“Happy Birthday, Vincent”
By Judith Nolan
Catherine turned over in her warm, comfortable bed. She stretched lazily and burrowed deeper into the yielding softness. Just another two minutes or so more and then…
It was a crying shame she would soon have to get up and face another action-filled, exhausting day. Another day spent trying to avoid watching Joe consume chocolate-covered cheese nuggets as he feigned enjoyment and smirked at her disgusted expression. The joke was getting way too old and tired. Then there was the problem of trying to overcome the sporadic bouts of light-headedness due to the lack of decent food and from consuming cup after cup of the sludge that passed for coffee in the Justice Building, which were interspersed with hectic rounds of court dates, depositions and interviews with people who couldn’t talk, didn’t have time to talk, or who’d already lawyered-up and decided not to talk…
Releasing a long, reluctant sigh, she rolled back to grope blindly for her bedside alarm clock and frowned, finally half-opening one sleepily reluctant eye to stare at it in consternation. Had she heard it ring? She must have. She couldn’t afford to be late; it was such an unforgiveable sin in her boss’s eyes and… She peered closely at the illuminated numbers it displayed and gasped in horror. It had already gone well beyond nine o’clock, and she was seriously, seriously, late for work! Joe was going to flay her hide and nail it to his office wall as an example of what happened to those who came in late…again! And she couldn’t blame him — there was just so much to do and so little time and —
She shot upright into a sitting
position, tossing the covers aside before scrambling frantically,
feeling around the floor with her bare toes, hunting for her slippers,
trying to calculate how long it would take her to fit in a shower, wash
her hair, dry it, get dressed and manage her make-up one-handed while
consuming something that approached any kind of sustenance before
brushing her teeth and —
Slipper-less still, she stopped
abruptly in mid-flurry half-way across the bedroom, her arms flailing in
a dozen different directions at once. Her braced shoulders slumped with
relief. She shoved the tumbled hair out of her eyes before passing a
tired hand over her face. Her whole body trembled as her heart hammered
uncomfortably within the cage of her ribs, pumping with the sickening
surge of adrenalin.
All the saints be praised, it was
actually the weekend…
“Oh, I don’t believe it…” She
fell backwards onto the bed, spread-eagling her limbs and sighing with
heartfelt relief. After a few moments of calm breathing she got up to
scurry back under the covers, snuggling down and feeling like playing
truant for the whole weekend.
Maybe she wouldn’t even get out of her pyjamas. Suddenly she felt as
if she was floating. She stretched on a long, relaxing moan of
contentment and wriggled deliciously.
Two days…two whole days in which
she planned to thoroughly enjoy herself
She shot upright again.
Oh, help! She was supposed to be
seeing her father this morning! She’d promised to meet with him
before he went out of town for a much needed, long weekend break in the
Hamptons with Kay! He’d
telephoned her at work the day before, complaining he never saw her
anymore and how about they meet for a catch-up. He’d already booked an
eleven o’clock brunch for just the two of them at his favourite uptown
Italian restaurant, and his
loving daughter was going to be late if she didn’t move it!
Casting the covers aside again
with renewed haste, she gave up the hunt for her slippers, hurrying
barefoot into her bathroom to hustle through a shower, washing her hair
and drying it, dressing and completing her make-up in record time.
At least I don’t have to worry about the food, she thought wryly as
she checked the final result in the mirror and nodded with rueful
approval — not bad, Radcliffe
— before starting a frantic hunt for her purse and door keys. She knew
she’d tossed them on the couch last night after coming in, dog-tired,
from work. They have to be around
here somewhere… She finally closed her hand on them gratefully, down
the back of the cushions. “Things are looking up,” she reasoned as she
shrugged into her woollen coat and headed for the door.
That was when she saw the note,
taped to the inside of the front door. The note she’d written to herself
so she wouldn’t forget something very important in the hectic rush of
her life…taped where she knew Vincent wouldn’t see it. He still refused
to enter her apartment unless it was too cold or raining outside. Or she
specifically asked him to come inside.
And even then he would often reply with a request of his own —
that she meet him in the tunnel entrance below her apartment building
rather than step inside her personal space where he was not yet entirely
“Oh, Vincent…” She took down the
note and smiled. Suddenly all the rushing caused by her lateness, the
adrenalin and the frantic pace rampaging within her, stilled. She held
up the note, studied it for several heartbeats before closing her eyes
and sighing as she pressed it to her lips then folded it carefully. She
pushed it into the side pocket of her purse. Pressing one hand to the
slowing pace of her heart, she smiled a secret smile and shook her head
before wiping away the single tear that traced a path down her cheek.
But it was a tear of happiness and heart-warming memories.
It was going to be all right…
It was Saturday after all, and it was going to be a wonderful day. She would share and enjoy a long overdue meal with her beloved father, catch up on all the gossip and news. And then, after bidding him bon voyage, she would go shopping for something simply-gorgeous-must-have to wear. The note was a welcome reminder not to forget a very important date that was imminent. A very important date indeed…
Father held the slender volume of
poetry up to the burnished light of his kerosene lamp and blessed
Sebastien for being such an excellent treasure hunter and an even more
generous friend that he had not kept the gift for himself. Father
caressed the soft binding and admired the cover, so very old, but still
in such great condition. He had not hoped to ever find such a rare prize
or to secure it for the unbelievable price of a complete second set of
Shakespeare’s collected works which, thanks to Mouse’s excellent skills
in unearthing discarded treasures Above, he already possessed in their
“If I were an avaricious man…”
Father smiled, turning the book over. It naturally fell open at a very
familiar poem. He read it slowly once more, even though he already knew
it by heart…
No man is an island,
“John Donne certainly had the right of it…” Father shook his head. The world of the tunnels was all intertwined. Every person who dwelled there, every place they lived or worked, was inextricably linked. And the great lynch-pin holding it all together and ensuring it all worked was Vincent. They would truly be the less without him…
Father thought of the note he’d
first received from Catherine some months ago now. Geoffrey had hurried
it to him in his chamber, looking determinedly furtive, as if he were
about to explode with excitement at any moment. But then, at Catherine’s
request, he was on a very secret mission, and Vincent mustn’t know…
The note had been accompanied by
the reward money they’d received for returning Cleopatra’s
diamond-studded collar to its rightful owner. Catherine had generously
doubled the money with a contribution of her own, so Father had not felt
too guilty about diverting a portion to the birthday project she
proposed in her note. Those who needed hard-to-source items they
couldn’t acquire through gifting, bartering or exchange would be able to
apply to Father for the funds.
He sighed now, closing the book
and laying it down, running his gloved hand reverently over the cover.
The gift was perfect, exactly what he had searched a long time to
secure, and to have it fall into his lap through the kindness and grace
of an old friend…Father chuckled…he
might even let the old scoundrel beat him at chess for a change…
The gift was for a very important
person in Jacob’s life, and the date for giving was imminent. Very
“Last one…” Mouse held the
polished piece of granite up to the light. “What do you think?” He
looked at Jamie anxiously, holding the stone out for her to admire.
“I think they’re all very
beautiful…” His companion nodded, carefully adding the rock to the rest
of their collection. “You have done a wonderful thing here, Mouse.”
“Think so too.” Mouse sighed with
contentment, wriggling with delight like an overgrown puppy. “Gonna be
good, for everyone.”
He’d spent the best part of a
year burrowing and digging, searching through rock-falls, delving into
hidden caverns and tunnels. He had truly gone where no man — or woman —
had gone before, in search of just the right stone. Jamie had helped
where she could, but Mouse was a solitary creature, and he would often
disappear for days at a time, losing track of the passing hours,
sometimes even the need for food, in his quest for perfection.
“Okay good, okay fine…!” He
clapped his hands now, dancing from foot to foot with excitement. “All
Arranged on the table before them were two dozen fine examples of beautifully polished stones. There were quartz and xenotime crystals. Among the few Jamie could name was a magnificent specimen of artinite sitting beside a serpentine muscovite crystal, a find Mouse was especially proud of. Next to a rare trapezohedral almandine crystal, a beautifully carved example of Manhattan schist looked somewhat drab, but Mouse couldn’t bring himself to discard it. He wanted all the minerals he’d been able to uncover represented in the collection. There was even a small lump of alluvial gold gleaming like warm butter in the lamplight. Mouse had dug around for more, but found none. He decided it must have been dropped long ago by a previous, careless owner, and it had been covered over by the rising detritus of the growing city.
“Now all we need is the box…” He
rubbed his hands together anxiously. “Hope Cullen is doing it. Hope
Winslow can make the hinges in time. Need to have the best glass for the
top…” His anxious blue eyes flew to study Jamie’s sympathetic look.
“Need to see through it good.”
“It’ll be all right, Mouse.
You’ll see. It’ll be all right on the night.”
“Mouse hopes so…” The tinker’s
face settled into a morose pattern. “But maybe I should go and check one
“No, Mouse.” Jamie put a firm
hand on his arm, before he could dart away out of the Mousehole and go
in search of his friend. “You’ve already checked half a dozen times now.
Cullen told you the last time it would be done when it’s done and don’t
pester him again or else. Just trust for once. You can’t control
“Maybe not, maybe so…” Mouse ran
an agitated hand around the back of his neck. “Maybe check again
“All right…” Jamie laughed. “But
only if I can come with you. To stop you driving poor Cullen out of his
“Okay great! I like you a lot.
A lot!” Mouse seized her hand
and squeezed, pumping it up and down, causing an unaccustomed flush of
deep colour to flood the clear skin of his friend’s cheeks. “Thanks,
“You’re welcome…” Jamie managed
to mutter, frowning at him direfully to cover her confusion. “Just don’t
think you can go anywhere without me.”
She glanced back at the table
with its collection of polished stones. They were for a very important
person in both their lives, and the date for giving them was drawing
ever nearer. Very near indeed…
“We gonna get there soon, Dev?
Are we? Not long now…”
“Yes, Charles, we’re going to be
getting there soon. It won’t be long now before we land at JFK.”
“Whhheeee, I like flying, Dev.
Big plane, flying over the sea. Lots and lots of sea. Now lots and lots
of land, mountains too. God bless America, right, Dev? Australia is long
way from New York, eh? We gonna land soon, Dev?”
“Yes, Australia is a very long
way from New York. But you enjoyed it all the way down there, didn’t
you? Everyone accepted you and wished you well when we left.”
“Loved it, Dev. But you must’ve
dug halfway to China in that mine. It was the best of times. And we made
lots of money. We rich now, Dev, eh? Can’t wait to tell my friend
Vincent all about it. Lots of sunshine, Dev. Gonna be cold in New York,
maybe snow too.”
“Oh, I’m sure Vincent will be
pleased to see you. But don’t go telling everyone we’re rich. We’re not
that rich, just comfortable. But where we’re going there won’t be a lot
of snow. It will be good to be home again. And maybe after this visit
we’ll try our luck down in New Zealand. I hear it’s a great place for
“Okay, Dev, whatever you want.
And everyone’s gonna be happy to see you too. You’re Vincent’s big
brother. Gotta get a visit from your big brother on that special day.
He’ll like that.”
“Yes, I think he will. And the
old man… It’s been too long since l last saw him. I haven’t been to
Vincent’s birthday for years. I was always off somewhere else. I have a
lot of ground to make up. But back then when we were kids, we used to go
a bit mad, created a lot of havoc. Father used to give us hell
afterwards, but Vincent always enjoyed it, and that’s what mattered.”
“Ha ha! We should put big red bow
around your neck, eh, Dev? Good present you be. Make Vincent laugh.
Father, too. Maybe shove you in the box with all the rest of the stuff
we bought! Make you jump out and go boo!”
“Geeze, no thanks. I’ll keep it simple, if it’s all the same to you. But I guess my coming home is the perfect gift for the most important person in my life, next to you, Charles. But a few gifts won’t hurt, either. And this time we’re going to be there on the day and in time. And I’m going back as Devin Wells again. It feels real good. That’s the most important thing…”
Winslow and Cullen…
“I think that about does it…”
Cullen carefully placed the box he’d created from the heart of an
ancient piece of buried oak on Winslow’s work bench. “Mind you, I almost
ran into Vincent getting it here. I had to duck down a side tunnel, and
I know he nearly caught me. He called after me, but I didn’t dare stop.
A moment later and he would’ve seen what I was carrying. I prayed I
wouldn’t break the glass from holding it so tight. We gotta be more
careful. He’s not stupid, ya know.”
“As long as you got it here,
that’s the important thing.” Winslow left tending his fire to admire the
piece of woodwork with its framed glass lid through which he could see
into every neatly-squared inner compartment lined with black velvet.
“Say, this is just beautiful. You’ve excelled yourself, old man.”
“Who you calling old,
Old Man?” Cullen grinned his
appreciation. “It is some of my best work, I’ll admit. I think he’ll
like it. Mouse says he’s finished with the stones. He’s been at me day
and night to see the box. I think he’d sleep in my chamber if he could.
I had to shush him up at dinner a couple of nights ago when he nearly
spoiled the surprise. He was bouncing all around like some crazy-mad
Mexican jumping bean. Like his pants were on fire. That boy just cannot
keep a secret.”
“Well, I’ve had him in and out of
here like some damn revolving door. I think he’s even been in here,
poking around, while I’ve been asleep. You’d think the boy was giving
birth or something.” Winslow chuckled. “I threatened to lose that stupid
raccoon of his if he didn’t leave me alone. Haven’t seen him since. I’ve
had five days of peace and quiet.”
“Great idea. Maybe I’ll try it.”
Cullen nodded. “Okay, so what do you have for me?”
“I think these will do the trick
nicely…” Winslow held up a pair of delicate wrought iron hinges he’d
spent weeks crafting, each shaped as two stylised dragons, their wings
spread flat on either side of their bodies to create the flanges. At the
front their claws came together, interlocking neatly to take the hinge
pins. He put them down on the bench beside a lock that was shaped as a
dragon’s head with its fanged mouth wide open to take the old fashioned,
long-shanked key hung with a black silk tassel.
“Oh, man…” Cullen stared in
open-mouthed wonder. “Geeze, this is beyond your best work. These are
just something special. He’s gonna love them. And Mouse is gonna go into
“Yeah, well, I always said that
boy was a space cadet anyway.” Winslow laughed, clapping his friend on
the shoulder, his face flushed with more than the heat of his fire. “I
think we’ve done good work here. Real good. I’m so proud of the both of
“Good…?” Cullen shook his head.
“Better than good, better than anything. In Mouse’s oddball words, we
done real okay fine.”
He shook hands with his good
friend before pulling him close to hug him fiercely, slapping him on the
back. Each thought about his own part in the gift that was his special
way of saying thank you to a very important person in both their lives.
Cullen thanked the gods of woodworking he could get it done in time and
that the antique glass lid he’d manufactured from an old subway car
window had survived intact. Winslow turned away to stoke his
blacksmith’s fire, nodding his appreciation that the flames allowed his
large hands to craft such delicate pieces.
And the date for giving was
drawing closer all the time. They both prayed and hoped that Mouse
wouldn’t blow it for everyone in his breathless excitement. Maybe they
should just kidnap the damn raccoon anyway —
that would slow him down…
William had gone through all his
recipes, pulling in a lot of favours and plainly begging for some of the
items he needed. But it was all slowly coming together. He’d used as
little of the reward money as humanly possible, but he’d made sure this
would be a feast to end all feasts. He’d recycled a lot of stuff from
Winterfest and Christmas, so he was well ahead of the game on the
decorations front. He was going to ensure the tables groaned with
delights and specialities he’d pulled from every corner of the Tunnels
and Above. But the most wonderful help and supplies had come from the
inimitable Lady May. She had come to his rescue with the most
hard-to-source items. He owed the old lady big time, and no doubt she
would be along someday soon to collect. Lady May never forgot a debt or
But William was fine with that.
It was all in the most excellent of causes, and he was going to make
sure everything came off perfectly.
Or die in the attempt.
“It might yet come to that…” He
grimaced, wiping the sweat from his flushed brow as he turned to scowl
down at Cleopatra who sat at his feet with the look of a cat who was
about to expire from the advanced stages of hunger. “Aw, come on…” He
groaned in honest disgust. “I only fed you an hour ago. Go catch a mouse
Cleopatra yowled plaintively,
shuffling her furry body closer, reaching to place a pleading paw on
William’s boot. Her penitent look would have done justice to the
greatest martyr who ever lived.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. All right,
all right. You won’t let me rest until, right?” William threw up his
hands in disgust. “Women!”
The planning for the feast could
wait a minute or two. But the event was imminent. Very imminent. And he
needed to get on with the extensive preparations…
and the Children…
Mary looked around her crowded
chamber and smiled happily. Nearly every child of the tunnels had been
gathered in here, all coming and going about their appointed tasks. It
had been hard sneaking them away from Vincent’s all-seeing overview, but
she’d managed it so far. The set of clothes was almost finished. Each
child had brought, in their turn, something special to their memories of
their dealings with Vincent, their good friend and mentor. They were
being crafted by Mary and her gathering of women into a vest and a new
cloak for Vincent. Clutching some of the reward money, Olivia had
volunteered to go Above to buy a whole roll of the best black woollen
cloth. On her return Mary and she had unrolled it and stroked the fabric
with loving hands, marvelling at its quality. Samantha had been trusted
with the important task of cutting the cloth to shape under Olivia’s
supervision. Eric and Ellie had been especially eager to contribute to
Unclamping her tongue from the
concentrated grip of her teeth, Ellie had looked up from her
stitching-work. “Vincent and Catherine saved us, you know. It was a
miracle. He was just like an angel, coming down from heaven. I’ll never
forget it. Not as long as I live.”
“I think Vincent would like that,
being called an angel.” Mary smiled. “He is a very special person, and
we’re very lucky to have him. He looks after us all. And we look after
Ellie nodded vigorously. “I hope
he and Catherine will get married one day. I’m gonna be a bridesmaid.
She said I could be.”
“Well, I think we should leave
that to the future and to them,” Mary said, in her soft voice. “For now,
let’s concentrate on the work in hand. You are sewing that new piece
very nicely, dear.”
Eric looked up from his task of
cutting narrow strips for laces from a piece of buckskin. “I’m gonna be
just like Vincent when I grow up. I’m gonna be a guard, a sentry. I’m
gonna look out for people, and I get a staff and everything. He said
so.” He pushed his over-large glasses back up over the bridge of his
nose and grinned.
“I’m sure you will be.” Mary
nodded. “But right now we need to get this finished. Time is running
out, and we don’t want Vincent to catch us in the act now, do we? We
have to make sure he sees us around and doing things he expects. So,
Eric, when you’ve finished that I think you need to go out and walk
around, like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing. Make
sure Vincent sees you. If he asks, you’re on a mission for Father.
“Okay.” The boy nodded
importantly. “I know what to do. Then it’ll be Ellie’s turn next. Then
Mary smiled at them all. They
were such sweet children, and her ladies were giving every bit of spare
time they had. The clothes were for a very important person in all their
lives, and the date for giving was drawing ever nearer. Very near
Pascal frowned over the notations
he’d made. Every code he could think of was written down in the code
book he was creating. He hoped Vincent would like it. He knew Vincent
would already be aware of most of them, but he thought he would add some
more complicated ones, and he’d even managed to get in some of Vincent’s
favourite poetry. When the idea arose of everyone thinking up some
special gift to give Vincent for his upcoming birthday, Pascal had
scratched his balding head and kept silent within the secret gathering
in Father’s chamber. He felt he had nothing to contribute right then.
Catherine had proposed the whole
idea in a secret message to Father. She’d suggested the affair could be
a big surprise. Father had delighted in the idea and had done his best
to organise everything he could behind his son’s broad and, hopefully,
still unsuspecting back. The reward money from the cat’s diamond collar
had helped a lot. But Pascal didn’t need any of the precious money…
He shook his head now. How could
anyone surprise a man who saw everything and knew everything, often
before anyone else was aware or even thought of it? Only Mouse came
close to being as knowledgeable as Vincent. That was when he’d hit on
the idea of the code book. It was a world he knew and a world he knew
Vincent loved being a large part of.
He bent over his notebook by the
light of a pair of guttering candles. Around him the Pipe Room clattered
and muttered with the messages being asked and answered for the moment
by Zach. Pascal felt happy with the gift he was crafting – a gift for a
very important person in his life – and he was excited to a small part
of the greater whole, making his contribution to a wonderful event that
would soon unfold…
“And there you are! It was behind
your ear all the time!” Sebastien produced the dollar coin from the back
of the child’s ear with a flourish.
“How’d that get there?” The boy’s
eyes grew wide with disbelief. He felt his ear.
“Ah, a good magician never tells
his secrets. They wouldn’t be secrets then, now would they?”
“Is the coin magic? Can I keep
“Well, I guess so, since you
asked so nicely.” The magician dropped the coin into the boy’s open palm
and stood, stretching out the cramp in his limbs.
I must be getting old…
“Thanks, Mister…” The boy closed
his hand with a wide, gap-toothed grin. But when he opened it to peek at
his prize, the coin had disappeared. He stood in stunned silence,
staring at his empty palm.
“Behind your ear…remember…?”
Sebastien took pity on the boy, whose wide eyes began filling with
Hesitantly the child put his hand
to his ear and then a smile split his face. “How’d it get back there
“I told you, a good magician never tells you his secrets.” Sebastien shook his head. “Now this time make sure you keep a good, tight hold on it.”
“I’m gonna be just like you when
I get big,” the boy avowed breathlessly, before he darted away across
the crowded subway platform, running to his mother’s side, clutching his
coin as if he dared never let it go again.
Sebastien smiled, thinking of
another young boy who had vowed the same oath some years before. A child
with a unique face and such a loving, giving nature, despite the cruel
hand nature had dealt him.
The gift Sebastien would bring to
the gathering was his talents and the very best of his skills. He would
dazzle and entertain and make it a night to remember. For that young boy
with the unusual face he could not show to the outside world, for the
man he had become. A wonderful man whom the magician had loved like his
own flesh and blood from the very first time he’d seen him, a tiny
babe-in-arms who someone had not cared enough about to keep. Now that
baby was a very important person in his life, and the date for giving
the greatest performance of his life was imminent. Very imminent indeed.
He couldn’t wait to begin…
“But I don’t have any idea what to give.” Lou had spread his hands wide when Catherine first approached him. “As you can see the only thing I truly love is food.” He patted his ample girth. “I’m an old fashioned barber, pure and simple. But I doubt you’d want me to give Vincent a birthday present of a short back and sides.”
“Oh, no, please don’t…”
Catherine’s green eyes had flared wide with shock at the unwanted image
his words invoked. “Don’t ever suggest it. That would be…that would be…
Oh, Lord, no.”
“Exactly.” Lou chuckled. “See my
problem? I’m good at what I do, but that’s all I do.”
“Chocolates…” Catherine breathed
hopefully. She indicated the massive box of expensive imported Swiss
confections tucked almost out of sight behind a neatly folded stack of
white towels at Lou’s back. “You can bring everyone chocolates. I know
Vincent has a sweet tooth.”
“Great!” Lou’s face took on a
look of immeasurable relief. “That I can do. I’ll bring six big boxes of
the best Swiss money can buy.”
“Thank you.” Catherine put an
unsteady hand to her forehead. “Short back and sides…” She groaned,
shaking her head in disbelief. “It doesn’t bear thinking about.” She sat
down hard in a convenient chair.
“Hey, this week I can give you a
great deal.” He looked her over, assessing her hairstyle. “You get the
second cut for half price…”
“Just the chocolates will be
fine.” Catherine sighed. The gift would be appreciated, she knew that.
And the date for giving was almost at hand…
Rebecca slipped around the
curtain closing off a back portion of her candle-making chamber. Hanging
neatly in row upon row and well out of sight of any casual glance cast
over the rows of every day Tunnel candles hanging in front, were the
ones for Vincent’s upcoming birthday party. She had laboured long and
hard to achieve the exact colour of Vincent’s blue eyes. Now she took
the time to admire her work, feeling pleased with the final result. And
also very pleased that she hadn’t yet been detected in her work. Now all
that remained was to shepherd the tunnel children through the delivery
process for those attending the party. If only they could manage to slip
in and out of the tunnels without being seen. She caught her bottom lip
between her teeth and smiled. “I’m sure we can do it…”
The party was for a very important person in all their lives, and the date for delivering the candles was drawing ever nearer. “This is going to be so much fun…” She rubbed her hands together before she turned to pick up the list of children’s names…
The moment Peter saw the antique
silver and ivory chess set he knew he would buy it. The board was made
up with thinly sliced squares of black ebony and white marble on a
wooden base bound in a silver frame. It was as if he were meant to find
exactly the right gift for Vincent. If he hadn’t been held up at the
Justice Building and then missed the taxi he’d tried to hail, if he
hadn’t decided to walk the five blocks back to his office instead of
taking the next cab, he wouldn’t have stumbled across the tiny antique
store tucked away in a side street that was sadly going out of business
due to the elderly owner being recently deceased.
But he wouldn’t have been looking
at all if Catherine hadn’t met him quite by chance outside the Justice
Building as she’d been rushing off in the other direction while Peter
was arriving, having been asked to attend an important patient who had
become unwell after being arrested for solicitation.
All a huge mistake, of course…
A hurried conversation had ensued
before a request was made and a crumpled note shoved into Peter’s hand
as Catherine managed to juggle court papers, her handbag, and a
precariously balanced cup of cold coffee. And then she was gone in a
swirl of perfume and a breathless smile, waving her thanks with the only
two fingers she had free. Peter had stood looking after her, shaking his
head in bemusement. He was so proud of her.
If only her mother could see her
He knew Charles had a sneaking
admiration he tried not to show. She was his beloved daughter after all,
and he didn’t like to see her so stressed and overworked. But she was
making her own way in the world and that was what mattered.
Peter had unfolded the note and
read it slowly. It was a request for a gift for a very important person
in Catherine’s life, and the date for giving was imminent. Very imminent
Peter looked up, staring into the
middle distance. He would enjoy going Below again so soon. At the recent
Winterfest celebrations, he and Jacob had raised a glass of William’s
excellent beverage to absent friends and great times. Christmas had come
and gone in a flurry of patients and their illnesses. But now they were
going to have an extra special celebration, thanks to Catherine’s superb
party planning skills, well honed in the service of her father after
Cathleen had died.
But a gift…?
What could he possibly get…?
Elliot sat down to study the last
of the maps. They were spread all around him on the huge mahogany desk
in his office, spilling over the edge in a tumbled flood onto the
carpet. He had spent months collecting or copying every map of Manhattan
and its subterranean heart he could get his hands on. The collection now
stretched to nearly two hundred, large and small. He’d taken great pains
to verify their accuracy. People had accused him of planning to rebuild
the entire city, so intense was his interest in the underpinnings of the
island. The city’s geologists now gave him a wide berth, and the library
workers groaned every time he set foot inside the building.
What he couldn’t get done
himself, he set Manning’s people to work on. Cleon had stared at him as
if he’d finally lost it, but he didn’t question his boss’s latest
tangent. He knew when to keep his mouth shut, but his curiosity burned
brightly. This had to be one hell of a project, maybe even bigger than
the aborted tower Elliot had planned all those long months ago —
years maybe — Cleon wanted to
know why that had been stopped, too.
There was so much he wanted to
But the media was having a field
day with all of it — dubbing Elliot’s map search as The Great Burch
Manhattan Project. They were all waiting impatiently outside on the
pavement to see what he would do next. Of course, Cleon wasn’t going to
tell them anything. Vultures,
Elliot thought now about the
reporters still camped outside his office building. “If only they knew…”
He shook his head. “Now that would be a headline.”
Sometimes all he wanted to do was submerge himself in Vincent’s secret world and forget his own. He vividly remembered the first night they had met. He’d been trailing Cathy for weeks, watching her every move, and she often went to the drainage tunnel in Central Park, sometimes re-emerging after a short time, sometimes not again until early the next morning. Those nights had been the longest to endure, wasting precious time huddled against the cold in the shelter of some waving trees. Finally Elliot had taken his courage in his hands and followed her all the way in.
It was Catherine who had flown at
him, seemingly wanting to do him actual bodily harm. It was Vincent
who’d intervened, saying it was already too late and they could only
make the best of the situation. Elliot had stood there with his mouth
wide open for several seconds. He had not known what he would find down
the tunnel…but a man with the
face of a lion and an unforgettable voice he had not expected. Had he
somehow strayed into Alice’s Wonderland?
could you…?” Catherine had
accused with a stabbing finger. “I trusted you. You have no business
being here. There’s nothing here for you.”
“I needed to know…” Elliot had
shrugged. “You wouldn’t talk to me, return my calls. And then after that
crazy request of yours for plastic explosives and drill bits, I thought
we had an understanding…”
He did have the good sense to
feel and look somewhat ashamed, but he hadn’t been able to stand the not
knowing what she was doing — or
who she was meeting — any longer. He couldn’t sleep, eat, or even
think, and it was affecting his ability to function.
His work was suffering, and that
he couldn’t allow any longer…
“Well, now you know…” Catherine
had snapped at him. “So, what do you intend to do with the knowledge? I
will not allow you to hurt Vincent or those he cares for and protects.
Be very sure of that.”
“Vincent…so that’s your name.”
Elliot traded acknowledging stares with him. “Okay, so now I know. Now I
will keep your secrets. All of them…” He waved a hand at Vincent. “Just
don’t try and shut me out — of any of this. I care for you, Cathy…I
always have. I would never hurt you. You know that.”
“I know that.” Catherine nodded
slowly. “Very well, if Vincent is prepared to trust you, then I will
trust you. But I still don’t like it.”
“I think that choice has already
been made for us.” Vincent folded his arms beneath his mantle and leaned
back against the side of the tunnel. “But we still have a lot to be
thankful for. Without Elliot’s generous help that day…I would not be
here now.” He shook his head. “The proof of his words will be in what
Elliot chooses to do next. With the new information he now possesses.”
“All I want now is to go home and
get a good night’s sleep…” Elliot huffed a laugh as he ran a tired hand
up around the back of his neck. “Keeping track of you two is wearing me
out…” He approached Vincent, holding out his hand. “I will keep your
secrets.” He frowned critically at Vincent’s face. “Thought I’m not sure
anyone would believe me anyway. You are truly amazing…”
Elliot smiled now. The two men had shaken hands, curiously falling into a conversation neither had expected to conduct. About the city they both loved. Like they were old friends meeting by chance in the park. It had been … an interesting evening. Catherine had looked on in bemusement, appearing none too pleased but powerless to act.
Elliot shook his head now. He’d
finally gotten the answers he wanted and some semblance of peace. Of
course Catherine still denied his phone calls. She’d refused to speak to
him at all for nearly a month afterwards.
Elliot shrugged. “So be it. I can
But he thought about Vincent
often…and Catherine. Of how they trusted him. Of how little they asked
in return. Of how much he could have loved Catherine, if only she’d
allowed him to show her. But her choice had been made, even before
they’d first met on the night he’d gifted the art collection to the Met.
And he found he couldn’t begrudge her the love she’d found with Vincent.
He was an unusual man and someone Elliot was proud to call his friend.
“God help me, I don’t have too
many of those. Not genuine ones, anyway.” He shook his head on a grim
laugh. “Am I getting old and maudlin, or is it just the whiskey
talking?” He lifted the cut crystal tumbler at his elbow and drained it
of the rich amber liquid in one long swallow.
The slowly spreading warmth drove
the chill from around his heart. It had been a while since he’d ventured
Below. The first time he’d tried it on his own, he’d gotten totally
lost. He’d banged on the pipes, and finally they’d sent that strange
Mouse character to find him, to help him stumble out again. Now he knew
to wait for instructions and a guide. And finally the invitation had
been issued. Catherine finally trusted him enough to ask him to attend
the party. It was well past time he ventured back and renewed some old
He began to gather the maps, rolling them carefully and returning each of them in turn to their stainless steel tubes bound in tooled navy leather. Each container had been marked with steel identity disks pressed into the leather and secured with tiny brass pins. The gift was for a very important person in his life and the woman the man loved beyond everything. Elliot longed to see Catherine again, if only to make sure she was well and happy…and the time was almost upon him. He could hardly wait…
Joe frowned at the
battery-powered tape deck. It was the best his money could buy. It had
been Catherine’s idea for his secret gift for Vincent. She’d organised
the whole shebang, and everyone knew their part. He had to admit, even
if she was a rich, up-town girl, she had considerable class and great
skills as a lawyer, an organiser, and a friend.
But there was still something
missing. His frowning
gaze skipped to the stack of tapes beside the machine. He leaned closer
to read the spines of each in turn.
Chopin, Mozart, Grieg and
Shubert. He grimaced, praying he hadn’t been seen by anyone he knew
when he was in the music store buying all these weird guys, half of whom
he’d never even heard of. So
what’s wrong with a little Billy Joel or Bruce, the Boss, Springsteen to
lighten the mood…?
“Okay, Radcliffe, I get it. I
don’t have a classical appreciation bone in my body and I’m proud of it.
But for Pete’s sake, there is life beyond the nineteenth century…” He
shrugged and mumbled on. “Yeah, but orders are orders. And she’ll kill
me if I change a single thing…” And Vincent had saved his life, after
all, that night in the park nearly two years ago now. Saved him from
being neatly skewered and gutted like some damned fish.
“So I owe him, right?”
Radcliffe had grilled him like
the great lawyer she was the moment she’d found out his secret. She’d
cornered him up in his office — that first Monday back after Christmas —
shut and locked the door before demanding he tell her everything...right
now! God, she’d made him
sweat! He thought he was going to have a heart attack when she said she
knew everything about what he’d been doing, and he couldn’t hide it from
her any longer.
He’d risen from behind his desk, mind working overtime, arms
flailing in an attempt to divert her from her purpose. He’d given her
his best disbelieving frown.
Deny, deny, deny. “What gives, Radcliffe…?”
“I’ll tell you what gives, Joe…”
Chandler had walked right up to his face then, staring deep into his
eyes. That’s when he thought his heart would give out on him for a
second time. But right then — right when she had him squirming and
hunting for the way out — she’d smiled wickedly, like a kid who’d just
gotten the keys to the candy store and everything was for free. That’s
when she told him it was her secret too. Joe had dropped back into his
chair again with a heavy thump, stunned beyond words, his mouth hanging
open like a fly trap. Finally he gasped, “Where did you….how did you…?”
And so she told him…everything…
“That Van Gogh painting of the
sunflowers signed Vincent 87
has a lot to answer for…” Joe grinned now. Vincent had liked that; he’d
loved the colours, just as Joe knew he would.
So Joe Maxwell does have some
taste, after all…see,
Radcliffe…I’m not the total plebeian you thought I was. And yes, I
actually do know which knife and fork to use in polite company, thank
you, very much…
Now he planned to enjoy himself
hugely. He’d never been into the subterranean world beneath the streets
of Manhattan before. He’d met Vincent a couple of times in the tunnel
entrance in Central Park, but mainly they arranged meetings for the
basement of his apartment building if Joe needed his help with something
or Vincent needed information. He felt a rush of excitement that he
finally got to go there, to see everything.
He reached to tap a forefinger on
the tape deck. Without Vincent he wouldn’t be here at all. It was well
past time to pay it forward…and the gift was a fair trade for his life
and the date for giving was imminent… But maybe he’d still slip in a
little of his favourite Billy Joel and maybe even some Elvis…liven
things up a bit. What could it
Lady May turned the piece of
Greek statuary over in her thin hands. She was old enough, but this
piece of artwork could give her a good couple of thousand years and then
some. It had been an acquisition of her late husband, one of many he’d
bought to show off his buying power. Of course he’d bought it only for
its monetary value and guaranteed appreciation in worth. He didn’t care
if it was as ugly as sin, or a thing of exquisite, breath-taking beauty.
He never did have an eye for the item’s true quality, for its clean
lines and pure symmetry of simplicity.
It was a small marble statuette
of a young javelin thrower eternally balanced on the point of releasing
his missile towards some long-vanished target. The boy’s free arm was
stretched toward the heavens, forefinger pointing the way, the javelin
hand clenched and firm, knuckles stark with tension around the shaft.
The workmanship was so good even the thin leather strap could be seen
looped across the child’s fingers to balance the weapon for accurate
flight. Every muscle, every straining line had been lovingly carved, and
the patina of age had imbued the statuette with a sense of life and
The piece had been found,
carefully wrapped in the crumbled remains of a linen shawl covered with
a piece of disintegrated goat skin, buried in the rubble of a house on
the outskirts of ruined Pompeii. Her husband had rushed to buy it the
moment it had been unearthed. It was exquisite and unbelievably intact,
cocooned as it was in a special cavity that had been carved for it
within the bedroom wall of the ruined Roman villa. Presumably the
previous owner had looted the piece in the first place from some ancient
Greek city or maybe even Olympus itself.
Every time Lady May looked at it
or thought about it she could almost see and hear the crowds at the
ancient site of the Olympic Games, willing the young boy to succeed, to
bring honour and wealth to his city state and allow him to stand proudly
in the great temple before the towering statue of the god, Zeus, and be
showered with praise. To succeed
against all the odds…
A shiver passed through her at
the thought of the long line of unknown hands that had guarded the
statuette and miraculously ensured its survival. She brought her
thoughts back to Vincent, a man who had succeeded against all the odds.
She didn’t care for the monetary value of the piece, and she was well
aware he would not either. But the joy and pleasure it would give would
be beyond price. She smiled as she reached for the box she intended to
wrap the statuette in.
The gift was for a very important
person in her life, someone she had known from almost the very point of
his birth and whom she loved dearly, like the son she was destined never
to have. And the date for giving was drawing near indeed…
Vincent had the deep suspicion
that everyone in the tunnels was avoiding him for some unknown and
puzzling reason. There had been unexplained desertions from projects
half completed, and whenever he saw someone in the distance, they were
usually moving away from him, not lingering to talk or exchange more
than a hurried greeting and farewell almost in the same breath. Only
yesterday Cullen had fled his presence muttering fiercely and hadn’t
stopped, even when Vincent had called his name.
And the children kept appearing
and disappearing like revolving ducks in a sideshow shooting gallery.
Now you see them, now you don’t.
They came for their lessons, did their chores, did everything that was
required of them, but there was also unexplained absences when the usual
childish chatter and bustle of the tunnels was unaccountably stilled.
The silence was becoming unnerving. He’d asked Eric where he was
hurrying off to just yesterday…
“Father needs me.” The boy had nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of his good friend, his eyes big and wide behind his glasses. “Got to take a message...to Richard on the…on the 59th Street gate. That’s what Father said. It’s very important. Can’t stop. Gotta go, Vincent. Sorry.”
If he was a naturally suspicious man, he would say something very mysterious was going on. Was there some new project he was not yet aware of? Vincent sat back in the chair before his writing desk, frowning. Cleopatra was curled up into a contented ball on the Persian rug beside him, one green eye lazily tracking his movements.
Vincent had intended to make a
diary entry before retiring for the night, but the pen rested —
forgotten — clasped in his left hand. He stared at the date at the top
of the diary page. He discovered he’d forgotten tomorrow was his
“January 12th…” He
turned the page to stare at the blank space it offered.
What would he write in it this
After the excitement of
Winterfest and then the Christmas celebrations, his birthday usually
passed in quiet contemplation with little fuss. He couldn’t say he
preferred in that way, but he’d become content with spending a peaceful
evening playing chess with Father and sharing time with some good
friends. There were always small gifts and warm words of appreciation
that he valued highly. It was enough. Then a few months ago, Catherine
had questioned him about his birthday celebrations and what gifts he was
looking forward to receiving. He’d frowned — listening to his own quick
reply that he preferred to keep it simple and mentally shrugging against
a vague sense of discontent.
But he had gone on to say that
when Devin had lived among them he’d made sure his little brother
Vincent’s special day wasn’t forgotten in the rush of the other two
larger celebrations. Back then, amid the party chaos and over-excited
children who often ate too much — and were therefore violently sick
afterwards — Father had expressed a fervent wish for some measure of
blessed peace and quiet to reign…
Vincent smiled at the memories.
It had been several years before Father had his wish granted, after
Devin had left the tunnels. Two nights ago at the evening meal table
Vincent had tried to ask Mouse about the work in progress on a
particular project, but before the tinker could answer, Cullen had
swooped in and pulled the boy away, saying they had an urgent
consultation that just couldn’t wait.
“Sorry, Vincent…” Cullen had shrugged, dragging a protesting Mouse behind him.
Vincent had stared after them in
consternation. There had been a strange nimbus of barely suppressed
excitement glowing in Mouse’s guileless blue eyes, as if he were sitting
on some enormous secret and he would explode in the very near future if
he didn’t share it with someone. Vincent could only pray the boy was not
bent on one of his solo efforts seeking to improve the lives of the
tunnel folk, which could erupt into chaos and mayhem at any moment…
Vincent shook his head. Even
Catherine seemed to be avoiding him, citing the pressure of work when
they had last spoken on her balcony nearly a week ago. Something was
going on. Ever since Winterfest there had been all that furtive
scurrying and a decided lack of progress in any direction. Vincent
determined to approach Father and talk the issue out first thing in the
Birthday or no birthday, he
wanted to get to the bottom of it all.
Find out exactly what was going
“Happy birthday, Vincent…”
Catherine stood in the middle of Vincent’s chamber. She held out her
hands towards him as he entered the room.
“I have no words to thank you…”
Vincent whispered, as he came near to close his fingers around hers.
“But I think I love you more in this moment than any other.”
“That’s a good start…I can work
with that.” Catherine’s generous mouth curved with pleasure, as she
dipped her head to glance up at him through her lashes. “It was my
pleasure to arrange it all for you. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. But
I wanted to do something special for your birthday...for you.” She
carried one of his hands to her lips, kissing the back softly. “I
thought we could have our own, private celebration in here as my final
gift to you. I’m sure Devin and Charles are quite capable of controlling
the party down in the Great Hall. Lord knows when or how it will end.
The last thing I saw was Joe challenging Elliot to a bout of arm
wrestling. Lady May decided she should act as the referee to ensure fair
Vincent laughed. “Yes, I heard
them arguing about that. And Father has already commandeered my new
chess set and demanded a rematch from Sebastien. He hasn’t forgiven him
for the last drubbing he received, but I fear he will never learn. Peter
counselled him most strongly not to do it…”
“So, since all the children are
occupied, I thought we could make good our escape and have a quiet meal
together. Just the two of us.”
“Have I told you recently how
marvellous you are…?” Vincent spread their linked hands wide to admire
the picture she made. “And you look wonderful.”
“It’s just something I slipped
into at the last minute...” Catherine smiled as she glanced down at the
draped velvet beauty of her peacock-blue evening gown she’d bought after
her lovely Italian brunch with her father. “But thank you.” She brought
him close to her, reaching to press a soft kiss against his lips. “I owe
Behind them William cleared his
throat in apology as he slipped quietly into the chamber carrying a
covered tray. Behind him came Mouse and Jamie also carrying trays.
Vincent’s table had already been set with a linen tablecloth and
cutlery. William produced a lighter to ignite the tall, blue candles of
the candelabra in the middle of the table. He then moved to extinguish
all other illumination in the room, bringing the focus down to the table
in the centre of the room.
“Happy birthday, Vincent…” Jamie
came forward to quickly kiss his cheek before turning to her task of
setting out the food and hurrying out of the chamber again.
“Thanks, Vincent, for finding me.
For making me into Mouse. I’ll never forget…” The tinker ducked his head
shyly before scurrying back to his task.
“It’s all here, Catherine…”
William approached them. “Everything you asked for. The dessert’s on the
sideboard. Help yourselves when you’re ready.” He turned to Vincent.
“Happy birthday, and thanks for being my friend, Vincent. I owe you more
than I can ever say. And Cleo will be sleeping with me tonight…”
He sniffed sternly as he shook
Vincent’s outstretched hand before turning away to gruffly command Mouse
to move himself and stop standing
there gawping like a prize fool...
They both hurried out, William
turning to close the privacy curtain over the doorway behind him,
pausing to give Catherine a wink and a grin. She nodded her thanks,
returning his smile before the leather fell neatly into place and they
were alone once more.
“Milady…” Vincent drew out
Catherine’s chair with a small bow.
“Thank you, Vincent.” Catherine
seated herself, waiting for him to take his place.
The meal was simple yet
delicious, as Catherine had expected it to be. She had come to know
William’s skills as a chef very well. It was only later when she and
Vincent had finally finished their sweet that Catherine remembered
something Joe had told her earlier in the evening. She reached to take
Vincent’s hand to draw him back into the middle of the room.
Standing in front of him she
grasped the front of his shirt with both hands, bringing him closer
still. Vincent placed his own on her waist, sliding them around to link
his fingers in the small of her back bringing her against him from chest
to thigh. “What is it?” he questioned softly. “What do you have for me
“Just something a little extra…”
Catherine went up on tiptoe to run a questing kiss across his lips,
smiling against his mouth. She lifted her hands to the glorious length
of his mane — which Lou was never
going to touch — tangling her fingers there briefly before pulling
back fractionally to look up into his loving eyes. “Joe said he asked
Mouse to lead him to your chamber earlier in the evening. He said he
wanted to show me he wasn’t totally without class and he could
appreciate fine music as well as the next guy. Meaning you, I suppose…”
She shook her head. “He said he’s put something in the tape machine he
gave you. He thought we might enjoy it.”
She turned to depress the play
button and the cassette tape clicked, then engaged. There was a pause
before the chamber was suddenly filled with the voice of Billy Joel
singing Uptown Girl…
“Oh, no…” Catherine groaned,
dropping her head forward to rest against the broad strength of
Vincent’s shoulder and feeling the quiet laughter rippling through his
body in appreciation of a master-stroke of considerable genius. “I am
seriously going to kill that man in the morning…”
Vincent pulled back to look down
at her, tipping up her chin on the back of his fingers. “I could get
used to this…” He smiled. “In small doses...” He leaned down to brush
his lips softly across hers.
Catherine laughed against his teasing mouth. “Happy birthday, Vincent,” she whispered, moving deeper into his arms as she lengthened the kiss, and together they began to sway slowly to the music. And for a long time, there was no need for words…