Protectors

A Tapestry of Twenty-five Winter Moments from 1987

First Sojourn: Unhanded

by Zara Wilder

I

20 January 1987
Tuesday Morning

The crime scene photos I grip in my hands promise a very difficult week ahead of me. Two boys, lying dead on the floor of a subway train coach. They are teenagers, dressed to look tough, but the gaping wounds revealing their tumbled guts and slashed arteries have deprived them of any street-kid-style menace. This is the third such slaughter since New Year's Day. Or, at least, it is the third killing of this kind to take place in the subways.

My gorge rises as I take in one image after another. The pictures blur in in my mind until I am seeing a different crime scene, one I witnessed in living color on the fifth of this month: the brownstone where Carol Stabler was murdered—and where her killers attempted to murder me too. They failed. I was saved.

I hear unearthly roaring in my ears, and the crash of masonry, and then a heavy basement door shatters at the arrival of my savior. He is a God of Death ascending from his underworld realm in wrath. He reduces my four assailants to meaty ribbons. It takes him all of twenty-five seconds. The screams, the blood, the animal cries of desperate rage—

The dead boys have died the same way. Their killer even shredded them to defend a woman the boys were mugging at the time. Part of me insists that my secret friend would not have done this. He would not go looking for trouble on subway trains. He cannot be the man the newspapers have dubbed "The Subway Slasher." But, God, these photos! The modus operandi!

I turn to the next image, and a new thought occurs to me. Just this past weekend, Vincent and I faced a new group of criminals together. A cruel thief and his accomplice ruled an enslaved gang of child pickpockets. I went down into Naj's rathole to save a girl I originally met in the corrupt foster home that sold her to the thieves. Naj and his man Freddie tried to stop us from leaving. Little Ellie and I dodged Naj and fled the building. No one has seen Naj or Freddie since. The police assume the two men abandoned the children to stay one step ahead of the law. But Vincent had come with me that night. He led the way to Naj's hideout. Vincent's ferocious growls had echoed behind me as I ran outside with Ellie.

What in the world did Vincent do with the bodies?

I turn to the next photo. Did he do this too? And the next. How many people has Vincent killed in this city? And the next. No, it can't be him. And the next. He came back into my life on January third, after an eight-and-a-half month absence. That was two nights after the first Slasher murder.

What do I really know about Vincent, anyway?

The oldest boy in the photos died screaming.

Joe Maxwell, the Deputy District Attorney of Manhattan, who assigns my caseload, speaks into my revolted reverie. "Hey. You look a little green. You sure you got the stomach for this?"

I look up from the photographs. "I'm sure. What do you want me to do?"

He tells me. Research. Lots and lots of research. I leave his office carrying a fourteen-inch stack of file folders. I will read through them, of course, looking for any suspicious self-defense students or jaded martial arts instructors. However, gut instinct tells me these murders are being committed by someone who lives far outside the reality-box Joe believes in. I am already deciding that I need to go talk to my own self-defense instructor. Isaac Stubbs is both streetwise and well-informed. He, if anyone, would understand what might motivate the Slasher to begin—and to continue—his killing spree.

Always assuming, please God, that the Slasher is not Vincent. For if Vincent is behind these murders, who could possibly understand the darkest motivations of a man who is something more—something Other—than human? And what action will I have to take then?

I must talk to Vincent as well. I know that. But later. Tonight, after work, and after Isaac.

I sit down at my desk. My hands open the first file folder. I feel very cold today.

II

20 January 1987
Tuesday Evening

Kipper races ahead of me, calling back over his shoulder, "Mary told Tabitha to put away the building blocks before supper. Tabitha didn't like that. She started throwing blocks at Mary. We couldn't make her stop."

We turn into the tunnel which leads to the Nursery and the Orphans Dormitory entrances, traveling at a dead run. In the passage ahead, I see Tunnel kids clustered around the Nursery entryway, the elder ones standing with their arms around their younger friends, or keeping watch at the stone opening. They are all worried and several are frightened. I hear Mary's voice speaking inside the Nursery, her tone edgy. I can sense Mary's frustration and helplessness all the way out here in the corridor. Something crashes and a child shrieks.

Kipper stops amid his friends and tells me, "Then Tabitha started throwing chairs. Mary sent everyone out."

"Thank you, Kipper," I reply. "Children, stay here." I duck my head to enter the children's chamber. Just as I step across the threshold, my ears register a message for me clanging along the pipes: CEN PK W – VCT – MEET CTRN. URGENT.

Pascal has relayed word from Catherine. She wants me to go to her now, to meet her beneath her Central Park West apartment building. I pause for the briefest moment, turning my thoughts upward, confirming her location. Catherine is indeed in her subbasement, waiting, and anxious. Her fear has weighed heavily upon me all day, oppressive as a midnight sky blacked out by thunderheads. She is fearful, and strangely guilt-ridden, but she's not in danger. In my mind, I set Catherine aside for later. Mary and Tabitha need me more.

The Nursery is the children's homeland Below. It serves as classroom, playroom, community theatre, and our young readers' personal library. On any other day, this chamber is their safest place, located near the heart of our world among the tangle of central Tunnels we call the Hub. The children preside with pride and diligence over their domain. Mary and Ezra are the two adults who most often offer their practical help and supervision here, but the children tend to keep their chamber in good order of their own accord. Books have homes on shelves and tables. Communally shared toys occupy baskets and bins. The thick curtain dividing the Nursery from the inner entrance to the Dormitory is always kept closed, out of respect for any young people who wish to rest in the Dormitory at any hour of the day or night. It is a comfortable sanctuary. Yet, as I enter what should be a haven of Tunnels childhood, I find a ransacked disaster area instead.

Furniture overturned. Objects tumbled from shelves. Drawing paper strewn across the floor. At the center of the storm, a little girl stands screaming. For one horrible instant I think she has set herself ablaze. My eyes actually see the flames flickering across her rosy skin. Then reality snaps back into place and I realize Tabitha's emotions have sent me this nightmare vision of her immolation. She radiates rage and terror. It is all she feels, all she knows, and she is trapped inside the inferno of her fear.

Mary sees me first, from the corner of her eye. "Vincent!" She rushes toward me, hands outstretched. Relief suspends her motherly fright. Mary is such a mild, fragile person. Her eyes shine with unshed tears.

There is no time to comfort Mary, though. Tabitha sees me too. The girl springs forward, uttering an inarticulate screech. She throws her arms around my legs, imprisoning me where I stand.

"I don't understand it," Mary tells me. "She was fine. Everything was...peaceful. I don't understand." She takes a step toward us.

Tabitha sees her coming and shrieks again. Mary stops moving. She is hurt, confused, unnerved. The child's touch intensifies my sense of Tabitha. We could both be on fire now. Disquiet and curiosity seep into the chamber from the crowd of children in the corridor. And in the midst of this emotional quagmire, I abruptly receive a bolt of annoyed impatience from Above. Catherine, still waiting. She has summoned me. I have not replied. I have not come to her. Suspicion. Fear. Something inexplicably similar to resentment. Then anger at herself, and the embryonic hostility withdraws.

"Go away! Go away!" Tabitha cries. She snatches a fallen rag doll from the floor and lobs it at Mary. She feels she is fending off a loathsome villain.

I inhale slowly. As I release the air from my lungs, I also release my emotional attachment to everyone but Tabitha. I must resist all other claims upon my attention until I have helped Tabitha extinguish the fiery demons that are consuming her.

"Tabitha," I say to her. I bend and place my hands on her shoulders, dislodging her hold just enough so that I can crouch down to the child's eye-level. I meet her wide blue gaze. "Tabitha. It's all right. Mary won't hurt you."

Shaking her head vehemently, the girl flings her hot arms around my neck. "She will! She will!" Tabitha wails. She buries her face in the quilted fabric of my vest and begins to sob.

I hold her. "Shh. Shh," I say. Her long blonde hair flows like new-spun silk beneath my hand. She is weary and scared beyond reason. I am her haven, her safe place in a senseless world. She honors me with her trust, but I had hoped that she would have invested more trust in other friends Below by now. Not Mary, necessarily. I know she is not comfortable with Mary. Tabitha is uneasy with women who are older than, say, Jamie. This little one has spoken in fitful fragments over the past months of a mother who vanished from her life the day after Tabitha's fourth birthday, and a grandmother who "got buried in a big coffin" not long after Tabitha's father sent her to live with the old woman, and then an Auntie, perhaps a great-aunt or family friend of her grandmother's generation, who was not kind to her. She never saw her father again.

One of our Helpers, Damian, found the six-year-old waif picking scraps of food out of a garbage can behind his apartment building this past summer. Tabitha told him, "Auntie got sick and tired of doing all that cooking for me." The girl weighed about twenty pounds. She had been scavenging on the streets for at least a week. Damian praised Allah for the fact that no greater harm had come to her during this time. He brought her Down to us. The other children immediately claimed her as one of their own. She has cried bitterly out of great need and pain prior to this evening, but she has never exhibited anything like this outburst before. I hold her, and listen to her unhappy heart.

"Tabitha, what is it?" Mary asks. "If you'll only tell us what's wrong—"

Tabitha does not look up at her. "She's not fair!" she sobs. Her arms tighten their hold on my neck. "Make her go 'way!"

"Not fair?" Mary turns to me for help. Tabitha has completely shut her out. Mary is nearly crying too. She fumbles a handkerchief out of an apron pocket.

"Mary is a friend," I murmur. "I won't make her leave. Just as you are my friend. I won't make you go anywhere you don't want to go either. You're safe, Tabitha. Your friends are here with you."

Tabitha shakes her head. "She told everyone else to leave. They can eat dinner. Not me."

"What?" Mary blanches. "But I never—Vincent, you know I would never—"

"I know," I tell her. Mary still does not understand. But I believe I do. I arrange collected facts in my mind. Mary tried to direct Tabitha to do her share of the eventide work, to clear away toys. But Tabitha heard a conditional order: Put the blocks away or go hungry tonight. Then the absence of the other children, and her instant sense of isolation, would only prove her worst fears had come true. The perceived threat of starvation unlocked old nightmares. I begin to sense the gnawing emptiness in her body. Did Tabitha not enjoy tea time with the others this afternoon?

"Kipper?" I call.

The boy appears in the entryway.

"Will you go to the Dining Hall and bring back a little food for Tabitha. I think she's very hungry." I look down at the child in my arms. "Would you like some bread and jam, Tabitha?"

For a moment she does not reply. Her breath hitches and her narrow shoulders shake. Then she turns her flushed and tear-stained face upward.

"William made fresh bread this morning," I tell her. "Do you want Kipper to bring you a slice of it?"

She blinks, moaning now instead of sobbing. She peers over her shoulder at the older boy. Tabitha nods her head.

"I'll be right back," Kipper says. He hurries away.

Tomorrow, when everyone is calm again, I will sit down with Mary and Tabitha and see how much of this situation they can untangle for each other. Right now, though, it is enough to offer this precious child every comfort I can, and a little later I must offer the same to Mary. She stands looking quite lost, wringing her hands. "It will be all right," I say to both of them. "Tabitha, I want to go sit in the storytime chair. Will you come with me?"

She does not respond, but neither does she resist when I pick her up and carry her to the chair. I sit and settle Tabitha on my lap. She presses her face into my vest again, crying, though with less violence now. Mary glances around the room and finds a brown crocheted shawl among the debris on the floor. She brings it to us and wraps the garment around Tabitha's shoulders. She hesitates, then strokes the back of the child's head. Tabitha does not acknowledge her.

Other young faces are looking in at us. I nod to Zach. They may enter if they wish. The children slip in quietly. Several begin tidying the chamber. A group of Tabitha's closest friends gather around the chair. "Tabitha," I tell her. "Tabitha, look."

She looks up, sees the others.

"No one left you behind, Tabitha. Your friends are here with you."

She stares at them, sniffling.

"It's okay," Lana says. "Are you mad at us?"

Tabitha shakes her head. She puts her thumb in her mouth and curls her body to nestle against me, gripping one edge of the shawl with her unoccupied hand. She's a smoldering bundle of exhausted misery. Tears continue to course down her cheeks, but she is quieting. I hold her gently.

At the back of my mind, Catherine's storm cloud pulses in a renewed rhythm, agitated, thundering past my inner defenses. I can almost hear words in the emotional deluge. Now. Now. Come to me now. Where are you? Vincent! Vincent! Come Above!

Why, I wonder? What has happened? Why does fear consume her thoughts? Not fear of any immediate threat to herself. Rather, Catherine's whirling fear—of me.

This revelation leaves me cold.

Come to me now. Now. Now.

I cannot. This ‘now’ belongs to Tabitha. My hands are full. I cannot abandon an abandoned child to her present distress. When I explain, Catherine will understand. Catherine cares deeply for children.

But her sudden fear haunts me.

III

20 & 21 January 1987
Very Late Tuesday Night & Very Early Wednesday Morning

I've never been very good at waiting. It takes effort to do so with good grace. For me the trick is to refrain from physical movement as much as possible. Don't file any fingernails, don't check the clock every two minutes, don't pace around a room. Sometimes it gets to be too much for me and I fail to abide by my own advice-to-self, which in turn makes me fretful and irritable—but I feel well-armed against impatience tonight.

I am situated in a chair at my dining table, expectantly facing the doors to my terrace, a cup of coffee on the glass tabletop before me. I hold a book Vincent has given me in my hands: William Butler Yeats, The Secret Rose. I also have a pertinent newspaper close at hand. The enormous front headline of this morning's New York Day will introduce my topic of conversation for me, or so I hope. It reads: SUBWAY SLASHER—PSYCHOPATH OR SAVIOR?

"Take a good look,"Joe told me this morning, directing me to examine those horrible photographs. "Seventeen and sixteen. They look like they tried to go a round with a tiger. Only this animal walks around on two feet, and half this city thinks he's a hero."

A hero? Who could possibly think that? Little did I know. I visited Isaac this afternoon, and he showed me another side of the issue by taking me to Jason Walker, leader of the citizen action group who has taken it upon themselves to patrol the subways and back streets of New York. The Protectors, they call themselves. It never occurred to me that Isaac might not be on what I thought was my side, the side of the law and the American judicial system. However, he professed his loyalty to a different set of standards and principles. He is not entirely in Jason Walker's camp, but he definitely considers himself a strong ally.

If Isaac Stubbs could surprise me like that, where does that leave me with Vincent and his Tunnel People, a community living further outside the common laws of society than I have ever wanted to explore? I have been doubting my special friend all day. I hate doubting him, suspecting him. I asked Isaac for advice before we parted company. If he thought—if he even suspected that this vigilante was someone he knew—a friend—what would he do?

Isaac said, "Talk to him. Ask him. Go to where the man lives, and look him dead in the eye. But first, I'd be real sure about one thing. I'd be real sure I wanted to know."

I'm not real sure. And I'm not going into the Tunnels tonight. But I have to know anyway. It's after ten o' clock. Snow is sifting down from the sky outside my terrace doors. I pounded the pipes in my basement for over half an hour when I got home tonight. No answer. Is Vincent avoiding me? If so, why?

I force myself to return to my reading. "The Wisdom of the King." A fairy story about an enchanted young monarch with hawk feathers for hair.

Among those who came to look at him and to listen to him was the daughter of a little king who lived a great way off; and when he saw her he loved, for she was beautiful, with a strange and pale beauty unlike the women of his land; but Dana, the great mother, had decreed her a heart that was but as the heart of others, and when she considered the mystery of the hawk feathers she was troubled with a great horror.

I sip coffee. Vincent's snarling form flashes through my memory. Slitted eyes intent on the kill. Long fangs glittering in subdued light. Blood dripping from his razor-sharp claws. I shake my head, thrusting the images away.

He called her to him when the assembly was over and told her of her beauty, and praised her simply and frankly as though she were a fable of the bards; and he asked her humbly to give him her love, for he was only subtle in his dreams. Overwhelmed with his greatness, she half consented, and yet half refused, for she longed to marry some warrior who could carry her over a mountain in his arms.

Now Vincent's feline face is calm, blue eyes unflinching. His peculiar mouth speaks gentle words. He offers an honest appraisal of my fears. I have touched his golden mane three times, and each time its softness startled me, its delightful warmth. I remember the solidity of his body, the security of Vincent's arms reaching to answer my grateful embraces. His clawed hands have held mine with such loving care.

I must have drifted off to sleep. My chin has come to rest upon my collarbones. Opening my eyes, I see Vincent's shadow out on the balcony. His eyes glow amber in the light from my dining room lamp. He gazes at me through the glass panes of my French doors, caught halfway through the process of climbing over the brick balustrade. I smile at him and rise, crossing to the doors and joining him on the balcony. He swings his leg over the low wall and stands before me, tall and black-mantled. There are snowflakes in his long hair.

"You came!" I say, stepping forward. I hug him. "Oh! You have no idea how much I needed to see you!"

His long arms remain at his sides. He holds himself still. He says nothing.

"Vincent?" I ask, releasing him to look up at his face. "What's wrong?"

His eyes are dark. He breathes a little too quickly. He glowers at me, inscrutable.

Then, oh, God. His lips wrinkle and shrink away from his teeth. A rattling growl begins deep in his throat. I gape at him, immobilized. The growl becomes a snarl and his strong, strong hands clutch my arms, trapping them against my body. In Vincent's eyes I see only malice and bestial hunger. He opens his mouth and roars, bringing his toothy maw down toward my neck.

I gasp, "No!" and pull back. But the predator has captured his prey. He holds me tight, so tightly it hurts. His claws pierce my dressing gown.

Now I scream, struggling, fighting—to no avail. His rank breath is hot on my skin. He crushes me against his body. He is all-powerful, muscles like steel, inescapable. I feel blood trickling down my arms. Vincent roars again, merciless and savage. His humanity is gone. I try to throw myself out of his grasp. Satin tears as I free one arm. His claws slice my skin. Stinging red lines open along my forearm from elbow to wrist.

"No!"

But he grabs my shoulder, yanking me back. He bellows in feral rage and raises his claws. My face! I know he is going to slash my face! The hunger in his eyes has descended into something worse, something jealous and hateful, something like lust. Bloodlust? Or—

His paw moves too fast for the eye to see. The upper sections of my nightclothes flutter in shreds. Scarlet blooms across the fabric tatters. The thunderclap of pain arrives a second later. Vincent leers at my exposed breast, then he roars again, deafening me. I am screaming and I cannot hear my own voice. He strikes me a second time and agony flares across my forehead and cheek. My left eye burns. What has he done to me? What will he do next? I am mangled, blinded. His claws find the inner curve of my thigh and clamp down. Then he falls upon me, ruining me, devouring me—

I wake in my chair, screaming, arms upraised against a monster who is not there. I stare wildly around my apartment. The rooms are dark, containing furniture and nothing more. The balcony is empty. The doors between that space and my dinette are shut. I am alone.

My hands shake as I cover my face, pressing the skin with frantic fingertips. I am unmarked, whole. No blood, no wounds, no torn clothes. No vicious assailant has visited me. Vincent did not come. But a terrified part of me whispers that he could have. He could have come, and he could have done what I dreamed he did. Which would be worse: to die beneath those hands, those teeth, that face? Or to know their brutal touch—and survive?

I lean forward in my chair and sob. It feels like my heart is broken, or my mind. I am sick with fear.

IV

21 January 1987
Very Early Wednesday Morning

Catherine's dreaming ends. Stumbling to my feet, I reel backward, still dizzy, and collide with the cement wall behind me. My soul bleeds, shaken to the foundations of my being, cracked. Her nightmare dropped upon me like a hurricane or an earthquake, and I fell from the ladder I was climbing on my journey up to visit her. I cannot know the exact images she saw in her dream unless she tells them to me, but I know she dreamt badly, dreamt of me, for her heart directed a barrage of horror at me from the world Above.

She dreamt I destroyed her. I, a monster-murderer-rapist-fiend, rending her flesh, betraying her love. Intense, even physical, yet inchoate, the sensations which accompanied her revulsion and horrified disbelief drowned my thoughts. This terror has built up in her all day, breaking open in her sleep and unhinging both of us.

At first I thought someone from Above must be attacking her. A late visitor, someone she believed a friend, entering her apartment and tearing her trust asunder, a terrible thief willing to violate a woman to sate his own twisted desires—willing to maim and kill her. Halfway to Catherine's building, the rhythm of her ongoing summons exploded and I raced toward her. Then Catherine's fear shifted, redirected its focus, found me. I recognized her dream-state. Come to me now! became No! Get away! And I knew that somehow I have become fodder for her nightmares.

My breath does not return to me easily. I feel tears on my face. I do not bother to wipe them away. Hunter and prey. That is how she views our relationship right now. She is awake, miserable, afraid. And I am not her protector, not even her friend. Only a devil she knows by name.

When I am sure I can stand without the aid of the wall, I kick sand over the slimy remains of my supper on the tunnel floor. I feel ill, still shaking, my body resisting shock. It would be too dangerous to go to her now. I might successfully endure the shame, I think, my own shame at arriving on her balcony reeking of vomit and dust-caked sweat, and also her shame for what she considers her own cowardice, her fear of a creature whose bare physical nature could indeed cause her pain. But I quail at the thought that she believes me capable of intentionally harming her in any way.

There are no words I can say to convince Catherine that I am no threat to her. I have nothing to offer, nothing that will help her. Catherine's doubts pulse even stronger now, battering at my mind. She doubts me, but she also doubts herself. She has emerged from her dream off-center and desperate for normality. It hurts to survey the disorienting borders of her feelings. My sense of her will only grow more intense, the nearer I come to her location. Am I strong enough to fend off the aftermath of her horror while I ascend the eighteen stories above ground to her terrace? I am not certain. Or—a better question—does Catherine want to see me anymore?

Wary, I fully open my wounded soul to hers. It is true. Her insistent summons has ended. She is turning inward, working to calm herself. She needs time to regain her equilibrium. I sigh, sorrowing. Oh, Catherine, you are no coward. You are so very brave. This is another test. For both of us. A test of our bond. A test of our trust. I trust your strength, Catherine. Please, trust yourself tonight. You must find your own way to a renewed peace of mind. As I must find mine.

I turn back, wearied and weakened. The Chamber of the Falls. I will go there. The gentle sound of the streams will steady my nerves. I can wash, and drink the pure water, and begin to feel clean again. I walk slowly. In the world Above, Catherine is crying. I am crying too.

V

21 January 1987
Wednesday Afternoon

Embarrassment can incapacitate someone as effectively as outward-focused fear. I find myself a silent passenger on this journey Below. My arms are clasped around my companion's neck, and I'm afraid to look at his face. His mane is as soft and warm as I remember. He smells good to me, all leather and candle smoke, clean wool and some earthy blend of aromatic herbs. Vincent carries me away from the disintegrating well where I nearly fell to my death a few minutes ago. He caught me in the nick of time, saved me yet again.

We pass through a simmering tangle of steam pipes, Vincent sure-footed as he steps quickly from one long iron cylinder to the next. He ducks into a brick-lined passageway and follows it into a maze of concrete corridors. Left turns, right turns, a narrow ramp sloping downward. He passes through an open gate and stops beyond the round entrance. By this time, I have stopped trembling.

"Are you all right now?" he asks me softly.

I nod and whisper, "Yes. I can walk."

Vincent sets me on my feet and shuts the gate behind us. He looks at me. He seems sad and tired. "You didn't tell us you were coming Below today," he says without preamble.

"Would it have done any good for me to try?" I reply. It comes out sounding sharp. We look away from each other. Adrenaline, I tell myself. Don't let the adrenaline do your thinking for you, Cath.

"You need a guide to bring you Below, Catherine. It's not safe to travel the route you took. As you discovered."

"I got lost."

"Yes." He sighs, takes a small metal rod from his pocket, and taps out a brief message on a pipe that runs along the righthand wall. He is swiftly answered by a flurry of metallic pinging. It's only noise to me. Pipecode is one of many subterranean mysteries I have yet to solve. He puts the rod back in his pocket and gestures me forward. "Our Tunnels are this way."

We walk together. The woman the Slasher saved on the subway, Mrs. Dalby, called her rescuer a terrible angel. When I spoke to her privately, she described a character who had to be Vincent. Are there any other beast-faced men who wander underground in boots, hood, and cloak? Men who don't have hands, only claws?

I imitate Vincent's blunt approach to conversation. "I'm investigating a series of murders, Vincent."

He glances at me, listening.

"Murders that are happening in the subway."

"Father has shown me the newspapers," he says. "Our people are aware of the new danger."

"The murderer uses a terrible method to commit his crimes."

"Yes, your world calls him a Slasher."

"We do, but..." I cross my arms, chilled. The underworld is cold, and I am drenched in sweat from my little mishap. "He seems to be killing people...with his hands...or with a weapon that...mimics claws..."

He continues walking. I must hurry to keep up with Vincent's long stride. "What else can you tell me?" he asks.

I tell him everything. My account of the past three weeks brings us all the way into Vincent's chamber, where a silver tea tray waits for us on his table. It is the first time I have visited his chamber since last April, when I was his guest—or patient, depending on how I want to look at it. The cavern is roughly trapezoidal, with a fan-shaped stained glass window set into a wooden insert in the wall above Vincent's bed. His furnishings are all antiques, scavenged from the city Above. It's amazing what people throw away. The atmosphere is comfortably masculine. Vincent likes model trains and miniature marble obelisks, clocks and bronze busts and graceful female figurines—or full-fledged statues, in the case of Lady Justice, who dominates the room, sword in hand, from her pedestal beside the chamber entrance. And of course, Vincent loves books. Tomes of every size and genre populate this room. He also loves colors. He has surrounded himself with hand-repaired Tiffany lampshades and Chinese lanterns, brightly glazed ceramics and glittering minerals gathered from underground sources. It's a strange collection, in a stranger environment, for the strangest occupant of all.

Vincent removes his dark patchworked mantle and drops it onto the little récamier beside his bed. I stand just inside his doorway, feeling awkward. And cold. Once I stop moving, I immediately begin to shiver. Vincent notices. Something about his face softens. There's a light in his eyes that shines for me alone. He takes a blanket from the end of his bed and unfolds it. It's a small blanket, more of a throw. Strips of knitted yarn attached to a lambskin swatch, coarsely pieced together. Vincent holds it out to me. "You're cold."

I accept his offering and wrap the blanket around my shoulders. He moves to the table, pours steaming tea into two ceramic cups. That must have been the message he sent: to arrange tea for two in his chamber.

I try to finish my explanation for my presence down here. "So Edie gave me the address where Mrs. Dalby works, and I went to talk to her during lunch hour today. And what she told me . . . ."

Vincent stands up straight, holding a teacup in his large hands. "It made you think of me?" His voice is so gentle, and so sorrowful. I cringe inwardly.

He invites me to take the teacup, but I can't. My stomach twists into knots. My heart flutters with guilt and trepidation. Vincent's hospitality is painful to me. I shake my head, refusing the tea. He returns the cup to the tray, placing it beside a plate of small blueberry muffins. This bit of domesticity feels surreal.

Vincent gives me a long look. "Please, Catherine. Come all the way inside."

I obey, crossing the floor to stand in front of the récamier. Vincent steps away from the table, leaning his shoulders against a steel column near the entrance. He rests one hand on the column's supporting pillar and the other hand upon a corner of his dark wooden sideboard. I realize Vincent has now composed himself, has effectively put his back to a wall and created as much physical distance between us as possible.

"One of our sentries saw you pass by," he says. "She watched you take your first wrong turn and sent word on the pipes. Geoffrey, one of our children, was closest to you and tried to reach you before you got too far, but he lost you in the Ironworks."

"You reached me." My voice sounds almost querulous to my own ears. I clench my fingers around the edges of the blanket.

Vincent replies, "Only just in time. It’s a good thing we found you, Catherine."

"I thought I'd remember." Now I sound defensive. I feel very much out of my depth. "I must have gotten turned around somehow. Everything seems so different, strange."

"The ways change, Catherine. For every safe road there are a hundred paths that lead only to darkness."

This is getting us nowhere. I change the topic. "I had to come. I had to see you. I was afraid."

Nodding, eyes downcast, Vincent says simply, "I know."

"You didn't come," I accuse. Okay, now it's out in the open.  "I called! I banged on the pipes! You never came!"

"I could feel your fear, Catherine." His speech is calm, his body quiet. I can't read his face. He looks me in the eye. "Even now, I frighten you," he says mildly.

This is true, but it's not important to me. It's no reason for Vincent to stay away when I need to talk to him. When I need to ask him such significant questions! I move closer to him, returning his gaze. "You taught me to face my fears always, Vincent. Tell me..." I try to think of a way to ask, but Vincent seems to know the most urgent question already.

"What should I tell you? That I am not this...shadow, this...man-monster that you hunt? Must you hear the words before you trust?"

Staring at him, needing to catch every detail of his response, I nod.

"Hear them, then." He enunciates the words clearly. "It is not me."

I should be relieved. I'm not. Would Vincent lie to me? About this? About anything? Would I be able to tell if he did? His lion-like face does not move the way a man's face should. I have trouble interpreting many of his facial expressions. His world is a foreign land, full of lethal dead ends. This underworld prince standing before me can be just as deadly, with just as little warning. Can I truly trust his word?

And suddenly he is in motion, gliding toward me with fluid, superhuman poise. I scarcely hear him say: "Catherine, I would never hurt you—" In that instant, the God of Death looms before my eyes. Man-monster! Demon! Terrible angel! Slasher! Beast! My nightmare, come to life!Alarm stabs my spine. Phantom claws rake my face. I recoil. Vincent stops moving. Stops breathing.

Silence expands between us. I feel something crumble inside him. I feel it. Vincent falls back a step, shot through the heart. Then he looks down and walks past me to his bed, head lowered, shoulders slumped.

I thought my bad dream was horrible. This is worse. I've unveiled a deeper horror, a reflexive betrayal, right here, right now, in the waking world. I spin to face him. What have I done?

"No, Vincent! No! I’m sorry! I didn't mean—"

His voice is rough. "—To pull away? I know." With a hiss through bared teeth, he raises his hand. I think he means to strike out at a glass lampshade which hangs by a chain from the high stone ceiling. The electric lamp glows directly in front of his face. I brace myself for the crash, for flying shards of glass. But Vincent exhales and lowers his hand. He turns his face away from me, lost in shadow while he regains control over whatever has broken inside him. Whatever I have broken.

Vincent strides past the lamp, halts, looks toward me again. "I know your heart, Catherine, but sometimes the words that are not spoken are the truest words of all...however much they hurt."

"What are you saying?"

He holds out his open hands. "We both know what these hands can do—have done." His hands close into gnarled fists, hiding the sharp claws from view. "Catherine, if your heart does not trust, then no words I speak could help."

I can only stand where I am, watching him. It's all true. He's given me nothing but truth during this whole conversation. I am fighting tears.

Vincent reaches down and grasps his cloak. He comes to me, stopping an arm's length away. "It's time for you to go home."

There's so much I wish I could say—and so much I have no right to say aloud—and so much more that Vincent already understands without my saying anything at all. He goes to the entrance and waits for me. I follow him. He leads me out into the corridor, shrugging into his cloak.

We walk slowly through the underworld. In the home Tunnels, where Vincent lives among his—what do I call them? neighbors? friends?—we pass Tunnel People going about their daily lives. They seem active but not busy in the way I usually experience busyness. Certainly they are not hurried. Just as we're leaving the inhabited section of his realm, two children enter our tunnel from a side passage, a boy and girl, both around nine or ten years old. "Hi, Vincent," the boy greets his friend. The kids look me over. "Oh, good. You found her."

I hold on to Vincent's blanket for dear life.

"Yes," Vincent says. "Catherine is safe."

"We'll let Geoffrey know," says the girl. She studies me curiously. "Ellie and Eric too. They were worried." Vincent nods. The two children pass us, heading for the main settlement Below.

I stare at my sneakers.

Vincent murmurs, "No one thinks badly of you, Catherine."

"No one except myself, maybe," I reply.

Carefully, Vincent brushes his fingers over the blanket where it covers my left shoulder. I barely feel the pressure of his touch. This time I do not flinch. Instead I raise my head to look at him. He holds my gaze a moment. I see no blame or anger in his eyes. Only grief. He removes his hand and we continue in silence to the basement opening beneath my apartment building.

I unwind the blanket from around my body. As I fold it into quarters, I ask, "Will you tell me something?"

Vincent looks at me, questioning. "What do you want to know?"

"I want to know what you think about the Subway Slasher."

Vincent says, "I think this is a dangerous person."

"Do you think the killings are justified?"

Vincent tips his head back a little, considering. At last he tells me, "How can I judge? This man offends your legal system, but I do not know what code he lives by."

"His actions don't 'offend' the laws of your community?" I ask, trying to understand.

"He's not part of our community," Vincent answers. "We have no connection to him, and hold no authority over him. He is a shadow from your world, a shadow who endangers our secrecy by drawing so much attention to the terrain beneath the city." He sighs. "Perhaps he has claimed territory down here, taken the train passengers under his protection. Your vigilante has saved three lives."

"And ended four other lives!" I retort.

Vincent only looks at me. He holds out his hands. "Yes. Four lives."

My eyes are drawn to the points of his claws. Two weeks ago, Vincent's hands exchanged four lives for mine. I bite my lip. Isaac. Jason Walker. The Protectors. Vincent. People who live at (or Below) street level all seem to believe the Slasher is a Savior doing a good deed for the citizens of New York. At this moment, I don't know where to draw the line between good and evil. I never knew so many shades of gray existed between right and wrong.

"Do you want to keep the blanket?" Vincent asks, breaking me out of my reverie. "It's yours, if you wish."

Oh. His hands were waiting for the blanket. "No. Thank you." I give the warm little throw back to him. Surely there's nothing more to say. I turn to go.

"Catherine?"

I stop, look back.

Vincent takes a deep breath. He says, "When you hold me accountable for crimes I did not commit, I have no recourse beyond the truth. No advocate stands between me and your judgment, unless it be your own heart." His eyes are full of compassion. "I will respect your verdict," he whispers.

Hot tears blur my vision.

Now his voice comes softly to my ears, honest and vulnerable. "I never wanted to frighten you. I could never hurt you. Know that, please, Catherine."

"And I never wanted to judge you," I tell him.

But fright and judgment have happened. And we are hurt. Vincent shuts his eyes. He grips the folded blanket in his hands and retreats into the dark. I listen to his footsteps until the sound fades away. Then I begin to climb the ladder up into my building's storage area. Alone, I cry as quietly as I can. I am so ashamed.

VI

21 January 1987
Wednesday Evening

My father kneels beside me on one of the rough wooden bridges spanning the Abyss in the Whispering Gallery. He grasps my arm with a healer's hand, offering sympathy and love. His touch comforts me a little. He has spoken truths to me about Catherine and her world, providing an admirable defense of her actions and attitudes. His advocacy was not necessary, but it is very appreciated. To hear the truth of my situation openly described, to share reality in its complicated entirety with him, is a great gift to me.

Father has also listened to my words, and I know he understands the message they communicated: For me there are no hiding places, no escape from others' constant attention, nor from their fear. It is simple. What I am arouses the human instinct for self-preservation. When I encounter people from Above, they try to deny my existence, or explain me away as something I am not, or reinterpret me into a creature that can fit into their favorite narrow view of the world. Many desire to eliminate me completely, in the hope that my death will restore their sense of security from everything unknown.

It is very hard for people to see beyond what I am (or what they assume I must be), and begin to comprehend who I am. Catherine once told me that the ignorance of others must be my greatest obstacle to living a life Above. Ignorance is part of it, especially when ignorance manifests as abject prejudice. But to truly know me, Vincent, the creature there has never been, people must first accept their worst fears about themselves. They must accept their own aloneness in the world, or they will not perceive my face as anything but a mirror to their own delusions.

Tragically, it's the people whose lives have been shattered, people who have suffered the greatest losses and hardships, who most often understand their own aloneness enough to enter into mine. Our outcast children and adults possess a natural resistance to what Father calls "society's intolerant preconceptions." The underworld we have created for each other acknowledges the Dark and the Bright within each of us. Thus, I have a place among the Tunnel folk. Their open hearts have saved space for me. I was born, and they claimed me, brought me into their home. I became myself, gentle and wrathful, calm and fierce, held in deliberate tension, seeking balance.

Time and again, my people have embraced me, and all that I am. I belong Below. Catherine belongs to the world Above, yet I believed her heart had saved space for me too. In me she has observed that which Father once called "the soul of a doctor," and she has also witnessed the warrior who defends the ones he loves. She once willingly held my blood-soaked hands. She has thanked me for healing, and she has thanked me for protection, keeping all possibilities open between us. I thought she knew me, claimed me as someone she can love without reservation.

I have assumed too much. Perhaps I have desired too much. For myself. For us.

Yet my desire emerges from the process of my heart wedding itself to Catherine's heart during our earliest days and nights together. Does not her heart also possess its share in a similar knowledge of me, whenever Catherine stops to listen? As the ancient poet tells us:

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

I tell Father, "We are creating the same journey together, finding our true forms in each other, but we are out of alignment at the moment." My words are spoken out of a long silence, but Father easily picks up the thread of our conversation.

"You and Catherine?" he asks.

"Yes."

"That's a common problem in many relationships," Father says with a little smile.

"In our case, I think the distance between our worlds has blocked us from pursuing our dream. That, in addition to rampant fear. We are victims of our own expectations. Like Mary and Tabitha. No one is at fault. But now doubt has unleashed a storm of sorrows."

Father nods. "Can you bridge the separation?" he asks. "Can you weather the storm?"

"I don't know." I turn my gaze toward the chasm beneath us. "But I must try."

Father is afraid for me. "Take great care with these risks, Vincent. Please."

I smile sadly. "I will, Father."

We listen to the echoes slipping Down to us from the city Above. There's nothing more we need to say. We both know love is always a risk worth taking.

VII

23 January 1987
Late Friday Afternoon

Yet again, I'm alone in a dim tunnel, waiting.

Jason's right-hand thug, Red, vacated the vicinity immediately after Vincent arrived, and he has not returned. Vincent took off after Jason Walker. Suki got her wind back a few minutes ago and abandoned me here without a backward glance. I've tried to find the mechanism to open Jason's secret door into the Protectors' headquarters, but they've hidden it too well. I don't want to call out for help. Who knows how many of Jason's people share his violent philosophy? And after my last disastrous visit underground, I'm not willing to wander away from the place Vincent left me. He knows where I am. He will come back for me. I have to believe that. At least for a little while longer.

I go to the spot where I knocked Suki down and retrieve my satchel. It's a familiar weight to carry and it contains some basic supplies if I need them. I sigh. I'm going to have to keep moving, in order to stay warm. The pacing will not help my wait go any faster.

Doesn't matter. I walk, feeling the strap of my satchel dig into my shoulder, listening for the sounds of anyone else moving around down here. I think of all that has happened to me during the first three and a half weeks of 1987—and all that has happened since I spoke with Vincent on my balcony before dawn this morning.

His people found the Slasher's—Jason's—private entrance into the subways. Vincent came Above to tell me the news, although he was reluctant to "condemn" the vigilante to the justice Jason must face, now that I know his identity. Vincent didn't feel he had the right to reveal the Slasher's secrets. He also worried that any ensuing police investigation might reveal the existence of Vincent and his community Below. For the first time I glimpsed the true degree of separation between my world and his. Someday, I'd be very interested to learn more about how Vincent's people govern themselves, how they settle disputes, and how they deal with city crime. And how they work together to keep their secrets.

Anyway, I convinced Vincent to reveal the location of the Slasher's egress. I've spent my day figuring out how Jason crosses from that private subway door to the safety of the Protectors' headquarters. He uses long-forgotten tunnels through the city's underground spaces, tunnels that have existed since before Jason's building first opened for business as a hotel, a century ago. It doesn't look good for Jason. He's wrapped up in his controversial organization, he's got underground access via the basement of his HQ, he's confessed to the subway murders in my presence, and now I can add kidnapping an investigating district attorney to his arrest warrant. Not to mention the fact that he's on the run from Vincent at the moment.

Vincent. When he visits my world he seems utterly frangible. This morning I heard him whisper my name from my terrace. Joy filled me. I hurried outside, half afraid I had imagined his arrival. "I thought I might never see you again," I told him.

As if in apology he replied, "You have enough fear in your world. I could never bring you more."

Oh, but he was not the one who needed to apologize! "Vincent, forgive me for doubting you!" I took hold of both his hands and pulled them to my heart. He made no resistance to my gesture.

Quiet, somber, he said, "Catherine, you were right to be afraid."

"My heart knows how gentle you are," I insisted.

"Even the gentlest man has a demon locked inside of him."

God, have I caused him to doubt himself? Were my wretched night terrors contagious? Infecting him through Wednesday's gruesome conversation in his chamber? Or—through our bond? I shook my head, trying to shake off the influence of our dire misreckoning. "Not you," I told him. "Not a demon."

He accepted my declaration, but a minute later he compared himself to the Slasher, wondering whether they were not so very different from each other, and finding unexplained points of similarity between his world and Jason's inner circle of outlaws. Once more, I'm afraid I've done more harm than good. I'm the one who drew this terrible connection between Vincent and Jason. I'm the one who saddled Vincent with my faulty conjectures. Now Vincent must battle someone he has aptly named a shadow from my world—fighting simultaneously at emotional and physical levels. I know this whole mess been a source of great sorrow to him. I believe I understand Vincent's melancholy. I have spent months surviving my own version of it, recovering from hatred's spirit-crushing cruelties. I can be his healer now, and help him repair what I have damaged. I take responsibility. Hereafter, I resolve to see my amazing friend for who he is. To trust him, as he trusts me. He is no demon, and no angel. Vincent is only himself, and I care about him.

A footfall informs me I am no longer alone. I stop pacing. Vincent leaves the shadowed tunnel and enters the Protectors' subbasement. I run to him.

"Are you all right?" he asks me.

"Yes. I'm fine. Just...stuck here. What happened? Did you catch Jason?"

"Was that his name?"

"Jason Walker. Yes." I pause. "What do you mean, 'was'?"

Vincent looks into my eyes. "He fell into the Abyss in the Whispering Gallery. I could not help him. I almost fell myself. He's dead, Catherine."

I stare at him in horror. This is not how I wanted things to end. Jason, misguided or not, had powerful talents to offer the world. I think of Isaac. He has lost a friend today—and I don't know how much I'll ever be able to tell him about Jason's disappearance. I realize that there is nothing I can safely tell to anyone in my world.

Glancing away from Vincent's face, I notice the way he's holding his left hand pressed firmly to his chest. A red blotch stains the pair of white shirts he is wearing. The blood has even seeped through his heavy cloak. Tacky liquid gleams upon the damp fabric beneath his claws.

"Oh, Vincent, did he do this to you?" I gasp.

"Yes."

I feel like the floor drops out from under me. Jason Walker, Subway Slasher. My skin remembers his terrifying steel-clawed touch along my jaw. I know all too well how much it hurts to receive deep cuts and lacerations.

"Vincent. Oh, my God. How bad is it? Let me see." I try to lift the edge of his cloak away from the wounds. Shredded fabric and Vincent's bloodied palm cover his injury. Blood soaks his clothes to the waist.

Vincent shakes his head and will not remove his hand. "I must apply steady pressure to control the bleeding. Don't worry, Catherine. I'll go to Father. He will help me."

Of course. Vincent can't seek treatment at any city hospital. And Father is the physician and surgeon Below. "Go to him now. Right now!" I order.

"Come with me part of the way," Vincent says. "I can guide you to one of our entrances where you can return to the city Above."

It's scary how much sense he can make during an emergency. I had completely forgotten that I've been trapped in a cold, dirty tunnel for over an hour. I step close beside him and duck beneath his right arm so I can support him while we travel. I think he's a little bemused as his gentle arm comes to rest around my shoulders. He looks down at me for a moment. His blue eyes are grateful, hopeful. His body transmits heat and strength.

"Lead the way," I say.

We walk into the dark together.

VIII

24 January 1987
Early Saturday Morning

We stand together on her balcony, overlooking Manhattan. Dawn gilds the sky to the east, prefacing sunrise. It is the hour when friends Above and Below are offering the Fajr prayer. I cannot stay much longer. One final moment, a blessed time of peace after the storm, then I must go.

By the morning hours
And by the night when it is stillest,
Thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee,
And verily the latter portion will be better for thee than the former,
And verily thy Lord will give unto thee so that thou wilt be content.

The night has passed in a wondrous flow of thoughts and dreams. Catherine played music for me on her stereo, a compact disc collection of nocturnes for piano. We listened first to Claudio Arrau performing Liszt's Liebesträume No. 3 in A Flat Major. The very air we breathed was beautiful. Sitting beside Catherine, I felt her soft white hands at rest upon my arm. I heard the music pour through her open terrace doors. I gave myself to the enchantment. City lights sparkled through the bare twigs of her potted trees, dormant during winter, except for a hardy little red spruce sapling, green-needled in the frost. I acquainted myself with the sights and scents in Catherine's living room—the modern art on her walls, her polished glass and chrome furnishings arranged in sensible configurations, the smell of coffee wafting from her kitchen through white louvered doors. This is where Catherine lives. She enjoys decorations that capture and transform the light. Display shelves contain glass and porcelain masterpieces from around the world. Silk flowers and live ferns brighten her home. Catherine is happy here.

She leaned against me, content in her heavy alpaca cardigan. A blanket shielded our legs from the cold. She let me hold her. "But gently!" she warned, not wanting to interfere with Father's sutures or to cause me pain.

"I heal quickly," I told her. "Don't worry."

We talked for hours, sharing memories, asking and answering many questions, pondering this new stage of our lives. I described prominent landmarks in the world Below, the vast Abyss among them. I related the circumstances surrounding Jason Walker's death. His flight, my pursuit, our very brief fight, my accident when the bridge's rotting boards gave way beneath my feet. Jason chose to spare my life then, and fell during his own attempt to escape the bridge. I could only watch as the Abyss swallowed the man whole. Catherine is calling him Jace now, and speaks regretfully of his passing. She cannot condone his actions, but she admires his courage and empathy and passion.

She tells me that if nothing else, I helped Jace regain his hold on his humanity. I know—intimately—the struggle to maintain that hold within myself. I am grateful I have survived Jason's long descent into darkness. I am grateful I could inspire a vigilante to honor life and recover his capacity for mercy. Jason Walker let me live. He died a man, and not a monster.

The clouds are gold and peach and lavender. I marvel at the colors. The park beneath us lies felted in snow. Pristine white and powder blue. The limbs of all the trees gleam silver in the pastel light. Catherine rests her head against my chest. We stand enfolded in each other's warming presence. My fingers slide over her hair, then flatten themselves across her back. She receives my touch with pleasure. All is well now. Our two hearts beat as one. She is freed from her fear, and I am free in her arms. A new day dawns.

~

 

Protectors – First Sojourn: Unhanded
Works Referenced

III

Among those who came to look at him and to listen to him...
William Butler Yeats, The Secret Rose (1897), "The Wisdom of the King"
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5795

VI

...the creature there has never been...
Ranier Maria Rilke, Possibility of Being: A Selection of Poems (1957), "This is the Creature," translated by J. B. Leishman (1936), from Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus), Part II, Sonnet IV (1923)
http://www.classicalliance.net/stacks/rilkecreature.html

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart...
Rabi'ah al-Basri (717-801 CE), "Reality"
http://allpoetry.com/poem/8540917-Reality-by-Rabia-al-Basri

VIII

By the morning hours...
The Quran, Surah Ad Dhuha 93:1-5, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall translation (The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'ân, 1930)
http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/pick/093.htm

Franz Liszt, Liebesträume No. 3 in A Flat Major (1850), performed by Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)
http://youtu.be/mVnBZTwXwwM

 

Return to the Stories and Poems Index

WFOL Logo