Iron Behind the Velvet - Chapter 11

~ In the Twilights of Dew and of Fire 1




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 light, she turned up the base to check. There it was, taped underneath – Isaac’s number, just in case. She slept with the telephone close by on the bed, her hand on the receiver. 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, maybe put on his jacket. “So ... nothing, huh?”

“Nothing,” she repeated. Thanks for worrying about me, Joe. For caring.

Damn.”

“That about covers it.”

Through the wires, in his silence, she imagined him sorting their options, the worry-written lines of his face deepening, the wry twist of his mouth.

“Well ...” he said. “Better wear armor.”



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. He told her Centre Street was never out of his way. How did he know, she wondered. She shook her head when he looked back at her from the taxi’s open door, waving him away.

Her doorman winked. “Gives me the screaming habdabs too, Miss Chandler.” Before she could ask what that meant, Roger pointed to the now-clear sidewalk and trotted from his post at the entryway, his arm raised for her. She shouldered her bag and followed.

A darting rider separated from the brace of yellow vehicles leaving the light at 74th. A slight hitch of his shoulders bounced the wheels over the curb. He lifted from the saddle, pitching forward onto the pedals, weighting the handlebars. 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 he swerved to a stop.

“Benny!” she cried. “Nobody–”

“Rides like me! You got that right.” He flourished a note from his bag, then shot away, a snappy salute to Roger’s scowl. How long had he waited, 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 it on her office steps, a push-cart man perhaps, a flower seller ...

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



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.

In Columbus Circle, coral-pink tulips bloomed in the outer tier, sun-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 Maine. Courage ... Fortitude ... Justice, it 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. “Hmmmph.” 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.”


______________


The new workers arrived early bearing fresh breakfast treats. William sent 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 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.

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

“Sentry duty. Three shifts. Her choice.”

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

“Isn’t it? Women ... what're you going to do?” Cullen reached inside his vest. “A kind and charming woman exacted my promise to give you this, and before you take off ...” 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. My job is dispiriting today and wearing on me. 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. We had no time to talk this morning.
Yesterday, 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 clipboarded list passed around the group, a pencil tied to it with string. They were unfamiliar with the streets above them 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. “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 here ... and here. 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. “I ... 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’s ... 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?”

“Disappeared, Your Honor. 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, smoothing her hair as she passed, 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 waved 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. We win the next one. ” She attacked the litter of documents on the table, tapping a stack of folders even. “Right?”



She turned from the 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 lunches and drinks on their briefcases and bags. 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,” Rita read. “Hey, you know this guy.”

Flynn O’Carroll 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. “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 message from Cullen tapped through the pipes said all was well to the west, that camp had been made. 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 seal of one tunnel leading from the junction was underway. Full crews would begin in earnest early the next morning.

At the new eastern site, a little over a mile north of the first, a kitchen was arranged and sleeping areas claimed. They began immediately to dismantle a complex barricade to a circular stair descending two levels to 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 made the camp’s fire.

At home wood was a precious commodity, gleaned from Central Park late at night, carted to a windy chamber, stacked on pallets to dry. Their small braziers might heat water for tea, but William’s brick oven required the bulk of their stockpile. But here the supply was generous, cleaved and dry from Stuart’s gardens Above. 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 fluke, the fortuitousness. But the day had delivered another message from her through their bond. Dispiriting, she’d said and her mood had darkened 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.

Midway through supper, a sentry'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 tapping said the intruders were no real threat ... only teenagers with beer and pot, 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 Father and those at home. Long silences, he knew, were too 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, a smile stealing into his voice. “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 ... As if he had a choice. “I’ll walk with you.” Martin’s music waited for him he hoped, not far from Damien’s rendezvous.

“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 serious 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. 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.”


He stood at the mouth of the narrow passage. He would never be able to write this story for her; he needed to tell her, to show her. He wanted to share this place with her, have her hear the music, see how he stood at the door of her world, the chain to it in his hand.

The wishes fueled his step through the gates and secret doors to the stairs. The lilting, probing notes of the music pried open a secret hope boxed deep.

Not unbelievable. Not impossible.


Click HERE for Chapter 12.




_______________


1. William Butler Yeats. The Blessed.

4 comments:

Krista said...

Carole, I love this new edit---and you know I thought the original was already pretty darned good. :) I love the bit about Stuart's gardening---who'd have thunk? :)

And funny, but that bench where Catherine's eating lunch look so familiar. I can't think where I might have seen it :-P

Great job, again and still :)

Carole W said...

Hey! We Were THERE! How cool is that? We have pictures to prove it!!

Thanks for the kind words. I'm so grateful for you.

Stuart's gardening will be clarified in chapter 48, the rest of the Wren chapter. This just jumped out at me as a perfect place to foreshadow it.
Honestly, editing is so much fun (I just hope I can quit one day.)

C

RomanticOne said...

Vincent's advice to Damien sounds very much like a lesson learned. I really like how you keep Vincent and Catherine close, even when they are technically far apart. It must be tricky for you, but you do a great job of it. It has been said that one cannot improve on perfection, but you are managing to do just that with your edits.

Carole W said...

R-1, I can't express how much your comments mean to me! Thank you for rereading and finding the edits worth your while to do so.

Poor V - like so many of us, he knows but things are often easier said than done. Hopefully, he's over most of the humps. He may backslide every now and then (in the future), but he has a lifetime of issues to overcome. Let's hope Damien listens!

I still promise you a V/C Monday night, which is drawing nearer with the soon-to-be-completed late-40's chapters. :-)