Classic Round Robin

~ Music of the Soul ~

Chapter 3
by Tunnel Dweller 3

 

It wasn’t the answer he expected … or needed.

How long had he known this man? Avram - a quiet soul. Composed, Vincent had always believed, more resigned than content, perhaps, but steadfast and always generous with his time, his efforts, and sometimes – no, often – taking on physical tasks below that would tax a younger, fitter man ­- working them to completion uncomplaining, even relishing the toll taken on his body. He’d equated Avram’s distance – the circle of privacy he drew around himself which no one in their community would challenge or mistrust – with Father’s own respected reserve. What was – who was – was no more. Those who’d come to ground, here, to this place of safety and healing, were changed. Changed for good, for the better – for themselves, for others.

The image of Mitch shuddered up, cold-ash and charcoal colored, in hopeless shades of gray disappointment. And an uncomfortable nudge of memory brought forth Cullen’s not-so-long-ago’s overtaking by the acid etch of loss, by envy and bitter greed.  Brought forth a silent – and blessedly short – parade of others … unmoored, drifted from these tunnels, their home. Some hurts ran too deep, some pieces so broken as to never fit together again. Beneath the scar, a vein of molten lava, swirling, seeking outlet, release, recognition.

Revenge.

Father had suffered injustice, betrayal, heartbreak, but Avram had endured inhumanity. Brutality beyond anything the Silks had once inflicted on him. Pitilessness. Relentlessness. Might he, might Avram – might anyone – once again face to face with …

Still … Vincent’s heart argued, Avram had never faltered. How many Winterfests had Avram attended, bearing hand-crafted toys for each young child, trundling a cart laden not with staples, not with potatoes or flour or sugar, but with fine extras far from the top of William’s wish list: paper-thin slices of smoked salmon and whitefish, salt brined schmaltz herring, horseradish creams so hot one’s eyes would water with only a sniff at the open jar. Sugared pecans, almonds in rosemary honey.  Every year a bottle or two of U-Bet chocolate syrup passed surreptitiously from an inside coat pocket to the eager hands of seemingly nonchalant tunnel children determined to evade Father’s eagle eye and opinions of nutrition to meet later in the larder to concoct the tunnel version of a New York egg cream. He’d stashed more than one squeeze-bottle at the small of his back in the waistband of his pants himself, more than once whispered midnight in the ears of his young friends.

And wursts, so many wursts, their flavors putting to shame his boyish affinity for vendor hot dogs purchased for him and raced with – hopefully still steaming – to the entrance where he waited. In particular, the garlicky Knoblewurst. “Not before walking-out,” Avram had advised the troop of hungry boys and girls across from him leaning their knobby elbows on the kitchen worktable. He’d cupped his hand over his mouth and huffed twice … winked. “Not before a date. Remember that.”He’d sliced the sausages in half, arranged them on thick slabs of rye bread spread thick with mustard, pushed plate after plate across the counter, stood back and watched them devour sandwiches not for the faint of heart, his hands clasped behind his back, a gentle smile on his face.

Could they give this man up? One of us. One of us.

One of us.


“How?” Vincent managed. The why he believed he understood, but no picture would come to mind. No act. No stepping across that line. He would have to be convinced. “How, Avram?”

The only sound was Father’s sharp intake of breath and the silence of its holding.

Avram shook his head and spread his hands, turning them palms up. Bloodless. The word, the truth, resounded in Vincent’s mind.

Another shake of his head … and Avram closed his eyes, his fingers curling to fists in the air, more, Vincent sensed, to trouble deaf heaven than to strike a blow. His eyes, when he opened them, were bright with unshed tears and a guilt no man should have to bear. A guilt not even the world above would demand.

“I killed him, Vincent … Father … not with these hands … but with my heart.”

***

Sleep – when it came – was troubled, fraught with a looping dream. The doorways below, all she tried, she found sealed. Her more and more frantic finger-tracings revealed no secret releases; her ear pressed to the cold, dry brick, perceived no tappings, not even the hollow promise of the tunnel beyond. Her whispered calling-outs only echoed back, but not in her own voice, not her own words. Earned, the chiding Greek chorus of her dream intoned. Knowledge, passage, fellowship … all earned. 

Catherine kicked free of her wadded covers, trudged from the bed to the french doors to the balcony, opening them to the dawn streaking a moonless night sky. There’d been no summoning midnight rap at the windowpane; no folded message had been left tucked beneath the candleholder on the patio table. Vincent hadn’t come. Her breath fogged the chilly morning air, caught on a rising sob of remorse as she turned away from the light of day.

Back inside, the balcony doors clicked admonishingly closed behind her, she shuffled to the bathroom, raked the wall for the light switch. Face the music, face the music, the Greek chorus curiously chanted. She lifted her chin to face her reflection, at least, in the mirror again. The expression she’d last night labeled as pain … and Vincent’s doing … she’d best characterize now as dismay, entirely … almost … self directed.

She’d gone to bed angry, against the best relationship advice her father had imparted years before when he thought she’d marry Stephen. Stay with it until it’s settled, he’d told her. If you can’t settle it, find that place where you can say – and mean it – I love you, I trust you, there’s nothing we can’t work through. If you can’t imagine finding that place, Cathy, don’t … Just don’t.

Vincent. She loved him. She trusted him. What they must work through, she’d brought into the fray. Oh, he’d understand without her even explaining – the fine, fine line she traveled between her professional world and their life together, the artifice she gladly practiced, the evasion. At that last, she saw her cheeks flame and she winced. No need for the overseeing chorus to explain or comment, she recognized chagrin. Double standard. A fault she’d be quick to point out in others. But she’d apologize for branding his actions as evasion, for wailing and stomping her foot – even if only figuratively – blaming him for doing something to her, for not acquiescing to her edicts. She’d apologize for assuming her world took natural precedence, his subterranean world not just beneath hers, but subordinate to it.

Hadn’t she learned anything? No wonder he held himself just back from her, that her pitiful request – Let me live in your world. Let me try! – had failed to convince him of her commitment. A woman of two worlds. She didn’t have to give up one for the other, but to deserve him, she’d need to weight them equally. And words meant nothing, little at least. Actions. Her actions only could prove …

Could prove Love.

He’d not evaded her. It wasn’t even respect for this helper somehow involved in a serious situation that quieted him, that turned him from her toward the man. It was love. Love first.

Love was not quick-tempered.

Her world was too opposite – too quick to judge, too hurried to closure. The cliché nevertheless a custom – easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission … or trust and wait, prove trust by waiting. Her world could be too much with her if she weren’t careful. 

Love rejoiced with the truth.  Whatever that truth would be, until it was known, love believed, love hoped, even if afterward that love was required tobeardark things.

Vincent loved this man, be he witness or perpetrator – and denying her regrettable assertion of precedence, letting her hubris pass unremarked, proved his love for her. Because love was patient and kind and not rude even in the face of rudeness. He hadn’t chosen his friend or his world over her. He’d stood for them both.

Our journey is one that none have ever taken. We are just now setting out. He was better at this than she was, further along their path. She’d need to step lively to catch up.

And it wasn’t a lie she’d tell Joe. She didn’t know the identity of the man in the security video. A lead or two to follow, she’d allow. Nothing concrete; he’d be the first to know if anything solidified. She checked the small china clock on the sink-top, groaned, reached for the shower faucets, turning them to full blast. Steam clouded the mirror.

Forgive me for doubting … again. No time to go to her threshold and tap out a message. Besides, what she had to say wasn’t a communication Pascal or one of his apprentices should decipher and deliver. Once out of the office, she’d make her way below, say to him, to his face, what she should have said last night: I love you; I trust you. Whatever, whoever this is … why this is … we’ll handle together.

And what she planned to show him …

The imagined crossing of that threshold would surely remove all doubt. She stepped into the strong, warm spray, the water coursing over her, awakening her body and soul.

***

“Did you sleep, Vincent?”

Father followed the query with the quick offer of strong breakfast tea, which Vincent gratefully accepted with a sighing nod. “Not well,” he admitted. His bed had seemed cluttered with rubble, each toss and turn meeting with a new sharp edge of … concernment. Catherine’s disappointment in him part of it, indivisible from the whole but sovereign, both understood and despaired.  He’d left her too soon, shared too little, given in to doubt. If it were not too late – and one day it would be if he didn’t change his ways – he would prove to her the vow he now privately, intimately made. He met Father’s pinched gaze.  “Avram’s story …”

“Haunts us both,” Father finished. “Can Catherine protect him? He’s determined to take responsibility for this … this ending. It’s classic survivor’s guilt, really, but …”

“But we cannot diminish Avram’s …” He sought a word he couldn’t find. “We cannot diminish Avram,” he rephrased. It seemed … right. He relished the first hot, milky sip, took another before settling his teacup to the saucer. He gave the cup a quarter turn, clockwise then counter then clockwise again. “In all my years, thinking back … I never saw Avram at a recital. There were times we needed a violinist, as a teacher, as a member of the chamber ensemble, for weddings or Winterfests, but he never let on he could …”

Father sighed. “Music is so healing – or it can be, should be – for both the musician and the listener. He denied himself … chose such a terrible silence.”

“The joy of it … tainted.”

“Twisted, rung from him, by more than this one man.” Father steepled his fingers, pressed them to his lips. “I’m so worried, Vincent,” he whispered behind them.

“As am I.”

And he was. Worried about Avram. If justice prevailed, he’d be exonerated, of course, but the circumstantial evidence might becloud that outcome. Circumstances and Avram’s absolute belief he’d brought about his tormentor’s end – finally, after unnumbered black nights, after dark decades of swearing, If ever, if ever, if ever I should find you …

Worried, too, about who had been actually responsible for the theft of supplies that prompted the installation of a camera in the subway’s maintenance room. Avram had no need to steal industrial bolts or rebar or the heavy gauge wire and cable sure to be spooled there; his use of that particular secret entrance was entirely coincidental to its being pilfered from, Vincent was sure. But someone’s need – someone’s all too familiar need – had manifested there.

And worried for Cullen’s team’s findings. Avram’s arrival had been captured on film, but not his departure. Had the police already solved that mystery of exit, spotted a clue? A scrape in the dust on the floor, a gateway-concealing box not quite moved back into place. Avram’s guilt would multiply if the safety of their world below were compromised. But, indeed, the entry was far from the community’s center, the tunnels maze-like and multi-leveled there, opportunities around every corner for deadfalls and false walls. The construction of confounding obstacles was everyday’s business below. Cullen and his crew knew to be quiet, quick, thorough. Things, he reasoned, should be … fine.

Curious, though. In an effort of protection, Avram had told them he’d entered the tunnel world far from their most populated sectors, yet his own home was even farther away.  Why was he there in the first place? Over a second cup of tea, while Father studied the passageway maps of the vulnerable area, Vincent envisioned the streets above, the storefronts and apartment buildings. Between the alley where … where it happened … and the subway station through which Avram accessed the tunnels …the requisite grocery store, a pharmacy, a shoe repair shop … a music store, musical instruments not records – Schindler’s. Meaningless, perhaps, as Avram hadn’t mentioned those details, though certainly Catherine would quiz him.

At the thought of her, the tension of their connection quavered, but before he could delve deep into the sensing, Cullen burst into the chamber, his eyes wide.

***

Coffee in one hand, her briefcase in the other, her purse strap still on her shoulder, Catherine tried to shrug out of her coat on her way to her desk, but she never made it that far. Joe waved her in from his open doorway, the telephone clamped to his ear, the coils of its cord stretched straight, the base teetering, she saw as she wedged past him into the room, on the edge of his desk.

“You’re kiddin’ me,” Joe was saying. “You gotta be kiddin’ me … Yeah, yeah … this changes everything, all right.” He seated the receiver and turned to her, shoving both hands in his pockets. “That was Greg. They found the murder weapon … finally.”

Blunt force trauma, the ME had proclaimed. A baseball bat, she expected. A tire iron, a plumber’s wrench … Fingerprints. Blood evidence.

“And that’s not all. That photo of the victim we ran in the newspaper, or the forensic artist’s rendition of him, I mean? We were hoping for more information about him, other witnesses to the crime maybe? Well, the conference room’s gettin’ crowded.”

“You’re kidding me!”

Joe cast his gaze about the room, checked over his shoulder. “Is there an echo in here?”

 Did she really want to know? She took a breath. “Tell me!”

“First off, it’s gonna be ruled an accident. The weapon … is a chunk off the roof, a big hunk of masonry that cleaved off the derelict building on the north side. The alley was thick with scree, Greg called it. They had to turn over every stone … literally. And the one they found with evidence on it – an absolute match – was way too big for anybody to pick up and wield. Certainly not either of our known witnesses or the old guy in the security video.”

Without even knowing the Helper’s story of involvement, she was relieved beyond measure, but she raised her brows to disguise any less-than-professional expression. “Talk about bad timing.”

“That’s maybe debatable.”

“What do you mean?”

“Might be, you know, karma.”

Karma? That wasn’t a word Joe employed often.

“Karma coming around to bite you in the– Ummm, on the … uhhh …
 
“I get it, Joe. No, wait. I don’t get it.” She circled an impatient hand in the air. Out with it!

“Okay, an act of God then. Payback. Reap what you sow. Look, I think you better just come with me,” Joe said, already hustling out into the hallway.

She left her coffee behind on the end table, her briefcase on Joe’s office couch. At the conference room door, Joe reached past her to turn the knob. The chairs around the long, scarred table were almost all filled with the elderly, men and women both, some frail, but every one with fire in their cheeks, sorrow in their eyes. Not all of them were strangers. Amos Beiber and Ezra Goldhirsch she recognized – both musicians in the symphony orchestra she regularly supported, soloists, in fact – Amos a flautist, Ezra a cellist. Aaron Lehrer at the head of the table, second violinist in the Julliard String Quartet.

And some of them were friends.

“Sophie?” Catherine whispered. “Mischa?”

“We all wanted it,” Mischa said. The forensic drawing torn from the newspaper was pinned to the table by Sophie’s clenched but trembling fist. “All these years. And now, now that it has come to pass …”

 

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