sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 22 ~ My Pulses Beat at Once and Stop
How one walks through the world,
The endless small adjustments of balance,
Is affected by the shifting weights
Of beautiful things
He was deep in the well of the ladder shaft. Lanterns hung from hooks embedded in the stone and in their glow the chute danced with dust sparked by his efforts. With a whistle of finished, he fished for the loop on his tool belt, guided the mason’s hammer’s handle through. The four-pound head lodged against his hip
The new stone-working tools were, indeed, an improvement over their well-used collection. Dominic had inspected each and every older hammer, chisel, hand point, and chipper in inventory, and while he hadn’t disallowed even one, a strapped, wooden crate from Trow and Holden awaited them in the northern camp’s designated stockroom, in it, within a cloud of excelsior, a dozen fine implements, multiples of each. Carbide! New! Mouse had exclaimed, holding a heavy hand point aloft with both hands before diving back into the treasure.
When asked the donor’s name, Aniela had shrugged. You’ve got a Secret Santa, I guess. And Mouse had squealed in response, Christmas now! I vote yes!
He’d had ideas, of course.
An elbow crooked around the ladder rail, he released the buckle of his laden belt, depositing it, tools and all, into the wooden box suspended from above on a sisal rope. He reached for the red bulb of the bicycle horn clamped to the crate’s side. Three quick squeezes. Three clownish, but distinct beeps signifying “done”, loud enough, out-fo-place enough, to call Mouse from whatever occupied him a level above.
Freed of the belt’s weight and cumber, he leaned out from from his handhold, swiveled on the balls of his feet side to side to side, working the aftermath of demand from his shoulders and arms and spine. Stilled, close again to the ladder, with both hands, he reached for a higher crossbar. A breath in and out and in … and chest up, muscles engaged, he retracted his shoulders, drove his elbows down to pull himself up until his chin was above the bar and his boots left their supporting rung. A count of three … and – slowly – he lowered himself … a stretch of sinew … tendon … nerve … until his arms were fully extended, his legs dangling in a dead hang.
A cleansing breath, another, another another. Somewhere beneath the exercise, beyond his admitting, his right shoulder ached. The release was exquisite.
He kicked off the wall and dropped to the ground. A powdery cloud billowed up. Under the dry pass of his tongue, his teeth were gritty.
A fine cascade of rubble rained down, and when its patter ceased he opened his eyes to see Mouse peering over the chute’s edge. A leather bota filled with water was already on its way down.
All the weldings in this lower section were loose,” he called up as he opened the carabiner and uncoupled the bottle, “but with the new side-rails and bolt system …” He took a draught, a second. “Yes, I’m confident in it.”
“Take a break,” Mouse suggested. “Want an apple? Toss it to you.” He disappeared and returned and knelt at the rim, extended an arm. “Heads up.”
Vincent caught the falling fruit in one hand outstretched at the last possible second, a perfect capture and a familiar ritual. He held the apple aloft and heard Mouse grumble.
“Thirty-six in a row. No drops. No misses.”
“Thirty-seven, Mouse. If one is counting.” Devin had set the record – fifty-two level-to-level fruit catches before a miss. But over the course of a year, he reminded himself. This contest with Mouse measured but eight months. There was hope, given their out-of-the-ordinary tasks here, hope for a lording-over at Devin’s next visit.
A gentle ribbing, I mean.
“Right, Vincent. Big if.” Mouse hauled on the rope, at last dragging the tool crate up and over the lip of the shaft.
He dodged another rivulet of gravelly debris.
A few steps backward in the corridor beneath the ladder shaft and his back met the wall. He slid down to a crouch, allowed himself a moment’s unguardedness. The past hours’ events, the requirement of those coming ebbed away; the magic of the evening prior swept in.
Somewhere in time, somewhere beneath the wide starry sky he could not see … a force moved nearby, a celestial impact secretly swelling the tide of providence. Coincidence, improbability, inevitability … this convergence of music and souls.
That it exists for us …
A philosopher’s debate, a mystic’s meditation … Father might deem it so.
Yet an actuality. A fact if still a mystery. Tangible, resonant …
He rested his head against the stone.
A melody came to him, one of Martin’s he favored … Cahir’s Kitchen.
The lantern lights blurred; the air warmed.
He saw himself before a grand fireplace, his leather armor unlaced, hanging loose from his shoulders … one hand on the high mantle … turning from his wait at a sound … a rustle, a bell …
He roused himself … snapping to … the only nameable noise Mouse’s muttered litany, a checklist of tools to pack up before moving on.
Another time, he admonished himself.
But undercurrent and crest at once, always … Catherine.
With a small clasp-knife, he pierced the apple’s red-gold peel and began a careful paring. Under the sharp blade, the juices popped from the skin, the scent rushing him spicy, sweet, and spirited.
I like it best when I can see you, he’d said. And she had known the truth …
His stony confines vanished again, supplanted by another dreamscape … a cherished, nurtured tableau. A rocky, dawn-lit coastline fading to a park of trees slanted through with summer’s blaze. A walk in the shadow of willows. Catherine … entwined with him upon the gray-green moss under the downpour of sunlight, the tremble of her limbs beneath the near-agony of his ardor, the full swell of her breast against his lips, the soft and pleading gasp … Oh. His name in her whisper …
The truth. My truth … one neither dark nor desperate.
I like it best when I can touch you.
A long, last swallow of water …
He stoppered the leather jug and clipped it to a belt loop. Both hands on the lowest railings, he fitted a boot to a toehold in the wall, hoisted himself up. The ladder regained, he inspected the newly installed fasteners, leaning out from the iron crosspieces, testing each with his weight. He pulled hard at the sidebars and bounced on the rounds, heavy on his feet. Once more. Again. He nodded, then rose another level, feeling for give, listening for the shriek of failing metal, for the sharp splinter of fissuring rock.
“Wish you wouldn’t do that,” Mouse muttered from far above. “Even though you gotta.”
He continued his evaluations but froze in mid-reach high on the ladder, edgy with premonition. As if a distant door opened, he heard a faint metallic jingle of announcement.
“Someone’s coming,” he said.
“Probably Martha,” Mouse answered, without even a cast of a look right or left over his shoulder. “Probably Cal. Finished with the water trap. Took a long time.”
Beset with both sound and the impression of sound, he felt a touch at the nape of his neck, a tug of the chord between them. Catherine?
“It isn’t Martha or Cal,” he said.
“Someone’s coming, not from your level, Mouse, but from below.”
Mouse leaned out over the open shaft. “From below? Who? Nobody deeper than us. Climb up! Climb quick!”
Instead, he hooked both feet outside the rails, released the tension of his grip. Sliding, still some distance from the tunnel floor, he pushed away from the rungs, bringing his knees to his chest, landing on the balls of his feet. He rolled to the brace of his toes and his hands. Listened. From his crouch, he rose, slipped into shadow just past the reach of the last lit lamp to await the approach of footsteps.
* * *
She could effect no camouflage, offer no resistance.
Eimear reached for the shirt and smoothed it to the table top, a reverent stroke from the shoulders down the sleeves, from the placket to the hem. With canny fingers she mapped the patterns and lacings, the gussets and patches, her expression betraying nothing more than quiet interest – in fine handwork, perhaps clever craft. They were two women, friends, meeting over family chores on a Sunday afternoon. Only that. Only that. Coins clattered in the change chute, dryer doors latched clang-snap, washers spun and whined and thumped … sheltering them within the eye of a swirling choir of sound.
“These are his clothes,” Eimear said, with no accusation, only wonder, in her pacific voice. “The boy in Rosie’s photograph, the curious boy with the yellow cat … you know him. And Rosie’s story, her sculpture … It wasn’t appreciation that stunned you, Catherine. ‘Twas recognition.”
She met Eimear’s gaze – her friend’s eyes bright with intuition, soft with willingness – and between them, in a brilliant flash of one possible future, Catherine knew the exhilarating, eager reach of friendship, a friendship without limits. She could hear the cascade’s crystal music, feel its dewy mists on her skin. At the portal of the Chamber of the Falls, they stepped through together. Vincent turned from the ledge where he waited, his hand out in welcome.
This is the man I love. How she longed to introduce him so.
In the grey and yellow tiles of the laundromat’s floor a scuffed track was worn and she studied it. I cannot find the beginning of it or see the way it leads, Vincent had said, but wherever this path’s fount, its course led … here. Surely this exquisite moment would not be wasted.
The Anam Cara, Martin had explained, the soul friend who blesses the fullness and mystery of your life. Undeniable. Destined. A bell chinkled against glass; a door opened admitting an agitation of fresh air. I can have it. I can.
She released a pent-up breath and eased the shirt from Eimear’s inspection, gathered it toward her in pleated folds. “I want to explain.”
“We dance round in a ring and suppose,” Eimear began, closing her hand over Catherine’s. “But the secret sits in the middle …” 1
“And knows,” she finished, her eyes downcast. “But I can’t. I can’t explain.”
Not here. Not yet. I made a promise.
She withdrew her hand and folded the shirt to a neat package on the table, tucking away most of its intricacies. “In a little while, a friend will come for me and I’ll have to go. I’ll have to go without telling you anything more … for now.”
“Catherine …” Eimear curled her fingers in as if on her own secret and touched the place above her heart. “I look at Flynn’s shirts the very way I found you looking at this one. His are just black pullovers and, to be sure, some are ratty things, but I’m grateful … grateful the shirt is whole, you know? That he wore it home, that I can wash it and give it back to him to wear another day. That I have another day with him.” She quieted and reached out, fingered the leather laces threaded through the deep vee of the collar. “I don’t know there’s much more you really need to tell me.” A generous smile spread across her face as she tilted her head. “You’ll let me help, though, won’t you? You’ve a lot to do before your friend comes.” She dug into the pile of clothes, pulled a knitted vest free and buried her nose in it. “Ummmm. What brand of dryer sheet do you use?”
Catherine sputtered with laughter and relief and rounded the table, opened her arms to a hug, but over Eimear’s shoulder, the round, plain clock high on the wall signaled Aniela’s imminent return. The moment … not wasted, but so short-lived.
“Why are you here?” Aware Eimear surely wanted to ask her the same thing, she busied with the folding. “I’m sure I saw a laundry nook off the kitchen last night.”
Eimear mirrored her in tone and task. “Of course, the washer’s belt broke with a load in and half done. When else? I had to stuff everything, dripping all over, into garbage bags, then haul the whole mess out to the car and heave it into the trunk.”
She saw them now – two black plastic lumps on the floor at Eimear’s feet. “You should grab those empty machines while you can,” she said. “I’ll do all this.”
“Oh, I’m fine to wait. I’ve some empty time. Flynn’s gone in on the evening shift and I’d as soon be here as there. The house feels a little … bleak today. After the party and all.” She hesitated, her coppery blush just paling, her hands pressed to her neat stack and for a moment Catherine believed Eimear’s curiosity would better her, that she would ask her own questions corollary to Rosie’s. Who? Where? How? But Eimear squared the topmost shirt and reached for another. “‘Besides, ‘tis important, yes, that you’re done and out of here on time?”
* * *
The cast of torch light brightened beyond a curve of the narrow tunnel, the shuffle and whoof of footsteps advancing with it. Vincent stepped out of the shadows.
“You were successful then,” he said.
“Of course, my friend.” Cullen’s booming reply echoed in the craggy passage. “Was there ever any doubt?”
“And we’re back in time for supper,” Jamie pointed out.
“So it’s true! What Noah said. What Stewart said.” Mouse let loose a giddy yelp and jumped the last few rungs of the ladder he’d descended, executing a less than graceful tuck-and-roll. Jamie and Cullen took several hasty steps back. “Secret passage,” he crowed, once he’d righted himself. “Not on the maps.” At Vincent’s shoulder, he leaned in, whispering, “That makes two so far.”
Cullen rolled his eyes. “Vincent, this boy needs lessons in–” He stopped short, half-scowling, and leaned toward Mouse. “ … polite behavior between men and women.”
“Huh?” Mouse stared from Cullen, to Vincent … to Jamie. “Oh,” he said. “Hi.”
Jamie set her lantern on a ledge of rock. “ That’s it? Hi?”
“I said oh, too. Oh, hi. Remember?” Mouse backed away from the circle of light to just outside its edge. Spellbound by some riddle there, he toed the ground and mumbled.
“What was that?” Jamie asked. “Don’t you have anything else to say to me?”
“Lots,” Mouse replied, raising his head, pleased with himself. “Lots to say. Wrote it down too.” With a sigh, he patted his vest pocket.
“Later for all that,” Cullen interjected. “Wait’ll you hear …”
“Is it a straight tunnel or does it switchback? Are there gates? Bridges?”
“Just two secret doors at either end, very clever doors I must say,” Cullen answered. “Once you’re in, it’s an almost straight shot in-between, an express route east and west. Saves all sorts of time. And because of the way the doors are leveraged, if we had to seal one side off from the other …”
“Show me,” Vincent said.
The massive rolling stone doors were, indeed, marvels of engineering and perhaps a bit of magic. The question of How? How on earth? seemed one Kristopher might deem best go unanswered, even unasked. After Cullen’s demonstration, Mouse took his turn opening and closing. “Double neat,” he declared, and Vincent agreed.
Rough-hewn and confining though the discovered passage was, the way was straight, its pitch level, the ground unobstructed, the ceiling high enough even a taller man wouldn’t have to duck. It’s taking would cut well more than an hour off the walk between sectors of the northern chambers. And he could run the course full out … if necessary.
They’d need supply of torches, either end … metal match boxes as well, at least two lanterns, more if they could spare them. Containers of fuel. A map must be made … coded markers incised at the preceding junctions. They started back to the ladder shaft making a verbal list of tasks and supplies.
“There’s, ummm, something else we need to talk about.”
Three strides in the lead, Cullen tossed the words over his shoulder with a studied casualness Vincent found disquieting, that he hadn’t sensed issue or disturbance or complication before now even more so. He slowed his steps … stopped.
“Whoa!” Mouse yelped, too close on his heels.
Cullen turned … and closed the gap between them, his lips pressed to a rueful line. Having edged forward from behind him, Jamie stood against the corridor wall, arms crossed. Her expression, he noticed, mirrored Cullen’s now.
What? What did I not want to know?
“So … well … Esther and Miriam were on watch at the rock fall,” Cullen reported in the fallen silence. “The one where Kanin went across the perimeter. They’re, uhhh, sure they heard his voice … among others … talking about the entry at Riverdale Avenue.”
“There is no entry on Riverdale.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the thing.” Cullen set the lantern he held in a high niche.
The conversation wouldn’t be a short one. Vincent folded his arms and leaned against the sharp-cut stone, unsure if the twitch of complaint in his shoulders was frustration or fatigue. “Tell me what was said.”
“I wish Miriam were here. That girl has excellent hearing and a mind like a steel trap. And one of those memories too. What do you call it?”
“Right. You do not want to play poker with her. Ever. Trust me.”
“What did she hear, Cullen.” A rasp of vexation edged into his voice.
“Well, there was the thing about the entry, like I told you. And two other voices. Men. They wanted Kanin to show them a way in across the perimeter. Apparently the passages they knew about were all blocked with rocks. So that’s good; the barricades are doing their job. Just like we designed them to.”
He made sure breath he took was expelled in something short of a growl.
Cullen sobered. “Then they talked about their boss who’d sent them out on these, ummm, missions. Miriam had the impression they tried to coerce Kanin. They, ahh, argued.”
“I guess it was mostly yelling, some shoving maybe. Then Kanin started in about the Riverdale entrance. And he said something about being an independent, or getting … maybe … finding his independence? It didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t. Not to me anyway.”
“Riverdale is the boundary of the College of Mount St. Vincent. And within the school’s grounds, Independence Avenue winds through the woods. There was once an entrance in the basement of one of the maintenance cottages, where a Helper worked and lived. Levon was with the school for years, but he’s been gone now for quite a while. Kanin and he were close.”
“So it was a clue, a message to you? St. Vincent?” Cullen combed pensive fingers through his beard. “What do you think he was trying to say?”
Vincent winced at the naming: Saint. “Did Miriam understand anything more about this man, their leader? A name, mentioned even in passing? A motive for wanting access to our world?”
“If Kanin was back, maybe he could tell you,” Cullen grumbled. “Miriam said they called this guy, their boss-man, head honcho, whatever … ummm, MD. Just the initials, you know, like a medical doctor.”
Foreboding smogged his chest. A sharp stab of anger slipped between two ribs. Suspicion, a bitter wind, blew red and furious. MD … The awful memory – the brutal report of the gun, the unstoppable trajectory, the cruel, savage thump of her precious body on the ground.
And Father’s prediction – Now he’ll never leave us in peace.
MD … Mitch Denton.
“I don’t wanna to ask what you’re thinking,” Cullen said, his hands trapped under his armpits. “But I guess I’m gonna have to.”
Their meeting, so long in coming he’d convinced himself it never would, rushed back to him in all its chill and temper – how he’d rounded the corner below, steeled against the expected conniving, against a familiar needling, how he’d nevertheless clawed at the bitter barb …
The law of the jungle. You should know something about that.
Instinct and intuition converged, a hot red light.
“We have to go back, Cullen. Now.”
His friends raced to keep up – he could hear their thudding footsteps, their huffs, their mumbled exchanges.
“Don’t get it,” Mouse wheezed. “But if Vincent hurries, I hurry. You hurry too.”
At the shaft, he launched himself at the ladder.
* * *
The laundromat emptied out until, apart from Eimear and herself, there were only a half-dozen men crowded around the television in the far corner, alternately cheering and groaning and scurrying about at the end of each half-inning. The crew’s clean clothes were folded and secreted away into the two large duffels. Eimear dragged one to the door, Catherine a step behind with the other.
I wish I could take you with me. Show you everything. Have you meet … everyone.
“Shall I offer to help you outside, Catherine? Whatever you’d like, I’ll do. No questions.”
Catherine peered past Eimear to the street. A white van turned off Katonah Avenue, the left blinker announcing its destination. “I’ll manage from here.” Catherine worried her lip, sorting through the hundred things she might say. “Eimear …”
“Don’t worry. I’ll not breathe a word, not a scrap, even to Rosie. I won’t say I’m not dying of curiosity, but I can promise to protect your privacies. You’ve still a right to them.” With that, Eimear pushed open the door and held it, appearing no more than a considerate stranger, while Catherine dragged both bags over the threshold to the sidewalk and on to the curb. Across the street, in the print shop’s driveway, the van’s door opened and Aniela hopped out.
“Our folks are sure gonna smell better.” The corded drawstrings wrapped around one hand, Aniela heaved the duffel over one shoulder. “Any problems?” she asked. “I wondered if some of those clothes would make it through a wash cycle. I’m guessing below it’s a gentler process.”
“No disasters.” Handed the keys, Catherine opened the shop’s locks and propped the door open with one bag of laundry. Behind her, Aniela wrestled a three-gallon jug from the van. She carried it up the sidewalk, both hands on the bail, bumping it along with her knees, the aroma from it a roasted heat redolent of her time in Tuscany. “What’s in that thermos? It smells so good.”
“Mom’s specialty, well, one of ‘em. Peposo. Kind of an Italian chili. Spicy. Vincent likes it, she says. There’s enough chianti in it to lay them all out for hours after supper.” Inside the entryway, Aniela lowered the container to the floor with a grunting chuff. “There’s another one still,” she said with a jut of her chin. “Mom’s enjoying this. She misses making the big family meals now my brothers have scattered to the four corners.”
Catherine followed Aniela to the van, stealing a look across to the laundromat. Despite the long banks of fluorescent lights inside, the windows appeared dark and reflected the sidewalk and street, passersby and cars. Some odd angle of sun, she concluded, or maybe steam had fogged the glass. Inside, only shifting shadows passed right to left, left to right, and in one corner, there was a glimmering, a mirrored sparkle, but no watcher stood and stared out … at least none that she could see.
She should feel relief … gratitude for Eimear’s understanding and respect.
But Eimear couldn’t know the magnitude of this coincidence … could she? The thought of their next meeting was an amalgam of anticipation and nerves and a part of her rebelled. What will I say? Less than the truth? Just go get her now. Don’t tell her. Show her!
“I didn’t know your brothers moved,” she said instead to Aniela, determined to not look back again, unwilling to let on, to share … this … with anyone but Vincent. She lifted out the second thermos. “Where?”
“Two to Staten Island and two all the way to Bensonhurst,” Aniela said. She grabbed the handles of a battered green metal cooler, hoisted it, adjusted her grip. “One to Red Hook up in Dutchess County. That just about killed her.”
Catherine maneuvered past the door, plunking her container down in the foyer. She grimaced and flexed her fingers. “That was heavy, heavier than I expected, or else I’m a wimp.”
“The skinny wire bail makes it hard to carry, but it is heavy. Thick and rich – to hold ‘em over, Mom said. She’s already planning the next meal.” Aniela grinned over her shoulder. “There’s still the bread and a basket of desserts. She went crazy. It’s a good thing we have the cart.”
* * *
“Have Catherine and Aniela returned? Where is Damien?” Vincent swept through a sparsely occupied, dumbstruck camp. He took the steps two at a time and disappeared into the upper tunnel. Out in the passage, he bellowed with frustration, with uncertainty.
You don’t know. You cannot be sure.
He would never take the chance.
Rousted from his sentry niche, Damien kept his pace, kept silent through his abbreviated report …
“Mitch?” he ventured at its choked end. “Mitch Denton? The punk from the old days? The jerk who shot Catherine? Are you sure?”
“No,” Vincent growled. “I am not sure. And that misgiving fuels my suspicion. Kanin delivered a message, one we can’t ignore even if we don’t understand.”
“But what do you think he meant?” Damien persisted. “The Independence Avenue entry … isn’t it permanently sealed?”
“We will go there tonight. Perhaps Kanin has left us some word, a sign. And we must take all our tools. We must … prepare to act.”
“So we’re going above now to do what?”
“To turn Catherine and Aniela away. They must both go home.” His last word was a stone in his throat. Vincent pressed a hand to his pounding heart. He would brook no argument from her. The dreadful weight of her in his arms, her blood on the sidewalk …
He broke into a run, leaving Damien behind … burst into the print shop’s basement with no clear memory of the route he’d taken, sure only that she was safe and near … and not yet below. He spread his legs, clasped his hands behind his back. Waited.
Chapter title: Dante Aligheieri. Sonnet: I Muse Over. 1304.
Opening quotation: Elaine Scarry. Essay – On Beauty and Being Just. 1998.
1. Robert Frost. The Secret Sits. From A Witness Tree. 1942.
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