Title banner: Isaac, by Ginny S

 

Isaac Stubbs was a good man. Like his father before him, he was possessed of a kind and generous heart, a good sense of humor, a solid strength of character, and a determination to do his best for those he loves. Also, like his father, he was physically tall and strong, a man of peace who tried to avoid a fight when possible, but because of the nature of his environment, had learned to rise well to the occasion when necessary. He came from a good, loving family who expected the best from their family members. There are those who think there are no such families in tough, inner city neighborhoods, but those people are wrong. That doesn’t mean life is easy for them there, but those families exist and make their best efforts to continue on that path, often in the face of immensely challenging circumstances. 

Isaac grew up in a tough part of the inner city in New York, the eldest child of parents who worked more than one job to see that they could take care of their family. He was a good student, a self-disciplined young man who did his best to stay away from the trouble that often surrounded him, but he quickly learned that the size and strength he possessed from an early age could serve him well. When Isaac was sixteen, his father, on his way home from work, was killed in the crossfire of a gang dispute, leaving Isaac feeling the need to help his mother support his younger siblings. Mrs. Stubbs would have no part of her son’s dropping out of school to work, so he dropped his participation with the sports teams and other school activities and found work after school. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army and was an exemplary soldier for two decades, sending money home to help the family and saving as much more as he could to help his brother and sister with college later. Retiring from the army when he was still slightly under forty years of age, he returned to work in the community where he grew up.

***

At the moment, Isaac was grabbing something to drink before Catherine Chandler arrived for her session with him. He knew he was going to have a workout, too, because Catherine Chandler did nothing in half measures. She would come at him as if he might be the devil himself, and he didn’t dare let down his guard. He couldn’t help a smile at the thought of the surprise that would be seen in the eyes of an attacker when the tiny dynamo fought back and gave as good as she got.

When the session started, it went exactly as he expected. Cathy was intrepid and intense. Isaac was working harder than with most of the women who came to him for coaching, and he wasn’t hesitant to end the session on time.

“You’re good, Cathy. If we held competitions for good, old-fashioned New York street fighting, you’d have a wall of trophies.”

“Lucky we don’t then,” she answered with a grin, still breathing hard from the workout. “No room for a wall full of trophies.” Looking at her watch, she said, “I have to get home fast. I’m going to be late.”

“Big date tonight?” Isaac teased.

“You sound like Joe,” she laughed. “Yeah. I have a date.”

Isaac weighed the idea before asking his question. It had been well over a year since he had helped Catherine find Vincent and get him to safety, and he hadn’t asked any questions; but his curiosity was finally getting the better of him.

“Is it with him, Cathy?” he asked. “The man I saw? Who is he in your life?”

Catherine looked away, obviously uncomfortable about answering. “Thank you for not asking then.  I wouldn’t have known how to answer.”

“But now? This date…is it Vincent?”

She looked back, knowing she owed Isaac at least a few honest answers. “It’s him,” she admitted, “and he’s the biggest part of my life.”

“How did you meet him, and where did you go when you left me? You looked so desperate the whole time we were looking for him . . . and the look on your face was almost begging me out loud not to ask questions, so I didn’t.”

She gave him the short, edited version of Vincent’s entrance into her life, then shrugged. “I couldn’t let anyone think I remembered anything . . . because I needed to protect him.”

“Will I ever get to meet him? I’d like to. You know you can trust me or you wouldn’t have called me that night for help.”

“I know, Isaac, but I’ve been trusted with confidences that aren’t mine to share. I’d need permission.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help him . . . .”

“Beyond his asking me to thank you, he’s said he’d like to meet you, too. You saw him briefly, and at his most vulnerable. He had been near an explosion, hit by a car, beaten by the Silks, and was nearly blind from his injuries when we found him. He’s usually a pretty regal figure . . . strong, commanding, a leader, able to protect those he cares about . . . but at heart, he’s a gentle, loving man. A lot like you.”

“Why do I get the feeling you just paid me a huge compliment?” Isaac answered with a teasing smile.

“Because I did,” she answered mischievously. “Now, I’m going to be late meeting him if I don’t leave.” She stopped at the door and turned. “I’ll talk to him about you tonight. I think you’d like him.”

“Don’t let me put you in a bad spot, Cathy. I understand how trust works . . . and needing to hold on to it.”

“Thanks, Isaac. See you soon.”

Isaac watched her walk to her car, and again the questions rose to the surface . . . the ones that had been with him since he had watched her leave with Vincent and the oddly dressed older man. How did Vincent get that way? Where did the other side of that door lead? The old man . . . did that mean others live wherever Vincent does? Was that why Cathy wouldn’t answer . . . protecting their home? Probably, he thought. That would be like her. How did Vincent get the necessities for life? Most people would see him as frightening, or at minimum, unfortunate; but the way Cathy talked about him, Isaac had the feeling that wasn’t likely to be the case wherever Vincent lived. He doubted that Vincent saw himself as unfortunate either . . . at least most of the time. Nobody could be that different and not brood about it once in a while.

He was again floored at the depths of Cathy’s concern for others. He never expected that someone with her resources and social status would give so much of herself. As she pulled her car away from the curb, he realized once more that he was proud to call her his friend . . . and she seemed to genuinely feel the same way about him.

His thoughts wandered back to Vincent. She said she would talk to him that night. He knew that was a big concession for her to make.

***

Catherine, all showered and dressed for an evening of music with Vincent, met him at her threshold, right under the wire of on time.

“I sensed a last-minute rush,” he said, amused, as he helped her down from the ladder.

She stuck her tongue out at him, but followed it with a smile and a big hug around Vincent’s waist . . . one which he returned with a chuckle that she enjoyed feeling rumble through his chest as his arms encircled her waist. After a barely-there kiss to the top of her head, he asked, “Shall we go? Our box seats for the symphony are ready and waiting.”

“Just a little more of this,” she answered. “I’ve missed you, and it isn’t like we’ll have to step across people to get to our seats on time.”

After another kiss to her hair and a loving nuzzle there, he held her until she made the first move.

“Will you hold me while we listen?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“Then let’s go,” she answered, and each mutually reached for the other’s hand as they walked.

The concert was all Brahms, beginning with his fourth symphony; and after the intermission, there were shorter works, including a couple of choral pieces.

“I like hearing the voices with the orchestra,” Catherine commented.

“Mmmm . . . .” Vincent answered. “It’s another dimension of sound . . . richer.” His eyes were still closed in pleasure . . . from both the beauty of the music and the joy of having Catherine in his arms.

Catherine, without taking time to overthink it, turned her face toward his and kissed the edge of his jaw, and his eyes opened immediately.

“I’m sorry. The moment took me over. I didn’t mean to cross . . . .”

“Catherine, don’t. The last thing you should need to do is to apologize for showing your affection.”

“I’m trying not to . . . .”

“I know,” he answered, “and I’m trying to meet you halfway.  I have to get past a lot of years of believing that we are an impossible possibility.”

“We’ll work it out, Vincent. I love you.”

In appreciative response, he pulled her closer and planted a firmer kiss on her head, nuzzling into the scent of her hair afterward. Leaning his cheek on her head, he said, “Something else is on your mind . . . has been since this afternoon.”

No longer surprised at such comments, Catherine simply answered, “Isaac.”

“Isaac?”

“I think the questions from the night he helped me find you are getting the best of him. He had admirably managed not to ask until today. He wants to meet you.”

“Why now?”

“I don’t know. He looked like maybe it had just been on his mind too long and he couldn’t hold it back anymore.”

“I can understand that,” Vincent answered with a wry chuckle. “I’m sure we presented an interesting picture that night. It isn’t unreasonable to consider meeting him. He already knows I’m not a figment of his imagination. And it would be nice to thank him personally.”

“Where would you want to meet him . . . if you decide to?”

“Somewhere away from the tunnels.”

“Do you have helpers who live in his area?”

“Not exactly, but not far from him. There are two, a man and a woman. The man is the most appropriate to contact him.” At Catherine’s questioning look, the one silently asking what was wrong with the woman, he explained with a smile, “The woman is eighty-three years old and needs a walker to get around. The man is another veteran . . . a Marine. They would probably have more in common.”

Catherine laughed lightly and leaned closer to him.

“The music has stopped,” Vincent mentioned, making no more effort to move than Catherine did.

“Do we have to go?” she asked.

“Not until you want to.”

“Can we spend the night?”

Vincent chuckled . . . that lovely rumble again appearing where Catherine’s ear rested on his chest. “Our backs will hurt in the morning,” he warned.

“A small price to pay,” she answered with a grin and stretched her arm to hold more tightly to his waist.

They stayed contentedly where they were until Catherine fell asleep against him. Then he lifted her gently and carried her back to her threshold, waking her by kissing her head and calling her name softly before setting her on her feet.

“Sorry I fell asleep.”

“I didn’t mind. You’ve had a long day.” He held her close for a moment before he moved away, and told her, “Go and get some rest.” As he moved back from her, he asked, “Can you be here this weekend? The children have a concert on Saturday evening.”

“I’ll be here,” she promised. “Will you be busy earlier? Could I spend the afternoon with you?”

“I’ll look forward to it,” he answered with a smile.

“About two?”

“I’ll be waiting right here.”

After another close embrace, they went their separate ways.

***

Between her job and the time spent with Vincent, Catherine’s sessions with Isaac were down to an average of once a month. By the time she was there for her next session, arrangements had been made with a helper, Max Deegan, to see Isaac and work out a meeting with Vincent.

Isaac, using all his patience to hold back his curiosity, asked Catherine no questions about Vincent, allowing her to broach the subject.

As Catherine helped put things away at the end of the session and then grabbed her towel to dry her face and arms, she told Isaac, “You’re going to get a call from a man named Max Deegan, and he’s going to arrange a time for you to meet Vincent sometime soon. It’s going to be after dark, and it would be good to choose two or three dates, just in case. Max is an ex-Marine, a good man.”

“Thanks for doing this, Cathy. I can tell it’s against your better judgment.”

“It isn’t that, Isaac. Like you said . . . trust is important. It’s just that I’ve agreed to confidences that I don’t intend to renege on.”

“Will we go back down to where I left you back then?”

“No. Not this time. After you meet Vincent, if you still want to go, I’ll let the two of you work it out.”

Isaac just nodded in understanding. “Another date?” he teased, noticing that she hadn’t stopped getting her things together to leave as she talked to him.

She laughed. “I haven’t seen my best friend, Jenny, in way too long. We were both free tonight, and I have to leave town for a few days to talk to a couple of witnesses. I don’t want to miss this chance, and I don’t want to embarrass her with my attire,” she answered, mischievously striking a modeling pose, “to say nothing of the noxious aroma that would be trailing my personal presence by then. I have an hour and a half before I meet her. Gotta go.”

Isaac held up a hand as a good-bye, smiling to himself as he went to clean up, too. She sure wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill rich girl.

***

Mid-day two days later, Isaac’s phone rang. “Isaac Stubbs.”

“Max Deegan here. I think I’m supposed to schedule a meeting for you?”

“Yeah?” Isaac answered cautiously, aware of Cathy’s security concerns.

“Yeah. With Catherine’s friend.”

“Right.”

“Should I come by your place to talk?”

“Okay. When?”

“You free today? I’ve got the day off.”

“Last session today is over at five-thirty. You can come by any time after that. Wait ‘til six and I’ll smell better, though,” Isaac added good-humoredly.

“Then, by all means, let’s go for the extra half hour,” Max answered, laughing. “Or I could meet you somewhere for a beer.”

Before they both went back to what they had been doing, they arranged to meet at Jasper’s, a bar about halfway between Max’s place and Isaac’s.

After he had finished for the day, cleaned up and closed up, Isaac walked several blocks to Jasper’s, looking forward to the meeting. There was something in the sound of Max’s voice and his easy laugh that made Isaac open to the idea that he might enjoy his company. Chuckling to himself as his neared the bar, he thought about Max’s description of himself and thought, ‘A white, red-headed guy in a dark blue U.S. Marine T-shirt shouldn’t be hard to spot at Jasper’s. Wonder what made him pick this place?”

When he walked in, hovering at the door and looking around for a moment, a medium-height, muscular black man behind the bar let out a whoop that easily carried above the music and shouted, “Isaac, my man! I thought you died and they forgot to tell me. Where you been all this time?”

Feeling at home right away, Isaac returned the man’s back-thumping hug. “Working, man. Working. You know how it is. Didn’t see much of you ‘round my place lately, either.”

“Working, man. Working. You know how it is,” the other man echoed good-naturedly.

While that exchange was going on, a white, red-headed guy in a dark blue U.S. Marine T-shirt turned to see the tall man who had just entered and was surprised that he seemed to know the owner. As he stood, he heard Isaac’s voice again.

“Hey, LaMont,” Isaac called to a younger man coming out of the back room.

LaMont waved and smiled before answering the ringing phone next to the door he had just exited.

Isaac looked over to where he had noticed movement and saw the very white face in the group of mostly darker faces in the room. Extending his hand as he walked over, he said jokingly, “And you got to be Max.”

“How’d you know?” Max joked back, reaching to shake his hand. “How do you know the boss?” Max asked.

“I went to school with Jasper.”

“How do you know my new bartender?” Jasper asked.

“New bartender?” Isaac looked back at Max, who grinned at his surprise.

“I needed a barkeep; he needed a job.” Jasper shrugged. “He’s good, too.”

“How did the two of you . . . .” Isaac started, and Jasper interrupted.

“LaMont went into the Marines . . . got sent to Grenada just about right out of boot camp. Went in pretty green. Might have been killed there if Max didn’t get him out of a bad spot. He’s the reason I still got a brother . . . figured I owed him.”

Max shrugged it off. “No man left behind. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else.”

“But it was you,” Jasper emphasized. “So you came looking for Max?” he asked Isaac.

“Yeah. One of my students asked him to talk to me about meeting somebody. We both knew where to find your place.”

“Well, sit down and get to it. You both want your usual?”

When they both answered in the affirmative, Jasper brought over their drinks and left them to talk.

They started an easy conversation about the basics of their military careers before getting around to planning a meeting. Max pulled out a calendar with several days marked and told Isaac to see which ones would be best. They would meet in the basement of Max’s small townhouse.

“You know this guy, don’t you?”

“Yeah. He’s a good man, Isaac.”

“I hope so. Cathy deserves a good man.”

“And he deserves all the good that can come to him . . . and from all I can tell, she’s good for him. He said he might have died if you hadn’t helped her get him out of a bad spot.”

“I’ve had to do way more before for other folks. No man left behind?” Isaac asked, and they both smiled in the understanding that neither of them felt particularly heroic. They were just men doing what they needed to do.

Both men had enjoyed their easy conversation. They settled on a date and time for the following week and then parted company with a feeling of respect for one another.

***

When the day of the meeting finally rolled around, Catherine met Vincent at her threshold, and they walked to Max’s.

“I’m going to introduce you to Isaac and then leave you to talk to him as long as you feel comfortable. I have to be in court first thing in the morning, and there are a few things I need to review tonight. It’s a big case.”

“I understand. And Max will be there. We’ll be fine, Catherine. I’m a big boy now,” he told her with a teasing little smile.

“Yes, you are,” she answered with a grin and bumped her shoulder against his arm.

He smiled back at her playful answer and continued, “Isaac has already seen me. It shouldn’t even be quite as awkward as it often is.”

“I know. I just . . . .”

“And I appreciate it,” he answered, taking her hand and giving her a loving look as they walked.

When they arrived at Max’s threshold, shortly before Isaac was to be there, Max ushered them from the threshold door in the storage area into the finished part of the basement that he used as a den. They talked there for a few minutes before the doorbell rang.

Max dimmed the lights a bit as he went to answer the door, hoping to make Vincent somewhat more comfortable. While he was gone, Vincent reached for the gloves he had secured in his belt before he left the Tunnels, but Catherine took his hand to stop him.

“No. Leave them. He got a really good look at you as we were leaving that night. He won’t be surprised that your hands are different, too. Isaac cares about who a person is, not how they look.”

Vincent nodded uncomfortably and did as she asked.

As Max and Isaac reached the bottom of the stairs, Vincent turned to face them, and Isaac offered his hand in greeting as if he were seeing nothing unusual. Vincent took his hand and was answered by Isaac’s firm and friendly handshake.

“You must be Vincent,” he said easily before releasing the furred hand.

Vincent looked down briefly, then looked up again, his sense of humor running in tandem with his relief at the ease of the introduction, and asked dryly, “What gave me away?”

Isaac released a loud, single burst of laughter and looked at Max. “No wonder you two get along. Same sense of humor.”

Catherine was relieved to see that Vincent already seemed to be relaxing, and she was beginning to feel that her presence hadn’t even been needed.

“Hey, Cathy,” Isaac said, finally acknowledging her.

“It’s good to finally meet you, Isaac,” Vincent said. “I owe you my thanks for your help when I needed it most and for your silence about what you saw. You didn’t have to put yourself in that danger for someone you didn’t know, but I appreciate that you did. Catherine has had many good things to say about you.”

“You would have done the same for me, wouldn’t you?”

“I still would.”

“Then I’ll hold you to that, and we’ll call it even.”

“Why don’t we sit down?” Max suggested. “Does anybody want anything? I’ve got . . . .” When everyone interrupted to decline his offer, he sat down, and the others found places to sit, too.

Catherine stayed, watching the surreal situation that placed Vincent in someone’s home being greeted by a stranger as if it were a perfectly normal thing to have happen. She joined in the very general conversation for a few minutes before asking to use the phone to call a taxi, explaining the early court appearance the next morning. Max and Vincent both moved to get up and walk her to the door, but she motioned them to sit back down.

“I’ll find my way out. Thanks for this, Max.” She reached over and squeezed Vincent’s wrist gently, and he briefly placed his other hand over hers with a gentle pressure. “Goodnight, gentlemen,” she said, standing. “See you soon.”

“Just bear left at the top of the stairs, and the hallway goes straight to the front door,” Max told her, and the sound of a chorus of goodnights and good wishes for her big case followed her up the stairway.

*****

When the taxi pulled away, Catherine realized that she had just left three strong, determined men who, each in his own capacity, had been guardians for their governments . . . men who were confident enough in their abilities that they didn’t shy away from what had to be done when it was necessary but didn’t feel the need for reward when it was done. Then she smiled to herself. Even with the easygoing lack of conflict, between them, there was practically a haze of testosterone in that room. Even without the case to review for the next morning, it had been time for her to leave; but she didn’t mind. Those men would understand all facets of Vincent if anybody would.

*****

The visit wasn’t a long one. Max was a naturally outgoing person, and he eased the other two men into conversation among the three of them. The conversation between the men was amicable. They spoke generally of family and childhood, sometimes a little awkwardly . . . none of them wanting to ask questions the other might not want to answer at this stage of their acquaintance. Isaac told stories of Catherine’s early efforts at self-defense, which explained to a fascinated and amused Vincent some of the things he had felt from her in those early days before their first meeting on her balcony.

“Why now, Isaac?” Vincent asked when there was an opening in their exchange. “After all this time, what caused the need to meet me now?”

“I don’t know,” Isaac answered. “Without lying, I could say my curiosity finally got the best of me; but it was more than that. It was more . . . a feeling that it was something I needed to.”

“I understand,” Vincent answered quietly.

“I’m glad somebody does ‘cause I sure don’t,” Isaac responded, shaking his head and chuckling.

“I’ve spoken to my family about having you visit with us. I’m sure you have more questions; and having kept our confidence this long, it seems unlikely you would give us away now. I do owe you for what you did for Catherine and me.”

“You don’t owe me a thing, but I have to admit that seeing where you were going that night is part of what I feel like I need to do.”

“Then share a meal with us . . . a week from tonight? Our community has a common area for meals. That would be the best time to meet a number of people at once.”

“The man who was with you? Will he be there?”

“My father. Yes, he will.” Vincent turned to Max. “May we meet here again . . . at your threshold?”

“Sure, as long as I’m invited, too. I got no problem with having some of William’s cooking.”

“Then I‘ll meet the two of you at six-thirty at this threshold,” Vincent said as he stood. “I promised to read to the children later tonight. If I leave now, I should be back just in time.” Turning back to Max’s other guest, he added, “Isaac, I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

Isaac extended his hand toward Vincent, obviously having had no problem with the fur and claws he had encountered earlier. “Thank you for your trust, Vincent. I won’t let you down.”

Handshakes were not generally among Vincent’s methods of greeting, but he took Isaac’s hand without seeming uncomfortable with the gesture. “I know that,” he answered. Then he left the other two men and returned to the tunnels.

Isaac sat down in one of the chairs and looked up at Max. “He’s somethin’ else,” he breathed out in amazement.

“Yeah, he is,” Max answered, walking over to the stairs. “Want a beer now?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Max returned from the kitchen with two beers, and they talked a short while before Isaac left to go home.

*****

The following evening, Vincent tapped on Catherine’s door around eleven, and she came to meet him expectantly, sliding her arms eagerly around his waist.

“I’m so glad to see you,” she said, leaning her head against his chest.

“You were full of energy today . . . and hope. I take it the case is going well?”

“Yes. I found a hole in a witness’s testimony, and things moved in our favor from there. We’re likely to be in court another day or so, but I really don’t think the defense will be able to recover from that.”

“I also felt a good deal of curiosity at times. Did that have to do with the case?” he asked with one of his little smiles.

“You know it was about how things went after I left last night.”

“It went well. Isaac will join us for dinner Below next week. I would enjoy having you there if you have the time.”

“Just tell me when. I’ll do my best.”

Vincent released Catherine and turned toward the view of the city, resting his hands on the balcony wall. “Isaac seems to be a good man. It was unusually comfortable to be with him. I felt equally comfortable with Max shortly after he came to us.” He paused thoughtfully before continuing. “When I asked Isaac why he suddenly wanted to meet me after all this time, he said he felt that he needed to. Perhaps he was brought to us for a reason.” He looked over his shoulder at Catherine and shrugged. Holding his arm out to invite her to join him, he then said, “Now, come and tell me what happened in court today.”

*****

Isaac rushed out of his studio at the end of his day, walking briskly toward his goal, anxious not to be late getting to Max’s home. He was about to see where Vincent and Cathy had been going when he had left them at the old Belmont Hotel more than a year ago. It was spring, a beautiful evening. The sun hung low in the sky, periodically peeking out in splashes of nearly blinding light from behind the buildings he passed. It wasn’t cold, but the air still had a hint of winter chill when a breeze whipped past. It was just the kind of evening that fit his anticipatory mood.

Max appeared at the door of his townhouse in answer to Isaac’s knock and greeted him.

“You ready to be amazed?” Max asked.

“I’m already amazed,” Isaac answered. “I don’t know what to expect, but I’m ready.”

“Then let’s go. You’re in for some good food, too. It’s simple fare, but it’s good.”

“Yeah, well, I’m ready for that, too.”

“Vincent should be waiting for us by now. Come on through here.”

Max led Isaac through his storage area and pulled on a shelf on the back wall, which swung out, revealing an opening big enough for an adult to enter. He swung himself over to where a metal ladder was installed on a wall next to the opening and started climbing down.

“You got to be kidding,” Isaac said in disbelief.

When he stopped, Max was far enough down that all Isaac could see was his face, with its big grin, then he heard, “Come on, man. The adventure starts here.”

“Right,” Isaac answered as he swung himself onto the ladder to follow and, realizing that this opening was a part of their security system, he reached to pull the shelf back into place behind him before Max had a chance to ask it of him.

As promised, Vincent was waiting in the tunnel to escort them to the home chambers. As they walked, Vincent explained the purpose of the noise on the pipes, pointed out paths to a couple of sights that Isaac wished they had time to explore, and prepared their guest for what to expect to find when they arrived at their destination.

Being a man with a sense of humor and no lack of curiosity and interest in new things, Isaac had questions; so there was no shortage of conversation on the way, and some easy laughter as well.

Seeing Vincent in his element, Isaac understood Catherine’s comments about a strong, commanding, regal figure. He could also see the trust and respect the others in the community bestowed upon him, and that Vincent seemed hardly aware of anything other than the fact that he was a part of their family and they loved him.

“How long has this place been here?” Isaac asked as he looked around. “How many of you live here?”

Vincent gave him a thumbnail sketch of the tunnel community’s history as Max wandered off to fetch his dinner and sit down to talk to Cullen and some of the others. Father and Mary came to sit with Isaac and Vincent, and Father answered other questions. As they finished their meals, others stopped to speak with Isaac briefly, a number of them expressing their appreciation that he helped Vincent get back home when he was injured. . . .one of them being William, who came to the table after he knew that day’s kitchen helpers had things under control.

Isaac stood and shook the larger man’s hand. “Good food, William. I don’t get this as often as I used to. Where’d you learn to cook like this . . . for this many people?”

“The Army,” William answered.

“The Army?!” Isaac answered in surprise. “I would never have known. Well, congratulations on surpassing the standards. We didn’t get this kind of cooking where I was.”

William laughed and sat for a short time to talk.

Catherine hadn’t managed time to be there to see it, but the community had welcomed Isaac and made it clear that he was welcome to return.

After Isaac’s cursory tour of the home chambers and explanations about their daily activities and how some of them are accomplished, he and Vincent and Max accompanied Father to his chamber.

Knowing he would want to return, Isaac asked, “When I come back, is there anything I should know – any do’s and don’ts, rules I should know about? Cathy is so careful. I don’t want to do anything . . . .”

“I believe Vincent planned to see to that on your walk back, but I’ll go over it with you now if you’d like,” Father answered.

“And Max mentioned being a helper. You can tell me about that, too.”

Father sat down at his desk and smiled before launching into the speech he had given so many times before.

*****

Isaac did revisit the tunnels several times that spring; and as the year wore on, he began to notice that Vincent didn’t seem quite himself. When he and Max went Below in late April, they were there when an intruder alert sounded on the pipes. Five men, all of whom seemed to have been drinking, had managed to breach the perimeter. They were still relatively close to the surface but too far inside the perimeter to be ignored. They were armed with various weapons, both manufactured and makeshift, and appeared to be ready to use them. They sounded dangerous; one had a large backpack, and a sentry heard them laughing about a jewelry store robbery and the money and jewelry in the backpack.

Vincent put his hand on Catherine’s upper arm in apology for cutting their evening short. “I have to go,” he told her.

“Vincent, there are five of them, you can’t . . . .”

“And there are three of us,” Isaac answered. “The fact that they’ve been drinking evens the odds a little. Our heads are clearer, and they don’t know about us. The advantage is ours. You in, Max?” he asked.

“I’m in. Come on. We’ll grab the closest thing we’ve got to weapons.”

“This isn’t your fight,” Vincent argued. “You don’t need . . . .”

“Don’t I remember something in Father’s rules about taking help when you need it?” Isaac asked pointedly. “Five against one sounds like you could use some help to me. We know what we’re doing, Vincent. Just point us in the right direction.”

Vincent nodded, caught in the web of his own community’s rules.

While Max and Isaac went to get what basically amounted to heavy cudgels, Vincent found lanterns for them, and they jogged toward the area the intruders had entered.

When they were close enough that Vincent could hear the encroaching quintet, he slowed, and all three of them lowered the lights of their lanterns. Vincent, being familiar with where they were, motioned for them to wait as he went ahead to see how bad things looked, and saw that it was as bad as it had sounded.

Easing back to the others, he quietly let them know where each man was. The five they were tracking had spread out somewhat – each with a flashlight, seeming to be relaxed, exploring, shouting back and forth to one another, bragging and congratulating themselves on the heist . . . and the store owner and two clerks they had left for dead. Apparently, they killed because they enjoyed it. As rowdy as they were, they obviously believed themselves to be alone in the dark tunnels. And as proud as they were of leaving people dead in their wake, there was no doubt anyone they found would be fair game.

Vincent and his team quickly put together their strategy. The intruders’ flashlights would allow Max to keep an eye on those nearest to them without needing to use his lantern and show himself; and Vincent and Isaac would, as covertly as possible, get behind them and take care of the two in the back. Isaac followed close behind Vincent as he led him through a side tunnel that would bring them out behind where the rowdy invaders were entertaining themselves. They left their lanterns in the tunnel when they could see a hint of light from the flashlights on the other side of the wall. Taking stock of what they were approaching, Isaac quietly placed the cudgel on the floor of the tunnel, and they stealthily crept up behind the two men who had lagged behind their companions. With no real communication about it, Isaac and Vincent each stepped up behind one of the two intruders, wrapped an arm tightly around the man’s neck, making breathing and sound difficult, and snapped his head sharply to one side.

Flashlights had fallen when the two men were grabbed from behind, so the light was now coming from the tunnel floor when they heard from the particularly loud man just ahead of them, “Ain’t that right, Wade?” There was a pause, and then he called over his shoulder, “Wade?” Getting no answer, he turned, seeing two flashlights on the floor, and swung his own light around to check things out. The beam of his light illuminated the two bodies; and in moving it upward, he encountered Vincent . . . standing menacingly at full height, fangs bared and snarling.

Isaac went back for the cudgel while Vincent’s target was distracted and slipped toward the two men in the lead. When those men heard the snarling and the less than masculine scream from behind them, they turned toward the source of the sound, giving Max the opening he needed to tackle one of them. Isaac was on the other one just as quickly. Vincent quickly dispatched the third man with no bloodshed at all. The two who were left fought like maniacs to get away, particularly after seeing Vincent looming behind them, but Max and Isaac eventually got the best of them.

Out of breath, Max and Isaac stepped back for a moment before Vincent joined them. The three of them surveyed the scene before them without speaking. They knew it was a victory that they were still there, that the tunnels wouldn’t have to be subjected to these men, but they didn’t feel victorious so much as exhausted.

“What do we do with them?” Max asked. “We can’t just leave them here. Nothing like this happened while I was living Below.”

Vincent quietly explained how such things were handled, sent an all-clear message on the pipes, and the three of them took care of it before returning to the rest of the community.

Father stood when they entered the room, and Catherine rushed to Vincent’s side.

“Are you all right, Vincent?” she asked. Glancing at the two men with him, she added, “Were any of you hurt?”

“None of us were harmed,” Vincent assured her. Looking over at Father, he simply said, “The threat is gone.”

Father understood and asked no questions. Everyone already knew the answers. He sat down heavily at his desk, sadly watching his son, who was again dealing with the toll these incidents took on him.

“I think I’ll head home,” Max said. “How about you, Isaac?”

“Yeah. Me, too,” he agreed.

“I’ll guide you out,” Vincent told them.

“One of the others could . . . .” Father started.

“I’ll guide them out,” Vincent said firmly.

Father nodded and dropped the subject, and Vincent left with Isaac and Max, promising Catherine he’d be back soon.

As the three men walked back toward the surface, Isaac looked at Vincent. “You needed to get away for a while, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“That’s normal,” Max offered as they walked.

Vincent nodded, and they walked to Max’s threshold in a comfortable silence that was born of understanding.

As Isaac and Max stood at the base of the ladder leading up to the townhouse, Vincent put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Thank you. It was good to have help.”

The other two men did their own versions of easily slapping his upper arms in support before going up the ladder to Max’s basement.

Vincent walked back slowly. He felt guilty knowing that Catherine was waiting and worried about him, but he needed time to shift gears, regroup, before seeing anyone.

*****

It was late May when Catherine had another session with Isaac. Vincent was pulling out of his illness, but still having trouble with his memory, and their bond was gone. He and Catherine were both frustrated and hurting, and Catherine needed to work some of that out of her system before she went to see Vincent that night.

“How’s he doing?” Isaac asked as she pulled a couple of things from her bag. “He hadn’t seemed like himself for a while before it got this bad.”

“I’m worried about him,” Catherine admitted. “Before whatever this illness is, he had to . . . .”

When she had trouble putting her thoughts into words, Isaac stepped in to make it easier. “He’s had to kill again?”

“More than once, but along with somebody trying to play with his mind, the last couple of times seemed to push him over the edge. Maybe it’s the rages, the carnage . . . it’s so foreign to his normal . . . .”

“Whoa. Rages? Carnage?” Isaac asked. “Where did you get that? Is that how he sees what he has to do?”

“I’ve seen it.”

“I didn’t see any of that. He was completely in control. You’d have thought he had Special Forces training.”

“But . . . .”

“Wait a minute. You’ve seen it?”

“We’re connected, Isaac. He knows when I’m in danger . . . and where to find me; and he comes to help. I’ve seen him take down a wall to get to me – or more to get to someone who’s trying to hurt me. He’s completely out of control until I call him or touch him . . . then he calms down and sees what he’s done, and he’s devastated.”

“And you’ve been there when it happened?” Seeing her nod, looking ashamed, Isaac began to put some pieces together.

“Cathy,” he started, choosing his words carefully, “I think maybe he only loses control when you’re involved. I saw nothing the other night to indicate any such thing. We all went in with clear heads, made a plan, and carried it out; but I know from experience that when we saw children being intentionally placed in danger, or when one of our buddies went down, it was easier to give in to anger . . . let the rage take over . . . and that’s when it messed with our minds the most. Anybody can see how much he loves you. If he’s going to lose control, seeing you in danger is when it’s going to happen.”

Catherine sat down on a bench next to the wall, looking defeated. “He was calm?”

“He was. I would have followed any order he gave because it would have been based on a good, clear-headed assessment of what was happening.”

“So it’s me? I’m the reason he’s falling apart right in front of me? How do I fix this?”

“I can’t tell you that. You’ll have to think it through, examine your options, make your own decisions. But I think maybe I’ve figured out why I needed to meet him and know about where he lives. He needs help in all this. I need to think it through and decide on my own options.” Seeing the look of utter despair on her face, he added, “And he knows it isn’t you, Cathy. It’s his response to the situation. He . . . .”

“Isaac, can we call this off for today?” she asked, standing suddenly. “I need to go back to the office. I have some thinking to do, and I need some of my records and files to help.”

“No problem. I need to do some thinking of my own.”

After Catherine left, Isaac reached for his phone and called Max. “Hey, man. I need to talk to you about something.”

 The two of them met at Jasper’s again and brainstormed for a little while, coming up with a tentative plan.

*****

Catherine went back to the office and took a look at her case files – what was nearly finished, what was assigned, what could cause danger . . . and listed them in order of priority, then in order of possible trouble. She knew she would be there late again. After a little reorganizing, she went and knocked on Joe’s door and told him she wanted to be out of the investigative end of the job. She then listed the cases she needed to finish and the ones she would like reassigned to someone else.

“What brought this on,” Joe asked, looking shocked.

“You have to admit that I’ve taken on my fair share of cases involving dangerous people. The man I mentioned to you . . . the one who was so sick . . . my exposure to danger is affecting him more than I had realized. I love him, Joe. I need to put him first. I need him to be well, and if what I do here . . . .”

“Okay, okay. We’ll work something out. I’m seeing a threat of resignation in this, and I don’t want to lose you; but I need to be in court first thing in the morning. Can it go on hold for a couple of days?”

“Yeah. Can we reassign this case?” she asked, pointing out the one that concerned her most.

“Yeah. I’ll do that tomorrow,” he conceded.

“Thank you. I’ll still work hard for you, I promise.”

“I know that.” Realizing the time, Joe asked, “What are you doing still here? You’re not connected to tomorrow’s trial.”

“I needed to put all this together in my head. Thanks for taking time to listen.”

“No problem . . . but I do need to get back to work. Go see this guy of yours and take care of him. He must be pretty special if you’re willing to change parts of your life for him.”

“He is,” she answered with a smile. “Good luck tomorrow.”

He held a hand up in a parting gesture and went back to work as she left.

*****

The following weekend, Isaac visited the tunnels again, and he stopped in the kitchen to speak to William alone.

“I need your opinion, William.”

“Sure. What about?”

“It looks to me like everybody here lets Vincent be their one-man army as much as possible.”

“He’s equipped for it, and he doesn’t try to get out of it.”

“You were in the Army. Didn’t you ever see men who were sent into everything – big or small?”

“Yeah, but a lot of times they were the ones that always volunteered.”

“Like Vincent.”

“I guess.”

“And did you see some of them finally snap under the strain?”

“Some, yeah.”

“Like Vincent?”

“Are you saying that’s what happened to him?”

“I’m saying that could be a lot of what happened. When we’re deployed and something like this happens, we go back to the rest of our unit . . . people who have lived through the same things with you and understand . . . and there’s a buffer before you leave that and go back to normal, everyday life. Vincent walks right back into his family . . . every time . . . and he’s alone. Catherine has seen what he’s had to do. All that takes a toll. I’m saying he could use some help.

William’s eyes began to show a glimmer of understanding. “Why come to me?” he asked.

“You see everybody here, probably catch a lot of the gossip, know what to expect from just about everybody. Are there people here who would be able to take on what Vincent has to do sometimes . . . if they had the skills to do it?”

William rubbed one of his hands along the back of his neck as he thought about it. “Might be a few.”

“Would Father go along with it if Max and I would run some training?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Wouldn’t you include Vincent?”

“Did you see combat?”

“A little. Not like you, though.”

“And did you want to show your family how well you could lob an explosive into a building full enemy . . . or how well you were trained to kill? I don’t know about you, but that’s the last thing I’d want them to see.”

“William took a deep breath and nodded in understanding. “I think you should talk to Father. What do you need me to do?”

“Be quiet about it for now, but talk to that few you mentioned. See what they think.” Isaac clapped William on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, man.” Then he turned to leave.

“Where you going?”

“To talk to Father.”

As worried as Father had been about Vincent, it didn’t take much convincing for him to consider Isaac’s idea. Isaac offered Max and himself for self-defense training for the community in general as well.

“You’ll need to talk to Vincent. I won’t have this done behind his back.” Pausing and placing his glasses on the desk in front of him, he said thoughtfully as if his mind wandered to another place momentarily, “Catherine has already told him she’s leaving the most potentially dangerous part of her work. I was glad to hear that. Simply living in the city up there offers enough danger.” After another short pause, he seemed to return to the present and said quietly, “Thank you for wanting to help my son . . . and my community. You’ve become a good friend to us, Isaac.

“My own community needs as much help as it can get, but I’ll make time for this one, too. It’s a good place, Father, and Vincent is a good man. You deserve to be proud.

 

Epilogue

With some encouragement from Catherine and from other members of the community, Vincent finally got past the guilt he had always so effortlessly taken upon himself and agreed to the plans Isaac and Max had presented. The final convincing argument was that, should a situation like the one in May happen when he was as ill as he had been recently, or when he was away from the tunnels, others in the tunnels would be ill equipped to handle such a number of violent, armed intruders . . . the entire community could be at risk. Vincent did know he had been fortunate that Max and Isaac had been there to help him that night.

Before Winterfest that year, Vincent wasn’t the only one who could effectively take on such difficult situations. There were training sessions for the general population, as well as what was politely called advanced training for those who felt they could accept the responsibility of dealing with the more violent invasions.

In the spirit of the tunnels, those in advanced training didn’t give themselves a name, not wanting to invent themselves a military or police service. The differentiation in emergency responses was made clear only by stating Code 1 or Code 2 on the pipes . . . Code 2 meaning that there would likely be an escalation of violence if the intruders were confronted. Everyone knew who should respond.

As the years went on, Isaac and Max firmly established themselves as Helpers. They were welcomed as part of the family; and the two of them had become fast friends Above as well, often working together in some of Isaac’s community projects. Now and then, Isaac requested temporary shelter for a family who needed help, or for children whose parents needed time to get back on their feet; and the council, by then, trusted his judgment about who he would send them.

At the Winterfest nearest his fortieth birthday, Vincent stood looking over the festive crowd and thinking back on the landmarks in his life’s journey. Father saved his life; his adoptive family saved him from a lonely existence where he would never be accepted, gave him the dignity of being loved and wanted; Catherine saved him from his aloneness, loved and accepted him unconditionally, shared his heart, saved his soul; and Isaac saved his sanity, allowing him to know that others shared his responses to protecting those they loved, to have comrades in arms who shared the burden of protecting their home . . . to understand that side of himself he had always wanted to withdraw from.

He reached to wrap his arm around Catherine’s shoulders and smile past her at his friend, Isaac, and knew that he was, indeed, a fortunate man.

    

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