The Great Rope Caper

 

by

 

Joanne Grier

 

The tall, elusive shadow scurried along the passageway. It twisted and turned, and finally ducked into a rarely used chamber. A box was added to an already large stack, and again the shadow quickly disappeared. The pattern was repeated thrice more until all the boxes were neatly stacked. Pushing and shoving, the shadow managed after a great struggle, to level a medium-sized boulder into the opening, hoping it would discourage any unwanted visitors. The shadow slipped away with a self-satisfied smile, sure in the knowledge they would one day appreciate this find from Above.

 

*************

 

The council members were scattered along one of the larger dining tables, heads bent as they busily scribed invitations to their helpers, announcing their annual Samhain celebration. They each, in their own individual manner, stated the community wish for their supporters to join in what promised to be another delightful festival, where they would share in the joys of the autumnal season. Costumes were optional, but they knew all the children Below would dress for the fete. It was a wonderful way for members of the tunnel world to shake off their cares and to touch again their inner child, so many staid adults would be costumed.

 

Seated across from his son, Father glanced at Vincent's work and then began to chuckle. Vincent looked up and, seeing Father’s pointed gaze, shook his head in dismay. “I know. I try, but I simply can’t seem to write smaller.” For every one page invitation the rest of the council members had written, Vincent always had two sheets to accommodate his large script. Father just grinned and slid his remaining sheets of paper across the table to Vincent.

 

After several vocal jabs and catcalls from Pascal and Winslow about Vincent’s writing, the council returned to their work. With all the members present, the invitations were quickly finished, and the stack of envelopes were re-ordered to reflect the distribution routes of the messengers who would deliver them.

 

Mary reported that the younger children had been gathering leaves and branches to use as table decorations. From the plethora of silk flowers gleaned from the trash Above, they had more than enough flowers to fully saturate the Great Hall in autumnal color.

 

William held forth for his chair at the far side of the table, discussing what foods would be available. Since the festivities were scheduled to begin after the dinner hour, it was decided that they would serve cider, crisp apples, pumpkin and apple pie, and their own homemade caramel popcorn balls, which were always a popular treat during the fall months. Since their invitations indicated that snacks would be served, William was aware that many of their helpers would come bearing many packaged snacks from the world Above.

 

Vincent’s eyes danced as he wondered how many bags of snacks he would be carrying from the threshold. Catherine never came empty-handed; she always provided twice over what anyone else would have considered their fair share toward party foods.

 

Olivia and Kanin volunteered to chaperone the children’s play area along with Jamie and Mouse. Cullen’s work gang would retrieve the artificial turf from storage and place it in the area where the children would play, thus offering some protection from skinned knees. The turf had been one of Catherine’s many gifts to the community.

 

Father gathered up the helpers address list, reordered it and returned it to the folder while Vincent collected the few remaining sheets of paper and the pens. “Perhaps we should go to the Great Hall to see if we need to schedule any repairs and, if so, put them on the work list for Cullen’s crew.” Father smiled as he spoke. It had been several days since he had spent time alone with Vincent and the walk would provide an opportunity for them to chat.

 

“If you wish. We should go now, for I promised Catherine I would meet her in a few hours.”

 

As they walked, they discussed which of Shakespeare’s works Vincent was presenting in his teen literature class. The conversation was lively, as Father liked nothing better than discussing his beloved Bard.

 

Together, they circled the Great Hall, checking tables and benches for cracks or potential weak spots and rough edges. There were already new candles in all the chandeliers and sconces, as well as a full box of replacement candles thanks to Rebecca’s advance planning.

 

“Aside from needing a thorough dusting, the Hall looks in good condition for our festivities.”

 

“Yes, it does, Father.”  

 

Vincent paused on reaching the door to set the beam in place, while Father started up the stairs in his slow, ponderous gait. Father had only climbed five steps when he stumbled, arms waving frantically as he unsuccessfully sought to regain his balance before he fell. His body tumbled backward and his leg struck the stone wall with an ominous whack.

 

Vincent leaped forward, throwing himself against the stairs to stop Father’s rolling body and prevent him from toppling over the side staircase. With calmness he didn’t feel, Vincent began to do as Father had instructed him—access the injuries and consider how to safely move the patient. A large bump was rising on the edge of Father’s forehead; there were pits of tiny stones fragments embedded along his cheeks, long bloody scrapes along his hands and fingers, and his leg was bent under his body. Slowly, Vincent skimmed his fingers over Father’s body, trying to detect any broken bones. He took his pulse and found that, although it was racing, it was strong. Knowing he had to get help, Vincent stood, stepped over Father’s body and ran up the stairs. He reached the pipe that was just beyond the top of the stairs and quickly began to tap the emergency code and location, repeated it twice, and ran back to Father.

 

When the emergency team arrived, Vincent was on the ground, using his body heat to keep Father warm. Father was still unconscious when they carefully released his leg from beneath his body and placed him on the stretcher, covered him with a blanket and began the journey to the hospital chamber. As soon as Pascal learned that Father was the victim, he sent a runner Above to seek Peter. Mary was waiting as they carried Father into surgery and placed him on the table.

 

****************

 

“Come along, Vincent. We can talk as we walk; I need a strong cup of coffee.” While they journeyed, Peter explained Father’s injuries. “He is in remarkably good shape after taking such a tumble. Thankfully, those sturdy boots he wears took the brunt of the blow against his leg and from what I can tell, it isn’t broken. But we won’t know positively until I can get him Above to my office. I have an x-ray machine there, so as a precautionary measure, I want to arrange to get him topside quickly. I’ve given him a sedative so the journey won’t be as painful for him.”

 

Vincent paused, stooped to pick up a stone and began to tap on the pipes. In a few seconds he heard Pascal’s rapid reply. “Cullen, Winslow and Kanin will meet us in the dining room,” Vincent said. As they continued their walk, they discussed their options for transporting Father to Peter’s office. Well-trained for emergencies, the three men who joined them quickly worked out a plan for transport and speedily went into action.

 

Vincent sat slumped in the dirt at the entrance, waiting for Father to be returned, or to receive word that Peter had taken him to a hospital. He had worn a path in the silt as he paced. It was close to midnight before he heard the tapping on the warehouse door, then the key in the lock, and a steady, familiar voice calling his name. Winslow’s big smile immediately relieved his fear. “He’s okay. Give us a minute and then we’ll be ready to take him home.”

 

**************

 

The pipes rang with the news that Father was home and his injuries hadn’t been as severe as they all had feared. As a precaution, Father was kept in the hospital chamber for a few days before he was allowed to return to his chamber. His ankle was severely sprained and as one of the children had stated when they had come to visit him while he was soaking his foot, his leg and foot were a “toolicious shade of purple.” He laughed as was expected and the children went away happy. Later in the day he received two pictures of himself showing him with one purple leg.

 

He also received additional drawings, showing his head swathed in purple bandages and two purple slashes beneath his eyes, obviously to indicate his blackened eyes. As new pictures arrived to gladden his heart, Vincent carefully taped the creative artwork around his sleeping alcove.

 

Several citizens reported hearing strange sounds in the wee hours of the morning, but when sentries searched the area they could find nothing amiss. Over the intervening two weeks, the noises were reported repeatedly and the source eluded the search teams.

 

****************

 

The plans for Samhain progressed., Father would not hear of canceling the event because of his unfortunate accident. From the steady stream of children who visited daily, Father was the repository of many secrets as to what kind of costumes they would be wearing. This year, the game was to see who could keep their identity hidden from Vincent. The prize was that Vincent would escort the winners on a small trip to a region of their world they had never seen.

 

Mouse and Winslow brought a device to attach to Father’s desk chair that allowed him to keep his sprained ankle elevated. He remarked how ingenious their creation was. It allowed him to sit as he normally did but with his left leg was raised beneath the desk.

 

Catherine paid a visit, complete with a large bag of snacks and treats, including miniature chocolate bars and candy corn. Vincent sighed at the sight of the chocolate bars, as Catherine knew they were a weakness of his. Father looked with longing glee upon the candy corn. “I bought extras because I knew certain little boys wouldn’t be able to resist.” She produced two sandwich bags of the treats and laughed as the two, very adult, males became little boys, savoring their favorite candy.

 

As the trio talked, the contents of the bags rapidly disappeared. “Lucky I know your fetishes,” she said, laughing. “So that there would still be plenty of treats for the children.  I stopped in Mouse’s workshop but found no sign of him, so I left a special treat bag for him. I thought it was safe to leave, as Arthur was inside his cage. Remember what happened when Arthur ate the remains of a candy bar last year?"

 

"Oh dear, yes," Father responded with a smile.

 

“While I was walking here, I heard some strange noises," Catherine told Father and Vincent. "Sounds that I haven’t previously heard or that I don’t associate with Below."

 

“We’ve had several reports of strange noises, and all our search parties have returned without being able to identify the source or location.” Vincent took another bite of chocolate as he finished speaking. Catherine watched a well satisfied look spread across his face as he savored the last bite.

 

“Some years ago we had another case of unidentified sounds and it stopped as mysteriously as it started," Father noted. "Later we decided it was sounds from Above that had filtered down through the porous rocks. It wasn’t until months later that we discovered the sound came from a building site some miles away. One of our members had gone Above, heard the sound on his travels and reported it back to us.”

 

****************

 

Catherine spent a very pleasant Saturday afternoon assisting Mary and the children in final preparation of their costumes. Catherine was admitted to the chamber where the children worked on their costumes only after she had been sworn to secrecy. There she found a variety of oddments, mismatched socks and shoes, comic costumes gleamed from the world Above, and assorted jewelry garnered from dumpsters. She helped with the cutting out of cardboard swords which were then covered in aluminum foil, so the final result was a silvery sword to which pictures of jewels were attached. Several of the children were painting paper masks in hopes of concealing their features. Mary stitched several sections of sparkling silver fabric into tunics that looked like chainmail for two of the pre-teens who were dressing as knights.

 

The variety and ingenuity of the children’s costumes staggered Catherine’s imagination. They were cleaver and resourceful. She watched in fascination as the boys glued two pieces of heavy cardboard together, cut them into unique shapes and painted them with silver paint, creating shiny, bright shields to accompany their swords.

 

Later, as she headed toward Vincent’s chamber, she passed Mouse, muttering to himself about gizmos he needed. In his hand she saw the bag of candy she had left in his workshop. He was a good twenty yards past her when he suddenly yelled, “Thanks for the candy. It’s good.” He waved and rushed on, continuing to talk to himself about his needed gizmos.

 

**************

 

Vincent and Catherine strolled along, enjoying the opportunity to merely be together. Father’s fall had caused Vincent to shoulder more responsibility and, as a result, his own work schedule was behind. Their time together had been hastily stolen moments before he needed to rush off. The prospect of having a whole hour together seemed glorious. They strolled away from the more populated areas and headed to a seldom used guest chamber that would ensure their privacy.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“For what? I haven’t done anything.”

 

“For understanding that my chamber often doesn’t allow for the privacy we would like. It is especially true since Father’s accident.”

 

They slipped into the guest chamber, and, after lighting a candle,  they stood and just looked at each other. It had been weeks since Vincent had come Above, and they both were feeling deprived. Wordlessly, Vincent stepped toward Catherine and wrapped her in his arms. His sigh was audible as he settled her more firmly against his chest. Vincent felt their Bond thrum with her happiness and joy at simply being held in his arms. Time lost all its meaning as they held each other and their silent language of love played a symphony that only their hearts could hear.

 

They slipped into the old overstuffed chair that stood against the wall, cuddling close together, much as they did when they sat on her balcony floor. Her head rested against his chest. Her hand splayed over his heart, which steadily throbbed. Vincent suddenly lifted his head from where it rested against her hair, instantly alert.

 

“Do you hear that? I can’t tell where it’s coming from but it seems close.” Gently, he shifted Catherine, stood and walked to the entrance. “Stay.” He quickly disappeared.

 

After several long minutes, during which Catherine paced between the chair and the entrance, Vincent returned. His hair was slightly disarrayed and there was a smudge on his cheek. “As I ran along the passage I felt a presence and heard the sound of rapidly moving feet, but I found no one. The sound stopped, but I still felt there had been someone close—that I had just missed them." He took Catherine's hand. "We should leave.  I need to notify the search parties to sweep this area for any possible intruders.” They hastily moved back along the passageway.

 

From within the deep murky depth between of two large boulders, the shadow uncurled his body and dropped to the ground, silently moving in the opposite direction. Removing the filthy rag that served as a shirt, the shadow flipped the cloth back and forth, obliterating footprints from the silt, and stepped onto the rocky walkway. The shadow disappeared as quickly as the shifting winds.

 

************************

 

The search parties swept the entire area and reported back to Vincent and Father that they had been unable to locate any intruder. They made a routine inspection of the storage facilities in that section, but found all the locks in place and no evidence of tampering.

 

The mystery deepened and in spite of being unable to find the source of the sound, plans for the Samhain festival moved forward. William’s staff of assistants were busy preparing pies and washing and polishing apples. The scent of freshly made popcorn competed with the delicious aroma of pumpkin pies. As the afternoon progressed, trays of freshly baked pies were ferried to the Great Hall, as well as several large bags of snacks that Catherine had supplied.

 

The messy job of coating and forming the prized popcorn balls fell to William, as he was never happy with the outcome when others attempted to assume this responsibility. He lined a large box with waxed paper and rapidly began to shape the popcorn balls. The finished products were perfectly shaped to a healthy apple size.

 

The passageways began to fill with a strange array of costumed citizens. Pascal came to take an early look at the dress of his formerly staid friends. He had volunteered to staff the pipe chamber alone for the first two hours of the party, allowing his helpers to join in the festivities. The sentry posts were on a two hour rotation, too, so that all the citizens might participate in Samhain.

 

The helpers from Above began to arrive, their arms filled with bags of snacks and assorted treats suitable for the occasion. The tunnels echoed with happy voices as everyone chatted while making their way to the Great Hall.

 

Breathlessly, Catherine rushed into the library. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had a devil of a time in getting down the ladder with all this.” Her hand swept down to her voluminous skirt. “It took forever to get it all gathered together enough so that I could hang on to it and safely find my footing on the rungs. Have I made us very late?”

 

Vincent stared at the dream in white, his heart thudding loudly within his chest. At last, he recovered his voice. “Catherine, you are a vision, ethereal in your beauty.”

 

She beamed happily and twirled so that he might have the full effect of her fairy godmother costume, complete with magic wand. She reached into the petite fabric bag that hung from her waist and produced a pinch of glitter and tossed it into the air. “Fairy dust,” she laughingly told him. “Ah, I see the perfect prince is here.”

 

Father was dressed in his normal tunnel clothing but pinned to his chest was a paper shield; upon his head perched a pointed purple crown, and he wore a purple ribbon around his left calf. Catherine flashed him a happy smile as she surveyed the total look of his minimal costume. “Is the purple in honor of your royalty or does it honor your toolicious purple foot?”

 

He smiled as they all had such fun with the new word Anya had used to describe his bruised leg and foot. It rolled off their tongues frequently, causing each of them to laugh and smile in remembrance. “I fear it is my foot that is being honored.  The crown is simply the result of Anya's current love of this crayon.”

 

“If you are ready, Father, we should leave. We are taking the more circuitous route because your ankle is not completely healed. The passages are more level and we needn’t deal with the stairs for we will come out on the same level as the Great Hall”. Catherine gathered her skirt, raising it slightly, and followed Father and Vincent. She was obviously glad that the skirt was hemmed to a length that cleared her shoe tops by two inches thus preventing the skirt from dragging in the fine silt.

 

*****************

 

The festivities were in full swing by the time the delayed trio arrived. Several helpers approached Vincent, congratulating him on a job well done. Vincent exchanged looks with Catherine, but in the crush of people he could only comment that the event was one of communal planning and work.

 

Father made an eloquent speech welcoming everyone to their autumnal celebration. The children came to inspect Father’s crown, shield, and ribbons and slowly added additional decorations to his costume.

 

Silent children passed before Vincent fearful of speaking less they give away their identity. Vincent wished to prolong the game, so he asked only questions that could be answered by a shake or nod of the head.

 

Mouse and Jamie were busily assisting Olivia and Kanin in the children’s area, setting up the games and directing the eager children. As they watched, Vincent commented that he wasn’t sure who was having the most fun, the children or Mouse.

 

Father settled beside Mary and a group of helpers while Vincent and Catherine circulated among the throng, stopping to speak to various friends. The majority of the adults weren’t trying to disguise their voices, so the conversations were lively. The attire ranged from elaborate rented costumes to simple masks worn with regular clothing.

 

Catherine watched intently as Vincent joined the children in playing a game of statues. He allowed even the smallest child to whirl him away with even the tiniest of effort on their part. The resulting giggles and laughter carried across the Hall as Vincent would manage to contort his body into delightfully weird shapes as he stopped whirling. The entire area erupted when Vincent fell, landing lightly on one shoulder with both legs arranged in weird angles over his head. Anya ran toward her hero, peering down at his face. “Bencent, you hurt?” She ran her petite fingers over his face, smiled and giggled wildly when he moved his unique mouth enough to kiss her tiny fingers.

 

“We saw you move, we saw you!” chorused the children as they rushed forward to pile upon their favorite adult, flopping on their bellies to cover his face with kisses and to hug him. He stayed in his statue pose for several minutes while multiple tiny sets of hands began to prod against his legs and arms until he lay on his back with his arms full of happy, laughing children.

 

“He becomes carefree with them.” William stood beside Catherine a wide grin splitting his face. “None of the rest of us ever manages to achieve what he does when he plays with the children. He actually becomes one of them.”

 

“That’s why they love him. He doesn’t stop to consider how he will look, his position within the community. He simply remembers all the joys of childhood.” Catherine’s eyes were bright with joy as she watched, committing the scene to memory, assured that it would be a treasure within her heart she would revisit.

 

The game continued as William and Catherine chatted. “I trust you found the small package with your name on it among the bags of snacks and treats.”

 

“Yes I did, thank you very much. There are some treasures from your world that I haven’t forgotten and divinity fudge is one of them. You were more than kind to remember me. Your contributions were certainly generous.”

 

Vincent, looking slightly rumpled, walked toward them. To Catherine he had never looked more beautiful, with his hair bedraggled and his shirt eschew and no longer perfectly draped over his wide belt. His eyes were sparkled with laughter and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. His joy radiated from within as his serenity seemed to glow around his body as he stopped before her. “I fear I got carried away.”

 

“You were obviously having fun and time spent in fun is always a worthwhile investment.” Catherine lightly touched his arm, conveying her joy in watching him play. She became lost in the moment, staring deeply into his eyes.

 

*************

 

Pascal and several of the sentries joined the party, each reporting to Vincent they had encountered no problems during their shifts. They added they had heard none of the sounds that had eluded them over the intervening weeks.

 

“I’m glad I got here before all of these were gone.” He gestured with the caramel popcorn ball he held. “I’ve been thinking about these all day. Remember when we snuck into the kitchen when we were about nine, Vincent, and ate about twenty of these? How sick we were? And the lecture we got about gluttony?” Pascal grinned as he recalled their childhood adventure, knowing that Catherine enjoyed hearing stories of Vincent’s childhood.

 

The children gathered in a line as Vincent walked behind them. He traveled the length of the line, clearly indicating who he thought was behind each mask. The children remained masked until he finished, then slowly, one by one, they revealed their true identity. He misjudged Joshua and Eric and the two boys giggled in delight at fooling Vincent with their identical knights’ costumes. Eagerly, they wanted to know where he would take them on their trip to the deeper areas of the tunnels.

 

While Vincent discussed the trip, Pascal asked Catherine to join him on the dance floor. Pascal told Catherine of learning to dance and how he and Olivia had been paired together, how shy they were tripping and stumbling over their feet as they learned the rudiments of the waltz. “After Kanin joined us, I lost my favorite dance partner. We had danced together for years and at first I wasn’t comfortable dancing with others.”

 

Several of the older helpers came to bid Father and Mary goodnight, and slowly the party began to wind down. Wisely, about a third of the way through the evening, William had withdrawn the candy from the food table, not wishing to contribute to any sugar highs or resulting upset stomachs. He good naturedly called out goodnight as the helpers departed, happy as always that their guests had gone away well fed.

 

William adhered to the theory that it was easier to clear as you go, so it didn’t take long for all the kitchen assistants to police the tables, box the remaining food, and bag the trash. “It will certainly be easier going up than it was hauling this all down, thanks to that rope.”

 

“Rope? What rope are you talking about?” Father queried.

 

“Why, the one Vincent installed along the stairs leading to the next level. It was sure easier coming down the stairs this evening with a rope to hang on to. It’s something we should have done years ago.”

 

Father remained puzzled as he watched William and three of his assistants walk toward the door.

 

The Hall was now silent, quiet and awaiting to be awakened for their next celebration. Vincent stood surveying the room, looking to be certain he had forgotten no detail before leaving.

 

“Vincent, what is this rope that William tells me you installed?”

 

“I didn’t install any rope.”

 

“William was positive you had installed one, saying it made it easier to traverse the stairs.”

 

The torches still burned brightly outside the Great Hall as Vincent lowered the beam into place. All along the stone wall leading to the top of the stairs a sturdy red velvet rope was anchored into the stone surface. “It looks like the ropes used at theatres or commercial events to control and direct crowds,” Catherine exclaimed excitedly. “Where did you get it?”

 

“I had nothing to do with this.”

 

“But surely you installed this. Was it to be a surprise because of my fall?”

 

“Truly, Father, I know nothing about this.” Vincent stepped forward, running his hand over the supple, smooth fabric. He tugged roughly against the rope's mooring, finding it remained taut and firm. “It’s strong but flexible.”

 

“If it had been there when I stumbled, I doubt I would have fallen. Who would have done this? And when?”

 

Vincent peered intensely at the fresh marks in the stone. “Whoever did it sunk the lag bolts deeply into the rock. From the size of the head rings, I’d say the bolts had to be twelve inches or more in length.”

 

“Could Cullen, Kanin or Winslow have done it? They have the knowledge and skill for such drilling.” Father’s expression showed he was clearly as perplexed as Vincent. “Whoever it was, I’m certain I’m not the only one who is grateful for the added safety factor.”

 

**************

 

The community at large filled the pipes with tapings about the rope on the stairs. Even though Vincent maintained his innocence, the majority felt he was truly the culprit. Two weeks passed, and they were no nearer to discovering who had installed the rope. Plans were now under way for their Thanksgiving celebration and the mystery of the rope continued to play a role, as every discussion referred to the safety created by the rope.

 

Once again the community reported strange sounds heard in the wee hours.  As before, the security sentries could find nothing amiss. Vincent began to patrol the passages during the night, seeking to discover the mysterious sound, and this of course, added fuel to the theory that is was he who had installed the rope.

 

Early one morning Vincent and Winslow were prowling the passageways, having heard the elusive sound. “I wish whoever is doing this would just confess so we didn’t have to chase after this mysterious sound. Yesterday, I found myself looking at the walls as I walked and I plowed right into Pascal and knocked him down.” Winslow looked chagrin as he confessed. “I keep checking the walls for fresh chisel marks. What I can’t fathom is how all of us who trooped up and down the stairs before Samhain missed seeing all those chisel marks and holes.”

 

“It’s simply a matter of never looking at what you are used to seeing.”

 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ve stumbled up and down those steps for years and I know I never pay any attention to them. Come on Vincent. It’s late and the morning will be here all too soon.”

 

*************

 

The shadow against the wall danced with glee, then collected the trappings scattered along the floor, tucked them into a bag and walked away. He loved it that they couldn’t identify him.

 

The communal dining room was alive with chatter as Vincent and Father strolled in and came to an abrupt stop in front of Kanin.

 

“Well, Father, our mysterious worker has struck again!”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I found it this morning when I headed toward the bathing pool. Come along and I’ll show you.”

 

They entered the narrow passage that took them close to the pool. “It’s just ahead where the passage widens then goes down hill.”

 

The entire downgrade of approximately two hundreds feet was strung with identical red velvet rope solidly mounted to the rock.

 

As they walked the length of the new rope, Vincent tested it, pulling and straining against the lag bolts, finding it all secure and tight.

 

“Our older residents will surely appreciate the added safety. Over the years we have had a few stumble in this section, even though we have tried to fix the grade problems.”

 

“I hardily concur, Kanin. It has been a problem, and hopefully this added safety precaution will prevent such future accidents. If only we knew to whom to express our thanks and gratitude.”

 

Slowly, they returned to the dining room and settled to having their breakfast. Once again, several residents came forward to congratulate Vincent on his improvements to the safety of all. Even his denial did little to stem their belief that he was responsible. Mouse paused as he was exiting, expressing his desire to help Vincent with his next rope project.

 

***************

 

“Truly, Catherine, I’ve told everyone I’m not responsible but they continue to insist the safety ropes are my doing.” The exasperation in the normally velvet voice was clear. “My patrols have proven fruitless.”

 

They stood on the balcony looking over the panoramic view of lights. His arm surrounded her, cocooning her within the warmth of his cloak as she leaned against his hip. The night was crystal clear and the air held a crispness that clearly indicated the approach of winter.

 

“Has Father’s ankle completely healed?”

 

“The bruising is gone, much to the sorrow of Anya and the other children who enjoyed his uniquely purple foot, and he is walking better each day.”

 

Their conversation turned to the approaching Thanksgiving celebration. “William has been hard at work with his plans. We try to include those of our helpers who are alone or without family. The crowd is still large but not as large as for our other celebrations. I would be honored if you join us.” His eyes caressed her face as his thumb stroked over her firmly held hand.

 

“There is no place I would rather be than with you. There is much to be thankful for in the years since you saved my life.”

 

******************

 

Catherine sent a message via Bennie asking Vincent and Winslow to meet her at the Mallon warehouse entrance the day before Thanksgiving. She pulled her car inside, and from the deep shadows the two men stepped forward. She smiled as she opened her car trunk and began to pass the large boxes into their waiting arms. “These are three fully cooked twenty pound turkeys, two hams plus stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls, and fruit salads. Hopefully, this will help extend our meal to include everyone.”

 

Although they were used to Catherine contributing toward their celebrations, both men were astounded at the generosity of her donation today. “Catherine, there are no words to express our gratitude. You have been more than kind in your gifts.”

 

“You didn’t expect me to pass up an excellent sale at the deli, did you?” She grinned happily as she closed her now empty trunk. “I have to run. I need to hit the library before it closes. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

 

“Come early, please, so that we may spend some time together.”

 

******************

 

Catherine overslept and then hurried to dress, eager to get Below to share her news with Vincent. She was delighted at the prospect of the four day weekend, knowing she planned to spend much of that time Below with Vincent.

 

The crush of people Below seemed larger, not smaller, to Catherine as she worked her way through the throngs within the Great Hall. Knowing Vincent would be deeply involved in greeting all their many helpers and friends from Above, Catherine tried to subdue her giddy feelings of joy as she worked her way across the room.

 

Without breaking his conversation or eye contact, Vincent’s arm slid around Catherine’s waist as she quietly came to stand beside him. The warmth of his touch, the commonplace, accepted manner in which Vincent drew her into the circle was not lost of Peter. He smiled his happiness in seeing Cathy’s inclusion into the circle of the original helpers. Peter leaned closer, placing a kiss on her cheek as he whispered a greeting.

 

Just as Vincent turned to her, William’s loud voice echoed across the Hall as he announced that dinner was now being served. The cacophony of sounds rose as the joyful revelers enjoyed their meal. The conversation filled the Hall as laughter was shared and stories of past days of Thanksgiving were retold. Catherine sat in delighted silence, listening to the vocal history, as both Father and Peter told many stories of their early days. Pascal contributed several tales of the exploits he, Winslow, Devin and Vincent managed during various celebrations, and how they had spent many hours on their chairs in punishment for their offenses. “Devin often got into more trouble while we were on our chairs than the original event that caused us to be there!” The table erupted with laughter as Pascal delineated with great relish the details of their reprimands.

 

Peter and Father walked ahead of Vincent and Catherine, deep in discussion of a new medical procedure. “It was truly a wonderful day," Catherine said. "Thank you so much for inviting me. I loved hearing all the stories of the early celebrations.”

 

“Pascal enjoys keeping our living history alive by recalling past tales. His father used to do it, so it has become Pascal’s heritage to keep the stories alive.”

 

They settled into the library over a good cup of tea, and Catherine was finally able to share her news. “Yesterday, I had research to do for a case that involved searching the newspaper files. As I searched, I happened upon something I felt you should see.”

 

She retrieved a folded paper from her pocket and began to read. “Authorities were mystified to account for the loss of one thousand feet of red velvet rope from an airport delivery truck. The rope, to be used for crowd control, apparently fell from the open truck bed en route. The driver and security guard indicated they had made no stops, but had been directed to detour from their scheduled route by police who were clearing a four car pile-up. The police have verified the guard’s statement concerning traffic re-routing of traffic on the night in question to a section of Central Park. A check of the Park grounds produced no evidence of the boxes in that location.”

 

“The article appeared in the October 1st edition of The Times,” Catherine stated as she passed the paper to Father. “If I hadn’t been researching that date, I would have never seen the article.”

 

Father looked at Vincent, clearly upset. “You don’t think Mouse found it and brought it Below, do you?” The question hung in the air as neither Vincent nor Father wanted to answer. “He’s been so good of late about bringing things down from Above. All the things I’ve seen lately have truly been cast offs which he has found in dumpsters.”

 

“How would he have gotten the boxes Below? A thousand feet of anything would certainly be bulky and difficult to move.”

 

“Tomorrow, I’ll call upon Mouse and have a discussion with him. Hopefully we can clear this up quickly.” Father’s distress could be heard, as his voice had a hard edge to it.

 

****************

 

Mouse was involved in creating a new candles mold for Rebecca when Father entered. “I’d like to discuss the velvet ropes that have been appearing within the community.”

 

“Better ask Vincent. He did it.” Mouse continued to work, his gaze never wavering from the tin he was shaping.

 

“No, Mouse, Vincent is not responsible. Let me read something to you that Catherine found. Quickly, he read the article to Mouse, who only stared silently at him afterwards.

 

“You think Mouse brought the rope Below, huh? I didn’t. If I had found it, I would. Finding is good. Vincent said I could bring down dumpster stuff, but not steal stuff. I found this tin up-top, had been a gas can, see?"

 

It was obvious to Father Mouse was not guilty, and after tendering his apologies, he returned to the library to further ponder how the rope had gotten Below and who was responsible.

 

 

****************

 

The tall shadow had clearly heard the accusations against Mouse as the shadows had veiled him in darkness. Perhaps it was time to cease and let all remain a mystery for the ages. Or possibly face the fury and wrath of the honorable one. A mystery was tempting, allowing the legend to grow with time, and time would soften his sins. A mystery worthy of his history, one that would add to the plethora of stories told about him in this underworld.

 

*****************

 

Spring and all its glory was upon them and the children were eager to visit the park. The long winter snows were gone and new sprigs of grass were visible across the wide expanse. The children and their guardians had gone Above using various exits surrounding the park to reassemble in their marvelous playground.

 

Vincent arrived after the children had been in the Park for roughly thirty minutes. He stood behind the park tunnel gate, which was rolled back a scant quarter of an inch, listening to the sounds which drew him every spring to stand in this spot. He heard the children’s laughter and shouts of joy as they romped and played, delighted to be outdoors and the freedom it brought to them. He felt their giddy bliss as he inhaled deeply the fresh spring air.

 

He remained at the gate long after the children had been gathered, and heard their protests as they returned home. The scents of the city held him captive as the earth awakened. Slowly, he closed the barrier that separated the two worlds and began his walk back to his chamber.

 

**************

 

Pascal moved through the tunnels, finding his eyes searching the walls as he walked, seeking new chisel marks. It had been months since the last sounds had been reported and longer still since any new red velvet ropes had appeared. He lengthened his stride, eager to share his news with Vincent.

 

“May I come in, Vincent? I have news to share.”

 

“Of course, please do come in.”

 

“I was on duty in the pipe chamber when the older children came in for their lessons. They shared several things, and I felt I had to come to you. Two of the boys confessed that they had slipped out into the park early last night, using the park culvert entrance. They had a flashlight with them and returned after only twenty minutes. I got the impression it was more of a dare, a lark, than any real need to flaunt the rules. They reported they found deep markings in the culvert dirt, the impressions of several large boxes. Today, they were among those who went to the park, and one of them slipped into the culvert and confirmed what they thought they had seen last night. They also told me there were vague tracings of the boxes being pulled toward the gate. I felt that we should go investigate to determine if their assumptions are true.”

 

Vincent gathered his cloak, and together they headed toward the park entrance. As they reached the gate, Pascal pulled a small pen flashlight from his pocket. “We should be able to see with this, but it won’t be bright enough to attract any attention from the park.”

 

They inspected the area and, as reported, there were faint tracings of boxes being pushed toward the door. After obliterating their footprints, they tripped the lever and the gate rolled closed. In the library, they reported to Father.

 

“So now we know how the rope got Below, but the mystery of who brought it down is still unsolved. Where did they hide it after getting it Below?”

 

“And more importantly,” Father’s voice rose in volume. “Who knows the code to trip the Park entrance or where the exterior code box is located? Very few of our citizens ever use that entrance, and those that did are long dead.”

 

*********************

 

Pascal and Vincent began a systematic search of the Park entrance level, moving down one level at a time. If they were noticed by any of the citizens, they appeared only to be strolling while in deep conversation. They inspected obscure chambers, small hidey holes—anything that might give them a clue as to where the rope had been stored. They were three levels Below the Park when they discovered a torn, filth covered shirt wedged behind a boulder and the vague impression of half a foot print. Methodically, they searched the area near their discovery for further clues.

“The shirt, or what’s left of it, is too large to belong to Mouse. I’d say it was someone who is muscular, as it is marked as an extra-large, perhaps someone of Cullen’s or John’s height and weight.” Pascal nodded in agreement as they continued to walk.

 

“This tunnel dead ends in another twenty yards, if I remember correctly.” Pascal was as grungy as Vincent, their clothing covered in dust and their boots darkened from the silt. “Let’s hit it, and then I’m ready for the bathing pools. I swear there is a pound of dirt clinging to my legs that's itching me to pieces.”

 

As they strode the last yards, they suddenly stopped and stared. Hidden in the deep shadows, a boulder protruded into the passage. They hurried forward, covering the area with their flashlight and lantern. “There’s no chamber here on our maps, at least, none that I remember.”

 

Vincent shook his head as he stepped closer to inspect the boulder, holding the lantern over his head. Behind the boulder was a vague outline of an opening. Thrusting his arm forward, the light permeated the chamber and the shadows revealed a large box. Handing the lantern to Pascal, Vincent eased into the narrow opening and began to push. The boulder rolled forward roughly twelve inches, which was more than enough room for them both to slip into the chamber.

 

“Would you look at this? It had to be someone with muscles to get these boxes down here from the Park. This most assuredly eliminates this as being the work of Mouse. There is no way he could move these boxes alone.” Ringing the chamber were several still-sealed boxes and two boxes that were empty.

 

Pascal pointed his flash light at the floor and started to laugh. “These foot prints prove it wasn’t Mouse, his feet aren’t nearly this large.”

 

They left the chamber as they had found it, assured that in this little used section of the tunnels, none of the citizens would discover the cache. After reaching the home tunnel hub, Pascal left to head for the bathing pool while Vincent went to inform Father.

 

“Everything there points positively that this couldn’t have been Mouse, Father. The boulder is very large and the boxes large enough that it would surely have taken two men to transport.”

 

“What are we going to do with this? It is stolen property and surely has great value in the world Above. What was used has proved valuable to our citizens, but I can’t in good conscience allow these boxes to remain.”

 

“Father, the dark of the moon is in two days. We will simply arrange to transport the boxes to the park entrance tomorrow and then, the following night, they will magically appear on the park drive and the police will be notified.”

 

*******************

 

Catherine entered the library waving a sheet of paper. Taking a seat, she began to read, “The police department received a phone call indicating the red velvet rope missing since October 1st could be found in Central Park. The unidentified caller stated they had found the rope and hoped the police would restore it to its rightful owner. A thorough dusting for finger prints provided none, and the case has been marked closed.”

 

Father smiled. “I don’t suppose we will ever discover which of our citizens brought this treasure to us. I must admit that everyone feels much safer with the addition of the rope to the Great Hall stairs."

 

“I wish we’d solve the mystery just so everyone would stop congratulating me on a job well done.”

 

“What amazes me, Vincent, is how our mysterious visitor managed to conceal himself from the entire community. People are out and about at all hours, and for us to never catch sight of this elusive shadow is what puzzles me.”

 

“In a way,” Catherine interjected, “it is like what we say in the office about hiding in plain sight. You see someone repeatedly and days go by when you don’t see them, but mentally you still believe that you just saw them that very morning.”

 

High above the library, hidden by the stacks of books, the shadow heard and smiled broadly. He turned and caught a reflection of his dark hair in the mirror that had graced the wall there since he had been a young boy. His smile was devilish and glee lit his dark eyes. Maybe he should arrange to come home in a few days so that he could official be greeted by his family. Sneaking around the tunnels doing secret things had proven to be great fun. He knew the mystery would haunt the citizens for years and that caused him to smile even more. Mysteries are good, aren’t they?

 

 

 

The End