“The Brightest Love”
A Story of “Beauty and the Beast”
By Judith Nolan
This story is the sequel to “A World To Believe In” which is the 7th instalment leading on from the series of six BATB fanzines I first wrote in the 1990s, telling the story of Vincent, Catherine and all the people of their Tunnel World and Above. This zine is the final instalment in this series. I feel I have finally told their story now. (Editor's note: Judith's first six zines in this series can be found in the 2014 WFOL library and the seventh story, A World to Believe In can be found here at Tunnel Tales.)
Therefore I offer enduring and heartfelt ‘Vincent’ hugs once again to everyone who has contributed so generously to this on-going journey of discovery. Always there are demands for “more.” I have been very happy and honoured to oblige. Thank you.
As before, this story is dedicated to all the incredible and talented actors, writers and directors who made the continuing dream of “Beauty and the Beast” possible. But especially to Ron Perlman for keeping their dream alive, and caring for Vincent all these years. Without you there would truly have been nothing indeed. You rock!
So we must make sure we keep the Tunnel World alive into the future…always…
(Please do not reproduce by any means, this story)
“The Brightest Love” is an amateur fiction fanzine and, as such, does not intend to infringe upon the copyrights of RON KOSLOW FILMS, REPUBLIC PICTURES, CBS TELEVISION, WITT THOMAS PRODUCTIONS or any other holders of “Beauty and the Beast” copyrights.
‘And I can't explain
With your smile
Catherine re-entered their retreat chamber on stealthy feet. She had been away attending to her children. Jacob was still asleep, worn out from his enjoyment of the previous night’s exciting game of hide and seek played with his Below grandfather, who possessed the rare talent of being able to give little boys the most delicious of frights. The child’s blond head was buried deep beneath the covers, his body curled into a ball. Catherine lifted back the covers and leaned down to kiss his forehead, smoothing back the tumble of curls, before leaving him to sleep under Samantha’s watchful eyes.
After the twins had both been fed and changed, Mary had smiled and said she remembered what it was to be young and in love. And to be a mother with children. Smiling mistily, she assured Catherine all would surely be well for a couple of hours more yet. She made shooing motions with her hands, warmly encouraging the young mother to return to her rest and her love.
Catherine had smiled her thanks as she took the broad hint and returned to reclaim her place beside her sleeping husband. The candles burning low around the walls would need attention soon, but not yet. She carefully placed her shuttered lantern on the table beside the bed and quickly removed her clothing. Laying her things across the end of the bed, she drew back the covers before sliding into the warm cocoon. She lay down with a sigh; facing Vincent, intending to simply lie next to him and watch him sleep in the soft light filling the chamber. It was a beguiling pastime she never tired of enjoying.
But she was too late. The moment her head came to rest on the pillow, two sapphire blue eyes opened to assess her through drowsily-meshed lashes. Catherine smiled into their clear depths, the many layers and colours of their mutual bond lifting and changing with the deliciously slow reawakening of sensual awareness, one for the other.
“Hi there, sleepy-head…” Catherine whispered. “Miss me?”
“Always…” Vincent closed his eyes as he stretched on a soft groan, his whole body arching in lazy satiation, before relaxing back into the mattress. He cracked open one eye again and frowned. “Good morning. At least I think it’s still morning.”
“Well advanced, but yes, it is still the morning. Just.” Catherine nodded. “How did you sleep?”
“If you can call what we did together last night, sleeping…” Vincent’s reminiscent smile was lethally slow and enticing. “Then very well, thank you,” he teased.
“So did I...” Catherine dipped her head, rich colour suffusing the clear skin over her cheekbones. Her body’s flush of heat was echoed in the even tightening, renewed spiral of need that flowed between them. She traced a caressing line from Vincent’s eyebrow, down the side of his face, to finally rest on the parted curve of his unique mouth, feathering over the cleft in his top lip. “Do we still have time?” she asked softly.
“We have an eternity,” Vincent answered softly, reaching for her. “Always…”
“Ah, Vincent, I do love you…” Catherine sighed, closing her eyes, enjoying the intoxicating sensation of her husband’s warm palm sliding beneath her body, drawing her to rest against him within the cradle of his hips.
Her body arched against the caressing movement of his free hand as it traced a path around her ribcage, just below the curve of her breasts, and then down her naked back to lift and cup the rounded warmth of her bottom. Pressing her in against him, Vincent bent his head to nuzzle her neck, making the breath catch in Catherine’s throat. That simple touch rocketed through her lower body, warming and entrancing her senses, causing everything within her to tighten, ready once more to love and be loved. She craved that sense of completion, where everything shimmered and floated. It would not be long now…
But after a few moments of mutually satisfying caresses she sensed that this time her husband was in no hurry to conclude their encounter too soon. The lazy trailing of his fingers — up and down her back — and the gentle nip of his canines against the soft skin of her throat seemed to encourage her to explore further.
Drawing back to watch his face, Catherine rose against him and, placing her hands on the broad width of his shoulders and parting her legs, she straddled him. Arching downwards, she captured his mouth, the taut, rose-coloured peaks of her breasts sweeping across the muscled expanse of his chest as she murmured, deep in her throat. Vincent responded in kind, his fingertips trailing down to dip in between her thighs from behind, to stroke a familiar path up along the very edge of her satin heat, and then back again, provoking an intensely shivered response that echoed through their sensual bond. Catherine’s breath hissed between her teeth as she barely managed to resist the distracting urge of his touch, though her body craved more. If she pushed down against his fingers right then, it would be so easy to finish this encounter now.
“Catherine…” Vincent’s softly lengthening growl of warning was filled with raw passion and desire, but he allowed her to play her game for now, as his wife twisted her body above his, laying a trail of soft nips and mutely caressing apologies across him as she worked her way downwards, over the contracting plane of his abdomen, seeking and finding the pleasure points on the golden warmth of his skin.
His knees flexed upwards as her hands followed the same trail, seeking and defining every one of the places on his body that she knew would swiftly arouse him to action and end their mutual torment. But despite his rapidly increasing breathing, his taut body remained semi-quiescent beneath her caress, only the rippling flex and release of his great muscles betraying his rising state of arousal. A slight frown creased Catherine’s brows as she repeated the gentle pressure of her thigh against the heated steel of his manhood, adding a subtle movement back and forth across his tight flesh, but still he didn’t move to counter her.
The taunting smile in his eyes, at odds with the tightly-drawn shape of his mouth and bared teeth, dared and defied her to push him beyond his limits for the first time. Catherine’s rapidly beating heart leapt and she smiled her gratitude. It was an unbelievable gift that he had finally come to trust her that much. For the first time, he was allowing her the space to see how far they could go before the frantic drive towards mutual satisfaction overcame them both and they succumbed to its irresistible power.
But he couldn’t prevent a groaning cry from stirring an echo within the chamber’s rocky ceiling as Catherine teased and tightened his straining flesh, knowing the soft brush of her hair across his thighs brought a new level of torment. She lifted her head to look up into the darkened blue of his eyes, his pupils dilating with barely suppressed need. But his strained smile was equally as goading as he stared back at her through lowered lashes, even though she sensed he might snap at any moment.
Catherine’s breath jammed in her throat as all her senses rose to fever pitch. She doubted she could stand much more of this delicious torment. But she tried to make it last as long as possible. The tour back up her husband’s body was equally as slow and torturous. Reaching his face once more, she rose above him before leaning down to kiss him deeply. There was no need for words, it was all there in her touch, asking — demanding — Vincent finish this slow torture now.
“I will love you to the end of time and beyond…” he growled.
Within a heartbeat Catherine was on her back, looking up into his eyes as Vincent pushed slowly into her, filling and expanding as he moved ever deeper, and Catherine’s body closed securely around his once more. Rising from the pillow, she placed her mouth over lips, their joined souls speaking a language older than time. Her tongue invaded his mouth, flicking over his canines as he began to move within her, slowly, with long even strokes, picking up the rhythm as Catherine wrapped her legs across his back, encouraging his movements within her as she defined the shape of his mouth with her tongue.
Her hands moved sensuously, caressing the shape of the straining muscles of his back and flanks as her whole body began to tighten and rocket towards mutual fulfilment. This is how it was always meant to be. And it would always be so. But another barrier had come down; another bridge had been crossed to a deeper and more compelling meshing of their twin souls than she had ever thought possible.
She hadn’t realized until this very moment of ultimate satiation how deep their bond went or how wide its compass and scope. There was still so much to explore and understand. And the outermost limits had not yet been uncovered. Perhaps there truly were no limits or boundaries. Then time fell away and once again there was only the two of them. Sapphire eyes entranced warm sea-green as the rising wave of intense completion engulfed them, and nothing else mattered but this moment and this place, as everything else spun away into oblivion once more…
“Okay good, okay fine…” Mouse nodded, as he held up the rattles he’d made for Vincent’s babies, Mary and Cathleen. He shook them, liking the sound they made. He’d made one for Jacob when he’d been a baby. Then Mouse’s mind wandered, thinking on his friends and all they meant to him.
Vincent and Catherine. Catherine and Vincent. However he thought of them, the names always matched. Like they were always meant to be. Like Mouse and electricity.
Mouse sobered, putting down the rattles. Arthur scurried up, turning them in his little black paws, hoping they were something he could eat. He looked up hopefully. Mouse patted his pet absently, his attention once more turning inwards to the tight pain in his chest. It was always there whenever he thought of her these days. And whenever he saw her…
Mouse and Jamie. Jamie and Mouse. However he thought about their names, they went together. Like when he pictured Jamie. His best friend. It wasn’t fair, he couldn’t even sleep some nights now. She caused that big pain in his chest. That always ache in his head. He sighed, toying with the rattles disconcertingly. Mouse needed to make something neat for Jamie…and he badly needed to see Vincent. Get his advice on what to do next. How to make that pain go away so he could sleep again…
“Okay…” Edie brooded thoughtfully, moving to peer through the door’s security grill. Maybe she should’ve phoned first as she always did before visiting these days. They’d arranged a get-together for the coming Sunday. But finding herself suddenly free, Edie had decided to visit on Friday afternoon instead.
She looked around, but no one seemed concerned the shop wasn’t open. So this wasn’t as unusual as she first feared. Her grandmother, Ella, was a well-known figure in the neighbourhood and everyone looked out for her. But it still wasn’t like her Gran, who’d worked every available hour all her life, just to make ends meet. Since when had she been closed in the middle of the day with potential customers walking by unattended?
“Now what…?” Edie pursed her lips, trying to decide what to do, before a fresh thought assailed her. What if her grandmother was lying on the floor in there, hurt and unable to call for help? The image galvanised her into action. “I know I still have my key in here somewhere…” she muttered, opening her carry-all, dredging around in the depths for a few precious moments before she tracked it down.
Inserting it into the lock, she opened the door and went inside, shutting the door behind her. The interior was darkened, but everything appeared ordered and neat, as if the old lady had just stepped out and would be back any time soon. A shiver of premonition ran through Edie then.
“I don’t like this…” She moved quickly towards the back of the shop and the narrow staircase that led up to the small apartment above the shop where she’d shared most of her young adult years with her grandmother. But again a rapid search showed her this was also empty, and as neat as a pin. It was as if her grandmother had just stepped out, intending to return soon.
Downstairs once more, Edie moved into the storeroom at the back of the shop. It was the only place left to search. She was surprised to find the old sink unit at the back of the storeroom had been pushed to one side, exposing a small opening that had been chipped out of the rough brickwork of the old wall behind.
“This just keeps getting stranger and stranger…” Edie breathed, stepping gingerly through the hole into another cluttered room behind. She’d lived above the shop for most of her teenage years, but she never knew this extra room existed or what it contained. It was all becoming very mysterious. She walked carefully down the short staircase into the lower room. It smelled strongly of dust, mould…and rats.
Edie scanned quickly left and right, but there was still no sign of her grandmother. Then she heard voices. They were coming from beyond another rough doorway that had been punched through the crumbling brickwork of the far wall where a large, old fashioned wooden dresser had been pushed aside. And the voices were coming steadily closer.
Edie frowned. She recognised her grandmother’s voice almost immediately. The others sounded like a bunch of children, all chattering gaily. Beyond that there was also a strange tapping noise, like someone banging a spanner on pipework, before the rushing pass of a nearby subway train swallowed the sound.
“There you are!” Driven by intense curiosity Edie crossed the cluttered room, confronting her startled grandmother just as the old lady ducked back through the hole. “What gives, Gran?”
“Edie! What are you doing here, child?” The old lady didn’t look at all pleased to see her. “I thought we said you’d visit on Sunday. Sunday is what we agreed. As you can see I’m real busy right now. You shouldn’t be here.”
“I had some time off,” Edie hurried into explanation. “I was looking for you. When I found the shop shut, I thought something must have happened to you down here. You shouldn’t be down here alone.”
Her puzzled gaze slid past her grandmother’s slight frame to assess the group of children clustered about the entrance behind her. They had ceased chattering the moment they saw her, and were now staring at her with varying degrees of distrust and wariness. They were all dressed in an odd assortment of ragged clothing and cast-offs. Then the collective moment of stunned silence was broken by the eldest child speaking rapidly to her companions, and they scattered immediately, snatching up some boxes of supplies and foodstuffs that had been set beside the entrance as they went, quickly disappearing into the dusty darkness accompanied by that strange tapping sound.
“Hey!” Stepping through the opening, Edie thrust out a hand to stop them leaving. “Come back here!” Not one of them replied, or turned to look back.
“You go on now, children,” Ella called after them, putting a detaining hand on Edie’s arm, when she would have run after the children. “Don’t worry, Samantha. Edie here won’t make any trouble, I’ll make sure of that. I’ll be here next week as usual. Take care and give everyone my best.”
“What’s going on, Gran?” Edie demanded to know, blinking at the sudden disappearance of the entire group, and her grandmother’s apparent ease with such strangely rude behaviour. She tolerated being drawn back through the entrance into the basement.
She snatched one last look back and saw nothing. It was almost as if she’d imagined the oddly assorted children, so swiftly did they disperse. All that was left was that strange tapping of metal against metal, and the swirl of a subterranean wind that came from heavens knew where, blowing up a fine dust into the humid air of the gloomily-lit tunnel beyond…
“Since you’re here then, you can give me a hand with this. And don’t go asking any fool questions,” the old lady replied with asperity, pointing to the heavy dresser. Together they pushed it back into place against the wall, concealing the hole once more from any casual glance.
“So, are you going to tell me what that was all about?” Edie followed her grandmother across the room and into the store’s stock-room. Once more they laboured to replace the concealment over the hole in the wall. “Who were those kids, and why were they dressed like that? Where were they going?”
“They’re my friends. I help take care of them.” Ella led the way back into the store. “I help them out whenever I can. Just like I once took care of you. So stop asking so many questions.”
“I see, and they’re homeless.” Edie frowned, as they ascended the narrow staircase to the tiny apartment above. “You shouldn’t encourage them, Gran. They need to be reported to Child Services so homes can be found for them. They can’t have much of a life in the subway tunnels. Besides the dangers of living down there.”
“They already have a home, and a good one, too. Somewhere they’re looked after and cared for by people who love them all.” Ella filled the kettle before setting it to boil. She laid out two coffee mugs on a tray. “You forget how I took you in when you were thirteen years old, after your parents were killed. The social workers were very happy to find you somewhere to live so easily. You should know how overworked they are. It was a struggle then, but we made the best of it, and you turned out fine. The government can’t solve all our issues.”
“I’ve heard of people living rough down in the subway tunnels.” Edie accepted her mug of coffee. “But surely you can’t think that’s a proper place for children to live. I wish you’d allow me to help. I know people. I even know the D.A. of Manhattan, for Pete’s sake, I can pull strings, get things done.”
“Leave it be, child. It’s none of your business.” Her grandmother grimaced as she sat down opposite her, reaching to take one of Edie’s hands between her own work-worn palms. “Now listen to me, girl. Please accept and understand this is to be a tight-close secret between you and me. You’ll tell no-one of what you’ve seen here today and all will be well. And I mean, no one. It’s too important. If I could tell you more, I would, but we need to know we can trust you to keep your word. Too many people depend on those of us who look after them. It’s certainly nothing to go annoying Mr. Maxwell with.”
“How do you know his name?” Edie frowned. “I didn’t think you even liked him.”
“You’ve talked a lot about him, and I know he’s been good to you. So that’s good enough for me.” The old lady shrugged. “Besides, I also know he’s an incredibly busy man. You won’t go bothering him with this trifle over a few children. Now drink your coffee before it gets cold, there’s a good girl. Least said, soonest mended.” She patted the hand she held warningly, before withdrawing her clasp and picking up her own coffee mug. But her dark eyes still surveyed Edie with wary concern and a troubling watchfulness.
“I’m not a child any more, Gran.” Chastened, Edie drank her coffee. But the questions continued to swirl in her mind. She tried again. “So, just where do they live? How do you know they are safe and cared for? Have you been there to see for yourself? I don’t like it, not one bit. And it’s so strange that people I care about seem to be going missing. Cathy Chandler is one. I wish I knew the answers.”
“Always with the questions. You never change. Be patient and you may discover more than you think you know now. But that’s a discussion for another time.” Ella sighed. “Just know that I know there’s nothing to worry about. There are things you need to know, and some things you don’t,” she continued cryptically. “Not yet, anyway. All in good time.”
“But I’m an investigator for the D.A.’s office, Gran,” Edie complained. “It’s part of my job description to worry. To look into things that concern me. And those kids should be in school.”
“Who says they don’t get a good schooling?” Ella stood, taking both mugs with her and washing them vigorously in the tiny kitchen sink. She set them aside to drain. “Trust me on this, and all will be well. Now I have a store to run and you’ve a job to do.” She hustled Edie towards the stairs. “So you come back on Sunday and we’ll visit right and proper, like we arranged. We’ll talk more then. And mind you don’t say anything to anybody. Do you understand? It’s important.”
“Yes, I understand, Gran. I won’t spill the beans.” Edie was quick to reassure her. Despite the warnings, she wouldn’t go against the old lady’s wishes. “But…” In the next moment, she found herself placed firmly outside the locked front door of her grandmother’s shop, before she could gather her scattered thoughts.
She sighed with deep frustration, staring at the closed sign once more. Whatever was going on here, she was determined to discover exactly what it was and soon...
“Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed
It's the heart, afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
“Oh, Vincent, it’s beautiful…” Catherine handled the chess set with reverent care, holding up each piece in turn to study their carved faces before setting them into their assigned places on Father’s old chessboard. “Thank you.” She went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
“Mouse will be pleased.” Vincent smiled, putting an arm around her waist. “He worked day and night to realise my ideas.”
“And the box, just like the one I asked Cullen and Winslow to make for you for your birthday.” Catherine ran light fingers over the delicate roses hinging the carved wooden box. “I’ll bet they enjoyed making this one.”
“Not bad…” Leaning forward in his chair, Father ran his forefinger lightly across the neat rows of carved figures. “I guess this means I’ll need to polish up my game.” He tapped his own image of the black bishop with a wry grin. “Especially if I’m going to have competition.”
“But the first game is ours…” Vincent teased lightly. “Catherine still has a few things to learn.”
“Is that a challenge, Mr. Wells?” Catherine raised her eyebrows. “How do you know I haven’t been taking lessons?”
“Then we will find out tonight, after supper,” Vincent challenged smugly.
“Very well.” Catherine turned within his embrace, her eyes full of determination and fire. “But I won’t let you beat me. I play for keeps.”
“I think you’ll need to look to your own game,” Father counselled his son gleefully, and they all laughed.
“I think that’ll about do it.” Winslow leaned on the shaft of his pick-axe, his naked torso gleaming with sweat. He peered through the large hole that had been hacked into the brick wall of the sub-cellar beneath Vincent and Catherine’s new home Above.
“Okay, good. Okay, fine.” Mouse went in low, pushing his way past Winslow and then tumbling over the heaps of rubble and broken bricks into the room beyond. He picked himself up, dusting off his clothing as he looked around. “This’ll do great.”
“If you don’t break your fool neck in the meantime,” Winslow complained, leaning in through the hole as he wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand, leaving a dusty smear. “Never knew anyone so accident prone. The only damn mouse down here I know who has nine lives, and that’s a fact. Besides, you’ve had all the easy work, boy. Blowing things up don’t take muscle. We still have to move all that broken rock by hand.”
“Made work go faster. And Elliot good teacher.” Mouse looked offended. “Mouse got his certificate now.” His chest swelled with pride. “Can use plastic on my own whenever I want. Elliot said so.”
“Yeah, well not while I’m anywhere around, you won’t.” Winslow shook his head as he clamoured over the scattered piles of bricks. “But, when there’s real work to be done, you go missing.”
“Been with Vincent last couple of days.” Mouse tried to look deeply offended, but it didn’t work with his open face. “Learning things from him, too. Good things. Besides, you had Cullen and James to help you.”
“Learning like what things?” Winslow demanded, looking around the dusty confines of the sub-basement. “You’re always so sure you know everything. But yeah, I think this will do just fine. We can make it work.”
“Things…” Mouse looked away, a flush mounting into his cheeks. “Things Mouse needs to know. Things Vincent knows best about. Catherine sometimes, too. Winslow doesn’t need to know. Mouse’s secret.”
“Suit yourself, then. All the same to me. No one tells me anything anyway.” Winslow shrugged, as he moved to the stairs to the upper levels, testing the railing and risers with the toe of his boot. “Gonna have to replace some of these, too. Well, work still to be done, Mouse. Guess you and me better get on with it, if Vincent and Catherine want to move in here before Christmas.”
“Good luck to Vincent trying to teach that one anything.” Winslow sighed. “I hope it’s nothing that involves explosives or anything electrical.” He glanced down at his right thumb where a long, thin scar prompted the memory of a very early Mouse experiment with increasing the power of a toaster oven that went spectacularly wrong, blowing up in Winslow’s startled and consternated face.
“That boy’s purely dangerous.” He looked up as the first of the basket-carrying children filed through the hole, looking for his directions about where to start clearing the debris. “But I gotta admit, life with him around is never dull!” he offered his opinion to no one in particular, laughing at his own joke as he moved to help the children with their work.
Joe sat on the side of the emergency room bed staring at the mess he’d made of his left hand. He grimaced wryly. By now he should’ve figured out DIY jobs like hanging some of Azrael’s paintings on his apartment walls should be left to the experts like his building’s super. Of course, it didn’t ease his sense of ill-usage when the same blind artist told him he’d be happy to come over and hang the paintings for Joe. That riled him most of all. How was that supposed to work?
“I’ll bet Diana’s enjoying the joke right now,” Joe opined darkly.
What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon, cooped up in here waiting to be seen. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t have a dozen raging fires that needed putting out, so much he needed to be getting on with…like the O’Leary fraud case and those damn continuances that had everyone pulling their hair out…He was grateful to Edie for agreeing to give up her Sunday to get on with the case, keep them up to speed. She didn’t sound very happy about it, but it couldn’t be helped. His department was being stretched beyond all reason. Something had to give. He really wished Radcliffe was still around to lend a hand, he could sure use her first-class brain right now…
“Dammit! I don’t have time for this,” he muttered, getting up for the umpteenth time to look for someone to take care of his injury, when the curtain moved back and a female nurse stepped into his cubicle. She looked all business in her crisp uniform with her blond hair pulled back into a neat chignon at the back of her head, and she seemed immune to Joe’s rigid state of seething resentment.
“So, who do we have here then?” She asked brightly, frowning at her paperwork, then whistled softly. “Joe Maxwell…” She looked up. “A little DIY accident? So what’s the D.A. of Manhattan doing driving nails into his hand instead of the wall? Don’t you have someone who could do that for you?”
“Very funny….” Joe peered at her name tag. “…Linda.” He held his hand out. “I’ve learned my lesson. So how about doing your job and throwing a bandage on this. Let me get on with the really important things I need to get done.”
“First things first.” Linda appeared completely unmoved, eyeing him with cool speculation. “We need to get the paperwork out of the way. What about your tetanus shot? Is it up to date?” She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, considering him closely. Like she knew more than she was telling.
“Aw, geeze…” Joe groaned as he dropped his hand to his side on a deeply drawn sigh. “I have no idea. But if you knew how much I hate needles…”
“Okay…so it looks like you’re gonna be here awhile yet while we check out some facts.” Linda pulled on a pair of latex gloves as she spoke, driving the remaining colour from Joe’s already pale cheeks. “I guess this is where I say this won’t hurt a bit…?” Her shoulders shook slightly.
“Very funny.” Joe eyed the warm amusement in her cool green eyes with intense dislike, mentally consigning her to a far warmer place than New York City in July. He slumped back onto the side of the bed, praying Edie was getting on okay with the O’Leary case. He really needed someone to be on their game. And he spent some time composing exactly what he was going to say to Azrael the next time he saw him…
Cleon tried to look relaxed, leaning back on the couch facing Elliot’s desk. He’d come to deal, he’d finally come for the truth. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Black and white, there it was, he’d laid out his terms. Either Elliot Burch told him what the heck had been going on with him over the last few months--make that a couple of years—or Cleon severed his company’s association with Burch Property Group and he walked away from everything they’d spent years building together. He was tired of the games. It was that simple.
He was smart enough to realize Elliot could replace him in a heart-beat, even less. The man had never been known to give in to sentiment for friendship’s sake, except where Shannon O’Neill was concerned--and that odd-ball, blind artist that his boss was fostering for no good purpose Cleon could see. Except he was well on his way to becoming the next big thing in the New York art scene. Cleon could see the sense in that, as an investment. But as a friend and confidant? It just didn’t make any sense.
What did he have to offer a sophisticated man of the world like Elliot, that Cleon couldn’t? The guy had been a ghost, a non-person, without an educational record or any trace of a family background. Then magically all his paperwork was sorted out—Joe Maxwell had seen to that personally—and Azrael Jacobs was suddenly a fully paid-up, card carrying, US citizen and tax payer. Like he’d been there all the time.
Of course, another black mark against Azrael was he associated way too closely with that damn Bennett woman. He was virtually living with her, and they were seen everywhere together. Even at the best society parties given by the likes of Lady Heathcote-Smythe. Cleon knew that because he’d provided the security and Elliot had paid the bill. Again! And that Bennett woman knew too much and said nothing. It irked Cleon deeply that even she seemed to be in on the “big secret”. Whatever it was…
And then there was that whole crazy episode with Catherine Chandler’s father, dragging him all the way from LA and back to New York when the poor man clearly was terrified out of his wits. There it all was again, links back to the Chandler woman. Everything always seemed to start and end with her. She crooked her little finger and Elliot jumped like a trained poodle.
The derelict mansion over on the East Side, which Elliot had long been planning to sell for a fat profit, had been signed over to her, and yet Elliot was footing the bill for all the renovations and upkeep. Like he still had some kind of personal investment in her ongoing happiness and well-being. Despite the fact she’d gone off with some other guy, conceived, and had a child with him, too. That was a matter of public record, birth certificate, fat trust fund and all. And then twin girls appeared on the scene, again registered and given the last name of Wells.
Their mysterious father no one ever saw and knew even less about. Another deep, black hole of dis-information. Like all those times Chandler was in a scrape when she was with the D.A.’s office, and miraculously survived. It was all smoke and bloody mirrors! Cleon clamped his lips in a deepening sense of frustration and ill-usage. The more he thought about the whole situation, the more his head hurt and his disposition soured further.
No, Cleon was counting on his long-standing friendship with Burch to get past this sticky patch of threat and counter-punch. But he was sick and tired of being kept in the dark and fed on horse droppings.
He huffed a humourless laugh. Of course, it didn’t hurt to try and deal with his boss over a large tumbler of Elliot’s excellent single malt. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass. It eased Cleon’s conscience, and his concern he may just have bitten off more than he could digest. Time would soon tell. He took another swallow of the whisky, allowing it to settle for a moment in his mouth, before swallowing and breathing in the subtle aromatic scents, as the warmth slowly trickled down his throat.
So, now what? Through his narrowed eyes he assessed Elliot, sitting silent and watchful behind his enormous mahogany desk--shirt sleeves rolled up--looking every inch the ruthless, billionaire property developer he most certainly was. The expensive whisky suddenly pooled in Cleon’s empty stomach and gave him an acid burn of discontent.
Beyond the windows overlooking the city the evening sky was turning a hundred different shades of russet and gold, as the sun dipped slowly towards the horizon. This high up the traffic noise was virtually non-existent. They could’ve been alone with the clouds and the birds, if it wasn’t for the fact that just beyond the door behind Cleon’s shoulders, he knew three burly bodyguards were playing cards. Every one of their armpits were bulging with hard-wear, and not one of them would hesitate to forcibly eject him if their boss ordered it. Cleon should know, he also employed a number of hard-line men who obeyed their orders without question. Despite the whisky’s spreading heat, a chill rippled through his senses as Elliot continued to watch him unblinkingly like a hawk about to stoop and make him pay for his blatant disloyalty.
“It’s not like I haven’t kept my mouth shut all these years.” Cleon spread his hands. “I mean, you know you can trust me, Elliot, with anything. I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, and more—without question. But it’s gone too far, and I’m tired of being treated like an idiot. You surround yourself with people I don’t know and trust even less. People I can’t dig up a single scrap of background on, no matter how deep I dig. I don’t know where they’ve come from, or where the heck Catherine Chandler, the O’Neill woman and then you, just up and vanished to the first time. Then I bring Charles Chandler back for you and he disappeared too for a while. And now you all come and go at will for days on end, like there’s some great big hole in the ground you all know about. None of it makes any sense at all.”
“I don’t pay you an exorbitant retainer to make any of this your concern,” Elliot replied evenly. “Or what I do with my personal time, or commitments. Certainly not who I chose to associate with.”
“I get that.” Cleon bit back what he wanted to say. The words scalded his throat, but he could see Elliot was becoming steadily angrier as the seconds ticked past. Whatever he was protecting was way bigger than Cleon had previously imagined. It made his blood run cold to think about it. He wished now he’d just gone home and let things be. Too late for that.
“Look…” Elliot sat forward, linking his fingers on the desk before him. “If these secrets were mine alone, then fine, I’d share and be happy to do so. But they’re not only mine and never have been. I can only say how sorry I would be to lose you. But I ask you now, in the name of the friendship we’ve shared, to leave it alone. We’ll forget tonight and all that has been said, and move on. If not, then I’ll cut you a severance check here and now, and we’re done. For good. Capise?”
“Geeze…” Cleon swallowed tightly. He wondered briefly how deep a pit he had just skirted. It still irked him that he knew nothing. That all his demands for information had gotten him precisely nowhere. But he knew when to admit he was beaten, by a far more skilful player, who’d called his bluff with calm certainty.
He grinned suddenly, throwing back the remains of his whisky before surging to his feet. Crossing the intervening stretch of extensive carpeting, he held out his hand to Elliot across that vast expanse of gleaming mahogany. “Fair enough. But one day, Elliot, one day you will tell me the truth. Until then, consider the matter closed.”
“Thank you, Cleon.” Elliot gripped his out-stretched hand. “One day it may be possible, you never know. Until that day comes…” He broke the clasp to push forward a file. “So how about we deal with some fresh business…?”
“Okay, boss…” Cleon nodded quickly as he opened the file.
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Vincent paused within the tunnel’s long sweep. Around him his world slumbered, but he’d felt the need to wander its limits. He stopped to listen, but there was only the wind and the passing of the subway trains, underscored by the staccato tapping of the messages being spoken on the pipes. This was where he’d heard the piano being played, Chopin, if he remembered correctly. He found he missed hearing those haunting notes played so eloquently. He turned to the thick barrier of old brick and crumbling mortar beside him, reaching to press one hand flat against the wall’s rough surface, as if he could recall the notes by touch alone.
In the next instant a small hand inserted itself into his where it hung at his side, clasping his fingers tightly. He glanced down into Angelo’s excited eyes.
“We’ve seen the man again…” The boy’s mobile fingers flashed his message. “Seeking and not finding. Eric and Kipper watching him. Vincent come…?”
“Show me.” Vincent nodded.
Angelo set off, his grip tightening on Vincent’s as they moved upwards along the tunnel. Stepping around a boarded-up entrance leading into another tunnel and then crouching through a concealed steel door, where a junction of three tunnels came together. Keeping guard, Eric and Kipper looked up with relief when Vincent sank to his haunches beside them.
“Where is he now?” Vincent asked.
"What do we do, Vincent?" Eric questioned softly. "Whatcha think he's looking for?
“Thought he was just lost at first,” Kipper offered an opinion. “But he keeps on coming down to the same place. Like he knows something’s down here. But if he hears anyone coming, he always high-tails it outta here. Like he don’t wanna be seen.” He eased back from view. “So what do you say, Vincent?”
“Keep a close watch on him.” Vincent frowned at the cloaked figure. He wore a black, broad-brimmed hat pulled well down over his face, as if he didn’t wish to be seen or recognized. But there was something about him that nudged at Vincent’s senses…something familiar…
Vincent turned to Eric. “Take Angelo with you to fetch Mouse and Peter. We need to decide how best to handle this. We’ll check all the outer entrances here and close them up. We can’t risk this man finding his way deeper into our world.”
“Okay, Vincent.” Eric slid to his feet, taking Angelo with him, both boys hurried back the way they had come.
“I have no idea…” Vincent sighed. He reached out with his inner senses, but all he received from the lone figure in return was a deep sense of sadness and regret. “And yet…”
In that moment the man turned, moving slowly into the light, and then his pace quickened. For the first time he lifted his head, reaching to run his hand along the tunnel’s upper brick ledge, where the trigger to the steel door at Vincent’s back was hidden. Now the tunnel’s naked glare of overhead lighting shone fully in his face. He turned his head aside, as if unused to the brightness, raising his free hand to shield his eyes as he felt his way along the ledge, straining to find what he was obviously seeking. The dark plane of his right cheek was puckered and marred by a long scar that bisected the outer line of his eyebrow as it ran down his face to the corner of his mouth, drawing it up into a sad caricature of a half-smile that did nothing to liven the melancholy cast of his features.
“What is it, Vincent?” Kipper jumped at Vincent’s sudden, hissing intake of breath.
“Rolley…?” Vincent rose slowly to his feet, unable to believe the evidence of his own eyes. “I don’t believe it. After all this time, he’s finally come home…”
“I’m sure eloping would be easier than all this fuss.” Shannon turned under the insistence of Mary’s hands on her waist. “I know Elliot would agree.”
“Well, I’m afraid you can’t escape that easily.” Mary shook her head vigorously. “We haven’t had a wedding in the tunnels since Vincent and Catherine’s. It’s about time we had another excuse for throwing a party. You look so lovely, my dear…”
“If it were only a tunnel wedding…” Shannon stared critically over her shoulder at her own reflection in the full length mirror behind her. “That I could handle. But full church nuptials with everyone, including the mayor, in attendance…”
The cream silk and antique lace of her wedding gown whispered around her slender frame before settling into place once more. Mary stood back to survey her handiwork, wiping an impatient hand across her moist eyes.
“It’s the price you have to pay for marrying a man as powerful and well-connected as Elliot Burch.” Olivia looked up from her task of sewing tiny seeds pearls onto Shannon’s veil. “But he loves you. Nothing else matters compared to that.”
“Yes, he does…” Shannon smiled mistily, her heart lightening. “And I love him so much…” With Elliot at her side, she could endure anything. And once the services Above were over, they could make their excuses and retreat Below to where Shannon’s only true family lived. It would be the best they could make of both worlds…
“Thank you, Mary.” Shannon hugged her tightly, not caring if she wrinkled her gown.
“You’re my girl.” Mary sighed, cupping the younger woman’s cheek. “You’re all my children. And I do so love to see you happy.”
“What about you, Mary?” Shannon questioned softly. “Surely once, you and Father…”
“The impulsiveness of youth…” Mary kissed her cheek. “I’m far too old now, and set in my ways…such things are well behind me now.” She smoothed her apron with determined fingers.
“Oh, I don’t know…” Shannon slanted her head, assessing the bright colour flooding into Mary’s pale cheeks. “I once thought I would never love again, and now look at me…” She executed a neat two-step pirouette across the room that had Mary clucking after her, fussing over the potential dangers to her gown.
“Please take it off before it gets marked…” she pleaded, holding out her hands in readiness.
“Well, that’s as may be. But there’s certainly no fool like an old fool…” Mary replied stoutly, shaking out the gown before restoring it to the safety of its hanger and covering it carefully with a large piece of cloth. “And I don’t intend to make a fool of myself over anyone. I have the children and my work, they both keep me busy.”
“Everyone should be in love...” Olivia looked up from her work, her eyes twinkling. “You could be so happy. Maybe if you learned to play chess. Then you would have something to do together.”
“Yes!” Shannon rounded on her foster mother. “Now that’s a great idea. You could borrow Catherine’s new chess set.” She frowned, as she dressed in her tunnel clothes. “Why don’t you play, Mary? You know how much Father loves a game or two after supper. He would love to teach you.”
“Who says I don’t play?” Mary fussed with the hanging of the gown, keeping her face averted.
“Mary…” Shannon pulled her around by the shoulders to face her. “Then why don’t you play now?”
“Because I don’t have time for such silly trifles,” she grumbled. “I have so much to do, the children to look after and take care of. All the sewing and mending…”
“Does Father know you play?” Olivia’s eyes widened with curiosity.
“No, it was long before I came Below. But neither of you are going to tell him.” Mary settled her hands on her hips. “Promise me, you won’t breathe a word to him. Not now, not ever…”
“Very well, if that’s what you want.” Shannon shrugged. “But I still say it’s not too late…”
“That’s as may be.” Mary busied herself with tidying up her sewing supplies. “But what’s past is past. It’s better left there. We both have more than enough to keep us occupied.”
Shannon and Olivia exchanged conspiratorial glances behind Mary’s back, the two women silently agreeing that things will most certainly not be left at this impasse. They had agreed not to tell Father directly, but there were other means…
“I didn’t know how to come home again after all these years.” Rolley accepted the cup of tea Father placed before him with a jerky nod of thanks. “I almost managed to convince myself that there was no one down here anymore. That it was all bricked up and gone.” He looked around at the chamber he had once known so well as a child and his shoulders slumped. “Then I saw the kids running and playing in the tunnels near my home. Then I knew that I was only fooling myself. You were always here.”
“Your piano is still in the chamber where you left it. Mouse has faithfully maintained it. I think it is even better than the ones he left Up Top.” Father put a hand on his arm. “Angelo plays it now.” He glanced at the silent child standing just inside the entrance to the upper level, watching everything the adults were doing with worried eyes.
Father looked back at Rolley. “You have been such an inspiration to him, he just loves to hear you play. He stands for hours in the tunnel just listening to you.”
Angelo nodded vigorously, but kept his hands close to his sides, his serious eyes never leaving Rolley’s face.
“The kid plays?” Rolley looked up, his eyes going to the small figure in the entrance.
“Like a dream,” Vincent replied. “And he composes. But Angelo is reaching the limits of what we can teach him down here. Soon he will need a tutor far better than us. He hopes to go Above to learn. Tony Gilbert is making arrangements for him.”
“Tony Gilbert…” Rolley breathed, then shrugged. “You guys have sure moved up in the world since I’ve been gone. A star of Broadway is a helper now, amazing.”
“Tony grew up in the tunnels, he is another of our success stories.” Father squeezed Rolley’s arm. “As you were. As you can be again. But I’m afraid I have to ask about the…” he glanced at an intently listening Angelo, “…issues that drove you away from us last time. Vincent and Catherine were only trying to help, you know.”
“I know…” Rolley took a sip of his tea. Then his dark eyes met Father’s squarely. “I’ve been clean for more than ten years now.” He lifted his shoulders and sighed. “I hit the bottom and it was either sink into the abyss and die, or fight my way back to the surface.” He looked across at Vincent. “I was not ready to hear you then, and I am sorry if I hurt you.” He grimaced. “But sometimes the choices we make are not our own.”
“And now..?” Vincent asked softly.
“Now I teach piano and try to make a difference in the children’s lives.” Rolley’s eyes travelled back to the silent child hovering within the entrance to Father’s chamber. “If you would permit me to teach Angelo, until Tony’s ready for him, I would count it as the least I can do for what you have done, or tried to do for me.”
His sad dark eyes tracked to each of the adults in turn before returning to Angelo, who was nodding vigorously and clapping his delight.
“I think you have your answer.” Father smiled. “I think Angelo would like that a lot.”
“Then it’s a deal.” Rolley settled back with his cup balanced between his long fingers. “We can get started as soon as you like.”
“Now!” Angelo’s fingers flashed his impatience and the adults laughed together as the boy laughed silently with them, his white teeth flashing in the candlelight. “Let’s go!”
“No, Angelo, I think we can at least be allowed to finish our tea.” Father shook his head. “The impatience of youth…”
“I thought I said no calls, Janine?” Joe demanded brusquely, thumbing his office intercom. Ten o’clock in the morning and the office coffee machine had died…again.
“She said she’s come to check up on your injuries,” his secretary replied apologetically. “I told her you were too busy. But she insisted on seeing you. She said she’d wait until you’re free.”
“Who?” Joe frowned direfully. He glared at the stacks of files littering his desk. Freedom was a distant dream and an all too real impossibility.
There was a brief, hushed discussion before his secretary replied, “She says her name is Linda O’Reilly, and it’s very important that she see you. She said she needs to make sure there’s no permanent damage or infection, since you didn’t keep your follow-up appointment from five days ago. You didn’t schedule anything with me.”
“Linda…” Joe mused grimly, running a hand over his already disordered hair. “I don’t know…” A vision of amused green eyes suddenly invaded his mind’s eye. He grimaced. “All right, send her in. She’s got five minutes. And then I want you to get Edie in here with all her files. We’re gonna start again from the beginning.”
Joe picked up his darts, balancing them on his right palm. He extended his left hand, staring down at the neat cross-pattern of bandages covering the heel of his hand. He plucked at the folds, figuring he should’ve gotten the bandage changed by now, as per Ms. O’Reilly’s detailed instructions before he’d finally escaped her ministrations. Having missed the appointment, the bandaging was now grubby and ink-stained from his paperwork. He figured he was in for a telling-off. So be it.
Well, this was his office and he could always throw her out. He hurled the first dart as the door opened, and he had to admire the woman, she didn’t even flinch as the missile’s steel tip sank into its target not too far from her head.
“Stress relief?” Linda smiled coolly, closing the door behind her. She set down a small medical bag on the edge of Joe’s desk...and blessed be, she’d brought coffee with her. Joe sniffed the aromatic steam rising from the coffee cups like a bloodhound on the scent, feeling the heavy cloud lifting from his spirits.
Linda smiled, pushing one cup towards him. “I guessed since you didn’t show up, you decided you could get on fine without me. But I thought coffee might break the ice.”
“Thanks…for the coffee. You’ve got four minutes left.” Joe extended his hand, palm up, on the top of the stack of files. “You can see how busy I am.”
“This won’t take long.” She was as good as her word, working briskly and efficiently--uncovering, cleaning and re-bandaging his hand in record time. “At least you haven’t done any damage by your neglect.” As she repacked her bag, she surveyed him, looking as if she wished to say something, but was in two minds about it.
Fortified by the excellent, double expresso, caffeine kick she’d brought him, Joe sat back in his chair to survey her. “Something else on your mind? You’ve got about thirty seconds left. Spill.”
“May I?” Linda indicated one of the chairs in front of Joe’s desk, and after a moment’s fraught hesitation, he nodded brusquely, pushing aside the pile of files so he could see her. Linda sank into the chair, her bag perched on her knees. She reached for her coffee, taking a long sip.
“Fifteen seconds…” Joe encouraged, looking pointedly at his wristwatch, before regretting his words when he saw her pass a trembling hand over her eyes. He grimaced ruefully. “All right, what do you want to ask me?”
“My mother and I…” She met his gaze squarely. “…we run a small safe house for young girls who have been abused by their caregivers, or who simply have nowhere else to go, for various reasons, mainly behavioural issues because of previous neglect. They can be a handful, I can tell you, and the child welfare system isn’t always geared to absorb them, so they come to us. A haven of last resort, I guess you could call us. Starlight House--you can look us up, we’re fully licensed and legit.”
“Admirable.” Joe frowned. “But I fail to see how—”
“We’re being evicted because we can no longer afford the rent increases. And the landlord just won’t listen to reason. He wants to develop the site, so he’s selling it up to the Burch Group. So now we have nowhere else to go. I work two jobs to make ends meet, while Mum holds down the fort at home. But we are making a difference, Joe. Without us, most of these girls would be runaways and drug addicted street-walkers by now.” She squared her slumped shoulders. “That must count for something, surely?”
Linda allowed the words to hang between them. She could have said so much more, spoken about her connections both in the city and below it. The underground tunnels that harboured so many people she loved and cared about, those that helped her with her girls when she needed it. Those who tried to make a difference in their lives, but could not help out financially when they had very little themselves. But of course she could not. Their secret was not hers to share with such a pragmatic man as Joe Maxwell. He would doubtless send down the cops and clear them all out of there, and count it a job well done. Cage Vincent and study him like an animal, not a decent, caring human being. No, Joe would not understand such a world, or care that its existence was a closely guarded secret. He was a lawyer, they only dealt in facts.
Linda watched Joe’s considering expression and her heart quailed. Would he help her? Could he help her? She had missed the last two Winterfests because of her commitments both to work and her girls, she hated to think this present crisis would prevent her from attending next year’s party. But she had nowhere else to turn.
She knew Joe knew wealthy, influential people like Elliot Burch and his girlfriend, people with the money and the means to help her realize her dream of a better life for her girls. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, unsure of what to say next. The stark truth was just too awful to contemplate, and she choked back the desire to cry.
The seconds ticked slowly by as they stared at each other. Joe knew he admired Linda’s fortitude and simple, straight-talking attitude, despite the trembling of her lower lip and the sheen of tears in her green eyes. Geeze, she reminded him of Radcliffe when she’d worked doggedly on a case, no matter how tired she was, or how many loose ends she had to chase up to make a difference. He sighed, missing Catherine with a fresh rush of nostalgia.
Of course he knew people like Elliot and Shannon who could help her, and would help her. Elliot would stop the development in its tracks if he knew the truth. And those who lived in the tunnels would help selflessly because that is what they did. Helped because they didn’t know any other way to be. He compressed his lips. Of course he could share none of his thoughts with this complete stranger. The world of the tunnels survived because those who knew and cared about its existence remained silent. But he was a helper now, and he would do his best to help.
Just then someone knocked on the door of his office, and Edie walked in burdened by a stack of files that threatened to spill from her control. She paused when she saw Joe was busy. “Come back later, boss?” She raised her eyebrows at him.
“No, I think we’re about done here.” Joe stood, circling his desk to hitch one hip on the corner.
“Thanks for listening, anyway.” Linda rose quickly, turning to leave. “Sorry to bother you. I can see you’re very busy.”
“If I can, I’ll try to get out of here by seven.” Joe put out a hand to detain her. “Meet me out front. If I don’t show, here’s my card.” He pulled one from his shirt pocket and held it out. “Contact me and we’ll see what we can work out for another time.”
“Thank you,” Linda replied with a tired smile. “I told my mother you were a half-decent guy. I’m glad I was right.”
“Thanks, I think.” Joe frowned, standing as the door shut quietly behind her.
“Don’t ask,” he commanded, returning behind his desk, where Edie had put down the files, her dark eyes watching him speculatively.
‘To dream the impossible dream
Man of La Mancha
Charles Chandler ran his fingers along the dusty mantelpiece in the dining room of his former home and sighed. Wiping his hands together, he turned to frown at Catherine and Vincent standing behind him. “Your mother always kept her special pieces on here,” he said to his daughter. “I was always so afraid to touch them. Do you remember? She kept that baby picture of you in a beautiful, hand-crafted, porcelain frame. I was worried I would be clumsy and break something precious like that. She used to laugh at me, saying they were only things. She always said family was more important. It was people that mattered.”
He looked around the bare room, with its naked and forlorn look, empty of any furniture or fittings. Everything that could be removed and sold had been carried away by the previous owner. “That is why I couldn’t stay here, after she…after she had gone. There were just too many memories.”
He pushed a weary hand back over his hair, which had now grown out to its former colour. His face and body had filled out to their previous dimensions and Catherine found it hard to remember that her father had been anything different to what he was now. She came forward to hug him, kissing his cheek.
“We can make it what it was before, only better.” She smiled. “We can create a home again; for all of us. And for anyone who needs shelter. You could start practicing law again.”
“A home…” Charles looked beyond his daughter to Vincent’s quiet presence. He doubted he would ever get used to seeing him, talking with him.
His son-in-law was an incredible and unique individual and Charles was so grateful that he loved his cherished daughter so completely, without reservation. He had always worried she would never find anyone worthy of her. Now he could see how wrong he’d been in promoting the regrettable Tom Gunther as a suitable partner. Or any other man but this one. Seeing the understanding in Vincent’s considering gaze, he shrugged. “When you know better, you do better. Right, Vincent?”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Vincent advised. “You did what you needed to do. You did your best to stay alive and to protect Catherine. And you sacrificed everything for her. There can be no greater gift than that.”
“And now we have each other again.” Catherine threaded her fingers through his. “The past is behind us, we are only going to look forward and make the best of what we have now.”
“How wise you are…” Charles cupped her cheek. “And so like your mother. It seems incredible to have come full circle and to be back here, in this house, again.” He sighed. “I can’t wait to begin anew. I know Jacob has already sorted out which is his room.”
“Well, we certainly have our work cut out for us with this place.” Catherine looked around the bare walls. “But we will soon make it into a home again.”
“Then we will start tomorrow,” her father replied with determination. “The sooner we start, the sooner we can move in. And then we…” he paused, frowning. “You’re still going to live here with me?”
“I am a woman of two worlds again. Once more I will be living in two worlds.” Catherine looked from her father to her husband. “We will make it work, Dad. Please don’t worry.”
“Your world down there…” Charles shook his head. “It is incredible. To think that in the middle of New York, such a place can exist undetected. It is a true miracle and an incredible blessing.”
“And it can be your home too, Dad.” Cathy laid a hand on his arm. “We’re a family, all of us. We look out for one another.”
Charles looked down at her. “I saw Kay yesterday. She found out I was back, and she wanted to check I was all right. Make sure she’d been told the truth.” He grimaced. “She couldn’t believe it at first. It was a bit of a shock for her, I can tell you. Anyway, she and I…” he paused, as if searching for the right words. “She and I agreed to start dating again. Just in a small way. Of course, I have told her nothing of your world, Vincent.” He looked beyond Catherine. “I know how fragile it all is.” He glanced down at his daughter. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“If it makes you happy, Dad, then I’m happy.” Catherine stood on tiptoe to kiss his lined cheek. “We’ll deal with each step as it arises.” She reached to take her husband’s hand. “For now we are going to settle in here and take stock of all our blessings. Both Above and Below. It is truly a whole new world.”
Joe made it onto the sidewalk half an hour late, but it couldn’t be helped. He half-expected Linda to have given up waiting, but she was there. He liked that. And she smiled like she was pleased to see him. The frozen lump of rock his opponents and enemies often accused him of having instead of a heart, did a funny little jig within his chest. It had been a while since a pretty woman had smiled at him and meant it. Like she was glad to see him. Like it actually mattered what she thought of him. The heavy burden of responsibility he carried on his shoulders lightened slightly as a consequence.
“Hiya,” Linda greeted him warmly. “I guessed you would still try and show up, so I waited. Figured you were busy.”
“Great.” Joe looked into the green depths of her eyes and slowly he returned her smile. “It has been an interesting day. Say, have you eaten yet? Are you hungry?”
“Famished.” Linda laughed. “You know, I could almost kill for a bag of those chocolate covered cheese nuggets right now. Most people think I’m nuts for liking them.”
Joe froze in the act of indicating she could walk with him down the street towards his favourite restaurant. He blinked down at her. “You don’t say…you, too? I mean, watching me eat those things usually makes people ill.”
“Addictive, aren’t they?” Linda shrugged. “What can I say? I like what I like.” Her eyes tracked back to his, and her colour deepened.
“Tell you what, over dinner, why don’t you tell me more about this Starlight House of yours,” Joe encouraged, taking her arm. “I just might know some people who could help you out.”
“Listen…? Is that all?” Mouse’s boyish face screwed up in honest confusion. “Why listen?” he demanded suspiciously. “What for?”
“For whatever Jamie has to say.” Vincent pulled out a chair at the table in his chamber and drew Mouse down into it. “Women like to know you hear them.”
“Mouse hears fine,” the tinker grumbled. “Just Jamie not always right. Maybe never. Have to tell her so.”
A hastily muffled laugh came from the bed where Cathy was playing with the twins, ably assisted by Jacob. “Sorry,” she apologised smilingly when Vincent looked up, indicating by one steeply-raised eyebrow she wasn’t helping his cause.
“No, you don’t have to always tell her so,” Vincent persisted doggedly. “In fact, it’s better not to tell her at all. She is allowed her own opinion.”
“Then how will she know?” Mouse spread his hands wide. “Mouse confused. Almost sorry now he asked.”
“Don’t give up, Mouse,” Cathy intervened. “You like Jamie, don’t you?”
“Makes me hurt, here and here…” Mouse pressed a hand to his heart and then his head. “Can’t sleep. Can’t breathe sometimes. Asked Father. He said ‘talk to Vincent.’ Said you’d know. It still hurts.” His shoulders slumped. “Maybe Mouse should go away. Take a long trip. Go way down Below to Azrael’s old place. Stay a while. No one there. Mouse can be alone. Mouse can think.”
“Running away never solved anything, Mouse.” Vincent put a hand on his shoulder. “You need to face up to your fears and ask for what you want. You might be surprised at the result. Jamie likes being around you. You’re always together.”
“Make pain go away?”” The tinker brightened. “Mouse can get back to being just Mouse?”
“I think ‘just Mouse’ has a lot to offer.” Cathy got up from the bed carrying the twins, one on each hip. Vincent accepted his daughters with a smile, even as they went straight for his mane with greedy fingers, cooing their delight as he nibbled at their fingertips. “Don’t sell yourself short.” Cathy ruffled Mouse’s shaggy hair. “It won’t be as hard as you think.”
“I made her this…” Mouse delved into the voluminous pockets of his coat and brought out a bunched piece of cloth. He opened it to reveal a piece of old ivory that had been carefully carved into a figurine faithfully portraying Jamie, standing with her cross bow slung on her back, head cocked as if she was listening for something.
“Oh, Mouse…” Catherine breathed, taking the piece and turning it into the candlelight. “It’s just beautiful.”
“Took long time.” Mouse flushed with pride. “Had to keep it a secret. Not easy.”
“You must give it to her immediately,” Catherine advised, returning the carving to him. “She will love it.”
“You sure?” Mouse’s face screwed up with concern.
“And listen to her answer,” Vincent interposed. “She will tell you if she loves it, if you give her a chance to speak.”
“Okay good, okay fine…” Mouse muttered without his usual enthusiasm. “Mouse can do this,” he encouraged himself.
“Mouse can do this.” Catherine placed a hand on his shoulder, smiling down at the doubtful look on his face. “And she will love it, Mouse, trust me.”
“Okay…” Mouse sighed gustily, before carefully wrapping the figurine again and slipping it back into his pocket.
“You mean, after all these years, I have never known that Mary plays chess?” Father stared at Catherine. “Why did she never tell me?”
“Perhaps she felt it would bring her too close to you.” Catherine lifted a pawn from Father’s board and studied it. She looked up. “You were close…once…?”
“It’s an old story.” Father’s face suffused with colour. He cleared his throat, drawing the glasses from the bridge of his nose and polishing them vigorously. “What’s past is past.” He fixed his daughter-in-law with a steely stare. “Some things are best left to the salad days of one’s youth, where they belong. We’ve both moved on.”
“Jacob, are you holding out on me?” Catherine probed softly. “Was there something once, between you two?”
Father reassumed his glasses pointedly. “I appreciate your interest, Catherine, but as I said, it is ancient history. If Mary wished me to know she plays, she would have told me.”
“Small things get forgotten within the larger patterns of life. And you both had bigger things to worry about, like Vincent. But now…” Catherine shrugged. “Having a game of chess with one of your oldest friends, what could it hurt?” She played her ace move. “Who knows, you might even be able to beat her.”
“Beat her…?” Father’s head snapped around, his grey eyes suddenly gleaming. “You think so?”
“I have been reliably informed Mary hasn’t played in years…” Catherine spread her hands. “Of course, she may not agree. I mean, you are both very busy people…”
Father leaned forward. “There are evenings when we meet to discuss news of the tunnels, and plan what needs to be done for the children. We usually go over the newspapers as well…”
“And if your chess set happens to be out and you decided to ask, does she play?” Catherine toyed with the white queen.
“She would never agree.” Father frowned. “She knows my passion for the game. She would deny she knows anything about it. She doesn’t like to see me gloat.”
“You won’t know unless you ask,” Catherine pointed out. “What can it hurt?”
“What indeed…” Father stared at the queen as Catherine replaced it. “Maybe I will…” Staring at the piece, he didn’t see Catherine’s small smile of satisfaction.
“The reception is to be held here in my house and I will brook no argument.” Lady May ground the end of her cane between her feet with a thump. “That way everyone gets to share in your big day.” She eyed Elliot and Shannon, daring them to disagree. But neither one moved or commented, sitting close together on the couch looking suitably chastised.
Lady May nodded sharply. “Excellent. Then we are agreed. Once your dues to the city have been paid and they’ve all gone, we can open the basement entrance and get on with the real party. Make it a night to remember. Trekking all the way down to the Great Hall is beyond me now, unless I go in stages. This makes the best sense, and I have just received my first shipment of Devin’s wine from New Zealand. The least you can do is help me sample it. I have already told that boy he had better show up as well.”
“If you think holding the reception here is for the best,” Elliot murmured, enjoying the fire in the old lady’s watchful eyes. “I agree that it’s an excellent idea.”
“Are you trying to soft-soap me, young man?” Lady May eyed him suspiciously. “I am not taken in by your charm, you know.” She sniffed, raising her chin. “I may be old, but I’m not blind.”
“You know we love you truly.” Shannon rose and crossed to the old lady’s chair, sinking to her knees beside it. “Where would we be without you?”
Lady May cupped her cheek, before patting her face lightly in admonishment. “This man of yours has taught you too well.” She glanced across at Elliot. “But with such a handsome face, how can any woman say no?” She winked, before placing her arms around Shannon’s neck and kissing her soundly. “Now get out of here and make your plans, before I say something I might regret.” Her faded blue eyes looked misty with unshed tears.
Mouse drew up a chair beside Jamie’s in her chamber, watching her fletch an arrow for her cross bow. Her long fingers were nibble, her touch delicate as she coaxed the feathers into their rightful place, tying them down into the glue with the finest of cat-gut stringing.
Jamie made all her own gear, disdaining the expensive, ready-made arrows Elliot had once offered to buy for her, saying she made her own to be tried and true, and they knew her fingers and obeyed her. Anything mass-produced would not have the same familiar feel and thereby not be accurate. Elliot had been impressed by her argument, saying he understood her point of view perfectly. He had then given her a fine leather case for her arrows instead.
“You want something, Mouse?” Jamie didn’t take her eyes from her detailed work. She was at a crucial stage in the fletching and couldn’t stop. “Or you just gonna sit there staring at me?”
“I…” Mouse moved uneasily. His courage failed him. But the pain in his chest deepened. He had to make it go away. Vincent said it would.
“You…what?” Jamie flicked her eyes in his direction. “I can’t put this down, you know that. So speak or go away.”
“Okay…” Mouse sucked in an enormous breath and released it in a huge rush of air. He pushed his hand into the pocket of his jacket, feeling for his Jamie present. He drew it forth, holding it out towards her on the flat of his palm. “Made this. For you.” He moved it encouragingly. “For Jamie.”
Jamie’s attention moved from her fletching to the parcel. Her fine brows drew together as she stared at it, her fingers still working automatically on a task she had performed more than a thousand times before. “What is it?” she asked suspiciously.
“Open it. See.” Mouse waggled it again, then pushed it further into her line of sight.
“Okay…” Jamie glanced at him doubtfully as she put down her arrow. The fletching could wait. This present was intriguing her. Mouse was not known for giving personal gifts. His usual approach was more unique and sometimes volatile surprises that shook everyone up. It was all the same to Mouse.
She took it carefully from his hand and unwrapped it. The ivory figurine met her wide-eyed gaze. “Oh, Mouse, she’s beautiful…” In her lap the fletching slowly began to unravel, but she didn’t notice.
“So are you…” Mouse whispered, emboldened by the awed look on her face. “I made it like you. It is you. Best Mouse work.” He shrugged, honesty prompting him. “Well, Cullen helped some.”
“You did indeed…” Jamie breathed, using one hand to wipe the welling tears from her eyes. She sniffed, her bottom lip trembling. “Oh, Mouse, I don’t know what to say, but it’s about time.”
“Why Jamie crying?” Mouse looked distressed. He didn’t like tears, he was at a loss how to act. He didn’t think to ask about time for what?
“Oh, you big silly.” Jamie laughed through her tears. She leaned forward, grasping a handful of Mouse’s shirt and pulling him closer.
“Jamie...” Mouse eyed her warily, not sure he liked being so close to her, but when he breathed in, he noticed she smelled real good. Like William’s apple pie, wholesome and clean. She smelled like his Jamie…the thought startled him. He nodded…his Jamie…Jamie and Mouse…
“Yes…” Jamie cocked her head at him, smiling at the frank confusion in his blue eyes as they stared at each other, almost nose to nose. In her lap the fletching unravelled further, but she paid it no mind.
“Just Jamie…” Mouse managed to croak, his chest tight and his heart pumping like it was about to leap from his chest. He discovered he was trembling, but was completely at sea about how to stop it. Physical intimacy was something very new, and very scary for him. Only Vincent truly got close enough to hug him, maybe Winslow if Mouse had done good. Cullen might put his arm around Mouse’s shoulder and Father kissed his forehead once, not sure about that but...
“Mouse…” Jamie grabbed his attention by leaning closer still, finally planting a long, hard kiss on his mouth.
He jumped, but didn’t immediately pull away. But when he did, he sat staring at her like she had grown a new head. Like he couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“Cat got your tongue?” Jamie teased softly, liking the bemused look in her best friend’s eyes. “Not even okay, I liked that?”
“Okay, good, okay, fine…” Mouse breathed, pressing his fingers to his mouth, feeling across the width of his lips. “That was…nice,” he finally managed. “But why you do that?”
“Because I wanted to,” Jamie replied smugly as she picked up the figurine, turning it in the candlelight just as Catherine had, admiring the beauty of the piece. “Because you gave me this. Because you made it.”
“Oh…” Mouse sat nonplussed. “Mouse did all right then?” he finally ventured to ask.
“Mouse did good.” Jamie put down the piece and picked up her fletching, patiently starting again from the beginning. “You gonna hang around a while, keep me company?”
“Uh huh…” Mouse, who usually had a million and one things to do instantly at any given moment of the day or night, merely nodded. He shuffled back in his chair, settling down to watch his love.
His love…the words filtered through his whole being and the pain in his chest and head that had plagued him for weeks subsided. He sighed, knowing he was content just to sit and watch. There would be time enough to ask Vincent about what happened next in this audacious plan of his…
“Are you sure you want to give it all up?” Azrael turned Diana to face him, looking down into her face. “Your work is your life. I want you to be very sure.”
“It was once, it was all I ever wanted. But now I have a new life.” Diana cupped his cheek, smiling into the black depths of his sightless eyes where she could see her own reflection shining. “I’m married to you and nothing could make me happier. If Joe needs me urgently, he knows where to find me. But now I have all I could ever need…”
“Only if you’re very sure…” Azrael drew her into his arms and she laid her cheek against his shoulder, sighing deeply.
“Very sure…” Diana moved one of his hands down to rest against the softly rounded swell of her abdomen. “Besides there are three of us to consider now.”
“Yes…” Azrael’s hand splayed out over her warm flesh and the child within poked at his fingers. He poked back gently and was rewarded with a solid kick.
“Your son is impatient to meet you.” Diana chuckled, turning within his embrace to gaze out the windows of his apartment, the one Elliot Burch had gifted to her new husband when he had first come Above. She shook her head, it still seemed strange to think of the two diverse worlds in those terms, like earth and sky.
“I have my eyes on a brownstone that will suit us very nicely.” She drew both of her husband’s arms close around her. “It has plenty of space for you to paint and me to manage the sales, with extra rooms for guests. And it also has a sub-basement that Vincent and Mouse assure me will be ideal for access Below. I want our child to know both worlds, to experience everything we can give him. He will never be alone as I once was.” She tilted her head back to look up at him. “Or as you were down there in all that darkness. He will know what it is to love and be loved, that truly matters. He will know the light.”
“Have I told you lately that I love you…?” Azrael trailed a line of kisses along her bare shoulder.
“Not in so many words…” Diana turned back to him, raising both hands to cup his face, reaching up to kiss him lingeringly. “But right now I would rather you showed me…”
Edie sat patiently at her grandmother’s kitchen table, waiting for the old lady to begin her story. Ella was bustling about making herbal tea, but eventually she settled on the opposite side of the table, pushing Edie’s cup across to her.
“First you have to understand some things,” Ella commanded, her level stare brooking no argument. “What I have to share with you must remain a secret, no matter what. You can never tell anyone, even if you’re busting to share. Too many people depend on our silence. So are we agreed?”
Edie spread her hands. “Of course. I know how to keep a secret. But I can’t see what’s so vitally secret about a bunch of rag-tag kids living in the subway tunnels. People do know they’re down there.”
“Because it’s not just about the kids.” Ella took a sip of her tea and sighed. “There is a whole world down there, a community we all are committed to caring for and protecting.”
“But why do you care that much?” Edie considered her grandmother’s thin body, seamed face and careworn hands. She had so little, and yet she gave things away. “Those kids meant nothing to you.”
“When you went away to college I was so lonely, all I had was the business and endless hours on my hands. Paying for your tuition took all the money I could spare and then some.” Ella shook her head. “One day a couple of the kids came asking if I needed any help, anything done. Another one of the helpers had sent them to me, knowing I was getting into trouble paying bills and such. We got talking and things just went from there. Now I am part of the Helpers network and proud to be so.” She drew her thin frame up, her chin rising also. “What I do matters.”
Tiny but determined, Edie noted silently. “You never told me how much of a struggle it was to put me through college.”
“That’s because I didn’t want you to worry about me.” Ella reached across the table to clasp her hand. “You got on with what you had to do and I got on with my business. We did all right in the end, didn’t we?”
Edie suddenly frowned. “Holes in the ground…” she murmured, watching her grandmother’s reaction closely. “When Catherine Chandler disappeared for months on end, and then Elliot Burch vanished too, someone in the office said it was like some great hole in the ground just opened up and swallowed them whole. I never guessed it was the literal truth…” She shook her head. “This is just too crazy…”
“Yes, well I always said you had a sharp mind,” Ella remarked crisply, staring at her levelly. “But there is so much more to the story, things Catherine could never tell you. You will learn the truth in time, but you must be patient. Many people depend on our silence. There is one man in particular we all look out for and cherish. Because he is…different, he can live nowhere else. He is the very reason their world exists at all. But he also protects that world, as we protect him. We do that out of love.”
“Catherine, girlfriend, you sure do know how to hold out on me.” Edie shook her head as she whistled long and low. “Forget the all you can eat buffet, you’re gonna owe me dinner for two at the best restaurant in town. See if I don’t keep you to that.” She looked back at her grandmother. “So where is this place? This secret world?”
“As I said, all in good time, you will need to be introduced slowly. The children are our eyes and ears, and our guardians. And there are those who know our secrets and keep them, every one of them.” Her dark eyes gleamed with amusement. “Your Joe Maxwell has known about our secret for quite some time now. He’s a good man and he helps us, too.”
“Grandma, you are something else, do you know that?” Edie surged out of her chair, rounding the table to hug and kiss the old lady soundly. “I seem to be the last one to know everything. A lot of people are going to owe me some decent explanations.”
“But you will keep our secret?” Ella looked up at her anxiously.
“Of course.” Edie squeezed her thin shoulders. “I would never hurt those I care about. So when is the next supply delivery?”
“Be here next Friday afternoon.” Ella sighed happily. “Then I can introduce you properly. But please be ever mindful, this secret is not yours alone. In time you will meet the others. You can never tell anyone, not even if you think they need to know. Not without checking with me first. Promise me?”
“I promise and I’ll be here.” Edie returned to her chair and picked up her tea cup. “Just wait until I see Catherine again, now we really have something to talk about.”
Catherine opened the French doors leading into the garden of their newly refurbished home and turned to look at Vincent. “Is this how you imagined it to be?”
“It is, but only more beautiful.” Vincent had told her of his promise to the moon, that one day they would all walk out into the sunshine. And now there was nothing to stop them. But he hesitated on the threshold, not sure how to continue after so long.
“Come on.” Catherine took her husband’s arm and led him slowly into the garden, Vincent holding the twins nestled safely in his arms. “Come outside and see.”
Ahead of them, Jacob danced through the sunshine, having no fear of the daylight. The sunlight painted shadows across the grass, filtering through the surrounding trees. The garden still needed work, it was overgrown and choked with weeds. But the sun was warm and the air fresh and smelling of the nearby river. It was good to be outside, and wonderful to see her husband turning slowly in the light, his mane and cloak floating out around him, tipped with light. His blue eyes shone with the magic of the moment, telling her without words what he could see and feel. The sun on his face, the breeze in his hair, the sheer weightless feeling of standing beneath a cloudless blue sky. It was all there, reflecting and re-reflecting within the bond that linked them all.
“Mommy colours…” Jacob put out his hand to the passing beauty of a butterfly. “Mommy colours everywhere…” He turned full circle before running and tumbling through the long grass, laughing at the butterfly’s zigzagging path.
“And this is how it will always be…” Vincent came close to Catherine, handing her Mary before lifting Cathleen high up against his shoulder where the baby chortled with delight.
“Always…” Catherine turned to smile up at him. “Because we wish it to be so. Because you had the courage to come to my balcony that first night, you came because you needed to see if I was well. I needed you to come because I knew I could not live without you. Without knowing you were also well. I was truly alone until that night…”
“I know, my love.” Vincent reached to thumb away the tears that travelled down her cheek. “Until that night I was only half alive. But I felt I deserved nothing more than what I already possessed.”
“And now?” Catherine grasped his hand, carrying it to her mouth where she kissed his palm lingeringly.
“Now, as you said, the best is yet to be…” He came closer still, lowering his mouth until he met her lips in a warm, long kiss that promised so much.
Between them, the twins kicked and wriggled, clutching at their father’s mane with greedy fingers, but for once Vincent didn’t notice…
“Who told you such stuff and nonsense,” Mary demanded briskly, her knitting sinking into her lap. “It’s been years. Did Shannon say something?”
“So you do play.” Father peered at her over his glasses. “Why did you never tell me?”
Neatly caught out by her own admission, Mary sighed. “Because I have more important things to be getting on with.” She re-gathered her knitting with a warning frown. “And you never asked.”
“And now?” Father probed quietly, setting up the chess board before him with a studied air of casual disinterest. “It’s late, there’s no crises or problems confronting us tonight. We have done with the tunnel business. ”
“I thought you were teaching Mouse how to play.” Mary kept her eyes on her knitting, though she was aware of the careful rearrangement of the chess set.
Father’s short laugh was full of disbelief. “That boy plays like a genius and a complete idiot,” he remarked bleakly. “I have yet to decide which it is and I am certainly sure I never wish to find out. I am too old to live in such a constant state of turmoil. He took my king and danced about it, even though I tried to teach him the king is inviolate.” He sighed, looking over his glasses at his companion. “One game for old time’s sake?” he wheedled softly. “What could it hurt? I’m told I’m an easy beat these days.”
“What indeed…” Mary looked up. She sighed. “Very well, I can see you will give me no peace until this is settled. One game and then I do not wish to hear any more about it ever again. Agreed?”
“Of course.” Father brightened, gathering a white and black pawn into each of his hands and closing his fists. “Pick a colour.” He held out both hands towards her, and was rewarded with a searching stare, before Mary tapped the hand holding the white pawn.
“Excellent,” Father approved, settling back into his chair and waiting to see just how good his new opponent really was at the game he loved. He smiled at Mary. “Your move...”
“This is how it was always meant to be…” Sitting crossed-legged on their wide, comfortable bed beside her reclining husband, Catherine trailed teasing fingers along the powerful length of his body from his chin to the apex of his thighs and back again, slowly torturing a sensual path through the golden hair clothing his skin, watching with half-closed eyes, the ripple of anticipation that passed across his flesh at the passage of her touch. Catherine smiled even as she sighed. “I do so love you…”
“As I love you…” Vincent lay holding himself quiescent, content for now to study the picture his wife made, outlined in the moonlight streaming in through the un-curtained windows behind her.
There was no need for them to conceal themselves or their love here. The hour was late and the children were all asleep. Catherine’s father was away for the weekend with Kay in the Hamptons, renewing old connections and rekindling old flames. He also knew to give his daughter some valued space to be alone.
Vincent and Catherine’s commitment to each other rippled and flowed along their mutual bond, unspoken thoughts and feelings not needing words or expression. It truly was enough to simply be and allow the future to take care of itself. There would be time enough to recommit to their bond and all the colours and shapes it encompassed. For now, he could take the subtle torture of Catherine’s fingers walking a renewed path back to the place where his surging body ached forthe warmth and abiding love of her most intimate caress…
“Remind me again, just exactly how did we end up here?” After stretching languidly, Linda rolled over onto her stomach, shifting against him to rest her chin on the backs of her hands perched on Joe’s naked chest. “Not that I’m complaining…”
“I think it was the wine…” Joe stared down at her, watching the various emotions chasing each other through her green eyes. She looked happy and content just to be with him, yet his insecurities nudged at him big-time. It had been a long time since he’d had a woman in his bed. Too long…
Erika Salven’s ghost flittered briefly through his mind, before he dismissed her completely. Linda was not Erika, she had no agenda or need to sweet-talk her way into his bed or his heart. She’d laid all her cards on the table over their third dinner date last night, telling him everything about her hopes and fears for the future that didn’t look good for those she cared about. But once bitten…
“Penny for them…” Linda prompted, not liking the serious look in his dark eyes, like somehow she’d messed up big-time. Casual, one night stands just weren’t in her make-up. But she’d been celibate for so long, she was sure she’d even forgotten how to love someone physically. She liked Joe, she wanted to see him again. She could only hope he felt the same.
Making love with him had been a thing of the moment, coupled with the romantic atmosphere of the restaurant, the midnight walk through the park to his apartment, and the stars. Most of all the stars.
They had been bright tonight, unhindered by clouds and seemed to hold such promise. It was something she gave no thought to, what could happen next between them when they reached Joe’s door. It had just happened, but she wasn’t sorry, far from it. But now it looked like he was. Her spirits sank. Perhaps her frank honesty over dinner had been her undoing.
She turned her cheek to rest against the steady beat of his heart. What she should be doing is getting some sleep before her early morning shift. Her eyes strayed to his bedside clock, too late for that now. Hard fingers inserted themselves under her chin, bringing her eyes back to his.
“Do you know you chew your bottom lip when you’re thinking too hard?” Joe asked quietly. “Like you’re not sure how what you have to say will be received.”
“You’re not supposed to notice,” Linda prevaricated.
“I’m a lawyer, remember? I notice things, ticks and tells, the things other people miss.” His dark eyes teased at her, attempting to lighten both their moods. “So tell me…”
“It’s been a long time since I…since anyone…” Linda swallowed tightly. “Well, you know what I mean.”
“Since you’ve been this vulnerable with someone? That cuts both ways, you know. Getting naked together usually has that effect on people.” He laughed softly.
“I just wanted you to know I don’t sleep around to get what I want. I like you…a lot, Joe Maxwell.”
“Glad to hear it,” he teased lightly, but his eyes were serious. “And I don’t think you’re easy, or a push-over, or anything else that is chasing around inside that beautiful head of yours.” He tapped her temple softly with a fingertip. “Give yourself a break.”
“Good…” Linda breathed. Unconsciously her teeth closed on her bottom lip as she considered him.
“Uh oh, I’m coming to know that look.” Joe ran his fingers across her pensive lips. “Spit it out, what do you want to ask me?”
“You mentioned Elliot Burch and his fiancée at dinner tonight, that they may be able to help us…” Linda inhaled. “I was just thinking, maybe just wondering…they are getting married soon, right? And you’re invited…? Being the D.A and all…”
“What’s all this?” Joe’s brows rose steeply. “Are you trying to wangle an invitation to the most exclusive and expensive wedding Manhattan has seen in more than a decade?”
“Not at all…” Linda smiled as she finger-walked her way up to his lips, leaning down to kiss him slowly and deliberately, prompting him to respond in kind. Then she whispered, “I’m only asking you to consider it. But it is a beginning…”
“Uptown girlfriend, this new life sure looks real good on you,” Edie approved, after watching Catherine walk to their restaurant table. Edie rose to her feet to hug her good friend. “And it’s so good to see you again. We haven’t talked in like ages. I miss that.”
She pulled back, her dark eyes censuring as her generous mouth turned down at the corners. She leaned close to Catherine’s ear to whisper, “But you’ve been holding out on me, I hear. But I’m here to tell you I forgive you. For the small price of a great meal.” She flashed a cheeky grin before releasing Catherine and returning to her seat. “I want to know everything.”
“There’s not that much I can tell you. But I will tell you what I can.” Catherine sighed, as she took her seat in the secluded alcove she’s deliberately booked at the Tavern on the Green. “Your grandmother has been a very good friend to us through the years. Ella said she has told you some details, and you have been great with the children. And she appreciates your help, she is not getting any younger.”
She glanced at the windows behind Edie. Beyond them, out in the warm summer darkness well beyond the lights, Vincent hovered, waiting, not for protection, but for comfort and support. Catherine had hated lying to one of her oldest friends, but she had been given no choice. The secrets she was party to, were not hers alone, and never had been.
“Hey, girlfriend, it’s cool.” Edie shrugged. “Grandma told me what she could and the kids have been great, too. I understand there are big, deep secrets and that you’re somehow at the heart of them all. I just hated being the last to know things, but I’m a big girl, I will get over it.” She sighed gustily.
“Without people like you and Ella, our world could not exist,” Catherine began slowly. “But it needs to remain secret to survive. And it must survive, for all our sakes.”
“And your children, and their father…?” Edie pursed her lips. “I guess they’re all part of this secret world too…”
“They are,” Catherine acknowledged. “As one of our helpers, you will meet him in time. But it needs to be a gradual process. He is…very special, but also very different. It is him we protect most of all.”
“Girlfriend, I’d already figured that out.” Edie took her hand. “Else, why the secrecy? You always were a dark horse. And here’s me thinking we had that in common, the lack of a decent man in our lives. How wrong was I on that front?” She laughed quietly. “Maybe you’ve got a good-looking brother down there somewhere for me? Cause, let me tell you, he sure ain’t up here in this world. And that’s not for the want of looking on my part.”
She arched her brows. “Watching re-runs on TV alone is getting way too boring.” She reached to grasp Catherine’s hand. “As long as he’s good to you, that’s enough for me. As long as he loves you, then I will be happy for both of you.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you.” Catherine laughed softly. “And you are good for me, Edie, have I ever told you that?”
“Not often enough,” Edie complained, as she opened her menu. “But for now, I’m famished. Let’s talk men another time.”
“It has been a long time since Margaret left me…” Jacob fiddled with his glasses, not looking at Mary, not wanting to see her expression, but it had to be said. They had become very close over the last few weeks, closer than they had ever been before. “I am more than a little out of practice.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Perhaps I was never very good at relationships in the first place.”
“Do you think I am not aware of such feelings?” Mary countered quietly. “Ever since Michael was killed, so many years ago now, I feel as if I have been in hibernation all this time. I came Below to heal, to begin again, to find peace. And then Grace was taken from me as well.” Her breathing hitched as her soft voice thickened with unshed tears. “I thought my heart would break then. I turned my back for just a second, up in the park that day, and she was gone.”
She fell to twisting her handkerchief in her lap. “But not a day goes by that I don’t hope and pray she is all right…that someone loved her as I love all the children who come under my care.” She raised her thin shoulders helplessly.
“We really are a pair of old misfits, are we not?” Jacob replaced his glasses slowly, turning his head to look at her. “Is it truly too late?”
“There is time enough…” Mary inclined her head. “I have been too long alone. I don’t like being alone, I never did. But it became a habit, something comfortable and predictable. I miss my daughter every day, but sadness and regrets make for cold bedfellows. What I am saying is, I would like to try.”
“Then try we shall.” Jacob heaved a large sigh and smiled. “What will the children think?”
“That it’s about time.” Mary spread her hands. “They have been pushing for this for years. Vincent will be especially pleased; he would wish us to be happy.”
“No regrets…” Jacob stretched his hand across the table towards her.
“No regrets…” Mary took his hand, squeezing it gently. “Well, only one.” She sighed. “One day perhaps, if God is kind, I may see my Grace again.”
“Until that day, we will make the best of what we have,” Jacob said softly.
Mary wiped away a tear. “Yes, I’m sure we can do that.”
Elliot and Shannon’s wedding went off without a hitch. The big day dawned bright and clear. Those who hadn’t been able to secure an invitation to the event itself, crowded the pavement outside the church, waiting and hoping for a glimpse of the power couple, alongside the paparazzi who shoved their way forward, all keen to get the best shot. It was a grand and dignified affair attended by all the city’s dignitaries, followed by the reception held at Lady May’s mansion.
All those city fathers who owed something to the Burch empire, or Shannon’s newly fledged charity for the homeless of the city, came to pay their respects to the couple, and be wined and dined by Lady May’s extensive cellars. All too soon it seemed, those attendees who had no knowledge or place in the world Below were being politely but firmly shown to the door and their respective vehicles by the old lady’s well-trained staff.
Linda waited quietly on the side-lines, watching all those who knew nothing of the world Below to leave. She watched Joe moving through the rapidly thinning crowd of city fathers and important guests, and she wondered when he would also leave. She ached for him to stay, to tell him the truth, but she didn’t speak. She wished she could share her secret with him, for he had rapidly become very important in her life, but she was also well aware the secret was not hers alone. Still she found it extremely odd that he remained, lingering in the background, now and then casting her inquiring looks, as if he expected her to soon be gone from the party.
After an hour the unwanted guests had all left, and the gates and doors to the property and house firmly locked and bolted against unwanted intrusion. Linda made her way to Joe’s side, and he watched her walking towards him with frowning intensity. It was as if he too had the same puzzling question hovering on the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t express it.
“Care to share?” Linda threaded her fingers through his, drawing his hand to rest on her hip. Her green eyes assessed him, wondering exactly what he knew.
Joe looked down at her. “Okay, it seems we have been keeping secrets from each other. What are the chances we both knew, and never thought about what the other might or might not know?” He caught her frown and asked, “You too? And for how long?”
“It appears I don’t know you at all, Joe Maxwell.” Linda huffed a laugh and shook her head. “How long have you known?”
“Ever since one night when Vincent rescued me and Catherine from being shot by Gabriel’s hired killer. I must admit it took some convincing that I wasn’t dreaming it all. That Mouse takes some getting used to, I can tell you. You?”
“One of my girls swore me to secrecy some time ago. She said there was a place, a safe place where she could begin again. She showed me the way down and I’ve been a Helper for more than ten years now, but I have not been to Winterfest in some time. I can see I must amend that omission.” She smiled. “And to think you knew about everything all this time, I agree it seems incredible.” She slanted a questioning glance at him. “Almost as if it was meant to be…” She smiled. “I am so glad I don’t have to hide anything from you.”
“But the secret was not yours to tell, I understand.” Joe drew her closer and kissed her lightly. “I’m still getting used to it all. But I am glad you know.”
“Me too.” Linda cupped his cheek and sighed. “I wish…”
Behind them Lady May suddenly clapped her satisfaction. “Finally, they’re all gone. Now we can get on with the real fun of the evening.”
She commanded the entrance to the tunnel world be declared open and she sat down on a chair in her reception room, waiting to be thoroughly entertained. It wasn’t long before the tunnel folk were filling her house with fun and laughter. Not to be outdone by May’s classically trained chef, William appeared with trays of his best food, and barrels of his finest cider were rolled out for all to enjoy.
Devin came up through the thronging crowd to where Elliot and Shannon were standing with Diana and Azrael. “Great party.” He threw both arms around the new bride and kissed her soundly, before turning to eye Elliot speculatively. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about some investments I have in mind.” Devin’s dark eyes gleamed. “A new little venture I’ve got going.”
“Go on,” Elliot replied warily. “I make no promises.”
“You’re drinking my product.” Devin lifted his own wine glass. “I’m going to need some solid investment if I’m going to expand.” He grinned cheekily. “Now what kind of brother-in-law would I be, if I didn’t offer you first refusal?”
“That relationship is tenuous at best,” Elliot countered on a short laugh. “But I am prepared to listen to your proposal.”
“Excellent!” Devin approved. “Can’t ask for fairer than that.” He saluted both of them. “Welcome to the family, Elliot. I must say you know how to throw a party.” He looked around the room. “Now where’s that other sister of mine…?”
Shannon looked into the small withdrawing room. Passing the door, she was sure she’d heard someone crying, but the room was shrouded in darkness. Thinking she had been mistaken, she was about to step back when she saw movement on the small couch before the window.
“Who is in here?” Shannon extended a hand towards the light switch, but a voice spoke from the darkness, “Please, don’t turn on the light. Leave me be.”
“Mary…?” Shannon eased into the room, shutting the door behind her. “What on earth is the matter? Why are you crying?”
“I’m just being a silly old fool,” Mary replied, with a watery sniff. She sighed, getting to her feet and crossing to Shannon’s side. “It’s just when I saw you, married and looking so happy, and I was reminded so much of my Grace.” She put a hand to Shannon’s cheek. “Too many years filled with too many regrets, but there is not a day goes by when I don’t miss her and wish I could see her again.”
Shannon was well aware of who Mary was referring to, but it had been a long time since the tunnel matron had mentioned her missing five year old daughter. Missing after being snatched from Central Park, leaving Mary distraught and bereft. It had happened in the blink of an eye, one moment her daughter was dancing through the sunshine and then she vanished completely. Everyone had searched, but to no avail. And Shannon knew that Mary blamed herself every day for something that was not her fault.
Shannon put her arms around the only mother she had ever know. “I’ll ask Elliot to put Cleon Manning on the case, see if they can uncover anything. If it’s there to be found, he will find it.”
“It’s all we can do.” Shannon sighed. “Don’t give up hope, Mary. One day, hopefully soon, your Grace may reappear as mysteriously as she once vanished. We must have hope.”
“Yes…” Mary drew her close again, kissing her cheek. “But until that day I still have all of you. And for that I will always be grateful. I love you.”
“I love you too.” Shannon gave her an extra tight squeeze before taking her foster mother back into the party that was still going on in the next room.
“What are you thinking, Vincent?” Catherine looked up at her husband’s pensive face.
“That I am blessed,” he replied quietly. “That all of this…” He waved a hand at the crowded room, smiling at Father trying his best to find a worthy opponent who would agree to retire to a quiet room and play a game of chess with him. “All of this shows how far we have come, you and I. And how much we have to be thankful for.”
Following her husband’s gaze, Catherine smiled as she watched Father doing his best to coax Tony Gilbert away from the many and varied delights of the buffet table. “It has been the best of times…” She linked her fingers through her husband’s, “And the best is yet to be…”
“Yes…” Vincent looked down at their linked hands, before lifting Catherine’s to his lips and kissing the backs of her fingers with lingering tenderness. “I cannot wait…”
“You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching,
“…and so, seven months on from the April re-opening of the brave new venture, the Tavern on the Green looks set to bring renewed life and prosperity to the iconic spaces of Central Park. I know we all wish them well for their ongoing success. This is Beth Howard, reporting to you for New York Today.”
Beth waited for the camera to pan away before she lowered her microphone, releasing a long sigh of relief. It had been an impossibly busy day and she was bone-tired. High-heeled shoes and tight clothing didn’t help when you were five months pregnant and aching in every muscle. She longed to ease off her shoes and walk barefoot in the soft grass, flop down and just luxuriate. But there was a chill fall wind picking up and still the end of year wrap party to endure. She shook her head regretfully as the camera lights were switched off and her crew began to pack up.
It was only after the camera’s glare was removed from her eyes that she suddenly noticed the furtive figure scurrying out of the drainage tunnel in the far distance. She frowned, not sure what she had just seen. The figure was hunched, as if they didn’t wish to be seen, pausing only to cast a worried glance at the turned backs of her crew, before crouching and hurrying into the shelter of nearby bushes. There they seemed to wait for an opportunity to advance further into the park unobserved.
“Say, did you guys see that…?” she began to ask her crew, before changing her mind. Whoever that was over there, they obviously didn’t wish to be noticed. And it was obviously none of her business.
But the image of the figure remained, burned into her mind’s eye. Blessed with total recall, she could picture again the bent figure scurrying to concealment, thick blond hair hanging loosely to their collar. Man or woman, Beth could not determine, but the clothing had been ragged and patch-worked, as if their owner was well down on their luck and made do with what they had. Something about the image awoke in the back of her mind, a fragment of memory, but she too tired to try and pin it down.
“Just get on with your own business.” Beth straightened, easing her back.
Going through this pregnancy alone was hard work, and without respite. There was no one offering to rub her feet or massage the ache from her shoulders. The lamentable Derek had shot through, heading for points unknown the moment he knew Beth was pregnant. She was grateful they had never got around to marrying. The guy was a complete loser. The moment he knew the condom hadn’t worked, he hadn’t stuck around for the consequences.
“Don’t dwell on what can’t be mended.” Beth admonished herself, easing a frustrated hand around the back of her neck. A faint fluttering in the pit of her stomach reminded her she was not entirely alone. She covered the movement with the flat of her hand and smiled.
Of course she still had her mother. Though they didn’t connect as often as Beth would like, she knew Grace was always there, in the background, watching and waiting. A retired nurse, Grace had been an unofficially adopted child, leaving no trace in the public records. She had no idea who her birth parents were, and all Beth’s research had produced zero results about her mother’s true past.
Back in the day, there had sometimes been no formal adoption, so there was no paper trail to be followed. It had been an exercise in frustration, with many false leads and dead-ends that had drained them emotionally. Grace’s adoptive parents were both now dead, so they could provide no clues and never spoke of it to anyone while they were alive. So Beth and her mother made the best of what they had together.
But Beth had not given up. She would find out the truth, even if it was the last thing she did. She was an investigative reporter after all, and she detested being unable to discover the truth. She owed it to her mother to go on, no matter how frustrating the journey.
“Now where did they go?” Beth frowned now at the foliage surrounding the drainage tunnel. Whoever that was hiding in there, they had managed to hurry out unnoticed. She looked around, but there was nobody in sight. “Huh…” Beth shrugged.
“What’s the matter?” Cheryl, the make-up girl, came over, frowning at Beth’s puzzled expression. “Who you lookin’ for?”
“I have no idea.” Beth frowned. “I could have sworn…I guess things in Central Park are never quite as they seem.”
“I hate it when you go all cryptic on me,” Cheryl complained good-naturedly. “But then you were always hinky about some things. Like seeing things that aren’t there. Knowing things before anyone else.”
Beth smiled. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy… ”
“There you go again, quoting some creepy, old, dead guy.” Cheryl threw up her hands. “We’re about done here, you comin’ or not?”
“I guess so…” Beth cast one last long look at the drainage tunnel, but nothing moved. Whoever that was who had appeared out of it had made themselves very scarce. “But I can’t stay long.”
“That’s okay, we—” Cheryl’s comment was cut short by the sounds of an argument in the distance. “What’s going on over there?” Both women turned to look.
“I have no idea…” Beth caught her breath. She saw immediately one of the combatants was that same blond figure, now struggling in the grip of a woman who was screaming her hand bag has been stolen half an hour ago and this was the guy. She was yelling for the cops.
It seemed only a matter of moments before two policemen appeared and promptly arrested the woman’s assailant. The man put up a vocal protest exclaiming it wasn’t him, struggling to escape from his captors, but they subdued him easily.
“Good job,” Cheryl approved, nodding. “About time all the muggers and purse snatchers in this park got cleaned out.”
“But I don’t think he’s the perp.” Beth frowned in the direction of the melee. “I saw him before, down there…” She indicated the drainage tunnel. “He can’t have been over there stealing her purse at the same time. He was in the bushes watching us.”
“You sure about that?” Cheryl frowned at the confrontation. “I mean, he looks like a vagrant. Look at those raggy, old clothes. Probably waiting for a chance to steal from us then too. He looks like a creep.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Beth’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the oddly-dressed man and again something in the back of her mind stirred. A memory or simply confusion, she couldn’t tell. But she couldn’t allow an innocent person to be arrested when she could prevent it. She just knew that man was not the woman’s assailant.
“Hey, where’re you going?” Cheryl made a grab for Beth’s arm as she set off across the grass. “Leave well enough alone, Beth. It’s nothing to do with you.”
But Beth wasn’t listening, she walked quickly up to the scene where the two policemen were now trying to handcuff the purse-snatcher. The struggling blond figure in the middle was muttering the same name over and over.
“Catherine, call Catherine. She knows. She helps. Catherine.” He made a vain attempt to get a hand into the pocket of his ragged jacket. “Get Catherine. Tell her to come.”
“Don’t know any Catherine,” one of the officers replied tersely, as he struggled to contain his prisoner and get him into handcuffs. “Keep still!”
“I truly don’t think this is your guy.” Beth put out a hand to prevent the handcuffs being applied.
“Oh yeah…” The policeman rounded on her. “”And what makes you such an expert on criminals?”
“Catherine…” His prisoner continued to struggle, trying to get his hand into his pocket. “Call Catherine. Say Mouse needs her now. Must come.”
“I know because he was with me at the time of the mugging,” Beth replied briskly, not liking the officer’s tone or his attitude.
“What are you doing, Beth?” Cheryl demanded from behind her. “Do you know this man?”
“Not now,” Beth hissed, waving a silencing hand behind her back while facing the cop and drawing herself up to her full height. She barely reached his shoulder. “This is my coffee guy, he was with me, as I said. Been with me all afternoon.”
“Coffee guy, huh?” The officer looked deeply sceptical, but he reluctantly loosened his grip. “You sure keep some queer company. He’s probably been stealing from you, too.”
Immediately, the scruffy little man sidled up to Beth, pulling a card from his pocket. “Call Catherine.” He offered her the dog-eared square with a worried frown, his mobile face working hard at various expressions as if he was unsure of which one fitted the moment. “Catherine knows. She’ll help. Call now.”
“Chandler Law...” Beth breathed a soft whistle, staring down at the card. “Wow, that’s a pretty high-powered firm. Exclusive and impossible-to-reach are their middle names. Now how would someone like you know them?”
“Catherine…” The scruffy little man bobbed his head, repeating the name beneath his breath like a talisman. “Call her.” He tapped on the card in Beth’s hand. “Knows what to do. Done it before. Mouse makes trouble sometimes.” He shrugged. “Can’t help it.”
“You got five minutes.” The police officer turned away to deal with the distraught woman who had lost her purse, trying to calm her agitation and her vocal insistence that this was the guy and why weren’t they arresting him. But they didn’t go far, still looking entirely unconvinced by Beth’s story. No doubt they were waiting for her to leave so they could re-arrest the poor guy and drag him away.
“Call.” The scruffy man poked the card. “Got cell-phone?” His blond eyebrows danced erratically.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this…” Beth muttered, fishing in her purse for her phone beneath Cheryl’s equally disbelieving gaze.
Beth read the card again before punching in the numbers. There was a brief pause before a woman answered the phone.
“Hi, Samantha,” Beth used the name given. “This is Beth Howard. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was given this number by someone asking for Catherine. He says she will know what to do. I can only assume he means Ms Chandler, but I--”
“Catherine…” The man at her elbow breathed happily. “She will come now.”
“One moment please,” Samantha requested, and Beth could hear a hurried conversation at the other end of the phone. Then Samantha came back on the line, sounding worried. “Is the party concerned still with you? Or has he been arrested?”
“No, he’s here with me.” Beth frowned at the unusual choice of words. “I have just prevented him from being arrested. But if I leave him now, they might come back. They didn’t like the alibi I gave him.”
“I see,” Samantha’s tone became brisk. “Thank you for your concern. I have informed Ms Chandler. If you will give me your location I will see to it the situation is resolved immediately.”
Beth frowned as she gave her position in the park. After a hurried thank you, the phone went dead. Beth stared at it in bemusement. It was a funny way for such a prestigious law firm to operate. But she guessed with the Chandlers’ connection by marriage to one of the largest and wealthiest homeless trusts in the city, they were bound to have some rather unusual clients.
“Catherine comes.” The little man at her elbow smiled happily, bobbing his head. “Samantha knows. Good girl. Mouse okay fine now.”
“Mouse…” Beth stared at him. The name fit him perfectly. Though he was older than he had first appeared, now she was close to him, there was a childlike quality to his innocent blue eyes. He looked like a cuddly puppy that had just been kicked and didn’t know why.
“You gonna hang around with him until someone shows up?” Cheryl demanded to know, hovering nearby. “He doesn’t even look all that clean.”
The scruffy little man bristled at the slight. “Mouse has shower. Made one, too. Jamie said I had to. Gotta smell good.” He shrugged. “Mouse knows how to listen. Jamie is always right,” he intoned slowly, looking very pleased with himself.
“You’re on your own with this one. He’s crazy.” Cheryl spread her hands. “I’ll see you at the party. That’s if you don’t get locked up along with him.” She stabbed an accusing finger at the vagrant before stalking away to where the crew were waiting to leave.
Beth had her own car, so she didn’t worry that she had been abruptly left alone with the funny little man. He intrigued her immensely, with his unusual patterns of speech and his odd connection with one of the most exclusive law firms in the city.
No one even got near the Chandler mansion over on the East River without first making an appointment and being thoroughly vetted by the Manning agency who also worked for the Burch family. High walls and guards made it almost impossible to get into the place. And even then, Chandler Law was very selective in the cases they took on. Which made the present circumstances even more incredible.
As an investigative journalist, Beth was well aware of Catherine Chandler and her father, who had founded the firm back in the early 1990’s. Charles Chandler had been brought out of the Witness Protection programme by Elliot’s Burch’s private investigator after the death of the mysterious Gabriel, a high-class super-villain if ever there was one. It was all a matter of record and ancient history, if someone knew where to look.
Now the two families were inextricably linked with Catherine’s older son, Jacob, recently marrying Burch’s oldest daughter, Rebecca. The Burch empire, linked closely with the charity Shannon Burch had established with her first husband’s vast wealth, forging links throughout the city, powerful connections that didn’t like anyone messing with them.
Catherine Chandler herself was a very mysterious woman. In her investigative work, Beth had tried to dig to the bottom of the woman’s past and her intriguing connections, but had been stymied at every turn. Her record with the D.A’s office made impressive reading. Over the course of two years she’d gotten into and out of some pretty tight spots without explanation. It was almost as if she had a guardian angel who protected her from all harm. Which made no sense that Beth could see. And then Chandler set up the firm with her father and all went quiet, like there was no more need for some mysterious protector.
Beth knew Catherine had four children, her oldest, Jacob, then twin girls, Mary and Cathleen, and finally a younger, teenage son named Vincent. The curious thing about this very exclusive and extremely wealthy family is no one had even set eyes on the father of the woman’s children. He was recorded on all the children’s birth certificates as ‘unknown’.
It was a frustrating puzzle Beth had once tried to sift through and just when she seemed to be getting somewhere she had been stopped by an order from Joe Maxwell, once the D.A. of Manhattan, and now a senior high court judge with an impeccable and formidable reputation.
Beth had been threatened with serious legal action if she pursued her line of inquiry any further. She had been surprised by the order. A favour for an old friend, or was there more than that to this whole story? What, exactly, were they all trying to hide, or protect? Beth had puzzled long and hard over the mysterious connections among these powerful people, but she’d found no answers.
And around this secretive family swirled a whole host of intriguing characters who had no obvious past. There were records, but to Beth’s trained eye, everything seemed a little too neat to be real. It was as if someone had taken a lot of time to carefully manufacture pasts for these people, but they were almost too perfect.
There was the former police investigator Diana Bennett and her very famous artist husband, Azrael Jacobs. A blind man with a fairly common last name, and a neatly packaged past that led precisely nowhere. Beth had chalked him up for investigating, but had met a stone wall of silence. Then Shannon Burch herself, the mysterious woman Elliot Burch had married. Again, a past that didn’t quite ring true. But at every turn, a stone wall had been erected, there were no concrete records, no trails to follow, nothing she could pin down as the truth. It was as if these people didn’t really exist before the early 1990s. That decade seemed to have some oddballs with it.
She huffed a laugh, even as she shook her head. Not the least of all was the silent little man standing beside her, watching her with wide blue eyes. She doubted she would be able to dig up anything about him, either. She glanced again at the drainage tunnel. The little man looked as if he didn’t had a home to call his own.
“Okay...” Suddenly Beth’s eyes narrowed. Now she was close to him, she noticed that the man’s clothing was not merely rags thrown together, but a finely stitched assortment of fabrics, old and well-worn admittedly, but tidy and neatly kept. As if someone had taken great care to craft clothing that was both serviceable and easy to wear. Beth frowned, that odd memory tickling again in the back of her mind. She was suddenly sure she’d seen that neat stitching before, crazy as it may seem right now.
Her memory suddenly threw up an image of a child’s dress, the very dress Grace had kept all these years neatly folded in an old shoe-box hidden in the bottom of her wardrobe. It had been the dress she was wearing when she was adopted, and she had refused to part with it, even though her adoptive mother often threatened to burn it, as if it had some significance to the unknown past. Grace’s name had been neatly stitched into the neck-band. And now that Beth pictured it, she knew it looked exactly like this man’s quaint clothing, an assortment of fabrics neatly matched, almost as if the same careful hand had made the same garment.
In the bottom of the box were the journals her mother had kept since she was five years old, and she spoke of that very dress, saying it was her mouse-dress and she’d always wanted to go back home, to be safe again in the mouse hole. She also wrote often of the Guardian of her dreams, someone who looked out for her and protected her from harm or helped her when she was afraid or sad. Beth could well understand a lonely child inventing an imaginary friend for company, she’d had her own when she was younger, but her mother insisted the person was very real and just waiting for her to find him again.
A frustrated sigh feathered past Beth’s lips. It was like trying to nail down a shadow. In her teenage years her mother had ceased to write about this beloved guardian, and never mentioned his name. Nor would she describe this mysterious person, no matter how many times Beth asked for information. It was another lead that went nowhere. None of it made any sense and it was a complicated story that seemed to have no happy ending, until now…
“Crazy idea…” Beth muttered in her frustration. Besides the guardian reference, that mouse entry had always puzzled and confused her. It had made no sense, until now. Where there is a mouse, surely there must be a mouse hole and…
“This is nuts…” Beth glanced down at the little man standing silently next to her, then into the middle distance where the two policemen still hovered, waiting and watching. This whole affair was getting stranger by the minute.
“Mouse and the mouse hole…” she murmured, not really expecting an answer. “I guess you, too, must have some kind of guardian angel. You sure look like you need one.” She looked back at the man beside her. “Now it all makes some kind of crazy sense. But I have no idea what or how.”
“I am Mouse.” The little man’s blue eyes jerked up to meet hers before darting away, and Beth was sure he knew more than he was telling. “Mouse good now. Catherine comes.”
Beth wanted to shake him, demand some answers, but it was already too late. Finally she was about to meet the woman herself. She watched Catherine Chandler’s car pull up and the lawyer got out, looking around for her client.
“Catherine!” Beside Beth, her companion threw up a hand and called out, waving madly. Catherine turned in their direction, and came swiftly down the slope towards them, her expression reflecting both frustration and deep concern.
But I could have told you, Vincent…
“You should rest more,” Catherine slid a cup of coffee and a plate of sandwiches across the table towards Beth before she sat down opposite her at the café table. “And get rid of those ridiculous shoes. High heels and pregnancy certainly don’t mix.”
“Thanks.” Beth sipped the hot brew gratefully before reaching for a sandwich and devouring it. Her grumbling stomach welcomed the nourishment. She realized belatedly she had not eaten anything beyond a hastily snatched energy bar since breakfast. And now the sun was going down. “No offence, but you sound just like my mother.”
“None taken.” Catherine laughed lightly. “But you do know we are both right. I have four children to prove I know what I’m talking about. When do you plan on giving up work?”
Beth shrugged. “I have just over a month to run on my contract. After I finish on Christmas Eve, I doubt the network will want to see me for a few months.” She eyed her companion with intense curiosity. “And I may not return at all. I don’t really know what I want to do now.”
She was dying to ask questions, but the high-powered lawyer’s brisk manner and air of supreme confidence made it difficult to find the right place to begin. But this heaven-sent opportunity was too good to pass up. She had to find a way in, the intense curiosity was eating her up inside.
For Beth, the last half an hour had been a revelation. The little man called Mouse had scurried away into the distance after a brief talk with his lawyer and the two policemen who had wanted to arrest him. But Catherine had settled the matter quickly, allowing her mysterious companion to make good his escape. He didn’t even pause to say good-bye, and there had been no mention of money being offered for services rendered. Beth decided that was the one place she could safely start.
“Mouse…” she commented reflectively. “The name suits him. A quaint little man.” She kept her face blandly inquiring as she sipped her coffee before eating another sandwich. She wiped her fingers on a napkin before continuing. “Odd that he just happened to have your card on him. He certainly acted as if he knew you well. Almost as if he’d used your services before and often. But he didn’t look as if he had even a place to call home.”
“Yes, it could look that way.” Catherine’s level gaze said she knew Beth was wanting to know more than she was willing to tell. “Mouse is an old friend. He…” she hesitated, obviously assembling her facts. “…has a rather unfortunate habit of getting into sticky situations through no fault of his own. He is rather an innocent at times. After more than a few problems with the law, I decided it was easier to give him my card. It saved time and a lot of paperwork. Sometimes I think it just encourages him to be outrageous.”
“And yet he doesn’t look as if he has two cents to rub together.” Beth toyed with the handle of her cup. “I mean, he looked completely homeless. I didn’t know a powerful firm like Chandler Law went in for charity work, though you are related by marriage now to one of the biggest charity groups in the city. But I didn’t know you also did pro bono work on behalf of their clients.”
“My father and I, we do what we can,” Catherine prevaricated smoothly. “And I must thank you for your quick thinking. Mouse told me how you saved him. We are grateful.”
“No problem.” Beth shrugged. “I saw him coming out of that drainage tunnel into the park. I knew he couldn’t have been the bag-snatcher, no matter what the victim said. He couldn’t have been in two places at once.”
“I wonder what he was doing in the drainage tunnel...” Catherine frowned thoughtfully, as if considering the whole idea odd. “Perhaps he was lost. No matter, he knows to be more careful next time.”
“Oh, I think he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.” Beth shook her head, studying the other woman’s frank look of disinterest. “And where he’d been. He looked entirely at home.” She locked eyes with the lawyer. “Almost as if he lived down there somewhere, down below the city. I’ve heard of people doing that to survive. Once I tried to get an interview with someone who said they had lived down there, but it didn’t pan out. He rambled on about ten-foot-tall monsters and the horrible things he’d seen down there. I’ve been real curious ever since.”
She just caught the shade of consternation that flickered through Catherine’s level gaze before she masked it with a look of disbelief. Beth continued, “I was thinking, after January, when I have time on my hands, I might do an investigation, go on down into that tunnel and see what I can turn up. You never know, I might get lucky. I might even meet your scruffy little friend again down there. Maybe he could show me around.”
“Please don’t,” Catherine begged softly, leaning forward. “There is nothing there to find. Others have tried and failed and I would hate to see you get hurt." Her eyes dropped to Beth’s abdomen. “Especially in your condition. Some things are better left unexplored and unexplained.”
“And yet Mouse didn’t look homeless, not when you got up close to him…” Beth continued to speculate as if Catherine hadn’t spoken. “He looked well cared for, and he mentioned someone called Jamie. I presume it’s a woman, by the way he said the name, as if she meant the world to him, even though he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. So again there is more to this story than I know right now. And I don’t like mysteries. My mother’s whole life is one huge mystery tied up in a bunch of half-truths and obscure references about dream guardians and mouse-holes. Do you know how maddening it is to be unable to pin anything down?”
“I have some idea. So what is it going to take for you to leave this story alone?” Catherine pushed aside her empty cup. “For you not to not dig any further?”
“An interview with you and your father, full and frank.” Beth sat forward quickly, sensing an opening. “No stone unturned. No more half-truths and dodging the answers.”
“Impossible,” Catherine snapped. “It isn’t going to happen.” She made to stand up. “And I won’t be blackmailed, Ms Howard. Please understand I will not be trifled with. I know Joe Maxwell has warned you off in the past. Now take this as a final warning, we are to be left alone. Or you will have a law-suit on your hands.”
“Sorry, but I just wish to know, Ms Chandler.” Beth put out a detaining hand pleadingly. “I have so many questions, so many facts that just don’t add up. It’s like one of those frustrating Azrael Jacobs paintings, the more doors I find to open, they still lead nowhere and the more confused I become. I think we were destined to meet today. And what if I promise to publish nothing, tell no one of whatever you tell me.” She extended one hand. “Deal…?”
Catherine rose slowly, staring down at the other woman’s hand. This interview had not gone as she had planned; she doubted Beth was someone who could be fobbed off easily. Silently she berated Mouse and his clumsiness in being seen in the first place. But it couldn’t be helped now.
“And I have secrets, too.” Beth stood slowly, her hand still held out. “Until today I never understood why my own mother had kept a child’s dress for all these years.
Beth slowly advanced closer, dropping both her voice and her hand. “His clothing…” She shrugged. “It exactly matched that dress of my mother’s. Like they were made by the same person, the stitching and everything matched perfectly. And made by someone with deep affection and even love.”
“I don’t understand…” Catherine eyes narrowed, becoming extremely watchful. She shook her head. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“That there is more to this story than a chance encounter in the park this afternoon,” Beth replied in a whisper, scanning the other customers at their tables to make sure no one was listening. “That somehow the fates of your Mouse and my mother are tied together in some way. By acquaintance or by blood, I have no idea. But I know what I saw, and I know that you know far more about this story than you are telling. My mother has always said she never fit into the family she was raised in. But she couldn’t put her finger on why. The only things she had to tie it all together was a child’s dress that had been hand-made from scraps of fabric, and some fragments of memory from the time before she was adopted.”
“I don’t know what to say…” Catherine lifted her shoulders. “Or how to answer you. What you ask is completely impossible.”
“I need to know, Catherine,” Beth prompted. “For my sake and my mother’s. And for my unborn child.” She placed a spread hand over her abdomen. “Can you help me find out the truth?”
“The truth…” Catherine stared at her, the long-ago story Shannon had once told her about Mary’s missing five-year-old daughter replaying in her mind. Could it be possible after all these years?
And what could she do with such sensitive information? Many other lives would be impacted by this revelation, and yet could she pass up the opportunity to find out the ultimate truth? She needed to research the case, make sure her facts were solid. For that to happen she needed time, and for Mary’s sake she had to try.
“You know something, don’t you?” Beth edged closer still. “You know the truth about my mother’s origins. I can see it in your eyes. Please, if not for my sake, then for my mother’s. She needs to know, to feel connected to her past. To understand what happened to her all those years ago and why. And if there is a family out there somewhere who is missing a cherished daughter…”
“I do have some idea…” Catherine conceded slowly. “But I am afraid the story is not mine alone. There are many people who depend on me and my family to keep their secrets. I cannot overset everything on such flimsy evidence. I will need more proof.”
“I have already worked that out for myself.” Beth shook her head. “But for the sake of those I love, I am willing to make allowances. I will agree to abide by whatever agreement we can make between us, and never reveal what I may discover.”
“I am beginning to like you more and more,” Catherine took Beth’s hand between her own. “Maybe Mouse was right after all.”
“Mouse…?” Beth frowned. “Why, what did he say?”
“That you were a nice lady and I could trust you. He was sure you meant me and mine no harm. Mouse trusts very few people.”
“Smart guy,” Beth approved. “And he is right, you know. I just need the truth.”
“Yes, I am beginning to believe he is…” Catherine hesitated, giving Beth another long, searching look before reaching into her purse and extracting a business card and a pen. She wrote quickly on the card before handing it to Beth. “Give this to the guard at the gate, it will get you into the property. I have written the date and the time for our interview. Until then, Ms Howard, goodbye.” Catherine shook the younger woman’s hand before gathering her things and leaving the café.
“Goodbye…” Beth sat down hard, breathing a long sigh of disbelief. She had finally achieved what she had long sought, and the excitement within her fizzed like fireworks. She glanced at the card, the date Catherine Chandler had set down was the 3rd of January. More than a month from now.
Beth sat back to stare at the card. She thanked her good sense that allowed her to rescue the Mouse man and make such an important connection. She was dying to tell her mother everything, but until she knew the truth herself, Beth decided to keep the afternoon’s events to herself for now. The last thing she wanted to do was disappoint her mother again after so many years of dead-ends and disappointments...
“Do you really think there’s a chance it could be her?” Sitting in Catherine’s living room, Shannon worried the point. “I mean, after all this time, what is Mary going to say?”
“First we must make extensive inquiries, leave no stone unturned,” Catherine replied slowly. “I have already asked Diana and Edie to look into it, they both know how to be discreet. Elliot has agreed to ask Cleon to investigate as well. Whatever they dscover, we can’t tell Mary anything until we’re sure. It would break her heart.”
“And Mouse...?” Shannon questioned. “Have you spoken to Vincent about him? He is becoming far too careless in his wanderings.”
Catherine nodded. “Mouse knows he did wrong. Vincent has talked with him. We have decided for all our sakes to seal up the drainage entrance for now. No one uses it much these days, but Beth is more than capable of trying to find out things we don’t wish her to know just yet.”
“Perhaps it was meant to be.” Shannon leaned forward to pour them both another cup of tea. “It has been a tragic secret for far too long.”
“Then we must put our trust in finding out the truth and hope for the best. It would be an incredible Winterfest gift if any of it is proved to be true.”
“What is it?” Grace looked up from the magazine she was reading.
“Catherine Chandler…” Beth waved the unopened envelope. “I told you about meeting her. That back before Christmas she promised to give me an interview next week. I had a date and time all set, and now, it seems she’s written to fob me off with some lame excuse.”
“If you haven’t opened it, how do you know it’s a cancellation?” Grace pushed the magazine aside to survey her daughter critically. “Why not open it and find out the truth?” She rose to her feet.
Beth compressed her lips at her mother’s rational argument. Of course it made sense, but the hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach remained. To be so close and yet so far, and to have her hopes for some answers snatched away at the eleventh hour…
“Stop overthinking it,” Grace counselled briskly. “You’ve always been too fatalistic. It may be good news.”
“In my line of work it pays to be prepared. I usually find most people have something to hide.”
“Well, open it and confirm your suspicions then. What do you have to lose?” Grace got to her feet and came to stand beside her daughter. “But I don’t see how it's such a problem. Surely Ms Chandler could’ve emailed you or phoned. You’re not that hard to find. Perhaps she wants something else, something that can’t be spoken of in such a public way. Or maybe she’s just old-fashioned and likes to write letters. Ever think of that?”
“You are far too wise for your own good,” Beth chided her softly, before kissing her mother’s lined cheek. “Maybe you’re right…” She stared at the envelope.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, give it here!” Grace snatched it from her daughter’s hands, turning it over and slitting the sealed flap. Before Beth could react, she drew an embossed piece of card from the envelope. She read it quickly, before giving a low whistle of disbelief. “Well, I’ll be…”
“What is it?” Beth reached for the card. “Bad news, I just know it!”
“You were right, your appointment for an interview has been cancelled…” Grace read the card again slowly, tracing the words with her fingertip.
“I told you so!” Beth complained, seizing on the card and reading it quickly. She frowned. “What’s this? Some kind of game?”
“Well, it looks like a dinner invitation to me.” Grace stared at her daughter. “I may be out of practice in this modern world, but I even I can see that.” She shook her head. “Don’t be so pessimistic, you must have made quite an impression. The Chandlers are well known for their exclusivity, and their ways are not for the likes of us.”
“But look, it says here it’s for you, too.” Beth looked up. “See, we’re both invited. I don’t get this. I don’t like mysteries.”
“What?” Grace took the card back. “What on earth could someone like the Chandlers want with me? I’m nobody, so it makes no sense. There must be some mistake.”
“See what I mean?” Beth shook her head. “I guess there’s only one way for us to find out. We’ll have to go there.”
“There’s something else…” Grace peered into the envelope again. She drew out a smaller oblong of expensive paper and held it up. “It’s addressed to you.” She turned her eyes to her daughter’s puzzled face. “Just what have you been up to that I don’t know about? What’s going on between you and this Chandler woman that you’re not telling me? The letter’s from her, isn’t it?”
“I have no idea…” Beth lifted her shoulders, unsure of what else to say even as she took the envelope from her mother’s out-stretched hand. Over the years there had been so many false leads and dead-ends to her mother’s mysterious story, Beth was ever wary of serving up another helping of crushing disappointment. She had therefore not told her mother about a large part of her recent conversation with Catherine Chandler. But if the lawyer had used her undoubted connections to uncover some new facts that could change everything…
Now was the moment of truth. But even now Beth didn’t dare to hope…She quickly slit the flap open and drew out a folded letter. She turned away to scan the contents even as her mother tugged at her wrist, trying to read it over her arm. It was a letter from Catherine, and it did contain some explosive new facts that took Beth’s breath away. Surely it couldn’t be right…
“What does it say?” Grace demanded to know, trying to draw the letter into her line of sight. “Why all the secrecy? Come on, fess up. You’re making me nervous.”
“If I was keeping secrets, it’s because I was so afraid…” Beth sighed as she lowered Catherine’s Chandler’s letter. “Afraid we were no closer to the truth than we have been these last twenty years. Afraid to break your heart all over again…”
“Now you’re scaring me…” Grace looked anxious as she finally succeeded in securing the letter. She read it quickly, her brow furrowing. “What is this all about?” She looked up at Beth. “Why does she want to see me and says I’m to bring my box with the mouse-dress? That she has things we need to see and know. Just what have you been telling a complete stranger about our personal business?”
“Because she’s not a stranger and she knows things; truths we would never have been able to uncover in a million years.” Grace took her mother’s shoulders in a tight grip. “Sit down, Mom, please. I have something very important I need to tell you…”
Cleon sat in the guard room beside the gated entrance to the Chandler mansion estate feeling sorry for himself. He was getting too old for this lark. But ever since his beloved wife had died and the children had all left home, his house felt so empty.
His grandchildren were now scattered across the world. He didn’t see them as often as he would wish, and he loved children. But there it was, something else he could do nothing about. He could no longer claim the pressure of work, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to move on, to leave behind some long, unfinished business. And it was all the fault of Elliot Burch who’d steadfastly refused to budge on the information he had kept hidden all these years. It shouldn’t still rankle, but it did. Cleon shifted uneasily in his chair, frowning at his memories.
Cleon had retired from active duty with the agency some years before, but he couldn’t entirely let go of the reins. It gave him something to do in the long hours he was alone. Time to reflect and wonder on a life filled with secrecy and half-truths. He was no closer to uncovering the secrets Elliot Burch had kept hidden all these years. It was the one area of his life that continued to irk him, those unanswered questions he still carried.
Alex, his own son, now in charge of the Manning Agency, often complained of his father’s interference in the work, but Cleon needed something to occupy him, and the duty of guarding the Chandler’s exclusive property was not an arduous one. He could make his own hours and relieve whenever he wanted to do so. Right now he had sent the current guard home to his newly-pregnant wife. It was the least he could do for a young couple just starting out.
Besides it was a rare thing that anyone tried to enter the property without permission, therefore whatever secrets the high-profile lawyers possessed were in no immediate dangers of being revealed. But still those secrets nibbled away at Cleon, even after all these years he still desired to know the truth. Over that time he’d become tired of the games and the ongoing secrecy. Surely he’d earned that right by now? Elliot Burch owed him that much after so many years of brooding silence.
“Or maybe I’m just getting maudlin in my old age,” he commented to the stars and grinned lopsidedly. “I told Alex only this morning that it’s about time I finally quit for good. Get in some serious fishing before I die. Take that, Elliot Burch!”
Cleon stared through the hut’s window into the moonlit garden beyond the wall. At Elliot’s personal request he’d personally done all the leg-work on the Howard case, pulling in all sorts of favours in the search for the truth. And wherever he went, it seemed Beth Howard had been before him, but even she didn’t have the extensive resources Cleon could call on, and combined with both Diana Jacobs keen nose for the truth and Edie’s expert computer skills, they had finally hit pay-dirt. They had come up trumps only a matter of a few days ago, finding some old news film footage from that long-ago day in the park, and some stills that made interesting viewing. The investigation had come together rather neatly. The past was there sleeping, like it was just waiting for him to find it again…
“And yet, here I sit…” He leaned back in the chair, propping his feet on the edge of the desk and closing his eyes, linking his fingers across his trim waistline, his chin sinking to his chest. He was sure he would hear any vehicle before it arrived at the gate. Behind his eyelids his late wife waited for him, and he liked talking to her…
“You know, too much thinking will only give you grey hairs…” A quiet voice at his elbow startled Cleon from his brooding reverie moments later. “And both of us have got enough of them already.”
He knew that voice. “Elliot…” Cleon turned his head to stare at his old boss and good friend. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been invited.” Elliot extended an embossed invitation. “And this time so have you. Phillip is here to take over from you. Alex said you were down here again, getting in the way, making a nuisance of yourself as usual.” Elliot glanced back to his car where his wife was watching them both. “We figured it was past time for you to know a few things. You’ve been patient long enough.” Elliot grinned. “Alex said you’d decided to finally quit the firm and go fishing. Sounds like a desperate move to me.”
“More games, boss?” Cleon dropped his feet to the floor, but he didn’t budge from his seat. “I’ll admit I was just thinking I’m getting too old for games. I’m tired of playing catch-up with ghosts and things that just don’t want to be found out. But you know as well as I do, I’ve never fished in my life. Don’t intend to start now.”
“We both are getting too old for games,” Elliot chuckled softly. “And times most certainly have changed. Stay out here and sulk if you want, but Shannon and I are going on in.” He reached past Cleon to depress the button that operated the automatic gates.
“Hang on!” Cleon bolted from his chair. “This I gotta see.”
“Then jump in.” Elliot indicated his vehicle with a nod of his head. “I think you’re in for an interesting night.”
Beth presented her invitation to the uniformed guard at the gate, half-expecting to be denied, but after a brief inspection she was waved through. The gate opened and closed behind her car smoothly, and they progressed down a long winding drive set between two rows of towering oak trees, now black against the star-filled evening sky.
“Told you this invitation was kosha,” her mother commented drily, as they drew up before an impressive mansion set in extensive grounds and gardens. There was already another car parked out front, which Beth identified as belonging to the Burch family. But there was no sign of them, they must be already inside the house.
“I’ll admit to being really intrigued now…” she replied slowly, placing a hand over the uneasy fluttering deep within her, she was still not sure. However, she intended to make the best of the evening. She got out of the car slowly, looking around with interest.
Catherine Chandler’s family home stood revealed to her critical eyes. Elegantly and lovingly finished, roofed with red tiles, the extensive old house gleamed in the moonlight, its many windows appearing to smile benevolently on its visitors. Whatever Beth had been expecting, it wasn’t this.
“It’s beautiful…” Grace breathed, coming to stand beside her daughter, her old shoe-box tucked securely under her arm. “I didn’t know what we’d find down here. But this is perfect. Should we go in, do you think?”
As she spoke, the front door opened and a young man came slowly down the steps towards them. Tall and rangy with a thick mane of long blond hair that floated around his broad shoulders on the evening’s warm breeze, he looked supremely confident of himself and his place in the world. He was dressed in black jeans and an open-necked denim shirt, but both were designer label and obviously expensive.
Reaching the bottom of the steps he smiled, holding out one large, long-fingered hand towards them. “Hi, I’m Vincent Chandler. You are welcome here.”
“Vincent…” Grace gasped as she stared at him. “How did you…that was his name…I don’t believe…are you for real?” Her steps faltered and she would have fallen if Beth hadn’t taken her arm, but her mother only had eyes for the tall young man.
“The Guardian of my dreams…” she whispered brokenly, finally taking his hand between her own. “That’s what I used to call him,” she then said cryptically, her eyes filling with unshed tears. “But you and him…is he…I mean, was he even real?” A shudder passed through her. “I didn’t dare hope, not after all these years. My mother said it was only a childish fantasy and I’d get over it.”
“He is no fantasy, and he is very real…” Vincent replied softly, his watchful blue eyes assessing Beth’s look of utter confusion and frowning consternation. “And he is waiting to see you again. You just need to be patience a little longer and all will be revealed.”
He slid an arm around Grace’s shoulders, pulling her close against him. “But first things first. There are things we need to tell you only my mother can explain. She is expecting you both. Please come on inside.” He turned to indicate the steps leading up to the front door, falling into step behind the two women as he escorted them inside.
Beth looked around at the details of the place. The entrance was filled with light and flowers, all beautifully arranged on the elegant antique furniture that lined the hallway. She was dying to ask who this Vincent guy was, and how he knew her mother, but no one seemed to be forthcoming with any further answers to the puzzle. Of course the obvious speculation was he was the mysterious father of the Chandler brood and by some crazy coincidence also her mother’s dream guardian. But why was his identity such a secret? It still made no sense at all.
“This way…” Vincent led them forward, opening a door further down the hall, and indicated they were to pass inside. Beth and her mother did as they were bid, and the young man closed the door behind them.
“Welcome, Beth.” Catherine Chandler rose from one of a set of couches facing each other before a large marble fireplace. “And you must be Grace.” She held out a hand to both women in turn. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Thank you.” Grace shook the hand offered to her, her face alive with curiosity. “I must admit to being thoroughly intrigued by your invitation.”
“I see you have brought the box as I requested.” Catherine’s eyes fell to the old shoe-box.
“Beth told me about your meeting.” Grace tightened her grip on the box. “After all these years, it doesn’t seem possible that someone could finally uncover the truth about where I came from. And all the people I imagined are actually real.”
“I can assure you they are very real. But, please, sit down.” Catherine indicated the opposite couch. “There is much to tell you and so many things to show you.”
Both Beth and her mother sank slowly down onto the couch. The door opened again and Vincent reappeared carrying a laden tray. He placed it on the coffee table before his mother, setting about pouring champagne into three glasses, before offering Beth a glass of chilled fruit juice. Beth acknowledged the thoughtful courtesy with a nod of thanks even as she studied the young man closely. His piercing blue eyes stared back at her with equal curiosity as he completed his task, taking the final glass of wine and seating himself beside his mother.
“Let’s drink to the uncovering of the final truth.” Catherine raised her glass in a toast before sipping the wine. “And to new beginnings…”
“If you say it’s true, then I must believe it. But none of it seems possible.” Two hours later, Grace pushed the final photograph across the polished dining room table towards her daughter. She felt as if her head, now so full of incredible new facts, was about to burst with the scope of it all. “And you say you know my mother? My real mother?”
“I have known her for over twenty-five years,” Catherine Chandler acknowledged with a nod. “Her name is Mary, and there hasn’t been a day that has passed where she has not missed you and wondered about you. She prayed you were well.”
“Mary…” Grace whispered. “Mary and Vincent…” She glanced towards the door where Catherine’s son had shown them into the room. “It does all seem like a fairy-story.”
“And you say this this is how it happened?” Beth peered closer at the photographic still that had been taken from some old news footage and enhanced. It clearly showed a young girl in a patchwork dress being carried in the arms of a woman Beth could identify as her adopted grandmother. “Angela simply picked her up in the park one afternoon and took her away.”
“Yes…” Catherine nodded as she looked towards Grace. “Your mother had taken you into the park to play. She turned her back for a moment and you were gone. You were looked for, they all searched for days, but you had simply vanished. It seems the woman who adopted you had recently lost her own child. But that doesn’t excuse what she did.”
“And this dress?” Grace drew the mouse-dress from the box. “This was the clue?”
“Your mother had made it for you. As she made all the clothes for the community you lived in. She still makes them to this day. They make everything with love and care. Theirs was…and is…a secret and closed community, a place where those with nowhere else to go can find peace and a new home.” Catherine’s gaze shifted to Beth’s. “You have met Mouse, you know he could not live anywhere else.”
“It sounds like paradise…” Grace said slowly, smoothing the many fabrics of the dress beneath her hands. “And now..?” she asked slowly.
“Now…” Catherine stood slowly, glancing at her son who sat silently at the head of the table, watching all the proceedings. “I think it’s past time you met your mother.”
Vincent rose at his mother’s nod, moving across the room to open another door. An older woman stood framed in the entrance, nervous fingers adjusting and readjusting the fabric of her dress. She made no move to enter the room, her face alive with anguish and uncertainty.
“Hello…” Beth rose to her feet, drawing her mother up beside her.
“It’s okay, Mary.” Vincent took the older woman’s arm, encouraging her into the room, placing his arm around her shoulders and kissing her lined cheek. “No one blames you.”
“I’m so sorry, for everything,” Mary said in a rush. “I have regretted that day, every day of my life.”
“There’s nothing to regret.” Grace hurried around the table towards her, Beth close behind. “I’m only sorry it’s taken so long. I truly never expected to meet you.” She paused in front of her mother.
“Me too…” Mary began to shake, the strong support of Vincent’s arm seeming to hold her up from collapsing.
“We all have regrets…” Grace put her own arms around the older woman and hugged her tightly. “But now we’re a family again. That is what matters beyond everything. We can start there.”
“With love all things are truly possible…” Vincent murmured softly, his intense blue eyes meeting his mother’s above the clustered heads of the three women surrounding him, and he smiled.
“I think it’s beyond time for a celebration,” Catherine replied, returning his smile. “And now we need to make some further introductions. I think it’s going to be a very interesting evening.”
I used to think that I was strong
“I cannot believe it has been almost thirty years now…” Father looked up from the chess board to frown at his son seated across the table from him. “It seems like only yesterday when you found Catherine up in the park and I began to truly despair of your ever finding happiness, or making any kind of life together. And now, here we all are once more…” He shook his grey head in wonder. “We have come a very long way, you and I. And it has been an incredible journey. But now, looking back, I know I would not have missed it for anything. You have taught me so much about love and sheer perseverance.”
“Thank you, Father.” Vincent leaned forward to peer at the chess pieces; searching for the clever trap he was certain his parent had set. Father might have slowed considerably in the body but, even at ninety-three years of age, his mind was as sharp as a razor and he still delighted in besting his opponents at his favourite game.
Vincent’s eyes narrowed and he nodded. “I see you have learned how Carlsen retained his title over Anand last year. As usual, your information is impeccable.”
“I have to keep up with the times.” Father smiled gleefully. “At least my grandson knows how to look after an old man. He keeps me informed of all the important goings-on Above. He and Rebecca make a fine couple, you must be very proud.”
“Jacob loves you,” Vincent replied, reaching to make his move. “And the world up there is so different now. Catherine has the practice with her father and Jacob helps out when he’s not too busy with his own career with the D.A.’s office. The girls and Vincent will find their own paths soon enough. I am proud of every one of their achievements.”
“They all make an old man very happy.” Father’s eyes narrowed with intent. “Ah, I see what you’re doing…Now, if I remember rightly…” He moved his queen slowly forward. “I believe that is check…” He sat back with a satisfied smile to watch his son’s thoughtful reaction.
“Do you two never learn?” a feminine voice asked from the entrance to Father’s chamber. “It is almost evening Above. The guests will be arriving soon and neither of you are making any attempt to be ready. This is supposed to be a celebration for everyone. I swear even Lady May will somehow manage to beat you both to the Great Hall, and Joe is bringing her down in a wheelchair. The children have been there for hours already.”
“Your husband has yet to admit when he’s beaten.” Father shrugged, smiling up at Catherine as she came down the short flight of steps to the lower level of the room. “And I am winning for a change. At my age, I can’t afford to ignore a winning streak. May will be fine with all the helpers around her.”
“You two will never learn…” Catherine moved to perch on the side of Vincent’s chair, placing an arm around his shoulders before leaning down to kiss his temple. “Thirty years ago…” she whispered softly, for Vincent’s ears alone. “I remember that feeling of safety, as if you would care for me always, no matter what happened. I had never known such a feeling before.”
“I think I loved you from the first moment I saw you…” Vincent tilted his head to one side, looking up at the beauty of her face. “That night in the park…” Even after all these years his wife could make his breath catch when she looked at him like that.
He smiled, shaking his head as he reached up to draw Catherine down to sit across his lap. “So much has changed. So many wonderful things have come to pass and to be.”
“And yet some things have remained the same…” Catherine turned to thread her fingers up through the still-tawny fall of her husband’s thick mane, smiling into the sapphire depths of his eyes where the dancing flame of their abiding love burned brighter than ever. “But Jacob and Rebecca will be here soon and you do need to change. We have the biggest Winterfest in recent memory to attend and we mustn’t be late. William will never forgive us if we don’t do his food justice. He has spent days preparing it all.”
Vincent didn’t reply immediately as he studied the picture she made in the flickering candlelight. She was the love of his life and she looked as beautiful now as she did that long-ago night on her balcony when he had finally surrendered to the inevitable and allowed himself to be drawn towards the beauty and acceptance of her love. A life together had seemed utterly impossible then…and yet now…
He leaned close to kiss her slowly with banked passion, before he whispered, “Somewhere there waiteth in this world of ours, for one lone soul another lonely soul. Each choosing each through all the weary hours, and meeting strangely at one sudden goal. Then blend they, like green leaves with golden flowers into one beautiful and perfect whole; And life's long night is ended, and the way Lies open onward to eternal day…”
He cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand. “I love you, Mrs. Wells.” The rich, unbreakable bond between them flowed and rippled with the strength of their love, and the sense of their mutual need, one for the other…
“I know…” Catherine breathed. “And I love you too. But how about you save some of those deliciously distracting thoughts until after the party or we will never make it in time…?” She was out of his embrace, running lightly up the steps and through the door before he could react or think of a reply.
“You know, my father threw me out the night before my twenty-first birthday.” Elliot lowered himself onto the settle beside Vincent and handed him a mug of ale. He turned from watching the dancers in the middle of the Great Hall to survey his good friend. His mouth tightened. “Of course I made it easy for him. I told him I didn’t want the same things as he did and I was leaving anyway. He threw a wad of money at me — money my mother had saved for me — and told me never to darken his doorstep again. He was ashamed of me. He died ashamed of me. It is old history.”
He shrugged, looking down into the mug of William’s fine brew he held in his hand. “He once said I was dead to him. But the money was enough to give me the start I needed. And I never got to thank him for that.” He gave a regretful laugh. “Somehow I doubt he would have listened, anyway. We were always poles apart and he detested me for — as he saw it — killing his only son.”
“Do not be too hard on yourself, Elliot.” Vincent clasped his shoulder. “Perhaps your father understood you more than you knew. Perhaps he knew that you needed to go your own way and leave Stosh behind. He just couldn’t admit it. Pain makes men say things they don’t mean. We both know that.”
“Perhaps…” Elliot sighed, turning back to watch the dancing. “It was all so long ago. And now, here we are, fathers in our turn. Do you think we have done a better job?”
“There certainly have been challenges…” Vincent followed his friend’s gaze to where Jacob was dancing with his new bride, Rebecca. They were laughing together as they circled the floor, obviously at ease with one another. “And yet…” Vincent smiled. “There is no manual to tell us what to do. Maybe we were just as blind.”
“Perhaps that’s for the best.” Elliot shook his head. “And Jacob is doing well at the D.A’s office?”
“Very well,” Vincent acknowledged. “He has his mother’s talent for the law. Catherine was in two minds whether to allow him. She worries about the inherent dangers, but Joe keeps a watchful eye. He will not let anything happen to him. And the work is not as dangerous these days.”
“Good luck there. I don’t envy you,” Elliot sympathised. “Rebecca loves being an architect. I understand now something of what my own father must have felt. But we cannot control our children’s futures. We can only bless them with love and guidance and send them forth into the world, praying they will not fall.”
“Are you finally turning into a natural philosopher after all these years, Elliot Burch?” Vincent teased lightly. “Or has Shannon somehow managed to educate you in the finer arts?”
“Possibly…” Elliot grinned lopsidely. “Or maybe it’s too much of William’s fine ale. It does muddle your thinking and make you see things you know are not real. But I do know that once upon a time I was a different man. Back then, if I could not see it, measure it, weigh or understand something, then I preferred to ignore it. Perhaps I was more like my father than I knew. I had no room in my life for sentiment. I was far too busy becoming the great Elliot Burch.” He flicked a dismissing hand. “And then, one night, Cathy brought you into my life, and you both showed me what really mattered in this world. I cannot find the words to thank you.”
He reached to clink his mug against Vincent’s. “To good friends and all fathers…”
“To understanding them…” His good friend accepted the toast and they were both silent for some time. Then Vincent said reflectively, “Perhaps that is all we are in the end — simply a reflection of our fathers. The men who have gone before us and shown us the way, tried to make a difference for us. Good or bad, we are what they have made us. I can live with that.”
“Perhaps…” Elliot nodded, looking across the hall to where Father was trying to interest Mouse in a game of chess. Mouse appeared torn between Jamie’s insistent hand on his arm — trying to tug her unwilling husband back to the dancing — and Father’s earnest entreaty for just one game before he had to shuffle off to his bed. Joe and Linda stood to one side, watching, but wisely not interfering in the ongoing battle. Catherine’s father and Peter had retired to a quiet bench against the wall to watch the dancers and talk about the old times they both wore so easily, like a pair of comfortable slippers.
Next to them a laughing Azrael alongside Diana were in deep discussion with Elizabeth about the merits of the range of new paints they had provided for her to use. Elizabeth was steadfastly resisting the change, even now she rarely appeared at Winterfest, claiming she had so little time left to complete her work. And there was still so much left to do…so many new faces and lives to paint…
Further away Edie stood beside her husband Simon, the man she had indeed met Below. They were both helping Ella with the gifts she’d brought, while they all watched the lively encounter as the children of both Above and Below swirled around them all, chattering and laughing, playing a spirited game of devil-take-the-hindmost with Cleon. He was losing manfully, but still played with great enthusiasm.
And in a secluded corner away from the main crowd of dancers and musicians, Mary sat close with Grace and Beth, Mary’s eyes resting thoughtfully on the rounded swell of her grand-daughter’s abdomen, and the promise of yet more new life that was soon to be, as the three women caught up on the ongoing stories of their reconnected lives.
“Maybe some things were never meant to change. Instead they have simply evolved into something better and more permanent.” Elliot shook his head. “Thank you, Vincent. I have never said it before, but I owe you everything…”
“You owe me nothing, my friend, nothing at all.” Vincent gripped his shoulder, shaking his head as he gazed into the far distance to where Rolley stood with Tony Gilbert beside Rolley’s old grand piano, both men raptly listening to a tall, confident Angelo caress the keys with his long-fingered hands, coaxing the instrument to sing as it never had sung before.
And Vincent noticed Rolley was crying, but they were tears of joy streaming unheeded down his seamed face, as he moved his own hands in tune to the soaring music, the notes rising into the shadow-hung vaults of the Great Hall’s high ceiling. Angelo had fulfilled his early promise and had gone on to far greater things than his humble beginnings, and no one could be happier than Rolley to be outstripped by the brilliant pupil he had taught for so many years.
“And yes, my friend, some things truly will never change…” Vincent turned his attention to watch Catherine threading her way towards them through the dancers and the glorious colours and endless rhythms of their deep, mutual love reached out to enfold him; making him aware of her on every level of his body and soul.
Her clear green eyes met his, and she smiled, that certain, knowing smile which promised everything he could wish for and more besides. I love you, her lips moved silently, the instinctive words soared across the narrowing distance between them to filter through him on fingers of fire.
Vincent sighed, waiting impatiently until the moment she would once again be nestled against him, safe within his embrace, knowing it would always be so between them. “All that remains in the end is love, Elliot. The most pure and simple essence of all, and the knowledge that we cannot exist without it. For that we must always be eternally grateful…always…”
‘Heavenly shades of night are falling, it's Twilight Time
“Oh, forgive me…forgive me for doubting!
Thank you all for taking this journey with me, I could not have done it without your love and support through the years. So once more please allow me to say that this story is dedicated to all the incredible and talented actors, writers and directors who made the continuing dream of “Beauty and the Beast” possible. But especially to Ron Perlman for keeping their dream alive, and caring for Vincent all these years. Without you there would truly have been nothing indeed…
So we must make sure we keep the Tunnel World alive and well into the future…always…
kapai, kiha Kaha…
Be Well, everyone…
Something About The way You Look Tonight Elton John
The Rose Bette Midler
They Are Not Long Ernest Dowson
Responsibility Marianne Williamson
Dance Like Nobody’s Watching William W. Purkey
Every time I look at You… Il Divo
Twilight Time The Platters