Note of the author:
This was written when Eddie Albert Sr died.
Now, sadly, our dear Edward has left us as well.
I will remember you as Elliot, a role you played so elegantly.
And I will miss you.
Somehow he’d been able to walk away from her and into the drainage tunnel that she said would take him ‘out’. Then came the sound of metal grinding on stone. Stunned, he froze there in the dirty run-off that found its way down the middle of the pipe. The cold, dead silence told him when she was gone, back into that subterranean world she seemed to know… to the one she loved. Elliot reached for the support of the curved walls on either side of him. There were no tears to accompany the clutching pain that stabbed so sharply, blinding him in the dimness. They all confronted him there: Tyler, Simmons, Morley and the others of his men who’d been slaughtered; his father, carried against his will to the Pier only to die in an horrific explosion; Catherine, pushed to declare there was no possibility for them, transparently eager to be with the ‘someone else’ whose existence he had adamantly refused to acknowledge until now. He staggered but managed not to fall. He had to get back to the real world.
No, he reminded himself brutally, it is not a real world - it is the world you have created for yourself.
He pushed off from the damp, clammy sides of the tunnel and lurched into the still, half-darkness of Central Park . It was no better. A hesitant sun was ineffectual against the seeking chill and dampness of the gray dawn. He shivered conspicuously and nature seemed to come alive at his motion: an invisible bird chirped loudly somewhere above him, and a gray squirrel scampered up a spindly tree to his right. A fervid anger blazed almost incandescent when he considered the temerity, the defiance, the perversity of life daring to persist as if nothing had happened… His tantrum suffocated in a crushing surge of despair.
His father had called it right: "They shot me on account of you!"
It was his fault that the old man was dead. It was all his fault. He’d ‘killed’ the Kaczmarek’s only child and now both parents were gone. He should have been more careful, not underestimated the depravity he was up against, but how could he have known? He would have died in the explosion, too. Maybe that would have been for the best… at least he would have been spared losing Cathy. His right hand came up to cover his eyes and he pinched the pain in his temples between middle finger and thumb. Moments slipped by bringing no relief. With fists jammed into the pockets of the borrowed longshoreman’s jacket, he walked … no particular direction… just walked.
No one paid attention to Stanley Kaczmarek’s son. New Yorkers hastened past him on their way to offices and shops. Life in the Big Apple was not affected by Stas’ troubles. There was a temperamental wind at the base of those concrete and glass walls lining the sidewalks, and passers-by hurried to their destinations, heads hunched down into upturned coat collars, faces steeled in cold-repelling grimaces. Elliot gave little thought to the fact that he went totally unrecognized, though it was odd. But then, his life had become decidedly discordant: he was alone, unprotected, unconcerned about the ‘Nistas, if indeed any of them were still alive. Would they recognize him, an unremarkable component of this sidewalk crowd? He struggled to focus on absolutely nothing… not Cathy, not his father, not Simmons and the rest.
It surprised him to see that apartment building looming on the next corner. He considered crossing to the opposite side of the street to avoid it. Such a dilapidated place, he couldn’t help thinking, remembering how he’d tried that one last time to convince his father to move to a more upscale home in the City or in the suburbs. Elliot so wanted to give his father a better life. A lot of good that did. The old man had scoffed at the offer… said he didn’t take charity from strangers… said he didn’t know why he was even talking to a stranger… and had shoved Elliot into the hallway and slammed the door in his face. Elliot wondered why his father had chosen to open the door when he’d seen who his caller was… but then he’d made the same mistake and been shot for it this time. Almost involuntarily he hesitated and turned to enter the tiny vestibule. Searching the grimy wall of mailboxes and doorbells, he found the one he wanted and rang for the superintendent.
She was a short, wiry woman in dark baggy pants and an equally dark, oversized sweatshirt. Her gray hair was haphazardly caught up in a knot with bright orange yarn.
Elliot addressed her in a subdued voice, asking to see an apartment that he’d heard was now vacant and might be for rent. She tilted her head to one side and studied her visitor, taking in his clothes, long hair and beard, and said there were no vacancies.
"I understood there was something on the 2nd floor," he appealed courteously.
"Apartment’s not vacan’… leas’ not yet. Ya read ‘bout the shootin’ in the papers? He’s still alive so far’s I know, and I ain’ agonna rent his place ‘til I hear diff’ren’."
"Oh, no, of course not. But might I see it… in case it becomes available?" He was so soft spoken and so… she couldn’t quite figure it, but he seemed somehow … refined.
"Well, guess they’d be no harm in showin’ ya… takin’ yer name, jes’ in case, mind ya, it ‘comes available… but jes' a look is all… I ain’t lettin’ ya go rummagin’ ‘round in there. Is Mr. Kaczmarek’s so long’s he’s breathin’ and payin’ the rent, ya un’erstand?"
"Yes," he conceded quietly. "This is very kind of you."
He followed her up the stairs to his father’s room and waited, needing to see yet dreading what would be revealed, as she unlocked the pitted, peeling door.
"Them cops was here. None o’ my business, that. Terrible thing t’happen, though. Is a nice quiet house. Tenants keep t’theyselves. Rents in on time. No trouble. Then this happens." She glanced at Elliot speculatively. "Ya sure ya’d wanna live where a guy got hisself shot… nearly killed?"
Elliot looked into the seedy, cramped room. There was the dusty TV his father had watched… and turned off if Elliot was in the news? A small table was stained with the overlapping circles of countless sweating beer cans. He passed over the solitary, rumpled recliner where the old man must have spent his days watching the screen, dozing… reading about his son in the newspaper or angrily skipping those articles? The unmade bed glowed green in the pulsing neon light coming through the only window. There were no family photos on the dingy walls or on the battered dresser. But there were bloodstains, dark and ghastly on the old rug, making designs where the original ones had long ago faded away.
"Elliot Burch doesn’t have a father." He’d told Cathy that.
Now Stas Kazmarek has no father, he told himself.
"Thank you," he said, turning from the hopeless interior of what had been home for a poor, stubborn, lonely man who might have had… Elliot closed his eyes against what he’d been about to say: ‘… who might have had a son.’
He left some name and number with the woman...it didn’t matter. He’d come back again – as Elliot Burch – to go through his father’s things and she wouldn’t recognize him. Maybe he’d send someone else to do it.
Rain threatened, charred clouds smudging the sky with a dark turbulence. He felt for his wallet, stepped off the curb, and hailed a cab. The money would be damp but it was still money.
Catherine’s bold confession about wishing she had been kissing him and not Elliot brought no outward change to Vincent. He remained quiet, head bowed; the uninjured hand caressing a chess piece… the Queen. Catherine held his wounded palm and dared to raise it to her lips for the merest brush. That brought his eyes to hers and, in a moment of communication more guileless and sincere than ever a spoken word could be, he thanked her for her avowal… and she told him she loved him.
"How is Elliot?" Vincent asked softly, bringing them back to the present.
"He is suffering… he’s lost a great deal today."
"Yes," he whispered into the dim chamber.
She told him about the fallen men who had tried to protect them and the devastating explosion that took the life of the helicopter’s pilot and passenger. Vincent was saddened to learn of the tragedy, the deaths. He had hoped his act of kindness in secreting Elliot’s father from the hospital would have been the beginning of reconciliation between father and son.
"Vincent, I’m sorry you were hurt …"
"Elliot deserves our compassion, Catherine."
She nodded her agreement.
"You are here… with me."
She cherished his breathtakingly miraculous pronouncement and offered one of her own: "Always… with you."
Hearts coalesced in the intimate embrace he forbade their bodies.
"Catherine, you must be very tired. Come, we’ll get you settled ..."
"Vincent, I have to be in the office this morning. I can’t stay."
"But you have had no sleep since… "
She interrupted him with a tender smile. "It’s okay. I won’t work too late. But what about you?"
He ignored her concern for him, inviting her to come Below and have an undisturbed night in one of the guest chambers.
"I’d like that, Vincent. We could spend some time together, too, that way. And I’d be safe here … in case those bad guys are still roaming the streets?" she gently accused him.
"Yes," he admitted, momentarily lowering his head in ‘guilt’. "It would… please me… to have you here tonight, Catherine, to know you are safe, and to see that you get your rest. You’ll come?" he asked hopefully, tenderly.
"I will, Vincent," she smiled.
A steamy shower ran in the elegant penthouse bathroom. A driving rain obscured the view through the walls of glass in the lavishly appointed great room: a spectacle of city peaks, some of which the apartment’s occupant had helped design and build.
Barely two hours later a man emerged at street level, striding from the high speed elevator with a cordon of bodyguards. It was not the ostentatious security, nor the custom tailored suit, designer silk tie, or the Italian leather shoes that proclaimed him Elliot Burch. He was, once again, Elliot Burch: master architect, self-made multi-millionaire, philanthropist to the Arts… and if some small voice whispered he was also now an orphan he shrugged it impatiently away. An umbrella was held over him until a door was opened for him and he slid into the plush, silent interior of his limousine.
"District Attorney’s office, Ben," he informed the driver, then settled back to wrap Elliot Burch’s persona more tightly around him.
"And the men in the chopper?"
The Agent voiced the word compassionately as he left. Perhaps it was that sensitivity that caused Elliot to crumple onto Catherine’s shoulder when the door clicked shut. Office sounds assaulted the all but vacant conference room while she stood supporting the quietly grieving man. When he had regained control he slipped off the table edge and wandered away from her. She waited for him to speak. He did without turning to face her.
"Cathy, I need to get into my father’s place, go through it. It’s just one room. Shouldn’t take long. Will you come with me and flash your ID to get us in?"
It wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting. Catherine took a moment to judge the sincerity of the request before formulating an answer. She spared a thought for Vincent as well… wondering what he was able to understand from her tumultuous emotions during the confrontation just ended and now the surprise and hesitancy.
"When do you want to go, Elliot?"
"As soon as you can manage it. Before word gets out that he’s… gone… and they have time to clear out his belongings. I need to… see what’s there… "
"Would this evening be okay?" She wasn’t forgetting her plans with Vincent but it seemed wise to get this ‘favor’ done as soon as possible.
"Could you get away and go over there with me now?" He came back to stand before her.
She checked her wristwatch. "It’s 11:40. I suppose I could beg an early lunch." And it would free up the evening to go Below and be with Vincent.
"Thanks, Cathy. It’s… important to me."
"I’ll be right back. Let me speak to Joe."
One security man accompanied them, but he stayed in the limo when the driver let them out around the corner from the building’s dingy entrance. Catherine presented her ID and the same woman Elliot had spoken with that morning obligingly unlocked the apartment door for them. He’d been right: she didn’t recognize this elegant, clean-shaven man as her dock worker visitor of some hours earlier.
Catherine stood, leaning back against the only door, trying not to watch what Elliot was doing. He did not speak at all, simply searched through the drawers and closet and between the uncooperative mattress and groaning box spring. He had a flashlight that he put to use under the bed, behind the dresser, and in the upholstered crevices of the shabby chair. Lastly, he lifted the corners of the rug, careful to stay away from the stained edges, and shone a light on the floor beneath. She could not guess what he sought but Catherine felt relatively sure he had not found it.
Seeming to once more become aware of her in the room with him he said, "I’m finished, Cathy. We can get out of here."
He paused to thank the woman as she locked the apartment door behind them, then guided Cathy out to where the limo was double parked and helped her in.
"We’re going to drop Ms. Chandler back at the DA’s office, Ben." It was all he said until the driver pulled to a stop in front of the imposing building.
"Thank you, Cathy, for saving my life last night and for coming with me just now. If I might call you… no, you won’t want me to do that." He looked away and out the window.
She touched the back of his hand lightly. "Call me if you need to talk, Elliot." The driver had her door open and she left him… again, he thought.
The drive back to his office was silent. There’d been no photos after all. He’d hoped there might be some… childhood family snapshots… a picture of his mother… even one of his father. Nothing. The search had been fruitless and foolish.
Quitting time came and most of the staff made their way to elevators and home. Joe’s office lights were still on, as were those in the cubicles of a couple of assistant DA’s, including Catherine Chandler’s. In truth, she was unaware of the time, exhausted but determined to finish the brief lying open on her desk. Thoughts of Vincent made her surrender to logic: the words had ceased making sense and she wanted to be Below.
"Working a half-day, Radcliffe?"
She hadn’t seen Joe approach as she eased aching shoulders into her coat.
"Funny," she told him dryly, shifting the leather purse strap onto her arm.
"And not taking any work home, either… well, well. Heavy date tonight?" he teased.
"Well, yes, if you must know!" Her response sounded peevish and she regretted it. Continuing more calmly she explained, "It’s a date with my pillow. I need to get some sleep tonight, Joe, and I plan on going to bed almost as soon as I get … home." Well, that was close to the truth and wasn’t it nice to think of Below as ‘home’!
He became serious immediately. "Sorry, Cath, I know you had to be here today and after a bad night with Burch, too. Did you get any sleep? Never mind… I didn’t ask that. Go on home and don’t set your alarm clock … take tomorrow off," he added on impulse.
That brought Catherine to wakeful attention! "Joe, do you mean it?"
"Sure. And tomorrow is Friday so you can have a long weekend to sleep away… if that’s what you want to do with your free time, I mean," he said with a sly wink.
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.
Seemingly propped up by both walls, Elliot Burch slouched in a shadowy corner of the lobby. She saw him just as he noticed her and he straightened immediately and came forward.
"Hi, Cathy, I figured you’d be tired tonight so I’m here to drive you home. That’s all. Is… that okay?" He was almost pleading.
"Uh… yes… of course. But I was going to get a cab."
"No need. Come on. It’s damp and depressing in here."
Parked at the curb a short walk away sat a black Jaguar, glistening in the misty rain that was falling. Elliot opened an umbrella over both of them as he led her to his car and helped her in.
"You’re alone?" she asked, expecting some security or at least … what was his driver’s name… Ben?
"Alone," he answered with intense meaning in that one word.
She didn’t know how to respond but he rescued her with a question of his own. "Comfortable?" She nodded and he explained, almost as if for something to say, "It’s the remote starter… I kept turning the heat on and off while I was waiting for you."
"How long were you waiting, Elliot? I had no idea… "
"I didn’t want to disturb you at work, Cathy. I know how that … embarrasses you." He grinned for the first time that day, remembering the time he’d brought her lunch, complete with waiter!
She smiled, too, at the memory, and then asked quietly, "How are you doing?"
"Fine. I’m fine. A chapter has come to its unfortunate conclusion… the rest of my story isn’t over quite yet," he said confidently. "Look, Cathy, I owe you my life but you don’t have to worry: I’m not going to go around trying to save yours in return and become a royal pain. Just know that anytime you need anything… I want and I expect you to come to me. I intend to let you dictate the terms of debt repayment."
"There is no debt, Elliot. I hope we can remain friends, help one another out, but you don’t owe me anything." She spoke honestly.
"Then thank your… friend… for his help last night. And if there is anything you need for him…"
"Elliot, I’m sorry, but… "
"I know, I know. No questions. Just tell him thanks from me. Here we are," he concluded, pulling smoothly to the curb in front of her apartment building. "Get some rest, Cathy."
"You, too," she said, as the building concierge opened the door of the sedan for her. "I meant what I said this afternoon, Elliot. And thanks for the ride."
He smiled gratefully in response, waited, wishing she would turn and wave at him from her entrance, and when she did he drove off. His heart beat a little faster and a glimmer of hope rekindled… he couldn’t help loving her.
"Vincent," she breathed happily as his hands came around her waist to help her down the last couple of iron rungs. "I’ve been looking forward to this all day," she told him, warm in his embrace at last.
"You are tired, Catherine. There is some dinner awaiting us in my chamber, and Mary and I have made up a comfortable bed for you… "
"And I don’t have to go to work tomorrow, Vincent!" she interrupted with her good news.
"Truly? You can stay… I mean… you can sleep later in the morning."
"I can stay… if I’m invited," she cajoled.
He hugged her tighter. "I, too, am free tomorrow, Catherine. The children have a trip Above with some Helpers so my classes are cancelled… and there have been no emergencies of late… we can have the day together."
They stood silently celebrating in one another’s arms.
His words were muffled against her neck. "Did you… mean… what you said this morning… about… the… kiss?"
She pulled away from him slightly to see his face. "Oh, I meant it, Vincent. With all my heart."
He closed his eyes and inhaled a great breath of relief… and joy. Then he looked at her and asked earnestly, "Would you… please… convince me?"
She gave him the confirmation he requested… again and deliciously again and again…
For H, my love always
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