Iron Behind the Velvet - Chapter 22

~ My Pulses Beat at Once and Stop 1



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. An elbow crooked around the rail, he released the buckle of his laden belt, depositing it tools and all into the wooden crate suspended from above. Freed, he leaned out from one handhold, one foot on the bottommost rung, dangled in a slow stretch of sinew ... tendon ... nerve. Somewhere beneath the effort, beyond his admitting, his right shoulder ached. He dropped to the ground. A powdery cloud billowed up. Under the dry pass of his tongue, his teeth were gritty.

“Fixed?”

A fine cascade of rubble rained down and when its patter ceased he opened his eyes to Mouse peering over the edge. “All the weldings in this lower section were loose,” he said, “but with the new side-rails and bolt system ... 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 only at the last second, a perfect capture and a familiar ritual. He held the apple aloft and heard Mouse grumble.

“Forty-four in a row. No drops. No misses.”

“Forty-seven, Mouse. If one is counting.”

“Right, Vincent. Big if .” Mouse hauled on the rope, at last dragging the box up and over the lip of the shaft.

He dodged another rivulet of gravelly debris.

Two steps backward and he met the wall, slid down to a crouch, for a moment unguarded to the past hours’ events. Somewhere in time, somewhere beneath the wide starry sky, a slight eruption, perhaps a celestial impact secretly swelled the tide of providence. A force moving nearby. Coincidence, improbability, inevitability ... borne of commitment. That it exists for us ... A philosopher’s debate, a mystic’s meditation.

Another time, he admonished himself ... pleaded. But undercurrent and crest at once, always ... Catherine. 

apple orchard in summer, Italy
With a small clasp-knife, he pierced the red-gold peel and began a careful paring. Under the sharp blade, the juices popped from the skin, the scent rushing him pungent, sweet and vinegary. The grey-rust landscape before him vanished supplanted by the foreign orchard in terracettes around a gentle hill, where jeweled boughs swayed under the forbidden sun. He leaned his head to the stone.

I like it best when I can see you, he’d said. And she had known the truth ...

A lantern flickered, the momentary darkness allowing in a dream ... a cherished, nurtured, dream. 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 ... Vincent capped his canteen and clipped it to a belt loop. Both hands on the 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. Once more. Again. He pulled hard at the sidebars and bounced on the rounds, heavy on his feet. 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.

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. A bell? “Someone’s coming,” he said.

“Probably Martha,” Mouse answered. “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.”

“No?”

“Someone’s coming, not from your level, Mouse, but from below.”

Mouse leaned out over the open shaft. “From below? Who? Climb up!”

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. He rose into shadow just past the reach of the last 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, doors latched clang-snap, the machines spun and whined and thumped ... sheltering them within the eye of a swirling choir of sound.

“These are his clothes,” Eimear said, no accusation but wonder in her 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 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 at the Chamber of the Falls, they stepped through together. Vincent turned from the ledge, his hand out in welcome.

This is the man I love. How she longed to say it out loud.

A scuffed track was worn in the grey and yellow tiles of the floor, and she studied it. I cannot find the beginning of it or see the way it leads, Vincent had said, but wherever the path’s fount, its course led ... here. Surely this exquisite mystery must not be wasted.

The Anam Cara, Martin had told her, the soul friend who blesses the fullness and mystery of your life. Undeniable. Destined. A bell chinkled against glass. A door opened. There was a flurry 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 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 …

And knows2," 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, 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 fingered the laces closing 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, won’t you? You’ve a lot to do before your friend comes.” She dug into the pile of clothes, pulling a knitted vest free and burying her nose in it. “Ummmm. What brand of dryer sheet do you use?”

Catherine sputtered with laughter and relief and opened her arms to a hug, but over Eimear's shoulder, the round, plain clock high on the wall signaled Aniela’s imminent return. “Why are you here?” she asked, sure she’d passed a laundry nook on her way to the garden the night before. Aware hers was Eimear’s question gone unasked, she busied with the folding.

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 lump it into the trunk.”

She saw them now, indeed two sodden lumps in a basket at Eimear’s feet. “You should grab those empty machines. I’ll do this.”

“I’m fine to wait. 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?””

_____


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,” he said.

“Of course, my friend.” Cullen’s booming reply echoed in the craggy passage. “Was there ever any doubt?”

“And we’re in time for supper, right?” asked Jamie.

“So it’s true. What Noah and Stewart said.” Mouse let loose a giddy yelp and jumped the last few rungs of the ladder. “Secret passage. Not on the maps.” At Vincent's shoulder, Mouse whispered, “That’s two so far.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Vincent, this boy needs lessons in–” He stopped short, 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. “Vincent’s done his best,” she said, swiping her hands on her pants legs. “Now it’s my turn.”

“Oh,” Mouse repeated and backed away from the circle of light to just outside its edge. Spellbound by a mystery there, he toed the ground and mumbled.

“What was that?” Jamie asked. “Don’t you have anything 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.

“You did? That’s sweet. Show me.”



“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. "A straight shot in-between, an express route.”

“Show me,” Vincent said.


narrow, secret tunnel passage
The tunnel was rough-hewn and confining, but the way was straight and level and Vincent believed he could run the course if necessary.

“Has there been word of Kanin?”

“Well, that’s something we need to talk about.” Three strides in the lead, Cullen tossed the words over his shoulder. “Esther and Miriam were on watch at the rock fall ... the one where Kanin went across the perimeter. They’re sure they heard his voice ... among others ... talking about the entry at Riverdale Avenue.”

“There's no entry on Riverdale.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s the thing.” Cullen stopped and set the lantern into a high niche.

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?”

“Eidetic.”

“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.” Cullen sobered. “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. Let’s see … 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.”

“They fought?”

“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. 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, ummm, MD, just the initials, you know, like medical doctor. Kanin asked a few questions, but his pals weren’t talking.”

Foreboding smogged his chest. A sharp stab of anger slipped between two ribs. Suspicion, a bitter wind, blew red and furious. MDThe brutal report of the gun, the unstoppable trajectory, the cruel, savage thump of her precious body on the ground. Father’s prediction – Now he’ll never leave us in peace.

MD ... Mitch Denton.

“I don’t wanna ask what you’re thinking,” Cullen said, his hands trapped under his armpits. “But I guess I’m gonna have to.”

The night came 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.” He whirled and strode into the dark. In the shaft, he launched himself at the ladder, past a surprised Mouse and Jamie who sprang out of his way, small squares of notepaper, like oversized confetti, tossed up from their hands. No time to explain. Cullen would, he supposed. It didn’t matter.

“What’s the hurry?” Mouse started up the rungs himself, not waiting for an answer. “Whatever. Vincent hurries. I hurry. You hurry too.”


_____


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 clean clothes were folded and secreted away into the two large duffels. Eimear dragged one to the door, Catherine a step behind.

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, though. I can promise to protect your privacies, but 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 the curb. In the driveway across the street, the van’s door opened and Aniela hopped out.

“Our boys 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 is in that thermos?”

“Mom’s specialty, well, one of ‘em. Peposo. Kind of an Italian chili. Spicy. Vincent likes it.” Inside the entryway, Aniela lowered the container to the floor with a grunting huff. “There’s enough chianti in it to lay them all out for hours afterward. I’ve got another one in the van. 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 were dark and reflected the sidewalk and street, passersby and cars. Some odd angle of sun, she concluded, or maybe steam had fogged the glass. 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 ... at least none that she could see. She should feel relief, she knew. 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. Don’t tell her. Show her. “I didn’t know your brothers moved,” she said instead, 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’s niche, Damien kept his pace. “Mitch?” he ventured. “Mitch Denton? 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 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 …

Vincent, standing in wait
“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 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.



Click HERE for Chapter 23.

__________________

1. Dante Alighieri. Sonnet: I Muse Over. 1304.
2. Robert Frost. The Secret Sits. from A Witness Tree. 1942.




4 comments:

Brandy said...

Aaa-URGH! Your cliff-hangers will be the death of me, woman!

Vincent's morning reminiscings were quite erotic, and I like the development of the arc with Jamie and Mouse.

What is up with this new Kanin and Mitch storyline?? Came out of nowhere...

Looking forward to WInterfest and more updates.

Carole W said...

Brandy, we only know that Vincent is afraid it might be Mitch. He's stressed. He could be jumping to a conclusion.

We know that Kanin went across the perimeter to prove something to himself, or to others... Maybe he'll come back soon with the info...

Anyway, I hope the mention of Mitch isn't too out of the blue - I do have a plan. I promise.

Carole

Krista said...

Oh, Carole. (I know. I'm predictable. :)) I remember reading the first version of this and being stunned, first by the paths crossing and intermingling, and second by how deftly you wove all the threads and coincidences-that-aren't.

Now with the new revision, my thoughts still stand. This is gorgeous and lovely and so real . It's not every author who could take the events as you've written them and not make them too pat, too much a given. You've made this all so believable and, again and still, it's a joy to read. :)

Great job,

Krista

Carole W said...

Thank you, Krista! Making sure all those crossed paths end up at the same place someday is the real purpose of these edits. I'm finding places where the story line could be enhanced a bit, the foreshadowing and the like, deepened. I'm glad to know that in its original form, it was believable, and gladder to know you find it still that!

Rereading Brandy's comments from {{cough}} 2 years ago, I've expanded on the Mitch theme - in an upcoming chapter. What he represents beyond just his rotten self. I think that will fix what might have seemed too sudden. We'll see - and I trust you'll tell me if I've overconvoluted it or made it clearer.

Thanks so much for everything.
Carole