sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 33 ~ And These Poor Nerves
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
No matter how short, no matter how shallow, sleep usually brought him equilibrium, but he was agitated and subdued at once – and stiff and sore. As he rolled the pad and pillow together, as he wedged the package in a cleft of rock, as he lit the torch Mouse had left behind, as he doused the lantern, his body complained. He was accustomed to sleeping on the hard ground and he couldn’t remember taking a slam from an errant beam or lifting a too-heavy stone, but there was no denying it – his back hurt when he stooped and it hurt when he stretched, and even after he drank more water, his tongue felt … fuzzy.
He trod the narrows away from the stairs beneath the garden at a gingered pace. At each step, a thudding reminder pulsed behind his eyes, bumped against the base of his skull. He ground the heel of his hand against his forehead.
A wee taste of the good stuff, he heard in Martin’s beguiling accent.
A wee taste, my–
Out into the passage and down a level, the walls were higher, the corridor wider, the air fresh and cool. He slowed, then stopped. Against a dense, gray brume, colors – like the dawn over Brooklyn Bridge – cavorted behind his eyelids. They were beautiful colors but danced with too much … enthusiasm. And though he willed open the reach of their bond, the gladness, the transport, that serene place-within he sought with her proved elusive, thwarted by the roll of timpani between his ears.
With a chuff of frustration, he opened his eyes. For a moment he thought himself on a swinging bridge, the floor beneath him in a slow, sinuous wave. He braced one hand to the wall. A faint sound drew his focus. On one of the few pipes connecting these tunnels he heard a ping and a pause, again a ping, ping, pause … ping. It was code designed specifically for this mission, code unknown to those outside these two small crews. Breakfast. Ready. The imagined aroma made him frown.
This will not do.
He stabbed his torch into a crevice, dropped his cloak. He spread his feet, drew and loosed the cleansing breaths as he’d been taught, dropping his chin to his chest, rounding his shoulders. With a slow inhale, he reached high overhead, elongating the muscles of his arms, spreading his fingers wide, then lowered his arms and with them outstretched, palms up – encompassing, entreating – arched his back, bared his heart … tipped his face toward the unseen sun …
Hold. Hold. Breathe …
In time, the flickering lights … the thudding … slowed and a treasured image seeped through the cotton wadding in his head – the park in spring, the trees in flower, the colors distinct in the morning light … a breeze rippling the lake, sweeping away the haze. Through the arch, through the Ravine and into the North Woods, along the Harlem Meer to see the swans, his footfall cushioned by a carpet of rose-pink petals, he ran without constraint – if only in his fancy – into the coming day …
The spiral stairs would not allow a speedy descent, and by the time he neared camp, he’d prepared an apology for his impatience, for his absence. Had made and discarded a list of questions for Kanin, replacing it with a vow to allow him the floor without interruption, without commentary. He remembered Catherine and Aniela had brought back a dark bread studded with pecans and raisins. Perhaps a single piece, crisp-toasted, no butter …
Even before he reached the entrance, he heard the buzz of anxious chatter, the ting of metal spoons against tin plates. By now, his crew would know of Kanin’s undertaking and would rightly question the decision to keep it from them. He’d need an answer for that choice as well.
He surveyed the assemblage from the top of the stairs. Cullen and Damien and Jamie huddled with Kanin around their makeshift workshop – a long refectory table they’d found tipped on its side in an abandoned chamber. Rather than with tools in need of repair or with ropes to check for fraying, its splintered surface was layered in maps and plans. Kanin thumbed the pages and whipped one out, smoothed it flat, anchored the corners with small stones. “Here, here. And here,” Vincent heard him say, as he traced his finger along a path of work to come.
But most were busy with breakfast.
Fresh from the farm! Catherine had announced, unzipping Aniela’s pack even while she wore it. One by one, she’d lifted out four precious cartons. Now on his knees by the fire, Mouse scrambled the eggs in a massive skillet, raking orange-yellow curds across and back, across again. A platter, warming on a fire-pit stone, was mounded with surely the entire five-pound bag of potatoes cubed and fried. Rounds of dark sausage sizzled in another pan. A kettle spluttered steam.
“Vincent!” Mouse called and every face turned his way. “Just in time. Sit.” Mouse spread his hands above his ready fare. “Good stuff, too. Aniela found. Look! Black pudding!”
With concerted effort, Vincent managed not to wince.
“I think,” he began, when he reached the floor, “I’ll clean up first. And then–”
“Sure, after. You go. There’s plenty.” Mouse shot a narrowed glance at Kanin. “Make sure, this time.”
Vincent clapped him – gently – on the shoulder. “Toast. Just toast.”
“Tea, though, right? Pot’s hot.”
He felt a yes, thank you forming on his lips when a craving, rich and dark, swept over him. “Is there coffee?”
Mouse blinked, but after a moment, he grinned. “Sure, Vincent. Make it for you. Have it ready. Strong, too. Like William’s for Catherine.”
In their field lavatory he knelt by the pool, tested the temperature with trailing fingers. Still warm. He’d not missed the strange cycle of the water, but in an hour, perhaps less, it would go ice-cold until evening. Wherever they would work next, wherever Kanin would direct them, the facilities would likely be more primitive. This might be his last dunking bath for days.
He’d scooped up the clean clothes left folded for him in the passage outside the bathing chamber. His fresh shirt smelled of flowers, a sweet but counterfeit scent compared to Martin’s garden. Still … an improvement, he acknowledged, as he peeled layers of leather and dusty flannel and corduroy away. His splayed toothbrush was in a labelless tin can with a dozen others just as worn, but on the same ledge of rock, a stash of new toiletries was massed – deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo and – thank you, Catherine – detangling conditioner. Stewart had found the porcelain, blue-flowered basin and pitcher they used for a sink, had positioned it in the shallow scoop of a promontory of marble. At it, he scrubbed hard at his teeth. Better, he judged, running his tongue across his incisors, his reflection fractured and repeated in the chips of mica – a thousand little mirrors in the stone.
Crouched at the waterside, he considered the eddy and swirl, the lakelet’s mysterious mood and flow, and thought of home. He missed those mornings, those evenings, and sometimes those afternoons, Below or Above, when they would bathe together, where he would reacquaint his eyes, his hands, with her beauty, her … artistry. Still so new. When afterward – she on the couch – he’d sit before her on the floor and idly, she’d comb her fingers through his damp hair until it dried. And she would read to him – or better, simply talk – recounting conversations held and overheard, the intricacies and ironies of her work, drama on the street. Or tell him of the smallest of things – an array of blackbirds on a fence, a bucket drummer in the subway, the lemony bite of Sam-the-street-vendor’s stuffed grape leaves. Though he listened – listened closely – there were times when he was carried on the sound of her voice to a place larger, more perfect than he’d ever dreamed possible. So free, so bright …
Once she’d asked him, laughing, to repeat her words, and he was about to confess that he’d long lost the thread … but instead, surprising them both, he’d turned and, on his knees, nuzzled beneath her breast, urged her back against the cushions, wandered ravenous over her ribs and belly with his lips and hands, tugged her hips to the sofa’s edge …
When he slipped in, the water was cooler than he’d expected, but the lapping waves fizzed in his ears as he sank below the surface and the minerals soothed away the deep ache in his bones and head, moderated his … thoughts. When, dried and dressed, he emerged from the washroom, he went from person to person, making amends. Mouse, last to clasp his proffered hand, had a stack of toast ready for him, crisp as he liked it and a pot of coffee for him alone. From Catherine, Mouse whispered, opening his fist as a magician might to reveal a tiny jar of golden raspberry jam. With his first cup and a plate in hand, he settled to a shadowed niche farthest from the fire. He believed he could hear her, just above the murmur of conversation, over the rustle of paper and the snap of flame …
When this work is finished …
* * *
The washer was pulled out from the wall and lay on its side on an old quilt; the access panel removed, the no-longer-mysterious workings of the machine exposed. In a plastic tub, the clamps, the pump coupling and mounting bolts were lined up in the order of their removal. Always so careful, Eimear thought, watching him from the doorway. He was on his knees, bent over the metal abyss, braced on both arms. Under a waffle-knit shirt, beneath sweatpants soft with wear, muscles knotted and rippled with his efforts. And so beautiful …
“Flynn,” she called, keeping her voice low. “I’m leaving now.”
He looked at her over his shoulder and, frowning, raked unruly hair out of his eyes. “I don’t think it’s the belt this time.”
Her gaze swept the countertops and table. “Where’s Mab? I’d figure her for your helper.”
“Had to put her in the guest room. She likes to hide the bolts.”
Eimear laughed as she crossed the floor. “You’ll not forget to let her out, will you? Or we’ll be truly sorry come this evening.” Behind him, she ran her hands through his curls. At her touch, he sank back on his heels. “Would you want a haircut tonight? I’ll wait up for you. Give you the treatment,” she said and held her breath.
“I told Albie I’d take another shift.”
Of course you did. “Before Saturday, then. Before Rosie’s ceremony. Catherine’s coming. Martin might be after Seamus from the Residence, if he’s up to it.”
“Saturday. Right. I remember.” He dragged the toolbox closer and searched its contents.
Do you? Come home, Flynn. Come back to me.
“Leave this, won’t you, a chuisle, and sleep. ‘Tis only a few hours and you’ll be back on the truck and then the night ahead of you for Albie’s and Maricel’s sakes. I’ll stay home with you, if you’ll come to bed now.”
She saw his hands grip the sides of the washer, the knuckles pale in relief. His skin seemed flushed and she was tempted to lay the backs of her fingers to his forehead.
“I wanna try one more thing here, Eim. You go on.”
She leaned out from the front porch railing, testing the air. A soft day it is, she predicted, going back inside for her umbrella. She should take the car in case the day turned hard, should the wind blow and the rain lash, but it was only ten blocks to work and ‘twas only spattering after all, and the walk this morning would be therapy. At the corner, as she stepped off the curb to cross the street, a motor growled behind her. She pulled back, banging her elbow on the signpost. A car inched into the empty intersection, idled there … then sped away.
Kids, she thought. A nothingness. But she fingered the tiny cassette in her pocket, glad she’d remembered to unplug the phones before she left for work. And the fury she’d seen reflected in the car’s side mirror? Was surely – surely – no more than a trick of the struggling sun through the gathering clouds.
* * *
“I have to meet Dominic at eleven o’clock.”
“I could shine it on.” At Vincent’s raised brow, Kanin continued, running his fingers inside his collar. “Blow it off. You know. Fuhgeddaboudit.”
Vincent chuckled and tilted his head. “We’ll manage until you return.”
“I guess you’ve had some practice at that.”
“You’ve been worth that wait, Kanin.”
“Sounds like that comes with a time frame attached.” In the silence that followed, Kanin folded his arms and looked down at his shoes. With one foot he drew an arched line in the dust. “Sorry.”
“No more sorry. Tell us what we need to know.”
“Who’s this MD,” Cullen demanded. “It’s not Mitch Denton. Tell me it isn’t.”
“It’s not Mitch. These guys–”
“Did you get in a fight?” Jamie broke in. “Miriam said she heard it.”
“A fight? No. I wouldn’t call that a fight. It was a … little disagreement over … space. Like, they wouldn’t give me mine.”
“Miss my space,” Mouse mumbled, seated at Vincent’s feet. “Miss Arthur.” Vincent lay his hand on his shoulder.
“Go on, Kanin. Please,” Vincent said. “These men …?”
“I, ah, convinced them to take me to their camp. I said I needed another a place to stay, that I’d had some bad trouble with a bunch of … um … thugs and marauders.”
“Us?” Mouse squealed. “Marauders!?” He squirmed and twitched, then settled into the imagined role with a happy sigh.
“Yeah,” Kanin said. “I thought it might be good to let them think it’s dangerous over here.”
Cullen glanced at Vincent and grinned. “Well, it is.”
Jamie stepped on his foot … hard.
“MD,” Vincent repeated. “And these men.”
“Right.” Kanin scuffed at his hair. “They’re not all men. MD’s a woman. Their leader, I guess. That’s who these guys took me to. She does most of the talking. Everybody seems to kind of bow and scrape to her. She asked me a lot of questions – where I came in, where I went out, how long I’d been down. There’s not that many of them camped there, but I got the impression the numbers are growing. They’ve been below for a while, I could tell, but it’s pretty miserable conditions. Disorganized. Basically a street life.”
How many? Where? How do they live? How do they eat? The questions began to pile one on top of another and Vincent held up his hand for silence. In reluctant agreement, a few floated free from the tightly-bunched group and sank to the stones still pulled into a semi-circle from their last meeting. The rest shuffled in close behind.
“They live off petty crimes. Shoplifting. Purse-snatching. A couple of ‘em bragged about mugging people on McLean Avenue, about some break-ins around Park Hill.” Kanin jammed his hands into his pockets and stared into the distance. “Some of them though … just seemed lost. There were guys like this in– Up at Lyon. Had some bad luck. Made a lot of stupid choices. Made it worse after that doing stupider stuff. But this group … they’re scared. Desperate. Suspicious of each other. And that makes ‘em mean.”
“What do they want?”
“What we have. They’ve heard stories. Like there’s beds and lights and running water. Plenty to eat. Some crazy stuff too. Secret entrances under Wall Street. Rooms crammed with money.” He stared at Cullen. “Buried treasure.”
Cullen tapped his fist to his heart, nodded acceptance.
“What did you tell them?” Damien asked.
“Yeah,” Jamie said, springing from her seat. “Miriam heard what you said … about an entrance on Riverdale, about independence. We thought … Mount St. Vincent’s, Independence Avenue. Vincent walked all the way to Levon’s old place to look for you.”
“You did?” A small smile and a melancholy warred for position on his face.
“What did all that mean, Kanin?” Jamie demanded. “And why? Why did you do this?”
Cullen edged from the standing crowd. “It was a pathetic clue, my friend. Had us scratching our heads. Not to mention we were all damn–”
“Kanin!” Mouse chimed in. “Gone all day yesterday; gone the day before. What?”
“Everyone, please,” Vincent said. “I agree with Mouse. Kanin, if you would start at the beginning, we will listen. We are listening. All of us.”
Kanin leaned against the workshop table and pulled his glasses away. “You put a monitor at the rockfall. I knew you would.” After polishing the lenses on his shirttail, he folded them into his pocket. “So yeah,” he continued. “After I dropped the rocks, I walked our side of the perimeter line all the way east at the second level. The next morning I crossed over at Bullard Avenue and started back.”
“Did you sleep?” Mouse asked.
“Not really.” Kanin turned to the worktable and pulled a map from the stack, flattening the curl with a sweep of his arm. “Levon had some maps, maps from before the perimeter was set. I wonder what happened to them.” For a long moment, he stared at the markings, the designations of metal and stone staircases, the footbridges, the dry stream beds and waterfalls. “That whole Wakefield area, under the train tracks … it’s all breached at level one, but it’s just … people … needing a safer place and we were already gonna block that off. So I’m walking the line on the other side,” he went on, “and the crossings are all still sealed except for some trouble between Harding and Fenway, but I have an idea for that. I was headed toward Valentine. There’s an entrance there … or there was.”
“How’d you know that?” Cullen asked.
“Levon showed me once.”
“You went over before?” Mouse’s eyes were wide. “Never told?”
“It was a long time ago,” Kanin said, “before I was sure I was gonna stay.”
He reached for his mug of tea, set it down without a swallow. “Anyway, those two goons caught me before I made it out. They were pretty insistent I show ‘em the way I came in. So I wandered around, pretended I was lost until one of them let it slip they knew the crossing at Euclid. I figured with some time, they might tell me more, so I walked that way to the rockfall. There was still dust in the air. I said it must have just happened, that I didn’t know another way across, but that we’d better move on before we got caught–”
“By the marauders!” Mouse said, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees.
“But what about the clue? Riverdale, Independence Avenue … MD. Vincent about blew a gasket over the idea of Mitch,” Cullen persisted.
“Dix and Brenda live in Riverdale. I thought you might figure I’d go there. The independence thing … I don’t even remember saying that. And I just kept asking who MD was. I never said– Miriam must have– ” Kanin shook his head. “I know it doesn’t make any sense. It was a pathetic clue.”
“Well,” Cullen said, “maybe her hearing’s not as great as she thinks. Maybe her memory’s not either. Maybe I’ll play poker with her after all. Eidetic memory … hah!”
“Tell the story, Kanin,” Mouse pleaded. “How’d you get away?”
“Like I said, these guys marched me to see this MD person. Told her they couldn’t find any open passages. She did some yelling, tried to bully me. I guess I don’t scare as easily as I used to.”
“You’ve got a black eye, Kanin,” Jamie pointed out.
“I do?” He brushed his fingertips across his cheekbone. “After that, I sort of dragged around camp a while, acted like I might stay, talked to some guys.” He laughed, a sour sound. “I guess last year’s paying off. It was like old home week – sitting around with these types. Eventually, somebody told me the crossings they knew about, even showed me a way out – a drainage tunnel off Rumsey. I found a 24-hour laundromat, called Dix. He brought me home.”
“Where is this camp?” Vincent asked. He drew back his shoulders, adding resonance to his next question. He would impart no worry, no possibility of defeat. No hesitancy to hear the answer. “How far down have they penetrated?”
“Two levels down in a maze under Tibbetts Brook Park.”
Almost as one, the crew exhaled and Vincent knew a cautious relief. Even within their perimeter, a breach one level down was little threat to their security, the entrances easily sealed and new portals opened. It was almost routine to change them. At the second level, the passages and junctions were a complex puzzle more difficult to alter, but now they knew where the intruders lived, knew at which crossings they were searching for passage into their world. The situation was defensible with time and effort, but concern crept in, prodding at his tentative ease. The rockfalls they’d dropped had stopped exploration – so far. If the third level should be discovered before the work was finished …
Kanin shifted from boot to boot. He rubbed his chin and his cheeks, coughed into his fist when the words caught in his throat. Finally, he raised his head.
“Look, you asked me another question, Jamie. I’ll answer you. I’ve been a– I am a jerk. That’s why. I’ve made bad choices. I guess this was just another one, but I needed to do something. I owe everyone. I lied to everyone from the beginning. I … I don’t deserve– ”
Mouse cut him off. “Could’a got hurt. Could’a got lost. Scared us.” He scrambled to his feet and scurried over, gripped his shoulder. “Just got you back. From now on, stay close.”
Kanin turned from Mouse to Vincent, from Jamie to Cullen, to the solemn faces in the gathered crowd. Each affirmed his silence with a nod. He pressed his lips together.
“What must we do next, Kanin?” Vincent prompted. “Tell us.”
His voice was rough at first. “We close off all of Wakefield like we planned. Nobody lives there anymore. And we need to bring the northern perimeter in, maybe to just past Dix’s place and under Van Cortlandt west all the way to the river. If we cut out most of Woodlawn and rethink the new entrance at Dom’s brother’s place, we can save ourselves a lot of time and worry that way.”
At that, the crew gathered to the work table. Kanin, with a blue pencil, marked in new lines, new boundaries … and, with a red, circled staircases to remove, seals to be made. Vincent stood apart, Kanin’s strategy already manifest in his mind. He remembered the feel of the crystal tumbler in his hand, the scent of the tulips. The music. The possibilities. Kanin’s plan would shrink their world … raise new walls … and Martin’s garden would be lost to him.
* * *
I hope he gets out soon. The neighbor … What is his name anyway? Hal? Howard? … see-sawed his arm and fanned his knees, pressing against her just a touch more than seemed necessary and excusable, but there was no scooting over.
Why was Bennie at my apartment? Did he deliver Father’s message or did he have another for me? Has Kanin returned? Was it Mitch? Maybe Vincent–
A stomp of brakes and they all pitched forward, slammed back. A race of cruisers and an Emergency Services truck hurtled through the intersection. Flynn? she wondered, leaning to follow the sirens, thinking then immediately of Eimear, at home, perhaps at work herself … of Eimear separated from him, left to hope, to carry on …
There were things she wanted to think about, but every now and then … Harold? Hiram? … would hum or sigh or make a noise just short of suggestive. It turned her stomach. The woman at her side was oblivious, engrossed in paperwork. At every furious red circle made with her pen, she grumbled and cursed under her breath. She was captive between them all the way downtown.
At her office … finally … the cab pulled to the curb, swerving from traffic so suddenly she was thrown against the man’s shoulder. He uttered a soft and pleasured ummm.
Huey? Hugo? “I need to get out.” Catherine tried not to roll her eyes as he too-slowly closed his notebook, jamming it into his briefcase with his eyes on her knees. “Could you hurry. I’m late enough already.”
At least it’s quit raining. For now. On the sidewalk, she fished in her purse for her wallet, but he waved the bills away, taking a step toward her.
“My treat, Cathy. But you could repay me …”
Oh, great. Here it comes.
He rocked up on his toes and back. “… by having dinner with me tomorrow night. Or better yet, Friday, my place. No time clock the next morning, heh heh. I’m a good cook.” A gust of wind swept the street and he raised a hand to his careful hair.
You’ve got to be kidding me. You think I’d come to your apartment? Even if …
“Harcourt! Hurry up, will you?” The woman leaned out of the still-open door. “The meter’s running on this idiot’s day. I gotta get to work and fire his sorry–”
He smiled up at her as he backed toward the cab. “Well?”
“Can’t, Harcourt,” she said, biting down on her thoughts. “I’m …” I want to say it. I want to say the word. “I’m … involved. Permanently.” His eyes moved to her left hand gripping the handle of her satchel. She considered swinging it at his head – accidentally – as she turned for the door.
“But you live alone,” Harcourt whined at her back. “I asked around.”
“Har,” their cab-mate commented, “you’re such an–”
The taxi’s door slammed hard on the woman’s words, the reverberation becoming thunder, chasing her up the steps.
Chapter title: Dylan Thomas. My Hero Bares His Nerves. 18 Poems. 1933.
Opening quotation: W. S. Merwin. Separation.
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Carole, I love all the clues and hints in this chapter! Like Hansel and Gretel, you are leaving us a scattering trail of delicious breadcrumbs so that we may find our way back to where you began. I can’t wait to see where they lead us!
So many reactions evoked in this chapter — hope for Kanin, fear for Eimear, sadness for Flynn, admiration for Catherine, despair for Martin who unknowingly may be deprived of access to his new friend, and all of the above for Vincent.
I especially loved the paragraph toward the beginning of the chapter where Vincent is, in his own way, glorying in the dawn Above. So poignant, so full of beauty and promise.
Your message brightened my morning so much I didn’t notice how gloomy it was outside! I’m gladder than glad you enjoyed this chapter, Linda. So pleased you found clues in it. I want to sow seeds of possibilities, open pathways through the briars. That you read this story and forgive (I hope) how slow I am to get it out, keeps me determined to keep after it. Thank you a hundred times over!
Ah, Vincent with a hangover — priceless! “A wee bit of the Green Spot” was a wee bit too much, but at least Kanin’s news was good — no Mitch Denton on the horizon. But Kanin’s plans that would shorten their work, but permanently block access to Martin’s garden. Vincent constantly sacrifices what he wants for what everyone else needs. It’s time to speak up!
You do such a masterful job of conveying the current anguish in Eimear and Flynn’s relationship. He’s closed off to “protect” Eimear from his darkness, and she’s hiding some kind of problem/concern. They’re both contributing to their unwanted estrangement, and your words make it almost physically painful for the reader.
Ugh, Catherine dealing with a manspreading Lothario like Hal/Huey/Hugo/Howard/Harcourt is all too familiar to any woman navigating the city streets and transit. I’d want to ask him, “Do you even HEAR yourself?” What a loser!
I know what’s coming up, and I can’t wait! More, more, MORE!
Thank you, thank you for finding in this chapter what I hoped readers would find! You are so good for my spirits and so kind. Sending big hugs!!!