sequel to The Only Gift

IRON BEHIND THE VELVET

 

 

chapter 11 ~ In the Twilights of Dew and of Fire

In the deep, soulful stillness, in the warm …
Between the shores of keen delights and pains …
Thus doth Love speak

 

Her promise to Joe had been a faithful one; she meant to leave it for the daylight hours, to the police. But before she switched off the bedside lamp, she pushed the base a few inches back. There it was, taped to the tabletop underneath – Isaac’s telephone numbers, home and gym, written in his hand.Any time, any reason, he’d said, holding the card he gave her first to his heart. I’m your person. Count on that. 

She’d long committed the digits to memory, but knowing they were still there was a solid comfort, a connection. If she had any any word of – or from – Phan in the night, she’d call Isaac first. 

Or instead, depending. 

What Joe didn’t know wouldn’t worry him. Well, what he doesn’t know for sure. Vincent though …

She couldn’t let him worry.

The lamp was an old one, its green satin glass orb made originally for oil, but Mouse fixed it – wired it, found an etched globe for it to soften the glow of the bulb. She reached for the toggle. It wasn’t candlelight, but it did make her think of home. And of love.

 

She closed her eyes with the telephone close by on the bed, her hand on the receiver, but the night passed without a call. When it did ring, she was in the shower. The water left in full steaming spray, her towel dragging through a puddled trail, she snatched up the receiver, desperate – and doubtful – that it was news of a found Phan.

“Long?”

“No, it’s me,” Joe said. He released a quiet breath, one she realized he’d held as much for her as for Phan. “Good to hear your voice, Radcliffe.” There was a muffled rustle. Perhaps he switched ears or put on his jacket. “So …” he came back with, “Nothing, huh?”

“Nothing,” she repeated.

“Damn.”

“That about covers it.”

Through the wires, in his silence, she imagined him sorting their options, the pressure-chiseled lines of his face deepening, the wry twisting of his mouth.

“Well …” he said. “Better wear armor to court today.”

 

Unwilling to pile into a shared cab, Catherine loitered beneath her building’s canopy. A clutch of commuters clung to the curb. A trio would ride together, to Chelsea, then East Village, but the other worked at the Federal Reserve on Liberty. He’d waylaid her once in the laundry room with some inane question about gym shoes and dryers, lingered outside her storage locker in the basement. She’d been searching for replacements for favored items moved Below, and after his third question, wanted to throw a heavy book at him. After his fifth, she considered spiking him with The Horns she’d unearthed from a nest of excelsior. 

Centre Street’s never out of my way. We should share a cab in the mornings, he’d gone on to say. 

How does he know where I work? she’d wondered then. Now, she shook her head when he looked back at her from the taxi’s open door, waved him away.

Her doorman clucked his disapproval. “He gives me the screaming habdabs too, Miss Chandler.” With that, Roger left his post and trotted to the curb, raising a hand high to flag a car for her.

Habdabs. She understood without requiring definition. In their college days Nancy had coined a word for the off-putting feeling some men gave her – ginders. Synonymous, the two.  And this guy …  He kindled both.

Mentally, she waved him away again … shouldered her bag and hustled to Roger’s side. A brace of yellow vehicles left the light at 74th. Surely one would be hers. 

Separating from the flock of taxis, a darting rider raced well ahead of their advance. He lifted from the saddle, pitching forward onto the pedals, weighting the handlebars and for a moment the rear wheel rose, spinning free. He’d described it to her once. Think Lightness, he’d said, the word capitalized in his speech. Air. Space. The wheel touched down and a slight hitch of his shoulders bounced the bike over the curb. He swerved to a stop not three feet away, planted a foot and grinned. 

“Benny!” she cried. “Nobody–”

“Rides like me! You got that right.” He flourished a note from his messenger pouch, then shot away back into traffic with a snappy salute, much to Roger’s scowl. How long had he waited for her, she wondered, and where? In the park across the street? On the corner? Had he circled until she appeared … or was his arrival magically managed? If he’d somehow missed her, she had no doubt another helper would meet her with the message on her office steps, a push-cart man perhaps, or a flower seller … Maybe a musician.

Alleycats,” Roger grumbled, as he opened the passenger door of the idling cab.

 

No address. There never was.

Only her name.

But no flowing script sped her heart, instead – precise and angular in shiny black ink – a level line of block letters centered the envelope. She recognized the handwriting. 

Long’s.

She turned from the printed message to the window and the incongruous sun, its beams full-dazzling. In Columbus Circle, coral-pink tulips bloomed in the outer tier, yellow daffodils near the center. The taxi cleared the roundabout, turning from it at the light-tipped monument – Columbia Triumphant – the gilded seashell chariot, the springing seahorses memorial to the USS Maine. Courage … Fortitude … Justice, its cast-metal plaque proclaimed. She feared Phan would need them all.

 

The cabbie let her out at the corner of Worth and Centre. Joe patrolled the triangular courtyard there, head down in a morose march between the new-leafed trees and the bench rows. She handed him the note.

The Silence is too loud,” he read. He folded and creased the paper, folded and creased again, tapped it against his leg. “Howie and Jiaying took a crime scene tech from the 5th to Phan’s apartment. Unofficially. They knocked and didn’t get an answer, so …”

“So what, Joe?”

“So the super let them in. No blood. But it looked like they left in a hurry, Howie said.”

“Did they take their clothes? The kids’ toys? Their schoolbooks? Pictures?”

“No way to know what’s missing, Cathy. If they left on their own or … were disappeared.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue and sighed. “He refused the protection we offered him. I should have pushed harder for it.”

I should have.” Ground glass ravaged her throat. “We have to find him. He has to be all right.”

“I called the 17th, had them put the word out around Murray Hill. Sunset Park’s a long shot, but they’re looking too. Maybe somebody will spot him.” Joe’s face was grim. “You ready to go in? This won’t take long.

 

* * *

 

There was no sleeping in. His few hours – thankfully solid – would have to suffice.

The new workers arrived early bearing fresh breakfast treats. William sent bran muffins and loaves of hearty bread and he’d packed a basket of tender pastry with instructions attached – These won’t keep, he wrote. Eat. The coffees and teas were soon brewed and poured and the chatter was loud – a week’s worth of news to relay. Cullen and Vincent lingered near the laden table, lounging against the cavern wall.

“How’re things going?” Cullen asked, with a quick glance at Kanin.

Hmmmm,” Vincent answered.

“That bad, huh? Think I should have a talk with him?” Cullen’s voice clouded. “I know something about needing to start over, more than once. And something about accepting forgiveness.”

“It couldn’t hurt to try. Much depends on his true coming home.”

Hmmmm,” Cullen echoed. “Somebody needs to talk to Mouse too. I made a bet with Jamie. On the walk over, she said he’d ask about Arthur before he even said hello to her. I said, surely not.” He broke his third pastry in half and offered to share. 

It was the last pain au chocolat, his favorite. “What did you lose?” 

“Sentry duty. Three shifts. Her choice when.”

Ouch,” Vincent said. “That is exacting.”

“Isn’t it? Women … what’re you going to do?” Cullen reached inside his vest. “And speaking of … a kind and charming woman exacted my promise to give you this, and before you take off with it …” Cullen stepped closer and gripped his shoulder. “I gotta tell you, you’re a lucky man. I remember what it feels like. Love looks good on you, my friend. It really does.” He dropped his hand and Vincent melted into the shadows.

 

~ ~ ~

Vincent. 

The distance between us fades. You’re close to me, beside me. I see you. I hear you. I feel your warm skin beneath my fingers, your breath at my ear.  As the high mountains shelter the crystal lake, you embrace me, enclose and unify me. Your pulse feeds the stream of me. I ripple and stir at your touch. 

I have only a short time to write to you. Today was dispiriting. Joe will be back from dinner soon and we’ll work into the night.

But I have something important to tell you, Vincent. Something wondrous and exciting.

I went to a baseball game. 

~ ~ ~

 

He returned to camp, to spirited conversation and bustle. Their gear was packed and stowed by the exits, their bedrolls and cooking equipment ready for transport to the next home site. The tools were separated for the two crews; food stores split. A clipboard passed around the group, a pencil tied to it with string. Every other person it seemed added something to the needs list.

They were unfamiliar enough with the streets above them now, but even more so with those to the west – Kingsbridge and South Riverdale – but Noah’s wife arrived with a notecard of useful addresses. “There’s a pharmacy on 231st,” Liz said, just across from the subway entrance. A thrift store on Godwin Terrace; a walk-in medical clinic on Netherland.” He saw she slipped an envelope into Esther’s hand, no doubt a contribution to their cash reserves. Noah’s sons clung to him, one to either knee, but they laughed as he dragged them along, peeling off when they recognized far-flung residents and friends.

Word passed around the room, and the workers congregated near the fire pit. To one side of the cavern a small group huddled, deep in a whispering meeting over plans unfurled on a table. Jamie and Damien, Mouse, Cullen and Stuart. Kanin as well. They broke apart only after Vincent asked them twice to join the others.

“We have much to discuss,” he began. “Our best address to this newest foray is to permanently seal the two passages radiating from the northernmost junction. The sentry’s report says the intruders progressed only a short distance into either corridor. We can make the changes beyond that and no one will notice the differences.”

He pointed to the map pinned to an upended wooden table. “This expanse of tunnel, with no outlets topside and no residents, will be closed off here. And these basement entrances … here … and here … will be changed and reinforced with secret latches. New sentry posts will be installed at the third and fourth perimeter rings. The plans for the tunnels east of Van Cortland Park are not changed. We’ll seal this route with a rock fall and reopen and repair an old passageway and staircase to a lower level. The new entrance in the building purchased by Dominic’s brother Sal remains a priority.”

Vincent looked away, then began again. “We’ll make better progress with two groups. We should divide ourselves according to skills, of course, and according to the danger. I must …”

“Hold it, Vincent,” Jamie interrupted. “We’ve got some ideas on that. First of all, we think you should stay in the eastern crew. You and Damien and Mouse. Cullen and Kanin can lead the other group, and Willa, Miriam and I … we’ll go with them. Stuart and Noah will shift place to place.”

“I think, Jamie, that it’s necessary that I go with the western crew. The problems there …”

“Now, see, that’s the thing,” Jamie interrupted again. “There’ve been problems on this side too, and no one knows where the next … well, you know what I mean. And besides, that’s what we’ve been taking those lessons for, those lessons with Isaac. Don’t shake your head no at me Vincent,” she protested. “You can’t make me or anybody else believe you can be both places at once. And nobody, not one person here, should say a word about us being girls.” The group stood stock-still under her scrutiny.

“She’s right,” Cullen said and both Vincent’s and Jamie’s heads snapped around. “I think this divides the skill level, the defensive skill level, pretty well. Besides, we’re going to quick-drop a temporary barrier above the main job site. Nobody’ll be able to get past that in a hurry. If anything happens, we’ll have plenty of notice, and you’re not all that far away if it becomes, uhh … necessary. Besides, we need Kanin on that site. It’s all too new to me. You know what needs to happen here. You take care of this side.”

Mouse giggled and started to speak but Jamie glared him quiet. Vincent studied the ground.

“Don’t forget,” Cullen continued, his voice rounding. “I owe everyone here. I’ll do my part. You have to let me.”

Kanin cleared his throat and everyone turned to him. “I learned a few things up top about self-defense. I should put that to good use.”

* * *

 

“Does the prosecution have no other witnesses?” The judge studied her list and looked up at them, then at the clock.

“We move to dismiss the indictment, Your Honor. No prima facie case has been made out.”

“The Medusa speaks,” Joe whispered. “Here it comes.”

“Not so fast. Counsel? Approach.” The judge waved them to the bench. “Mr. Maxwell, where is your last witness? Your only eye witness?”

“We don’t know, Your Honor. He’s … disappeared. We can introduce his Grand Jury testimony.”

“You know how I’ll rule on that.”

Hearsay!

“Does it look like I need your help?” the judge barked.

Joe glared at his adversary. “We could pursue witness intimidation.”

“Prove it,” the Medusa hissed.

“Well?” The judge tapped her nails on her blotter, pursed her lips. Joe inspected his shoeshine. “I have no choice then.” She shooed them to their seats with a black look and, after some commentary, dismissed the case, the jury, the attorneys, the reporters, the courtroom.

 

Catherine and Joe slumped in their chairs. Counsel for the defense sauntered out without a backward glance, but the defendant sidled over. One hand caressed the knot of his tie. He hummed a few bars of Free Ride, and when he looked at Catherine, he sucked air across his teeth. The bailiff hurried to their aid, but the man backed away, his hands in the air.

“That is one evil dude,” the bailiff said. “I’m sorry, folks.”

“Me, too.” Joe turned to Catherine and touched her arm. “You all right?”

“Fine. Ignore him. He’s just a bully.”

“He’s more than that, Cathy, and you know it.”

She grumped away Joe’s concerns.

“Now what?” Rita asked.

Joe sighed. “I don’t know. Buy a lottery ticket? Check out the classifieds for new jo–”

“We eat lunch,” Catherine interrupted, her expression every bit as dark and commanding as the judge’s. “We go back to work and haul this thug in on a different charge.” She attacked the litter of documents on the table, tapping a stack of folders even. “We win the next one. Right?”

And we find Phan. She’d arrange a meeting between Isaac and Long as soon as possible.

 

She turned from the food kiosk window, a clear-covered bowl in her hands. A table emptied at the far end of the patio, just out of the shadow of the Borough building and she scurried to claim it. Rita followed, then Joe, balancing his lunch and a drink on his briefcase. Catherine raised her brows.

“What?” Joe asked. He followed her gaze to his plate. “It’s a salad.”

“It certainly is,” she said. Rita snickered and plucked a left-behind newspaper from her chair.

“You’re having one. Rita’s having one. Why can’t I have one?”

“You can, Joe. You are.”

“Radcliffe …” His chair scraped across the concrete. “Sometimes it’s exhausting being with you.”

Children confront ESU officer who intervened in school threat. Two men killed, one seriously injured.” Rita read. “Hey, you know this guy.” She pushed the newspaper their way with her pointed finger.

Flynn O’Carroll … The man loomed over his young audience, dark-clad, his gun belt heavy with gear, his ballistic vest unfastened at the waist, his helmet under one arm. In heartrending contrast, the boys ringed him in kippahs and black dress clothes, their heads tipped up. Flynn’s expression, clear even in the grainy photograph, was baffled, his eyes squinted as if in pain. A caption above a two-inch, two column story distilled the meeting.

“Confront? Intervened? Let me see that.” Catherine bent over the type. “It was more than a threat!” she cried. “He saved those kids’ lives. Look at this!”

Joe angled the paper his way. “Aww, man. Who wrote this? The stampede yesterday … this is what they were after? O’Carroll was pretty messed up over this already. Publicity like this …” He jumped up and stuffed the newspaper in a trash receptacle.

* * *

 

“Are you going to tell me?” Vincent asked.

“Tell what?” Mouse hedged.

“Tell me why you’re smiling. And what is that tune you’ve been humming all afternoon?”

“Secret. Jamie’s and Cullen’s and mine.”

“The tune?”

“No! Just a song. The smiling … that’s secret.”

“All right. I won’t pry.” A knobbed planer in both hands, he leaned into his efforts, shaving a beam to match a notch in the stone.

“Can’t guess. Bet you.”

“I’m sure I can’t, Mouse.”

“Try.”

“I would need a hint. The possibilities are vast.”

Mouse worked on in silence, tightening bolts on a crosspiece. “Okay, good!” he burst out, “Okay, fine! I’ll tell you!”

“You don’t have to, Mouse. It’s best to keep a confidence if you’ve promised to do so.”

 “Didn’t promise. Not exactly.”

Vincent waited.

“Told them.”

“About …?”

“Told them about Aniela. About Damien. He goes above. Sees her. Told them …”

“What else?”

“About the music. About the stairs. That you like it there.”

Vincent sank from his kneeling position, back on his heels. “Were those the determining factors in the division of labor?”

“You stay here; they go there. What’s the difference?” A few seconds ticked by. “Kind of a present,” Mouse said, giving him a sideways look. “Rude not to take it.”

“What about you? You might have preferred a different assignment.”

“Me?” Mouse blinked. “Over here, there’s hot dogs.”

A noon-time message from Cullen said all was well to the west, that camp had been made. Hours later, a second tapping came through. Dominic had arrived with supplies, meeting a contingent in the sub-basement of a parking garage – one managed by a Helper. Already they were on their way back from up top. The quick-seal of one tunnel leading from the junction was underway. Full crews would begin in earnest early the next morning.

At the new eastern camp site, a little over a mile north of the first, a kitchen was arranged and sleeping areas claimed. A band roved out to dismantle a complex barricade to a circular stair descending two levels, opening then a long-unused passage. By early evening, the group, so enthusiastic in the morning hours, was quiet, surprised by the intensity of the work. Dinner was necessarily late though William’s soup and sandwich makings and basket of fresh fruit meant the meal would be easy enough to prepare. Many protested they were too tired to eat, but Damien set out the packages and containers and Vincent stoked the central fire.

At home, wood was a precious commodity, gleaned from Central Park late at night, carted to a breezeway, stacked on pallets to dry. But here the supply was generous, gathered from the botanical garden Above where Stuart worked, the collecting sanctioned, authorized by him.

A tunnel child … Vincent marveled, with a green thumb.

He tended the embers, fed them. During the hours of labor, he’d struggled to word a letter to Catherine in return for hers, his story of coincidence surely unbelievable on paper. A vision of her in his once-lonely chambers countered that skepticism. Not impossible, he thought and he longed to tell her, face to face, of the fortuity. But the day had delivered another message from her through their bond. Dispiriting, she’d said in her note and he’d sensed her mood darkening as the morning hours passed. Once he’d felt a sharp pain as if to his own heart, a hot sear of regret and guilt. Outrage. Frustration. Perhaps that last was his own, too far away to help her. Too required elsewhere.

 

Midway through supper, a watcher’s urgent message reported intruders past the entry in Seton Falls Park. Without thought, Vincent flew into the corridors, commanding Damien to stay behind with barely more than a look as he passed. With each stride, his blood ran darker and his vision narrowed. The boil of instinct rose. Soon there was nothing left but the intuition that he alone ranged between an evil and those he loved.

Time and distance merged into measured, preparatory breaths as he gathered himself, a main-spring wound tight. His nature engaged as gear teeth clicking over one to the next, each swing of the pendulum propelling him forward. He neared the point of ascent into the upper tunnel, readied for confrontation … slowed only to prepare for surprise.

Into this fervid, black, visceral burn, a sudden clear light, almost a backfire, bloomed, illuminating an anchor point where choices could still be made, where he could not be outflanked by rage. A voice, her voice ... A rescuer’s hand plunged into the depths, pulled him to the surface for air. The thrum of heartbeat subsided; his hearing cleared, and the now-audible tapping reported the intruders were no real threat … only teenagers with beer and marijuana, easy enough to frighten away with his menacing shadow and sound.

In the aftermath the tension unfurled within him, and though it dissipated, he was left anxious and shaken. He managed an all-clear message to the next sentry who would pass it on to each camp and beyond, to the couriers between the northern community and the home pipes … to Father. Long silences, he knew, were easily filled with dark fantasy. Unsteady, he braced himself against the tunnel wall. Worry fell in veils across his inner vision. Kanin, burdened still with grief and anger; the camps split and vulnerable; the crews sure to grow irritable and skittish. His home … Father … left unguarded. Catherine distanced from him. So much he could not control. So much

 

He met Damien not far from camp.

“You all right, Vincent?”

“A little … emptied out.”

“I’ll bet. The adrenaline.” Damien nodded and fell into step with him. “But it was just a false alarm. Nothing to worry about, right?”

“No.” He released a breath. “Nothing at all.”

“I was thinking … maybe I’d go up top. Would that be okay?”

“You don’t need my permission,” Vincent said. “Where will you go?”

“Not far,” Damien assured him.

“Does Aniela keep late hours, repointing bricks at night? I can’t imagine Dominic schedules that.”

“She runs her own jobs,” Damien defended. “She’s twenty-one.”

“I know that.”

“And independent and smart.

“Quite.” They neared the corridor to camp but veered away, their pace quickening. In silence, they crossed a swinging bridge over a shadowed gorge, climbed a narrow metal ladder.

“Where’re you going?” Damien asked when he reached the top rung. “I’m meeting Aniela at Dix’s.”

Maybe I’ll go up top too. Martin’s music waited for him he hoped, the passage not far from Damien’s rendezvous. “I’ll walk with you.”

“Can I ask you something?”

He spread his hands. “Of course.”

“How can I make this work? With Aniela, I mean. With her up there and me below.”

“You can choose to go above, Damien. You face no barriers to a life together.”

“I don’t know if I want to live there.”

“And Aniela? What does she want?”

“We, ah, haven’t really talked about it yet. It’s kind of early, you know? We’re only … umm … we’re …”

“Still falling in love?”

Damien blew out his breath, lifting the hair curled over his forehead. “Yeah.”

A stone circle quieted them, the climb a strenuous one. Damien waited for him at the top, falling into step again and back into his thoughts. “Sometimes, I get so freaked … about all her friends, the things she does without me. I’m not sure Aniela could move below. She has so much energy. I don’t want to ask her to– I don’t want to feel like I’ve … snuffed her out.”

They approached the last junction where Vincent would turn north, Damien east. He stopped and grasped Damien’s shoulder. “I can only tell you this. As I have learned … as I am learning … Go slowly. Enjoy your time together, all of it. Be truthful. Control your jealousy. Don’t make unilateral decisions. When she speaks her heart, listen to her words, believe them the first time. Don’t question, don’t interpret. Believe.”

 

Arrived at the entrance to the narrow passage, he hesitated. He would never be able to write this story of coincidence for her; he needed to tell her, to show her.

The wish fueled his step through the gates and secret panels to the stairs. He stood at the door of her world, its chain in his hand. So close, the lilting, probing notes of the music pried opened a secret hope boxed deep.

Not unbelievable. Not impossible.

 

________________

Chapter title:  William Butler Yeats. The Blessed

Opening Quotation: Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Love’s Language. 

 

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