THERE IS A SEASON
from the zine “Great Expectations” (1993)
A shadow slid black and soundless across the yellowed page, and he looked up with a start into the image of raw power. Into the proof of miracles. Into the tilted blue gaze of his adopted son.
"Good heavens, Vincent, you startled me. I didn't hear you come in."
"I'm sorry. I was merely curious to see what engrossed you so."
"Did you recognize it?"
Vincent turned, settling with loose-limbed grace into his favorite chair. "It's Greek to me, Father."
"And to the rest of the world as well, which is a problem -- unless one happens to be Greek. I'm afraid I've gotten a little rusty on the subject."
"Pindar? Surely you know all those verses by heart."
"Which is the only reason I would attempt to translate them, I assure you," Jacob removed his reading glasses, leaning back with a reflective air. "What do you suppose Pindar would have thought if he knew 2000 years hence, a stranger-in a land yet to be discovered -- would be reading his words. Might he have composed them differently, I wonder?"
"If you mean, would he have written them in English for your benefit, Father, I doubt it."
"True, but would the prospect of writing for the ages be too intimidating. He might have chosen not to set them down at all."
"Or been inspired to greater heights. You've always told me that a change in even the smallest thing may bring great alterations in many others, but we cannot know what those changes might be."
"'For want of a nail the shoe was lost-'" Jacob quoted. "Or simply the road not taken. Do you remember that one-by Robert Frost?"
"Who had the courtesy to write in English -- yes."
"So, tell me," Jacob smiled, "what things are stirring beyond these walls tonight that might have untold consequences in the universe?"
What a pleasure it was to see Vincent sitting there, relaxed, congenial. They hadn't shared an evening's conversation for a long time. Of late, it seemed his son, always taciturn, had withdrawn even further into himself, avoiding the others, prowling the tunnels -- and the midnight streets above -- alone. That withdrawal disturbed Jacob Wells.
No -- it frightened him.
There were no books telling him what to expect as Vincent matured, and when the unthinkable had happened, the reality of his own helplessness had been gut-wrenching. That he, a physician, should have no more to offer than obscene bondage and the sound of his own poor voice, droning on hour after weary hour -- Never had he known such a sense of his own limitations -- or such a fierce unconditional love.
And Vincent had survived that bleak time. With superhuman will. Pushing down the darkness, emptying himself of its savage dominion. But for how long. Jacob was unsure which he feared more -- another eruption of that mindless brutality or the possibility that the emptiness would expand, swallowing up the gentle spirit of the man Vincent had become.
"All is well tonight, Father. Even the pipes are quiet."
"Well, good. If there are no minor problems to precipitate the major ones, then perhaps the fates will allow me to tackle Mr. Pindar in peace. I could use your help."
"Everything I know about the language I learned from you."
"Perhaps, but your mind is younger, more agile. I'm sure you remember a great deal that I've forgotten." He angled the book toward his son, inviting him to move closer, but Vincent remained where he was.
"Do you believe that, Father -- in fate?"
Jacob's hand slid from the proffered book to lie flat on the scarred desk top. "Well, I suppose it depends on your definition. There are many --"
"In books, Father -- in books men often confront their destinies at an appointed place and time. Lovers meet-seemingly by the merest chance -- and their lives are transformed. As if these things can happen no other way, as if some power in the universe were controlling even the slightest circumstance, so that their destinies could be fulfilled."
"It's a romantic notion, certainly, but in the real world -- well, if you're speaking of love, I'm probably not the best person to ask. As you can see, I've managed on my own, and I like to think that my life has been fulfilling, happy, though a solitary one." The lie slid easily into place, as easily as the plump cushions with which he had surrounded the infant Vincent to keep him from tumbling off the bed, as easily as he had banished Lisa -- one of their own -- when she had threatened his son's precarious balance.
"You've never wished to know love?"
That blue gaze, so astonishingly clear, so utterly guileless, pricked at his conscience, and Jacob retreated from it, settling back in his chair, steepling his fingers in a pose of objectivity. "If there is a power that decides these things, it decided-long ago -- that I should live my life alone. It's not such a bad fate."
If Vincent recognized the reply as a non-answer he gave no indication. Please accept it, Vincent. Accept your own destiny, bleak as it may be, because you must, and because this evasion has cost me my own good conscience. To deny that I could be who I am without the love, the joy, and yes, even the pain that changed my life...
"You have often said, Father, that great literature is a reflection of life. Surely, there are some in this world who come together and know from that moment their paths are set, that they can know true happiness only with each other."
"Oh, I'm not denying such things might occur occasionally," he said with an airy gesture meant to convey doubt. But across his mind's eye he saw the swirl of a summer dress against the sunny yellow of a taxi, felt again the all-consuming sense of purpose that had brought him to that spot repeatedly, the click of truth as, nearly a year later, she -- Margaret -- had turn and looked at him.
Never. He had vowed never to reveal that part of his past to Vincent. To do so would negate his image as one whose lot was not so very different from his son's. Condemned to a solitary life, Vincent needed to have as his example a man content to live a monastic existence. Jacob was convinced of that. Reading about romantic love was one thing. It was inevitable that Vincent should scrutinize the subject as intensely as he did any other, but hypothetical it must remain. Bringing the notion into the realm of reality could only increase the hopeless longings of a soul as sensitive as Vincent's. There was so much that he could never experience. So much --
"Hmm. Oh, forgive me, I was just thinking that for most people love is a rather prosaic process. They meet, get to know one another, the friendship deepens. It's less a moment of truth than a procedure that begins in the most ordinary places -- at school, in an office, perhaps at that lamentable ritual -- the cocktail party."
"That doesn't necessarily mean their union was accidental. Surely, if fate can bring people together so dramatically, it can do so in a conventional way as well."
"Perhaps it can," Jacob conceded, pleased to find the conversation back on more theoretical ground. "And if so, one has to wonder about the missed opportunities-the turning away just at the moment that someone enters a room, the decision to stay home on the very day one might have encountered his soul mate on the subway. Think of the tragedies that must have occurred throughout history with the participants none the wiser."
"Then it is not truly fate that holds the reins if its power can be so easily thwarted," Vincent countered, "If something is meant to be, a mere turning away can not forestall it. For the design to be completed, there must come a day when the right step is taken at the light time."
Jacob was becoming far more comfortable with this conversation. "Now you are raising the question of extent. The relation of fate -- or God -- to free will, determinism. I suspect we shall have to bring Spinoza into the mix. I'm quite ready to debate the issue-from either side, so, tell me, which position would you prefer to defend?"
"Neither." To the older man's surprise Vincent rose suddenly, head cocked as if listening to something far away. That closed look he had of late settled briefly over his strangely compelling features and was gone. "Not tonight -- I must go."
"Go. Vincent, you just got here." Jacob was disappointed and not a little alarmed. "I thought you said that everything was peaceful tonight."
"I, Father. I am not...peaceful." Fur-tufted hands rose and fell again in an eloquent shrug. "It's merely restlessness, the need to move."
"You're certain that's all. Well, perhaps it's a touch of spring fever. It is spring up there, you know, and none of us is impervious to the seasonal changes even down here." He eyed his son uneasily, hoping the diagnosis was correct. No need to mention that Vincent seemed far more tuned to the subtle rhythms of nature than normal men. All creatures felt a stirring at the springtime toward new beginnings, toward love, toward the sun. The thought depressed him utterly.
"Father, please. You mustn't worry so about me." Vincent's voice, low and singularly soothing, seemed spun from the thread of Jacob's own melancholy. "I know what I am. I know what dreams I may dream and those I dare not. And you forget," he said with gentle humor, "that I seldom attend cocktail parties."
Jacob managed half a smile in response.
"We'll continue this discussion on another night." Vincent approached, bowing to bestow a parting kiss. Golden hair tickled briefly at Jacob's close-cropped beard. "And if I should meet anyone of Greek heritage along the way, I will send them to the rescue -- I promise."
He was gone, as quickly and as silently as he'd come, swinging lithely up the steps to disappear into the tunnels. Jacob watched him go. A romantic spirit doomed never to hear words of love. The body of a Grecian warrior condemned to a life of chastity. His sigh was lost in the empty room.
Ah, April -- the cruelest month.
Vincent's long, unhurried strides angled past the populated tunnels into the web of unlighted passageways which curled endlessly off into the earth. No sentries stood watch against the pocked walls. Most men's eyes were useless here.
He had no desire to meet anyone. Talking had not helped, although he'd prayed it would. The inwardness to which he was inclined had intensified in recent months. Deep inside there was a void, small at first, then growing until he wondered what it was he had lost to make its presence possible within him, and very much feared it might be hope.
His powers of concentration had often served him well, the ability to draw himself down into some central core to become still and strong, sufficient unto himself. What he met there now was disquiet, and a soft, nameless hunger that offered no clue to the nature of what it craved.
Solitude. It was his haven and his vice. He'd begun to wonder if the fault might be his own. In the relentless introspection he had denied himself the warmth of companionship, the stimulation of conversation. Perhaps this brooding obsession over what was, after all, the most elusive of sensations, had merely dulled his mind.
So he had gone to the study tonight, hoping to recapture the satisfaction of countless evenings shared with Father. Evenings when they talked for hours, ranging over subjects from the frivolous to the profound, arguing one philosophical viewpoint or another, daring each other on to new concepts.
And at first it had worked. He had found himself sliding easily into the comfort of familiarity, the affectionate warmth of Father's presence, but still the feeling was there, claiming his attention, nudging him forward -- to what? Intellectual exercise did not quell it, and as he made his way unerringly through a dank, lightless corridor, he wondered if his unease might be physical after all.
Before him a long passage sloped steeply upward, and he took it at a deliberate run, never slowing till he reached the top where a treacherous fissure torn in the rock floor awaited. It was possible to cross judiciously in the far corner where a stub of solid rock still jutted. He knew this place even in the darkness, knew just where to step as he had so many times before, but tonight he did not. Tonight he leapt it, feeling the beleaguered shale crumble beneath his boot as it found the rim.
Downward again through twisting walls of rock that raced toward him. He could feel their stone-cold breath on his face as he passed, turning in mid-flight to slip swiftly through invisible openings, so that only his billowing cloak knew the scrape of rough rock. It made no difference where he went or why. There was only the rush of movement, the gratifying tingle in muscles fine-tuned to his command.
He had not always known it, not realized that his strength and speed were beyond those of the other boys, nor that he harbored an innate ability to control these things with the agility of reflex. Once he had simply been a small boy, surrounded by bigger playmates, then a gangly adolescent, no more sure of the exact dimensions of his arms and legs than any other teenager. When it had come to him – that sense of balance, the art of fusing action to impulse with no delaying thought -- he had hidden it like a guilty secret, one more proof that he was different.
But there was no shame in it.
Alone, he ran and jumped and climbed and took pride in the precision. And when at last some boyhood dare had goaded him into betrayal, the response of the others -- admiration, even envy -- had become his new secret pleasure. They -- even Mitch -- were envious of him. The concept dazzled him for weeks, until everyone ceased to marvel at it and accepted his prowess as simply part of who he was, a creature unique and apart.
Humility settled back in place then like a shroud. The brief flirtation with vanity subsided, replaced by a far more familiar feeling -- shame. Shame that he had dared to experience arrogance and to briefly embrace the feeling.
But he had never regretted what he was. He didn't regret it now, as he slowed to catch his breath. He stopped and bent forward, hands on his knees, absorbing the sensation of a swiftly beating heart, the exhilaration and exhaustion. Experience told him the sensation would quickly fade.
Oxygen, Father had explained once when Vincent was very young. Apparently, he consumed vast quantities of it, burned it with an efficiency much to be admired, but he hadn't really understood, and Devin had only taken advantage of the mysterious notion. He could still hear his brother complaining loudly -- one night when they were quarreling -- that he was using up all the air in their chamber.
He straightened up, vaguely surprised to find himself blinking in the light. It was a strong light, yellow and blandly artificial, the sort that burned only in the uppermost passageways. His impetuous race against himself, against the malaise whose nature eluded him, had brought him close to the top of their world. And still it teased at his consciousness, refusing to be analyzed, demanding to be satisfied.
At the end of the manmade tunnel was a circle of steel.
Beyond it, he knew, lay the park and a world of possibilities he could scarcely fathom. Not that he hadn't tried. For weeks now he had taken to the streets in the dead of night, roaming the littered alleyways, scaling the heights of its mystical towers. Around him the city swirled, jeweled with bright lights, laced with the unmistakable odor of human despair, and he had soaked it in, studied it from the vantage point of the angels and from the black, fetid shadows polluted with fear.
But he could not touch it. There was no more interaction between himself and this complex place than if he had been a ghost, invisible, existing on a different plane of reality from the people he observed.
His breathing was normal now, his energy restored. Not mental. Not physical. The silent yearning persisted, and he let it pull him subtly down the golden pipe to the very edge of safety.
This door. Once it had proved a portal to magic. Devin and the others urging him to come along, delighting in his amazement that there should be something so wonderful in the world as a real carousel. For a few minutes he had tasted freedom and fantasy, dizzy with the tinkling music and the colors flashing past. It had ended badly, but tonight he chose only to remember the joy.
Was it that memory which set his nerves tingling now and caused him to reach for the lever that slid the door away?
He paused on the other side, listening, pulling his hood over the bright hair which could betray him, even in the palest moonbeam. The last stretch of tunnel was damp, its concrete roof too low for walking upright. But the journey seemed effortless. Anticipation bloomed in him, drawing him forward, until he stood at the rim of that other world, at the border of possibilities.
What a strange night it was!
The park had been transformed into a mystic land he scarcely recognized. Snow he had seen here and piles of autumn leaves, but the earth, warmed by April sunshine during the day, was releasing its springtime moisture into the cold night air, creating wisps of fog that lingered near' the ground like earthbound clouds.
He knew the scientific explanation, but in the soft, insistent mood that grew in him with every minute, he found the scene wholly romantic. This was a fairyland. Silent and full of promise,
Not the least of its promises was that he could move about the park in relative obscurity. The fog would blur his image to anyone who happened to pass. But no one was likely to come here tonight at all, he realized with a sense of freedom. No sound and very little sight. Only the redolent scent of growing things. That and the nameless longing that still pulled at him, drawing him out into the open.
He let it guide him. There was nothing else worth listening to, but its faint, beguiling urging. Soft boots met grass springy with new growth, as he moved like a shadow up the sloping lawn. Tufts of mist vanished in his path to reappear some steps ahead, and it surprised him to suddenly find the sidewalk stretched at his feet. The road was deserted. What now? He stood scanning the eerie landscape for a clue, something that would lend purpose to what seemed mere aimlessness.
The shrouded street lamp revealed only shadows and the dim, grey ribbon of road. The buildings on Fifth Avenue appeared farther away than usual. Even the skittish sound of animals, that could commonly be heard in the undergrowth on quiet nights, was absent.
And then he saw it.
No more than a shadow within a shadow. Something darker on the dark grass. He moved toward it, never taking his eyes from the spot, and his heart beat faster as it took shape, out of place here, ominously still. A hand pale against the earth, the other pinned beneath her.
He knelt, gently lifting the tangled hair to reveal the woman's face. A wave of shock poured through his veins, and his stomach lurched. Once she had been beautiful; he could see that even in the meager light, even beneath the hideous cross-hatching of wounds.
Rage soared within him, and instantly every muscle coiled to strike, but even as he raised his head, searching with all his senses for a target, he knew there was none. Whoever had done this was gone.
How? How could men exist who were capable of this?
His hand found her neck, searching for a pulse as Father had taught him to do. Father, who warned him what evil could lurk in this world. But he'd never conjured anything more senselessly cruel than this.
After a moment, Vincent sank back on his heels. The thought of leaving her here was repugnant. No one would find her until daylight.
But find her they must. Therein lay the only hope left -- the hope for justice. Someone must surely follow the path of this young woman's life to the ones who had done this. They must be punished. They must not be allowed to strike again.
He rose, and his breath plumed out before him. But he could not leave her -- not without a silent benediction, and so he stood for a moment, head bowed, tendrils of fog snaking around his feet, and then he turned, cutting straight across the slope to the waiting culvert.
Away from the magical landscape that hid only evil. A way from the fanciful goals of his longing.
Away from the woman lying dead on the grass.
Never had he felt so irrevocably alone.
"And frankly, I don't like being told who I can talk to."
"Then use better judgment!"
"All right, maybe I should call it a night."
"That's not an option."
"Oh, it's not?"
"Excuse me, you two, mind if an old friend says hello?"
Catherine Chandler paused in mid-mutiny, inwardly fuming at Tom's hand on her elbow. "Mr. Lawrence?" Surprise short-circuited her anger. "I thought you were in San Francisco."
"Well, I was," Sid Lawrence threw a pudgy arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "Just got back last week. You're looking all grown up, Cathy, and beautiful as your mother. How are you doing, Gunther?"
"I'm fine, Sid." Tom smoothed his tie. His most charming smile -- the one he reserved for the very rich, she thought rebelliously -- slid into place. "Do I understand that you're moving the whole operation back to Manhattan, lock, stock and barrel?"
"Lock, stocks and bonds, don't you mean?" Lawrence poked Tom jovially in the region of his solar plexus, and Catherine could only wish he'd done it a little harder. "We'll talk later. Why don't you give my secretary a call? Right now, I'm stealing your girl here for a little talk."
"By all means." Tom all but clicked his heels. "If you'll excuse me."
Tom's willingness to relinquish her to Sid Lawrence had nothing to do with his status as an old family friend. Lawrence was wealthy, a potential investor in Tom's projects. Eve had nothing to offer but friendship. The world according to Tom. "It's good to see you again, Mr. Lawrence. Are you really setting up an office here?"
"You bet, but I'm going to take a little R&R first. To tell you the truth, I haven't hired an administrative staff yet, including a secretary, but Gunther's always been too much the eager beaver for my taste. It'll be good for him to cool his heels awhile."
Catherine smiled. She'd always liked Uncle Sid.
"Charles isn't here tonight, is he?"
"I'm afraid not. It's just me. He's going to be awfully glad to know you're back though."
"I hope so. I've got some big plans. Wouldn't hurt to have a sharp corporate attorney."
"He's the best," Catherine smiled proudly, and only then noticed that Eve's place at the table was empty. Poor Eve. So alone. So lost. "Mr. Lawrence, are you serious about needing staffers. I have a friend who may be looking for a job. I don't think she's worked for a while, and-well, she's having a rough time, but she's conscientious. If someone would give her a break, I'm sure she'd make the most of it."
"You're a sweet girl, Cathy," Lawrence said gruffly, "like your mom. Sure, have her call me. We'll find something for her. Now what's this 'Mister' business. Whatever happened to 'Uncle Sid'?"
Tom had been ebullient on the way home. Catherine couldn't be sure whether he'd forgotten their quarrel or simply dismissed it as trivial next to the connections he'd forged at the party. Neither possibility did a thing to ease her growing discontent.
"Do you have any idea how much Lawrence Enterprises made last year? He obviously has a soft spot in his heart for you. It might not be a bad idea to throw a party-to welcome him back to New York."
It didn't seem to faze Tom that she didn't answer. In fact, he raised only token protest later at her apartment when she slipped into bed with a curt "good night."
Now with the morning sun pouring through the French doors, he fussed with his cufflinks as he came out of the bedroom, surprised to find her still in her robe. "I thought we could share a cab. What's the matter, aren't you feeling well?"
"I'm fine, Tom. I'm just not going in for a while."
"Well, that's your prerogative. I don't think the boss will fire you, do you?"
He meant it as a joke. Furthermore it was the truth, but the comment rankled, and Catherine rose from the couch before be could bend to kiss her, going to the front door to retrieve the morning paper.
"Why don't you take it easy today, and I'll send the limo by about six. We'll have dinner, take in that musical you've been wanting to see."
But Catherine wasn't listening. She stood in the middle of the living room looking at the front page of the newspaper.
"Anything earthshaking this morning?" Tom asked.
"A woman was killed last night in Central Park."
"Oh?" He threw the paper a desultory look. "That's hardly news. Somebody gets killed in this town every day."
"It says her face was slashed -- repeatedly. Why would anyone do something like that? It's such a horrible way to die."
"There are horrible people out there, Cathy." This time he managed to slip an arm around her and kiss her cheek. "But they're nothing to do with us. You shouldn't read that kind of thing. It'll give you nightmares. "
"Tom, she was at the party last night. I saw her."
"No, really, she was wearing a red dress."
"Who was she? Does it say who she was with?"
"Her name was Carol Stabler -- No, it doesn't say."
"Never heard of her." That fact alone seemed sufficient to exhaust Tom's interest in the subject, and he went to the mirror, arching his neck from side to side.
Checking out his splendor from every angle, Catherine thought irreverently. "Tom, I really don't feel like going out tonight. Thanks anyway."
"You're not still mad?" Aha, he did remember. "Come on, Cathy. You know I get uptight when there's a lot at stake, but nothing's more important to me than you are. You know that."
She nodded dutifully. "I'd just rather stay home tonight, that's all. Give me a call."
"Whatever you want," he said generously. "I'll check with you later on today, but please stop reading that trash. It will only upset you."
It did upset her. He was right about that, she thought when he'd gone. And he was right, too, about murders being reported every day. Why this one should touch her so, she wasn't sure. Maybe because it was particularly brutal or because the woman was real to her. She had seen Carol Stabler, apparently only a short time before it happened. She was more than a name on a piece of paper, more than a pretty face.
She found herself looking at that face for a long time and wondering what there was about it that chilled her so.
When Tom called her later that day, she stuck to her guns about spending the evening at home. No chance that he would want to join her here. Oh, he was eager enough to get her into bed, but only after an evening on the town, being seen by the right people in the light places.
Her cynicism surprised her. Did he really deserve it? He'd been good to her since they had started dating months ago, an amusing companion, a considerate lover. Most of the single women in this city would jump at the chance to date one of its most up-and-coming real estate tycoons. So he wasn't perfect.
Everyone seemed to assume their relationship would lead to marriage. Maybe things would be different if it did. Maybe she wouldn't mind so much his taking it for granted that she'd be there whenever he wanted. She knew that she was lucky, that she was the envy of a lot of women her age. Why, then, did it feel lately that she was leading someone else's life. Pleasing Tom. Pleasing her father -- well, he hadn't been particularly pleased at her four-hour day today, not with the Pancorps merger pending, she thought ruefully.
The six o'clock news brought a picture of Carol Stabler's face to her TV screen, her face before they'd done that to her. It seemed she had worked for an escort service. What would Tom say about that. She could almost hear his scornful dismissal on grounds that "people like that" were asking for trouble. But nobody asked for that. Nobody deserved to be horribly murdered, and nobody deserved to have that murder dismissed as incidental.
That conviction was apparently shared by the next person whose face appeared on the screen, a young district attorney. His expression was grim as he talked to reporters, but he had kind eyes, and a boyish look that made her wonder how he coped with the sordidness of his job. Deputy DA Joseph Maxwell was promising that the perpetrators would be found and brought to justice. He looked determined. He looked as if he cared.
Would that she could care as much about the Pancorps merger.
"Vincent? -- Mind if I join you?"
Pascal's voice was tentative -- his step, too, as he moved out onto the badly deteriorating boards of the bridge. The reception he got was less than enthusiastic. Vincent merely looked at him and held out a hand indicating a place beside him before turning back to his study of the nothingness below.
Not a very inviting place either, Pascal thought, as he settled himself gingerly, fully expecting to feel the jab of a splinter at any moment. "So -- you haven't been to the pipe chamber for a while. Anything going on?"
"No one knows more of what's 'going on' than you, Pascal."
"I guess that's true enough, but I meant with you. We haven't talked for a long time."
"There's nothing to say."
Pascal nodded and for a while watched the clouds roiling far below his feet. He was used to Vincent's silences. He had shared them many times, as friends could who had known each other all their lives. But lately it was hard to say they had a friendship. Vincent seemed to be avoiding everyone.
Oh, he was responsive enough when called for, unfailingly polite, and he never lost that air of absorption in what someone else was saying. His friend was a great listener, Pascal thought admiringly. Vincent might have been a natural as a pipemaster. But he never seemed to initiate conversations of his own accord anymore. It had been months since he'd come by the pipe chamber to visit, a worrisome length of time.
So the mountain had come to Muhammad. "That was something, wasn't it, that guy dressed up like a monster, attacking all those people?"
"It was something."
"And using our world to hide from the police."
"Only the edges of it."
"Good thing, too. He might have called attention to this place. We could have lost everything. Imagine thinking he could take the law into this own hands like that and expect to get away with it. It must be a strange world up there."
"So I'm told."
"Father figures he took a wrong turn when he was escaping through the subways. Maybe something spooked him. It looked like he'd been wandering around for days. Starvation -- what an awful way to go."
Vincent said nothing.
"That reminds me, you should have heard Winslow yesterday. He was spluttering like a steam pipe. Father told him he better start watching his weight if he wanted to live to a ripe old age. You can guess how well he took that."
At last-an inquiring look.
"He said if Father was so worried about where all the calories were going, he'd better take a good look at the cook."
That drew a first faint smile from Vincent but no comment.
Another period of silence followed. The wind was wrong tonight, stealing away the sounds that sometimes penetrated from above. "Oh, I do have a piece of news. You know that body you found in the park last spring. I told you there'd been an arrest just a couple of weeks later. Well, today the men responsible were convicted. I guess some things work right up there."
"If they worked right she never would have been attacked," Vincent said quietly.
Pascal could only nod. He was fresh out of small talk and hadn't heard one revealing word from his friend. Still, he sat a few more minutes before rising. "Well, I'd better get back. I'd like it if you'd stop by sometime. Will you do that?"
"Of course." Vincent's look was kind, almost sympathetic, but when Pascal reached solid ground and turned back, the shaggy golden head was once more bent in fierce concentration on the void.
"Tom, that's ridiculous."
There was silence on the other end of the line. She could picture him gritting his teeth. "Cathy, I've been very patient with you and your stubbornness and your vague, air-headed notions of finding yourself, but I won't be called ridiculous."
"Fine. Just forget it, Tom. Forget it." The slam of the receiver was somehow gratifying. What was there really left to forget? They hadn't slept together in months. She'd told him she needed some space, some time, that maybe they should see other people.
He hadn't taken it well. People like Tom never took having their plans thwarted well. But for a while he'd played the game. Sending flowers to her office, going to elaborate lengths to show her a good time on those rare occasions that they saw each other, even pretending to support her in her newfound commitment to the job.
She doubted he would have been so cooperative if he hadn't been so busy in his professional life. The truth was, he didn't really have time for her either, not when he was putting together several ambitious projects and working to charm every cent he could out of potential investors.
But tonight was the last straw. She had asked him to be her date at a charity function, the kind of event he was usually eager to attend, sure to garner a picture on the society page, a mention in the gossip columns. And she had really looked forward to seeing the extensive art collection that was the focus of the evening, the gift of another prominent young entrepreneur.
"Cathy, I am not going to stand there in the background while Elliot Burch preens for the cameras. He's getting too much publicity as it is without me there to give him credibility. You just watch. I'm going to blow him out of the water with this Fairmont deal. Six months from now nobody's even going to remember his name."
"For heaven's sake, Torn. You make it sound like a popularity contest. It's an art exhibit."
"I'm not doing it, Cathy. Now, I'd like to see you. What do you say we skip the exhibit and go to that romantic little Italian place in the Village? Remember the first time I took you there?"
She remembered, and it sounded like an effort to recapture a simpler time, when she had been more naive about the depth of his character. No doubt he hoped a bottle of vintage wine and an ample helping of Gunther rhetoric could maneuver her back into the bedroom. "I'd like to see the paintings, Tom. If you don't want to go, if you're afraid of being upstaged by this Burch person, that's your decision."
The conversation had only deteriorated from there. "Ridiculous" was not a word that Tom could allow anywhere near his precious self-image, but maybe it was a magic word, because she suddenly felt relieved and pleasantly free. Free of a relationship that had never had much substance. Free of his patronizing attitude as she'd tried to buckle down and really make something of the work.
She'd done a decent job of it, too. Everyone said so. Daddy was almost embarrassingly tickled when she took to coming in on time, applying herself to the task at hand. But in a way she was almost sorry she'd done it. There hadn't been as much satisfaction in the effort as she'd hoped. This time she had really tried and succeeded, but there was no more sense of fulfillment than when she'd given the work only sporadic attention.
What was it she was looking for? There was a hollowness that begged to be filled, but not with the work she was doing now and not with the likes of Tom Gunther. Love. Purpose. How did you go about getting what you needed when you couldn't even identify what it was?
In the end, she didn't go to the exhibit either.
Eve phoned and asked her to come to dinner, and she accepted. Catherine felt a little guilty on that score. The woman so clearly needed a friend, but she had been too caught up in her own life to follow through. In the months since they had run into each other at Tom's party, Eve had somehow pulled her act together. Starting as a receptionist, she was now an executive assistant at Lawrence Enterprises. Confident, involved, pleased with her life.
Catherine only wished she knew her secret.
"You're determined to go then?" Foolish question. Might as well ask the sun if it was determined to rise. Once Vincent made up his mind about something, there was no stopping him.
"It can only do me good, Father. Sleep well."
Sleep. Not bloody likely with Vincent roving around in plain sight above. Jacob sank wearily into his chair. Perhaps, it was true that this could only do good. It was becoming harder to imagine how things could be much worse. This talk, this quarrel, about Vincent's going above was easily the longest conversation they'd had in months.
His son's introversion had truly become alarming -- to everyone who knew him. Jacob had searched in vain for some way of drawing him out, some task that would capture his interest, but nothing had worked. Vincent fulfilled his responsibilities. He responded with the same lucid gentleness he had always displayed, but melancholy hung about him dark as his cloak. He shunned companionship, roaming the tunnels as if looking for something, something he'd given up ever hoping to find.
Perhaps this O'Donnell woman was the answer. Vincent admired her so; a few inspiring words and he might spark to life again. Jacob only prayed God that the woman wouldn't turn her back on him and crush his vulnerable spirit further. The possibility was even more frightening than the physical dangers of that wretched world.
If there was ever a moment for a woman to reach out and rescue a man blindly lost within himself, this was it. But Brigit was merely an author, only an activist. He wasn't sure that either talent qualified her for the formidable task at hand.
Time for a soothing cup of tea. He rose and set the kettle on to boil, praying for a miracle.
Vincent's boots hit the deserted terrace with a soft thud, scattering a flock of dry leaves. He hadn't felt so alive in months. Every nerve was alert, eager. Through the glass doors he could see a room filled with people in fantastic costumes. Was it only the prospect of walking among them that had his heart racing?
He thought not. The yearning he had first noticed so many months before was more intense now, almost a physical ache. So far, all efforts to follow its lead had proved futile. He knew no more now about its origins, about what it wanted of him, than he ever had, but tonight he sensed a subtle change.
If what drove him was a growing hunger, then here, tonight, he was catching the first whiff of something delicious and satisfying that could end his starvation. A banquet.
Brigit's words had helped him in the past. If he could see her, thank her, it might restore his ability to connect with other people, give him a sense of himself again.
A quick survey of the room beyond didn't pick her out. He was sure he would recognize her, even in costume, but there were a great many people, gathering in groups. She might be hidden in anyone of them, or perhaps she was yet to arrive. He settled his cloak more surely on his shoulders, and taking a deep breath, opened the door and stepped inside.
The raucous atmosphere enfolded him, overloading every sense. It was astonishingly warm in here, though none of the others seemed to notice. A confetti of vivid colors and sharp music showered around him, calling back that moment on the carousel. This, too, was a fantasy of their world, not the real thing, he reminded himself, and felt the point driven home when a jovial skeleton materialized at his elbow.
He circled, instinctively keeping the others in his sights. A waiter approached, offering his tray, an experience he would have to remember as a first and -- no doubt -- last. In his astonishment, Vincent could only stare at the glistening mound of caviar in the dish. "From Russia?" It seemed the world Above was a smaller place than he had envisioned if such exotica from across the earth was standard fare.
But the waiter's acknowledgment had served to remind him that he was not, in fact, invisible. Not tonight. Best to stay in one place, as unobtrusive as possible and to wait. He was remarkably good at waiting.
The more still he became the easier it was to catalogue the thousand unfamiliar sensations bombarding his senses. He had already noted the exits, a natural first priority: elevators, a stairway, and his personal favorite, the terrace.
More people were arriving all the time to be sifted through his consciousness quickly and set aside when they carried no presentiment of danger. The smells would take a longer time to examine, more time than he had here. So many of them were unfamiliar, clashing and blending with each other, intensified in the overheated room until he thought it advisable not to concentrate on them at all.
He still hadn't located Brigit O'Donnell, but she might be in any one of the knots of people dotted about the room. The air was shrill with voices and music and the clatter that could only arise from dozens of people in motion. He heard it all. Right down to the tinkle of coins on a dancing girl's ankle Sounds were easy for him. He, who could move so soundlessly himself, had been able always to sort the separate elements in even the most cacophonous of noises.
There were so many to choose from now. In the Whispering Gallery he might have found any of these conversations intriguing, but he lingered on none of them for long, preferring to savor the totality of what was sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The sliding of the elevator doors. The drummer's swiftly beating sticks. (Pascal would admire such dexterity.) A concentrated wave of mirth from the far table as a punch line was delivered. The saxophone's patrol-car wail streaking across the heads of the dancers. A single feminine laugh. It rose soft and melodious from somewhere in the depths of the crowd.
And it stopped his heart.
The wild mixture of sounds faded, as though muffled under invisible drifts of snow. There was only that sound, richly genuine, yet light as air; unprecedented, and yet achingly familiar. It carried with it an instantaneous flood of emotions that almost staggered him. Joy and pain intense enough for tears. He strained to hold its echo and found it fluttering with butterfly warmth in that place inside that had been forever empty.
The sensation lasted only a moment before the room swelled to life again, loud and relentless. Dazed, he shook his head. Perhaps he had imagined it, imagined that some subtle, unseen thing could slide beneath his wary senses to strike that unreachable place. The warmth. The warmth of this room, when he was accustomed to the constant coolness of the tunnels -- it must be playing tricks with his perception.
Still, he searched the crowd, trying to identify the source of his confusion. The sound might have come from anyone of the gaily dressed women. All strangers to him. How was he to tell. The witch. The fairy princess. The Mona Lisa, leaning on her picture frame as she chatted with Abraham Lincoln.
His eyes darted to a Gypsy. A drink in one hand, she was gesturing to emphasize some point that her cowboy companion obviously grasped because he nodded. Could it be. No way to be sure, and after all, what difference did it make. Father would cringe if he knew how he'd dropped his guard, here among potential enemies, relaxed his focus on some whim that he didn't understand. He was here to see Brigit O'Donnell.
The Gypsy leaned into the embrace of a sheikh, revealing a flash of white feathers as she did so. The feathers adorned a mask weaving gently in the air as the woman who held it spoke. He couldn't see her face. She was turned away, dressed in an elaborate court gown, her hair piled high in an intricate fashion.
He could not see her face, could not hear her voice, but he was suddenly certain that this was the woman whose laugh had struck him. All logical purpose fell away, and he found himself staring at her, willing her with every ounce of his being to turn around.
"He didn't!" Marie looked suitably aghast.
"I swear to God he did," Ellen insisted.
"That's what you get for dating lawyers," Greg said. "Whoops, sorry, Cathy."
"No problem, Greg."
"Well, then you won't mind my mentioning this great poster I saw in Tribeca the other day," Jeff chimed in. "It's a courtroom scene, only coming towards the judge you just see this big shark fin sticking out of the floor and the caption says: 'Counsel approaching the bench'."
Amid the laughter, Ellen added, "No fair ganging up on her. Don't you have a date here tonight to defend your honor, Cath?"
"Sure do. My dad."
"What ever happened to Tom Gunther?" Marie leaned toward her conspiratorially. "Aren't you seeing him anymore?"
"Uh-uh," she answered cheerfully.
"I can't believe it. I mean, Tom Gunther. He's got to be one of the prime catches around."
"You'd get no argument from him," Catherine smiled.
"Did you meet Brigit yet?"
"Yes, just a little while ago. She's wonderful."
"I want to ask her about that part in 300 Days with the crippled boy --"
"No, that was in the other one -- what was it?" Ellen frowned, "Too Many Heroes."
At least everyone seemed to have read Brigit's work -- and had something to say about it. After a moment, the conversation drifted beyond her. Catherine turned with a casual glance at her surroundings and didn't turn back.
Across the room, someone was staring at her.
No -- not staring. He was simply looking at her with an expression she couldn't identify behind the extraordinary mask. He didn't drop his gaze to find himself discovered, and strangely, neither did she.
There followed no wink, no flirtatious smile. There were only those clear, slanted eyes, even from here a startling shade of blue, and a feeling rushing through her like the beat of warm wings.
His lips parted slightly, showing a glimmer of white. Not a mask then. An incredible make-up job. The observation skittered past, lost in a sudden confusion of emotion. Vaguely, she thought that she should look away.
And knew as swiftly that she wouldn't.
She looked at him.
Pale green eyes, wide in a flawless face, met his, and for the first time since embarking on this adventure, Vincent knew fear. Fear that she would turn away. Fear that she would not.
It arced across the muscles of a body immobilized by feelings he couldn't name, filling his awareness, so that he didn't notice the figure that had separated itself from the crowd, coming toward him. It was only when she spoke that he registered her presence.
"Extraordinary," said Brigit O'Donnell.
The slight, graceful figure of a woman moved into Catherine's line of vision. Their guest of honor, Brigit herself, and the spell broke.
Catherine wondered at the sensation that she had stood for long minutes, eyes locked with a perfect stranger's, and then realized that it couldn't have been as long as she imagined. Nothing more than an awkward social moment. But she didn't feel awkward. She felt stunned.
When Greg asked her to dance, she hesitated, trying to place his role in all this, and then allowed him to set her drink aside and take her hand. Nothing like a good cha-cha to clear the mind, she told herself, as the Latin rhythm filled the room.
When she looked again, it was to see the black-clad stranger walking with Brigit O'Donnell toward the terrace doors.
Vincent had said his piece. The words he'd prepared so carefully to express his gratitude slid out of their own accord. He scarcely heard them, but Brigit responded graciously and surprised him by suggesting they go outside.
Perhaps she'd noticed that his attention wasn't total, that some part of him, some sense beyond the ones he focused on her, was shimmering into life like fire-shot crystal.
Curiosity prompted several furtive glances toward the veranda, but Brigit and her cloaked friend seemed to have vanished.
Catherine held up her end of the obligatory small talk, something she, as a veteran of countless social events like this one, could do almost in her sleep. It occurred to her that the young man who'd attached himself to her for the last half hour was equally distracted. More than once she caught him looking sharply about the crowded room, even as he kept up his flirtatious banter.
As the band announced a break, she could see her father making his way through the crowd, hampered by the cavalry sword at his belt that kept catching on the clothes of the people he passed. Catherine thought he looked rather gallant as he touched his hat in apology. She greeted him with a grin.
"Cathy, honey, some of us are going to escape over to the Rainbow Room for a quiet drink. Would you care to come along? And you too, of course, Pratt," he added, "Anybody who could put Alan Prasker so thoroughly on the defensive must have some interesting stories."
"I appreciate the invitation," Donald said smoothly, "but actually I haven't met Brigit O'Donnell yet. I'll have to decline."
"I'd like to stay a while, too," Catherine said, "but you go ahead and have a good time."
"Well, if you're sure you'll be safe with this rogue." Charles kissed her cheek. "I'll see you in the morning."
Donald moved closer as her father left them, and she realized with dismay that he'd probably taken her decision as a sign of interest. She was interested, all right, but it wasn't in him or his blandly predictable efforts to pick her up. In fact, she could not have said precisely what made her feel that she must stay, that something wasn't finished.
She looked around, hoping to catch the eye of someone she knew, hoping to be extricated from Pratt's attentions without seeming rude, when the veranda doors opened and two people stepped inside.
They were not exactly the two who had left, she noted with confusion. Brigit had donned the other's voluminous cloak and he -- he cut a far more romantic figure than the pirate at her side.
Most people wore costumes only self-consciously, but he seemed at ease in his flamboyant ruffles and tight breeches. Fringed gloves hid his hands, no doubt to keep from spoiling the overall effect of some regal creature caught halfway between the animal world and man's. He was very tall, muscular. He might have looked almost frightening, but for the softening effect of the hair. A wild profusion of red-gold, it fell past his shoulders and hid his profile as he bent to speak to Brigit.
"I wonder where our famous author is hiding herself," Donald said with a note of impatience. And, seeing her chance for freedom, Catherine proceeded to tell him.
"You should not go alone." Vincent's voice, softly urgent, pulled her round to face him.
Brigit's dark eyes were sparkling in the sheltering folds of the hood. "There's none to know I'm leaving," she whispered, reassuringly, "and I'll be back before anyone's the wiser."
Far be it from him to deny a cloistered spirit its taste of freedom, not when he understood so well the pull of it. He should go with her, keep her safe, and yet something within would not let him leave this room -- not yet. He could only hope to persuade her not to do this, not without someone along who had her trust.
"Perhaps, if -- "
A commotion near the elevators drew his attention. Antennas bobbing, the blue-faced butler was trying to restrain a man in a clown suit who gestured with frustration at the room beyond. Vincent couldn't hear what they were saying, but as he watched, senses honed to the hint of danger, one of Brigit's burly bodyguards hurried to the spot, ripping the clown's nose from his outraged face.
The band was playing again, and the altercation went unnoticed by most of the guests, but Brigit had turned to follow his gaze. Abandoning her impetuous plans, she pushed the hood back and frowned in the direction of the disturbance. "Would you excuse me for a minute, Vincent?"
Halfway to the elevators she was met by the bodyguard she had called Tom, who whispered words that drew the gentleness from her face. Vincent watched her approach the clown. He had stopped struggling, although his tension was evident even in the loose, gaudy outfit.
Brigit's expression faded from anger to shock as he spoke to her. Two more of her henchmen had joined her, and there was a quick exchange before she turned and hurried back to Vincent's side.
"It's my father," she said, her lilting voice shaken with uncertainty. "He's here in New York, and he's dying. I have to go to him."
Vincent accepted the announcement without question, sensing her urgency, asking only, "Do you trust this man?"
"I trust none of them," she said bitterly, as she handed him his cloak. "But he's my father's man, sure enough. The others are going with me. It's best if we leave without a fuss, but you stay and enjoy the party. I'm beholden to you, Vincent."
Why she should be, he didn't know, but he watched her join the others by the elevators, noting that most people in the noisy room were totally oblivious to her leaving.
Catherine was not among them.
She watched the brief flurry of activity with mounting curiosity. One of the guards had fetched Brigit's coat, while another summoned the elevator. The man in the clown suit, who just minutes ago had seemed so determined to join the party, now seemed equally anxious to leave.
Donald, too, had noticed. To her confusion he uttered a curse under his breath and was suddenly pushing through the crowd toward the elevators. On impulse she followed him, shocked when he drew a gun from his pocket, stunned when he stopped stock still and screamed in an accent unlike his own, "For Ulster and Billy!"
With nightmare clarity she took in the rigidly outstretched arm, the pistol alien and ugly in the festive atmosphere. Screams erupted as the people closest to them saw what was happening, and then Donald was stumbling backward with a strangled cry, flailing against her before landing heavily at her feet. The gun seemed to slide endlessly across the polished floor. A path cleared before it as dancers shrieked and jumped out of the way. They might have been dodging a mouse.
Catherine would have fallen but for a hand on her aim. She looked up into a silver shine of blue, those same haunting eyes-and at very close range.
"It's all right," he said, and even the voice was other-worldly.
Pandemonium had exploded around them. Vaguely, she knew that several men had tackled the fallen Pratt, who was clutching his arm and cursing. One of Brigit's bodyguards knelt over him and twisted the pirate's shirt up tight against his neck, threatening to choke the life out of him; the others pushed Brigit into the elevator and disappeared.
"I don't understand," she said weakly, instinctively searching the masked face for an explanation. "Come." Without another word he steered her, unresisting, through the frantic crowd to the glass doors and out onto the terrace. The cold air hit her like a slap. "Breathe," he ordered gently.
She did and felt her nerves tingling back into life. I must have been close to fainting, she recognized with surprise, and I didn't even know it. But he did.
Vincent watched the color return to her face, ivory tinging ever so softly with the subtle tint of peach. Pale lips ripened before his very eyes. It was like watching a flower bloom. Mesmerized, he might have forgotten the existence of thorns, but it came to him that he was still holding her arm and he let go abruptly, retreating a step. "Perhaps you would like some time alone."
"No, wait!" Catherine was surprised by the urgency in her own voice. She had the strangest feeling that he might simply melt into the shadows and disappear. "I don't want to -- I don't want to be alone."
Luminous eyes held him in place. He couldn't have moved if his life had depended on it. Wild thoughts born of wilder feelings tumbled uninvited through some open portal in his mind, like strangers entering the wrong house. It seemed to him her declaration spoke of things far beyond this balcony, this night. Briefly, he wondered if he were going mad.
"What was that all about in there? Do you know?"
He shook his head. "Echoes of Ulster. But Brigit is with friends. She'll be safe now."
"I saw the gun." Her voice was calmer now, lower, and he recognized the undercurrent of self recrimination. "I saw it, and I didn't do anything. I just froze. He might have killed them all."
"It happened in a very short time. There was nothing you could have done."
"But you did," she said, realizing it for the first time. Her attention had been totally on the gun, but now she recalled a flash of movement, a swirl of black that sent the pistol flying to the floor. "It was you. That was a very courageous thing to do."
The word fell like an accusation in the pit of his stomach. Courage had played no part in what he did. He had seen the instrument of death leveled at those who had no defense against it, and he had struck-by instinct -- a swiping blow that met the snap of bone. Had it not been for the leather gloves, long gashes would have split the gunman's arm into bloody ribbons. Would she be talking to him then -- here, alone, as if he were a friend to be trusted. The shame of deception rose hotly behind his skin. "Is there someone inside who can take you home?"
He's trying to get rid of me, Catherine thought with surprise and an unexpected stab of dismay. He had backed off, almost obscured in shadow, except for that extraordinary voice, as intimate as a touch. First, there'd been Donald -- or whoever he was -- trying to monopolize her attention and now this man seemed bent on discouraging it. "I don't want a ride. The night air feels so good. I'd rather walk home. It's just on the other side of the park."
"You would walk through the park?" He sounded horrified.
"I can go around it."
Vincent's relief was mixed with an illogical hint of disappointment. That she should even consider going into that dark and treacherous place, unprotected, a place where the life of a beautiful young woman might bleed silently into the grass -- But for one moment the image of this enchanting creature actually walking the same paths he knew, passing so close to his own world, sent a pang of guilty pleasure through his veins.
"Even -- even the streets are not safe for one alone. Surely, there are friends who could go with you."
She smiled. "My friends aren't big on walking." No one she knew thought anything of grabbing a taxi to go even a few blocks.
"I could -- I could walk with you if you like." The voice was his. He recognized it, but not the impulse that drew him to such an ill-advised offer. He half hoped she would refuse, save him from himself and the behavior that seemed oddly beyond his control.
"Are you sure it isn't out of your way?"
"Well, then -- I'll need to say good-bye to a few people." She stepped toward the door, but he made no move to follow.
The police were there. He could see them through the glass. Two of them were steering the hand-cuffed pirate toward the elevators. The others were talking to the guests. They had notebooks in their hands. "I -- I'll meet you-outside the building -- in a quarter of an hour?"
She hesitated. Maybe he was the one who needed time alone. "Okay," she nodded and stepped inside. Vincent watched her walk -- it seemed to him she floated -- toward two of the people he had seen her talking with earlier. His heart had begun to beat rapidly as the enormity of what he had done, what he was about to do, washed over him.
He had come here hoping only to meet Brigit O'Donnell and to thank her. And he had done that. He would never forget the conversation they had shared here on the terrace, but this -- this was something else again. Letting himself get close to a stranger, deceiving her when she'd done him no wrong. Father had been right about the treachery of this world -- one night among them and already he'd seen evil and murderous intent. Had Father been right in cautioning him to shy away from all who lived here as well?
But people might have been killed, he thought grimly, if it weren't for his presence here tonight. What he was doing was merely an extension of that, offering his protection to someone who had been badly frightened, someone who looked at him with such an expression of trust.
He chose that justification over the small voice that said her trust was misplaced; he was deceiving her by his very presence here. He chose it over the vibrant feeling that told him he would have done anything to prolong his time in her company.
Throwing one leg over the terrace wall, he began his precarious descent.
Catherine said goodnight to her friends, refusing to be drawn into their excited speculation about Donald Pratt. Their host, John Brennan, was poring over a sheaf of papers she presumed to be the guest list with a man in a suit, who looked so out of place among the garishly dressed guests that she guessed he must be a plainclothes detective.
At the door a uniformed policeman took her name and address, and she was allowed to enter the elevator. The shock of the deadly incident was starting to fade, replaced by another.
Why -- when she had misjudged Pratt, thinking him harmless, assuming he was interested in her -- why was she going now to meet a total stranger, to disappear with him into the anonymous darkness. No one had introduced them. No one knew she was meeting him now.
My God, she didn't even know his name!
It would be so easy to reach out and push a button. So easy to reverse this impulsive action and join the people that she'd known for years. Go back, Cathy, said a voice inside her. It was the same voice that told her she owed it to her father to follow in his footsteps, the same voice that had told her Tom Gunther was worth her time and affection.
Maybe it was time to heed something else: another voice that had whispered to her tonight of things beyond the limits she had accepted as inviolate. It was a voice she hadn't heard in a very long time, and as she clutched her feathered mask, allowing the elevator to complete its one-way journey, she recognized with amazement that the voice was her own.
Vincent reached the sidewalk and flowed along the edge of the building, keeping in its shadow. There was still time to turn back. He could meet her, implore her to take a taxi, melt back into the night.
She would ask him who he was, where he came from. She would want to know what he looked like behind his mask. And how would he repay the trust she'd placed in him -- lie to her. Tell her the truth and watch her friendly expression change to terror or pity?
Perhaps, she wouldn't come, after all. Shaken by the horrific events of the evening, she had let herself be comforted almost unawares. Now that there had been time to consider her actions, surely she would have second thoughts. She had no way of knowing that he would do anything to protect her, to keep her safe.
And yet, she did know it – somehow -- because she was emerging now from the lobby, looking about her uncertainly, searching for him. The logic of it confounded him; the truth of it filled him with wonder and pushed him out into the light.
"Hello," she said, looking up at him with a trace of shyness.
"Shall we?" He nodded toward the street, wondering if he should offer his arm, pleased when she took it of her own accord, her fingers small and warm on his sleeve.
They crossed and turned south following the stone wall that rimmed the park. He hardly trusted himself to speak. To be strolling openly down the heavily traveled avenue, arm in arm with a woman who stirred something in him he hadn't known existed -- He could have gladly savored it without words, memorizing every forbidden step, the unprecedented pleasure of her touch on his arm.
"You know, I think there's something I ought to tell you," she said, smiling. "My name. It's Catherine-Catherine Chandler."
The words emblazoned themselves on his heart like a poem. Catherine. "Vincent," he said simply, relieved when she didn't push for more.
"Vincent," she repeated, and on her lips the name seemed to take on a noble quality he'd never noticed before. "Are you a friend of Brigit' s?"
"A very recent friend."
"I only met her briefly, but she's touched me with her writing, and in person she's warm --unassuming. She's known such grief and suffering and yet she risks everything for what she believes in -- even with both sides against her."
"Caught between two worlds, yes. Her courage is remarkable."
"You have known grief as well."
She looked at him, startled, but didn't question how he knew that.
There would be time later for him to question himself.
"Some," she admitted softly. "But I'm not out there risking my life to save other people." She flushed slightly, throwing him an apologetic look that he didn't understand. "I'm an attorney." She half expected the obligatory lawyer joke, but then this man didn't seem to follow the same patterns of conversation she was used to. No small talk. No glib patter. Even his manner of speaking was oddly formal.
"Surely that is an attorney's role -- to help people."
"Qh, I help them to make money and to keep other people from taking theirs. Not exactly on a par with Brigit's work."
"But you're happy?"
Actually at the moment, she realized, she was happy. At the moment everything seemed absurdly simple, but she knew he was referring to a larger issue. "No -- not exactly." There, she'd said it, something she'd never dared voice even to her closest friends, certainly not to her father, and only obliquely to Tom. Probably, because he was a stranger it felt safe to make the confession. "It makes my father happy. He's always wanted me to be part of his law practice. Does that sound like an antiquated notion -- wanting to please my father?"
"No." He shook his head, thinking how much of his life had been dedicated to pleasing his, although if Father could see him now he doubted that pleasure would number among his reactions. "Would he be angry if you chose another life?"
"Angry. No -- disappointed. He would never renounce his own daughter the way Brigit's father did. To lose both her husband and her father --"
"She's found her father again -- tonight. It's the reason she left the party," He felt no hesitation in telling her this. If Brigit meant it as a secret, then he knew, intuitively, that secret would be safe with the woman who walked beside him. "She was told that he's dying."
Watching her assimilate the news, it seemed that he could see the pathos of it like a grey cloud passing over the sea-foam green of her eyes.
"So now he wants to make everything right," Catherine said thoughtfully. "She could have used his support so badly when Ian died. What a tragedy that the reconciliation comes when it can't make any difference."
"It will make a difference -- to both of them."
He was right, of course. A world of difference. It was unusual, she thought, to find a New Yorker who instinctively saw the positive in a deplorable situation. Most people she knew were too cynical for that. "It's just sad that they won't be together long enough to make up for all the time they've lost."
"Sad -- yes, but the joy they find again in each other, the strength they must share to get through this, may outweigh everything which has gone before -- no matter how little time they are given." Time was an illusion, he thought. The proof of that was in this stolen hour with its uncanny feeling of completeness -- merely a moment in the vast emptiness of his life. Yet this time, he knew instinctively -- with her, with Catherine -- would remain in his heart, eclipsing all the rest, as long as he lived,
They had reached one of the roads that transited the park, and as they waited for the light to change, Catherine cast a wistful look up the deserted street. "It must be so beautiful in the park at night -- like another world. It's a shame everyone's afraid to go there."
"Would you like to go there -- just this once?" He wanted to give her that, a chance to experience the park by moonlight and in safety. And, he admitted, he wanted to give it to himself -- a memory to cherish. This peerless night -- the Samhain, Brigit had called it -- and the image of Catherine stepping lightly over the very heart of his home.
That voice was back -- the annoying one -- telling her that if there was one thing dumber than trusting a total stranger, it was asking him to take her into the night-shrouded park. Yet she knew with absolute certainty that her trust was not misplaced. The knowledge sprang full-blown from some place she could not identify, but it seemed to be the source of her very being. She was beginning to suspect that the voice she'd so long taken for her conscience was really something else -- cowardice, expediency?
As to whether a mugger might be waiting behind the nearest tree -- well, it hadn't escaped her notice that the arm beneath her fingers might have been woven of iron, and his reaction at Pratt's threat -- No, she really didn't think they had anything to worry about.
She realized he was still looking at her, awaiting an answer, and she grinned, "Why not?"
Her smile took his breath. Never had he felt so acutely his own melancholy nature. How easily she embraced this simple joy. How thoroughly he felt its warmth lighting the dark places in his soul, like a thousand tiny candles, resolute against the chill wind.
They turned together, her soft skirts brushing against his leg, and walked for some time in silence. He felt her absorbing the unfamiliar sensations of their surroundings: the soft, swaying foliage, the tiny pastoral night sounds that emerged as the traffic noise retreated. At last he said, "You don't find the work you do challenging?"
"It's challenging enough. I'm just not sure it's challenging the right things-in me. I don't find it very fulfilling. I don't know, lately I've just felt – restless -- like my life isn't going anywhere."
"Where do you wish it to go?"
"That's just it. I don't really know." She hoped he didn't think she was stupid. There was such a marked intelligence in those strange eyes, such a deep feeling of understanding. His very quietness seemed to speak of someone secure in himself, who had no need to try to impress others.
They were approaching an area where the ground dipped away from the road into the trees. A wink of light, so subdued that it might not be noticed but for the intense darkness, caught her eye. Probably an underpass or a culvert with access to the mysterious functions that kept this city going, but in her present mood it struck her as magical.
Her mood shifted suddenly as an image that had plagued her for months rose before her. "A woman was killed here some time back. At any rate, she was brutally murdered and her body left somewhere in the park."
Vincent tensed. He could feel her sadness, a kind of incipient outrage. How amazing that she should speak of it now, not knowing how close she actually was to the place where the body was found, but he only said, "I know."
"They caught the men who did it. For a while it looked like the evidence might be too circumstantial to bring them to trial, but somebody toughed it out and plugged all the holes. They're off the streets for good."
The fierce undercurrent in her voice intrigued him, and he tilted his head, looking at her intently. "The ones who did that, who made sure that justice was served -- they were attorneys as well."
She gave a rueful little laugh. "That's true, but there's no comparison between their work and mine. I sit behind a desk and my clients are sophisticated, law-abiding -- at least on the surface. So are the people we go up against, but the lawyers who deal with that kind of crime are overworked and exposed to danger all the time. I don't have the courage. I wouldn't know how to do it."
"You have the courage, Catherine."
She found herself staring at him, her mind a sudden effervescent confusion. The soft conviction in his voice made denials seem out of the question -- or was it the way he said her name that sent a curious thrill coursing through her body. She felt unaccountably dazzled with anticipation and thought back to how many drinks she'd had at the party. No, that wasn't it. Life itself seemed suddenly, inexplicably intoxicating. What was it she'd been saying? Oh, yes --
"The DA's office is notoriously understaffed and underpaid. They work gruesome hours -- sometimes in horrible neighborhoods -- and they get very little reward for it. The public only seems to notice when their cases go badly."
"A thankless task." A shake of his head expressed sympathy with her criticism. "Amazing that anyone would be foolish enough to take such a job," he added mildly.
"I'm not sure it's so amazing -- not really. There are other kinds of rewards besides money and recognition. Think what it must be like to know you've taken a dangerous criminal off the streets, that you've helped to put someone's life back together, or even saved lives. What could be more rewarding than that. I think that kind of work must be very -- very fulfilling."
The passionate statement invited rebuttal, but none was forthcoming. He was merely watching her with that same mellow look, at once reserved and strangely intimate, as if he were hearing past the words to the feelings that had prompted them.
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly, "I've been talking too much about myself. What about you. Do you...?"
"Shh!" He stopped and put a gloved finger to his lips. "Look -- under the picnic table."
Catherine squinted into the darkness. At first she saw nothing, but after a few seconds, a shadow emerged with an awkward, loping grace to pause in a patch of harvest moonlight. It sat motionless as a stuffed toy except for the twitching of a tiny nose. A rabbit. She didn't 'dare say anything for fear of frightening it away, but looked up, beaming her delight into the ingeniously altered face of her companion.
For the first time she got an answering smile. Not so much in his mouth -- he probably had to be very careful of disturbing the marvelous makeup -- but in his eyes that sparkled their appreciation for this shared encounter.
Apparently, the rabbit had found nothing amiss in his search of the autumn air. He bounded very close to where they stood and passed them to disappear into the bushes.
"Well, that's certainly not something you expect to see in Manhattan," she said, as they fell into step together, "It simply acted like we weren't there."
"Isn't that supposed to be typical of New Yorkers?"
"Now that you mention it," she laughed, "I guess it is, but it's only a stereotype. Everyone's in a hurry here -- like any big city. They may seem unfriendly, but I think underneath it all they're just as caring as anyone else."
Underneath it all, indeed. Beneath their very feet, there were people who cared, and many of them would disagree with her charitable assessment of those Above. Father had little good to say about this world, but Vincent had long suspected that his bitterness rose from some deep pain that he did not wish to share. Tonight he had seen for himself that there was beauty here as well.
He was hoping against hope that she would not remember what she had been about to ask him -- whatever it was. Was there anything at all he could answer with honesty. Anything he could offer her but deception? Even the thrill of her trust, her openness, had been gained by fraudulent means.
She assumed he was a person much like herself, masquerading as what he really was. The illusion she could trust, but never the reality. The concept slipped with sly irony through his thoughts, and he let it go, preferring -- for these few precious minutes -- to listen to his heart and to believe the unimagined things it was telling him.
To their right, a pond shimmered into view, a placid glow beneath the harvest moon, The wind whispered with a soft brushing sound in the reeds and the air swelled with frogsong.
"I haven't heard that since Connecticut," she said. "It never occurred to me there might be frogs in the park. "
"They prefer to do their singing here at night."
"Have you done this before? Come into the park at night, I mean?"
"And you're not afraid?" It was difficult to imagine him being afraid of anything, and she didn't think it was only his size or the clever, foreboding disguise which gave her that impression. He exuded a kind of restrained power, a total awareness of his surroundings, that made her feel he would be ready for anything. It made her feel safe.
"I'm afraid," he answered easily. "Fear can protect you, Catherine. It can keep you aware of danger, prepare you to meet it if you must."
"Fear -- not courage?"
"Courage is only the willingness to face your fear."
Slowly, she nodded. Something in the observation must have interested her, because she fell silent for a very long time. He didn't mind. His own introspection these many months had served to shut out those he loved. He had been lost to them, wandering in the endless shadows of his own soul -- alone.
But he did not feel alone at this moment. Far from excluding him, her silence seemed to draw him in -- into her, into a place where shadows bowed before a tender and tenacious light. Like the sun, he thought, searching the cloudy sky for a place to shine.
The feeling was unprecedented, at the same time humbling and exulting -- riveting, and he marveled that such intense joy could rise in him, simply from her soft footfalls keeping step with his, the whisper of silken skirts against his cloak, her hair shining like silvered honey in the moonlight. Yet keen senses would not let him ignore the fact that traffic sounds were growing louder, buildings looming closer as the road found its way back to civilization.
His heart grew heavier with every step, reluctant to let the magic end. But end it must -- and even sooner than he expected.
"That's it," she said, as they emerged into the glare of street lights. The feathery mask in her hand quivered toward a building just across the street.
"This is where you live?"
"On the eighteenth floor."
The vantage point of angels, he thought and wished the traffic hadn't so quickly cleared allowing them to cross the last barrier between her world and his. Near the entrance, Catherine let go of his arm and turned to face him.
"I want to thank you for bringing me home, Vincent. I've really enjoyed our walk."
"So have I."
There was such sincerity in his voice. The way he inclined his head toward her, bright hair spilling from his hood, was reminiscent of a chivalrous bow, but to her surprise no other words followed.
This was the time. Wasn't he going to ask for her phone number or suggest that they see each other again? She had been so sure -- sure that the instant empathy, the mysterious joy she'd found in his presence was mutual.
"Do you live near here?" she said to fill the unfortunate silence.
No more. Confused, she held out her hand.
"Well -- it was a pleasure meeting you, Vincent."
He took the offered hand, so impossibly small in his. From his reading of countless books, he knew that a gentleman removed his glove before shaking a lady's hand, and the thought shamed him. But it was better she think him rude, than see the truth. The swift, unwelcome image of her recoiling from him in horror flashed across a mind gone almost numb from the hurt of parting.
"Would you -- would you like to come up for a cup of coffee?" Catherine hadn't intended to ask that. Less from a fear of inviting a virtual stranger into her apartment (he simply did not feel like a stranger to her) than a fear that he might get the wrong impression. She didn't want him to think she went around town picking up men at parties and bringing them home. What he thought of her was suddenly, inexplicably important, but she felt that she had to do something. The sense of some elusive and beautiful thing slipping beyond her grasp was almost painful.
Vincent shook his head, misery welling in him -- his own, and in the scintillating confusion of emotions, somehow hers. He was disappointing her in some way. That much he understood and understood, too, that somewhere in this wild, October night, her happiness had become more important to him than his own.
Happiness. It was never a concept he'd thought of in relation to himself. Yet he recognized it suddenly as one of the new sensations blazing through his soul. Happiness and despair. How could these two go hand in hand?
"Forgive me, Catherine. I -- I must go."
A thousand reasons flitted through her head to account for his withdrawal: he was married, a fugitive -- he just wasn't interested in her. She dismissed them all. The explanation, intuition whispered, would be every bit as mysterious as the force that had, drawn her to him since the moment their eyes met.
He squared his shoulders, already backing toward the curb, but still his eyes hadn't left hers, and in them she saw the reflection of her own distress. He was no more willing to dismiss this night than she was, she realized with a rush of elation. And wasn't it time she stopped reacting to everything in her life and acted on her own?
"Vincent -- will I see you again?"
The question required only the most basic of answers, but the underlying message would not let him give it. She wanted to see him again. Catherine wanted that. Was he to deny her the one thing she asked of him. The one thing he could not give?
He drew in a deep breath, his mind storming with conflict. Saying "no" would hurt her -- hurt them both. Saying "yes" would be a lie or a commitment to disillusioning her -- frightening her -- with the reality of what he was. Desperately, he fought for the logic that had always allowed him to rise above the turmoil. There was no rising above this. There was no logic in the magical, undreamed of truth of this night.
"Anything is possible," he said at last.
Her slow smile toppled his heart. "Yes," she said softly. "I'm beginning to think it is."
She turned then and disappeared under the bright awning, and the breath eased out of him, the breath, but not the feeling that somehow his life was changed-forever.
Catherine hung the lovely costume carefully in her closet. Dressed now in a nightgown and quilted robe, her hair once more loose around her shoulders, she moved, like a sleepwalker, out onto the tiny balcony.
The moon hung lower now -- still full and enormous. An implausible moon for an implausible night: meeting Brigit O'Donnell, the assassination attempt and a compelling interlude with a stranger.
He said he lived near here, she thought, scanning the jagged skyline that bordered the park. It was the single piece of personal information he had given her. What possessed me to go on so much about myself tonight? she wondered. Maybe it was the welcome change from men like Tom who thought the only subject worthy of discussion was themselves.
And what did he look like behind that skillfully crafted facade? If they ran into each other on the street, she wouldn't even know it. No -- she would if she could see his eyes. Try as she, might, she couldn't imagine how his real face might look, but she didn't care. It hadn't been his appearance that attracted her, but a feeling, and that feeling wouldn't go away. Frankly, she confided to the man-in-the-moon, she would rather miss the face he'd worn tonight. The more she'd studied them, the more hauntingly beautiful his exotic features had seemed.
She would see him again -- despite the obvious discomfort he'd shown in that regard. Something inside her knew it, as she knew the lumbering moon would sink inevitably from sight. He knew where she lived, where she worked. It would happen, because it had to. And in the meantime, there were things to take care of.
Never again did she want to feel the helplessness she'd known when Pratt drew his gun. There were places in the city where they could teach you how to defend yourself and train you to react to threatening situations. She made a mental note to locate one in the morning. That kind of physical discipline could come in handy if her plans worked out.
Somewhere in this surrealistic evening she had come to a decision. Tomorrow she would go to the District Attorney's office and sit there until someone took her application seriously. It must have been a very long time since she'd taken control of her own life, because the sense of exhilaration was enormous.
It was amazing, she thought, as she leaned out over the balcony wall smiling into the rising wind, how a brisk walk in the park could focus your thinking.
He might have taken the opportunity to remain Above.
How often he'd wished for the freedom to walk among them, and tonight it was his. No one they had passed had given him more than a look of casual interest. But what was worth seeing in this world, he had seen. Everything worth knowing had glided down this very pathway, like a radiant spirit, by his side.
He shook the concealing hood from his hair and welcomed the moon's amber light. The black, sweeping cloak might have been wings carrying him with barely perceived steps deep again into the parkland. The pain was there -- the pain of leaving her, of conceiving no possible way that he could hope to see her again -- but, for once, it failed to claim him. For as long as he could remember, there had always been the pain, the aloneness, and he had dealt with it best by accepting it, making it a part of who he was.
But not tonight.
Something stronger than pain filled his heart and whispered of impossible things. Although the place where they had parted fell farther behind, he felt as if she were with him still, as if he were with her. It was as though a golden thread spun out between them, delicate and bright and wholly indestructible, fascinating beyond belief, and he concentrated on its singular presence.
He scarcely marked the change when he left the boundless world above to enter the narrow confines of his own, automatically pulling the lever that closed out danger, taking the familiar route with easy strides, hearing not the softly clanging pipes, but her warm, thoughtful voice, her sparkling laugh; seeing not the twisting passageways, but her eyes shining with spirit and intelligence. He moved in a bright cloud of memories, lit by the soft tug of her existence in his heart.
The short, staccato message jolted Jacob from a half-doze.
Vincent -- home.
He flexed his protesting legs and reached for the walking stick that leaned against his desk. About time. Nearby candles had shrunk considerably since he'd closed his eyes. Now at last he could stop worrying and prepare for bed and a proper sleep.
Stiffly, he maneuvered up the few steps to the entrance of the study. As an afterthought, he groped for his spectacles and placed them hurriedly on his nose in hopes that Vincent would assume he'd simply been reading late into the night. Now that his son was safely back, there was no point in betraying the anxiety he'd caused. Their relations had been tenuous enough lately without crying over spilt milk.
A familiar shadow loomed around the far junction, followed by Vincent himself, He walked with his golden head bowed, and Jacob feared suddenly that the subtle touch of the reading glasses might go unnoticed. In fact, he himself was in danger of going unnoticed as Vincent approached the entrance without looking up.
"Ah, Vincent, safely back, I see." Jacob said with feigned nonchalance.
"Father?" Vincent turned, looking amazed to see him there.
As if emerging from his own chamber was such a peculiar thing to do. The translucent eyes had an unfocused look that Jacob had never seen in them before. Dear God, he prayed inwardly, don't let this night have been a disaster. "Well, tell me, did you see her. Was she everything you expected?"
"Expected?" The wild, mass of red-gold swiveled away from him again. Apparently, whatever words his son was searching for could best be found in the hard-packed dirt at his feet. "She is beyond expectations -- beyond dreams."
"Oh -- well, I'm pleased to hear it. You talked with her then?"
"We talked -- and walked -- all the way across the park. "
"You did?" Jacob frowned. "What on earth possessed the woman to leave her own party?"
Vincent looked at him then -- really looked, and Jacob saw the distracted quality lift from his face.
"Forgive me, Father. You were speaking of Brigit O'Donnell."
"Yes, of course, I was." The first warning bells were chiming faintly in the older man's ears, but it couldn't be. It couldn't -- "Was there -- someone else?"
"There was someone." Even now Vincent couldn't think of her as someone "else." She was everyone -- everything. "A woman, Father, an extraordinary woman. She is like no one I've ever known before. "
It was on the tip of Jacob's tongue to point out that Vincent hadn't really known that many women at all, aside from those who mothered him or grew up with him like sisters. The bells were clanging loudly now, and he wanted to heed their warning, do something to forestall tragedy, but he knew how capable his son was of withdrawing altogether. "I see. Well now, tell me about her. Who is she?"
"Her name," Vincent said, as if invoking some precious incantation, "is Catherine. She works as an attorney. "
Strike three, Jacob thought with rising dismay. A woman -- from Above and an attorney. How many ways could Vincent put himself at risk? Interest in a woman, allowing himself to converse with a top-sider, and as for her chosen profession --
The thought of it conjured the image of himself as a young man, watching his career, his faith in the system, twisted and condemned by those presumed to be guardians of the law. He fought back the taste of bitterness, at a loss to understand how his son could have courted quite so much trouble in a single evening. "How did this happen, Vincent? Where did you meet this young woman?"
"It was nothing out of the ordinary, Father," Vincent said, placing an affectionate hand on Jacob's shoulder. "We met at a cocktail party." Eyes dancing, he gave a parting squeeze and set off down the tunne1.
He was actually smiling.
"Good God," Jacob uttered under his breath. What in blazes transpired up there?
Well, no matter. He straightened and hobbled back into the study. Probably some idle socialite with an eye for brawn amusing herself. No doubt she had forgotten the incident already.
He moved about the chamber extinguishing the candles. Perfectly understandable that Vincent should be dazzled by an adventure into forbidden territory. And he hadn't looked so alive, so good-humored for ages. Perhaps this little escapade had been just the thing to shake him from his melancholy. Now he would have that unfortunate wanderlust out of his system.
Jacob flinched as the last wick singed his moistened fingers. Yes-yes, he was sure of it. After tonight, everything would be blessedly back to normal.
He trundled off to bed, unaware that behind him the last candle had burst stubbornly back into life. Its unquenchable little flame glowed merrily for a long time, casting fantastic images --
Scattering the darkness before it.
Posted for Winterfest Online, January 2005