BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES

 

LIKE A DREAM
SECOND IN THE SERIES BY KATHY DE

 

 

Vincent walked towards the home tunnels. He had just left Catherine’s side and was feeling good about their new friendship, but as the tunnel darkened, doubts slowly crept into his mind, and he remembered the lives he had just taken. Distracted, he walked into the library as the events of the night replayed in his mind.

Father looked up and knew immediately something was wrong. He looked worriedly into his son’s eyes. “Tell me ...” Vincent sat down heavily in a chair but never answered. Father sighed and frowned. “Vincent, please tell me what happened!”

Vincent tilted his head to his side and shrugged his shoulders. “I ... was drawn to her tonight by a feeling of intense fear.”

“Who? Catherine?” Vincent ignored him, but Father knew the answer was yes. He held his breath waiting for the explanation. “Go on ...”

“When I found her, she was in a building, lying on the floor at the base of a staircase, a man pointing at her …” Vincent looked up at him. “He was about to pull the trigger.”

Father gasped in horror. “Dear God! Is she all right?”

“She’s … fine,” Vincent said softly.

Father looked for any signs that his son may have been injured. Not seeing any overt evidence, he narrowed his eyes. “Are you all right?”

“I was not hurt.”

Father sighed in relief, but realized his son’s dilemma. He leaned forward and tentatively touched Vincent’s arm. “I’m guessing that you did what was necessary to protect Catherine?”

“Yes.”

“So the other man …”

“Men, Father. There were … three men ...”

Father’s heart clenched. Dreading the news but needing to hear it, he prompted Vincent to continue. “And they are …”

“Dead.” Vincent hung his head in shame and gasped. “All dead.”

Father sighed as he sat back in his seat. “Do we need to send a crew to seal up any entrances?”

“No, Catherine and I erected a false wall.”

Father was surprised. “She came Below with you?”

Vincent nodded. “Afterwards ... I was …” He shook his head, clearing his thoughts. “Sitting there, disgusted with myself and horrified that she saw me as I was.”

“And Catherine?”

“Protected me … She said we couldn’t stay there, and she ...” Vincent looked up at him with eyes that showed both disgust and disbelief. “She reached out and took and held my hands! Hands that were wet with the blood of the men I just killed!”

Father grew angry. “Yes, with the blood of men you killed trying to save her!”

“Still, she reached for them, and I lead her home through the tunnels. About two blocks from the brownstone she was in, I stopped. We erected a false wall there. With her help, it went up quickly ...”

Father snorted. “How magnanimous of her to help.”

Vincent, with no fight left in him to come to Catherine’s defense, sat silently.

“I’m sorry this happened, son.” Father shook his head in remorse. There were no words he could say to help his son through this situation. There had been a few times in the past when Vincent and the other men Below were called upon to protect their home. After each of those times, Vincent needed time away from his family. Time away from everyone to come to terms with the things he’d done. He guessed this was one of those times. “I suppose you’re going to go away for awhile?”

Vincent nodded. “Yes, for at least a few days.”

Father nodded. “I’ll have William make you a pack, and I’ll cover your classes until you get back. When will you leave?”

“As soon as I prepare.”

Father sighed. “I’ll go to William right away. And Vincent?”

Vincent looked up at him.

“Go with care, my son.” Father stood up then held Vincent’s head and kissed the top of it.

Vincent welcomed the comfort, then stood. “Thank you, Father. I’ll send word every few days.”

***

Above, Catherine let herself into her apartment, then sagged against the door after it shut. With a sigh, she pushed herself off and headed to the bathroom, stripping off her clothes and dumping them in the hamper in the closet. She started the water, then laid out thick fluffy towels. She stripped and stepped into the shower, then gasped as her body adjusted to the hot stream of water cascading down her back.

She washed quickly, then stood under the spray, letting it ease the tenseness from her body. Her eyes drifted closed and gruesome images popped into her mind. Her hand reached out against the wall to steady herself as she was flooded with the images of what had happened to the men who killed Carol Stabler … and who tried to kill her.

Catherine retched once, then shot out of the shower. She flipped the seat of the toilet up and vomited her day’s food. She gasped for breath and swiped at her mouth as she turned the shower water off. She looked in the mirror and grimaced at the paleness of her face as she brushed her teeth. She threw her hair in a towel and wrapped another around her body, then headed over to her dresser where she grabbed a pair of warm pajamas.

The images continued to float back into her mind, and she swallowed hard as she thought of Vincent. He had killed these men in an attempt to save her life. If he hadn’t done what he did, she would be the one lying dead on the floor at the base of the stairs.

She blew out the breath she was holding, then quickly dried her hair. She climbed into her bed and sank down under the covers. She tried to read a book, then gave up and lay back against the pillows. Eventually her eyes drifted shut and she fell into a troubled sleep.

***

Across town, a sad, young girl named Ellie was walking down the darkened hallway of her new foster home when she overheard her name. She looked at the light shining through the closed blinds of the administrator’s office window and silently made her way to the partially shut door to eavesdrop.

“I need to know who can go next!” she heard the administrator say.

“It’s too risky!” his secretary added.

“I didn’t ask your opinion! Now, what about the new kids?”

“I already said Ellie is an option, but Eric is just too …”

“Unpredictable?”

“Yes!”

“Let me worry about that! Are you sure they have no relatives who will claim them?”

“Yes. Both parents are deceased, both without siblings. Both sets of grandparents are also deceased.”

“She’s a perfect candidate!”

“Eric could pose a problem. With him in the picture, I really think it’s just too dangerous to consider using her.”

Ellie couldn’t see his face, but the administrator was smiling. “Well, let’s see how they fit in here before we do anything rash.”

Ellie took off running when she heard a chair leg scrape on the floor. She ran up to her new room and quickly crawled into bed and pulled the covers over her head. She was shaking uncontrollably when she began to cry. She stifled her moans into her pillow until the girl in the next bunk whispered to her.

“It’ll be all right, Ellie.”

Ellie sniffled as she turned in her bed. “No it won’t, Hannah!”

“Yes, it will. You’ll get used to it. I remember when I first came here after my mom died. I cried all the time. Now it’s not so bad.”

Ellie heard footsteps outside the door, and the two girls pretended to be asleep when the dorm mother came to check on everyone.

After the door closed once again, Ellie sighed and looked out the window at the stars. “I miss my Mom and Dad so much!”

Hannah looked over at her. “Maybe your Aunt or Uncle will come to visit once in awhile.”

“I don’t have an Aunt or and Uncle. The only family I have is my brother Eric.”

“The kid with the glasses?”

“Yep.”

“Well, as long as you two behave you should be all right. Around here the bad kids tend to disappear.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that any kid I’ve ever seen act up is always gone within the next few days. They’re here when you go to bed and gone when you wake up.”

Worried, Ellie frowned as she looked out the window again at the night sky.

***

The next morning, Catherine headed off to work. She was at her desk when she looked up to see two uniformed police officers leaving Joe’s office. Joe looked over, caught her eye, and motioned for her to come in to see him.

Her heart rate increased as she walked into his office. “Yeah, Joe?”

Joe motioned to his chair. “Sit down.”

Catherine sat down as he closed the door to his office. Uh oh, she thought to herself.

“Cath, the cops you just saw leaving ...” Catherine nodded and Joe continued. “They brought me some information regarding a case you were working on.”

Catherine wondered if he could see her sweating. She tried to play it off and was shocked when her voice came out normal. “Which case?”

“Belmont’s. Police found him and his two partners dead in a brownstone. Your witness was dead too. I’m sorry. It’s a tough break.”

Catherine dropped her head and hid her face as thoughts raced through her. “What happened, Joe?”

Joe handed her a file. Catherine opened it and saw that it was filled with pictures of the victims. The color quickly drained from her face.

“Cops figure Belmont killed your girl, then whoever Belmont answers to got ticked off that he got sloppy and had him taken care of too. I don’t know, Cath.”

Catherine’s head shot up. “What? What don’t you know?”

“How you got involved with this one. One of the guys had your home address on him.”

Her voice was thick with emotion when she answered him. “Joe, Marty Belmont’s men were the ones who attacked me last year.”

Joe was about to make a glib remark about how she had extracted her revenge, but he grimaced as tears filled her eyes and she looked back down. “Well,” he said, “I guess the good news is that they can’t hurt anyone anymore.”

Catherine looked worried and dropped her head again as she nervously chewed her bottom lip.

Joe noticed her reaction and, assuming she was afraid, offered comfort. “Look. I’ll have someone keep an eye on you for a few days. I want you to be extra careful. No going out alone, make sure your doors are locked, all that stuff. You got it?”

Catherine was relieved and looked up and offered a half-smile. “I got it.”

“Hey, I know those pictures weren’t pretty. The rookies usually don’t have to see stuff like this right away. We kind of like to ease you into it. But because they had your name, I wanted you to see what happened to those guys.”

“It’s okay, Joe.”

Joe smiled and touched her shoulder. “Okay, get back to work.” Catherine stood and started to leave with the file, but Joe called out to her. “Gonna read that file again and stare at the pictures?”

Catherine turned back guiltily and handed him the folder. “No, I’ve seen enough.”

She left and walked steadily back to her desk, then sat down heavily in the chair. She covered her face with her hands and waited until her heart settled back down. With a sigh, she opened her next file.

Joe silently observed her and was proud she was able to pull herself together after seeing the photos. They were pretty gruesome, and, other than going pale, she handled it pretty well. He turned and threw the file in the out-box and opened another one.

***

That night, Catherine wanted to tell Vincent that the police had concluded the deaths of the three men were an organized hit by a disgruntled boss. She went Below to her tunnel entrance and tapped out the message Vincent had taught her on the pipes. She waited fifteen minutes, then tapped it out again. She waited another half hour, then gave up and went back home. He’s probably busy. Maybe he’ll come see me.

For the next two days, Catherine repeated the ritual. Each night she waited, but he never showed up. With a sigh, she decided she would have to wait to hear from him.

Far Below, Father cringed each time someone came to him to tell him Catherine had sent Vincent a message. Finally Mary walked in and bore the brunt of Father’s anger.

“Father, did you know that Catherine has been calling for Vincent for a few days?”

“Well, of course I know. I think every resident Below has seen fit to tell me about her summons!”

Mary blinked at his apparent anger and responded with her own. “Well, where is Vincent? Why isn’t he answering her?”

He was upset with Catherine and the situation, not with Mary. Father looked at her apologetically. “He went away for a few days and before you ask, I sent Mouse to tell Catherine so, but she was already gone when he got there.”

Mary nodded, then sighed. “Is Vincent okay? Did something happen?”

Father could feel his anger beginning to rise again. “Hurrumph. Seems Catherine got herself into some trouble and Vincent had to be the one to save her. Again!”

“What do you mean?”

Father rolled his eyes. “Vincent was drawn to the fear she was feeling and ran to her side.”

Mary gasped. “He’s bonded with the girl?”

Father grumbled. “Yes, it would seem so. Anyway, when he got to her, she was being held at gunpoint. He quickly ... um ... disposed of her three attackers.”

“My goodness! Is she okay?”

Father’s anger exploded. “I’m sure she’s fine. Vincent, on the other hand, is trying to come to terms with the deaths of three individuals by his hands.”

Mary looked at him quizzically, wondering why he was angry. “Surely you’re not blaming that poor girl for this!”

Father looked incredulous. “Well, then who’s to blame?!”

“She can’t be held responsible for being afraid in a horrible situation, and she can’t be held accountable for Vincent knowing her feelings!”

Father grimaced in light of the truth and looked away. It was much easier to be mad at Catherine.

Mary saw the change in his demeanor. “Now, tell me … is Vincent okay?”

“Yes,” Father nodded and looked at her. “Or, rather, I’m sure he will be, given some time.”

Mary stood and patted his hand then walked out the door.


***


Vincent stayed away for over two weeks. As promised, he sent word every few days. Afterwards, he came home, tired and thin but in a better frame of mind. Father decided to wait a few days for Vincent to recover before he told him of the messages.

Vincent was back to his old self as he walked into the library. “Father, you wanted to see me?”

Father cleared his throat. “Um ... yes, Vincent. I did. There were several messages for you while you were gone.”

Vincent looked curiously at the empty table. “Where are they?”

“Well they weren’t really messages ... more of a ... summons I guess.”

“From Catherine?”

“Yes, she only tapped the words Vincent and Catherine.”

“That’s all I taught her. I told her if she tapped that message on a pipe I would come to see her.” He frowned as he realized he had promised to always be there for her and the first time she reached out he hadn’t responded. He looked at Father quizzically. “I don’t suppose anyone told her I was gone?”

Father grimaced. “The first night it was quite late; by the time Mouse got there, she was gone. The other times ...” Father’s voice trailed off.

Vincent shook his head in disbelief. “Father, I can’t believe no one would bother to ease her worries.”

“I told them not to.” He looked his son squarely in the eye. “I felt that she would lose interest and stop sending for you, and after a few days she did just that.”

Vincent sighed. “I’ll go to her later, explain that I was away …”

Father frowned but knew enough to let the matter drop. “Well, on a different matter, the false wall you erected kept the police from investigating any further. We must try to put up a few more in various tunnels.

Vincent had recently had a few ideas about that as well, and he walked across the room to a pile of maps, grabbed one, and opened the blueprint. He was showing Father a new technique for keeping their world safe when Kipper walked in looking downtrodden and forlorn.

Father turned to acknowledge Kipper’s arrival, then looked back at his map. “Ah, Kipper you’re late for your lesson.”

Kipper continued to stare at the floor, clearly upset. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Vincent tried to draw the boy out. “What’s Father teaching you now?”

Father puffed out his chess proudly. “Chess.”

Vincent couldn’t help but tease. “Training another student to beat you?”

Father chuckled. “No! To beat you!”

Father and Vincent laughed and turned their attention back to Kipper. Vincent noticed that their light banter did little to rectify Kipper’s demeanor.

Father guessed incorrectly as he ruffled Kipper’s hair. “Kipper takes this game very seriously.”

Vincent, guessing that something else bothered the boy, came over to him. “Kipper, what’s troubling you?”

Kipper looked down. “Something that happened.”

Vincent sat in a chair, bringing himself eye level with his student. “Tell me.”

“This kid was being chased and I helped him hide.”

Vincent prompted him. “Who was chasing him?”

“Two men from this place called Ridley.”

“Ridley?” Vincent asked.

“It’s a foster home. The kid said bad things happen there. Kids get whacked. Kids even disappear. I wanted to bring him here. I wish I could have.”

Kipper looked down dejectedly as Vincent nodded in understanding. “What happened to this boy?”

“The men grabbed him. They dragged him away.”

Father narrowed his eyes. “Kipper, do you think this boy was telling the truth?”

He nodded yes as he looked down dejectedly.

Vincent reached for is hand and squeezed it lightly. “Are you sure, Kipper? Is there any chance he was playing a game with you?”

“No! He was real afraid! I don’t think he was pretending. He said he was running far away from Ridley Hall.”

“How old do you think this boy was?” Father questioned.

Kipper shrugged. “I don’t know. My age I guess.”

Father ruffled Kipper’s hair again. “Kipper, let’s skip your lesson for right now. Maybe tomorrow we’ll try again. Why don’t you go and see if William has any of those chocolate chip cookies you’re so fond of.”

Vincent grabbed Kipper’s shoulder and affectionately shook him. “Try not to worry.”

Kipper nodded and left the room as Vincent and Father looked at one another.

“What do you think, Father?”

Father shook his head and expelled his breath. “I don’t know. A story from a young boy Kipper just met! We don’t know this boy at alland have no idea if he’s telling the truth or not.”

“Kipper has never been one to tell tall tales.”

Father shrugged. “No, but what about this other boy?”

“A boy that age would be bragging about getting away. Kipper said that the boy was afraid. What would frighten a young boy so much he would run from his home?”

“You have a point there, Vincent, but I’m not sure how we could help this boy. He’s already been caught.”

Vincent lowered his head for a moment thinking of a solution. “Father, I’d like to ask the other children if they’ve ever heard stories of Ridley from children that live Above. May I have your permission?”

Father nodded. “Of course, Vincent. That’s a good idea. Their classes are over for today. Let’s call them here and together we can talk to them.”

Vincent sent a message over the pipes requesting that every child who was allowed to go Above meet in Father’s library immediately.

The children filtered in from their various activities. The chatter among them regarding this unusual request continued until Father and Vincent entered the room then they quieted immediately.

Father looked out at the sea of serious faces and laughed. “Everyone can relax. No one is in trouble.”

The children noticeably settled down, safe in the knowledge they weren’t going to be punished.

Vincent stood in front of them. “Father and I have a few questions we’d like to ask you.”

Father motioned with his hands. “Please, everyone sit down.”

When everyone found seats, Father stood behind Kipper, grasping his shoulders. “Kipper told us a story today about meeting a boy from Above. The boy was running away from a place called Ridley Hall, a foster home.”

Several of the kids nodded and Vincent continued. “Kipper said the boy was very afraid and that he told him bad things happen at Ridley. We were wondering if any of you has ever met a child from Above who may have mentioned a similar story or said something that you thought was odd at the time.”

Most of the children shook their heads no. Vincent noticed a few of them sat quietly thinking. The children who had nothing to say were excused to go back to their activities.

Father came closer to one of the boys. “Son, do you know something?”

Zach shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about this one time ... but I can’t remember everything.”

Vincent nodded. “Take your time, Zach. Why don’t you start to tell us and maybe you will recall some of the details as you go.”

Zach nodded, thinking it was a good idea. “One day, maybe like three months ago, I saw a girl crying in the park. She was sitting on a bench by herself, so I sat and asked her what was wrong. She said she couldn’t do it. She was going to get hit, but she just couldn’t do it. I asked her what was it that she couldn’t do. She told me she was supposed to wait for older people in the park, and when they weren’t looking, she was supposed to steal their purses or their wallets. I asked why she would want to do a thing like that and she told me she had to or Naj would hit her. I asked her who Naj was and she told me she had to live with him now since she couldn’t stay at Ridley anymore. I remembered his name because it was so unusual.”

“Zach, how old was this girl?” Father asked.

“My age I think, maybe a little younger.”

“Thank you, Zach, you may go.” Father looked at the rest of the faces. “Anyone else?”

The children shook their heads and slowly left the room, all except for a girl named Amanda.

Amanda was a few years older than the other kids. She was a shy girl who had just recently come to them. She had faced some horrific things in her young life, and they still didn’t know the extent of what exactly she had endured. She stood in front of them, so nervous they could see her shaking.

Mary, who had come in at the beginning of the meeting, went to Amanda’s side and put her arm around her. She held Amanda’s hand in hers. Amanda visibly relaxed when she looked at Mary’s smiling face.

Father lowered himself in the seat next to her. “Amanda, do you have something to add?”

Amanda sighed unsure of how to proceed.

“Take your time, Amanda,” Vincent offered.

Amanda looked over at Vincent’s unusual features and smiled. If they accepted this guy, maybe what I tell them won’t be so bad, she thought to herself before she cleared her throat. “I used to live at Ridley.”

“You did?” Father asked, surprised.

Amanda nodded. “Yes, about two years ago, after my parents were killed in a car accident.”

“Is it as bad as this boy has led Kipper to believe?” Father asked gently.

“It was okay until about a year ago. When I was fourteen, they took me from there and gave me to that guy named Naj. I lived with him for a few months with all the other kids. He made us steal for him. He taught us how to pick pockets, shoplift, you name it ...”

Father sighed. “Go on.”

“One day I mentioned to one of the other kids that my birthday was coming up. Naj asked how old I was going to be. When I told him fifteen, he told me he would have a special surprise for me. On my birthday, he …” She began to cry and Mary tightened her hold on her hand. “He took me to a hotel room … There was a guy… He was a lot older. He gave Naj some money, and Naj told me to be a good girl, do what the man asked me to do.” Amanda started crying harder.

“You poor dear!” Mary gushed as she tightly held the now sobbing girl.

Vincent and Father exchanged horrified looks. This poor child had been prostituted!

They waited patiently for Amanda to settle down. When all her tears were spent, she sniffled and took some tissues from the box Vincent held in front of her and continued. “After it was all over, Naj came back and took me home. He told me next time it wouldn’t be so bad. He even offered to show me some stuff he knew the men would like. I knew I wouldn’t live through it again, so I ran away that night and lived on the streets until I came here.” With a deep sigh, Amanda looked up uncertainly at the adults. “I can still stay here, can’t I?”

Mary hugged her tightly. “Dear, you can stay here as long as you like!”

Amanda looked up at Father for confirmation. He nodded while Vincent pulled a chair to sit in front of her, then reached for her hand. “Amanda, there is nothing that you could do or say that would make you unwelcome here. You’re a part of us now.”

Father came over and kissed the girl on the top of her head. “That’s right, Amanda. As long as you abide by the rules of the community, you will always be welcome here.”

Amanda visibly relaxed. With a relieved smile she looked up. “Can I go back to my room now?”

“Yes.” Father nodded mischievously as he wiped the stray tear from her cheek. “You may go back to your room now.”

Amanda rolled her eyes at the small reminder of her manners before she smirked and left the chamber.

“I’ll sit with her for awhile,” Mary announced as she followed Amanda back to the girl’s dorm.

Vincent turned with disbelief to his Father. “Father, how can this world be filled with such cruelty? She’s just a child!”

Father shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t know, Vincent. I just don’t know.”

Vincent sat quietly thinking about the possibility of the abuse occurring in Ridley Hall. He could not sit idly by when he had the power to possibly change it. “Father, I’m going to see Catherine. I’m going to ask for her help. Maybe she can discover the truth behind these stories.”

“You haven’t seen her since … um … you … Well, are you ready to face her?”

Vincent had come to terms with the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of the three men. He realized that Father was worried about him facing Catherine’s possible rejection of him for those deaths. “I don’t have a choice if I hope to help these kids.”

As much as Father hoped Vincent would give up trying to have a friendship with Catherine, when it came to the abuse of children he also could not stop himself from doing all he could to help. “Yes, it is a good idea. Perhaps she’ll be able to help.”

Vincent headed Above and silently landed on Catherine’s balcony. He noticed she wasn’t home yet and sighed with relief. He was haunted by the look of horror on her face as she watched him murder the three men. He hung his head in shame, grasping for the courage to face her again. If it weren’t for the urgency of the children, he didn’t know if he would be here so soon. Knowing he had to work sentry duty, he left a note on her balcony.

***

Catherine had been working on the phone all morning long when Joe came up to her desk a little before lunch. “How you doing on the Talsky case?”

Catherine shrugged. “I’ve got the depositions from the majority of the witnesses. I’ve got three more coming in to interview this afternoon.”

“They’re coming here?”

“Uh huh. One at 1:30, one at 2:30, and the other at 4:00.”

Joe smiled gratefully. “That’s the last of them then, right?” Catherine nodded so he continued. “You want me to take one of them?”

“No, thanks, I’ve got it covered. Whatever I don’t have ready for you, I’ll finish tonight when I go home.”

Joe chuckled as he walked away. “You work too hard, Radcliffe.”

The first witness arrived early, so Catherine stopped working and took his testimony. His wife was the second witness and Catherine’s 2:30 appointment, so she took the wife’s testimony right after the husband’s.

She still had an hour to spare before the son of the couple would be able to come in after school. She sat and worked diligently on the cases, hoping to finish them before the end of the day. She glanced at her watch and sighed when she realized she wouldn’t finish in time and would have to take the work home.

“You’ve got nothing better to do tonight,” she grumbled to herself.

Her thoughts turned to Vincent. She hadn’t seen him since the night he saved her over three weeks ago. She thought back to that night and the relief she felt when she heard him crash through the door to help her. If it weren’t for the bond he told her they shared, no one would have known she was in trouble and needed help. She knew she wouldn’t be sitting here now if it weren’t for him. Thoughts floated through her mind. Why hasn’t he come to see me? Where has he been? I wonder if he’s okay. I wonder if he was injured that night but didn’t tell me ...

Joe came up and watched as she stared out into the city. “I hope he’s worth it, Chandler!”

Startled, Catherine flipped around in her chair. “Who?”

Joe chuckled. “Whoever you’re daydreaming about.”

“I wasn’t ...” She flushed guiltily. “Okay, but only for a second. What’s up? Did you need something?”

“You finish the depositions from the parents?”

Catherine shook her head. “The father’s is done. I’m working on the mother’s ...”

Joe reached out his hand. “Yeah, well ... give me pop’s and I’ll check it over. Junior just showed up from school; he’s in the conference room.”

Catherine handed Joe the father’s deposition then stood with a notepad and pencil in hand. “Thanks, Joe. If anyone asks, I’ll be in with him for awhile.”

Joe nodded and watched her walk away. With a sigh, he headed to his office.

It took longer to get the boy to talk, but Catherine finally finished with him. The office was quiet when she went back to her desk, quickly gathered her notes, and headed for home.

***

She walked into her apartment and went out on her balcony to enjoy the calm night. On a bench, she discovered a rose and a note. She stared at the beautiful handwriting on the letter and happily read the note from Vincent requesting that she meet him.

Catherine left to go to the meeting place he suggested. Her thoughts should have been on her surroundings and, had she been thinking logically, she would have wondered why she was walking through Central Park alone at 10:45 at night! Isaac, her teacher, would have been disappointed in her, but thankfully Vincent had enlisted friends to observe her walk through the park and make sure no harm came to her.

She was lost in her thoughts and had been wondering if Vincent would contact her again. She hoped they wouldn’t go months between every visit. She had tried to tell him how much his friendship meant to her, how much he meant to her. Had he misunderstood? She had left him with the understanding that she wanted to be friends, hadn’t she?

She walked quickly, wondering what he wanted to see her about. She had gotten to the meeting place a few minutes early and paced outside the tunnel entrance waiting for him to come to her. She finally saw him through the grate at the entrance. “Vincent?”

He approached slowly, but was still in the shadows. “Are you well?”

Catherine smiled. “Yes, I’ve missed you so much! Are you well? I hadn’t heard from you?”

Vincent turned away and leaned against the wall, unable to look at her.

Sensing something was unusual, she came forward and held onto the grate still separating them. “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

Vincent sighed. “When I see you, Catherine, I’m filled with a happiness sweeter than anything I’ve ever known, and, at the same time, I’m reminded of another life that can never be. I feel great pain.”

Catherine knew he meant their inability to have a “normal” friendship. She was surprised that his feelings mirrored her own and she nodded in understanding. “I know, so do I.” He stared at her, surprised by her words. “Vincent, what will we do?”

He walked over to her. “The only thing we can do. We’ll endure the pain and savor every moment of the joy.”

She smiled at him as he came out from behind the grate.

“We don’t have much time, Catherine. I need to tell you something very important. The children Below speak of a place called Ridley.”

She thought about the name. “Ridley ... Hall? The foster home?”

He nodded. “Yes”

“It’s supposed to be a very good one.”

He shook his head. “No, Catherine. Children are being hurt there.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“I believe they are. These children have no one to protect them. We can’t let them hurt the helpless ones. They must be made to feel safe. How can this be? How can this happen?” he asked incredulously.

Catherine reached out and touched Vincent’s arm. “If children are being abused in this place I can stop it. I’ll look into it right away.”

He looked at her shyly. “Be careful, Catherine.”

She smiled, touched by his concern. “I will.”

He knew it was cowardly of him, but before she could ask any more questions, he turned and started to leave.

She frowned at the abruptness of his departure, then left as well. Well, I guess that’s all he had time for, she thought as she walked home. She admonished herself for being unfair to him. Maybe he was especially busy tonight. Maybe he didn’t have time to chat. At least he came and talked. At least I know he’s okay. One small step at a time. Maybe next time we can talk about what happened.

Catherine walked inside her apartment and took a look around the empty room. She normally didn’t think twice about being alone. Tonight she felt a need to share the day’s frustrations with someone.

She sighed and walked into the bedroom. Her thoughts turned to Vincent and doubts began to creep through her mind. If it weren’t for the kids, I wonder if he would have tried to contact me . I wonder if I would have ever seen him again.

She changed her clothes, then glanced over at her briefcase. She was too tired to do anymore work and headed for bed.

***

Vincent closed the panel, effectively closing himself off from Catherine. He leaned against the wall and exhaled. He had seen her! He had actually gotten up the courage to see her!

She showed up as he requested, and she acted like everything was normal. He felt no fear in her. He only sensed concern for him, which, he had to admit, surprised him.

He frowned when he realized how quickly he exited after telling her the children’s predicament. He wanted to leave before she could ask any questions. He didn’t know if he was ready to answer for the things he’d done, but he also began to realize he had cut her off from even asking those things.

He thought of how she looked standing there. How beautiful she was with the light shining on her hair. He briefly allowed himself to dream of being more than friends with her, then sighed when he realized a life with her was something he could never have. He pushed off from the wall and headed to the Library.

Father looked up as he walked into the room. “Vincent, I received word that the stones are almost done being carved for that barrier you showed me. Do you think you might install it within the next few days?”

Vincent shrugged noncommittally. “Perhaps.”

Father saw that Vincent was distracted. “What is it?”

“I saw Catherine and told her what was happening at Ridley. She promised to investigate it immediately.”

“Good, that’s good. I pray she finds that we’re wrong.”

“Yes, but I fear we’re not.”

Father grimaced in acknowledgement, then realized that Vincent still seemed troubled. “Was Catherine all right?”

“She looked well.”

“Did something happen, Vincent? Did Catherine say something to upset you?”

Vincent shook his head. “No, she acted perfectly normal. She expressed her concern for me and listened while I told her the children’s stories.”

“Did you talk about ... um … what happened?”

“No.” Vincent hung his head, unwilling to talk about that night with anyone. “I ... left before she could.”

Father nodded. He knew Vincent would eventually come around and tell him everything. “Maybe Catherine doesn’t wish to discuss it either. Either way, I’m sure she’ll send word if she finds out anything about Ridley.” He watched as his son wrestled with his emotions. Hoping to distract him he brought out a map. “Mouse showed me another passageway that might benefit from one of these false walls.”

Vincent leaned forward with interes,t and Father smiled inwardly that for the time being the distraction might have worked.

***

Catherine woke early and rushed in to work. She was finishing up the mom’s and son’s depositions when Joe walked in about two hours later.

“What are you doing here so early?”

Catherine blushed. “I wanted to finish the Talsky files before you got here.”

Joe’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I thought you were going to do them last night?”

Catherine sighed. “I know, but something came up, and by the time it was over I was just so tired. Joe, I’m really sorry, I’ll have them ...”

Joe held up his hands to stop her. “Hey, Cathy. I’m just kidding. No one expects you to take work home with you at night. You’ve worked harder in the few months you’ve been here than most of these stiffs have worked all year.”

“Still, I know how important this case is ...”

Joe nodded in agreement. “You got that right. Well, thanks for putting in the time. How’s it going anyway?”

“Good, I should have it all to you by ...” She looked at her watch. “9:00?”

Joe chuckled. “Impressive. Want a refill on that coffee?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Joe took her cup over to the coffee pot. He dumped the cooled coffee out and refilled it with fresh hot coffee.

At 9:30 Catherine took the files to Joe’s office. He wasn’t there, and she looked around and spied him across the room. Hoping to speak to him, she made her way over to him and waited for him to finish with the intern.

Joe turned and looked at her, then motioned for her to follow him. “What’s up?”

“The rest of the Talsky case is on your desk.”

“Good work. How you doing on the Wilder case?’

“Edie’s tracking down some information for me. She’s been so tied up with this Talsky thing ...”

“Yeah, well, have her get on it, okay?”

Catherine tentatively eyed Joe, trying to gauge his mood. She told him about the tip she’d received regarding Ridley Hall, asked him if she could investigate things over there. He refused, saying that they had too much work already. Catherine pleaded with him and reminded him that the people at Ridley were just kids. She just wanted a chance to prove that Ridley was as good as their reputation. He finally relented.

***

That afternoon, Catherine went to Ridley Hall unannounced. Richard Barnes, the administrator, offered to show her around. He took Catherine to a dorm room. There were three young boys there. They looked up at Barnes with what Catherine thought was almost fear in their eyes.

One young boy looked at Catherine and opened his mouth as if to say something, then thought better of it, looking away from her. Catherine asked Barnes to see a classroom. Barnes walked her into a room of teenagers. Every child sat quietly in perfectly lined up desks. The teacher was writing on the board; the students who were studiously reading or writing kept their heads down. The few who did look up at her again had the same look of fear in their eyes.

She started to get suspicious. “They’re remarkably well behaved. How do you do it?”

Barnes smiled. “Structure. We give them structure.”

They walked down the hall together while Barnes explained how he ran a tight ship. Catherine stopped when she saw the young boy who had almost spoken to her in the dorm room standing at the drinking fountain. He stepped in front of her again wanting to say something to her.

She smiled down at him. “Hello.”

A young girl suddenly ran passed her and grabbed the boy’s arm and dragged him away. Barnes continued smiling, acting as if nothing unusual had happened, while Catherine stood there dumbfounded.

What is wrong with these kids? What are they so afraid of? she wondered.

Catherine asked if she could talk to some of the children. Barnes offered to bring her a few, and she innocently said she would just wander around and talk to whomever.

She went to the boys’ dorm room to see if she could find the little boy again. The room was empty, so she made her way back downstairs. As she came down the steps, the young boy stepped out in front of her.

Catherine bent over. “What? Did you want to tell me something?”

“They took Peter. He didn’t run away; they took him.”

Catherine prompted him to tell her more. “Who? What do you mean?”

The boy continued. “They made him disappear.”

Catherine sighed. She needed him to go back to the beginning. “Okay, let’s start over. What’s your name?”

“Eric.”

Just then, the same girl grabbed his arm and dragged him up the steps. “Are you crazy?”

“Wait!” Catherine exclaimed.

“She’s my sister.”

Catherine tried again. “What’s your last name?”

“Shut up, Eric,” the sister warned him as she dragged him away.

Out of earshot, Ellie turned to Eric. “You idiot!”

“Am not!”

“You are. Don’t ever talk to anyone about anything here!”

“But I want to find Peter. He was my friend.”

Ellie tried not to get angry, but she couldn’t help it. “Yeah, and if they find out you were talking, they’ll take you away just like Peter. Do you want to be separated? Is that what you want? Huh? Answer me!”

Eric started to cry. “I wish mommy and daddy were here.”

Ellie softened. “Yeah, me too. But they’re not, and you gotta do what I say or we won’t be together either. Got it?”

Eric nodded. “Yeah, I got it.”

Barnes was around the corner and heard the impassioned exchange. With a smile, he turned and walked the other way.

***

Disgruntled, Catherine left to go back to the office but she knew the kids at Ridley were terrified. She didn’t know of what, but you could see it in their eyes. They were afraid! She wanted to interview the young boy away from Ridley. She tried to get a transfer order and became frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape she had to cut through.

In the morning, Catherine finally got the order, but when she went to Ridley to pick up Eric and his sister, Barnes told her the kids had run away overnight. He claimed he had people looking for them. Catherine confirmed his statement with a phone call, then went back to the office.

Catherine approached Edie at her desk. “Hi, Edie. Thanks for all the work you did on the Talsky case. You saved me a ton of leg work with all the addresses you found.”

Edie smiled. “You’re welcome. You know something?” Catherine shook her head and Edie continued. “You’re the only one that comes here and says thank you.” She turned to the other computer people stationed around her. “Isn’t that right guys?”

The other operators looked up and nodded, then smiled. Catherine blushed and turned to Edie. “Thanks a lot!” She grew serious. “You all work really hard though. I’d just like to tell you how much easier you make our job.”

Edie looked at her with her hand extended. “So, what else you got for me?”

Catherine shook her head. “Nothing, I just wanted to know if I could treat you to lunch today?”

Edie smiled. “Girlfriend, you are on. Swing by at noon.”

Catherine nodded and walked away. She turned around after about ten paces. “Hey, Edie. I changed my mind. Can you do me a favor?”

Edie stopped typing and looked up. Catherine wrote a name down on a piece of paper. “Can you see what you can find on this man?”

Edie read the note. “Richard Barnes?”

“Yeah.”

Edie shrugged indifferently. “What’d he do?”

Catherine shook her head. “Nothing, maybe. He’s the director over at Ridley Hall.”

Edie thought for a moment. “Isn’t that a foster home?”

“Uh huh.”

“Cathy, those guys are put through the ringer before they’re hired. I’m sure this Barnes guy is clean.”

“Doesn’t hurt to look ...”

Edie glanced at her watch. “Give me an hour.”

Catherine walked away while Edie was busily typing.

In an hour and a half, she came back. Edie told her Barnes had a clean record.
Catherine had Edie try to break into the Child Protective Services computers, but the files were sealed. Edie promised to try to get into them, but she didn’t have much hope of accomplishing the task.

Catherine sighed. “Thanks anyway. Are you ready for lunch?”

Edie grabbed her purse. “I’m always ready for lunch.”

Catherine giggled as the two friends left the building.

Edie turned to her. “Where are we eating?”

Catherine shrugged. “Luke’s?”

Edie glanced across the street and saw with surprise that the line that normally extended around the building was not there. “Okay.”

They hurried across the street and settled themselves into a booth. Edie ordered a cheeseburger with bacon and a strawberry shake. Catherine ordered a grilled chicken salad and water.

Edie sighed. “You stink at being a girlfriend. You’re supposed to order something fattening too, so I don’t feel bad.”

Catherine laughed. “I can’t! For dinner last night, I ate a whole pint of double chocolate rocky road complete with whipped cream and four cherries!”

“Break- up food if I ever tasted it! Who was he?”

Catherine shook her head. “No, it wasn’t like that. I just had a craving for something fattening!”

Edie’s shake came. “Well, at least you won’t be trying to steal my shake.”

“I couldn’t do that!” Catherine gasped. “That’s sacrilegious!”

Edie giggled. “Okay, I take it back. You do know how to be a friend.”

They enjoyed the rest of their meal and headed back to the office. Edie was moaning in discomfort from stuffing herself, while Catherine shook her head sympathetically at her friend’s pain.

***

Catherine walked the streets on her way home that night and for the first time noticed all the children who were begging for handouts or digging through garbage. She was disgusted with herself that she had never noticed them before, and she wondered how she had turned a blind’s eye to their predicament her whole life.

She thought of the brother and sister who ran away because she tried to help them. She grimaced as it got darker, realizing if they weren’t found they would spend the night out on the streets.

***

Her feelings of defeat were so intense, Vincent walked into Father’s library holding his cloak. “I’m going Above.”

“To walk in the park?”

“To see Catherine. Something is deeply troubling her.”

“Yes, well … she has others in her life to whom she can turn in times of need.”

“Father, I wasn’t asking your permission!”

Father balked at the reprimand. “I realize that, Vincent. I meant only to point out that you can’t help her through every crisis.”

“No, but as a friend I can be there for her when she needs someone to talk to. I’ll return later.”

Father blinked in surprise as Vincent walked quickly out the door.

Catherine was in her apartment when he landed on her balcony. She was so upset, he was glad he had felt compelled to visit her. She walked out onto the balcony, troubled, lost in her thoughts.

Vincent stood off to the side and whispered quietly. “Catherine.”

She visibly relaxed at his voice and turned to him.

“I felt your sadness …”

“Vincent …”

“Don’t lose heart, Catherine.”

Catherine couldn’t hide the blame she placed on herself for the predicament the kids were in. “The children I was trying to help … They’re gone, and I don’t know what happened to them. I’m afraid I did more harm than good. I feel like I failed them.”

“You haven’t failed. You haven’t given up and you won’t, will you?”

She shook her head. “I know there are terrible things going on at Ridley. If I could just find that boy I could begin to unravel it.”

“The ones who prey on children steal everybody’s hope. Don’t give up, Catherine.”

“I won’t!” she said with resolve.

He felt the change in her and knew she had come around and would begin to fight once again.

She watched as he turned and left. She remembered how safe she felt when she stayed Below with him. She remembered how nice it was to hug him goodbye. She frowned when she realized that, once again, he had kept their meeting short. She wondered if their bond was bothersome to him and wished she knew how to control her feelings and thoughts.

Knowing she wanted her days free to search for the kids, she sighed and walked back inside, then opened up the paperwork on the Tolsky case.

***

The next day, Catherine wanted to see the paper trail on the kids from Ridley. She and Edie ended up sneaking into the Child Protective Service offices where they looked through the files. The file on Ridley Home showed kids often being transferred to Bridgemont Youth House. Recently, a boy name Eric had been transferred there.

Catherine went to Bridgemont and found that Eric had been locked in a closet. The caretakers tried to physically stop her, and she had Eric run out to her car ahead of her while she locked the woman in the closet and pushed aside a gentlemen.

What have I just done? How did this happen?! Now what? she thought as she ran out the door. I have to keep him safe somewhere. Her thoughts flew to Vincent and the tunnels and knew he would help her. I hope I’m doing the right thing!

She hopped in the car and took off quickly.

Eric turned to her. “Hey lady thanks!”

Catherine smiled and reached out her hand to him. “My name’s Catherine, Eric, and you’re quite welcome. I want you to know you’re going to be okay now.”

“Can you help me find Ellie?”

“Ellie ... your sister?”

Eric nodded. “Yeah, they took her just like they took Peter.”

“Peter... He’s the boy you told me about, the one you said didn’t run away?”

Eric nodded excitedly, grateful he could finally tell his story. “Yeah, they took him, too.”

“Eric how do you know Peter was taken? How do you know he didn’t just get transferred to another foster home?”

“The other kids said. They said if you’re bad they take you away and no one ever sees you again. They took Ellie and me and separated us. I don’t know where they took her. How can we find her?” He started to cry. “She’s the only family I have left.”

Catherine pulled over to the side of the road and held Eric in her arms. “Eric, its okay, honey. Shhhh.”

When Eric’s tears were spent, Catherine started to drive again. “Eric, I’m going to take you to a safe place, a secret place.”

He looked at her fearfully but decided she had helped him, so he would trust her. “Okay.”

“It’s a very secret place though, and you can never tell anyone about it.”

“Not even Ellie?”

Catherine chose her words carefully. “Eric, you’re going to meet some very special people there. They’ll help take care of you while I search for Ellie. Once I find her, I’ll bring her to you, and together we’ll find out if you can stay in this place. How does that sound?”

When he didn’t answer, she looked over at him and saw he was fast asleep. She smiled to herself and drove the rest of the way to the park.

Outside the park entrance, she shook Eric awake and they walked the short distance to the tunnel entrance. Catherine called for Vincent over the pipes and then she and Eric sat on the floor where he promptly fell asleep again.

Vincent came as quickly as he could when he heard Catherine’s call, but it was over twenty minutes before he could get to her. Catherine was pacing when he finally came.

Catherine approached him excitedly. “Vincent, I’ve got the boy. I found him.”

He looked at her proudly. “I knew you would.”

“They’ve separated him from his sister. They’ll be looking for him. If I take him back now I’m afraid I’ll lose him again. I can’t chance that, Vincent.”

Vincent nodded in understanding. “He’ll be safe with us.”

Catherine smiled in relief. “Right. I was hoping …”

Vincent approached Eric meaning to wake him and bring him Below.

Catherine called out. “No, wait. I’m afraid …” She guiltily looked at the floor, then at him, pleading with him to understand.

Vincent finished for her. “That’ll he’ll be afraid.”

She didn’t want to offend him. “He’s been through a lot. I don’t know how ...”

Vincent touched her hand in understanding. “It’s all right, Catherine. Wake him.”

Vincent stepped back while Catherine walked to Eric. She bent and caressed his face, gently waking him. “Eric.”

Eric woke and sat up. “What? What’re we going to do?”

“I’m going to take you to some place safe, where no one can hurt you.”

“You going too?” he asked worriedly.

She nodded yes, smiling. “We’re going with a friend of mine. Someone very extraordinary. I’d like you to meet him. His name is Vincent.”

Vincent walked over and bent down. “Eric.”

Eric was surprised at his appearance, but, with a child’s wonder, asked questions. “What is that? Is it real?”

Catherine was astonished, Eric wasn’t afraid at all, and Vincent wasn’t embarrassed in the least at Eric’s questions.

Vincent smiled, used to this reaction from kids. “It’s real.” He never flinched when Eric reached out and rubbed his cheek.

Eric cocked his head. “How’d you get like that?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I ever will. I never knew my mother or my father.”

Eric thought for a moment, then smiled. “I bet you’d know them if you saw them.”

Vincent smiled back warmly. Catherine looked gratefully back and forth between the two of them. She wondered what it was about kids that made them so accepting of people’s differences.

The three of them made their way through the tunnels.

Eric looked at his surroundings. “You live down here, Vincent?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Cool! Anyone else live down here?”

“Yes, there are others.”

“Any kids down here?”

“There are some children.”

“How old all they?”

“We have children of all ages.”

“Do they sleep down here? Are Ellie and me gonna have to sleep on the floor, or do we get beds?”

Vincent nodded as he tried to answer all the questions. “Yes, they all sleep down here. No you don’t have to sleep in the floor. And yes, you will be provided with a bed.”

Eric boiled over with more questions. “Do they go to school? Will I have to go to school? You got anything to eat? I’m hungry.”

Vincent chuckled at Eric’s exuberance. Catherine impulsively reached for Vincent’s hand and held it, smiling. She was thankful for his patience.

Vincent’s heart skipped a beat at the warmth of her hand, and he quickly looked at Eric. “Eric, all of your questions will be answered, but first we need to go see the man we call Father. He’s the leader of our community. He’ll want to welcome you.”

Vincent answered more of Eric’s questions and, uncomfortable with Catherine feeling the differences in their hands, used the opportunity to release hers with the pretense of ruffling Eric’s hair.

***

Not long after, they arrived at Father’s study. Father looked up and saw Vincent with Catherine, with them a young boy. He raised questioning eyes to his son. Vincent nodded and Father welcomed Eric in his usual manner. He explained how they lived down here, helped one another, and how they keep their home a secret. He told Eric he could stay as long as he like.

Vincent turned Eric to face him. “Eric, we’ll get a bed prepared for you shortly, but if you’d like, you can rest in my chamber.”

“I’m not tired.”But just then he let out a huge yawn.

Father chuckled. “Well, Eric, if you want, you can join the other kids. I believe they’re reading history books, right now.”

Eric looked up at Vincent. “On second thought, I think I am tired. Can you take me to your room?”

Catherine and Father hid their smiles. Vincent reached out his hand and walked Eric out the door. “Down here we call our rooms chambers ...”

Catherine listened as their voices grew faint. She stood nervously waiting for Father to reprimand her. “I’m sorry this happened so quickly. Eric was a child at Ridley Hall, and after Vincent spoke to me, I went to investigate the claims. Eric was there and seemed intent on speaking to me. They ended up separating him from his sister. I was able to track Eric down, and one thing led to another, and I had to take Eric out of the new home so I could speak to him. I know you have rules that you need to abide by, and I respect that ... I do … but I really had no choice!”

She was surprised when she looked up and saw Father smiled at her.

“I understand, Catherine. Sometimes circumstances demand we bend the rules, especially when a child is involved. Don’t worry; he’ll be all right here.”

She smiled gratefully. “I know.” Her smile faded instantly and her eyes filled with tears. “I just can’t help thinking about his sister. It’s my fault she’s missing and I don’t know where to begin to look.”

Father had been about to make an off-the-cuff remark, but when he saw the tears and the real emotions behind them, he softened. “The fault lies with those who took the children. I’m sure, if you try hard, you’ll find Eric’s sister. She’ll be welcome here as well. As soon as you get her, send word. We’ll be ready for her.”

Catherine came forward and gently touched his arm. “Thank you, Father.”

In the new light, Father got a chance to get a real look at Catherine’s face. “Catherine, your face has healed remarkably well.”

She smiled. “Yes, I went to a plastic surgeon. He complimented your work. Well, not your work ... I mean the ...”

Father chuckled. “I know what you mean, Catherine. I’m glad it all worked out for you.”

He was smiling at her when Vincent walked in. “Eric is sleeping. He fell asleep before I made it out my chamber door.”

Father nodded. “I expected as much. As soon as he awakens, we’ll get a decent meal in him. He’ll be back to making mischief soon enough.”

Vincent chuckled. “He will when Kipper and Jeffery meet up with him.” He turned to look at Catherine. “I’ll escort you out …”

Catherine nodded, then turned to Father. “I can’t thank you enough ... again.”

“You’re quite welcome, dear.”

Catherine started to leave, but turned around at the entrance. “Father, if I can help pay for any of the extra expenses of adding the children ...”

Vincent shook his head and answered first. “Catherine, we always manage to find a way to help those in need. Don’t trouble yourself over the expense.”

Catherine looked at Father who nodded in agreement. “Well, okay. Goodnight, Father. It was good to see you again.”

“Goodnight, Catherine.”

She followed Vincent as he led her back towards the culvert. “Vincent, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a warning, when I found Eric I had to act quickly.”

Vincent shrugged indifferently. “It happens all the time down here. He’s a good boy, Catherine. He should do fine here.”

“You all have an amazing level of patience and kindness. Eric is …”

Vincent chuckled. “Inquisitive?”

Catherine smiled at him. “Yes, that’s a good way to put it.” She became worried and touched his arm. “Will Father be mad at me for bringing him down unannounced?”

“Sometimes in emergencies the rules have to change. Father understands that, and he likes Eric already. Don’t worry yourself so.”

She stared off into the distance. “Now if only I can find his sister.”

Vincent gently squeezed her hand. “You will, Catherine. Have a little faith.”

Catherine sighed. “It’s hard to when you know it’s a child. I can’t help but wonder what she’s going through.”

Vincent shook his head as he, too, wondered. “At least she’s a little older than Eric. She’s probably more mature. All you can do is pray that she keeps herself safe until help arrives.”

“I know, but it’s not enough. I wish I could do more!”

“For right now, it’s all we can do.” Vincent turned to her. “Let me slip out first. When the way is clear, I’ll call out to you.” He looked out into the park to make sure there was no one milling about, then called back to her. “Catherine.” When she came forward, he took her hand. “I’ll watch over you until you get to your car. Goodnight.”

She stepped closer to him, but he had turned and headed into the shadows of the tree line. She called out to him, unsure if he would hear. “Goodnight, Vincent.”

She waited for his call, then walked out and headed to her car. She steeled herself not to look around for him, but she wondered at his abrupt departure. She was surprised at how quickly he had left tonight, then consoled herself with the fact that Eric was in his chamber and he probably wanted to check on him.

Vincent scanned the area for trouble but his thoughts were for Catherine. “Well, at least I didn’t hover around making her stay with me. I don’t feel like I infringed on her time.”

***

After Vincent dropped Catherine off at the park entrance, he went to Ridley Hall. He hoped to discover something to aid Catherine in her investigation. He stood quietly and watched an exchange in the parking lot between two men. They were arguing over payment amounts for kids. The older man said he wasn’t going to do it anymore, and the other man promised to find another source.

The next day, Vincent sketched a picture of the man who had been paying money to the administrator at Ridley. He called a few of the older kids into the library and showed them the picture. He asked if anyone had ever seen this man. A few of them said they had. Eric saw the picture and said he was the guy who took his sister. Vincent told the boys to go out, follow him, and find out where he lived.

Vincent went in search of Amanda. He found her reading a book on her bed. He stood in her room looking at her. “Amanda, I’d like to show you a sketch I drew, but I don’t want to frighten you or awaken bad memories.”

Amanda had come to trust Vincent. He, like all the other adults, had treated her kindly. Vincent, however, like Mary, seemed more attuned to the needs of the kids. Amanda knew Vincent wouldn’t be here if it weren’t important. She would try to stay strong for him. “That’s okay, Vincent. I’ll look at the sketch.”

Vincent handed her the drawing. “I saw this man outside Ridley. I wonder if you know who he is.”

Amanda paled but nodded. “That’s Naj; that’s the guy I ran from.”

Vincent was shocked. How long had this man been buying kids from Ridley? “Are you sure?”

Amanda chuckled. “Vincent, I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”

“Thank you, Amanda. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Are you lookin’ for him ‘cause of me?”

Vincent sighed. “He’s taken another girl from Ridley. It’s Eric the new boy’s older sister.”

Amanda looked up fearfully and sighed. “You want me to show you where we used to live?”

Vincent shook his head. “No, I sent some of the boys to watch him, find out where he goes.”

“Yeah, well, we moved around a lot. He’s probably not at the place I was anymore. You gonna try to catch him?”

“We hope to. The sketch should help. My friend Catherine is helping us. Perhaps when she finds Eric’s sister, you could take her under your wing. Show her the ropes?”

Amanda nodded. “You betcha! I wonder if my … um … friends are still at Ridley.”

“We’ll know soon enough.” Vincent stood and touched her shoulder, then walked out the door, heading for Father’s study.

Father looked up at him curiously. “Ah, Vincent. The boys told me you sent them on a mission?”

“Yes. I drew a sketch of a man I saw outside of Ridley Hall last night. Eric said he was the man who took his sister.”

Father nodded. “What was he doing outside Ridley?”

Vincent’s voice lowered to a growl. “Paying for the kids he bought.”

Father gasped aloud. “Are you sure, Vincent?”

“I heard them arguing about money. This man said that he would pay $3000 for the next one. The second man said he wanted $2500 for this one.”

“Did you tell, Catherine?”

“Not yet. I made a sketch. I sent the boys to see where the man lives. Amanda confirmed the sketch was of the man she used to live with, the man she called Naj.”

“Dear God! And now he has Ellie!”

“And countless other children!”

Father sat down heavily and Vincent paced the room. Within two hours, the boys returned and gave their account to Father and Vincent. They told them they watched as kids pick-pocketed people and gave their stolen merchandise to the guy from the sketch. There was an older girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen with him, too, but no sign of a younger girl.

Vincent sent word to Catherine to meet him at her threshold.

***

The matron from Bridgemont was so upset after the woman rushed in and took the boy that she decided to call the police. She had a feeling things were going to turn considerably bad. She wanted to tell everything she knew. She hoped it would help her stay out of jail if she turned into a witness. She picked up the phone and dialed.

“55th Precinct. Officer Hanlon. Can I help you?”

“My name is Agnes Kaplan. I’m the matron at Bridgemont Youth Home.”

“Yeah, what can I help you with?”

“I’d like to talk to a detective please. There are things someone needs to know about, things that are happening at Ridley Hall.”

“Yeah, what kind of things?”

Agnes grew excited. “Please! Those kids are in trouble!”

“Okay, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’ll have an officer over in the next half hour.”

After Agnes reported everything she knew to the authorities, Barnes was arrested.

Joe approached Catherine at work the next day. He looked at her suspiciously. “The matron reported a high-class lady rushed into Bridgemont and demanded to speak to a boy she put in detention. That day, he had come over from Ridley. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

Catherine looked at him innocently. “No. Do you think it was the same boy I wanted to see?”

Joe frowned. He’d thought she might tip her hand, but was relieved she wasn’t involved. “I don’t know. The records were all confiscated. It’ll be months before we find out where all those kids went.”

Catherine nodded. She had just finished briefing the witnesses on the Talsky case. She handed him back the list. “I’m finished. All the witnesses have been briefed. I’m heading home, okay?”

Joe looked at his watch. “What, it’s not even dinnertime yet!”

Catherine rolled her eyes and grabbed her purse and briefcase, then headed towards the elevator.

Joe called out across the empty office. “Hey, Radcliffe?”

Catherine turned around and waited for him to continue.

“You know, I thought it was kinda crazy you asking about this Ridley Hall thing, but you made it work. Good instincts.”

Catherine smiled. “Thanks!”

“Oh … one other thing. We’ve got enough for you to solve without you creating cases that don’t exist yet. How’d you find out about this one anyway?”

Catherine chuckled. “I had a secret meeting in a dark alley with a mysterious figure who was hidden in the shadows.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Fine, don’t tell me!”

“Goodnight, Joe.” Catherine laughed all the way to the elevator.

***

Catherine was walking home when a young boy shoved a note in her hand. She opened it to discover a note from Vincent requesting that she come to the threshold of her apartment. She hurried home, changed clothes, and headed Below.

When Vincent arrived, he told her they had made progress, and she told him the supervisor from Ridley had been arrested. Vincent showed her the sketch he’d made and told her he was the guy who had Eric’s sister, Ellie.

“Who is he?”

“A thief, one who uses little children in the worse way. He’s connected with the supervisor at Ridley. I saw them talking together, arguing about money.”

Catherine’s shock was evident. “He’s selling kids! Barnes is selling kids out of Ridley!”

“Only the ones with no known relatives, the ones who are all alone.”

“And he has Eric’s sister?” Vincent nodded his assen,t and she grew excited about the prospect of finding her. “Where is he, Vincent? Do you know?”

Vincent looked at her, then looked down in indecision. She knew he knew where the guy was, but he wouldn’t tell her. She pleaded with him. “Take me there.”

He shook his head. “Too great a risk.”

“It’s the only way I can move on him. You can’t testify against him, Vincent. The only way I can get an arrest warrant is to see it with my own eyes. I’ll take that risk.”

Vincent thought for a moment, then sighed and took her hand. He led her through the tunnels to a place below the address the kids had provided.

“Be safe, Catherine. I’ll be near.”

She looked at him and nodded. She entered the building and quietly searched the rooms. The room was divided into sections by old sheets hanging from the ceiling. Old cots with worn mattresses indicated sleeping arrangements for a lot of kids.

Catherine overheard a man hollering at someone. She hid and then watched the man from Vincent’s sketch tie a young girl to a chair. She recognized the girl. It was Ellie, Eric’s sister.

When the man left, Catherine ran to Ellie and untied her, promising to get them out of there. They ran to leave and got caught by Naj who tried to stop them. Catherine kicked him in the shins and grabbed Ellie and started to run.

She whizzed past Vincent with Naj close on her heels. Naj ran into Vincent who grabbed him and knocked him unconscious before he dragged him away.

***

Catherine led Ellie Below to the tunnels. While she waited for Vincent, she and Ellie talked.

“Ellie, my name is Catherine.”

“Hi Catherine. You said you know where Eric is?”

“Yes, Ellie. I took Eric to a safe place, and I’d like to take you there if you’ll come with me.”

Ellie looked up and decided to trust Catherine. “Okay.”

“My friend is going to be meeting us soon; he’ll lead us to Eric.”

Ellie nodded again. “Okay.”

“My friend is very unusual, Ellie. His name is Vincent and he’s …”

Just then Vincent walked up to them and Catherine sighed. She had hoped she would have more time to prepare Ellie.

“Here?” Ellie guessed as she heard someone walk up behind them. She turned to face him.

Vincent extended his hand to Ellie. “Hello, Ellie.”

Ellie’s eyes widened, but she took his hand and shook it. “Hi! You’re Vincent, right?”

Vincent nodded smiling.

Ellie looked at him curiously for a second, then anxiously asked. “Will you take me to Eric? Please!”

“Of course, Ellie.”

They turned and Vincent led them back to the home tunnels. Catherine marveled at the children’s ready acceptance of Vincent.

Ellie looked around in wonder at the tunnels. “Vincent, do you live down here?”

“Yes, Ellie, I do, as well as many others.”

“Are they all old like ... um, I mean ... are they all adults?”

Catherine hid her smile as she realized she and Vincent had just been called old, but she listened to Vincent’s answer.

“No, Ellie. We have many children of all ages Below. We also have some adults even older than me!”

Ellie blushed and Vincent grabbed her shoulder affectionately. She smiled when she realized he was joking. They continued to walk.

“Vincent, can Eric and I stay here for awhile?”

Catherine spoke up first. “Ellie, do you have any relatives who may be looking for you?”

Ellie shook her head as she began to cry. “No, Eric’s the only family I have left.”

Vincent stopped walking and bent over in front of Ellie. “Ellie, please don’t cry. If you and Eric like it here, you are welcome to stay. We would love to be your new family.”

Ellie looked at him and nodded. Vincent gently wiped her tears away. “Come, let’s go see, Father.”

Ellie followed then looked up at Vincent. “Vincent, your father lives here?”

Vincent nodded. “The man who raised me lives here. I, like everyone else Below, call him Father.”

“So, he’s not your real dad?”

Vincent shook his head. “I never knew my real parents.”

“So, you probably don’t look much like this Father guy?”

Catherine walked silently wondering how Vincent handled these questions.

He looked down at Ellie with amusement. “I never found another person who looks like me. I’m ... a little different.”

Ellie blushed and looked away. “I ... hadn’t noticed.”

Catherine gasped at Ellie’s outright lie and tripped on a rock. Vincent reached out his hand to steady her. She smiled up at him then looked at him curiously when he moved away from her immediately.

Vincent had Father meet them in the dining chamber to interview Ellie. He was waiting there when they walked in.

“Ellie, this is Father. Father this is Ellie, Eric’s sister.”

Father extended his hand. “Ellie, welcome.”

Ellie eyed him distrustfully. She looked at Catherine who nodded, so Ellie took his hand. “Hello.”

Father shook her hand, then sat down in a nearby chair. “Ellie, first I’d like you to know that Eric is fine. He ate lunch not too long ago and is playing with the other children. You can see him shortly, but I’d just like to talk to you for a while.”

Ellie sat and nodded. “Okay.”

Catherine sat next to her in a chair and addressed his first concern. “Ellie, here Below lives an entire community, and each member of that community trusts every one of the members with the secret. We need to make sure that you won’t have family coming to look for you. Can you tell us about your family?”

Ellie looked at Father. “My parents are both dead. They were killed in a car accident six months ago.”

Father grimaced. “You have no grandparents or aunts and uncles who would wish to raise you?”

Ellie shook her head. “My dad’s parents died when he was in his twenties. My mom’s mom died when I was four. My Grandpa Dave died two years ago.”

Father nodded. “I’m sorry … what about Aunts or Uncles ...”

Ellie interrupted him. “No, my mom and dad were both only children.”

Catherine felt an emotional tug deep in her heart, and she looked down to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes. Vincent looked at her quizzically then looked back at Father.

Father continued his talk. “Ellie, if you promise not to tell anyone about this place, you may stay here. Would you like that?”

Ellie looked up cautiously. “Will I have to steal stuff or do other bad stuff?”

Vincent came forward. “Ellie, no one would ever ask you to do anything that you don’t want to do, and the only things we take are things that the world Above has thrown away.”

“Do you hit kids down here?”

“Do we … what?” Father narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Do you mean spank?”

Her eyes teared up as she fearfully looked at him and nodded.

Vincent came forward instantly. “Ellie, I’ve lived here my entire life, and I promise you, no one Below has ever been punished harshly. My worst punishment when I was ten was washing dishes for a week.”

Ellie sighed in relief. “Is that all?”

Vincent leaned in conspiratorially. “Wait until you see how many dishes there are first.”

Ellie laughed and pushed up the sleeves on her shirt. “I’m ready if it means we can stay.”

Father’s eyes widened in shock and spoke abruptly. “Ellie, come here this instant.”

Ellie could tell by the tone in his voice something was wrong. She fearfully backed away from him.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to frighten you,” Father’s face showed only concern. “Please. I promise I won’t hurt you.” Ellie walked cautiously towards him. “May I see your arm?”

Ellie blushed and held her arm out to him to see.

Catherine gasped at the huge bruise that covered almost her whole forearm and came forward to stand by her side. “Ellie, how did you get that?”

“I couldn’t figure out how to take the wallet without ringing the bells. Naj got mad.”

Catherine’s voice softened. “That man hit you?”

Ellie began to cry. “Yes.”

Father put his arm around her comfortingly as he examined her arm. “Do you remember what he hit you with?”

“Some big stick.”

Father looked closely and felt up and down her arm, careful not to press on the bruise. “Well, it doesn’t feel broken. Does it still hurt, Ellie?”

She shrugged. “It’s kinda tender. Once in a while I forget about it and bump it; then it really hurts.”

“Yes, it probably will be sore for a few more days.” Father nodded as he smiled and gently tucked her hair behind her ear. “Well, I bet you’re tired of talking to this old man and would like to see your brother?”

Ellie nodded and smiled nervously. “You’re not old! But I would like to see Eric.”

Eric and Ellie met in a joyous reunion in Father’s library. The children were assured that they would have a home if they decided to stay.

Ellie smiled at Eric. “It’s sort of like a dream.”

Eric shook his head in disagreement. “Better.”

***

Vincent and Catherine began their walk to her apartment. This is becoming a habit, he thought. Vincent smiled inwardly; the feelings it provoked in him were indescribable.

Catherine turned to look at him. “Vincent, will the kids be okay down here?”

“They seem happy. Eric has already adjusted. Ellie loves her brother, but I think she is a little relieved to find adults she can trust to help her.”

“They have been through so much, its unimaginable how they keep their spirit.”

“Kids are resilient, Catherine. If they’re shown love, they almost always flourish.”

“There are so many of them in the streets. I wish I could help them all.”

“You’ve helped two tonight. It’s a start.”

“I guess …”

Something she’d said earlier had bothered him and he wanted to hear the truth behind it. “Catherine, it affected you deeply when Ellie spoke about her lack of family.”

“Yes, I felt so sorry for her. My parents were both only children, and after my mom died, I remember being so afraid that something would happen to my dad.”

“It’s sad when a child lives with such adult worries.”

“Yes, I know I was lucky but …”

“Your darkest fears always hovered in the back of your mind?”

“My dad managed to keep them at bay for me.”

“Good.”

At the threshold, Catherine turned and took both of Vincent’s hands in hers.
“Vincent, I’ve been all over the world, met people, done things. I’ve lived in luxuries most people can never imagine, but I can’t remember a time when I felt as good or complete as I do right now.”

He basked in the feelings flowing through the bond. “I can feel it in you.”

She smiled at him wondrously. “You really can.”

He smiled. “It’s very beautiful.”

“Sort of like a dream.”

He chuckled as the repeated Ellie and Eric’s earlier words. “Better.”

Catherine turned to leave when she saw Vincent’s change in demeanor. He had looked down in shame and struggled for a way to ask her a question.

Catherine noticed his turmoil. “Vincent, what is it?”

“Catherine, I don’t want to bring this up after such a wonderful night.”

“But…”

“I’ve been wondering. Did you have a hard time explaining what happened?”

Catherine furrowed her brow in confusion and tried to figure out what he was talking about. “What happened?”

Vincent nodded as he looked down at the floor. “That night.”

Catherine realized he was talking about the night he came to rescue her and of the murders. She hesitated briefly, then told him what she knew. “Actually, no one said anything about it. Joe, my boss, came in and told me bodies were found at the brownstone. He said my witness was dead. She had been shot by a bullet matching one of the men’s guns. The other three men all had long records of violence. The police had been trying for years to catch them and put them away. Joe figured they were killed as payback by whoever they worked for.”

Vincent visibly relaxed. “So, no one suspected any involvement from you?”

Catherine reached out and put her hand on his arm. She felt him flinch, but she kept her hand in place. “Vincent, no one knew I was going there. I only stopped there to take a bag of groceries to the woman they killed.”

Vincent shook his head and looked down. “I was afraid that you wouldn’t want to see me after ...”

Catherine looked at him, a question forming in her mind. “Is that why you haven’t been to see me? Did you think I would have trouble or that I was upset with you for what happened?”

Vincent sighed and walked to the far wall. “I’m not proud of what I did to those men, Catherine, but I’m more ashamed that you had to see it.”

Catherine stared incredulously, then came over to his side. “What you did?! All I know is that you saved my life. Again. I can never thank you enough for that.” He wouldn’t look her in the eye, so she turned him to face her. “Vincent, you and I are ... connected. That means something very special to me. I don’t ever want to lose that, and I don’t ever want you to feel that I wouldn’t welcome you, that you can’t come to see me or visit me anytime you want to.”

He looked up at her shyly. “I’m honored that you would consider me a friend, Catherine.”

“A friend? I’d like to think that we’re more than friends.” Vincent looked at her with such surprise she rushed to explain. “Vincent, we have no idea where our bond will take us. To me that’s kind of exciting. The possibilities are endless!”

“I … I’ve never allowed myself to even consider the possibilities of having someone like you in my life.”

“Then we can dream about where it will take us.”

“It’s good to dream,” he smiled warmly. “But for now, I should let you get home so you can get some sleep. Goodbye, Catherine.”

“Goodnight, Vincent.”

As Catherine walked away, she noticed the fact that he had said goodbye. She hoped when he heard her say goodnight that he would take the hint that she would not let this be the last time they saw one another.

***

Ellie and Eric sat close to one another all afternoon. At dinner time they walked hand and hand into the dining chamber. They sat at a table and were soon surrounded by kids.
Father watched as the kids carefully welcomed their newest arrivals. Most of them had been in their shoes at one time or another, and Father was proud that they were so accepting of Eric and Ellie.

Mary sat down next to him. “They’re awfully close aren’t they?”

Father glanced at her, then back at Eric and Ellie. “Yes, I suspect that’s because they’re all they have left.”

“Now they have all of us.”

“Yes.”

“Father, what shall I do about their sleeping arrangements? We’ve prepared a bed in both the girls’ dorm and the boys’ dorm, but I don’t know if they’ll accept being separated.”

Father shook his head. “Yes, I would hate to cause them undue stress their first night here. Why don’t I go and ask them?”

Father rose and went over to the table where the children were. He had just walked up and caught Kipper putting his peas on Samantha’s plate. Father cleared his throat and Kipper looked down guiltily. Samantha picked up her plate and pushed back the peas Kipper had put on her plate. Kipper wisely took a mouthful of peas and watched Father’s reaction.

Father smiled and ruffled Kipper’s hair. “They’re very good, aren’t they?”

Kipper looked up and grimaced at the foul taste in his mouth, but he smiled and nodded.

Father looked at the children. “I came over to ask our new guests a question.”

Ellie and Eric turned to face him.

“Ellie, Eric, normally the children sleep in beds either in the girls’ dormitories or the boys’ dormitories...”

Ellie nodded hesitantly, guessing where this was headed.

Father smiled. “I wanted to know if you would like to stay, you Eric, in with the boys and you Ellie, in with the girls, or if you would like to stay together for awhile?”

Ellie shrugged and Eric looked at her. Kipper, Jake, Zach, and Thomas all circled around Eric, all speaking at once.

“Stay with us.”

“Cool, you can sleep next to my bed.”

“Oh man, this is gonna be great.”

“Eric’s on my side.”

Father smiled at the attempt the boys made to include Eric. Eric looked at his new friends then at Ellie. “I wanna stay with the boys, if that’s okay with Ellie.”

Ellie looked relieved and smiled hugely. “Okay, if you’re sure?”

Father realized that this was what Ellie had wanted all along, but she would do whatever Eric needed. “You know, Eric, Ellie is only a short distance away. Not even as far as Vincent’s chamber is to mine.”

“Okay. If she gets scared she can come see me.”

Father smiled. “Yes, I think that will bring her much comfort. You’re a good brother Eric. Then it’s settled. Eric will stay with the boys, and you, Ellie, may stay with the girls.”

Father walked away and heard the girls surround Ellie.

“Yeah! You have such pretty hair, can I braid it?”

“Hey, Ellie? I have some new nail polish. Maybe we could paint each others toe nails?”

“Ellie, you can borrow one of my nightgowns tonight.”

“Hey, she can borrow my hair ribbons too.”

Father sat next to Mary who smiled broadly at him. “I guess you settled that easily enough. They’re going to fit in just fine, aren’t they?”

Father nodded. “Yes, Mary. I believe they will.”

***

Vincent came into the boys’ dormitory and read to them several chapters of Moby Dick. Eric was exhausted from the past few days and quickly fell asleep. Vincent blew out candles as he left, leaving one near Eric’s bed lit.

Sara was in the girls’ dormitory doing much the same thing. The book she was reading was Little Women. She finished several chapters and blew out candles and left the room.

A short time later, Amanda heard Ellie tossing and turning. She leaned over in her bed and whispered. “Ellie, what’s wrong?”

Ellie looked at her through the dark. “I’m worried about Eric.”

Amanda nodded and sat up. She grabbed her robe and threw it to Ellie. “Put this on.”

She grabbed a sweatshirt, pulled it on over her head, and led Ellie out the door. They ran into Mary in the tunnel way.

“Where are you girls going? You should be in bed!”

Ellie looked fearful but Amanda smiled. “Just checking on Eric.”

Mary nodded. “Okay, but be quiet. All of the boys are asleep. Goodnight Amanda, goodnight, Ellie.”

“Goodnight,” the girls whispered together. They watched as Mary went around the corner.

Ellie grabbed Amanda’s arm. “I can’t believe she didn’t holler at us.”

Amanda chuckled. “Only Father hollers and even then it has to be earth-shattering. I’m telling you, Ellie, you’ve never been any place as cool as this.” She looked at the ground. “Well, except maybe when you lived with your parents.”

Ellie nodded. “C’mon, let’s check on Eric.”

Ellie followed Amanda. They stood in the entrance, and Ellie saw that Eric was fast asleep. Amanda grabbed her arm and led her back into the tunnel way.

“See, told you he was fine. C’mon, I’m freezing!”

The girls ran back and hopped into their beds. Their teeth were chattering from the cold. Soon enough, the weight of the covers had them warm.

Ellie looked over at Amanda. “Thanks, Amanda.”

Amanda smiled. “You’re welcome.”

“Amanda? Why are you down here?”

Amanda sighed. “Same reason you are. I was living at Ridley and Naj bought me.”

Ellie gasped. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, I lived with him until I was fifteen, then I ran away.”

“Why’d you run away?” Silence met Ellie and she was embarrassed by her intrusive question. “Amanda, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask ...”

“It’s okay Ellie. Let’s just say that once you get to about fifteen, Naj makes you do more adult things. You’d of been there in, what, two or three more years?”

Ellie shivered in fear. “Yeah, I guess. Amanda, does that happen to all the kids?”

“Yeah, most of them. Why?”

Ellie thought. “There was this girl. Deb ...”

Amanda sat up. “Debbie?”

Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know. They called her Deb.”

“How old was she?”

“I’m not sure. At least fourteen or fifteen. Maybe sixteen?”

“What’d she look like?”

“She had dark curly hair and dark eyes. She was really nice, but I think she worshipped Naj. It seemed like she looked up to him.”

Amanda shot out of her bed and began to pace. “Damn!”

Ellie sat up. “What’s wrong? Do you know Deb?”

Amanda sighed. “I don’t know, maybe. Look, I’ve got to go talk to Father. I’ll be back, okay?”

Amanda stormed off to the library.

***

Father looked up in surprise to see Amanda standing there. He motioned for her to come in.

Vincent turned and watched as she entered the room and sat down. Noticing she only had on her pajamas, he got her a blanket and threw it around her shoulders.

Amanda offered Vincent a weak smile as Father looked at her quizzically. “What is it, Amanda?”

Amanda looked him in the eye. “I ... Ellie told me that a girl named Deb helped her when she first went to Naj’s.”

Vincent nodded. “Go, on.”

“I need to find that girl ... Deb.”

Father leaned forward curiously. “Why is this girl so important?”

Amanda stayed silent and Vincent leaned forward. “Amanda, Naj is in the hospital. He was trying to stop Catherine and Ellie from leaving when I hit him and knocked him out. He’s in policy custody. When he’s better, he’ll go to prison.”

Amanda looked up. “What happened to the kids that were living there?”

Vincent shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Amanda shot up from her seat. “Well, can you find out?”

Vincent was alarmed by her desperation. “I could ask, Catherine ...”



“Can you do it now?!”

Father interrupted. “Amanda, if you would like our help you must tell us why this Deb is so important to you.”

“Debbie was ... is my sister.”

Vincent sat back in shock. “Your sister!”

Amanda began to cry. “I had to leave her. I couldn’t take her with me! I needed to get out of there before Naj made me ... well, you know. I always wanted to go back, but I couldn’t. I thought if I got a little older ... Then when I came here I thought I would be able to find a way to get to Deb back, but I lost track of where Naj was staying.”

Father consoled her. “Vincent will try to get his friend Catherine to help, and we’ll put word out to the helpers in the world Above. Maybe we’ll be able to find her.”

***

Vincent showed up that night at Catherine’s balcony. Catherine excitedly came out to see him, certain that he was there to spend a quiet evening.

“Hi, Vincent.”

“Hello, Catherine. I’m sorry to bother you ...”

Catherine noticed his odd demeanor. “What is it?”

“Amanda, one of the girls Below, had a sister who was part of Naj’s group of children. Ellie has confirmed that the Deb she knew is Amanda’s sister. We’re trying to find out what happened to her.”

Catherine face fell in disappointment, but she tried to hide it from him. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

Vincent nodded his thanks, then cocked his head in a questioning manner. He had caught the look of disappointment in her eyes and wondered about its origin. “Catherine, is something wrong?”

Catherine shook her head with a false smile. She chuckled to cover up her nervousness. “No, I just thought you were coming to spend time with me.”

Vincent looked away shyly. “I would never presume to intrude on your time, Catherine. You have so little free time.”

She smiled and touched his arm. “That’s why it’s so nice to spend it with a friend, and we are friends, aren’t we, Vincent?”

Vincent nodded his head in awe. “To be a part of your life would be a dream come true for me, Catherine.”

Catherine smiled at his comment. “For me too. Are you in a hurry? Can you stay for a while? We could talk?”

Vincent nodded as Catherine began to ask questions about Eric and Ellie.

***

Two weeks later, Deb was sitting by herself on a park bench. She had run away from the abusive foster home she had been put in. It had been three days since she had a meal that didn’t come from a garbage can. She looked down as a rough group of kids walked past her. She tried to ignore them, but one girl stopped in front of her.

“Deb, is that you?”

Deb looked up into a familiar face. “Hey, you’re Ellie, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well nice going, ‘cause of you I’m living in the street and Naj is in jail!”

Just then an older girl came up. “Debbie?”

“It’s Deb!” Deb turned angrily at the voice the stopped and stared incredulously. “Amanda? Amanda is that you?”

Amanda started to cry. “Yeah, Debbie, it’s me!”

The girls hugged each other. Then Deb suddenly backed angrily away. “You dumped me! You said you would always be there for me, then you left! You dumped me! You never came back like you promised.”

“I tried, Debbie, I swear!”

The other kids from Below gathered around them. Zach started to turn them away to offer the sisters some privacy. “Hey, Amanda, we’re going home. You two talk. We’ll see you at dinner.”

Amanda smiled and sat down on a park bench. Deb warily sat down at the other end of the bench while Amanda told her story and Deb and she cried together.

Several hours later they headed Below. Deb was in for a huge surprise.

 

 

THE END