~ Naked Love
Rose M - Witness
wallpaper by Carole W. - click here for a larger resolution file
A Beauty and the Beast Tidbit (100 words)
by Brit Stem
When he thought of his wife, he thought of her flower garden, of the benches he made so she could sit out in her rainbow fusion of numerous flowers and he thought of the hand mirror...
His thoughts turned to Roger, too. He and Roger were a team. Roger cut glass or mirror and he, Cullen, would find the designs in the wood. He made frames for mirrors, frames for paintings, he made tables, chairs, beds, chests, carvings and anytime someone came to them with a commissioned piece, he and Rog became a team. The wood had to be right, the glass had to be right, they didn't settle for anything less than perfection.
Cullen removed the cloth wrapped item out of his trunk. He knew that that it was time to give this precious gift to someone else, to Catherine. He went in search of an oil cloth to shine the wood and restore it to life. After he finished polishing the wood, cleaning the glass surface, he would ask Mary for a fine material to wrap the hand held mirror. Cullen believed his wife would have approved of Catherine and would have agreed that she was deserving of such a fine gift.
Catherine turned from the crib and left the baby's sleeping area. She was going to pour some more tea and finish tidying her mess but she noticed a shadow near the entrance of her and Vincent's chamber.
"You're welcome to come in." Not completely sure who stood waiting, but she was sure it wasn't a child nor was it Mouse or an emergency. Catherine was surprised to see Cullen slowly enter. He smiled politely but did not say anything right away. "Vincent will be back soon if you want to wait, maybe have some tea? I can send for some food?" she waited, relaxed but becoming uneasy until he spoke.
"I'm...that is....uh." He stammered and then cleared his throat. "I brought something for you. A gift for you." He shook his head uncertainly and felt out of practice. He gave gifts before... but this was Vincent's Catherine... "I'm sorry. I should have waited for Vincent. I'll come back later."
He turned to go and his intentions were to speak with Vincent first but then Vincent was filling the entrance way and so Cullen stepped back to let Vincent enter.
"Good afternoon, Cullen." Vincent reached out his hand and placed it upon Cullen's shoulder. "You are here and you are welcome to visit. I heard your hesitation as I neared, you need not feel apprehensive to come here." Vincent tilted his head and gazed over at Catherine then back to Cullen.
He nodded at Cullen then and walked over to Catherine with arms open to greet her. He had missed her so, today. He spoke softly near her ear "I missed you and our son today." He kissed the top of her head and stepped back, encompassing Cullen back in their presence. They turned to him and waited expectantly for him to speak.
"My wife always said that a new mother deserved a gift of her own. A mother gives nine months of herself to protect a baby, labors through birth and gifts the world with a new life, gifts a man, fatherhood. She should have some pampering." He put his gift on the table and stood tall. "I couldn't agree with her more. There is a story behind that gift, but I think you should create a new one." He suddenly looked at Vincent and around the room and wondered if his decision was unwise. However, he invited her to open her package anyway.
Vincent had assessed Cullen's doubts and stepped back from Catherine as she sat to open her present. Vincent was studying the length of her hair, unbelieving how long it had grown when her gasp made Vincent lean over her shoulder. She turned the object over in her hand and he appreciated Cullen's handiwork and patience in working with wood.
"Cullen," She spoke softly, reverently in awe of the beautiful mirror in her hands. It was beautiful. Dark red wood polished to a high shine, roses carved around the back, bloomed into a life brimming with warmth, with love. She had tears in her eyes when she looked up but Cullen had left and she felt Vincent's hands upon her shoulders. "Perhaps, seeing your reception of this beautiful mirror was thanks enough."
"Oh, Vincent, a gift such as this is a thing of such beauty." She paused and skimmed her hands over the smooth front around the mirror. "A thing of love and beauty, Vincent." Her heart was full of sincere appreciation and compassion.
"Such a gift belongs to one of whom can understand that love and beauty;someone like you, Catherine, who carries that love and beauty with you always." The tears streamed down her face as she struggled to regain her composure and speak.
"This place, the people, the talent, the gifts waiting to be found and you, are all part of that love and beauty that you say I carry within me. Without all this, I may never have found that. Without your love and guidance, Vincent, without your encouragement and courage, I would not have found the love and beauty that the world has to offer."
She hugged the mirror to herself and then pulled it in front of her to see her image as she wiped the moisture from her face. Then she smiled tremulously and said, "I will cherish it always."
My dedication and heart-felt thanks go to Linn B. for allowing me to borrow her beautiful drawings. I appreciate it.
Thank you to my husband for all his help and his listening when I turn into "fan girl" mode. And maybe that's not the correct term for what we all feel for Beauty and The Beast, for Vincent and Catherine.
And thank you to all of us keeping the dream alive and allowing me to be part of love and beauty.
Vincent sat in repose as Father
contemplated his next move. Father wanted to acquit himself well in this
game rather than the route it too often had become. His hand hovered over
his knight, then withdrew. Vincent barely noticed. Father again considered
the board. Absent-mindedly, he stroked his beard as he thought.
by Cindy Rae
It had been an amazing anniversary. A rose that would never fade now hung around his neck, and a crystal that would never dim now hung around hers. Eternal gifts. Gifts that would look the same, regardless of the march of time. Gifts given in love, and enjoyed for their beauty, both in their aspect and in the sentiment with which they’d been given.
Without meaning to, they'd exchanged very different yet completely similar gifts, each having worked hard to make them just right, to bring to the other.
For Catherine, all but unused to working a needle and thread, it meant sewing him a beautiful pouch for the rose, as it hung by a sturdy leather cord, to prevent his losing it.
For Vincent, it meant making his way down to low and distant places, climbing, camping, and picking his way, carefully. He'd selected several crystals from the deep cavern and gifted some to Mouse, choosing one in particular, for Catherine.
Their anniversary night had shimmered with candlelight, and he'd been so... happy, he hadn't asked about the thing he'd meant to. He felt remiss, now, realizing that as amazing as the night had been, his... selfishness, for lack of a better word, had gotten the better of him.
Part of him had not wanted to know, he admitted to himself.
But of course, that went from "selfish" to "utterly selfish," and neither sensation sat well with him.
There was a long scar on her face. Not as deep as it once was, true, but it was a terrible souvenir of her marring, of that terrible night, just the same. And he hadn’t asked her about it. Or more specifically, he hadn’t asked her about its future.
His feet had barely begun the trek toward his home across the park, when he remembered about her appointment earlier that week. She'd gone to see Doctor Sanderle. Catherine had told Vincent that her surgeon would closely examine the results of his work, and then let her know the prognosis of her one remaining imperfection. The one scarring, rivening mark still left on her lovely face.
There was so much about that scar he'd never told her. So much about that night, the one where he'd seen her on her balcony again, that he'd never said. So much about other times, as well.
Had he ever confessed to her that there was a time when he had no idea whatsoever what she looked like without the deep marks of her assault? That, to him, she simply looked like "Catherine," scars and all? That he saw her bravery more than he saw her face? That he felt her heart, as surely as he'd felt her trembling hand, the day he’d brought her back Above?
That even with her picture in the newspaper as the world Above had searched, the grainy, black and white photograph didn't and couldn't convey all she was? That he’d barely glanced at it, before it had been discarded as so much unimportant refuse?
Had he ever told her that when he'd come to lay a book upon her balcony, (and perhaps steal the barest of glimpses of her beautiful face and form), that he'd expected to see her face looking at least somewhat the way it had when he'd left her, several months prior?
He knew he hadn't. He’d never said it, never said any of it, not in so many words.
He’d known there would be some change to her looks, of course. Known in his head (but not with his heart) that a hospital would provide her with the kind of care he and Jacob had not been able to. That time would diminish the harsh red gashes, some, and that the swelling would be down. He knew that the color of her wounds would be lighter, that the stitches would be gone, replaced by lines of scars - some thick, some thin.
He’d never told her that he remembered helping Jacob sew her face together. Never told her he'd held the deep gash near her ear in his huge hands, carefully, while Jacob had closed the wound shut. That he knew, that they both knew, he and Jacob, that the cut to her cheek was deeper and harder to close thanks to its proximity to her ear. Never told her that for all its length, it had stopped blessedly above her neck, where the wound could have gone from marring to murderous.
Never told her how he'd prayed for her recovery, both then and afterwards, when she'd returned Above.
Yet he’d never quite pictured what “recovery” meant, exactly.
Their bond had been opening and strengthening. He’d been “seeing” her with his heart for so many months that superficial things simply hadn’t entered into how he perceived her.
And then he'd seen her, that night on her balcony.
It was the first time he’d seen her since the moment she’d left his world, and "Your face..." was the first thing he'd said. Not "How are you?" or even "I love you," both of which he'd longed to say. Just the sheer surprise of seeing her healed...
"They fixed it."
They had. And inasmuch as it restored her nearly to what she'd been before the horrible attack, he was happy for her. Very happy.
For a part of him he tried not to claim, (and was loath to acknowledge), felt the fear of being ... "left behind," again.
Left behind. The way he had felt when Devin had gone to have all the adventures Vincent meant to have, but never could. Left behind when Mitch had simply not come back down, one day. Left behind when Lisa had gone, or others had. Left behind when, as a child, the other children, cooped up in the tunnels all day, would go Above to play.
They would leave him Below, leave him...where he was. There was no cruelty in their actions, no malice intended. They could go where he could not. It was as simple as that. He couldn’t hate them for their freedom. But he understood what it meant, for him.
He’d been left. Left where he had always been and where he was doomed to stay. Isolated. Alone. Below.
She was “leaving him,” in a way, as she had her face repaired. The way was both subtle and not unkind, but it was a "leaving," anyway. Taking herself back to what she was before she met him. Back to the reflection she'd cast in her looking glass the night of April 11th. He didn’t expect her to see it that way, or feel it, or even understand it in his terms. But he knew he did.
Below, the refection in the headlamp had terrified her. Both hers and his.
Now her mirror showed a different vision. She was lovely in the way the topside world valued, again.
Alice through the looking glass, and what world would she find on the other side, this time? Would there still be room for him in the picture with her?
She'd been in "her world," before April 12th of last year, and then come to know "his world," after.
Then she'd returned to Above, and begun to remake who she was. She'd existed in this way for the last year, in a kind of "transitioning place," where she'd juggled herself between the tunnels and the city, between Chandler and Coolidge and the DA's office, between the old Catherine and the new, as she continuously created the "Catherine" she was becoming.
He wondered if she knew that part of him was secretly waiting for the last of her surgeries to happen, to see what “Catherine” she would eventually become, on the other side of what had been a terrible ordeal. Would she eventually drift away from him, as the life he knew he could not compete with called her farther into it?
Would she do that and not even realize it was happening, so subtle would be her return to what she had been?
He loved her with his whole being, but this was not about that.
And he did not doubt her love for him. This was not about that, either.
The year they'd shared had astonished both of them with its demands, and with its gifts.
But even if the year had been one suffused with moments of light, moments of breath-stopping love, the thing that had brought her to him had been horrific.
And soon, that ordeal might not only be behind her, but be... Behind her. "Reset.” As if it had never happened.
Those last words nearly had the power to terrify Vincent.
So he hadn't brought up her doctor's appointment. Hadn't even thought about it, until this moment. And then he had.
Something momentous had happened for his love, and he hadn't even asked her about it.
He knew part of him, the fearful part, did not want to know. But he also knew the worthier part did, or at least should.
She was awake, still. He knew she was. She would go to sleep soon, but for now...
He turned back and covered the ground quickly, hoping to be with her again before she went to bed. He picked up the pace as he climbed, partly dreading the conversation, but knowing it must be had. This was like a bandage on a wound. Taking it off would hurt, but the faster and sooner, the better. There was no avoiding it.
Besides, this was a thing that would make her happy, and she deserved an enthusiastic audience.
Even if, deep down, it was also a frightened one.
The part of him that knew she had another life, one apart and away from him, knew a whisper of dread. He knew that her life was drawing her away from him and drawing her back to what she had once been.
He had not been able to support her through her other surgeries. That chore had fallen to her father, and her friends. He would be there to support her through this one. No matter what. She was his love, and his fears had no place in this, even if they were whispering through his veins as he dropped to the stones of her balcony. He quelled his misgivings and banished his doubts. They had no place here, no place between them.
The terrace was still bathed in the diffused light from her living room. She had not even turned down the bed yet. Through the sheer curtains, he saw her moving, putting away the candles, the glass candleholders, and the beautiful flowers.
She'd created a garden of light on the balcony. A fantasy for him, and a reminiscence of her first days Below, when only candles, lanterns, and he lit her way forward. Days when she'd had to work through her fear, with nothing but him as a gentle guide.
His hand rapped softly on the windowpane. She hurried over.
"Catherine..." he began, as she opened the door to him.
"Vincent... I didn't expect to see you so soon.” She stepped out into the night with him. “Did you forget something?"
The balcony was restored to its customary sense of order. It seemed strangely bereft, without the beauty of the softly flickering candlelight. So did he.
"No, I ... yes. Catherine, I... I forgot to ask you... how did your session with Dr. Sanderle go?"
"Dr. Sanderle?" she asked, seeming to forget, for a moment. Between Joe and Erika Salven, well. So much had happened that week. And then… their anniversary…
"Yes, did you not have your appointment?" he prompted.
"Oh! Oh, well, yes. Yes, I did."
Catherine scrambled to compose her thoughts. Had he climbed all the way back up here to ask her about her doctor’s appointment? Was he... wondering when she might be... restored?
No, that didn't quite sound right. It didn't quite sound like "Vincent." Yet here he was, asking. She tried to gauge his mood and could sense at least some of the underlying tension, within him.
Suddenly, her decision to not schedule another surgery with Dr. Sanderle felt... questionable. Had she done the right thing, no matter how “right” it had seemed at the time?
Perhaps he would like her better with no reminder of that awful night? She hadn't discussed it with him, and now wondered if she should have.
His voice remained steady, inquiring. "You said he would tell you when your next surgery would happen, Catherine," Vincent reminded her. But he couldn't quite hold her eyes as he said it, and looked off toward the silent moon for a moment. Her friends sometimes looked off to the side, too, when they asked or when she spoke about it. It was an unpleasant topic.
"I... I did see him." She hesitated, touching her fingers to her cheek, almost in reflex. "He said... he said it was very nicely healed. That ... he would schedule me for whenever I...whenever I wanted." Now it was Catherine who seemed to want to look away.
Vincent braced for a date. Did that mean a week from now? A month? Just a few days, perhaps?
She was strangely uneasy as she stepped farther out onto the balcony. He could sense it in the bond, not that he needed to. He could see it in her beautiful form. His crystal still glimmered around her neck.
Vincent watched her fold her arms across her torso, and grip her elbows in a protective gesture.
Now he did regret coming back. He'd ruined the evening by upsetting her, somehow. Had she, too, come to understand that their time together was somehow drawing to a close? That this... this "new Catherine" would somehow take herself away from him... inevitably? It was a dark realization for their anniversary. And one he was incapable of changing, one way or the other.
"Did you... did you tell Dr. Sanderle when you would like him to perform your surgery?” Vincent asked.
Catherine faltered in her reply, hating that she now felt so unsure.
Did he want her... perfect again? Unmarred? Her father did, she knew. Nancy just assumed, and Jenny... well. She had not returned Jenny Aaronson's call, but knew that when she did, they would talk about it at length.
Trying to explain her thoughts on the subject to any of them felt so strange, because to a very real degree, Vincent was so tied up in her reasoning.
Why then, was it difficult to explain it to Vincent himself?
Would he be insulted, somehow, that she'd elected to remain marked? Take it as an indication that the ugly scar made them somehow the same? That there was some awful kind of parity in it?
Catherine second-guessed herself, and what had been a joyous thing to consider before, seemed somehow cast in doubt, now. Had she been insensitive, perhaps, however unintentionally?
"I told him I wanted to keep it.” She forced calm into her voice. “That this year had been the most amazing year of my life." There. She’d said it.
She faced him squarely to deliver the news. She tried to sound brave, knowing his next words had the power to either elevate her spirit or break her heart.
"You told him..."
Nervousness made Catherine babble. "He said I could make an appointment for a few days from now, if I wanted, but I said ‘no,’ so then he mentioned next week. Next week, if I wanted, but I didn't. I told him ‘no,’ and tried to explain as much as I could.” She dropped her arms and begged him to understand with an upturned palm. “I… I don't think he understood, but he accepted. My father and everyone else will have to do the same, I suppose, I just..." But speech faltered, at the look in his beloved eyes.
Blue. But of course, they were always blue. Blue, and deep, and full of all that he was, and they were capable of expressing so much of that. Full of his wisdom, and his vulnerability. Full of his humanity, the strongest argument for the fact that he was a man. Full of every emotion he felt, always. His eyes always smiled just before his mouth did, and he was not afraid to show any emotion. Not bewilderment, nor confusion, nor joy.
He stood still a moment, with that gift of perfect stillness that only Vincent seemed to possess.
Then he all but exploded toward her, with an embrace so swift and hard, Catherine found herself actually lifted off her feet.
"Catherine, my Catherine." He nuzzled her neck and kissed her cheek. No, he kissed her scar. He held her close, and barely let her draw in air for a moment, until he realized that, in his strength, he was nearly robbing her of breath.
He set her down, but barely drew back. "You... you will keep it?" he asked, touching her soft face reverently. Clearly, he didn't mind.
"It just seemed... wrong to take it away, somehow. Like I was losing something important.” Like I was taking myself away from you, she thought, returning his embrace with full vigor, so he could feel how happy she was by his acceptance.
"My Catherine. My beautiful, beautiful Catherine," he whispered again and again, brushing his mouth against the scar in a lover's caress, though they were far from that, yet. Somehow, this meant something to him. Something deeper and more personal than it meant even to her.
I love you. Only you. And I swear to you that the scar on your face makes you the most beautiful woman on the planet. That if you were without it, I would still love you, but your face would somehow be to me so much... different. Less.
It was a dangerous word to think, but he didn't regret it, even though some part of him knew he should. He touched his mouth to the scar again and again, feeling it beneath his unique mouth, feeling the ridge of it, the comforting presence of it.
She was not drawing away from him. Not drawing herself back into her old life. Of course she wasn't. How could he have thought it?
"So beautiful," she heard him whisper. Then: "Your heart. Your courage. All of you. So beautiful, to me."
He didn't need to explain, and neither did she. As the moon set on their anniversary, he held her close, and stroked the honey-colored hair that seemed softer than any velvet. His love. His love who would stay with him.
It was a little thing, this decision to keep her scar.
And it was perhaps the most momentous decision she'd ever made.
The first night of April 12th, what had happened to her face had not been her choice.
But this night, it was.
She had taken her life back, and kept his entwined with it. He could not love her more if he tried.
He held her a long time. Longer. Knowing he needed to let her go, knowing she needed to go inside, go to bed...
But he didn't want to let her go. And she seemed more than inclined to stay where she was, her arms locked around his waist, one cheek pressed against his steady heartbeat, one still receiving gentle, brushing kisses from her love.
The kisses were intermittent, now, less often than they had first been. And every time she thought surely he was done with them, he would give her another one, delicate and full of his love for her.
She did not need the words, not now. She had his huge form, enveloping her, while he kept the April chill from her skin. He loved her. It was all she knew. It was all she needed to know. That, and that the decision to keep the scar had been the right one.
"I should let you go," he said, knowing it was true, "but I don't know how."
"There are lessons I hope you never learn, then," she answered, keeping herself close.
Dr. Sanderle's voice echoed in her head, as Vincent beat inside her heart.
I'm surprised. Don't you
want to put it all behind you,
It’s been a rough year for you. Why cling to it?
Because it’s been the most wonderful year of my life.
And until other excellent years came to supplant it, it was.
No matter what you
choose to give away, and what you choose to keep, I wish you love.
by JoAnn Baca
by Judith Nolan
“I do not know
what it is about you
Thursday, April 12th was a very special night of the year. But Catherine was growing colder by the minute! A chill wind whipped her coat against her legs, making her shiver. Rubbing her gloved hands together, she silently bemoaned the fact that instead of spending the evening with Vincent celebrating their third anniversary, she was here in one of the worst areas of the city, stomping her feet to get the circulation going and looking down a dark, garbage filled alleyway, waiting for permission to proceed.
She had been only five minutes from leaving the office tonight when she received the call to identify the body of a young woman who had died from an apparent overdose. That sad fact meant Catherine’s already bad day had just gotten a whole lot worse. Thankfully Joe hadn’t yet returned to his office from the courthouse. Catherine knew he was going to be both deeply devastated at the news, and furious that their star witness was unable to testify. As a result, their already shaky case was crumbling towards non-existent. Catherine dreaded what she was going to find in the alley, a young woman’s life snuffed out, and she had been helpless to prevent it.
“D.A. Catherine Chandler, eh?” The police officer guarding the head of the alley scanned Catherine’s card closely in the beam of his flashlight. “Yeah, this looks like the same card that dead hooker had in her purse. Fat lot of good it did her in the end. I suppose you’re legit, though you sure don’t look like any D.A.”
The strong beam shone into Catherine’s eyes. She put up a hand to shield them, turning her face from the glare. “Can we get on with this, please? Where is my witness?”
“Down there.” The flashlight’s strong beam swung around to indicate a spot about halfway down the alley where a blanket covered body lay beside an overflowing dumpster. “Good luck with getting any kind of statement out of her now.” The officer chuckled at his sick joke. “Guess you got better things to do too.” The beam of light flicked over Catherine’s clothing again. “Sure would be a shame to get them pretty shoes all dirty. You could just take my word for it that it’s her. I’ve arrested her enough times to know. It would save us both a lot of paperwork.”
“Thank you, Officer…” Catherine peered at the policeman’s name tag, “…Ramos. I will be sure to report your excellent conduct to your superiors.”
“Suit yourself. I’m just a working stiff, doing my job,” the policeman remarked sourly, shrugging as he stood aside, allowing Catherine to pass. “I’d watch out for the rats, if I was you, there’s some real big ones down there. Saw something moving down by the body just a few minutes ago. Have fun in the dark.” He chuckled again before sauntering back to his position at the narrow opening to the fetid darkness, taking the welcome beam of his flashlight with him.
“Give me a break!” Left seething in the sudden gloom, Catherine fumbled in her purse for the small flashlight she carried before picking her way carefully down the alley through the scattered piles of trash. Reaching the blanketed body, she crouched down beside it, lifting the corner to peer beneath.
It was as she suspected when she received the phone call. Lying curled up facing the dumpster with a drug needle still imbedded just below the elbow of her out stretched arm, Angela Evans, Catherine’s best witness in the Cordell murder trial, looked like a lost child. Despite being a well-known heroin addict, Catherine knew her witness had been trying to stay clean. She guessed the lure of the drug had become too much when coupled with the terror of having to testify in court.
Catherine had done her best to shield the young woman from the glare of publicity and intimidation by the defence team in the trial, but she guessed the pressure had become too great. Angela had looked for a way to escape and found it.
Joe was not going to like that his most high-profile case had gone south. He was relying on this witness and what she saw that night. It had been Catherine’s job to keep the young woman safe, but she didn’t have eyes in the back of her head, and the streets were Angela’s home. She had walked out of the safe house a week ago and disappeared into the night.
“I’m so sorry.” Catherine sighed, dropping the blanket back over the young woman’s pallid face. She rose slowly to her feet, intending to return to the head of the alley and report her findings to Ramos. No doubt he would be pleased to see the back of her so he could write up his report and finish his shift before midnight.
She glanced at her wristwatch. Perhaps there was still time to get home and send a message down to Vincent. Something might yet be salvaged from this night’s sad events. She inhaled deeply, needing to feel his strong arms around her right now, holding her close, telling her it would be all right. That her world was not spinning out of control.
She could almost feel him hovering near, offering her his great strength and boundless compassion. Needing to see him right now, she glanced into the far end of the alley where nothing but sinister shadows hung. Any one of them could contain her love.
“Oh, Vincent…” She sighed wistfully. There was nothing more she could do here. If she hurried she could still make it. Catherine had barely gone two steps when someone hissed at her from across the alley. “Who’s there?” She swung her flashlight beam into the shadows.
“Hey!” There was a sudden movement, an arm flung across a face followed by a groan of complaint. “Shine that somewhere else, will ya? It’s only me.”
“Kristopher?” Catherine lowered the light as she peered deeper into the shadows. It was Kristopher Gentian all right, looking very much alive as usual, despite his outrageous claims to the contrary. She would have recognized that Mets cap and rumpled clothing anywhere. “What are you doing here?”
“I wasn’t in time to save her…” Kristopher looked beyond Catherine, his expression filled with anguish. “I should’ve been here, but I was down by the river, making sure Gerry got enough to eat. I try to look out for them all, the lost and lonely ones. Don’t want them to end up like me.” He shrugged sadly. “Can’t be in two places at once though, can’t save them all, I guess.”
“Save who?” Catherine could feel the familiar sensation of confusion setting in. It always happened whenever the artist showed up, or should that be materialized? The jury was still out on that one. She set her teeth, closed her eyes and counted to ten. It didn’t help. When she opened them again he was still there, watching her anxiously.
“You okay?” His face crinkled with concern. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” He grimaced. “Sorry, grave humour, couldn’t help it.”
“What do you know about Angela?” Stick to the facts, Chandler. That was far safer than trying to follow any insane Gentian logic. “How could you have saved her?”
“Could’ve called the cops…” Kristopher tossed a worried look up the alley towards Officer Ramos, who was talking to a young female passer-by. His sad eyes tracked back to Catherine. “Or you…maybe I should’ve called you. Would’ve been able to help, right?”
“Were you here when she overdosed?” Catherine strove to keep her tone clinical.
Kristopher’s ghost sighed impatiently. “I already told you, I was down by the river with Gerry, otherwise Angela would be safe now.”
“So you don’t know the facts about what happened here tonight?” Catherine wiped a weary hand over her eyes. The beginnings of a headache started to thump in her temples. “You have no new evidence?” She inhaled deeply. “This was just what it looks like then, another unfortunate case of heroin overdose by a desperate young woman.”
“Can’t say, but I don’t think so. I know she wouldn’t have done this to herself.” Kristopher shrugged. “Not now, not when she was trying to stay clean for Jessica. She was all that mattered, you know. I think someone did this to her, to shut her up. Maybe your murder case guy got to her. I know she was real scared of him.”
“And just who is Jessica?” Catherine sighed, clinging desperately to the facts. “Is she a potential witness too? Can you take me to see her?”
“Jessica’s her baby.” Kristopher said slowly, as if he suspected she wasn’t really listening to him. “Can’t be a witness, she’s only five weeks old. I know Angela wouldn’t do anything that might harm her. She loved that kid. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. She had a very good reason to stay clean.”
“All right, the facts.” Catherine threw up her hands in frustration. “Angela doesn’t have a baby. She would have told me.” This whole situation was getting crazier by the minute. “Just go, Kristopher, before I have to explain how you came to be down here in the first place.”
“He can’t see me if I don’t want him to.” Kristopher glanced back up the alley towards the policeman’s back view. “Angela never went anywhere without her baby. She didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want them to hurt Jessica. Something is very wrong here, Catherine. I can feel it.”
“You think there’s something wrong with this whole scenario!” she whispered furiously. “Thanks for the great observation Kristopher. Now go home! I can handle this.”
“Look, all I’m saying is Angela had Jessica with her about three hours ago. I saw them up by the park. I thought she’d be all right because she said she was heading somewhere safe and she had money to pay for a room. I thought Gerry needed me more.” Kristopher pushed back the cap on his head. “Guess I was wrong about that. Now I gotta fix it, make it right. Gotta find Jessica and take her somewhere safe, some place where they can’t hurt her.”
“Are you sure there even is a baby?” Catherine frowned. “Heaven help me, I don’t know why I’m even talking to you. According to you, you don’t exist. You’re supposed to be a ghost, remember?”
“I know there is a baby because I saw her tonight. I do have eyes, you know.” Kristopher looked beyond Catherine again towards the blanket wrapped body. “Hey! Did you see that?” He pointed urgently.
“See what?” Catherine turned, despite her better judgement to the contrary. “What is it now?”
“Look, something just moved, under the blanket. See for yourself if you don’t believe me. Go and look.”
“It was probably just a rat…” Catherine muttered as she returned to the body, looking down at the pathetic shape huddled there. She was about to tell Kristopher he was mistaken when there was a sudden movement beneath the blanket and something, or someone, cried out, in a low, pitifully small sound.
“See, told you.” Kristopher came up behind Catherine’s shoulder, pointing down at the blanket. “That’s not a rat. I know rats, and they don’t sound like a baby. Have a look and see.”
“This is madness…” Despite her reservations about what Kristopher Gentian might know about the furrier denizens of the city and their unsavoury habits, Catherine sank slowly to her knees beside the body. Lifting the blanket higher than before and leaning in to shine her flashlight into the dark space on the previously-concealed, far side of the body, she could just make out small movements under the heavy coat Angela had been wearing. Again there was a tiny mewling sound that barely carried in the cold air.
“Vincent’s here.” Kristopher said quietly, crouching down beside Catherine. “He’ll know what to do to make it right. I sent him a message asking him to come.”
“Vincent?” Catherine’s head shot up. “Are you crazy?” Jumping to her feet, her outstretched elbow passed right through Kristopher’s abdomen. Instantly Catherine’s joints went numb with cold and a tingling feeling shot up her arm, making her gasp in pain.
“Hey, watch it!” The artist jumped back. He rubbed an aggrieved hand over his midsection. “That hurts!”
“What happened just then?” Catherine frowned, rubbing her painful elbow. “What’s wrong with you?” She felt her grip on reality slipping away. There just had to be a rational explanation, but she was yet to discover it.
“You hit me,” Kristopher complained, “Not my fault. You should look where you’re going. Not fair just to go right through people like that without warning.”
“This is an insane conversation,” Catherine complained in disgust. “I can’t believe I’m having it!”
“Hey? What’s going on down there? Who you talking to?” From the head of the alley the police officer’s flashlight suddenly swept over them. “You about done, Chandler?” He advanced a couple of steps. “Coroner will be here soon to tag and bag the stiff. You better not be in the way.”
“Just give me a couple more minutes.” Catherine called back. “I’m about done.” She peered into the shadows, looking for Vincent, wondering if he was here after all. She couldn’t trust Kristopher’s word for anything.
“Suit yourself.” Officer Ramos retreated back to the lights of the sidewalk. “Don’t forget about the rats. They don’t care how expensive your shoes are.” He chuckled again.
“I’m here, Catherine.” Vincent glided silently out of the deeper shadows further down the alleyway, sinking to his haunches beside her. “Kristopher sent word you needed me.”
“Some day you must tell me just how he does that.” Catherine sighed brusquely. “But for now we need to hurry.” Reaching beneath the blanket, she unbuttoned Angela’s heavy coat and pulled it open.
Nestled against the dead woman’s shoulder a tiny white bundle moved and then became still. The mewling sound came again, shallow and thin in the chill of the night.
“It is a baby!” Catherine couldn’t believe her eyes. “But that’s impossible! Why did no one see her?”
“Told you,” Kristopher said smugly. “I knew she had to be here. Angela wouldn’t leave her behind. The guys that murdered her must have missed seeing the baby. Angela did real good hiding her like that.”
“I’m afraid your reliability is not well known,” Catherine bit back. “We’ll need to call child services to come and pick her up. It’s freezing out here.” As she spoke she gathered the tiny, pathetic bundle against her chest, trying to share some of her own body warmth with the baby.
“No way!” Kristopher’s horrified gasp of negativity was swiftly followed by Vincent’s softly spoken, “No, Catherine. I will take her to Father. There is no time to lose. It may already be too late.”
Catherine frowned as she rose to her feet. “I’ll admit Social Services is overworked, but I…”
“I’ve been in those places, where they put the lost kids no one wants,” Kristopher muttered tersely. “And look how I ended up, dead and buried with no place to call my own. I promised Angela I’d look after them. Now there’s only Jessica. I’m not going to let you put her into the system.” He balled his fists, his face losing all of its boyish charm. “I get a say here, you know. I’m almost family and she hasn’t got anyone else.”
“Give her to me, Catherine.” Vincent stretched out his hands, palms uppermost, his tone pleading for her to see they were right and that there was no time to waste on fruitless argument.
“Well, if you think we’re doing the right thing…” Undecided, Catherine looked down at the tiny baby huddled against her chest. Then something came back to her. Something Mr. Smythe, the owner of the bookshop Kristopher supposedly haunted, said to her when she’d first gone there looking for the elusive artist.
Smythe had sighed deeply and complained, “My dear young lady, you are so young and so cynical. You should not be so certain. The world devours all of our certainties and all of our beauties as well.”
“All of our beauties…” She sighed, shaking her head. She stared down at the tiny face cuddled against her shoulder. The baby heaved a shuddering sigh.
“You know the tunnels are the right place for her, Catherine,” Kristopher urged, indicating Vincent. “He knows it too. She has nowhere else to go. There she will know love. She will get to see all the beautiful things life can hold. You’ve gotta let her have a chance at a fresh start.”
For a few vital seconds Catherine was torn between her duty and what she knew to be true. “Very well.” She held out the baby towards Vincent, sliding her into his waiting hands. From the mouth of the alleyway she heard heavy boot falls as Officer Ramos came towards her, sighing impatiently at her tardiness.
“Thank you, Catherine.” In a whirl of black cloak and swift movement Vincent faded soundlessly into the night.
“You’ve done all right.” Kristopher’s cheeky grin faded into the darkness as he too vanished into the shadows. “Be seeing ya around…”
“Can’t see what’s been keeping you down here all this time.” Ramos complained brusquely as he came up behind Catherine. “She was only a crack whore, after all. No big loss there. The coroner’s here. You done now?”
“Yeah, I think I’m done.” Catherine flashed him a dismissive glance as she passed him, heading out of the alleyway and into the welcome glow of the street lights beyond.
“This was found tucked inside Jessica’s blanket when Mary uncovered her.” Vincent held out a folded sheath of papers. “Your name is on it.”
Catherine took them from him. “Will she be all right?”
“We are hopeful.” Vincent nodded. “Father is confident you have given her a fighting chance. We will know in a few days. She is very tiny and weak.”
“I’m glad.” Catherine smiled mistily. Somewhere in the distance a clock struck the hour of midnight. “Happy third anniversary, my love.” She took Vincent’s hands, drawing him into her embrace and kissing his cheek. This was what she had been dreaming of all day, this was where she truly belonged. “I’m just sorry it didn’t go according to my plans.” She rubbed her cheek against Vincent’s vest. “I was going to have candles and everything prepared for us. I was even going to cook us a meal.” She laughed softly. “Or give it my best shot.”
“You saved a life tonight, Catherine. That more than makes up for any time we may have lost,” Vincent replied, tightening his arms around her before turning her so her back was against his chest and they were both gazing out over the city, and the darkened spaces of Central Park. “No one could have done any better.”
“You and the impossible Kristopher Gentian helped.” Catherine shook her head. “I couldn’t have done it without you. I still can’t make him out. Is he really a ghost or just a very good fraud?”
“Understand that Kristopher is simply Kristopher and you will be fine,” Vincent laughed quietly, kissing the top of her head. “The painting he did of us is real enough. You only have to believe, Catherine, for it to be so.”
“Cryptic answers at midnight, just what I need.” Catherine tipped her head back to smile up at him lovingly.
Vincent laughed and kissed the tip of her nose. “What does the note say?”
“I don’t know…” Catherine had forgotten about the folded papers he’d handed her. “Let’s see…” She opened it to find several pages torn from a large notebook and written across in neat printing that took up all the free space on each page. She read slowly, turning each over to read the other side.
“Well?” Vincent prompted after several minutes of pensive silence. “What is it?”
“Angela’s deposition.” Catherine went back to the beginning. “It’s all here, everything she saw that night.” She held them out to him. “Names, times and who shot Brannigan and why. Incredible!”
“Will it hold up in court?” Vincent took the pages from her and began to read.
“Only if we can prove she was murdered to keep her from testifying. I’m afraid it won’t be easy.” Catherine shook her head as she turned to face him. “But it’s a beginning, and far more than we had before. Joe will put his best people on it.”
She went up on tiptoe, sliding her arms around Vincent’s neck. “If it hadn’t been for you, that night in the park three years ago when you found me…”
“We truly have endured much, Catherine, and yet we still stand.”
“And we will continue to stand, as long as we have each other. Together we can do anything.”
“Always…” Vincent inhaled deeply, smiling down at the only woman in the world he could ever love. His great heart had been created only for her. Her beauty, both inside and out, humbled him and made him believe in miracles.
“Always, Vincent…” Catherine rose higher on her toes to press a soft kiss to his unique mouth, and slowly it deepened into a true communion of souls as Vincent drew her down into the cushions piled together against the shelter of the wall. And for a long time there was silence on the small balcony under the stars…
by Lara Hoyle
Jamie had gone
above to help a team of Helpers scour some antique stores for some usable
items and other decorations. Vincent had given her some instructions to
see if she could find something with doves as decorations. She asked him
why, and he told her one night he had seen two doves nestled against each
other, probably having been set free during some
wedding earlier in the day.
by Mai Phan
Beauty does not exist in and of itself. It is measured against that which is deemed ugly.
Beautful moments, H
by Rose M
The first chapter of the NIBAC novelization has an Anniversary flavor and, according to Zara's words when she offered it for the BatBland Writing Challenge, "emphasizes the lovers' memories of April 12, 1986, and looks forward to April 12, 1987, and shows a little of what the characters have lived through since they first met."
TUNNELKIDS – BOOK TWO
Nor Iron Bars a Cage
A Novelization by Zara Wilder
This is where the wealthy and the powerful rule. It is her world. A world apart from mine. Her name is Catherine. From the moment I saw her, she captured my heart—with her beauty, her warmth, and her courage. I knew then, as I know now, she would change my life, forever.
He comes from a secret place, far Below the city streets. Hiding his face from Strangers, safe from hate and harm. He brought me there to save my life. And now, wherever I go, he is with me in spirit. For we have a bond stronger than friendship or love. And although we cannot be together, we will never, ever be apart.
PART ONE: TO SPEAK OF DREAMS
CHAPTER ONE: GIFTS OF THE NIGHT
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
The gracious dark invited many secrets to venture out of hiding. Dream-bearers cruised the streets, and dream-seekers with them. The clouded sky stretched out above the city. People flocked to the pulsing heart of New York from all five boroughs and beyond. One among the multitude had already acquired his bit of dream-come-true. He traveled homeward through the night to share his prize with others.
The tall hooded figure strode alone through the shadows of Central Park. As he walked, Vincent, silent as the shadows that masked his passage, glanced up toward the white brick building where his beloved friend Catherine lived, feeling her amusement sparkle inside him. He smiled. He sensed she kept company with a friend tonight, and they were laughing together. He felt glad for Catherine.
On the street below Catherine’s apartment someone drove along Central Park West, their car stereo blaring a synthpop rendition of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. A breathless female voice sang: “Un bel dì, vedremo / levarsi un fil di fumo...” The woman’s voice levitated above a rollicking drum track and throbbing bass line. Vincent hadn’t known that aria could be blared.
The music merged into the more ordinary sounds of distant traffic as the car passed beyond the range of even Vincent’s keen ears.
He shifted the load he carried from one shoulder to the other. His sense of Catherine’s pleasure relieved many of his worries for her. Lately, rage and sadness often weighed down her thoughts, sending dark ripples along the emotional connection between them. There were other feelings too, other concerns that burdened her. Catherine’s work provoked some of her feelings, Vincent knew—her work to resolve the many difficult cases that claimed her time. And some of her troubled feelings had to do with him. He found this knowledge harder to bear, although he did so willingly, never losing sight of the greater graces Catherine brought into his life.
Catherine’s confidence in their love enriched him. He felt privileged to witness each stage of her growth and healing.
It’s a time of recapitulation for her, Vincent thought. Almost a year has passed since the night those men attacked Catherine in the street. Such anniversaries can be painful.
Vincent knew from experience the pain—the setbacks and indignities—inherent to the process of rebuilding a shattered life. He grieved that Catherine must make such a journey. At the same time, he beheld her courage with profound respect. She was choosing a path of compassion as she struggled to restore her sense of self. Last year’s chilling April night had not defeated her.
Turning his face up to the cloudy sky, Vincent thought, And dark though it was, for both of us, that night also sent Catherine into my life.
Vincent remembered following the scent of blood through the park, traveling almost the same route he took now. How his soul had ached for her—and with her—when he found the woman discarded in the damp grass, lying dangerously near the threshold into Vincent’s world.
As he knelt to help her, Vincent had been surprised by his instantaneous intimate sense of the woman, a Stranger who was somehow not a stranger. He recognized some indefinable quality inside her heart, heard her soul crying out to his. She broadcasted a powerful longing for life.
Vincent’s empathy for the woman’s inner battle mirrored his own shadowed contentions.
Her pain sheared through the shroud of secret despair that had woven itself around him during his previous long days—and his even longer nights. At the midnight moment when Vincent found Catherine, he had found himself suddenly unwilling to surrender his life to the stifling shadow of his fate, when this wounded woman had not surrendered to her own ending. Vincent felt that his silent pain was nothing in light of hers. He wanted to see her clean, dressed in warm clothes that were not torn, as the young woman’s heavy velvet coat and burgundy evening gown were torn. He wanted to see her cared for, and comforted. He wanted her to live. And because he wanted these things, he found new reasons to embrace his own life. The woman needed help from him that only he could give.
Vincent broke all but one law of his community, and of his own code of communal security, to bring an adult Stranger directly into his home for medical care. He had obeyed his chief imperative to help someone in need and he knew no other way to give her aid as quickly as she must receive it. Her face and left forearm were badly cut, her body cruelly beaten. She was losing too much blood. The nearest Topside hospital was too far away. So Vincent carried the Stranger into the Tunnels beneath the city. Vincent’s swift response, and his father’s surgical expertise, saved the woman’s life. Tending Catherine as she slowly regained her strength, Vincent came to know her—and to love her.
He knew many things about Catherine now, and it pleased him to ponder his knowledge, day by day, night by night. Vincent loved being a part of Catherine’s life. He marveled that he had now become an undeniable part of Catherine, and she the most liberated part of him. He could feel Catherine’s gratitude for his intervention that first night, and on many subsequent nights thereafter. He knew she was fiercely determined to live a full and noble life in her perilous, wondrous world. He knew, too, that even as she tried to fulfill her dreams, Catherine often felt overwhelmed by the work she’d undertaken at the New York County District Attorney’s office.
Catherine’s difficult investigations fueled her fear that she might fail to help other survivors of violent crimes. She struggled to trust that Good remained active in the world—and that an unquenchable hope in Light could prevail in the end. She believed that justice was worth any sacrifice. She had told Vincent so several times, and whenever she spoke of this matter, he felt her fear of loveless judgment, her quiet anger with the labels others tried to impose upon her —names like Débutante and Victim. Vincent knew her desire to feel safe, and to be loved for who she was. Catherine looked to him to love her in that way.
That she should need this from him truly puzzled Vincent, for he did not know any other way to love someone. It always shocked him to observe the many tactics people from Catherine’s world used to manipulate one another. They sought to engender gainful change by granting or withholding favor, calling such payments and privations “love.” It made no sense. Catherine had turned away from men who tried to treat her in this way, all of them wealthy suitors from a sunlit realm Vincent had only read about in books— The sound of voices nearby interrupted Vincent’s thoughts. Instinctively, he ducked his hooded head. He knew his eyes reflected light in the darkness and he did not want to draw the attention of Strangers. He had recently received too much of such attention and had no desire to repeat the experience. He moved to the shadowed side of an elm tree, merging his shape with that of the gray-ridged trunk, as two men walked closer to him, arguing with each other about a car.
“So get your brain switched on! Take some lessons or something. That was two hundred bucks!” “C’mon. Gears were stripping before I ever touched the stick. I brought her home with a full tank. What more do you want?” “She’s just special, okay? Me and Pop, we’re gonna fix her up, take her in for sweet detail. For Roxy, see. She’ll love it. Abe knows a guy. It’s just, we’re saving, right? Can’t afford no two hundred bucks every time you can’t work out how to drive.” “Said I was sorry.” The men walked away. Vincent took a long breath. He listened for any whispers of fright or anger inside himself and felt only a gentle curiosity about the lives of the two men who had unknowingly passed him by. Good. A few days ago, Vincent had been playing hide-and-seek with a group of Tunnels children and unreasoning fear had cornered him in the narrow pipe (hunted! lost!) where he was hiding. It spoiled the game and worried his young friends.
But Vincent’s nature was not a fearful one. That Shadow lifted swiftly and had yet to return. Tonight, the danger of these Strangers’ nearness felt like the tart bite of the home-brewed cider which the Undercity’s cook and brewer, William, crafted each year. The springtime darkness was heady with the scents of fertile soil and green things awakening from winter: the small clusters of buds on the American elms, spicebush, the welcome optimism of snowdrops and crocuses giving way to the heavier scents of daffodils and tulips as they greened their spearlike leaves toward their blooming time.
Vagrant edibles were already staking their insistent claims in the lawns and undergrowth —the chickweed and shepherd’s purse, hoary bittercress, deadnettles and dandelions. Not near to budding yet, but making strategic preparations. The rain-damp streets of New York, the fumes of industry and transit systems, and the aromas wafting from a thousand different restaurants intermingled with the upperworld’s sweet dreams of new opportunities. Central Park’s verdant evening shade became the earthy, robust finish to Vincent’s all-too-brief taste of the world Above at night. He drank deeply and joyfully. The park had always been his place of comfort. On this night it gave him a sense of connection to the many lives and loves of the great city surrounding him.
When the way became clear again, Vincent continued his journey. He thought about the young car owner, and the wishful delight Vincent sensed bubbling inside him when he spoke the name, “Roxy.” Vincent understood the desire to please a loved one with gifts. He was beginning to understand the sorrow that came when what tangible gifts he could offer were no match for the lavish treasures others could provide.
Catherine has told me that she’s had many suitors in recent years, Vincent mused, resuming his westward cogitations. Her father encourages their advances. He wants Catherine to marry, to be happy with someone. And yet, although each of her world’s charming princes added new chapters to her history, only one had truly touched Catherine’s heart. Vincent grieved that Catherine’s dream of a life with this man had been so painfully erased—by differing priorities, and by the man’s inability to love Catherine the way she needed someone to love her.
Vincent shook his head. Catherine felt ambivalent toward this man now, and had good reason to feel so.
Vincent considered recent history. Less than two weeks ago, this suitor, this man Burch, had reinstated himself into Catherine’s life—just in time to be unwittingly instrumental to Vincent’s salvation during a cave-in Below. Afterward, Vincent sometimes felt Catherine’s hope and her suspicion at war inside her. Vincent shared these feelings. Burch had nearly ended Vincent’s dream of love with Catherine. And then Burch had supplied Catherine with the demolition equipment which freed Vincent and Vincent’s father from that collapsed cavern deep beneath the city.
Burch gave this gift freely, with trust and honor. Catherine felt grateful to, and confused by, the giver. “I’ve doubted my own judgment many times this year,” Catherine had told Vincent after they returned to his home from the Maze. She sat with him in his chamber, both of them begrimed with rock dust. They drank hot, honey-sweetened tea to brace them for the walk Up to Catherine’s apartment building.
“I never doubt myself so often as I do whenever I talk with Elliot,” she had said.
Listening to her tale, Vincent knew Catherine had been badly frightened by the prospect of losing Vincent that day: his friendship, his support, his protection. His love. Himself. Even now, she still feared that she would somehow lose him. But you cannot lose me, Catherine, he thought. I’ve already given myself and my life into your hands. My heart is yours now. Forever.
Would it help her to hear him speak these words? Or would she find Vincent’s gift burdensome to her anxious soul? On many days, he could feel Catherine’s fears chiseling into her mind and heart. He was aware that she remained desperately ashamed of herself—for things she had said and done during last week’s investigation of two men murdered by Vodou practitioners.
Vincent walked quickly across an open clearing toward a sheltering copse of brush and trees. He thought, I told you during that time, and after, that I will never leave you to face the darkness alone. Never. Catherine struggled to believe him. Yes, her heart had become a tumultuous place.
Despite his promise to her, Vincent knew she believed herself alone with her conflicting emotions. Each time he saw her now, he tried to reassure her that she was not alone. He blamed her for nothing. He told her that she had blessed him with her professions of love, and he admired her for coming so far, in so short a time, since the night she was first attacked.
His reassurances made little difference. Catherine was becoming restless. Over the past several weeks, she’d been assigned to cases involving battered women and sexually abused children. The pain these people experienced seeped into her heart—and thus, into Vincent’s. He had no consolation to offer her beyond his own sorrow that such evil existed in the world.
He was happy that she’d found a reprieve tonight in the company of her friend.
Vincent scanned his immediate surroundings and changed his course, circling wide to move downwind of a dog being walked along a nearby footpath. He did not get on well with most dogs. His physical aspects frightened them, and his intuitive abilities confused them. It was not difficult to intimidate one or two dogs at a time—if Vincent was given the chance to stare them down. But dogs who belonged to someone were quick to alert their owners to Vincent’s presence. Strays were completely unpredictable, as likely to leap for Vincent’s throat as they were to cower at his feet. And packs of dogs running wild through the city had been the lifelong bane of Vincent’s nighttime excursions. Vincent avoided Canis lupus familiaris whenever he could.
Not that I’ve made that precaution easy for myself tonight, he thought wryly.
It was early for him to be Up in the park. There were still many people out—some, it 4 seemed, with their pets in tow—and this required careful navigation on his part. But a blush of cloud cover had blotted out the moon and the cidery shadows were deep. It was spring, and Vincent felt restless too.
He looked across the park once again, toward the lights that illuminated Catherine’s high balcony. It did not help that Catherine seemed unusually giddy tonight. Across their emotional bond, Catherine’s relaxation elicited lightheartedness in himself. Vincent guessed that she and her friend must be indulging themselves a little, as he was. It was a fine night for delectable vintages—those sipped slowly from crystal goblets, and those imbibed directly from the unstoppered currents of the wind.
Vincent readjusted the bag he carried slung over his shoulder. He decided he also felt rather self-satisfied at the moment. Just after nightfall, he had gone Above and found a treasure trove of toys and children’s clothing, overflowing from several plastic garbage bags that had been set out in an alley for trash collection. Vincent hoped such obviously hasty work did not indicate tragedy for some unknown family—the loss of a child, rendering the child’s possessions unbearable to mourners, perhaps. But the goods he brought home with him now would benefit the children living in the world Below. On their behalf, Vincent accepted what the city Above had to offer them tonight.
He smiled to himself, pleased he could be the one to bring these things to his youngest friends. He was not a regular forager. His visits to the world Above were too fraught with peril for Vincent to be concerned with “finding and taking,” as his young friend Mouse phrased it.
Getting Topside safely, and getting back home safely, were his primary tasks on these occasions.
Furthermore, Vincent had no liking for foraging work. Gleaning in the city meant sorting through a lot of garbage. It did not occur to him to consider this activity in any way beneath his dignity; almost everything he owned or shared Below was something reclaimed or recycled from Above. His problem was more fundamental than that: after a night spent pawing through dumpsters, trash cans, and scrap piles, it took forever to wash the smells away.
Even Father didn’t fully understand how torturous certain aromas could be to Vincent’s senses.
A sudden burst of muffled wing beats caught his attention, followed by the rustle of paper from farther away. Vincent stopped walking. He stood still behind a bush and looked out into the dark.
He sensed nothing dangerous nearby. Besides the ordinary atmosphere of the park at night, the wind brought him the sounds and scents of four separate people—two runners, a man and a woman, jogging away from him; the man with the dog; and a stationary man sitting some distance from Vincent’s position, crinkling paper and drinking heavily sugared coffee. The sound of wings died away as the flying creature’s altitude increased. Vincent’s eyes picked out its shape as it swept across the sky: a large owl passing overhead, its wings silent now as it cruised for prey.
While Vincent watched the bird’s silhouette float across the cloud-mottled, city-dimmed starscape above him, he pondered lines from his vast poetic repertoire: The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day, The lowing Herd winds slowly o’er the Lea, The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way, And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.
5 Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight, And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds; Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight, And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.
Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow’r The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain Of such, as wand’ring near her sacred Bow’r, Molest her ancient solitary Reign.
The owl vanished into the night. Good hunting, Vincent thought to the bird. Then he continued on his way.
He leapt across the stream of water that trickled out from the Park Entrance culvert and flowed away over a muddy swatch of grass. He looked forward to delivering his collection to Mary for distribution, and he was eager to find Ellie and Eric. He had pocketed two items from the trove especially for those two children. Vincent smiled again and ducked into the drainage tunnel system that would bring him home.
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
“There are days when smiling at anything feels impossible,” Catherine said. “I get so frustrated.” She waved a glass of Merlot toward the city lights visible through the French doors to her eighteenth-story terrace. This was her third glass, to Jenny’s second. They had now emptied the bottle of Vigna L’Apparita Jenny had brought with her to dinner, so it would also be Catherine’s last glass of the evening. She sighed and sipped the superlative wine.
“I have no control over how victims are treated by the system. No way to make it any easier for them. I know it feels like they’re being bullied by the very people they’ve turned to for help. Even by me, because I’m the face they see. I’m the nosy ADA investigator who has to ask the hard questions to keep a case moving.” Jenny nodded, a trim woman in a breezy blue silk blouse and black slacks. She leaned back in her chair, stretching her legs, and watched Catherine draw concentric circles on the lush carpet with one toe. They were dining barefoot, a vice they’d picked up while they were still students together at Radcliffe College, and one they had yet to sacrifice on the altar of adult respectability.
“You’re seeing the system from the inside now,” Jenny said.
“I am. And sometimes it’s a very ugly place. Justice comes at such a high price. Too often, it never comes at all.” Jenny nodded again and drank from her own glass. Catherine felt grateful for her companion’s balancing presence tonight. For as long as they had been friends, they had always balanced each other. Jenny countenanced many things that Catherine could not. Jenny turned energetic and outgoing when Catherine retreated into aloof reserve. Jenny kept herself casually stylish where Catherine cultivated elegant refinement. And when confronted with Catherine’s stomach-knotting self-recriminations, Jenny proved both loyal and pragmatic.
She embodied down-to-earth liveliness beside Catherine’s tactical beauty. Jenny’s intelligent brown eyes and short brunette hair contrasted well with her more petite friend’s greenhinting- at-gray eyes and Catherine’s sandy brown, shoulder-length tresses. People noticed them at parties; they complemented one another so completely. Catherine felt doubly grateful—and relieved—that her best friend seemed willing to listen to her rant like this. Catherine’s workday had been a quiet little round-trip visit to hell. She couldn’t hold in her feelings anymore.
I don’t believe there’s anything remotely resembling justice in the Ehringer case, she railed bitterly to herself. Catherine could think of no penalty the law could impose that would ever undo the heartache wrought by that evil man. She tried to shunt her thoughts away from her work, but her mind wasn’t done gnawing at that bone.
“I don’t like feeling helpless,” she said. “And I hate feeling useless.” “You’re not useless.” Jenny’s dark eyes underscored her words with steady patience.
“It’s how I feel, though.” Jenny nodded to acknowledge Catherine’s complaints without passing judgment.
Catherine loved her for this. Jenny was a good listener, seeing Catherine through many rocky romances, their scholastic shenanigans in college, and even the recent one-eighty shift in Catherine’s career. They lived and worked in the same city, enjoyed the same novels and movies, shared memories of the same sorrows and joys.
Catherine thought: When Martin Belmont’s hired muscle mistook me for Mayfair’s call girl—for their intended target, Carol—it was Jenny who saw me through the aftermath. That was THE sorrow that shook both of us down to the roots of our lives. Moving through the tragedy has brought us closer than ever before.
Jenny Aronson had been the first person she called after last year’s brutal accident upended Catherine’s already tilted life. Jenny was the first person from Catherine’s world to get an up-close look at Catherine’s ruined face. Jenny was there for her when Catherine’s father arrived at his daughter’s apartment with police officers in tow.
She, better than any other among Catherine’s friends, knew how Catherine felt about being attacked by an overburdened justice system. Catherine had not wanted to answer personal questions about what violent criminals did to her body and spirit. Hiding and forgetting had seemed like the easier options. It happened the same way for so many others Catherine had met since then. But she had answered the detective’s questions, and kept her new secrets as well as she could. She had let Dad schedule her surgeries to correct the physical damage to her face. She had let Jenny look after her on the night before she checked into the hospital. Jenny’s presence then was as supportive as her presence now.
“It’s hard to be a cog in a larger machine,” Jenny said.
“Yes. And it’s hard on me to see just how much misery exists out there.” Catherine speared her last bite of grilled duck with her fork. “I know it makes me the naïve daughter of Charles Chandler, Esquire...but I had no idea, Jen. Only nine months ago, I had no clue.” “Don’t feel bad about that,” Jenny advised. “There are good things, and tragic things, in every level of society. Each level is like its own world. There aren’t many bridges between them all.” Isn’t that the truth! More true than you could ever know, Catherine thought. She was learning all kinds of things about separate worlds these days—and not only from her work for the Manhattan DA. She knew how rarely people were able to find a bridge between two worlds.
Sometimes, she still found it difficult to believe that fate had given her so uncommon a gift. On the same night she’d been attacked by ruthless monsters, one such bridge had found her, and saved her.
This was something Jenny did not know about that terrible time in Catherine’s life. The secret bridge was a person, someone no one else from Catherine’s world knew. No one could ever know about him. If society at any level of Catherine’s world became aware of the fact that her rescuer, Vincent, existed, that world would destroy him. Catherine had seen her world try.
Aloud, she told Jenny, “I understand what you mean. I don’t feel guilty about where I’ve come from, my family, my life. If I tried to do my job out of a sense of guilt...that would make my work—and my life—impossible. I feel grateful for all I’ve been given. I only wish I could do more now, for people who don’t have the good things I’ve enjoyed. People who’ve had good things taken from them.” “You do what you can, Cath. And you do everything you can. In my book, that makes you a hero.” A hero? Catherine laughed. “Just so long as the pen is mightier than the sword. Attorneys are not called heroes every day.” “Oh, I refrain from all lawyer jokes in your presence. I only call it like I see it.” “Well, thank you, anyway, for your vote of confidence. It means a lot to have you on my side.” Catherine finally persuaded her mind to let go of her day. Her third glass emptied now, this was easier for her to do. “Even when I’m crotchety and too bogged down by paperwork to get us better than take-out for a dinner date.” “But it’s such good take out,” Jenny objected, smiling. “Sometime, we’ll eat at the restaurant.” “Sure. Sometime.” “Besides, I don’t mind eating in. Look: I even brought videos for Chandler-and- Aronson’s version of dinner and a movie.” Jenny rose from her chair and crossed the living room to her bag. She pulled out three video cassettes in paperboard sleeves. “Drama, comedy, or romantic comedy?” she asked.
Catherine giggled. No doubt at all: Jenny loved her. “What’s the romantic comedy?” “Roman Holiday.” “I’m in.”
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
Edward Hughes set his thermos cup on the field table and leaned forward to peer through the camera’s viewfinder. He panned across his current section of Central park, homing in on any moving figures he saw: a couple of joggers, a man walking his dog, and there—an owl. He caught the bird’s motion as it turned its head. This was a great horned owl, a magnificent bird.
Hughes picked up his logbook to note the sighting. When he looked through the camera again, his subject had left its perch. He swiveled the camera on its tripod, tracking along the owl’s probable flight path, seeking out shapes and motions because the camera’s night vision relayed everything in a limited range of reds.
He yawned, letting his mind wander a little. His part in this survey was nearly done. Nextweek, a colleague would take over. Hughes didn’t mind the work, exactly. It was tranquil in the park at night. But it was cold, too. Also, he had some symposium lectures scheduled at the University, and he needed to polish his presentation notes. Hopefully, I can use some of this new footage to illustrate my talks for the students and other attendees, he thought.
He saw something move through the brush on the periphery of his camera shot. Hughes refocused both his thoughts and the camera lens to get a better view. It was not the owl. It was something very big, something earthbound. He followed the thing’s progress. What was that? It moved with swift, lithe grace, slipping from shadow to shadow with predatory ease. Hughes leaned away from the camera, but could see nothing with his own eyes. It was too dark.
He pressed his right eye to the viewfinder again and zoomed in. There! The thing stopped, turning its face toward Hughes. And such a face! Feline. A large feline. In Central Park! It’s too tall to be a ranging or escaped wildcat, Hughes thought.
He boggled at the image he saw, his pencil clenched between his teeth. The proportions of that face were all wrong. They weren’t feline enough. That face was also—simian.
The creature turned and disappeared into the darkness. Hughes abandoned his camera and his departmental equipment van, chasing after the thing. He caught glimpses of the hulking shadow far ahead. Scrambling over a little rise, he shoved through clumps of bushes and splashed to a stop in a muddy drainage field. A lamp post on the little bridge up ahead lifted a yellow light against the sky, illuminating the area. There was no sign of the creature. Hughes saw only an open cement pipe gaping beneath the bridge. Water spilled from the pipe in a fastflowing stream.
Hughes turned in a circle, his eyes watering against the dark. He saw nowhere else the creature could be. He looked at the tunnel. The creature must have gone in there.
Old memories crowded into his mind. Memories of painful times, before he was Professor Edward Hughes. Before he had settled for conservation biology as a niche vocation.
Before his mentor had moved on to bigger and better things, leaving Hughes his position at Columbia, but taking with him all the fruits of Hughes’s own work.
Before all that, Hughes had been on the cutting edge, ready to track down any anomaly, certain he was destined to make unique contributions to science. He knew Mystery when he saw it. This creature was something undeniably new. Hughes whirled and ran back across the park to his camera. He had to review that tape.
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
“Pause it?” said Catherine. She reached for the jangling telephone.
Jenny pressed pause on the remote control and sat back against the couch cushions. She pointed to the TV screen, clapping a hand over her mouth as Catherine picked up the receiver.
They had caught Audrey Hepburn just before she brought a guitar down upon her pursuer’s head.
The look on that young elfin face was priceless.
Catherine didn’t bother to stifle her own laughter as she spoke into the receiver. “Hello?” “Well, hello,” a welcome voice said back. “You sound happy tonight.” Catherine’s smile grew wider. “Nancy! Hi!” She glanced over her shoulder at Jenny, who waved her own greeting at the phone. “Yeah, I am. Jenny’s here with me. We’re watching old movies.” “Good times,” Nancy said.
“What’s up?” “Just thought I’d check in. Tell you I’m thinking of you. It’s been a while.” “That’s so sweet,” said Catherine. “Yes. It has been a while. Too long.” She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder toward the bedroom. “Get on the extension,” she mouthed at Jenny.
Jenny swung her feet to the floor and crossed the room.
A moment later, it felt like the best days of Catherine’s girlhood had returned. They were the old trio of college friends, fun-loving and indestructible. They shared old stories and new ones and talked movies.
Jenny related her latest comedy of errors with the aged archaeologist whose book she had edited and was now trying to see published. “No Indiana Jones, he!” Jenny finished. They all laughed. Nancy topped Jenny’s tale with her father-in-law’s Thanksgiving visit to Westport the year he decided that she must serve a deep-fried turkey to the family for dinner. Catherine laughed again, light of head and heart, feeling more like herself than she had in many days. Even the virulent memory of the interview she’d conducted that afternoon almost faded into the background at last.
Almost, but not completely.
Amber Kurdy. Six years old. Just one more of Robert Ehringer’s many victims. The thought spurred her mind into worrying that same investigative bone again. A whole skeleton of troubles speedily reasserted itself.
Catherine felt a pang, even as Nancy told a new funny story—this one about her daughter’s recent Valentine’s Day party. Nancy’s little girl was growing up happy, while another mother’s daughter would grow up scarred. And the mention of Valentine’s Day also reminded Catherine of her own private woes. She’d spent February fourteenth alone this year.
Elliot Burch had left a message on her answering machine, persistent in his attempts to make up with her after she discovered he was the owner of a building where elderly holocaust survivors were being terrorized into vacating the premises—so that Elliot could build a new tower on the site. He kept offering gifts, and Catherine had returned or refused them all. His Valentine-by-phone was Elliot’s way of saying that he intended to back off. He told her he only wanted to talk, and that he still cared about her. Catherine didn’t return that call. She had still been very angry with him.
As for Vincent—she didn’t know whether Vincent had planned anything special for her or not. He had kept safely to his bed Below that night, waiting for his burns and gashes and broken bones to heal. Only two nights previous to the holiday, Catherine’s fear had drawn him into the streets above his subterranean home. On that disastrous night, a gang’s explosive attack had ended a completely different witness interview—and the life of Catherine’s witness—and very nearly Vincent himself. Catherine had not dared to go down into the Tunnels on the night of the fourteenth. Vincent’s father had still been very angry with her. She’d still been very angry with herself.
There’s too much anger in the world, Catherine thought. Too much fear. There should be more laughter. We should all have more simple pleasures, and more love.
“Earth to Cathy,” Jenny called, waggling her fingers at her from the bedroom.
“Cathy here,” she called back. “Don’t mind me. I’m just cursing the scarcity of simple pleasures in life.” That set them off again, and the three friends began making a list: chocolate truffles, a child’s hug, the best wines, being kissed by a clean-shaven man, down comforters, freshly ground coffee, autumn colors on the trees, long walks in the park.
Encouraged by their energetic brainstorm, Catherine let go of her problems and invested herself fully in their conversation. She thought, There should be more good things, for more people...but I have love enough right here, right now. I can be content with that. I have friends who love me. I can be grateful.
After Nancy wished them both goodnight, Catherine and Jenny cleared away the dishes from dinner and made popcorn. They sat down in front of the TV again, squabbling companionably over the popcorn bowl. They finished the movie. Catherine slid Jenny’s video cassette into the rewinder. Jenny stretched her arms up and sighed.
“You’re still a lot of fun, my dear,” she said, brushing one hand over her fashionably spiky brown hair. “Thanks for having me over.” “Thanks for coming,” Catherine answered. “I needed this, Jen. I really needed a change.” “I could tell. Next time, you come to my place.” “Deal,” Catherine said.
Closing the front door behind her friend a few minutes later, Catherine yawned. The case files in her satchel could wait until tomorrow. Tonight, she intended to drift to sleep on her warm cloud of hard-won elation.
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
Mary hugged Vincent, smiling. Vincent looked down at the top of her head, enjoying her delight and her embrace; since the year Vincent had grown taller than the motherly woman, he could count the occasions she’d hugged him on one hand. They stood together in one corner of the Dormitory, watching the children become acquainted with their new toys. Weaver sat nearby on one of the children’s beds, sorting clothes into baskets for laundering. So far, nothing needed repair.
Not only had Vincent arrived with new things for the little ones, but he’d brought new new things. Clean new things. Radical new things, as young Nicholas informed him.
Vincent heard small feet running along the corridor outside the Dormitory. A few seconds later, Geoffrey rushed in with Eric, Ellie, and Kipper close behind, all four children dressed in nightclothes and slippers, holding toothbrushes and jars of toothpowder in their hands. They might be just getting up or they might be just going to bed. Like the adults of their world, the children were free to keep whatever hours they chose, so long as they did not disturb the resting times of others. Kipper spoke for the entire foursome. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Come and see,” said Zach, grinning. The older boy pulled a new garment out of Vincent’s collection bag for Weaver’s inspection.
The four newcomers darted around Zach and the adults to join their friends on the floor.
“Ellie?” Vincent called in a low voice that nevertheless reverberated through the chamber.
“Eric?” Both children stopped and looked up. Vincent held out a hand. “Come. I have something special for you.” The children set their toiletries on a night table and came to him. Vincent gave Mary a gentle squeeze, then stepped out of her sideways hold to crouch down in front of the two siblings.
“What is it?” Eric asked.
Vincent reached into his overshirt pocket and pulled out two small objects. The other children crowded close, looking on with great interest. Vincent felt their collective excitement enfold him like a blanketing mist of warmth and happiness. His surprise visit tonight offered a welcome departure from their nightly routine.
“Ellie and Eric were not with us for Winterfest,” Vincent explained to them all, “and at the place where they were staying Above, none of the children received any presents at Christmastime.” The children, well aware of how Uppercity Christmas traditions were supposed to work, made collective sounds of sympathy and indignation. Ellie lowered her eyes. Vincent offered his understanding, resting his empty hand on her shoulder.
Eric had been angry and unhappy at Ridley Hall, but Ellie hated the foster home and feared the adults there. In that place, her darkest nightmare had come true: her best efforts had failed to protect both Eric and herself and the grown-ups took her little brother away from her.
Then they sold her to a lecherous pickpocket who beat her because she refused to steal. Ellie’s courageous heart still struggled to heal from these violent betrayals.
Vincent continued. “So, tonight I have brought each of them a late midwinter’s gift.
Remember, these things are theirs, to keep or to share as they please.” That was the rule with personal items Below. Sharing was certainly an expectation, but if a thing was not communal property, it belonged to its owner. Individual gifts were private possessions.
Vincent handed a small metal car to Eric, who shared Mouse’s fascination with mechanical devices and Topsider vehicles.
Eric’s face lit up. “Hot Wheels!” he cried. “Omigosh!” He turned to Kipper. “Check it out!” Vincent felt Eric’s gladness and his gratitude, the boy’s sense of belonging renewed.
Someone had brought something special, just for Eric.
Kipper held up a hand and Eric slapped him a high five.
“What do you say, Eric?” Mary prompted.
“Oh. Thanks, Vincent!” The bespectacled boy beamed at him. Vincent would have preferred to do without hearing Mary’s quiet goad, but the community’s nurse and midwife was also guardian of the Nursery and Orphans’ Dormitory. All honored her methods. Vincent smiled back at the boy, an expression which showed mostly in Vincent’s eyes.
“You’re welcome,” Vincent said to Eric. He turned to Ellie. “And this is for you.” He held out a thin plastic star, green-tinged yellow, about the size of his palm. A white satin ribbon had been knotted into a loop through a small hole in one of the star’s five points.
“Look,” Vincent said, taking his hand from her shoulder and cupping it over the star. He raised his hands to Ellie’s eye-level, inviting her to peer between them. She did so. Her “Oh!” was little more than a breath, but her wonder ignited like a flame in Vincent’s sense of the girl.
He placed the star in Ellie’s hands and leaned back on his heels.
“What’s it do, Ellie?” Samantha asked the older girl.
“It glows in the dark,” Ellie said.
Ellie would never admit it to an adult, but Vincent knew she missed the sky—missed counting stars at night. She and Eric were not quite ready to venture Above again, but seeing this ornament among the discarded toys, Vincent had known he could bring one star Below for her.
He had paused to expose the plastic to bright torchlight before entering the children’s Dormitory.
Many voices exclaimed over this gift, telling Ellie to hold it up to lights to make it glow after those lights were put out, sharing stories of other glow-in-the-dark objects the children had seen. Ellie’s friends all affirmed that glow-in-the-dark was cool.
While the others chattered around them, Ellie remained quiet. She looked into Vincent’s eyes. She saw that he understood something of what the star meant to her.
“What’s the matter, Ellie?” Mary asked. Vincent could hear the little frown in her voice, feel the maternal propriety in her manner. “Don’t you like your present?” Ah, Mary, he thought.
Ellie didn’t answer Mary. She only stepped closer to Vincent and wrapped her arms around his neck. Vincent could feel the shape her fingers made as she clutched the star behind his head. He pressed one hand to her back, careful to keep his own fingers flat so he would not scrape her with his claws, nor catch his sharp nails in the curling strands of her soft brown hair.
For a moment, the girl’s heart beat against his, quick against slow. Vincent’s joy expanded into wonderment. He felt humbled to know that this beautiful child so entrusted herself to him.
She was delicate as a little bird beneath his wide hand, solemn as an owl in her thankfulness.
“You’re welcome, Ellie,” he murmured in her ear. She nodded against his cheek, then released him.
Vincent stood up. “I must go now,” he told Mary and Weaver. “Cullen has asked me to help him with something in his workshop.” “Night, Vincent,” Weaver said. Her white, wrinkled face smiled at him in the molten candlelight. “Did good, scrounging.” Vincent nodded to her and went to the chamber entrance.
Mary must have given the children a Meaningful Look behind Vincent’s back, because as he left the Dormitory they chorused, “Thank you, Vincent!” Out of everyone’s sight, Vincent could not suppress a toothy grin. Catherine was not the only one feeling loved by friends tonight.
18 March 1987 Wednesday Night
Hughes hovered over the video monitor, replaying the footage for the dozenth time. He watched the dark figure move downhill, turn, and stand still. Hughes hit the pause button. The infrared images were grainy and blotchy but he was not mistaken: that face came straight out of the annals of cryptozoology. The creature was carrying something slung over its shoulder, and it was wearing something else—a blanket?—draped over its head and torso. Hughes wished that blanket-or-whatever wasn’t part of the picture. It shadowed those astonishing features and concealed the creature’s full shock of long, pale hair.
The professor picked up his Styrofoam coffee cup (his third since he’d returned to his lab), sipping from it as he backed across the room to a rolling lab stool and sat down. He gazed at the screen.
Is it possible? he wondered, hardly daring to hope. He’d grown up in a religious family, but had long since abandoned the notion of miracles—or it might be fairer to say the entire sphere of faith had abandoned him. But now, outside all of his expectations, here came the second chance that Hughes had stopped looking for years ago. It stared out at him from the screen. It resounded in his memory.
Back when Hughes had been young, and eager, and stupid, his trajectory in the field of biology sent him into practical work, studying rare and endangered species as a hand-picked member of his mentor’s research team. Albert Canton was both his idol and his friend in those days. Canton also became closer to Hughes than any of their other colleagues because he and Hughes seemed to entertain the same quiet flight of fancy.
What if other hominid species remained undiscovered in the wildest parts of the world? What if reports of not-quite-Homo-sapiens creatures had some basis in fact? With anyone else, these questions were relegated to the “secret personal hobby” category of interest. But in Canton, Hughes found a brilliant mind willing to ask, to speculate, to investigate legend and folklore— and to do more than dream.
Toward the end of their good times together, Canton and Hughes undertook two special expeditions, ostensibly to seek out and study vulnerable primate populations, but (as Canton, winking, liked to point out to Hughes in private) also investigating locations where local legend indicated other possibilities. They chased rumors and tracked nebulous traces of truth. They dreamed.
“You know, Edward,” Canton said to him one night during their second foray, as the campfire burned low outside their tent and the rain forest chirred and whispered around them.
“Even if we never find such a creature, it’s worth the effort to try.” Hughes eagerly agreed.
“It’s the trying that makes us human. Our attempting to ask the right questions, and to comprehend the answers. If you take nothing else away from this trip, remember that.” Albert Canton, PhD, had sounded so wise in that moment. So noble. He reminded Hughes of the older brother Hughes had lost when he was seventeen. The life of Blake Hughes had revolved around baseball rather than biology, but Blake had been the only one in the family who never disparaged his baby brother for Edward’s scholarly pursuits. Blake and Albert were the only people who ever gave the young Ed Hughes any useful advice.
Canton gazed through the gauzy insect netting, watching one of their Atlantic Forest guides (whose name Hughes could never pronounce correctly) stir the coals with the charred end of a stick. “I’ve got this dream, Edward. I want to find something science has never found before. Bring it to light, let the world get a good look at it. Show them all that our little blue planet is a grander place than they expect it to be. That’s why I try so hard, whatever the stuffed shirts back home have to say about me. Do you know the only cure for intellectual stagnation, Edward?” Hughes did know. “Dream big,” he told his friend. Canton had looked away from the fire to smile at his assistant. Hughes had smiled back, happy to be Canton’s up-and-coming collaborator.
Unfortunately, in the end, Hughes found out that Canton was not at all willing to share the unexpected achievement of their dream. The funny part an unfunny situation? Because the two of them had spent several years seriously discussing how a hidden species might exist in the modern world, both men were also uniquely suited for detecting scant signs of a small animal population in the wilderness. They did not unveil a bipedal hominid, but—together!—they did discover a new primate.
Together, they captured three animals alive. Together—together, damn it all!—they studied their find in the field. Later, after relocating to their partnering research center in Buenos Aires, Canton gave the most important documentary tasks to Hughes. Hughes had been grateful for the work, for the experience—and for Canton’s trust.
His dedication paid off exponentially after Hughes hypothesized that their howler’s dietary preference for the young leaves of the uncommon hestas tree greatly minimized the incidence of disease in the tiny primate group. Canton and Hughes returned to Misiones, confirmed the finding, and were the first to study the nutritive properties of the tree. Two vital revelations from the same expedition! Canton had showered Hughes with praise, and Hughes was sure they had changed the world for the better, that his future had opened wide, the whole universe now his to explore and explain.
Then they returned to New York. And once they were home, Canton claimed every last iota of the glory. He presented his assistant’s painstaking research as his own, and if Hughes came up at all in conversation, it was only when Canton deigned to identify “my Edward” as a model researcher. “Very nose to the grindstone!” had been Canton’s favorite designation.
The University welcomed the moderate prestige Canton brought to it. When Hughes went to the Provost, he was impatiently ordered not to make waves. It was 1972. The student body was—well, one could call it “rambunctious,” and the city was splitting apart at the seams. And anyway, was it not Dr. Canton’s expedition? Was Hughes not Albert Canton’s assistant in the venture? It was in everyone’s best interest for Hughes to shape up and stay out of the limelight.
Meanwhile, Canton was publishing papers and raising consciousness (whatever that meant) about environmental conservation. He became a popular expert both on and off campus, and led several research teams over the next few years in his quest to refine or synthesize hestas alkaloids into useful human pharmaceuticals (frequently using the more common relatives of Canton’s Howler in the ensuing drug trials). Hughes remained Canton’s doleful shadow, rounding out the department’s ranks of adjunct faculty and keeping Canton’s new projects in order for the man. Canton seemed to find nothing amiss in their working relationship. He had become the big fish in his little pond, while Hughes devolved into an over-imaginative sidekick.
For years afterward, Canton liked to joke that he went to Argentina looking for Alouatta cantoni —while his young associate expected to find mythical Ucumar-zupai.
This destroyed Hughes, and he was sure Canton knew it. Only too late did Hughes begin to recognize the thousand little strategies Canton had used to manipulate Hughes into doing all the work so Canton could enjoy a nice little vacation during his sabbatical. The fact that Hughes uncovered a profitable medical puzzle piece only slathered icing on Albert Canton’s cake. The betrayal cut Hughes to pieces and left him scrambling to sweep the fragments of his life back together into some modicum of a respectable career.
He knew he merely tarried now, riding the current of Canton’s influence with the University. He remained secure in his predecessor’s old position mostly because, once-upon-a-time, he had been Canton’s favorite protégé. And also (Hughes could admit this with grim pride) because he faithfully did not rock the all-hallowed administrative boat, delivered adequate content in his lectures, and remained nose-to-the-grindstone as a biddable assisting researcher for all of his colleagues’ academic investigations.
Now the embers of his derided dream flared to life in his soul. Let Canton keep his South American monkey-munch and his over-bloated research grants. Canton had never seen anything like this creature before.
His mentor’s hypocritical dreams had turned out pathetically small (Albert’s miserly little HEART was always pathetically small!), but Edward Hughes had gotten as far as he had because he truly did know how to dream big. The cost of his dreams had proved exorbitant, but if this creature, this new chance, offered a longsuffering scientist’s reward— Hughes drank the last swallow of his coffee. Perhaps the time had come for a little boat rocking. He needed to prepare for his request, get some shots from the video printed. He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to midnight. Well, I won’t be able to sleep tonight anyway, he thought.
He sat on the stool, looking up at the alien face on the video screen.
It was a beast’s face—a lion’s face, shrunken to the size of an ape’s head and attached to a body that seemed to walk on two legs. Was the creature actually bipedal, or did it only stand up like a bear or a gorilla before dropping onto all fours again? So many questions crowded in. The possibilities inherent to this discovery were intoxicating.
The professor thought, I want this. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything else.
This Mystery, this time, is mine. His dream reclaimed, Hughes crossed the lab to gather his photography equipment, galvanized into action.
TO BE CONTINUED...