IN A PERFECT WORLD
By Dennis C. Callin
Fanfiction: Beauty and the Beast (Paramount 1987)
Disclaimer: The following story is for entertainment purposes only, and not intended to infringe on the copyrights connected with the television program series Beauty and the Beast. The story is fictional, and not intended to portray any person, living or dead, any place, or technically, any event as true. My thanks go to Paramount Studios and CBS for airing B&B for three seasons, and providing a beautiful story based on the fairy tale brought into modern times.
“Love can sometimes be magic. But magic can sometimes ... just be an illusion.”
“The weather for New York City will be seasonal for the month of October: this morning’s temperature in Midtown is presently at ten degrees Celsius…”
Vincent groaned as he reached for the clock radio at his side of the bed. He squinted in the brightness of the room and then realized Catherine must have opened the thick curtains. He glanced at the time and groaned again.
“Come on, sleepyhead!” she called from the kitchenette. “You have that conference at nine o’clock, and you want to be awake and not sleeping in your chair.”
After pulling himself upright and then swinging his feet over the side of the bed, he found a pair of modified sandals that served as his slippers. For nightclothes, he wore a pair of white boxers. Because of his body fur, he did not need anything else.
When Vincent moved into Catherine’s apartment, he added a man’s touch to the bathroom. A set of brushes allowed him to care for the vast amount of hair that most human males did not have. In the gymnasium showers, his friends and colleagues jokingly kidded him about how jealous they were of the fur. A few of them called him “Chewy” after the Wookie character in Star Wars. He had to admit that there was a resemblance. Even Catherine had to agree, and added that the hair color was about the same.
A masculine scent wafted from the shower as he turned on the taps. He needed shampoos and conditioners now to conform to social standards of male physical presentation. Vincent stepped into the spray and groaned in a different way as the relatively hot water cleansed the sleep away. Using a body wash that agreed with his sense of smell, he lathered up and ran one of the coarser brushes across his torso. He would use the finer brushes when he was dry.
“Now that’s what a woman likes,” he heard Catherine say just outside the glass door. “There’s nothing better than to see a naked, handsome male in the morning. Especially one who allows me the privilege of riding him.”
“You are still not safe from me,” he growled seductively back at her.
“I am if you want to get little Jacob off to preschool.” Her eyes still lingered on his physique for a few seconds, and then she shook her head. “Maybe after we put him to bed …” An index finger went up. “IF you promise not to make so much noise this time.”
Vincent smiled. “We shall see.” His eyes lingered a bit as well. Although the nightgown was modest and covered her from neck to ankle, he could still see her svelte body ... and the minute protrusion of a second pregnancy. He waited until she left the bathroom – her gentle laughter following her like her scent.
He always hated cleaning the drain trap, but that was the curse of his fur and mane. After that, the blow dryer… Vincent enjoyed the blow dryer. The stream of hot air always reminded him of summer when they would walk in Central Park. The wind, warmed by the Gulf of Mexico, rattled the leaves of the trees and caressed them as it traveled on.
Central Park …
He sighed as he finished the final blow dry and the fine brushing that completed his ablutions. Unlike his male counterparts, Vincent did not have to shave his face.
His thoughts brushed by a serious subject – one that troubled him to this day. Father …
When he had followed Catherine to the Above, he had had a violent argument with the man who saved him and raised him. As a result, Vincent rarely went Below anymore. Instead, he met Mary at one of the many hidden entrances to the underground world beneath Manhattan. The woman would take Jacob down to see Father, and he would teach little Jacob the things that most children would need to know. When the workday was done, Vincent or Catherine would find Mary waiting for them at a portal, and Jacob would go home with them.
His last chore was his mane. Normally, he would tie the unruly red locks back in a tight ponytail similar to men’s styles in the late 1700s. In a medium-gray business suit with a blue tie or ascot, he looked very debonair. After researching that era, he had found a matching bow to complete a formal look of the period. Catherine’s comment about the bow brought a smile back when he recalled her saying, “And I doubt any guy can call you a girl or a sissy.”
Coming out, he ruffled Jacob’s hair and then sat down at the breakfast table.
“When are you going to take time off work and go into neo-natal care?” he asked.
“First Joe and now you,” Catherine remarked impatiently. “I did all right with Jacob, and this newly-created little one…”
“Catherine,” he interrupted gently but insistently, “we agreed to be careful about our children because of me.”
“You mean because of the red hair.” She nodded as she served him a generous helping of scrambled eggs and bacon.
“Among other things. Father is still not certain about my genetics, and he is nervous about this new life inside your body.”
“You’re the one who put her in there,” she replied, sipping a cup of milk. Last time she was pregnant, everyone seemed to tell her to stay away from caffeine.
Catherine’s eyes closed and she groaned. “Now look what you made me do. You ruined the surprise.”
“I thought you hadn’t seen the doctor yet.”
She chuckled and gave him a crooked smile. “I haven’t. I need time to think up some excuse to make an appointment …”
“Can you not call in sick and see Doctor Alcott? You have seen him before, and he is Below. If not, what about Father?” Vincent asked, but Catherine shook her head.
“And what if Joe asks why? He wasn’t exactly ready for you when we had our nuptials.”
“A lot of your friends seemed surprised …”
Catherine grinned. “I kinda expected them to be a little overwhelmed when the groom dwarfed the best man …” She paused as she looked at him. “I’ve always meant to ask you that. Why did you pick Joe?”
Now it was Vincent’s turn to grin. “I wanted him to know who and what your hubby looked like, just in case he did not believe in you having one. Speaking of … What about a case?”
“Same thing.” She grimaced.
Vincent picked up his briefcase and then stopped in front of her. “How do you know you are carrying a girl then?”
“I … I just know this time.” Catherine glanced away. If she looked at his face, looked into his eyes … She did anyway. “I knew about Jacob before he was ten weeks along. I’m seventeen weeks now, and I can almost see her in my mind. I’m sorry, Vincent. I’ll go see Father at dinner tonight. At least I can say I have a dinner date.”
“Definitely. Do not trouble yourself, Beloved. The moment was still magical for us both. I shall see you tonight,” he said, and they carefully kissed.
“And I will see Jacob is with his grandfather,” Catherine said cheerfully. “Hurry home.”
The weather was cool, but the rain could come at any time. So Vincent stopped at the coat rack long enough to pick up his umbrella and slip into his tailored trench coat. Even the largest coat the clothier had on the rack seemed to be unable to contain his muscular shoulders. Likewise, his business suits tended to pinch without careful tailoring. The closest anyone could meet Vincent’s needs were those clothiers that catered to men who resembled football players.
Outside, the prediction of rain seemed to be closer to the present than the afternoon. Vincent could smell the moisture in the air and feel its cooling temperature. Popping the umbrella open, he hurried over to the subway station – instinctively dodging traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. He was halfway there when the rain caught up with him and scattered many of the morning commuters. Fortunately, he ducked into the station and beat most of the crowd to the bakery kiosks.
Although Father told him to watch what he ate, he chose a bear claw for now, and one for later. The apple-filled pastry always satisfied his sweet tooth.
For some reason, Vincent drifted toward the rear of the oncoming train and stood behind the yellow line. He smiled politely at the people who crowded behind him. To the best of his knowledge, he always chose this spot, and those who waited for his egress knew that the huge man would clear a path for them. When the doors opened, even the toughest rider would move aside for him. The car was now safe until Vincent got off at his destination.
“Ever had to knuckle anyone in here?” a black woman in a leather coat and matching trousers asked him one time. “I saw that young punk move along when you came in.”
“Only once,” Vincent answered, glancing at a flash of gold on the woman’s belt. He nodded as he recognized the NYPD detective shield. “After that, no one wanted an encore performance.”
“The Transit cops must have tried to get you to enlist.” She smiled pleasantly. “That type of reputation beats batons and weapons easily.”
“I try not to fight at all,” Vincent replied calmly. “I know that I underestimate my strength, and the resulting lapse can be quite devastating.”
“I’ll bet,” she said, looking forward in the car. “I know someone just like you. He likes guns more than just using his personality…”
“Stay safe and alert, detective,” he said as she stood and went toward the middle of the car.
She gave him a thumbs up. “Always, big guy.”
Midtown in Manhattan was almost exactly that. Starting at 14th Street, Midtown took up both the East Side and the West Side up to 59th Street. The Theatre District, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Garment District were notable locations, as were some of the most iconic buildings, such the Empire State, Chrysler, Trump Tower, Essex, and Hampshire, and the affluent Fifth Avenue stores, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Station – just to name a few. Here, real estate was at a premium. Manhattan no longer spread out on the surface for the main part. Instead, the affluent went vertical nearly one hundred floors. For Vincent, his work waited for him in one of the many buildings that comprised the Time Warner complex on West 59th Street.
Antiquities Incorporated, or AI, as most referred to the company, appeared modest when viewed under the Trump Tower, but many viewed it as on the rise. Its CEO, one Lawrence McCallum, had established his lucrative business just prior to the discovery of King Tut’s golden sarcophagus, and he had begun to amass a wealth of antiquities – some for sale legitimately, and others not so legitimately. The elder McCallum had just celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday, and his oldest son, Jonathan Randell McCallum, was being primed for the top spot.
Vincent greeted several of his colleagues and subordinates as he stopped at the front desk. The blonde behind the desk was in her late twenties, her body toned through the company physical fitness salon, and a bright smile awaiting anyone who approached her. She chuckled slightly as she handed Vincent his correspondence.
“You look very debonair, Mr. Chandler. You sorta remind me of the actor who played Thomas Jefferson in 1776 last year at the Roundabout.”
“Thank you, Miss Clarinda. Lately, I do attempt to adopt the fashion of that time period.”
“You’re welcome … and you can call me Clare.”
Vincent smiled, mostly to himself, as he went toward his office. His choice of administrative assistant was unusual because he had selected a male who held promise. As he approached his door, the college graduate stood.
“I hope your marriage is fairly strong, Mr. Chandler.”
“Why so?” Vincent replied as he entered his office and placed his briefcase on his desk. His assistant entered and chose the chair furthest to Vincent’s left. With his usual efficiency, Robert Westerly opened his notepad, and clicked an expensive pen into readiness.
“Clare has a habit of going after any man she finds attractive,” Robert said with a hint of a smile. “Status is not a barrier. If you do not mind an opinion?”
“On a fine rainy day in Manhattan?” Vincent waved at the window and the dreary scene washed by the precipitation. “Please …”
“I would be careful of any behavior that might suggest interest. Calling her ‘Clare’ would certainly be a good example.”
Vincent nodded. “Rest assured, Mr. Westerly. My marriage is very strong indeed. And Miss Clarinda will not find me calling her Clare.”
“She might even find that to be attractive. You have been warned, sir.”
Opening his case, Vincent extracted several file folders and placed them in a vertical line of importance on the right side of his expansive desk. “Your warning is noted, Mr. Westerly. I do not think Catherine would approve of anyone attempting to win me as a trophy.”
Taking the bottom-most folder, he opened the file, and perused the photograph and the synopsis briefly. The photo was that of a black jackal of the Egyptian Nineteenth Dynasty. This artifact was the one that helped form the company, and fueled the rise of the McCallum leadership. There was only one blemish …
“In case you are wondering, sir,” Robert said softly, “the spearhead has not been found. Because of the activity around the site over the years, many fear that the Anubis spear was taken and the spearhead melted down for the gold.”
The figure of Anubis seemed to be standing, slightly crouched as if to distribute his weight, and holding a spear shaft in such a manner as to show him in the act of throwing, or pointing, or initiating a charge. Vincent’s right forefinger tapped the photo. Then he looked carefully at the synopsis for a few moments.
“Has anyone thought of looking for a chariot in the areas that feature Ramses the Great? Specifically, his monuments to the Battle of Kadesh?”
Robert looked up from his notebook. “I do not follow you, sir.”
“What if someone discovered the original statue and decided to hide the spear point for recovery later on?”
“One of the antiquities teams or the first person to discover the statue?”
“The latter or both. Who else would be able to achieve the act of pirating such a rare piece? The statue itself is too big to plunder, but the spearhead … With a little doctoring, the spearhead could be hidden in plain sight as part of the chariot’s harness or undercarriage. Well?”
Robert looked down at the spearhead, a bronze piece, and nodded. “It is … possible.”
“Make this a priority order to our field teams in Israel, and send a copy of this possible action to the Corporate desk. I am almost sure that our CEO would agree with me on this.”
As Robert made a notation, Vincent also made a notation in the synopsis. Closing the file, he placed it on his left and then placed a Post-It on the file.
Vincent nodded. Rain or not … Gray skies or not … Today was a good day …
Much later, Vincent rubbed his eyes, and then looked over in the far corner at an ornate grandfather clock. Although the tall timepiece was estimated to be over a hundred years old, the elder McCallum had decided to place it in Vincent’s office rather than on the lobby floor. He studied the scrollwork around the clock face, and marveled at the dexterity of the artisan who crafted the carvings. This particular clock’s casing was made from walnut, and sanded and buffed to a dark shine that almost glowed. He noted that the indicated time was nearly five o’clock.
“Where does the day go, sir?” Westerly said with a slight smile as he entered the executive office. Vincent believed in an open-door philosophy and only closed it when classified projects were discussed or when the need arose for privacy.
Vincent cast a glance out the window and noted the rain was steadily falling. Tonight would be cold and cheerless.
“This one could have been better spent,” he finally growled.
“I could get you a carry-out coffee, sir.”
“Only if you … ah …”
Westerly smiled as he held a finger against his lips. “Already ahead of you, sir.”
At the service tray, the assistant poured a steaming cup of dark brew into a carafe and then added a generous dollop of Bailey’s and a spoonful of sugar before stirring the tan-colored beverage. Snapping on the lid, Westerly placed the carafe on the desk next to Vincent’s briefcase. At that moment, the clock struck the hour.
Before he closed his case, Vincent sipped from the carafe, and then allowed the afterglow to disperse before he smiled. “Perfect.”
“Your order from the florist is on the receptionist’s desk on your way out. Have a pleasant evening, sir.”
“I will if I can dance between the raindrops.” Vincent nodded as he slipped several files into the case and then closed it. “Have Penelope distribute the rest of that stack to the floor. Expedite them, because we need to move on recovering the artifacts in that region.”
“Give my regards to your family.”
“Thank you, sir. I will.”
As his assistant gathered up the remaining file folders, Vincent stood and went to the coat rack. He slipped into the tailored London Fog trench coat and then received his case and umbrella from Westerly.
“Do not work too late, Robert,” he admonished gently.
“I shall be out within the hour, sir.”
As Westerly had said, a crystal vase with a dozen scarlet roses awaited him on the receptionist’s desk. Clarinda looked up and smiled coyly as Vincent examined the card.
“Every woman in the office hoped these were for her, Mr. Chandler.”
“Then the gentlemen who are lucky enough to have their hearts could use a hint. Good evening, Miss Clarinda.”
Vincent suddenly realized that he had a quandary to solve. He had three items – umbrella, vase and briefcase – and only two hands.
“Not to worry, Mr. Chandler,” the receptionist said, picking up her phone and tapping the appropriate extension. “I’ll have a car meet you in the Underground.”
“Thank you, Miss Clarinda.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Chandler.”
As Vincent strode toward the elevators, he felt slightly flushed. Mumbling under his breath, he made a note to watch out for the receptionist. Robert Westerly’s warning was right on the money.
As usual, the riders in the elevator were all upper management, but they still yielded to his size out of respect. As usual, people made room for him. A pleasant smile, and a murmured ‘Excuse me,’ made the insertion easy.
The ride down was quiet, except for a few comments about the weekend’s football games. Vincent did not have much interest in the sport, and any attempt to elicit advice or an opinion on the games usually were quieted with disinterest.
“I would have expected you to be a college player, at least,” one of his co-workers once commented. “Your size alone would give any opposing line an insurmountable problem.”
Vincent had nodded. “Precisely why I did not pursue a sports career. I put someone in the hospital one night and he did not fare well. After that incident, I found academic pursuits more to my liking.”
His co-worker had merely nodded.
The ride to his home station was uneventful, as was his walk from the subway to Catherine’s apartment – now his, as well. However, he did notice a few people moved to the other side, a safe distance away. He would smile, and made sure not to expose his teeth, but that did not placate the ones who were nervous or seemingly frightened of him.
Once more, he avoided Central Park. The closest he ever came to entering the Park was moving through Columbus Circle to get to the subway stations near the Time Warner complex. Because of this feeling that the ill will was misplaced, Vincent really thought he should make peace with Father.
“What did you bring home with you this time?” Catherine called out as he entered.
He was just about to answer when his head turned to the left …
Nothing seemed out of order, but he could swear that there were voices that were either far enough away or pitched too low for him to understand them.
“What’s wrong?” she asked from the other room.
The voices quieted suddenly.
“Nothing …” he answered softly.
Catherine appeared from the kitchenette, dressed in a comfortable tan sweater and dark brown slacks. Over this, she wore an apron that had a large red lip print and the phrase “Kiss the Cook!” on it.
His forehead creased and he frowned.
“Nothing?” she said incredulously. “You don’t look like you have nothing in your briefcase. What is it?”
“Dearest, where did you get that apron?”
Vincent blinked. His vision blurred slightly, and the voices returned briefly. Again, he could not understand the voices or perceptibly hear them. When his vision cleared, the voices abruptly disappeared, and the apron was gone.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Panic bubbled just beneath the surface. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to set the vase on the table and missed. Catherine, however, managed to catch the falling heavy crystal vase and held onto it. Quickly moving to a side table, she set the vase down and confronted Vincent.
“Come with me,” she said resolutely. “You need a hot shower and rest. After that, I’ll call a Helper and get Father up here to look you over.”
After setting the umbrella out of the way, she took the briefcase out of his grip and set it down next to the “home office” door. Then Catherine guided Vincent toward the master bathroom. He froze at the threshold.
“When did you have the bathroom remodeled?” he asked weakly.
The tiled walls and the hooks that held his bath brushes were gone. The nozzle and hot/cold handles were the same, but everything that spoke of “him” was missing. Vertigo hit him like a body blow and the room swam dangerously. The voices returned and fluctuated in volume, but the words were still vague and undefined.
“He’s … to … the … mula…”
“In … the … age …”
Vincent felt cold suddenly, and he clenched his teeth. Pieces of consciousness were beginning to come through, and he …
“Vincent?” Catherine’s voice was tight with concern.
He opened his eyes and found Catherine supporting him against the bathroom door. Taking a deep breath, he managed to focus on the shower again.
The bath was tiled and had the brush rack in place, waiting for him to take his shower. The bottles that held shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and dental washes lined the sink counter in orderly fashion. All was normal.
“I’m okay for now …”
“For now …” Catherine growled as she began stripping down to her lingerie. “I’m getting in with you, but not for any playing around. You usually don’t go rug-diving, so I’m tempted to hustle you Below so you can get some medical treatment.”
Now down to bra and panties, Catherine made sure that Vincent was steady as he removed his suit and underclothes. Turning the taps to a tolerable 105 degrees Fahrenheit, she pushed him into the steamy shower. He shuddered as the hot stream of pulsing water struck his back and ran down his legs. Catherine quickly sprayed him with body wash, and then literally attacked him with the body brushes.
“I’m not ill!” he complained as she worked him over with the brushes and body wash.
“We shall see,” she snapped. “I want you to call in sick tomorrow, and we’ll get you down Below for a checkup.”
Vincent allowed Catherine to rinse him off and sluice most of the water off with a fine brush. She then pulled him out of the shower and ran the blow dryer over his body. By the time he used a large fluffy bath towel to blot the leftover dampness, he felt better. He declined to wear pajamas this time, and chose to sleep nude. In fact, he was beginning to get slightly aroused when he finally looked Catherine over in her wet underwear.
“Forget that for tonight, Vincent,” she replied warmly. “When the doctor gives you a clean bill of health, then and only then, we might consider it. And don’t look so beat. Go get in bed while I dry off. I’ll check in on Jacob when I come back.”
Vincent shook his head. Something bothered him now that he was alone. He could not deny that he had been dizzy, chilled, and hearing voices, but now he felt fine. But something was still wrong. Slipping under the covers, he began running over the day in his mind. When did it start? Everything at the office was fine. He still had some homework in his briefcase concerning that blasted statue and its twice-dammed spearhead ….
He blinked. Anger? Was it …? No, that was absurd. The statue had nothing to do with these things. Vincent did not even have the statue in his possession. So that was not it.
The trip home was uneventful. No, wait … The people on the subway. The black female detective was not there, but was she honestly a regular on the train car? Her absence could be the result of being called elsewhere. So … Vincent suddenly felt a chill go up his spine. The people … Some of them had been afraid of him. He never knew anyone to be afraid of him just sitting in one of the seats before. Even when the car was somewhat full, and he stood to let an elderly person take his seat, he could not recall anyone being openly afraid or hostile toward him. But this evening …
“Get into bed, Vincent,” Catherine suddenly said as she came in with a mug that steamed in her hand. “I’m not sure about how some sleep medications would affect you, but a warm eggnog is supposed to help … What’s wrong now?”
Vincent was staring. He remembered now what seemed off.
Catherine’s abdomen was flat … not seventeen weeks pregnant … flat …
“Wha …?” he stammered. “What happened to you?”
At first, surprise clearly showed in her widening eyes and open mouth. Then puzzlement took its place. “Nothing that a month’s vacation wouldn’t solve. Why?”
“Didn’t you say you were pregnant this morning?”
“I said what!?”
“That you were nearly four months pregnant. Don’t you remember telling me that you were carrying a little girl?”
“Drink this,” she said warily, handing him the mug. “I told you I was pregnant?”
Catherine studied him as he sipped the hot beverage and then shook her head briefly. “If I thought for one minute that you were playing some elaborate joke on me, I’d have you sleep on the couch. I’ll admit we’ve been talking about it, even tried a few times, but I’m not. Are you certain that is what I said?”
He nodded and then took another couple of sips. For some reason, he did feel sleepy, and he handed the mug back to Catherine. “Let’s talk about this in the morning. Right now, I’m dead on my feet.”
Vincent managed to slip under the sheets before the soft blanket of sleep began to overtake him. As he drifted into REM, he managed to catch bits and pieces of something that was off. His nostrils twitched as an acrid scent of bleach and alcohol bit inside his nose. A beeping sound originated just above his head, but he could not see it clearly. Shadows moved around him, but he was powerless to communicate with whoever or whatever. The voices …
Finally he could understand a portion of what was garbled before.
“He’s beginning to fight the drug regimen, doctor,” a female voice said clinically.
“We will have to increase the dosage of the hypnotic,” a soft male voice replied. “Do not go over 150 percent of the dosage, though. This drug has been tested, but not on him. I would rather err on the side of caution than take chances.”
Vincent felt sleep pour over him and everything, including the voices, faded into darkness. The last thing he remembered as he drifted past REM was Catherine’s voice.
“Thank God he’s asleep.”
“The weather for New York City will be seasonal for the month of October: This morning’s temperature in Midtown is presently at 50 degrees Fahrenheit…”
Vincent came awake with a snort as the clock radio played out the morning weather report. At first, he had to look quickly around the bedroom to see if something was wrong. As the weather report continued to the outlying boroughs and suburbs, he finally understood the puzzled feeling. The reporter was using old English measurements!
His nostrils detected the comfortable scents of breakfast, even though he also smelled burnt toast and bacon. That was an oddity that took the place of the foreign temperature. Catherine had never burned anything when she cooked.
“Come on, sleepyhead!” she called from the kitchenette. “You have that conference at oh-nine-hundred, and you want to be awake and not sleeping in your chair.”
Vincent blinked. That was normal until she called out the time. He shrugged it off, however. Military time or AM/PM time – it was still nine o’clock. He eased out from under the covers and slipped his feet into his sandals. A quick shower and brushing, and he would be able to handle the morning, at least.
He paused at the shower. The door was still glass, but it was now thick and opaque. Opening the shower door, he studied the interior. He did not remember the walls being burnished steel. And his brush set was black instead of white. Turning on the taps, he had the satisfaction of feeling warm water, which indicated that the pre-heater was working as it should.
“Is everything okay, darling?” Catherine asked as she brought in some laundered towels.
As she hung the towels, Vincent’s gaze went to her abdomen for some reason. The protrusion of a second pregnancy marred her otherwise svelte body.
“You see what you did to me!” she said with a coy grin.
Even though everything else was off-centered, this comment seemed right for a change. He chuckled. “I just couldn’t help myself.”
“Yeah, well, now I have neo-natal care to go to, and the only doctors I dare go to are Father and Doctor Alcott. And don’t make that face at me! If you would just try and make peace with him!”
“Dear,” he responded tersely, “if we consented to his demands …”
Catherine cut in. “He did not demand, Vincent.”
“He requested then. If we did, I would not be here with you, Jacob, our new daughter …”
“Daughter? I told you that I’m pregnant with another son.”
That pronouncement hit like a body blow. “Son? But I thought … I mean …”
Catherine shook her head. “Finish your shower and come to breakfast. We have to get going if we’re going to drop Jacob off with our Helper.”
She pushed him into the shower and walked out of the bathroom, leaving Vincent in his bewilderment. Going on automatic, he managed to turn on the taps, adjust the temperature and then began applying his body wash. His nose wrinkled at the scent momentarily, wondering when she had switched brands. Looking at the bottle, he saw that the brand name and the scent was his usual body wash. His brow creased with puzzlement when he sniffed the bottle and smelled the musk instead of the cinnamon he had smelled before.
As he toweled off and used his body brushes, he pondered what was happening. This morning was … odd. A sense of déjà vu … but not exactly. Going back over the events in his mind, he felt as though certain things were … wrong … or at least off-center. The pregnancy was the strongest. A son? He felt sure something was wrong about that. And Catherine acting frustrated about their disagreement with Father. Catherine had supported their primary move to the Above so they could establish a somewhat normal life. And so far, the move had been successful … Or was it?
Coming out of the shower stall, he padded softly into the bedroom. On the bed, Catherine had laid out a dark gray pinstripe suit, a dark blue ascot, and a dark blue hair ribbon. He smiled as he eased his unruly mane into a low ponytail and then cinched the tail in the ribbon – just like human men did in Colonial times.
“All you need is the frilly ascot and the knickers, and you could play Jefferson in 1776,” Catherine said as she stopped at the doorway.
“And I would abstain,” he said with a grin and quickly held up a pointed index finger. “Courteously!”
Catherine’s laughter faded as she moved into the dining room. Scrambled eggs, a slice of savory ham, and a frosted bagel (for a bit of sweetness) were waiting for him as he sat down at the table. Catherine came in wearing a conservative business jacket and skirt. For breakfast, she selected the same items, except she had replaced the frosting with salsa and laughed it off as the result of the pregnancy.
Her smile faded, however, when she noticed Vincent’s shocked expression. “What’s wrong, Vincent?”
“Your hair …”
“What about it?”
“When did you become a redhead?”
Quickly, Catherine left the table and disappeared into the bedroom, once more leaving Vincent to debate his sanity. And the voices … He was beginning to understand something about them.
When Catherine returned, he nodded. Her hair was once again the bronze-colored shade he knew was familiar. She stopped halfway to the table.
“What is it?”
“How did you change your hair color so quickly?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I looked up and your hair was red. You went into the bedroom and came out with your hair its normal color …” Vincent’s voice faltered. The voices spoke again and he felt a chill wash over him again. Things were beginning to make sense, and that made him nervous.
“You are some sort of dream image,” he stated flatly.
“Listen to me for a moment, Catherine. I have been having hallucinations recently, where everything I know to be true becomes false for just a moment. Your pregnancy, the shower, your hair color, my memory about what has happened … all of this. Father said that conditions have to be right for us to conceive a child, and we have not had that lately. Ergo, you should not be having a child now.”
Although he was ready for it, the actual change made him clench his teeth. As soon as he said it, the physical sign of Catherine’s pregnancy disappeared!
“Vincent?” Again, puzzlement crossed her face. “What is happening?”
As he guessed, she did not respond to the change. “Someone or something is doing something to me. Whatever it is, it is attempting to change how I perceive reality.”
“A reality that I share somehow?”
“I believe this is so.”
Catherine took the chair opposite him and sat down. “Explain to me how I can share what seems to be a hallucination or an induced perception?”
“I do not know.”
“And yet you are certain that this,” she said, waving her hand to encompass the room, “is not real. And me. I seemingly can interact with you and be influenced by you. Is that it?”
“Apparently. I am attempting to use logic to reason out this conflict.”
“And I am that logic. Are you certain you are not dreaming this?”
Vincent shook his head. “I am not. Catherine … were you aware of the changes? You seemed to understand the loss of your pregnancy.”
She nodded. “If I am your logical part and I represent your thoughts, then I accepted the fact that, in your true reality, I am not pregnant, and therefore I should not be here.”
Rubbing his forehead, Vincent also nodded. “What should I do?”
Catherine stood and regarded him carefully. “Do what you would normally do in this reality. Go to work and see if this reality is true to its events and people as you perceive them. If you can see me in this reality, and the one who should really be in your reality, then it stands to reason that you will see this reality slowly lose its grip upon you.”
“This action could be dangerous …”
“But it might be the only way for you to find your path back to your true world … and me,” she said as she reached out to stroke his cheek.
Vincent eased himself to his feet and slowly and carefully embraced her. In his mind, she should really fade away like a puff of smoke…
“I hope you find me …”
Without him being consciously aware of it, Catherine had left for her work, taking Jacob with her, and left him to sort out his conundrums. However, he could still smell her bath powder and sense the touch of her hand. If he were to open the door, he would assuredly see her in the hall going toward the elevator.
Instead, he picked up his briefcase, chomped down on his half-eaten bagel, and went out to face whatever reality awaited him.
The walk to the subway station was sheer hell. Before this morning, the people around him acted normal for Manhattan citizens. Most of them gave him anything from a cheerful hello to a noncommittal nod. Only a few people would warily avoid him. Today? The percentages skewed a full 180 degrees. At the newsstand, the man who normally greeted his arrival with small talk and a joke or two about the Yankees or the Mets, now nervously handed him a paper and refused the money Vincent offered. A policeman and his partner looked him over, and one of them even put his hand on his service piece. A homeless woman cringed and shifted around the corner of an alleyway. Vincent was certain that she was clearly afraid of him! Withdrawing a pocket notebook, he jotted down his findings so far. Now, the subway.
First, his place on the line was uncontested by even the Transit cops. When the train came in, no one boarded his car. Through the windows, he caught the uneasy glances of the other riders. Even the black female detective decided not to talk with him. Vincent jotted down more notes and endured a lonely ride to Columbus Circle station.
When he walked into the reception lobby of the building, two men at the security kiosk stood as the receptionist peered hesitantly at Vincent’s ID badge.
“Problem?” Vincent asked tightly.
Vincent nodded and went through the turnstile without further trouble.
When he got into the elevator car, Vincent felt a slight chill rush through him.
“He’s beginning to fight the new drug regimen,” a female voice said.
Vincent looked up at the speaker in the ceiling. The voices were becoming clearer, but he still could not figure out where they were coming from.
“Did you increase the dosage as I ordered?” a male voice harshly replied.
“Yes. He responded to the drugs at first, but only for a little while.”
Vincent glanced quickly to the right and groaned as he saw the instrument panel fade in and out. On the opposite side of the door, the instrument panel appeared and disappeared in sync with the other one. Closing his eyes, he managed to hold down his panic as the elevator made it to his office floor. Allowing the other riders to depart, he finally glared at the control panel. It stayed in place.
Clarinda sat at her desk, but she immediately looked down at the paper report on her desk when he appeared. His mail waited for him (as usual) on the corner of her desk. He stopped when he picked up the thick stack of correspondence and tried to look into her eyes. Hers remained fixed on the surface of her desk.
“Are you all right, Miss Clarinda?”
“I have not said or done anything to offend you, have I?”
Vincent studied the top of her head and then shrugged. Add personality changes to the list. If the receptionist is affected, then he almost feared what awaited him in his office.
“Mr. Westerly?” he said as he entered the corner office (At least that had remained. He was still important to the company.)
A feminine voice answered, “Sir?”
Vincent stopped just inside the threshold. Turning to face the woman who spoke, Vincent found a tall, statuesque strawberry blonde with green eyes regarding him with a dry smile. He blinked at this change.
“I have not been confused for a male in a long time, sir,” Miss Roberta Westerly continued. She made a point of turning side to side so that the front of her business suit with the black ascot showed a definite woman’s figure. “I am not sure how to respond to that.”
“Forgive me,” he managed to reply. “I do not seem to be myself lately.”
“If I may so bold as to ask … is everything all right at home?”
“As far as I know. Miss Westerly … this may sound slightly incredulous, but … what happened to Miss Clarinda?”
“In what manner, sir?”
Vincent moved around to his chair and sat down, placing the reports on the left side of his desk. As he did, Miss Westerly placed a rather thick report with red binders on the blotter. Vincent glanced at it. “She seems … If I were to make a judgment, I would say that she is cowed by something or somebody.”
Taking a breath and letting it out in a slight huff, Miss Westerly then shook her head. “She has been that way since her parents were killed in a traffic accident. She would probably be on the streets if you had not let her stay on when everyone else thought she needed help. Sir? Your theory concerning the Anubis spearhead will be your central argument in today’s meeting at nine o’clock. I will provide you with a summary of these reports while you review your research.”
As Miss Westerly turned to exit, Vincent regarded the young woman as one of many conundrums that had assaulted his mind lately. Why did he think that his administrative assistant was a young man before he came in?
She stopped at the door and then closed it when Vincent motioned her to do so.
“What is wrong, sir?”
“A lot of people have been asking me that. You are not afraid of me. Why?”
“Should I be?”
Vincent rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What do I look like?”
“A man with lion-like features and a strong physical build to back up the impression,” she said calmly. “Why do you ask?”
“I do not frighten you?”
“You did at first. Sir, when I walked into this office to be interviewed by you, I wanted to run out of here. But then … you seemed out of place, and that intrigued me.”
“In what way?”
“You did not act upon your appearance. Most men I know would use such features to dominate their environment and act the alpha male to their male colleagues. Although your work place shows your accomplishments and company accolades, it also shows a certain humility. An ‘Aw shucks, it weren’t nothing’ kind of thing, or like hitting the winning run at the company picnic and downplaying it. I find such a man very attractive, but not married men. Your wedding ring is a compliment to your build, but you wear it proudly. That, and your family picture is turned to face you.”
She held out her hands to indicate the room. “This is a corner office, and not many people have one unless they are good at what they do. The plaques and commendations on the wall behind you speak of your abilities to get the task done and done well.”
Her eyes fixed on him, but softly. “But when I came in here, you treated me with civility and gentlemanly manners. I liked that, too. A lot of men help me sit in a chair just to sneak a peek down my cleavage. You did not give me that impression. You may have the lion’s look, but you also have the lion’s heart. I made up my mind right there and then that this position would be beneficial for me in so many ways. Having a manager such as you would give me an honest workplace, and you cannot find many places like that nowadays.”
She smiled modestly. “I hope I did not get too schmaltzy there …”
Vincent grinned. “Brooklyn?”
“Longck I-land,” Westerly replied, deepening the accent.
He chuckled. “You remind me of Catherine. She is truthful and speaks her mind.”
Glancing at the clock, she stood. “You need to see to that report, sir, and I need to get to work as well.”
“Thank you, Miss Westerly. Can …? Can we …?”
Once more, she paused at the door. “Mr. Chandler? You can talk with me anytime.”
She went out, leaving the door open as the male counterpart had done. Vincent’s gaze followed the young woman to her desk and then he breathed a silent sigh out. Of the many people he knew in this reality, Catherine and now this young woman were the only ones that he could converse with and understand in this reality.
As he opened the binder that held his research on the Anubis spearhead, he winced. His temple felt like an ice pick was suddenly stuck into his skull …
“Sir? The patient is becoming more violent, and the sedatives don’t seem to be working.”
“Restrain him then, while I research some newer drugs. This is the first test that was beginning to show promise, and I cannot allow the chance to pass by …”
Vincent felt a sense of assurance now.
He was being manipulated. As soon as Roberta Westerly walked “off stage,” his sense of reality was able to pierce the covering of the false one. However, he had yet to see who it was! The whole sensation made him remember the Wizard of Oz and the throne room. If he could just sneak a peek behind whatever this curtain was and confront the Wizard …!
A feeling of nausea washed over him.
The room seemed to flicker in and out, and a touch of vertigo also affected him. Two rooms assaulted his senses. The office with its brilliance and business-like environment vied with what appeared to be a hospital room, with its bed and medical accoutrements. The funny thing about the hospital room was the rough-hewn walls …
“Are you all right, Mr. Chandler?” Roberta asked rapidly as she knelt by his side.
Vincent then realized that he was laid out on the floor. Had he fainted? He looked up to see that the woman was honestly concerned. She loosened his ascot and began to undo the buttons of his jacket. Why did he still feel constricted?
“Do you need anything? Medication? Should I call the paramedics?”
“No, no, no. I will be fine as soon as I get my bearings.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Chandler?”
“Yes. Please, Roberta, is there a car available to take me home?”
“Of course,” she replied as she helped him to sit up. “I am going to call your wife though. You should not be left alone in case this is serious.”
Vincent allowed the woman to help him into his office chair and then call the valet in the garage. Again, the room flickered, and he gritted his teeth as he tried to fix one of the realities he was aware of. In the hospital one, he was briefly able to see a nurse and a doctor, or were they two scientists in lab coats and …?
The transitions were beginning to strobe.
In one still frame, he saw something strange about the clothing the lab couple wore.
“Come with me, Vincent.”
The person helping him to the office door was Roberta Westerly, his assistant, but the voice … the voice was Catherine’s …
Whatever reality he was in began to fade to black …
Vincent did not recall the drive from the office to Catherine’s apartment. Likewise, he was only partially aware of being helped to where his wife waited for him with two men. Blinking his eyes to clear his vision, he frowned when the room he was in did not solidify into Catherine’s pristine apartment. The men took him by the arms and shoulders and guided him into his bedroom in the Below. With Catherine’s help, they helped him lie down.
“What happened?” Vincent asked as the face of Catherine appeared over him.
“Paracelsus,” she said tersely. “We think …”
“He must have blindsided you in one of the outer tunnels,” the first man said. “We found you in a room hooked up to a series of IV fluids. I’m having a blood sample sent out to a trusted lab to discover what drugs were being used. We don’t dare try to counter them until I get the results. God only knows what type of reaction we’d get.”
“You just lie still, Vincent. Doctor Alcott and I are going to monitor you in eight-hour shifts until you fully metabolize the drugs naturally.”
“What about my assistant?” Vincent asked.
“What assistant?” Catherine asked and then glanced at the two men.
“Roberta Westerly. She brought me home …”
“Doctor Alcott and I brought you back here, Vincent,” Father replied. “You were alone when we found you, quite by accident, I might add. Rest! That’s an order. I’ll be right out outside, Catherine.”
Vincent waited until he was alone with Catherine, who sat down by his side. She gave him a dry smile. “Who’s Roberta, and should I be jealous?”
“That depends,” he replied. “Catherine? Where was I the last two days, at least?”
“You went missing five days ago, and we started searching then. Naturally, Mouse found you first, and that find helped us form a rescue party. Who’s Roberta?”
Vincent blinked. “My administrative assistant … She and Robert …”
“I … They are not real … Unless in my delirium they were twins. I think they were my link to you, Catherine. You may not believe this, but we lived in your apartment, and I had a substantial job.”
“A job? In the Above?”
“Yes.” He nodded soberly. “I worked as the Vice President of Acquisitions at a company known as Antiquities Incorporated. I wore a suit, took the subway, worked in a corner office, and was in the process of uncovering an Egyptian artifact when I began to come out of the drugged state. Miss Roberta Westerly was my assistant, and she drove me here. At least, that is what I perceived as real. I believe what actually happened now was that you released me and helped support me while we escaped. Neither Robert or Roberta exist …”
“You actually worked in the Above?”
He saw the desire and humor in her eyes. “Yes. And we were able to be seen in public without causing a near riot. If I remember part of that reality, I even had show tickets to a musical this weekend.”
The slight smile on Catherine’s face widened. “As an executive in such a company, you could take me to fine restaurants, art galleries, the symphony, the ballet …” She sighed. “That sounds wonderful, Vincent. I almost wish we could trade places with them.”
Vincent’s head canted to the right. “Them?”
“The me and you in your other reality. To be accepted for who we are and not for what we look like. For the freedom, the actual freedom, to do what we want instead of being ostracized by fear … It’s not fair, Vincent.”
“You cannot have a perfect world, dearest.”
“I can still dream.”
“And in that dream?”
“We are together and capable of being both in the Above and here Below.”
She carefully laid down beside him and nestled her head on his shoulder, placing her arm across his broad chest. After a minute or two, she giggled.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You know something? I’m going to find out if this company exists. And if this girl does as well.”
***** Finis ****