, when he described how first her purse, then her comb, and then a trail of blood had been found. She was certain that single, innocent word hid far more than just Elliot and his odd, little Mouse character wished her to know. And Burch was too slow in contacting her. She could wait no longer.

 

She stepped up to the grillwork beside the door. Cemented in place, it looked totally immovable, but there was a recent disturbance in the dust beyond. She glanced back towards the area where the three men who’d attacked her, had been despatched by Azrael with ruthless efficiency. It was as if they had never existed. Diana thought back to the incident at the carousel and Cathy Chandler’s mysterious companions.

 

James and Matthew had dealt very efficiently with the bodies of the three gunmen up in the park, that night. Very efficiently. There had been no trace of the men by the time the sun rose. They would not tell her what they had done with them after she had examined them. They, too, had been tight-lipped and secretive in their comings and goings. She could never catch them out.

 

“Catherine Chandler, Vincent, and The Others…” Diana whispered to the cobweb-hung gloom. “Elliot Burch and Shannon O’Neill…” Her head began to ache.

 

Now, she’d even begun to suspect Joe Maxwell’s implicit involvement in this somewhere. What did he know? Why was he so afraid to confide in her?

 

It was all starting to make some kind of crazy sense. She knew all these people had some kind of bolt-hole, some place of secure refuge against the outside world. They had used it to keep themselves safe from Gabriel’s reach.

 

And now, they had put up walls, locked the door, and yanked up the drawbridge to keep her out as well.  “Well, I’m going to find out the truth.”

 

They certainly had an off the grid kind of look about them. And as for Mouse…Diana shook her head. That boy was so far off-center, he’d need a map just to get back to anything approaching normal…

 

“Damn the maps!” Dian glared at the grillwork. “And I hate mysteries!”

 

She frowned, craning her head forward to see better in the gloom. She pulled a flashlight from her purse and switched it on. Fingermarks on a rusted lever, an oily sheen on its inner workings…she attacked the grill with desperate determination, skinning her knuckles on the rough metal until it finally gave under her hands.

 

“All right,. Now let’s see just what you’re hiding…” Eagerly, she dragged open the grill and propelled the lever downwards.

 

Silently, the steel portal beside her slid open to reveal the shadow-hung darkness beyond, lit in the distance by dancing lights. She could swear there was actually some kind of torchlight somewhere ahead, though that made no sense either. It looked like some medieval dungeon with brick walls and a vaulted ceiling.

 

Suddenly, in the distance, a pipe clanged a metallic tune, not unlike what she’d heard when she was with Azrael. If she didn’t know better, she could have sworn the clanging was some kind of message. After a pause, it repeated itself, in the same, distinct pattern…

 

“Azrael…” Diana’s heart skipped a beat.

 

Why is she here chasing phantoms in the dark?

 

It wasn’t like her to let instinct or emotions rule the cool logic of her brain. Something drew her back, something she could not define, or perhaps, if she was being brutally honest about her inner voice of caution, didn’t want to define.

 

The empathic link she had shared with Azrael was still there, hovering just beyond her reach, a shadow that flitted away when she tried to pin it down. Sadness, a melancholy desire for something unobtainable, an unfulfilled yearning, a dark sense of ultimate purpose that was corroding both their souls. She was getting to the stage where she couldn’t eat or sleep without dwelling on that nagging pain somewhere deep in her chest and heart.

 

“Well, you won’t find any answers standing here and just looking.” With unaccustomed trepidation, she stepped over the threshold and into the softly lit darkness that both beckoned and repelled her. The answers she sought, lay somewhere ahead of her – that was the only fact she was sure of – and she was determined to seek out the truth, once and for all. She laughed briefly, staring ahead into the gloom.

 

Perhaps, she should’ve brought a bag of breadcrumbs…

 

She turned, about to look for the lever to shut the door behind her when she heard someone talking. Somewhere ahead of her, down a side tunnel, someone was approaching. And from the muttered dialogue she could just discern, it sounded like she was about to have a fresh encounter with a rather large Mouse…   

 

Finally released from Father’s severe dressing down and stern lecture about his responsibilities, Mouse flitted through the shadows, intent on his own mission. As the sentry for the junction door, he carried the staff of his office importantly. But a quick call of nature had hurried him away for a few minutes; only now was he returning to his post.

 

His sharp eyes scanned the tunnel floor, taking in the signs of Vincent’s recent struggles with the stranger now lying unconscious in one of Father’s hospital beds. He quartered the area like a bloodhound, casting from side to side, looking for clues. “Man had to come from somewhere,” he muttered to himself. “Came from Up Top, but not a Topsider.” Mouse shook his blond bangs in disgust. “No Topsider ever came dressed like that. Came from Below, but not of us.”

 

He sighed gustily, backtracking the man’s movements with the ease of long practice. “From Below, but also from Up Top. Everything mixed up, too mixed up. Need Mouse to fix, as usual. Mouse, do this. Mouse do that. Mouse come look at something. Mouse, can you take this to Mary, to Father, to Vincent. Always need Mouse when he’s busy doing stuff. Can’t do everything at once.”

 

The tracks he was following now led away towards the junction door, which offered no clues. His gaze lifted and he froze in disbelief. The junction door was standing half open. He turned, quickly scanning each of the intersecting tunnel mouths in swift succession. Nothing moved except for the wavering length of his own shadow, but he still couldn’t shake the disquieting sense of was being assessed by unseen eyes.

 

His skin crawled between his shoulder blades as he eased forward to peer into the junction beyond the open door. Nothing moved, nothing breathed, not even a rat. Everything was as it should be, but Mouse was sensitive enough to know that it was not.

 

“Where there’s one, could be more.” Mouse chewed his bottom lip worriedly. “Up Top should stay Up Top,” he opined darkly. “Only good for one thing.” He drew his head back in again. “Topsiders have no business being Below. Get lost, Mouse has to find. Again.”

 

Reaching up, he drew down the lever that operated the door internally and sighed with relief as the steel panel slid shut once more. Then he locked it with a deft twist of the lever’s handle, so only those who lived Below could open it again.

 

“What’s in here now, stays in here,” he commented loudly to the shadows that gathered around him like old friends. “No going back Up Top to tell. Only way out now is past Mouse. Come out, come out, wherever you are…”

 

Rocking on his heels, Mouse waited until the echo of his words faded away into the quiet. He held his staff securely in both hands, keeping it out across his body, ready to do battle with whatever rushed at him from the dark. But, nothing moved.

 

“Going on patrol now. Gonna find what needs to be found…” Mouse challenged the fraught silence again. “Mouse not hurt you…”

 

No answer was given, but then he didn’t really expect any. Nodding his head in satisfaction, Mouse retraced his steps cautiously, ever watchful of the shadows on either hand. Shadows that might reach out and attack him at any moment. His bruised ribs still hurt from the last encounter he’d had with an unwanted intruder. If there was someone in here with him, they were going to take the beating this time. He tightened his grip on his staff.

 

But it wasn’t until his soft footfalls had died away into the silence, that a slender shadow finally detached itself from the rest around the tunnel mouth and followed stealthily after him…

 

 

 


Vincent and Catherine at the tunnel entrance

 

“She has gotten away from us, Joe. Somehow, she’s slipped through the net.” Elliot paced the steps leading down to the entrance to the world beneath his basement. “I set a handful of Cleon’s best men to watch her, and she gave them all the slip, very neatly, in the park, about three hours ago.”

 

“That sounds like Bennett, all right.” Joe dismissed his taxi with a curt nod. “You might as well try and catch shadows. She could be anywhere by now. And she wasn’t about to give up her crazy idea of getting Mouse to guide her down again, no matter what we said. She nearly bit my head off, the last time I spoke to her about it.”

 

“I’ve sent Vincent an urgent message, for all the good it will do now.”  Elliot shouldered deeper into his overcoat, against the spite of the chill wind. “If Bennett does manage to find them down there, there will be hell to pay.”

 

“Well, at least we will get to them before she does.” Joe followed him into the basement. “At least we know the way down. Bennett will be floundering around in the dark for hours.”

 

“Obviously, you think as I do.” Elliot halted before the secret door, rapping the code Shannon had taught him. “That Bennett will find her way into the tunnels by the dint of sheer persistence.”

 

“Never known her to fail to find exactly what she’s looking for eventually. She’s like a dog searching for a stolen bone. She’ll dig up the entire city if she has to, to find that one missing piece to the puzzle.”

 

The two men acknowledged the tunnel sentry, as they stepped over the threshold into the quiet beyond the door. “Let’s just hope we can lay enough red herrings across her path that she will end up chasing around in circles. Only way to make the woman give up is to confuse her.”

 

“I can think of other, more direct ways,” Elliot muttered grimly. “I suppose kidnapping and a quiet disposal out of the country is out of the question?”

 

“As the District Attorney of Manhattan, I will forget you ever said that, Elliot Burch.” Joe shrugged eloquently. “But as an concerned helper of all we hold dear, I would give you all the help I could muster, if we manage to find her. But Bennett is not someone I would wish on my worst enemy, much as the idea attracts me. She’s pure hell when she’s mad. And by now, she’s worked herself up into a fine snit.”

 

“I know exactly what you mean.” Elliot grimaced sourly. “That woman has been on my case long enough for me to get a taste of her temper and her methods. Ruthless and efficient. But she still needs to be convinced this is all nothing more than a figment of her imagination. The result of the trauma she has already been through. Anything it takes, to make her see sense.”

 

“Bennett only deals in the truth. Eliminate everything that doesn’t fit, and whatever you’re left with, must be the truth, however improbable.” Joe laughed shortly. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So God help us all.”

 

“Amen.” Elliot kicked at an offending stone with his well polished shoe, as he matched Joe stride for stride, moving deeper into a maze that was not of their creating.


Azrael opened his eyes to the accustomed silence of his world and could not find anything familiar, in either touch, or scent, that spoke of home. An overabundance of candlelight seared his searching eyes. He groaned, shuttering them against the glare. Against his lower body, he could feel the softness of well-washed cotton and immediately knew he was naked beneath this thin concealment and this puzzled him.

 

Even in the face of his own blindness, his own mother abhorred all forms of nudity, insisting on the concealing layers of cloth and leather her son always wore.  His faithful painting of Diana at the sulphur pools had both shocked and horrified her. He knew she had wanted to destroy it. Her anger and hate had leapt out at him like a living thing, vibrating against his senses.

 

He’d felt his mother’s unspoken questions, but he chose not to sully his precious memories by allowing her to probe his inner thoughts and feelings, the silence inside his head the only place in his world where he could be completely alone. Belatedly, he now realised, this was the first time he had ever denied his mother anything.

 

He kept his eyes closed in quiet anguish at his state of total confusion. He felt weak and disorientated, his limbs leaden and unresponsive to his urgent mental commands. He wondered what drug they had used to subdue him, to make him so helpless and impotent in the face of their undoubted plans to torture the truth from him about his origins.

 

His head ached abominably and his ribs hurt, as if someone had punched him viciously. He remembered the wall and his inability to avoid it, confused as he had been by the boy’s crazy and chaotic mind…

 

And then, there had been Vincent...the warrior-king of The Others...

 

“There is nothing and no one to fear here.”

 

Movement and the cool touch of a hand against his hot brow drew his attention from his inner conflict towards the concerned thoughts of the older man who came to hover at his bedside. A sense of deep strength and warm kindliness reached out to Azrael, inextricably mixed, stamped over by, an easy air of keen authority. That this man was undoubtedly one of The Others, Azrael knew without question, but he did not fear one old man.

 

Jacob…the name came unbidden. It was a name of strength that fitted the old man well.

 

The cool hand was removed from his brow, hard fingers now encompassing his wrist, and Azrael steeled his body not to flinch at the firm touch, but it was already too late. The other man cleared his throat as he took in the sudden increase in the pulse rate Azrael couldn’t control.

 

“Father…?” a man’s voice, steel textured but wrapped in a seamless velvet, questioned gently, and that same consciousness Azrael had made an unexpected connection with, in his first encounter with the boy and the man he’d called Vincent, probed his mind once more. Searching for answers to the questions that crowded his thoughts.  

 

Instinctively Azreal knew this was that same man, the man he had sworn to kill in his father's name. And, in the same instant, he knew that The Others' warrior-king shared that unspoken knowledge and, though perplexed by its origins, was also unmoved by it.

 

Azrael bit hard on his inner lip in quiet desperation. Why does he not fear me?

 

“Vincent.” The man called Father turned. “Come in. Our guest is finally awake.”

 

“You should not be here with him, alone.” Vincent moved closer. “We do not know what he is capable of or why he hates us so.”

 

“Don’t worry. I’ve given him a strong sedative, just in case.” The old man confirmed Azrael’s dark suspicions. “The poor man looked as if he hasn’t slept in weeks. I wonder what drives him so, when he is obviously dead on his feet.”

 

Azrael’s breath hitched in amazement. How did the old man know this?

 

He could not remember the last time he had rested completely, without dreams and nightmares disturbing his sleep. Without images of Diana sending him to pace the tunnels and dark places of his world, before forcing him upwards into the unbearable light and distracting sounds of her world. Without his father’s ghost goading him, demanding appeasement.

 

“Well, Elliot Burch has sent a message down.” Vincent advanced to the bedside. “It appears their quarry has managed to elude them and the guards they set about her. Even now, she is finding her way Below.”

 

That woman!” The old man banged what sounded like a cane against the floor. “She seems to delight in causing us an inordinate amount of trouble. You have alerted the sentries?”

“An hour ago. I began a search for her, but I could find no sign. All we found was this man.” Vincent laid a hand on the even rise and fall of the stranger’s powerful chest. “We can do no more, now, but wait for one of the outposts to report if she appears. Also, Mouse has disappeared again.”

 

“And he’s only just survived being crushed by our guest here,” Father muttered in a completely exasperated tone. “I suppose I can expect nothing else from that dratted boy. No doubt he will turn up again, in his own good time. Wait here for me, Vincent. I need to fetch some more medicines. I will be back as soon as I can.”

 

“I will stay and keep watch. I wish to know his mind and heart. I can sense such pain in him.” Vincent moved to sit in the chair beside the head of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees. He watched the man in the bed attempting – and failing – to hold his body rigid and uncommunicative, sensing he was trying to blank out his thoughts and feelings, leaving nothing for Vincent to grasp and understand.

 

In the tense silence, Azrael waited for the other man to begin. Of all The Others, this man was the most dangerous, because he could see into Azrael’s inner self. This man’s intuitive mind was incredibly developed and powerful. In an instant, he would know all Azrael’s thoughts and secrets if they surfaced unbidden.

 

“We mean you no harm. We took your clothes, but only as a precaution.” Vincent was in no hurry to begin a conversation or interrogation. “But I am going to disappoint you. A warrior-king, I most certainly am not. I wonder who put that foolish notion in your head, my friend.” This uninvited guest to his world puzzled him, and the other mans thoughts, when Vincent had first entered the chamber moments before, betrayed him more than he knew. The icy fingers of the ghost of Paracelsus feathered their way down his spine.

 

Somewhere, somehow, in this whole drama, he knew Father’s old friend and sworn enemy still moved…even though he was no longer on this plane of existence. Vincent shivered again and felt the shadows closing in on all sides, as his eyes lifted to abruptly meet the other man’s questioning gaze. His eyes, sheltered and remote, behind his long lashes, were dark pools of fathomless pain…    

 

Mouse worked ever downwards, deeper into the realm of abandoned tunnels and cut-offs that only he and Vincent knew well. As he scampered along, Mouse began muttering to himself, a litany of question and excuse, preparing his arguments for when he would be forced to face Father about his brief abandoning of his post up at the junction door.

 

“Of course, no one can get in. Mouse locked door. Who’s in here, is in here. Not getting out, not without Mouse.” He was beginning to feel better about the whole idea. “Had to make sure they’re alone. Need Mouse to find. Always need Mouse to find…”

 

He trotted on, the wavering light of the torch he held beside him, marking his progress, his staff thumping hollowly on the floor. Ever cautious, a shadowy figure followed, probing over the stony walls with questing fingers. Mouse, his eyes more accustomed to the darkness, needed the torch only to check his progress downwards.

 

Diana, on the other hand, was virtually blind in the night of the tunnels. Only the soft scuffling sound of the boy’s footsteps, the tapping of his staff, and the dancing light of his torch, kept her on the right path.

 

She had recognised the boy instantly. His unexpected appearance was an unlooked for miracle. That he had appeared to know where he was going, only confirmed her suspicions that Elliot Burch, and potentially, Joe Maxwell, had been lying to her the whole time. Secrets building on deception and bare- faced lying, and the truth was something to be pushed aside, if necessity warranted it. She could not shake the uncomfortable thought that there was far more going on in this strange odyssey that anyone was telling her.

 

She laid a questing hand on her gun, the cold metal giving her both strength and courage. She glared at Mouse’s dancing figure in the distance, dismayed to see he had gotten further ahead of her than she was comfortable with. She quickened her steps, her gun hand clenching involuntarily.

 

Maybe, if I just shoot him in the butt, at least that would slow him down…

 

Suddenly, she stumbled into an icy puddle of water that lapped over the sides of her shoes, soaking them in a chilling instant. Damp mould on the tunnel wall, beneath her reaching hand made her shudder, as the chilling needles of spray from a miniature waterfall cascaded over her head and shoulders as she leaned unwarily close.

 

Damn!” Diana muttered tersely.

 

Her mind skimmed back unerringly to the tiny comfort of the candle Azrael had carried to light their way. A twist of unaccountable pain knifed through her senses at the memory.

 

In the distance a tiny titter of sound came back to her ears, as if someone had hurriedly suppressed a laugh. Now she could see the torchlight had dwindled into a tiny spot of light no bigger than her thumbnail. Shaking the water from her shoes and hair, she pushed her chilled body away from the wall.

 

Doggedly bringing her mind back to the cold reality of her present predicament, Diana battled on, the idea of getting her hands around Mouse’s neck and slowly squeezing the life from him, an irresistible attraction. She hurried to catch up, before she was abandoned to the eternal dark and cold.

 

Far ahead, Mouse was forced to slow his pace. The woman was better than Elliot Burch; she was faster and more determined. She would last much longer, before she quit and cried uncle. But, if she wanted to kill him, she had to catch him first. And Mouse was enjoying the game far too much to give it up just yet…

 

   

Catherine stood in the tunnel entrance, watching Joe and Elliot coming towards her. She surveyed Joe’s tired face with deep concern.

 

Beside her, Shannon moved gladly into the warm circle of Elliot’s arms to return his embrace before burying her face in the expensive cloth of his overcoat. “I have missed you so much,” she confessed, before they fell into a whispered, lover’s conversation.

 

“Hey, Radcliffe.” Joe smiled lopsidedly, as he took Catherine’s outstretched hand tightly. “It sees every time we meet lately, I bring nothing but bad news.”

 

“For whatever reason you have come to see us,” she replied with a smile, “it’s always great to see you, Joe.”

 

“You always had a way of making a guy feel welcome.” Gratefully, he slid an arm around her waist.

 

His world always felt right when he was with Catherine. The crazy tilt of its plane swung level again under the warm concern that shone from her beautiful eyes. So sweet, so endearing, yet so powerful. He could see what Vincent had found so irresistible all those years ago when they first met that dark night up in the park.

 

Once again, he marvelled at her beauty, both inside and out. Dressed in a tunnel costume of soft leather and lace, lit by the surrounding torchlight, the essential essence of her strength played over him, easing the chill of his deep concern for her safety. For her safety and all those other unique people Below he had come to love and respect.

 

“Let’s get you home to Vincent.” Joe’s arm tightened around her waist, as they turned to follow Elliot and Shannon. “I want to see Father and tell him about Diana Bennett. I’m afraid she’s taken it upon herself to retrace her steps down here. I’m deathly afraid of what she might stumble on. She is one very persistent woman.”

 

“I think we may have the man who has more than a few answers for you.” Catherine looked up into his questioning face. “A stranger…but he is neither of your world or mine. But he has spoken Diana’s name in his delirium, as if he knew her well and cares for her deeply.”

 

“So her mysterious guide from those benighted tunnels way down there has finally surfaced,” Joe mused. “I wonder if he’s also looking for her. He might tell us where to look. But he is still a danger to both our worlds.”

 

“Yes, and I don’t think we can allow him to leave until he tells us the truth of who he is and where he’s come from. Father has sedated him for our safety. But he shows no inclination to tell us anything. Perhaps, we need Diana’s help after all.”

 

“And that thought scares me more than I think it scares you,” Joe stated honestly, after a long silence. “The idea of being forced to introduce Diana Bennett to your world scares the heck out of me.”

 

 

 

Can’t say we’re lovers, can’t say we’re friends

Don’t even know if I’ll see you again

But against your warm body I felt so alive

And you got me over a heartache tonight

 

  My heart was broken, my hurt was deep

I had lost something I wanted to keep

Lookin’ for comfort when you caught my eye

And you got me over a heartache tonight…  

 

Dolly Parton / Billy Dean

 

 

The darkness was absolute. Diana had been working on total instinct in the blackness for so long now, it had taken on a comfort, almost a life of its own.

 

Where the boy had gone, she had no idea. He had simply gotten too far ahead of her before vanishing into thin air. For all she knew, he had already doubled back on her in the darkness and was safely back at the surface, enjoying a good laugh at her expense.

 

Honestly, she could not blame him if he had abandoned her. More than once, she’d been tempted to call his name, but her throat had tightened against finally disgracing herself in this cowardly way. Consequently, she’d been stumbling around for hours now. Time had telescoped into an endless tunnel of one foot in front of the other and please God, don’t let me fall. She feared she might never rise again…

 

Somewhere out there in the darkness, dragons lurked, and the bogeymen of her childhood. The very shadows seemed to live and breathe. But this time, there was no comforting bulk of Azrael’s strong shoulder to keep the whispering shapes in the dark at bay. More than once she had nearly pulled her gun, startled by a sudden sound or whisper of perceived movement.

 

All sense of direction had long since fled. She only knew she was still travelling downwards. Bleak winds, blowing in from God knows where, feathered through her hair and body, chilling her to the bone, even through the protection of her damp clothing.

 

“So much for the sane reasoning of logic, eh, Bennett?” Diana breathed a frustrated sigh at her own foolhardiness. For the first time in her life, she had allowed her heart to rule her head, and now she was paying the price. Her heart? She turned the thought over in her mind, studying it from every possible angle.

 

Has her heart somehow driven her into this rashness?

 

Grimly, her lips curved into a self-derisive smile, and she shook her head disbelievingly. Where had her well-exercised sense of proportion gone? She should have given up this idiotic crusade weeks ago, but sheer strength of will drove her ever downwards to an undetermined fate.

 

Light! Sudden, blinding, deliciously welcoming light!

 

Nothing more than the flickering of a candle or lantern, but to Diana’s night-accustomed eyes, it was a veritable beacon of undreamed hope and safety. Stumbling, suddenly bone weary, she picked up her feet, desperate beyond imagining, trying to reach the sanctuary of that one, tiny flickering flame.

 

Down here light could only mean one thing and a strange sense of homecoming overtook Diana’s conscious mind. Light, and the suggestion of a presence beyond the flame that beckoned so warmly. Against all sense of caution, Diana finally stumbled into the light, only to pull up short in abject horror at the sight before her…

 

“Will you tell me your name?” Vincent requested, after a long silence.

 

“You wish to hear it spoken?” Azrael glared at him, before turning his head away from the bright glow of the candle flames. “Have it then. It is Azrael.”

 

“Azrael…Whom God Helps. The archangel of death…” Vincent shook his head. “You said before that this is between you and me; that we must finish it. But you will not be allowed to ply your deadly trade here among us.

 

A lengthy silence frayed Azrael’s nerves.

 

“You must know, we cannot release you, until I understand why you hate me so,” Vincent continued softly. “Unwelcome intruders are always a danger to our world.”

 

“As it is in ours,” Azrael was betrayed into retorting sharply. “But it does not stop you intruding where you are not welcome. That boy has been seen in our tunnels.”

 

“If Mouse has intruded, then he will be forbidden to do so again. But, we are aware that there are many other worlds which share this hidden realm below the city with us,” Vincent countered reasonably. “We all share the common goal of trying to keep our lives apart from those Above, who do not understand us and our ways. They would seek to destroy us, or make us wish we were dead, if they ever discovered our places of refuge.”

 

“Fine words, but they offer no assuagement,” Azrael sneered, his eyes still closed. “It is you who does not understand. We must remain apart from you. The Master forbad all contact years ago.”

 

“And yet you do not hesitate to steal from us. We have known of the pilfering that has gone on for those same years. That is also an unwanted intrusion on your part.”

 

“You…have things, things that we need.” Azrael tried to avoid the delicate, seeking touch of the other man’s astonishingly intuitive consciousness inside his mind, but it still managed to touch him on levels he had never known existed within him. “We produce all else that we must have to survive.”

 

Icy tendrils of fear sliced through his very being. He tried to rise, to escape, but his leaden limbs betrayed him still.

 

This warrior-king of The Others was older and obviously wiser in the uses of the mind and his ability to control it. Azrael fought a mental battle, trying to twist away and escape into some darker place within himself, shut his mind away from this insistent probing, lock all the doors and make his consciousness as neutral as possible, as Vincent had done to him back in the tunnels.

 

But it was no use… 

 

Shadows began to form; unwanted pictures began to circle inside his mind. First, a blond child and then a beautiful woman, slender and graceful, with a will of pure steel. A powerfully built, lion-faced man stood behind them, both protective and protected, as his arms encircled them, holding them against his chest, his sapphire eyes looking back at Azrael’s inner sight with deep compassion…

 

“I don’t need or want your pity!” Azrael spat out, clenching his fists.

 

“I am trying to make you understand…”

 

“Go away! Leave me alone!” Azrael twisted in the bed. “I do not wish to understand anything! I want nothing from you! I wish to be gone from this place and you!”

 

But he could not escape the images in his head. In this new image the child was asleep in a cot in the corner of another darkened chamber. An old woman kept watch, mending clothing by candlelight...

 

Then another image formed. The beautiful young woman now stood with the lion-faced man, turning within the circle of the warrior-king’s arms, obviously his queen. Gleaming candlelight teased along the woman’s sleek limbs of ivory, as the man slid the cloth of her gown from her shoulders, exposing the sweet lines of her upper back. At the same time she reached her arms up and around his neck, drawing his mouth down to hers, rising on her toes, craving a deeper connection, a promised fulfilment beyond all words or imagining…

 

“Catherine…” Azrael breathed, striving to void his mind of a fresh image that was forming unbidden, but equally as potent. He could watch no more, and yet…

 

“Catherine.” Vincent nodded. “My Catherine…my heart, my soul, my very existence.”

 

“Please, do not show me any more…” Azrael begged. But he was too late. He could feel the man’s light touch seeking insidiously through his memories, knowing, understanding…everything....

 

Try as he might, he could prevent nothing, deny anything. Diana stood again before his mind’s eye, slim and gleaming from the waters of the pool. He wanted to cry out then, lunge from the bed and make the pain stop forever.

 

But the drama played out once more before his mind’s eye. The bowl, the cleansing ritual, his hands on the warm, slick skin of her naked shoulders as he pushed her gently below the surface of the pool.

 

How he had ached to touch her like that once more, burned to say all he could not say, for fear it would damn him forever. How could he do what he must and expect her to love him?

 

His love for her could only serve to blunt the keen edge of his desire for revenge. Against the anguish of memory, Azrael threw a hand over his sightless eyes and found the lion-faced man waiting for him in his mind again, but this time he was alone.

 

“Diana…?” Vincent questioned softly.

 

“Leave me…” Azrael twisted his head away, trying to escape that touch which attempted to subvert him from his life’s purpose, his whole reason for existing. “Kill me now; I do not care any more. You have beaten me.”

 

“I once thought as you,” Vincent continued quietly, as if the other man had not spoken. “All the words, all the poetry in the world was just that – empty vessels. They offered me no consolation. I could see nothing ahead for myself, except bitter, lonely darkness. That is all you see for yourself now.”

 

A smile suddenly lifted his voice, colouring it with a million different shades of meaning and love. “And then, Catherine came into my life…and my heart. I found I was not alone, there in my darkness. She drew me into the light of her love, her passion, and her belief in all that I could be, if only I would allow her to guide me to that one, all encompassing truth.”

 

His voice dropped. “Once, I fought against that knowledge, believing it could never be for me. Now I would lay down my life to keep everything I hold dear, safe from harm, from you, the angel of death. Your dominion will hold no sway here.”

 

He reached to touch Azrael’s arm. “From what I know of her, Diana is a strong woman. Are you so sure she will turn away from you?”

 

Azrael snatched his arm away from that electric contact. He was tired of playing these mind games. This man saw too much and suspected a great deal more.

 

It is only a matter of time before

 

In the confusion of his mind, the lion-faced man and the man he had sworn to destroy, the faceless image he had carried within him for so long, began to blend into one, and the truth was cruelly obvious. His father had perverted the truth for his own ends. But surely he had his reasons…

 

Azrael’s restless fingers plucked at the covers that barely concealed his nakedness. In his confusion he’d forgotten he was as bare as his tormented soul. The thought of his mother’s patent horror the few times she saw him thus made his skin crawl with distaste. But he would not beg to have his clothing returned.

 

“How can I forget what you did?” He suddenly abandoned all attempt at prevarication, the connection between his own mind and the man sitting so patiently beside him strengthening and deepening with every passing second.

 

Soon, he would know all. “My father was all I had. He was the only one who truly cared for me. And you destroyed him utterly.”

 

“Paracelsus would have destroyed me and all that I hold dear, if I had allowed him to do so…” Vincent kept his voice low and even, though his mind seethed with troubled confusion. “Can you truly say that he did not try to do the same to you? Who took away your sight, Azrael? Did I, or any of my people? Or was it the man you called Master? The man you said loved you.”

 

“There were reasons!” Azrael spat, his voice roughened with pain. “Reasons you could not understand. My father did love me. He only wanted to make me stronger, better than other, lesser men. More like him.”

 

“He loved you in his own twisted way, perhaps.” Vincent’s tone lowered further, so Azrael had to strain to hear him. “But his true love was for ultimate power. Utter and total domination over those who served him. Without that power, he was nothing. He wanted you only to serve that lust for power. To make good his threats, even after his death. You are not that man, Azrael.”

 

Vincent allowed images of Azrael’s father to flow into the other man’s mind, both terrifying and painful. “Think, Azrael. He did not know how to love selflessly and honestly. At some point in his life all the love he had inside, all the compassion and goodness, was twisted into something dark and evil. It was then, I think, that he found he could not share anything of himself with anyone else.”

 

“My mother gave up everything to follow him, to be with him.” Azrael hauled in a deep breath, expelling it harshly. “She gave up a world of light and colour to go with him, to be with him in that darkness you seem to fear so much. There are other, worse things in this life, Vincent, besides blackness. My father became my mother’s entire world; her only existence was for him. And she was happy once. Then you took it all away from her…”

 

“Those of us who became entangled in your father’s web did not escape easily, if at all.” Vincent stood then. “Perhaps your mother was no longer able to leave, once she was committed to your father’s twisted visions. If she still waits and hopes for him to return, she will never leave that place. But you still can.”

 

No!” His mother’s voice reflecting in Vincent’s words brought Azrael to his knees with an agonised snarl. The hard truth it might be, but it stung like a painful slash across his pride, nonetheless. Surely, his father’s way could not have been wrong all these years…

 

It was unthinkable.

 

“I will not fight with you.” Vincent stepped back from the range of Azrael’s blindly reaching fingers. “You will know the truth, and it will set you free…if you will only allow it to do so. You are not your father; you never will be. You cannot allow yourself to be his instrument of revenge or atonement.”

 

“Then what am I?” Azrael cried, as he struck out again. “What else can I be?”

 

“Only yourself…” Vincent sidestepped, swatting the other man’s hands aside, pushing him back against the side of the bed.

 

“Then I am nothing…” Azrael stumbled, his limbs betraying him again. “You might as well kill me now…” In a final act of defiance, he opened his arms and his eyes. Light seared across his vision, spreading through his tormented soul on bright points of agony. He screamed in his rage and pain. “End it now!”

 

“No. You can be all you wish to be, and more.” Vincent circled him, watching for his next move. “You only have to believe…”

 

Vincent!” Catherine cried out in alarm, as she stepped through the curtain of the hospital chamber in time to see their unwanted guest lunging for her husband with the obvious intention of harming him as brutally as possible.

 

A swirling blackness reflecting from Azrael’s tortured mind tore through Vincent’s vision, as he managed to sidestep the other man’s off-balance attempt to grapple with him. His opponent’s fingers became entangled in the folds of his cloak as he whirled back to confront him.

 

Elliot and Joe, bursting into the room in the same moment, rushed to seize an arm each to drag Azrael back against the side of the bed, pinning him securely between them, as he bucked and fought against their restraining holds.

 

“Let him go,” Vincent ordered quietly, his eyes coolly watchful. “We were only talking.”

 

“Vincent, no!” Catherine tugged at her husband’s arm. “Look at him. He wants to kill you.”

 

“This guy isn’t fooling.” Joe panted as he struggled against Azrael’s superior strength. “You can’t afford to tangle with him again.”

 

“I know his mind.” Vincent shrugged off his cloak and held it out. “Cover yourself, Azrael, and then we will talk. There is so much you must learn, before we can afford to allow you to leave us. We have no need for the angel of death here. But Azrael can have a place with us, if he wishes it to be so.”

 

“I’m sorry. I don’t think conversation is the first thing on this guy’s mind.” Elliot felt the surge of hard muscle beneath his hands and he tightened his grip.

 

“Release him.” Vincent’s voice was mildly commanding, but his tone brooked no interference with his will.

 

Slowly, carefully, against their collective better judgment, both men eased their grip, but they stood back only fractionally and made no move to leave. Catherine interposed herself between her husband and his attacker.

 

“I will not allow you to fight.” She leaned back against Vincent, forcing him to acknowledge her. “It is senseless stupidity.”

 

“It seems I was mistaken…” Azrael swung the cloak about his shoulders, drawing the folds together to cover his body decently and the hood down over his face, to give his eyes the blessed relief they craved. He was suddenly unable to breathe. The drugs they had given him muddled his thinking, making it slow and confused.

 

But, somehow, he knew this was all wrong. He’d come here to avenge his father’s death, not to become involved with a man’s family and friends. But he had sworn an oath on his father’s memory that he would not leave this place alive. He lowered his head in defeat, his long auburn hair completely concealing his contorted features.

 

But again, there were fresh pictures crystallising in his mind. He sensed that Vincent’s Catherine was pregnant, the soft rounding of her abdomen speaking to him of wonderful joys to come. In a powerful moment of self-realization, he knew he wanted to reach out and touch her, to understand this evidence of new life and know some sense of release from the darkness of his own inner pain and ultimate isolation.

 

He no longer wanted to be alone. He wanted…? He shook his head in bafflement.

 

Vincent had been right. That internal darkness was a place of bitter loneliness and despair. A place where souls were irretrievably lost for all time…and the sense of it was frightening beyond all contemplation.

 

But, if he released all his anger and hate, what else would he have…?

 


Emma Pater knelt beside the pile of paintings, endeavouring to encourage a small fire with the flame of her candle. But the canvasses were damp in the gloom and refused to catch immediately. She had dragged them all out of Azrael’s secret hiding place and brought them to the edge of her small world where a great, deep cavern yawned beside her. Around her, the echoes of a vast emptiness beyond the fire’s light spoke of frightening depths that led down to infinity.

 

Madness, insanity, was eating insidiously away at the edges of her reason. The fragile mind of her maid and companion of all these lonely years had finally snapped completely and she had run off two days ago, gibbering and laughing into the greater darkness that lay beyond the narrow confines of her world. Long after the echoes had faded away, Emma was sure she could still hear them on the endless wind that sighed through the lower tunnels. The sound brought a chill that would not leave her, unbalancing her mind.

 

Now, it appeared Azrael was lost to her as well. Having gone Up There once more, to seek a communion with That Woman who had scorned and left him,   

he had not returned. Her unravelling mind picked at the problem endlessly.

 

Obviously, she concluded, he had finally met with the fate she had been training him for, the fate his father had ordained for him, if John Pater did not return one day. Destroy The Others and their warrior-king had been his urge and his autocratic command. It echoed from beyond the grave. She had done all he had urged and more. But Azrael had not become the man she had wanted him to be.

 

Now it was too late. Emma suddenly wished she’d taken up her son’s offer to show her the way to the surface. If only to feel the sun on her face and smell the flowers one last time. They had the garden to sustain them, another of her husband’s ingenious creations, but the many artificial suns that shone there, did not gift the same perfumes and delights as she remembered.

 

And if there had been a chance to avenge herself on one of The Others on her journey, she would have welcomed the opportunity. Her son was too soft, too quick to forgive those who had hurt him or his family. If only Emma had an instrument of destruction close to hand, she would have attempted the difficult journey to the surface.

 

She bit her lip in frustration as she returned to her original task, destroying these abominations that her son had created. The canvasses were useless to her now; she would always see Diana’s face, every time she attempted to reuse them. Carefully, she tended the fire’s small flame into a large blaze that would consume a lifetime’s work. It was better that way.

 

She picked up the painting of Diana stepping from the pool. There would be a cathartic release in this one being the first to be destroyed.

 

No!  You can’t! I won’t let you!”

 

Diana stepped from the darkness, and for a moment Emma thought her unbalanced state of mind was making her see things. But the slim hands that wrested Azrael’s painting from her nerveless fingers were real enough.

 

You!” Emma snarled, as she sprang to her feet. “You have no rights here. You do not belong!”

 

“Where is Azrael?” Diana stood back from the blazing hatred in the other woman’s eyes, the painting held between them like a shield.

 

“Gone!” Emma spat, eyeing her with contempt. “Gone to fulfil his promise. To avenge his father! You’re too late, and I’m glad of that!”

 

“I don’t believe you.” Diana lowered the painting to the floor and closed her hand on the butt of her gun.

 

“I don’t care what you believe!” Emma watched her closely. “My son is no longer any concern of yours. He has gone to his destiny. A glorious destiny that does not include you. You will find there is nothing for you here.”

 

“You’re lying.” Diana scanned the shadows beyond the firelight. “Your son is old enough to make his own decisions. I didn’t choose to come here the first time. He brought me here against my will.”

 

“No, but you chose to come back,” Emma guessed shrewdly.” But how you found your way back here is a mystery. A mystery we have all the time in the world to solve. And we will solve it…in time…”

 

In one swift movement, Emma was on her feet and throwing a handful of fine dust from the tunnel floor up into Diana’s startled face. Convulsively, her hand tightened on the butt of her gun, and more from instinct, than conscious thought, Diana drew and fired in one fluid movement.

 

The report, in the echoing vastness of the place, repeated itself endlessly, but the sounds of a fading scream and then a falling body were unmistakable. Her eyes streaming at the irritation of the dust, Diana put her back to the tunnel wall behind her, but turned quickly towards the sound of stealthy footsteps coming towards her.

 

“Don’t shoot Mouse!” came a frightened voice from somewhere to her left.

 

“Stand still!” Diana commanded, as she tracked the sounds of movement with her gun, clearing her vision with her free hand.

 

“Mouse is standing still.” Swiftly came the words of reassurance, as Diana could finally see her previous quarry lurking furtively across the small fire.

 

You!” Diana’s gun hand tightened instinctively, causing Mouse to dance out of the way hurriedly.

 

“Mouse doesn’t like being shot!” the boy assured her breathlessly. “Hurts too much. Not good for Mouse.”

 

“I know what’s good for Mouse,” Diana replied hardly, as she herded him against the wall. “Where did the woman go?”

 

“Over the edge.” Mouse’s hand described an arc, as he pointed into the blackness of the echoing depths behind them. There was nothing to hear but the tormented sigh of the winds that blew up from the impossible depths below.

 

“Goes all way down.” Mouse leaned forward to peer over the side. “Bottomless, maybe, maybe not. But never come back up again.”

 

“Foolish old woman.” Diana shivered suddenly, more from reaction than fear.

 

Emma and her festering hatred were gone, but the questions that hung over her wasted life still remained. A more violent shiver took her, as she saw the painting she had snatched from the other woman’s hands. It was a painting of her, long-limbed and naked, stepping from the waters of the sulphur pools. Painted with a loving care for detail that was unmatched in any of Azrael’s other works. It made her heart contract painfully to see him standing alone, in the painted background, hands outstretched in supplication.

 

“That’s you.” Mouse craned his head over her arm to stare open-mouthed at the painting. “Nice work.” His wide eyes darted back to hers. “Good use of colour. Great balance. Skilled artist.”

 

“Thanks.” Diana felt a flush rising in her cheeks. “Since when did you become an art critic?”

 

“Mouse knows, seen stuff. What you gonna do now?” Mouse edged away. “Can’t stay here.”

 

“Come back here, you.” She seized one of Mouse’s arms and pushed him into line before her. “We’ve got some searching to do, and just remember that I have the gun and my patience has been worn incredibly thin by your antics. Believe me when I say I would enjoy making you suffer.”

 

“Okay, good, okay, fine. You’re not a nice lady.”

 

To Mouse, with one eye on the way ahead and the other trying to look over his shoulder, the barrel of Diana’s gun looked enormous in the light of the small lantern she carried in her free hand. The skin between his shoulder blades contracted in sympathy, as Diana prodded him into motion.

 

No, Mouse was not enjoying himself at all.

 

 


Vincent

 

   

Oh, the stars got in my eyes long time ago

And I’ve lived my life like a lovesick clown

In a bittersweet cartoon

Just a dreamy eyed kid slow dancing with the moon

Somehow my heart never grew up, no one ever burst my balloon

So here I am swirling in star dust, slow dancing with the moon

Still believe someday my wildest dreams will come true

But, until then, I’m slow dancing with the moon…

 

Dolly Parton

 

 

“I still cannot believe that you managed to get through to him,” Catherine said with wonder, as she nestled into the curve of her husband’s powerful body.

 

“You got through to me once.” Vincent stroked the soft bangs from her eyes. “He only needed someone to understand his pain. Azrael has a lot to offer those who are willing to listen. His isolation was his prison he knew no other way than to hate what he did not understand. John Pater taught him too well.”

 

“But he was ready to kill you.” Catherine shivered at the memory. “How could you reason with a man like that?”

“You reasoned by reaching out to him, Catherine. He had no defense against your kindness. He knew, then, that we meant him no harm. That he had been lied to all these years.”

 

Catherine shook her head slowly, delighting in the feel of Vincent’s naked skin against her cheek. But her sigh was heartfelt. “And now…what?” she questioned helplessly. “He cannot possibly go back to his life of solitude. He cannot allow his father’s corrosive influence to finally destroy him. He is a decent man and a very sad man.”

 

“He wishes to find his mother.” Vincent pressed a kiss into her hair. “We cannot deny him our help now. Tomorrow, Cullen and I will try to find Mouse, and we will go with Azrael. If we can do no more for him, them we must do that. After that, the path is his to choose.”

 

Catherine caught his hand, carrying it to her lips to press a kiss to his palm. “He looked so sad, so alone. I wish…”

 

“Yes, I know.” Vincent smiled down at her. “You wish to mother the whole world, my sweet heart’s desire. But I am afraid that is just not possible. Not in this lifetime.”

 

“Then I will simply have to work on those closest to me.” Catherine’s answering smile glimmered mischievously. “Starting with those most near and dear to my heart.”

 

Vincent could not quarrel with that, as Catherine rose over him to play her lips across his mouth, drawing a soft growl from the very depths of his being. And, in the aftermath of their loving, he had no strength to raise even the mildest of protests about anything…

 

   

“Will you come and live with me…Above?” Elliot sat with his back against the rock seat of the waterfall, Shannon nestled comfortably against his chest, safe once again in his arms.

 

The question rose, unbidden, surprising them both with its boldness and simplicity. This half-life they were leading of stolen moments and unsatisfactory meetings could not go on forever. And Elliot loved her too much to contemplate a life without her.

 

“I want you there with me in the morning. I want your face to be the first thing I see when I open my eyes each new day. Is that too selfish a wish to have?”

If he could only get her to understand how much he needed her with him, to care for him and make his world bearable.

 

“I…don’t know if I can.” Shannon faltered into speech after a long moment of fraught silence. “To be together, we first needed to…be apart. I wish I had all the answers, but I don’t.”

 

“Can we at least try?” Elliot’s tone was softly entreating. “I realise your roots are here, beneath the city that I love so well. But if I had to choose, then there would be no question of my returning Above without you.”

 

“But then, here with me, you would be truly miserable for the rest of your life.” Shannon reached to cup the bearded texture of his cheek. “And that would make us both deeply unhappy. I could not allow our love for each other to force us into making the wrong choices. Like Vincent and Catherine, where we are together, is where we are most happy.”

 

“Is that an answer?” Elliot frowned in puzzlement, his heartbeat picking up.

 

“I don’t know,” Shannon admitted honestly. “But all I do know is that without you, there is truly nothing for me, nothing at all. I am truly miserable. Once I thought I could no longer function in the harsh light Above, but with your love and trust to guide me…and protect me…”

 

“Ah, Shannon…” Elliot adopted a beguiling Irish accent that stole her heart all over again. “If you be acomin’ with me, I’ll be protecting thee with the last breath of my body…forever…”

 

His last words were sealed against Shannon’s lips as he leaned down to kiss her with tender passion. With his hands cupping her face, he looked down into the emerald depths of her eyes with awe for her having the courage to believe in their love. “There can be no more than that, lass.” He smiled at the shining trust he saw in her gaze and he felt as if he owned the world. “For that is all there is in this life, for us now.”

 

 

The stone rooms that had once contained Azrael and his mother were deserted, dark and cold. Mouse found another lantern and lit it from Diana’s. Though her gun was no longer pointed at his kidneys, the boy was still intensely aware of its existence. He hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself as small as possible.

 

The hot pools steamed in limitless silence, and there was no sign of Emma’s servant. Diana longed to sink her aching body into the warmth of the black waters, but Mouse was hovering in the chamber opening, obviously wishing he were elsewhere. If she weren’t careful, he would dart away and leave her to her fate.  Resolutely, she pushed the weight of her hair from her face and turned to her reluctant companion.

 

“You still haven’t told me why you led me down here.”

 

“Looking, finding.” Mouse shrugged his shoulders as he shuffled his feet in the dust. “Wanted to know all about what’s down there. You followed. Shouldn’t have done that. This is not your place. No one’s place, it looks like. No one here, anyway.”

 

“There are several things I shouldn’t have done.” Diana’s small stock of patience had run out long ago. “Following you was not one of them. But now I’m not sure what to do.”

 

“Mouse knows. Can take you back Up Top. No problem. Take you up, everything be okay again.” Mouse fairly hopped with excitement. “No one needs to know we were here. Go now?” He began to marshal his mental arguments. Maybe Father wouldn’t yell at him after all, if he fixed everything right again. Could be okay, if—

 

“It would serve you right if I shot you where you stand.” Diana drew her gun to emphasis her point, and Mouse’s navel shrivelled accordingly. “No, I think you are going to show me where you come from. There are too many mysteries here, and I’m getting very tired of being treated like a fool.”

 

“Not allowed.” Mouse screwed up his face in honest puzzlement and waited. The gun was still trained on his midriff, and he wasn’t about to do so much as twitch in defence. “Got to be invited.”

 

“Fine, consider me invited. First, we have to go back and collect the paintings.” Diana waved Mouse forward with her gun hand. “I think you look strong enough to carry them. They should slow you down a bit, so I can keep an eye on you.”

 

Mouse strongly disagreed, but he wasn’t about to say so. He trudged glumly back up the pathway, back to the small, guttering fire at the edge of the living area. The paintings were still scattered around. At Diana’s urging, he gathered them grudgingly, stacking them into some semblance of order.

 

“Not fair.” Mouse groaned in distressed protest some time later, as he stood swamped beneath the stack of paintings wrapped in blankets taken from one of the chambers. As light as they were, they were still bulky and awkward to carry.

 

“This way I can keep an eye on you,” Diana replied.

 

The cold steel of her gun poking him in the ribs forestalled any further protest Mouse might make. Grudgingly, he set out to lead to way back Above and to a certain, warm reception from Father. He decided he would rather be shot than contemplate his welcome in Father’s chamber. His day had definitely taken a turn for the worse, and his scowl deepened as they drew ever nearer to the home tunnels.

 


Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s claws,

And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,

And burn the long-liv’d phoenix in her blood;

Make glad and sorry seasons, as thou fleets,

And do whate’er thou wilt, swifted-footed Time,

To the wide world, and all her fading sweets;

But I forbid thee one heinous crime;

O carve not thy hours my love’s fair brow,

Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;

Him in thy course untainted do allow,

For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men,

Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,

My love shall in my verse ever live young.

 

William Shakespeare

 

 

 

The Others...

 

Azrael stood with Father as Vincent and Cullen checked their equipment for the journey ahead. He felt strange and off balance, unfamiliar voices and crowded thoughts tumbled through his mind. He had been too long alone to feel comfortable in a group. He had always been an observer, until now…

 

His clothing had been returned, cleaned and mended. He kept the hood of his cloak pulled down over his eyes, against the lights he was not used to yet, and his left hand clasping Alex’s young shoulder. The boy had volunteered as Azrael’s guide while he was in the upper tunnels.

 

Azrael’s whole world had been changed forever in the matter of a day. Things had shifted and altered, things that had seemed as immutable as the stone walls and the tunnels only hours ago. The Others were not as his father had said; they were not the demons and bogeymen of his childhood dreams. But now, what else lay ahead for a blind man without a purpose in his life to carry him forward into the future.

 

“I hope you can persuade your mother to join us.” Father placed his hand on Azrael’s arm. “John Pater was wrong to keep you both imprisoned by his own fears and hatreds. He was once my very good friend I was sorry to see his son still held in his thrall so long after his death.”

 

“Thank you, Father.” Azrael turned his head. “But I am afraid my mother is not a woman to be easily persuaded,” he continued quietly, his mouth turning down at the corners. “I do not think she will agree. She loved my father without reservation. She believes in his will and commands implicitly.”

 

“Well, tell her she cannot stay down there on her own.” Mary appeared from the tunnel behind them, carrying a sack of provisions which she handed to Cullen. “The lower tunnels are no place for anyone to live.”

 

“To my mother they have become her home.” Azrael shook his head. “I can only hope she can be talked into seeing a different point of view. If not…” He shrugged eloquently.

 

“I hope so,” Mary murmured, on a troubled sigh. “She must be made to realize that there is more to life than a bitter feud that should have been dead and buried for many years now. You both deserve better than that.”

 

“Thank you, Mary.” Azrael shared her concerns, but he also knew his mother.

He could not help but wonder if she would turn against him now. He was bringing the enemy straight to her door. She would see his defection to The Others as traitorous to his father’s memory. But what choice did he have, if she refused to come back with him? He could not abandon her to a lonely death, with only a madwoman for company. His entire soul cried against the injustice of it all, but he could not leave her down there.

 

Vincent laid his hand on Azrael’s shoulder, causing him to start from his introspection. “We are ready to leave. We will follow your lead.”

 

Azrael nodded gratefully, fully aware that Vincent could read his mind and was deeply concerned over what he found there. He made no attempt to hide his dark thoughts.

 

“I wish…I wish we could have met under different circumstances,” Azrael managed with difficulty. “At least, I know that…whatever happens down there, we will part as friends.”

 

“Yes.” Vincent nodded. “We are all friends here. And you are welcome any time.”

 

“Thank you,” Azrael replied, his emotions threatening to choke him. He turned away towards the tunnel mouth before they overcame him completely.

 

“Don’t know what’s keeping Mouse,” Cullen grumbled in honest protest, as he shouldered his load. “That boy needs some discipline.”

 

“I, for one, feel a whole lot safer without him,” Elliot said, as he gathered his gear and prepared to follow Vincent’s lead. “I still don’t know why I volunteered for another of these crazy adventures.”

 

“Travel broadens the mind.” Joe grinned, as he followed Elliot down into the darkness. “I’ve always wanted to know exactly what lies beneath the city. Now I have a chance to find out.”

 

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Elliot replied caustically, as the darkness engulfed them. “You have to be at least half insane to even attempt such a journey.”

 

“The whole world is mad, except me and thee,” Joe quoted on a laugh. “And I have my doubts about thee.”

 

“Very funny.” Elliot snorted in disgust before the tunnel angled downwards and he needed all his attention just to stay on his feet. “Very funny, indeed.”


“If you’re leading us in circles…” Diana bit her lip in frustration as she surveyed her surroundings.

 

Nothing looked familiar. She decided that all rock tunnels looked the same, sounded the same, and smelt the same. Mouse, crouched under the weight of his load, peered around at her morosely.

 

“Mouse knows,” he commented plaintively. “Mouse always knows where he is. This way is the only direct way up. Can’t get lost with Mouse.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure you’d lose me if you could.” Diana surveyed the tunnel ahead by the fitful light of their last candle. She had no desire to be plunged back into darkness once the candle had finally expired, leaving her unwilling guide free to disappear on her again.

 

Resolutely, she took Mouse by the collar of his shirt and urged him onwards.“Just remember who has the gun,” she reminded him grimly, keeping hold of him. “I have no intention of being left behind again.”

 

“I don’t like you.” Mouse rolled his eyes at her before setting off once more.

He would almost welcome one of Father’s scolds, if it meant he could finally escape Diana Bennett’s determined clutches.

 

 

Vincent was the first to detect them. Diana scolding, Mouse complaining – both could clearly be heard in the narrow confines of the tunnel as they quarrelled their way to the surface. The oddity of the situation caught Vincent’s sense of humour, even as he stepped back into the shadows and retraced his steps to Elliot’s side.

 

“It seems we have found more than we bargained for,” Vincent commented, with a wry smile, as he drew the concealing hood of his cloak over his hair.

 

“It does have a certain sense of déjà vu.” Elliot shook his head in disbelief, as the quarrelling voices became louder. “Where did she find him?”

 

“Diana…” Azrael stood rooted to the spot, his head turning from side to side, unable to believe what he was hearing. 

 

Joe, shouldering his share of the load, bumped into him, and Cullen stumbled over the pack Azrael had dropped. His expression of annoyance echoed loudly, causing an abrupt silence in the tunnel ahead.

 

“If I know Diana, she will be armed.” Elliot pushed his way forward. “I think you’d better leave this to me and Joe, Vincent.”

 

But he spoke his thoughts to thin air. Vincent had simply melted into the greater darkness, as if he’d never been.

 

“I don’t understand…” Azrael whispered, advancing slowly, unwilling to believe what his senses were telling him.

Mouse came shuffling out of the darkness, shouldering his awkward load with a decided air of ill-usage. Behind him, a wary shadow studied the party grouped in the middle of the tunnel, before she advanced into the light of their torches, her gun held in both hands, ready for action.

 

“You certainly are a sight for sore eyes.” Joe grinned at the grime and dirt that marred Diana’s usually immaculate appearance. “Odd place for us to meet.”

 

Elliot, helping Mouse with his load, declined to comment, as Diana fixed each of them in turn with a withering glare. She looked deeply displeased and didn’t lower the gun very far.

 

“Tomorrow, you and Mr. Burch are going to have a great deal of explaining to do.” Diana dragged at her coat, trying to reassemble her dignity, when Azrael stepped from the shadows, his hands held out, palms uppermost, before him.

 

“Diana…?” he said again, as if unable to believe she was actually with him again.

 

“Azrael…?” Diana’s voice trembled with disbelief. “I…how did you…I mean, where did you come from. I don’t understand…”

 

“That makes two of us,” Joe commented in perplexity, as Azrael moved forward hesitantly, seemingly convinced Diana would disappear at any moment.

 

“Tell her nothing of us or our place in this world.” Vincent’s voice echoed into Azrael’s mind. “She is not ready yet to know the ultimate truth. Allow Elliot and Joe to take her Above, and we will talk again soon, you and I.”

 

“To see her again, to talk with her, is all I ask for now,” Azrael replied. “I will keep your secrets, Vincent. I owe you that and so much more, my friend. But if you will permit, I have something to show you. My father was many things, both good and bad, but he did create something unique in this dark place. Please, follow us and observe. My world can still contribute something to yours. I think Mouse will be happy…”

 

“Nothing about this whole place amazes me anymore.” Elliot folded his arms, shaking his head. “Just when you think you understand things, it goes and surprises you again. But it’s getting a bit crowded. I wonder who else we’re gonna meet down here. Maybe Elvis?”

 

“I, for one, am getting a bit tired of looking for the lost ones.” Cullen chipped in with his opinion on the matter. He glared at Mouse, who looked offended.

 

“Not lost, always knew where Mouse was.” He shuffled his feet in agitation, anxious to be gone. But he wasn’t sure Diana wouldn’t shoot him, if he tried to disappear again.

 

Next time he would go exploring on his own! 

 

He didn’t dare ask why his attacker from the junction entrance was now an accepted part of Vincent’s search party. Nothing made sense any more. He just wanted to go home!

 

“It’s okay, boys. Look, I’m putting it away.” Diana finally holstered her gun. She could see Joe and Elliot watching her warily. “I’m just glad to see you.”

 

“As I am glad, to see you again.” Azrael moved closer, until he filled her vision.

 

“I need to talk to you.” Diana drew a long, deep breath, expelling it slowly.

 

She began carefully, not trying to gloss over the facts. She told him the simple truth, that he no longer had a home down there. The unwilling part she’d played in his mother’s death and that there was no sign of Celine. A distressing truth she tried to ease with her hands clasping his so tightly, she felt she might never be able to let him go again.

 

“I am sorry for my mother. That she died in that way, full of hatred. Perhaps it is for the best.” Azrael inhaled deeply. “Can you bear to return to my home, once more, with me? I have something to show all of you.”

 

“If that is what you need from me, then of course.” Diana didn’t hesitate.

 

She looked past Azrael’s shoulder to where Mouse hovered, his expression now thunderous with displeasure at the new delay. “But I think my erstwhile guide would rather I shot him.”

   

“How do you feel now, about surprises?” Joe turned to look at Elliot. “This has to rate as the mother of them all…”

 

“This place is incredible…” Elliot turned slowly, taking in all that was spread out before him. “You could make a fortune out of bringing tours down here. I’m truly envious.”

 

He caught Cullen’s horrified expression. “Sorry, only joking, but it’s still truly amazing.”

 

“This is where I would come, to escape.” Azrael stood with Diana, his face almost entirely concealed beneath the hood of his cloak, shielding his eyes against the brightness of the variety of artificial lights that filled the enormous cavern with brightness and warmth.

 

The cavern stretched from their vantage point on a small outcropping into the distance, sheltering an enormous garden of fruit trees and plants. Gravel paths had been cut among the trees, neatly bisecting the areas into islands of green. Everywhere water flowed, adding spray and freshness to the air.

 

Diana gasped as she watched the flight of a group of bees humming quietly about their work. There was a line of old-fashioned, dome-shaped beehives lining the boundary of the garden.

 

Surely, it wasn’t…couldn’t be possible, and yet…here it was… No dream, then?

 

“It looks like an Eden.” She shook her head, looking up at Azrael. “But how did all this come to be, all the way down here?”

 

“As I said, my father was many things. One of them was a gifted engineer. Once he had the idea, he refused to allow the cavern to defeat him. It took us years to create all this. But what did we have, but time…”

 

Hey! There’s even a waterwheel down here!” Mouse’s excited voice floated up from the far depths. “This is way too cool! There’s another one up the stream! Father’s gotta see all this! I can make all this, too!”

 

He went on chattering, moving slowly along the course of the stream. It appeared he was holding a conversation with himself, as he often did. But Azrael knew the boy was not alone down there in the ocean of green foliage.

Vincent moved silently along with him, keeping to the shadows, out of the line of sight from the observers on the hill.

 

Azrael smiled at the tinker’s boundless enthusiasm. He turned to Diana. “My father diverted an underground stream to the surface, converting its waters into electricity with a series of waterwheels coupled with some wind turbines in the lower tunnels. My brother and I helped him construct all this over many months, using old timbers and electric cabling we found up in the many abandoned areas of the subway system. The soil is very rich here, from all the minerals in the rocks. It just needed the light to make everything grow.”

 

He shook his head. “My mother said she missed all the colours and beauty of the world Up There, so my father tried to make her happy, in his own way. I can see now, it was his way to control her once more. If she had all this, then she would not wish to leave. He wanted her to keep her here, exactly where he left her, whenever he chose to return to us.”

 

He exhaled sadly. “And I am the one, who is blind…”

 

“I’ll admit to wondering where all those fruits and vegetables kept coming from.” Diana took his hand. “But your eyes…how can you work down there, with all this light?”

 

“Simple, I just did this.” Azrael grinned, reaching to throw a switch on a control panel hidden among the nearby bushes.

 

Hey!” An indignant voice shouted from the distance. “Not fair! Who turned out the lights?”

 

“And then…” Azrael shrugged, restoring daylight to the garden.

 

Diana sighed. “This is truly breathtaking. But surely, you will have leave all this now. You cannot remain here, alone.”

 

“No, I cannot stay here now,” Azrael agreed. “But I think Mouse might have a few excellent ideas…”

 

Vincent, this is my gift to you, my friend. I am sure Mouse can put it all to good use. All you will need is some strong men and time to recreate it in your world. I will help where I can…

 

It is truly incredible, Vincent replied. The system you have created for making electricity is ingenious. I doubt we will see Mouse again for weeks…

 

Azrael nodded. Finally, my father can do some good for you and The Others. Thank you, Vincent. I shall never forget you…or your kindness. You have truly given me back, myself…

 

 

“What will you do now?” Vincent stood with Azrael, looking out over the waterfall. “You do have a home here with us, if you wish it so. Mouse is in raptures over the whole garden project. He would have pestered you day and night, if Father hadn’t restrained him.”

 

“So Mouse keeps telling me, every time we meet.” Azrael laughed. “He is most offended, not to be allowed to constantly pick my brain. But I must keep our association to a minimum. Diana is already too suspicious. She does not know that I still come Below to see you, to help with the garden. Or, if she suspects, she says nothing, for now. She has collected all my paintings and taken them Above.”

 

He lifted his face to the cool spray of the water. “She has plans to sell them on my behalf. I never dreamed it could be so. Diana is sure I can live in the city, with the money I make from selling my work. The idea is strange to me, but not unwelcome. Elliot has generously gifted me an apartment in one of his buildings.”

 

His shoulders shook. “He has even employed a housekeeper for me. To ensure I do not incinerate myself or his property. I have so much to be thankful for, to all of you.”

 

He turned to Vincent. “So, now I have Diana in my life. She is…all that I have searched for all my life…all that I have dreamed in my darkest hours, and yet…somehow, she is more. Does that make any sense to you, Vincent?”

 

“Perfect sense.” Vincent placed a hand companionably on the other man’s shoulder, with a warm smile of complete understanding. “Perhaps one day, you can finally bring her Below to meet us. I think she can be trusted with our secret in time. She has worked hard enough to uncover it.”

 

“She thought I would hate her for killing my mother.” Azrael adjusted the wrap-around, designer sunglasses he now wore instead of his cowl. “But I see now that my father killed my mother many years ago. They both drowned in a dark sickness that had no cure. My mother died an old woman who could not believe in the essential goodness in people. I think it is better that she is gone. I have nothing to reproach Diana for. But, I do have a lot to thank her for. I could never forget her kindness to me…or yours.”

 

You do understand…” Vincent gripped Azreal’s shoulder. “You are aware, that when your father came here attempting to claim my soul for his own dark purposes and spread his poison within our community once more, your brother was not with him. We did not see him. We did not know of his existence or yours. We had our suspicions about what John Pater knew and kept hidden from everyone, but we had no proof. Twisting the truth, lying, and falsehoods were his stock in trade, the basis of his quest for power. Sometimes I doubted if he even knew the whole truth anymore.”

 

Vincent’s grip tightened with unspoken sympathy. “We were aware your pilfering from our supplies had been going on for years, but even Mouse could not track the intruders. You did move like a ghost among us, leaving little trace. And then Cullen and I found some evidence of your world a few months ago, down below the level of the pipes. Steps and passageways leading down into the deeper places where even we dared not go without good purpose. So we knew Paracelsus had not lied when he intimated there were things and  worlds of which we knew nothing. But we have no idea of your brother’s whereabouts, his fate, or even if he still lives. You must believe me.”

 

“Yes, I know that now. There be dragons…” Azrael’s breath rushed from him in a tumultuous sigh. “What you have shown me, through the visions we have shared, the facts I did not wish to see, I understand and know to be the truth. My father’s death was not your fault. He went to it willingly, trying to create something abominable from the pyre of his own destruction. His final, sick triumph.” His gaze turned to Vincent’s, and he lifted his own hand to grip his where it rested on his shoulder. “I am truly glad he did not succeed, my friend.”

 

He looked away, his lips tightening. “But my poor, deluded brother…” His hands clenched. “Zadkiel did not survive the last of my father’s experiments on him…intact.”

 

He bent to pick up a stone, hurling it with all his repressed anger far out into the rushing water of the falls. “His brain was damaged, his intellect impaired. He became my father’s servant, his unquestioning shadow, and his loyalty was beyond reproach. My father…felt vindicated. He said he had created something special out of base clay. He revelled in Zadkiel’s blind obedience, as much as he came to despise my distressing ability to see what my father  did not wish me to see –­ the essential goodness in people, in those I had been trained to hate.”

 

“And yet you survived.” Vincent shook his head. “Paracelsus cared only for himself and his schemes. Your brother may not have been so lucky.”

 

Azrael grimaced. “It was only after my father went away that last time, in my confusion about what was the truth and what was falsehoods, I came to blame you for his death. I had no proof, only rumour and things I overheard whenever I ventured into your world. Perhaps in that blackness of despair I was subconsciously wishing for my own death. To be released from the torment of my existence. From the aloneness I could see in my future. Or what future I could see. He laughed bleakly, raising a frustrated hand to his eyes. “My mother was going slowly mad, but I could not abandon her. However, once she was gone…” His voice broke and he dropped his chin to his chest, unable to continue.

“I know the path you have travelled has been long and torturous.” Vincent tightened his grip. “I hope, from now on, it will be a journey of discovery for you, without regret. You cannot undo what has been done. But it is over now.”

 

“I hope so, Vincent.” Azrael’s mouth tightened. “I must believe, this time, it will be. But if it is not…”

 

“Then we will be here for you, my friend. All of us. We will not abandon you. You are one of us now.”

Azarel smiled. “Thank you, Vincent.”

   

“How much longer do you intend to keep us waiting, Mouse?” Father fiddled with his cane in agitation.

 

“Got to get it right.” Mouse’s head popped through the curtain that concealed the entrance to a small storage chamber. “Got to be sure.”

 

“He’s taken months over this, and he’s still not sure.” Father addressed the small crowd gathered behind him. “That boy will be the death of me yet.”

 

“Mouse has always been a model of precision.” Vincent commented mildly.

“But he has now decided he cannot possibly wait until Christmas. There is too much to be done with the waterwheels and the garden. Even Mouse can only stretch himself so far. So this project has now been rechristened as an Easter present.”

 

Catherine gripped Father’s arm in warm sympathy for his agitation. “I’m sure, whatever it is, it will be harmless,” she assured him.

 

Father shook his head. “When you have lived with Mouse as long as I, you will learn to expect anything. Anything is possible, and nothing is surely as it seems.”

 

Jacob, secure in his father’s arms, bobbed up and down with delight, intent on the current disturbance in his usual routine. Jamie slid from behind the curtain and bowed dramatically.

 

Finally!” Father cast a glance heavenwards.

 

“Patience, Jacob,” Peter Alcott murmured. “You must remember your blood pressure.”

 

“Around Mouse, my blood pressure is always elevated.” Father replied grimly, as he followed the others into the chamber.

 

“Oh, Mouse…” Catherine breathed, as she saw what the tinker had created. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

 

All around the chamber, curving in and out of the nooks and crannies was a complete model railway. Bridges and tunnels, stations and stockyards, all carefully crafted and laid out with complex precision. Everything a little boy and his playmates could ever want.

 

“Works off its own electricity supply. Mouse found, Mouse fixed up. Mouse put it all together.” The tinker grinned happily. “And Jamie helped sometimes,” he added quickly, when his friend elbowed him in the ribs.

 

“Mouse, I don’t know what to say.” Father stood looking around the room in amazement. “I believe you have finally excelled yourself.”

 

“Okay, good! Okay, fine!” Mouse bobbed his head. “Mouse is happy now.”

 

With the events of the last few days firmly in his mind, Mouse hopped from foot to foot with glee, as his friends and family explored the layout that had taken him so long to put together. Everyone in his world was happy again, therefore everything was right with his world.

 

At least, until Father found out about his next project. But if Arthur didn’t tell him, then Father wouldn’t find out until it was too late…

 

 

 

 

Once the realization is accepted that

even between the closest human beings

infinite distances continue,

a wonderful living side by side can grow,

if they succeed in loving the distance between them

which makes it possible for each to see the other

whole against the sky.

 

Rainier Maria Rilke

 

   

It was the lights that Catherine remembered so vividly, the dancing, glittering lights. They swept into her vision each time she closed her eyes against the pain. The end of her pregnancy was near, and her baby was impatient to be born now.

 

Father and Mary were consulting with Peter, in whispers at the end of the bed. Catherine could hear them, discussing the secret they had kept until now.

 

“I’m sure everyone will understand when we explain.” She turned her head to smile at Vincent, as he knelt beside her, both his hands clasped tightly around hers.

 

His wife…every day, Vincent repeated these two simple words to himself.

 

Every day he marvelled at the beauty and wonder this slender woman had brought into his life. Every day he was reminded anew of just how strong Catherine really was, as they moved through life together. This inner strength flowed through their bond now, calling upon the hidden depths of their mutual bond, sending it humming with vibrant new life.

 

“I love you.” He leaned in to kiss her forehead. “I think Father will recover in time.”

 

The intervening months, since Vincent and Catherine’s wedding at Winterfest, had flown by and the simple pleasures of it all had been beyond counting. But the fact that they were now together, after so much unhappiness and heartache brought a slow, answering smile to Vincent’s lips now, as Catherine surveyed him quizzically, her eyes lightly teasing as the pain ebbed away once more.

 

“Lena’s new baby will have another playmate, or two, soon,” she whispered, as Vincent smoothed back the fall of damp hair from her forehead.

 

“Yes.” Vincent nodded.

 

A month ago Lena and Simon had welcomed a baby boy into the tunnel world. Lena’s daughter, Catherine, had voiced her opinion that now Vincent’s new baby would have to be a girl, so Catherine’s new brother could get married one day.

 

Jacob had sat solemnly playing blocks with Elliot and wisely kept his own counsel. But his sapphire eyes had sparkled with suppressed knowledge that he, personally, had shared with his parents. He could wait for the imminent arrival of his sibling’s birth to share with the rest of the tunnel community in the great surprise that awaited them all.

 

Slowly, the pain swept upwards again, tumbling through Catherine, before reflecting into Vincent’s conscious mind, spilling over to pound along with his heartbeat. He closed his eyes and rode the wave, carrying Catherine with him through to the heights, before tumbling back again to the relative calm of the birthing chamber.

 

“Nearly there,” Father murmured encouragingly, as he and Peter went swiftly to work. “This is going to require quite a bit more effort than last time.”

 

“They say this gets easier with practice,” Catherine replied, her breath coming in short gasps. “They must have been men who said that…”

 

She relaxed her grip on Vincent’s hand and let her mind drift with the myriad sensations that coloured her connection to her husband. Memories, sweet and light, to be touched on with a gentle caress, memories so full of promise that it seemed as if all that had gone before was nothing but a dream.

 

She thought of Gabriel and the people, both good and bad, who had been hurt or destroyed in his quest for ultimate power. Paracelsus and Azrael, his blind son, both lost in their own way, never knowing the true strength unselfish love could bring.

 

Perhaps Azrael could find that path with Diana. His work was selling well, and his life was forever changed.

 

Vincent followed her thoughts, gently calling her back to the present, reminding her that they had each other now, and all that was in the past was tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that it had to have happened for their love to survive at all.

 

“So that we can truly be together,” Vincent said softly, for Catherine alone, the words filled with the wonder of their enduring relationship.

 

“Together…” Catherine acknowledged, as she drew down within herself and the pain flared again.

 

“Now, Catherine! This is it!” Father instructed in a voice cracking with emotion. “Push down now, hard!”

 

A cry of great indignation rent the air, as a tiny wrinkled body slipped into Father’s waiting hands and a laugh of pure joy escaped him. He well knew that whatever the outward appearance of this second child of the union between his son and his beloved Catherine, the child would be accepted and loved as much as any child in their underground community. If not more so, because of the uniqueness of the child’s existence.

 

This child was small, but perfect in every way…

 

But, before Father or Peter could congratulate each other, Catherine went into the throes of another contraction, and all their attention became focussed on her once more, as Mary dealt with swiftly with the newborn infant Father handed to her…

 

 

Twins!” William’s face was a picture of astonishment.

 

Father stood in the curtained doorway of the birthing chamber, sliding his surgical cap from his head with a tired smile. “Twins,” he agreed softly. “Identical twin girls. I don’t think I have seen children who looked so alike at birth.”

 

William let out a great shout of delight and slapped Pascal on the shoulder, nearly felling the smaller man. Pascal shook his head in disbelief, his dark eyes shining with joy. Absently, he tapped his communicating sticks against one palm, as if he was already tapping out the message for the wider community.

 

The crowd that had been gathering in the tunnel outside the chamber had grown sizeable in the last few minutes and there were many murmurs of wonder and astonishment. Father raised his hand for quiet and their voices slowly subsided into silence.

 

“Though this pregnancy has been amazingly easy for Catherine,” he began slowly. “The babies are a little small, but we have kept a close watch these last few weeks. She didn’t wish to worry all of you until she reached full term. I can’t tell you how glad I am that it’s all finally over.” Father laughed shakily, passing a hand over his eyes. “Besides, I’m not too good with secrets.” He grinned hugely.

 

“We do understand, Father.” Shannon moved to the front of the crowd and kissed his cheek gently. “You must be very proud.”

 

Father smiled mistily, wiping a hand across his damp cheeks. “And very tired. But I cannot think of a moment in my life when I have been any more proud…of both of them…and all of you, my friends and family.” He placed an arm around Shannon’s shoulders and hugged her with delight. “This is a truly wonderful day.”

 

 

In the chamber behind them, Catherine lay propped against a pile of pillows, a baby cradled in each arm. Mary was busily tidying the chamber, her back firmly turned towards them, to give Catherine and Vincent as much privacy as possible. But the smile on her face beamed out her joy. Outside the chamber, the babble of voices grew louder as Father imparted the great news.

 

Seated now beside the bed, Vincent’s eyes dwelled on the wonder before him. One of his new daughters yawned widely and blinked at him, waving one tiny fist in the air, while her sister slumbered. Vincent had once said that he was not one to deny that miracles did happen, but this particular miracle left him bereft of words to express his jumbled thoughts and soaring emotions.

 

“It’s all right.” Catherine smiled at the confusion that raged through their bond. Her babies were beautiful, perfect miniature editions of Jacob when he had been born, blond hair and blue eyes.

 

She knew Vincent had worried, perhaps even more than before Jacob had disproved some of the theories that Vincent had harboured about himself. Catherine had felt all the private disquiet that her husband had tried to conceal from her, the doubts had troubled his sleep some nights, more so recently, as Catherine’s time drew ever nearer.

 

“Whatever happens, whatever comes…know that I love you, always. Remember, Vincent?” Catherine voiced the words softly.

 

“I remember…” he answered slowly, reaching out one finger to slip it beneath the baby’s waving fingers. Instantly, the tiny fist closed tightly around him, and a laugh of pure contentment escaped Vincent then.

 

“They will carry your beauty and your spirit within them, always…” Catherine whispered, as her new-born daughter attempted to draw her father’s finger into her mouth.

 

Vincent looked up at Catherine. “How remarkable you are.”

 

“Nothing was ever possible without you, Vincent. You saved me that first night. You made everything possible.”

 

“You have made it possible,” Vincent avowed softly, as he raised his other hand to cradle her cheek.

 

“I’ll just go and fetch Jacob.” Mary appeared beside them, her eyes on the twins, her face bright with happiness. “He will be bursting with impatience by now.”

 

“I have a feeling that Mary and Father are still going to have arguments over our children.” Catherine smiled as Mary disappeared through the curtained doorway. “No matter how many we have…”

 

“I fear you may be right.” Vincent bent forward, until his lips were only a breath away from his wife’s tender mouth. “Even if we have a whole tribe of children, I think they would still find cause for dissention.”

 

“Is that a proposition, Mr. Wells?” Catherine breathed, her gaze captured by the dancing lights in Vincent’s eyes.

 

“So many wonders…” Vincent murmured, as he kissed her lingeringly, with infinite tenderness.

 

“And all you had to do was open your arms for them all to be yours, Vincent.”

Catherine drew back only fractionally from the sweetness of his kiss.

 

“I know that now, Catherine. Always…”

 

 

 

 

 I arise from dreams of thee in the first sweet sleep of night

When the winds are breathing low and the stars are shining bright

I arise from dreams of thee and a spirit in my feet

Has led me – who knows how? – to thy chamber window, sweet!

 

The wandering airs they faint on the dark, the silent stream,

The champak odours fall like sweet thoughts in a dream,

The nightingale’s complaint it dies upon her heart,

As I must die on thine, O beloved as thou art!

 

O, lift me from the grass, I die, I faint, I fail!

Let thy love in kisses rain on my lips and eyelids pale,

My cheek is cold and white, alas!

My heart beats loud and fast.

Oh! Press it close to thine again,

Where it will break at last!

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

 

 

 

SHE

 

She
May be the face I can't forget
A trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
She may be the song that summer sings
May be the chill that autumn brings
May be a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day...

 

She
May be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a heaven or a hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell…

 

She who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one's allowed to see them when they cry
She may be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows of the past
That I’ll remember till the day I die…

 

She
May be the reason I survive
The why and where for I'm alive
The one I'll care for through the rough and ready years
Me, I'll take her laughter and her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where she goes I’ve got to be
The meaning of my life is

She, she…

Oh, she…

 

 

 

 

 


LITERARY REFERENCES

 

Turn! Turn! Turn!   The Byrds

 

536 Ode: Intimations Of Immortality   William Wordsworth

 

She Was a Phantom of Delight   William Wordsworth

 

On My Own   Michael Crawford

 

(You Got Me Over) A Heartache Tonight      Dolly Parton / Billy Dean

 

Slow Dancing With The Moon     Dolly Parton

 

Sonnet  # 19       William Shakespeare

 

Letters to a Young Poet     Rainier Maria Rilke

 

I Arise From Dreams of Thee    Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

She     Elvis Costello  

 

 

Judith Nolan Zines Index

 

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