sequel to The Only Gift

IRON BEHIND THE VELVET

 

 

chapter 23 ~ As Chaos to the Irrevocable Past

As high over the mountains the eagle spreads its wings,

may your perspective be larger than the view from the foothills.

When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,
may your imagination continue to evoke horizons.

In your heart may there be a sanctuary
for the stillness where clarity is born.



“She’s doing quite well. Gained … nearly a pound. Now, let’s have a listen, shall we, little one? Yes, yes. I know …” He’d warmed the chest-piece of the stethoscope in his palm, but still the infant protested. Father raised his voice. “Strong heart, strong lungs.” He listened again, eyes closed in concentration. “Yes, good. Clear, no congestion whatsoever. A touch of indigestion, perhaps. You needn’t worry.” He bundled the blanket around the baby, cradled her, a steady hand beneath her head. “Look at you,” he crooned. “Such dark hair, those charcoal eyes. She’s beautiful, Olivia. She looks so like you.” The baby drew in a stuttered breath, her face reddened and pinched with disapproval. “Oh, dear,” he said, with a summoning glance over his shoulder. “You want your mother, hmmm? Here she is. Here she is.” 

A mirrored flush warmed Olivia’s cheeks and a single tear, ungovernable, welled and spilled. She scrubbed it away and gathered her baby close. “There’s no fever then? She seemed so warm and she wouldn’t eat this morning. And she cries and cries. She’s just … miserable.”

Father peered over his glasses, silencing the first words from his tongue – As you are. Instead, he offered a reassuring mumble, repeated it, and unwound the stethoscope from his neck. Polishing the bell and diaphragm, he contemplated the order of instruments before him on the white enamel tray – a studied enterprise, a necessary rearrangement, of forceps and clamps, of thermometers and scopes … of his words.

“No fever. I know you’re reluctant, but a pacifier sometimes calms a fussy baby,” Father said. Reaching for Olivia’s elbow, he urged her to an overstuffed chair. “Perhaps she’s picking up your concerns, your own …” At her mother’s sharp intake of breath, the baby’s whimpers spiked. In reproach? In sympathy? “Come,” he suggested, interrupting himself. “Let’s sit down to tea. The water’s just hot and I’ve some fresh Keemun. You like that, yes? With cream and sugar?” Occupied with the measuring of loose leaves, with the turning up of china cups and the laying out of spoons, he watched Olivia from the corner of his eye.

First do no harm …

“Tell me, how is Luke taking to his little sister?”

“Fine … I guess. He doesn’t understand when I sit with her to nurse. I think he feels left out and he clings more than he did. But when she cries, he tries to entertain her.” Olivia leaned out to peer under Father’s big desk. In the shelter of its knee-space, Luke sang to himself and played, content with a soft yellow ball. “She’s less than enthused with his singing,” she said, unbuttoning the bodice of her dress.

Father carried one delicate cup and saucer to the chair-side table. Without speaking, he went back for his own, and making a third contemplative trip to his desk, he returned with a silver tray bearing a small pitcher and a bowl of paper-wrapped cubes, the steeping pot. The tea’s aroma, lush and plummy, suffused the room, a velvet shawl to restless worry, and the baby stilled, her rosebud lips smiling against her mother’s breast. Father sank into his chair, a thrum of lament in his joints and spirits.

“Have you heard anything, Father? From Vincent, from anyone? There’s been nothing on the pipes since Friday night. And even then …” A deep sigh did little to relieve the tension in her face. “Even then there was no message for me.”

My concerns exactly. This absence of information is … thunderous. He stirred milk into his cup, unwrapped two sugars. “Our reports are rather truncated. They’re keeping off the pipes for safety’s sake, but, with both crews at hand, swift progress can be made. Soon, life will …” Return to normal? He took a testing sip, then a second, and over the opalescent rim of his cup, met Olivia’s skeptical eyes. “… resume.”

“You should know this, Father.” Curled forward, she was protective, vigilant. “I’ve asked Catherine if she … if she and Vincent … will take my children if something happens to me. If Kanin …”

“And her answer?”

“She promised, yes. If Vincent agrees.”

Um hmmm.” Nodding, Father swirled the last of his tea, tasted the final sweetest swallow. My first love, my mother, on whose knee I learnt love-lore … my loadstar while I come and go 1 How beautiful she is, he thought. How fierce and consumed. How willing, even now. A lecture took shape, aching for delivery. Kanin is a fool.

“So, dear Olivia. What shall we call our little girl? Have you decided?”

 

* * *

 

At the front window of the laundromat but in its farthest corner, Eimear was screened from street-view by an arching ficus tree, heavy with glistening leaves. She watched as Catherine wrestled her bag of laundry through the print shop’s darkened entry, as she and her friend made trip after trip to a van for jugs and coolers and flat-bottomed baskets. No lights shone from the upper floors of the business; no shadow crossed behind the tall, narrow windows. No face, young or old, peered out in anticipation of what was clearly more than a Sunday picnic. 

She knew Dix, had used his printing services in some work for the school. Never had she imagined him a secret-keeper of any sort or his building a gateway to … what? To where? He’d told her of the slow renovations to the third and fourth floors, how he and Brenda would one day sell their home in North Riverdale and live above the store. She knew Brenda used a niche in a back corner of the ground floor as her office, where she met with clients and designed their newsletters, their business cards, their menus. Knew that Dix had, for weeks, labored after hours behind locked second-floor doors on a surprise for her, his anniversary gift. That when he finally handed over the key, Brenda collapsed in tears at the racks filled with sheets of stained glass, at the castered work tables, at the pegboard of tools. Invited up to see, she’d witnessed the dancing pattern of fire cast by the afternoon sun through the wavy-glassed and leaded panes of the old floor to ceiling windows, shivered in the cold air that leaked into the room around them. Brenda planned the most beautiful replacement for them, a triptych to hang inside the new thermal panels – and that she’d seen too … the pencil-drawn design and the lay-out: a magnificent waterfall spilling into a rocky pool … the chosen colors of bronze and copper and steel-blue. Its rising mists illustrated in pale, frosted textures, a strange slanted light across it in rays of rose-gold. A place of dreams.

I can’t stand here and spy, she admonished herself, edging back from the window, thwarted from retreat by the corner of a bolted-down chair. I promised her privacies and I’ve gone against my word. But now Catherine carried a wicker pannier, open on one side and rowed with spiky baguettes of bread, and Eimear could almost hear her laughter – wished she could – as Catherine struggled with the basket, to keep her goods corralled. The late sun, glinting in from the west, lit the deep white slashes in the golden loaves. The print shop’s windows blazed orange-amber with the sudden reflected light, like candles, like torches.

The door’s prop removed, it closed behind Catherine and her friend. No lights inside switched on. All was still – noiseless, dark, and vacant – as a closed shop should be so late on a Sunday. As if Catherine, her friend, the feast they’d ferried, had been but an imagining.

She intended to return to her chores, to file away to memory the fine details of her meeting with Catherine for another time, a time when she might lay them out and wonder and dream and suppose, a time when she could turn loose her fancy in this revelation and what might come to pass. In a funk when she’d pushed open the laundromat’s door, half-anxious, half annoyed, she’d felt relief to find Catherine there, surprised but not, eager yet patient, curious but already sure, in that immediate moment knowing the same faith that Rosie would engender, when, late at night, long after their parents believed them asleep, the moonlight streaming through the window between their twin beds, her sister would promise – promise! – something extraordinary was bound to happen, that there were thin places in the world, places at the very edge of magic. That they would, at last, find one and step through. What she’d seen in Catherine’s hands and in her expression and what she’d heard in the words Catherine could not say, pulled the ribboned chord of recognition between them taut and knotted it. 

Finally, Eimear heard in a feathery sigh. You.

 

A timer dinged, an hour gone; the dryer thumped to a stop. Across the way, the swinging glass door remained closed, the lobby shadowed and still.

 

The bell jangled as she bumped the door open with her hip, as she wedged the mounded laundry basket through. She stood for a moment on the sidewalk, considering a race across the street, a tap on the glass in a plea for entry. Come back!Take me with you! But after a last glance at the silent shop, the white work van, and Catherine’s car, she trudged to her own vehicle parked a long block away. In a driveway on her route, a wood-paneled station wagon idled, the windows tinted, the driver gunning a cranky motor as she approached. She slowed, watchful. Behind her, a porch door banged open; a bark of laughter its echo. She turned to peer over her shoulder. The rumbling car growled for attention.

Little lurkings everywhere.

A month ago – a week – she’d not have believed she would search the faces of her neighbors or the alleys of her stamping ground for malevolence, for threats.  A silliness. It was only a crank call … well, two … no, three calls. Four, if you count Saturday’s to the school. The station wagon pulled out and crawled along beside her to the corner where it screeched north at the intersection; a man jostled her elbow as he jogged past. 

Was it you? Or you?

I should tell someone. 

But not Fynn, not now. Not with the dark place in his soul laid so painfully open. And not Rosie, who would only urge her to tell Flynn – or tell him herself. Not Martin either. What could he do but worry? And worry about what, after all.

Crank calls. Only that. Who hadn’t had one? 

The prospect of home, home alone for hours yet, was daunting, but she didn’t like being frightened, indeed, was angered by it. She thunked the laundry basket into her open trunk and slammed the lid with defiance. Martin was nearby, at Behan’s, not three blocks away, with Mick and Orla in from Philly and Coy Doyle home from college. She checked her watch. Early yet. But the music would be starting up soon enough and a dim corner’s table at the pub might well be empty. A pint and an hour of merry company, of putting aside … then she would go home.

 

* * *

 

Vincent stood just beyond the secret door, and Damien, finding it ajar, barreled through, colliding with him, bouncing off his steeled determination, stumbling backward to the door frame. Vincent righted him with a forceful grip to both arms. Stop. Enough, he chided himself. He willed his hands to relax, to drop away.

Damien gasped for breath, his palms on his knees.  “Vincent … what? Gimme a break here. Mitch Denton? That’s …”

Ludicrous. The word went unspoken, though it might have calmed him to hear it. He might have agreed, thought it through again, let it go … but Damien’s underlying expression was easy enough to decipher. Compliance. Acquiescence. Capitulation. If not yet, then eventually. 

He closed his eyes, fighting the urge to press his fists to his forehead. No one will question me, cross me. My decisions become theirs; mine must be correct. I must be firm. I must be sure. There is no room for my error. I’ve been distracted, self-indulgent …

He stilled his thoughts. Massed the wisps of uncertainty, the strings of fear and fury into a ragged imagined ball, compressing, molding until there appeared in his mind’s eye a small, dense orb in his open palm. Manageable. He clenched a mental fist around it, focused on his breathing – slowing it – on the resounding echo of his heart in his chest – willing it quiet – on his blood as it coursed and cooled, on the lessening snap and fire of synapse. 

Catherine.

He could hear her muted laughter and the muffled whoomp of swinging doors, the thump of baggage. A rectangle of light bloomed at the landing, rayed down into the basement hideaway. It was a strange alchemy — her presence, the probe of sun, the ardent caress he could feel on his skin. His muscles tensed in forward movement, and he leaned into the going, into that first step toward her above, then remembered … Exposure … and withdrew to the shadows.

“Tell Catherine …” he began, and Damien started up up the stairs. “Tell her I’m here.”

 

“Vincent! Where are you?” 

With the basket of bread borne in her arms, she stepped through the basement’s secret passage into the corridor. His mouth watered at the scent. 

“Damien said–” She stopped short, her brilliant smile fading away to uncertainty. “Something’s wrong.”

 

“Mitch Denton?” 

Her inflection implied more doubt than fear. 

She should be afraid. 

Of who? a dark voice muttered. 

“That’s really a big leap, Vincent. I mean, Mitch has a dozen warrants out on him. Every beat cop from Bayonne to White Plains knows his face. He’d have to be truly stupid to be anywhere near the city. Those initials could mean anything.”

As he swept past her the third time, she reached out to stop his pacing. “Stop.” Taking his hand, she tugged him back to the basement, through the entrance toward a rumpled couch against the far wall. The stairwell still burned with topaz light and he blinked as he passed.

“Look at me,” she begged. “Sit down. Tell me all of it again.”

 

Catherine shook her head and started to speak. She shook her head again. “What Miriam heard could mean anything. I just don’t believe it’s Mitch. I mean … why? He’d have to know–”

“What I would do to him if I saw him again?” Vincent finished, his eyes riveted to hers. A coarse rumble underscored his words. “If I found him anywhere near you? If he so much as whispered your name?” She knows what I would do …

Holding his gaze, she shook her head again. “That’s not what I was going to say. Mitch already knows what you would do. You let him go, Vincent. You chose.” Persistent at his stubborn fist, she worked her fingers into his grip. “You chose. Remember that.” It was not a question, but a demand. “I was going to say … Mitch would have to know a dozen ways in. Why would he be sending out scouts? It doesn’t make sense.”

“The ways have changed since he was a boy. And perhaps he has forgotten.”

“Would Kanin and Mitch even know each other?”

“I was nearly eighteen when Kanin came to us. For years before that, Mitch would come and go, always in trouble above, causing even more Below. He … left … the tunnels … permanently … soon after Kanin arrived, but there would have been a few weeks during which their paths might have crossed. Kanin kept to himself in those early days. And Mitch … cared for no one. Still, each might remember the other.”

“Have you told Father this … your theory? He could get word to a helper, have someone visit Sam in Queens Village, at the Residence, ask him if he’s heard anything.”

“No. We’ve … I’ve not told him. I’ve kept everything about Kanin off the pipes.” He turned from her, then looked down at his feet. One boot disconnected from his command, on its own drumming a solemn message on the dusty floor. A jitter of energy rippled through his musculature, his tendons wired as if preparing for flight.

“You don’t think Olivia should know?” Her mouth parted in a sigh and she rubbed at her lower lip, tapped at it.

“Know what, Catherine?” He leapt up, tearing himself from a sudden pull of desire. Respite. Oblivion. Pacing three steps out and back, a shuddery breath expanding his chest, he threw his arms wide. “Should I tell her that her husband, the father of her children, has endangered at least himself, that he seems to be moving farther from us, from her? That he is disagreeable, intractable, that all sane discourse with him has led to … what? Is this some test he’s set for himself? Some self-destructive course sure to meet his own miserable expectations? That he will not accept her forgiveness, that he dismisses what she mercifully offers? How can I send such a message … on the pipes? How?” He braced himself in the corner, bending up one leg, one propelling foot flat to the wall.

Aniela’s and Damien’s low conversation filtered down from office above, and then their footsteps pattered the floor … the metal door to the stairs, to the eventual roof, clanged shut. Vincent sighed and tipped his head back against the bricks, In the silence between them, he heard Catherine rise and cross the room.

“This is a lot to bear alone, Vincent.” He dropped his foot and she settled against him.   “You miss Father, don’t you? Talking to him? Sharing the burden of all of this. The intensity of the work, the people management. And the … revelations … all of our … coincidences on top of that. Would you like me to go for him?”

“He couldn’t … shouldn’t make the journey.”

“I could meet him at an entrance, an accessible one, at 14th Street maybe … drive him here.”

He drew her close. So soft. The scent of spring, the allure of another life. His arms tightened around her; the next breath he drew was shuddery but sweet. Joy floated past … almost within reach. “No, Catherine. Not Father, not this time. I want you to go home.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Where is that, without you, Vincent? 

She thought to argue, but his steely resolve was all too familiar. “I can’t go below,” she said. “I’d never get to our rooms without Father knowing. He’d materialize in the passageway with a list of questions a mile long.” 

There it was – almost imperceptible – the nudge of a rueful smile.

“Then you should go to your apartment,” he countered. “You have work tomorrow. And you must be miserable after a night on the ground.”

“It was hardly a night. A few hours. I’m all right.” She led him back to the couch, pulled him down beside her.  Though his answer was inevitable, she had to ask. “Do you want me to go to this place, this old entrance on Independence? I could drive around, look for Kanin.”

“No, I do not want you to do that. The road winds through the woods. It’s too isolated. There are too many unknowns. You will not go there, Catherine. Promise me.”

It’s only a campus woods, hardly a wilderness. But after a moment, she nodded. “I just don’t know what your going will accomplish, Vincent. The entrance has been sealed a long time. Breaking through would just make more work for the crew and increase the danger below. No matter what his state of mind, Kanin wouldn’t expect that. There has to be some other interpretation.”

“I can’t see one.”

“I know you can’t. Let me think.” Hoping to diffuse his tension, she tucked her legs under her on the sofa, leaned into his shoulder, but the exercise of his restraint was a tangible thing – a heat off his skin, a fidget of knee and foot. How can I leave you? Knowing she had only moments before he swept away down the tunnels, she forced clues together, clues that repelled each other, disparate clues barely clues at all.

“Maybe … maybe the Riverdale remark was just a decoy. There’s no entrance there, you said. So if we take it at face value, Kanin was just blowing smoke. It meant nothing more. No connection between you and St. Vincent college.” She held up a hand. “Let’s just go with that for now. And if he said he wanted to keep his independence … Cullen was vague about that, maddeningly vague you said, so that could mean …” She rubbed her lip in concentration and heard Vincent’s sharp inward breath, looked up to meet his narrowed gaze. “… something about Kanin’s probation meeting tomorrow. He has to show up to stay out of jail. Don’t you think …” She pulled his hand from its tensioned grip on his thigh, marrying her fingers with his. “Isn’t it possible he was saying he’d be there? That Dominic should pick him up as planned? Maybe he wanted you to do nothing. Maybe you could wait, at least until tomorrow afternoon, to, ummm, reinterpret this. Wait to see if Kanin keeps his appointment.”

Heels hammered the metal stairs floors above them – Aniela’s and Damien’s descent from the roof. He heaved himself up and again he paced the confined space. There he goes, she thought. He might as well be shaking out his arms, rolling his shoulders – like a runner, like a swimmer. But on one pass he slowed, and … ready for him … she seized his hand. 

Hold me, Vincent. For this moment, before we have to part.

She let him help her to her feet.

“What you say makes sense, Catherine. Perhaps I’ve … overthought the situation. You’ve told me I do that.” His hands pressed apology at the small of her back.

“Sometimes, Vincent. Sometimes you do. But always out of love.” She rose to touch her lips to his, clinging there, his tender but tenacious lover, until she felt the upward curve, the parting of his mouth.

My whole heart,” he whispered against her cheek, “my whole heart in one kiss upon your perfect lips.” 2

At the first footstep on the basement stair’s topmost tread, Vincent moved from their embrace to a corner of the basement, where he stood, stoic, arms folded. Aniela thumped down the steps carrying a thermos, a more circumspect Damien behind her with the second.

Damien ran his fingers through already-disheveled curls. “I, ummm, guess we, Aniela and I, could take the cart with the supper a ways down, if you, ahhh, you and Catherine want to … I mean, Aniela has to lock up behind her with the key, and well, Catherine, you’ll need to leave the building when she does. You know … get your car and all.” An audible gulp followed his speech.

She knew, without benefit of their bond, the haze of Vincent’s ambivalence, torn as he was, wanting to search for Kanin, to fulfill his obligations, to do his job and do it well … and to stay with her, be with her, to revel in all that had earlier transpired. 

If he knew about Eimear, about their meeting … 

Another time. There was something even more – dark thoughts unsorted, words clotted in his throat. She wouldn’t tell him. Not now. 

“Pass the containers down,” she said. “We’ll help. And then I’ll go.”

At the foot of the stairs, she beckoned him with a commiserative smile. His stride toward her too long, too forceful for the room, he took last place in line, squared himself. She heard his stubbled exhale. He was fierce in his concentration to bridle his agitation, to mask his disappointments, but what he thought was his neutral look, she saw as more a glower. 

Damien rushed up, disappeared from view, returned bearing a cooler … and with Aniela positioned halfway and Catherine at the floor, the feast passed hand to hand to hand … to Vincent and to the cart.

 

 

____________

Chapter Title: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dawn on the Night-Journey. 1863.

Opening quotation: John O’Donohue. For One Who Holds Power. To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008.

1. Christina Rossetti. Sonnets Are Full of Love, from A Pageant and Other Poems, 1881.

2. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, a fragment. 1842.

4 Comments

  1. This is such a skillfully constructed story in every way. It’s so apparent that a tremendous amount of thought has gone into its planning, into every facet of its production. A high degree of technical expertise combined with amazing artistry, imagination, and the writer’s love and respect for these characters and their interwoven worlds combines to produce one of the best BatB stories ever. Thank you, Carole!

    Reply
    • Linda, you have made my day! It’s difficult sometimes to weave the magic of the tunnel world with scientific facts, but believing in the world below makes aiming at that a joy. Thank you – again! – for reading and for your kind words of encouragement. I’ll work as hard and as quickly as I can to deserve them. 😀

      Reply
  2. Both Eimear and Vincent have their worries. At the very least, Vincent has been able to share his with Catherine and have her help him take a step back from them. Eimear is still keeping troubling secrets from those she loves, doing what women so often do — mask their worries, discount the protective messages from their instinctual selves, assuming “I’m blowing this out of proportion.”

    I’m so looking forward to the coming chapters — especially when Catherine goes to visit Old Sam and finds a surprise.

    MARVELOUS, as always.

    HUGS,

    LIndariel

    Reply
    • Lindariel, you are so good to remember what comes next from the old, old days! I’m excited to be getting back into this part of the story.

      And you’ve highlighted what I hoped readers would find in Eimear’s mindset. That makes me really happy! Thank you so much, always!!

      Reply

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