CHILD IN DARKNESS

Joan Stephens

He was ten-years-old; a bright, sunny child caught in a web of darkness. His world consisted of a five square mile estate situated in the wilds of Montana. A high, electrified wire fence enclosed it and was constantly patrolled by security cameras, guard dogs, and sentries. It had everything a child could want growing up: a small forest; a large, cold lake with lots of fish, plenty of open space to run and play in, and horses to ride.

He should have had the ideal childhood, but he felt as if he was missing out on something. His father gave him anything that he craved but the one thing he hungered for the most: his fatherís understanding. He was loved, after a fashion, by the dark, thin man, but he also wondered, at times, why he was so fair and his father was so dark. He didnít dare ask him, not after the first time he had, when he innocently asked if he looked like his mother. The man had flown into a cold rage and had ordered him never to speak of it again. He came to ascribe his fatherís unwillingness to speak about it to his unknown mother. Whatever his mother had done, it must have hurt his father deeply, and that was why he was so cold and distant. But at times, especially late at night, around the time of early spring and his birthday, an indescribable sorrow would disturb his sleep, and he would awake suddenly to find tears streaming down his cheeks. At those times as he lay in his bed feeling the overwhelming sorrow echoing through his body, he almost hated the woman who had caused his father so much anguish.

One night in budding April, he was awakened by a familiar, crushing sense of grief and frustration. Rising from his bed, he tiptoed into the corridor and started toward his fatherís bedroom, hoping to offer him what comfort he could. But he soon realized that the sense of despair diminished the closer he came to the room. Puzzled, he turned around and returned to his bed. Wherever his father was, he wasnít in his bedroom. He was probably working late, trying to overcome his deep sadness. Blocking the deep melancholy from his mind, the child eventually fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

Trying to make up to the man for his suffering, the boy had decided early in his young life to be the child his father wanted. He became an extraordinary scholar, which wasnít difficult as he was naturally gifted with a brilliant mind. He excelled in sports, seeming to have perfect coordination, and that ability gave him an added edge in the martial arts training that his father demanded of him. But no matter how hard he applied himself, it wasnít enough, and he felt as if he would never measure up to his fatherís standards. Even so, he lived his life as well as he could.

Immersing himself in the books that he took from the estate library, he read constantly to ease the heartache and loneliness of his daily life. There he found the love that was missing in his life. He found parental love, the love of friends and siblings, the love for animals, and the love for others in the outside world.

*****

"Good morning, Master Julian," Nora, the latest housekeeper said briskly. She had served him breakfast for the last six months. None of the other domestics had lasted more than a month. Nora was a contradiction in terms. She was a superb housekeeper, keeping Girardís household running smoothly, yet there was a refinement and gentility about her that spoke of a sheltered and affluent upbringing. He had heard his fatherís condescending remarks on her abilities, wondering about the circumstances had reduced her to working as a housekeeper. Probably, Girard had mused, either she or her parents had lost everything, which had redounded to his benefit.

Jacob loved her, had loved her the moment he met her when she had smiled at him, opening his heart to her light. He loved her kindness, her gentleness, her respect and tact, her generosity and warmth, and the evident love she returned to him.

"I hope you slept well last night. The cool autumn air is very conducive to a good nightís sleep."

He hadnít slept well at all and was slightly grumpy, "I slept ok, I guess." Glancing up at her from the corner of his eye, he peevishly asked, "Please donít call me Master Julian, just call me Julian."

"All right, Ju-li-an," she drawled, grinning impudently at him.

At one time, Nora must have been a beautiful woman, but now in her forties with an air of resigned melancholy, she was merely pretty. Her eyes were a shade of deep green that sparkled only when she was with him; her honey brown hair was grey at the temples and pulled back into a severe bun at the nape of her neck. She was slim almost to the point of being ethereal, as if a breath of air could blow her away. And she stood only a few inches taller than he. From the first day he had met her, she had treated him like a favored son, and she was more open to the rambunctiousness of a ten-year-old boy than all the other housekeepers put together. Since Nora had arrived, his life had become a little brighter. Unable to stop, he grinned back at her.

"What are your plans for today?" she asked.

"Oh, the usual: classes, exercising, and practicing," he droned, making a face.

"After Iím through with my work, would you like to run with me? Mister Girard has given me permission to run around the grounds."

"Oh yeah, Iíd like that."

On his way to the library that was also his office, Girard had heard voices coming from the dining room and stopped just outside the room to listen to Julian chatting with Nora. She was vaguely familiar, but he couldnít place where he had seen her. He would remember some day. For now, she seemed good for the boy and kept him happy and relaxed, something he couldnít do himself.

*****

One pleasant aspect of running daily with Nora was that the boy really got to know her. They spoke of their lives, Jacob initiating it by asking her where she was from. She looked pensive for a few seconds then shook her head. "I donít really know," she said, her melancholy deepening around her.

"You donít know? Why? Did your family travel a lot?"

"Not that I know of. I have no memory of my former life. I donít know where I was born."

"Wow!" he exclaimed, "You donít remember anything?" She shook her head. He couldnít imagine not knowing who you were or where you were born. "I was born in New York City," he boasted.

She shivered at the name of the city. Every time she heard it, she had the same reaction, and she attributed it to something in her past unknown life.

Noticing her discomfort, Julian said, "How come you did that?"

"What . . . shiver?"

"Yeah."

"I donít know, but every time I hear that name it gives me the willies."

"Maybe thatís where youíre from," he suggested.

"I suppose I could be, but I was found half-dead in a small Pennsylvania town."

"Found?"

"Uh huh, they thought I was dead . . . and I guess I was pretty close. Nobody seemed to know a thing about me. And I certainly wasnít much help. October 10th, 1989, the day I was found, is the day I began my present life." Chuckling, she added, "I guess you could call it my birthday."

"Hey, thatís my birthday too. Why didnít you tell me?"

"Servantsí birthdays arenít important, honey."

"Well, they are to me," he stoutly avowed. "Didnít you try to find out who you are?"

"Oh sure, but I didnít have the money for a complete search. And," she stared distantly into the sky, "I donít know if I really wanted to find out who I am." Frowning, she looked back down at him. "Every time I did, I had this feeling of dread. I guess Iím afraid to find out . . . I think there are some things that I donít want to remember . . . I donít know if Iíll ever find out who I am." She shrugged defensively, "Anyway, I drifted away from the little town after working a couple of years to pay off my medical bills, moved around a lot, took any job I could find, and was recommended to your father by one of my former employers. And here I am." Crossing her arms over her waist, she remarked, "My life hasnít made much sense until now. I felt like I was searching for something." Then she smiled brilliantly at him. "But now Iím here, and I have you to take care of and that feels right."

"Yeah, but . . . maybe you have a family somewhere. Maybe you even have a child," he said enthusiastically.

She was silent for several minutes. Then taking a deep breath, she said, "Maybe I do. They told me that Iíd had a child not long before they found me. Maybe something bad happened to them and thatís why I canít remember or donít want to remember. But Iíll never know until I do," she said sadly.

"How do you know your name is Nora?"

"I donít. After I woke up, I spent a lot of time watching old movies on tv. One of my favorites was the ĎThin Maní movies. Nick and Nora Charles. So I took the name of Nora Charles."

"Neat," he said. "I like that name. My motherís name was Catherine."

That name sounded so familiar; it always did when she heard it, but ignoring the sense of recognition she felt, she replied, "Thatís a very nice name."

"I like it." A strange sad look crossed over his face. "I donít know very much about her."

"Oh?"

"My father wonít speak of her. I think she hurt him very badly before she died. Sometimes I get the oddest feelings of sorrow, and I know theyíre not mine. I think Iím kinda tuned into his emotions." He shrugged, "Something like that."

"Well, itís all in the past. Iím sure your mother loved you very much, and someday your father will forgive her and tell you all about her."

"I donít think so," he said, shaking his head. "Heís not a very forgiving person, but hey, you know what?" he said brightly, as if he had just now thought of it, "For the last month or so, I havenít had those weird feelings. Maybe heís getting over it."

"Could be," she replied.

"I love you, Nora," he said suddenly, as he threw his arms around her, and she returned his hug with equal pressure.

Leaning her cheek against the top of his head, she said, "And I love you, but letís not tell your father, ok? I donít think he would like it. And donít tell him anything Iíve told you. Itís our secret."

He nodded. "I know he wouldnít. Itís funny; he doesnít seem to love me very much, but he sure gets jealous when I show an interest in anyone else. Weíll have to careful."

"Heís a smart man; it wonít be easy."

"Well, I wonít let him send you away," he stated.

"Youíd do that for me?" she asked, amazed at his strong affection for her. The ease with which she had won his love had convinced her that he was an extremely lonely child.

"Uh huh."

Tousling his hair, she smiled at him, "Well, letís finish our jog. Iíve got some chocolate cookies and milk that have your name on them." She took off like a jackrabbit.

"Yours are the best," he hollered as he shot after her.

*****

On his tenth birthday Julian Girard discovered his fatherís greatest secret. It wasnít that he didnít have other secrets; his entire life was a mystery. And to be truthful, the child didnít even know his fatherís real name. He changed his name as often as he changed his residence, and in this area the man once known as Gabriel went by the name Damien Girard. Many times Julian was sent from the library when his father met with strange men.

That night after the extravagant and overblown party, the child had awakened once again to the familiar feeling of lost hope and regret. Once more, the feeling faded the closer he approached his fatherís bedroom. Determined, this time, to find where the feelings were coming from, he followed them until he was stopped by a drape-covered wall. Putting his ear to it, he could hear someone moving; it sounded like pacing. There was someone behind that barrier! But he could find no access to what was obviously a hidden room. Softly, he rapped on the wall and the movements immediately stopped. "Whoís there?" he asked. "Can I help you?"

"No, no," he heard a faint voice say, "you must leave. You must not be found here."

"Why?" he wondered.

"It is not safe for you," was the barely audible answer. He wasnít quite sure, but he thought that the individual was a man.

"Let me get my father," he offered.

"No," the person answered frantically. "Donít do that. Just go back to bed and forget about me."

His curiosity getting the better of him, he asked, "Why are you locked in there?"

"I cannot tell you that. Now, please, if you wonít go back to your room for your sake, do it for mine."

"All right," he grudgingly assented.

"But, child, do not tell Girard that you know about me; it would mean my death."

"Oh, he wouldnít do that," Julian reassured the person behind the wall.

"You have much to learn," the voice replied, and to Julian it sounded . . . resigned was the only word that came to mind.

"Well, good night then," the boy said and turned back to his bedroom.

He never heard the whispered reply, "Good night, my son."

*****

"Ah, Julian, did you enjoy your birthday party?" Nora asked the following morning as she placed a glass of orange juice beside his plate.

"It was all right," he answered, as he returned her smile. Smearing jelly on his toast, he commented, "But I really didnít know many of the kids that were here." He was seated at the head of the table this morning, not in his usual chair at the side of the table. Ordinarily Girard sat there when he ate breakfast, but today he was meeting with his business partners, and like all young boys, Julian liked to pretend that he was the boss.

"Oh, thatís too bad. Itís much more fun when you have family and good friends around you," she said.

"Yeah," he glumly agreed. Then his face brightened, "Can we run again today? If youíre not too busy, that is."

"Surely," she replied.

Watching her return to the kitchen for his breakfast of bacon and eggs, sunny-side up, he couldnít keep from wondering about her past and her apparent acceptance of the situation. If he was ever in the position to find out who she was, he would do it for her and also to satisfy his curiosity.

*****

After the late night meeting with the individual behind the wall, the feelings of grief had stopped. He believed that the person was making an effort to keep him from sensing his sorrow. Whenever he could, Julian investigated the covered wall but could find no way to open it. There must be an entrance somewhere, he reasoned. He determined to find it because he wanted to confront the individual about the statements that had been made about his father. Why should he want to kill that man? Just because he found out? It didnít make any sense.

It took him a while, but finally on one of his fatherís business trips he found the entrance to the secret wing of the mansion. As he was jogging with Nora, he noticed that the house was bigger than he thought. Funny that he had never seen that before, but then he wasnít looking for it. There was a whole section that looked empty. From what he could see, the windows were covered with bars on the outside and drapes on the inside. And that section of the house was also surrounded by several trees, making it easy for people to overlook it. Many times when he had been outside, heíd had the weird feeling that he was being watched. When he would look back at the mansion, he could see no one. Now he thought he knew the identity of the watcher.

With renewed determination, Julian thoroughly searched the outside of the mansion but still found no entrance. Not being one to give up easily, he reasoned that if there wasnít an outside entrance then the access to the secret wing had to be inside. Continuing that reasoning, he decided that the entry had to be on the first floor or in the basement, possibly in the wine cellar where he was forbidden to go.

Putting his plan into action, he made it a priority to be friendly with the guards that manned the security office, much to Noraís disapproval. There werenít many of the guards that she liked. His father paid no attention to what he did with his free time, being interested only in how well he was doing in his classes.

In any event the two day guards, Manny Cervino and George Mason, came to expect Julian popping into the office any time of the day. He usually prattled on about his schoolwork and the projects he had been given. He told them that he had been assigned the project of mapping the entire house so they shouldnít be too surprised to find him in areas that he had never frequented. He confined most of the searching to the days that his father was gone.

After searching the first floor and finding nothing, he was positive that the entryway had to be in the basement. When Nora asked him what he was doing, he told her the same story he had told Manny and George. In doing so, he had discovered that there was a secret wing to the residence and he was trying to find the entrance. He hated being less than truthful with her but didnít want to involve her in his schemes just yet. "Iíve looked everywhere but in the basement. It has to be there."

"Just be sure to tell me when youíre going to be in the basement, ok?" she asked. "Itís not safe down there; thereís a lot of old equipment and just plain junk there."

Assuring her that he would, he proceeded with his hunt.

*****

It took several attempts before he was successful in finding the door to the secret wing, but at last, his diligence paid off. He had thoroughly explored the basement proper, even the surveillance office, and found nothing. That left the wine cellar. Telling Nora that he was going to check the wine cellar, he carefully searched it, and behind a stack of crates, he found what he was looking for. As he pushed on the heavy, reinforced door, he noticed the two heavy-duty locks that fastened it. "Darn!" he muttered, another roadblock, and whacked the door, without thinking. "Ow," he cried, shaking his throbbing hand; he hadnít meant to hit it that hard. Bummed out and deep in thought, he trudged back upstairs.

The problem now was how to get the keys that opened the door. Julian knew that his father kept a set of keys in the wall safe that could open any lock in the house. But he had no way of getting them. Still, he would find a way and he did. If he had only known, he would have realized that he was as stubborn as his mother had been when she was trying to bring some lowlife to justice. What he needed to do first was to learn the combination to the safe. He had always spent a lot of his time in the library reading, but now as he pretended to read, he unobtrusively watched whenever the safe was opened. The simplicity of the combination stunned him: it was the date of his birth.

He knew he was only a ten-year-old boy and could not pull this meeting off by himself. The only person he knew that might help him was Nora. He found her in the kitchen going over the dinner menu with the cook, Philippe. She glanced up to see him enter the room and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"May I see you when youíre through, Nora?"

"Certainly, itís almost time for our run. Why donít I meet you on the driveway?"

That was a safe place to ask for her help, and he nodded, turning to go to his room and change into his sweat suit.

Dressed in a green jogging suit, she was adjusting her battered ball cap on her head when he arrived. "Letís go," she said.

"Why do you wear that old thing?" he asked, pointing to the beaked cap.

"Honey," she laughed, "at my age you do what you can to keep from getting more wrinkles, and the beak of the cap hides my face from the sun, thatís a big help."

"You donít have to worry about that," he gallantly said. "I think youíre beautiful." And to him she was.

"Thank you, kind sir," she replied with a regal nod. Ah children, they see only what they want to see.

Jogging slowly until they were warmed up, they didnít speak any more until they were close to some trees. "What is it, Julian?" She had noticed the childís sober expression when he approached her in the kitchen.

"Gee, did I look that upset or somethiní?"

"No, but I could tell that you needed to see me," she answered, speeding up a little.

"Yeah, Iíve got something to tell you, and Iím going to need your help."

"Well, you know Iíll do anything I can," she replied.

Waiting until they were completely out of sight behind the trees, he told her of the middle of the night meeting with the man behind the wall, of the locked door he had found, and how he felt compelled to learn the identity of the man.

"Julian," she cautioned him, "this is a very serious thing you propose to do. Why would Mister Girard keep someone locked up like that? Maybe the man was stringing you along. There must be a good reason for that door being locked. He might be insane or something like that. "

"I know, but I have to find out."

"This man could be dangerous. What if you open the door and he tries to escape? Have you thought about that? Have you thought of what you will tell your father? And what about the man? You may put him in jeopardy if you continue."

"Iíve thought about all that. Thereís just something that tells me that I have to do this, and I am finally able to do it. Please, Nora, Iíve just got to."

What was there about this child that had caught her heartstrings so much that she would do anything for him? Unable to answer that question, she took a deep breath and agreed. "All right, but weíve got to be very careful. With all the cameras in the house, it will be extremely difficult to go sneaking around. We need to make a plan." She took a deep breath, "You know, of course, when we do this, I will have to disappear immediately. Your father will never forgive me for helping you to meet this man." Nora wondered why she was even thinking of doing this, putting a good job and herself at risk. She had no answer except that Julian wanted her help.

"I know, Nora, and thatís the only thing that bothers me about this whole affair; I donít want to lose you. I - I donít think he would do anything to me," he said pensively, toeing the dirt with his left sneaker, "but Iím afraid of what he might do to you when he finds out. Youíll have to be far away from here when he does."

"Oh, donít worry; I will be, but look on the bright side, you may not lose me," she said, ruffling his golden curls. "Do you really think he wonít be angry with you?"

He shrugged. "I donít know. He may be pleased that I figured it out on my own, or he may be angry that I discovered one of his secrets. Iíll just have to wait and see."

"But what is there about this person that intrigues you so much?" she asked puzzled.

"I donít know, but I have the feeling that time is running out for him and for me. Heís someone very important in my life, but I canít explain how I know that. And I know that my father wonít tell me anything about this man. I tried asking about my mother once, and he flew into a terrible rage. I think he doesnít want me to know anything about my past."

"Weíll talk more later, but right now we need to finish our run," Nora said. "We canít spend too much time out of sight." Together, hand-in-hand, they circled the estate.

That night as she was turning down the covers of his bed, he was a little boy again dealing with something he didnít understand, not the intrepid detective of this afternoon, and he needed the feel of loving arms surrounding him. "Nora, can I have a hug?"

"Why of course, honey. Anytime." Her sheltering arms closed around him, and he breathed in her reassuring scent, knowing without understanding that she would be there for him, always. That for some unknown reason, she had committed herself to his welfare. He loved her all the more for that. Reaching up, he kissed her on the cheek. "Oh Julian," she said, fingering the spot where his lips had rested. Returning the kiss, she said, "Itís time for you to go to bed, honey. Sleep well."

Turning from him, she stumbled out of his room and down the hall, her hand pressed to her mouth as tears trickled down her cheeks. At moments like this, the loss of her child hit her hardest even though she would never admit it to anyone. She imagined that her child would be like Julian: tall, strong, and so smart. Suddenly the black fear that had not assaulted her for years descended over her, choking her with its darkness, and she could barely breathe. She fled into the darkness of her room and threw herself on the bed, burrowing beneath the covers, hiding until the dread faded away.

*****

Later that week his father was holding a meeting out on the terrace with some strange foreign men that the child had never seen before. Not wanting to leave his guests, Girard asked the boy to get a file from his desk. The safe was open, but Julian knew without a doubt that he was being filmed by the camera on the far wall. The older he got the more he felt like a prisoner in his own home. They would have to find someway to neutralize the guard in the security office, he thought. He picked up the necessary file and raced back to the terrace. With a nod, his father took the file from him. "I believe it is time for your history lessons."

"Yes sir," Julian replied and hurriedly left.

"A fine boy," he heard one of the men say with a heavy accent.

"Yes, he will be a great asset to me when he grows up," his father answered. "Already he has the instincts of a born leader. He will follow me into the business and, I think, outstrip me. My son is a very extraordinary boy."

"Ah, all fathers say that, " another heavily accented voice said with a small laugh.

"You have no idea how extraordinary my son is," Girard answered coldly. He thought how the boy was tied to him through bonds of dependency and filial love, not that he was able to return that love, for how can you love another when you canít love yourself. His son would be a force to reckon with when fully grown. He could hardly wait. When the boy was fully capable of living on his own without the need of the bond, he would kill the natural father of his son, thereby cementing his claim to the child. For now the man was safely locked away until that time. "But letís get back to work," he said, returning to the present.

As Julian walked away, his fatherís cold, proud voice faded into silence. To go into his fatherís business was the dream of every boy or so he thought, but he wasnít sure that he wanted to follow in Girardís footsteps. There was just something about the business that bothered him.

*****

Girard had been invited to the governorís birthday party that evening, and though he usually didnít attend such functions, he felt that it would be politic of him to go to this one. It was a fine art with him to avoid publicity and his face was not well known. The unpleasantness in New York that resulted in the acquisition of his son required several millions to keep his name out of the case files and the newspapers, but the money used was infinitesimal compared to the wealth he had accumulated. His fortune exceeded that of the richest men by a quantum amount.

It would be early in the morning before Girard came home as the governorís parties were noted for being all night affairs, and that would give Julian the opportunity to sneak into the basement after his father and Pope had left.

Waiting an hour after the two men had departed, and after bidding Nora a good night and receiving a hug and a kiss, he made a show of going into his room and closing the door. Then he heard Nora go into the kitchen to put her part of the plan into action. Every night she took a pot of fresh coffee--as only she could make--down to the security office to help the two guards stay awake through the long night. Only this time there were sleeping pills dissolved in the hot drink. It would take about thirty minutes for the guards to succumb to the pills. Silence descended in the house, and then he heard Noraís soft rap on his door.

*****

When Nora entered the office ostensibly to find out if the coffee was as good as usual, but in reality to see if the guards were still awake, they were slumped in their chairs, snoring slightly. This night the many cameras throughout the house would have no one to keep an eye on them. She reached over and turned off the monitors.

Julian was already in the library when she returned upstairs. She chided him on his eagerness to open the wall safe.

"I know, but I thought that it would be safe." Quickly he opened the wall safe and grabbed the keys. He had done it; he had set out to accomplish a deed and had succeeded with no hint of trouble so far. Closing and locking the safe (in case someone might come into the library) they returned to the kitchen.

Assured by Julian that he would be safeĖthat the man meant him no harm--Nora stayed in the kitchen to act as a lookout while Julian went below to speak with the man. The child hurried into the wine cellar, and in his eagerness he fumbled with the keys and dropped them. With a frustrated sigh, he picked them up and opened the locks as quickly as he could. Protesting with a loud squeak, the door swung inward after a hefty push. When his eyes had adjusted to the soft light, he was shocked to find a giant of a man standing before him, his hands on his hips. Julian had his first look at the man who was his true father. The man was covered from head to foot with a black cloak, with the hood pulled forward so that he could only see the glimmer of sharp blue eyes.

"What are you doing here?" the cloaked figure demanded. "Donít you know how dangerous this is?"

"Why should it be dangerous? And who are you anyway?" the boy asked.

His shoulders were grasped as the man knelt before him, keeping his face well hidden. "Child, child," he pleaded, "listen to me." Earnestly, the cloaked man gently shook him. "It is not safe here for you. You must go and forget about me."

"Now that Iíve found you, I canít."

"You must."

"Why? Who are you? Why are you locked up in here?" Julian was desperate to understand and almost frantic with curiosity. The man shook his head, saying nothing. "Why are you hiding from me?" the child asked.

Clenching his fists, the cloaked man rose and turned away from the child who was his son. How could he satisfy the childís curiosity without revealing who or what he was? The man who had stolen his son from him had thoroughly convinced him that if he ever revealed himself to the boy that both of them would be killed. Vincent had learned early in Jacobís life, his name for his son, that when it came to threats, that Girard/Gabriel was a man of his words.

"Do you really want to see what I look like?"

"Oh yeah, I do."

When he turned around with the hood of his cloak pulled back, Julian stared at him open-mouthed. "Wow! Is that make up?"

Vincent silently shook his golden head.

"Itís real? Youíve been like this all your life?"

With an amused smile, Vincent said, "Yes, from the day I was born."

Julian walked around him, studying him as he would a fine horse. "Will you do me a favor and take off the cloak?"

"I always cover myself when anyone comes," his unknown father informed him, removing the heavy black cloak and revealing a powerfully built physique.

Julian had never seen anyone like him. The man towered over him, making him feel small and helpless; yet he felt no fear of the stranger. He noticed that he had the same color of hair as his own: golden as ripe wheat. Broad shouldered with muscled legs, he was the exact opposite of his father who was thin and craggy. And the man had the same blue eyes as Julian. There was a kindness in those eyes that he had only seen in Noraís. Kindness and a strange kind of eagerness that faded as he gazed at him. The manís shoulder sagged slightly.

"Can I touch you?" the boy asked.

Vincent knelt again to allow the boy free access to his face, repressing the urge to grab him and hug him within an inch of his life.

"You never answered my question?" There was mild accusation in the childís voice as he gently fingered the high cheeks covered with a soft, golden stubble.

"Which one? You had so many." Slowly, Vincent rose to his full height with a teasing smile.

"Who are you?"

Seeing that the child would not be satisfied without an answer, Vincent said, "No one in particular. Only a man who frightens people."

"You donít frighten me!"

"Ah, but youíre a brave warrior on a dream-quest, arenít you?"

Pulling himself up as tall as he could, the child nodded his head emphatically. "But whatís your name?"

"I cannot tell you that."

"Why?"

"I cannot tell you that either."

"But I need to call you something." The man was absolutely frustrating, refusing to tell him anything.

"Call me what you will."

"All right, Iíll call you Lion then." He was frustrated and angry that the man was so evasive in his answers and childishly wanted to hurt him.

"Lion, it is," the stranger agreed with a crooked smile.

"Iím sorry, I was being mean and that wasnít very nice of me," Julian apologized, glancing away from the strange man and feeling very ashamed that in his disappointment he had tried to wound the leonine man with his thoughtless words.

Vincent smiled down at his son. "But I do look like a lion," he said. "Itís a fitting name."

"You donít mind then?" Vincent shook his head. "Ok. Can you tell me why youíre locked up here?"

Vincent shook his head. "No, child, I cannot."

Julian looked at him with speculative expression on his young face. "Why did you say my father would kill us both if he found out that I knew about you?"

Dissembling, Vincent said, "I said that to get you to go back to your room."

Julian didnít believe him. "Do you have the use of the whole wing?" he asked.

"Yes," Vincent replied, relieved that the child seemed to have run out of questions about him. "I have all the comforts of home," he added wryly. "I want for nothing materially." Spiritually and emotionally, it was another matter.

Suddenly, Julian asked, "Why donít you escape? There doesnít seem to be much to keep you here."

With an odd look, Vincent answered, "I am where I should be at this time . . . there is much that keeps me here. I cannot leave."

"But youíre a prisoner," Jacob protested.

Bowing his head, Vincent sighed deeply, "I have been a prisoner, more or less . . . my entire life."

"I solved one mystery only to find another," the child complained, flinging his arms out from his side. "Wonít you tell me, please?"

Vincent shook his head and pushed him toward the door. "Now you must go before you are missed."

*****

Nora, fearing that Julian had lost track of time, hurried to the wine cellar and found the entrance to the secret wing slightly ajar. She stopped to listen outside the door and heard a voice that caught at her heart with its beauty. She shook herself back to normal and, knocking, said, "Julian, itís late; you had better come now." Pushing with all her might, the door swung open to reveal a man with the face of a lion standing behind Julian, facing her. She froze and stared at him.

He stumbled back a step or two, his hand pressed over his heart. His eyes were round with shock, and his mouth opened and closed several times before he croaked, "C . . . Catherine? It is you?" He had watched her and Julian jog around the estate grounds, thinking how much she resembled his dead love.

"You!" she cried and collapsed to the floor in a dead faint.

Vincent couldnít believe his eyes. For a few seconds he simply stared at her crumpled form, lying just inside the doorway. Then with a harsh gasp, he rushed to her side. He picked her up and cradled her to his chest. "It canít be you. Youíre dead," he babbled as a tiny spark of hope blazed up in his heart. Then he thought of the one thing that would prove that it was truly Catherine. Pushing the hair back from her left temple, he found what he hoped to find but didnít expect: the scar, the one she had left as a memorial of their meeting. "Oh, it is you; it is you." He pulled her limp body tighter against him and rained kisses on her eyes, cheeks, and brow, and then with reverent thanksgiving, he kissed her lips as he had longed to do for many long, long years.

Amazed, Julian watched this strange man sob over the form of his housekeeper and champion: Nora. "You know her, Lion?"

"Yes," Vincent choked out, "but I thought her dead these many years." Defiantly, he looked up at Julian, who was hovering over the pair. "By your so-called father," he spat.

Julian recoiled from the venom in his newfound friendís voice. "Why would my father want to kill Nora?" he cried, completely confused by the events happening around him.

Vincent would no longer hold the truth back from his son. "Because she was once Catherine Chandler and I loved her. She is your mother."

"Then she was my fatherís wife?" She was the one who had hurt his father so badly?

"No!" Vincent barked. "She was no oneís wife, not even mine, even though I dreamed of making her mine in time."

Nora/Catherine began to stir. Opening her eyes, she sought the eyes that she had dreamed of for ten years and found them peering lovingly into hers. Shakily, her hand rose to caress his cheek, "Oh, Iíve dreamed of you for so long. Only now do I know why. I remember, Vincent, I remember." She began to sob and clung to him as if she would never let him go. Sitting back on his heels, he rocked her back and forth, letting her weep away ten years of frustration and fear, grateful to all the powers that be that he held his heart and life in his arms. At last, the sobs came to an end and she smiled mistily at him. "Dare I say it, Vincent, or will everything vanish like the dreams Iíve had for so many years?"

"Say whatever you wish, my love. Nothing will disappear this time. I swear it."

"I love you, I love you," she cried as she raised her face to his for another kiss, instantly addicted to them. She had known it would be that way when she first knew that she loved him. Suddenly a thought darkened her eyes with concern, and she asked, "Did you find our son?"

"Yes. Heís standing over there pale with fright and wonder."

Catherine turned her head to find Julian watching them curiously, wondering what was going on.

"Julian?" He nodded. "Oh Vincent," she wailed, "That monster has had him all these years." Sitting up but remaining in Vincentís tight hold, she smiled tremulously and held her hand out, beckoning to her son. "Julian, come here."

Dragging his feet, he neared the woman he had thought of as only a dear friend and ally. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes, honey, Iím fine," she answered, taking his hand in hers. "Have you heard what we have said?"

He nodded, "Yeah, something about you being my mother. Is it true?"

"Yes, itís true."

"But you were never my fatherís wife?" he asked, trying to make sense of what he had heard.

"No," she shuddered. "I never really knew him. I met him only once . . . when he took you away from me on the night that I died."

"I donít understand." This was more than he had expected. To solve a mystery was all he had desired, but now to be told that his mother was alive, and that he was not who he thought he was . . . was more than he could assimilate at the moment. "Why would he want to take me away from you and then kill you? He could have had any kid he wanted. Heís rich and powerful enough," he protested, pulling his hand from hers and retreating until he stood with his back pressed firmly against the wall.

Her hand felt so empty without his warmth pressed in it. "True but no other child has the father that you have." With this statement, her eyes met Vincentís sober blue orbs.

"You mean that heís not my father? If heís not, then who is?" His eyes grew wide with astonishment as he understood what she meant. "No!" he exclaimed as he slid down the wall to sit in stunned amazement. "Lion?"

"Yes, Vincent is your father."

In silence he assimilated the shocking news about his father. Then in a bewildered tone, he said, "Iíve always felt different than what my fatherĖI guess I canít call him that any moreĖGirard wanted me to feel. I thought it was a failure on my part." Suddenly, it seemed so right. He had felt more love from the leonine man in the short time he had been with him than in all the ten years of his life with his f . . . Girard. Wearily he shook his head, grimacing a smile at them. "I always wondered why we looked so different. Now I know. When we first met, Lion . . . I mean, Vincent, I saw that we had the same color of hair and eyes, but I didnít think anything of it. I thought I must look like my mother."

"You do, my son," Vincent assured. "You look very much like her."

It sounded so strange to be called son by another man, but the child found that he rather liked it. He felt Vincent was a man of honor and principles. Having him for a father might not be so bad after all.

Raising Catherine from the floor, Vincent took her into his arms and kissed her deeply. It was something he had discovered gave him great pleasure.

Julian noticed a startling change in Nora. Gazing up at Vincent, she was suddenly transformed. Her love gave her a glow, and he thought that he had never seen her look so beautiful.

His erstwhile father had been coldly polite to the few women who had ever been in his company. And Julian had never witnessed such open affection between adults. The child smiled as it warmed him, thinking, So thatís what love looks like.

"Julian?" His mother held her hand out to him again, and this time he gladly came to her to be enfolded in loving arms that had long been empty and had yearned for this very thing. Vincent cradled both of them in a loving embrace. By the grace of God and all the angels, he had his family back. He would never ask for more.

Ever the practical one, Nora/Catherine asked, "What do we do?"

Julian spoke up, "I guess we find a way to get away from here." He needed her calm assurance and held onto her right hand. "Now that Iíve learned that Iím not his son, I donít think any of us are safe."

Vincent couldnít bear the thought of being separated from her and kept an arm around her, putting his other arm around his son.

*****

Girard had returned earlier than was expected and discovered, almost expecting it, that neither Nora nor Julian was in their rooms asleep. Of late, he had become suspicious of the relationship between his son and the housekeeper. It was interfering with the way he wanted the boy raised. He needed to overcome his genes and natural inclination to gentleness. She was fostering a softness in the child that he would not allow, and he could see that Julian was beginning to care for her. The child simply could not be allowed to love anyone but him. But in his arrogance he had never imagined that Julian would do anything behind his back. After all, the child was aware of the consequences if he did.

Calling Pope, he proceeded to look for them and, not finding them anywhere in the house, had a sudden feeling of disaster. Could Julian have found Vincent? Could he be with him now? He hurried to the library, took a handgun out of the concealed gun cabinet, and motioned Pope to follow him quietly. Pope checked the Ruger that he always carried in his shoulder holster, readying it for use.

Noticing that the observation cameras were turned off, they went to the security office first. Furious at finding the surveillance personnel asleep at the posts, Girard thought to put and end to them but held back, thinking that the sound of the shots would tip off his intended victims. But he would take great pleasure in killing the sleeping guards after he had put an end to two and possibly three serious problems.

Girard found them deep in a serious discussion seated around the kitchen table in Vincentís prison, discussing their escape plans. Three stunned pairs of eyes stared at him as he casually opened the door. "Ah, here you are," he said conversationally, "I was wondering where you were."

"Gabriel!" Catherine exclaimed, dismayed that he had returned so soon and caught them unprepared.

Smiling nastily, he looked at each one in turn. His eyes returned to Nora, "Well," he purred, "I see that youíve regained your memory. Now I know who you are: Catherine Chandler. I knew I had seen you somewhere before. Youíve aged quite a bit, Catherine. And not very gently, at that," he added maliciously. "I thought that I had killed you."

"Sorry, but I survived," she replied, hatred tingeing her words.

"Pity. Now I have to kill you again."

Julian jumped up and stood in front of his mother, trying to protect her. "No, father, you canít," he exclaimed. "I wonít let you."

"You wonít let me?" Gabriel replied with a nasty laugh. "You canít stop me."

"Iíll do anything you say if youíll let them live," the child pleaded for his parentís lives.

As he did, Vincent sprang over the table, snarling, "He canít stop you but I can!"

"Get him," Gabriel shouted, recoiling as Vincent barreled into him, carrying him to the floor with the force of his leap. The dark manís head hit the floor, stunning him. Leaping to his feet, Vincent took a direct shot in the chest before breaking Popeís neck. As the assassin fell limply to the floor, the gun slipped out of his hand, falling to the floor in front of Catherine. Surreptitiously she picked it up, hiding it in her skirt, then she rushed to kneel at Vincentís side with Julian beside her.

From behind them, Gabrielís voice suddenly rang out sarcastically, "How very touching."

They swung around to find him sitting against the wall with a handgun pointed at them. "Looks like I have to finish the job."

"Youíd kill your own son," Julian asked in shock.

"You heard them. Youíre not my son, and if I canít make you into what I want, you are worthless to me."

"You never loved me at all," he stated bitterly.

"Love?" the man scoffed. "Love is for weaklings. It only gets you hurt. I need obedience and willingness: two things you cannot give me now."

While Gabriel was speaking, Catherine had eased the firearm into a position where she could shoot him. Pushing Julian to the floor, she fired once and struck Gabriel in the forehead, killing him instantly. She turned back to Vincent, all thought of the other man gone from her mind.

"Iím all right," he assured her, sitting up. "The bullet went through the soft tissue of my shoulder."

"You must have really startled Pope because heís a better shot than that," Julian said, coming to kneel beside his father.

"I have that effect on some people," was the facetious answer.

"What now?" Catherine asked. "We canít stay here. We need to get out of here as soon as we can."

Fussing over his wounds, Catherine wondered, "Do you suppose the tunnels are still in use after all these years?"

"Gabriel knew about them and had maps to them. It might not be safe to return there." He shook his head.

"But heís dead, and if we can get the maps, we can destroy them," Catherine said, thinking of what they could do. She smiled at him, "Letís go home, Vincent." He agreed with a short nod.

"I think I have an idea of where they are." Jacob looked to his parents for their reaction. "If they were that important to him, they would be in the safe. I can get them easily."

"But what do we do about the bodies?" Vincent asked.

"Leave them. I donít think anyone knows about this part of the house," Catherine replied. "Letís get your wound bandaged and then Julian and I will get the maps and destroy them. Weíll need money. Iíve got some in the bank, but I canít get to it until tomorrow."

Catherine and Julian quickly raced up the stairs and into the library, while Vincent slowly followed. Numb with all that had happened, he submitted to Catherineís ministrations. He waited in the estate kitchen until they returned from the library. It was hard to believe after all these years, but he was free. And he would do everything in his power to see that he remained so, Catherine and Jacob, too.

As the last tumbler clicked into place, Julian pulled the safe door open. Girard always kept a minimum of a million dollars in the safe to be used in his illegal operations. Stuffing the money into a briefcase found beside the desk, Julian examined every piece of paper in the safe and found the maps to the tunnels. He folded them into the briefcase, closed it and, without a backward glance, marched from the room with his mother beside him. He was running on sheer adrenaline and hadnít yet assimilated everything that had happened tonight.

As soon as they entered the kitchen, Vincent was up and out of his chair, taking Catherine into his arms again. The need to hold her and reassure himself that she was truly alive was overpowering. Embarrassed, Julian looked away from his parents. There was something in him that told him that they truly were his mother and father. But he was not accustomed to such overtly displayed signs of affection. Catherine was surprised but grateful at Vincentís open expressions of love; it was such a change from what she remembered. Extricating herself from his arms, she pushed him into a chair and sat down beside him. Julian sat opposite them. "We need to come up with a plan to get out of here."

"That could prove difficult," Vincent commented.

"I know this place like the back of my hand . . . better in fact," Julian said.

"Vincent canít go through the gate; so we have to find a weaknessĖif there is anyĖin the fence." Catherine sat silently for a few seconds, tracing circles on the table top with her index finger. "The best time would be when they are changing shifts. There is some confusion then. Where would be the best place to try it?" she asked Julian.

"Thereís a spot by the lake that isnít fully covered by the guards. Itís by the north bay. I found it during one of the exercises that my . . . he assigned me in tactical warfare."

"He started you young, didnít he?" Catherine said bitterly. "He wanted to warp your personality so that youíd be like him."

"You know, Nora . . ." He had trouble thinking of her in any other way. "I donít think he could," the child said pensively. "Thereís something in me that made me question everything that he was trying to teach me."

Catherine reached across the table and took his hand in hers. "I know what it was, Julian; it was your fatherís love that lives in you."

Julian looked at Vincent and saw the glow of love and pride in his eyes. "Yeah, Iíll bet youíre right."

"To get back to the subject at hand, can you show Vincent where the weakness is?"

"Sure, but itís still dark," he protested.

"Donít worry, son; I can see in the dark."

"You can?" Julian asked amazed. "I see pretty well in the dark, myself," he boasted. Like father, like son, he thought.

"Ok, hereís what weíll do," Catherine said. "You two go over the fence. Iím counting on you to do it."

"Weíll do it, one way or another," Vincent assured her. Julian nodded his head in agreement.

"Iíll go through the gate as early as I can in the morning. It just so happens that Gabriel was hosting a dinner party tonight; so, it wonít raise any suspicions when I go into town for supplies. Iíll pick you up on the road that goes by the lake. Does that sound all right to you?"

"Sounds good to me . . . Mom." Julian thought heíd try out the word and discovered that he liked the feel of it on his tongue.

"Oh, youíre going to make me cry if you keep that up," Catherine wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, becoming all business again. "You had better get going," she said, rising and walking to the outside door. Shutting off the lights, Julian slipped outside. Vincent hugged her and, with a "Be careful," followed his son into the dark. Catherine stood beside the door, listening for the dogs to begin barking. Amazingly, there were only a few yips. Then she remembered Vincentís ability with animals, and she was sure that he had sent them swiftly back to their unsuspecting masters.

*****

To help pass the time, she packed a few things for Julian in a small suitcase. Since she would have had to leave anyway, she had packed a suitcase a few days ago. Stepping over the bodies with hardly a thought to them, she found Vincentís clothes and a duffel bag in his room. Packing some of his things in the bag, she put the suitcase, the bag, and the money-filled briefcase in the trunk of the nondescript four-door sedan that she always used when she went to town. Then nervously she settled down to wait for the hour of their deliverance.

Before long, the daily help began to arrive from the nearby town. No one but Gabriel, Pope, Julian, and herself were allowed to live in the house. The guards lived in a large dormitory building situated in the far end of the estate. She ordered the servants not to disturb the Master as heíd had a very late night and would be sleeping late. And they were not to disturb Mister Pope either. As she had given these orders before, they were accepted without question, and the servants quietly went about their work. They knew better than to interrupt the Masterís rest. She also told them that Julian was not feeling well, and that she would take his breakfast to him.

As soon as she could, she announced that she was going to town for supplies. Outwardly, she seemed her same brusque businesslike self but, inwardly, her stomach was twisted in knots. Everything depended on getting out of the estate with no suspicion attached to her. At the gate she slowed down to allow Howard, the gate guard, to let her out. "Hi ya, Miss Nora," he said. "Going to town? Itís a bit early for you, isnít it?"

"Yeah, but Mister Girard is having a special dinner this evening, and I need to get the supplies as soon as possible. You know Philippe: heís going ballistic. Itís a wonder you havenít heard his screaming all the way here." As she started to roll up the window, she asked, "Do you guys need anything?"

"Nah. I donít think so." Then he hollered, as she started away, "Hey, wait a minute. Can you get me a carton of cigarettes? You know my brand."

When he had yelled at her to stop, her heart almost stood still. Craning her neck out the side window, she said in what she hoped was a normal voice, "Yeah. Marlboros?"

"Uh huh," he answered.

"Will do." She waved and gunned the car down the dusty road. Gripping the steering wheel tightly, she waited for someone to take a shot at the automobile. When nothing happened, she breathed a sigh of relief. After she turned onto the main county road and was out of sight, she pulled over to the side of the road. She was shaking so badly that her hands were beating a tattoo on the steering wheel. Resting her head on the wheel, she took several deep breaths, calming herself.

Julian and Vincent should be waiting for her by the lake. It had been a quiet morning so she was fairly certain that they would be there. When she approached the bay of the lake, Julian stepped out of the underbrush followed by Vincent. Her son clambered into the passenger seat while Vincent stretched out, as much as he could, on the back seat, covering himself with his cloak. With a triumphant smile at Julian, she floored the gas pedal and they disappeared in a cloud of dust.

Catherine stopped the car about a mile from town, and Vincent and Julian scurried into a small patch of woods with dense underbrush. Her next stop was the bank where she withdrew all her savings, and it was then on to the supermarket to stock up for the long drive ahead of them. Her plan was to get as far away from the estate as they possibly could and then to buy another automobile. Filling the trunk with a variety of nonperishables and setting a cooler with fruit and drinks on the floor of the backseat, she returned to the small copse of trees and picked up her men.

*****

Later that afternoon, the police received a call stating that Mr. Girard, his son, and his assistant and secretary, Pope, were missing. Since it was Girard whose whereabouts were unknown, they immediately came out to the manor. Bates, the head of security told them that he had expected to find his employer in his bedroom as the housekeeper had informed the house staff that he was sleeping and should not be disturbed. But to his surprise when he finally opened the door, he found an empty room. Popeís room was empty also, and the child was nowhere to be found.

At that moment, the two security specialists stumbled upstairs, bleary-eyed and confused, never knowing how close they had come to dying at the hands of a disgruntled employer. The last thing they remembered was drinking a cup of Noraís freshly brewed coffee.

Making a more thorough search of the house, the combined forces found the bodies in the previously unknown extension to the manor house: one had been shot and the other had his neck broken.

They had also discovered bigger mysteries than the two bodies. After forensics had finished with their investigation, they had discovered that the housekeeper was in reality Catherine Chandler, who had been reported to have been murdered ten years ago. Girard was really a shadowy underworld figure known previously as Stefan Gabriel and his son was actually the offspring of the Chandler woman and the strange unknown man with odd fingerprints, who had been kept a prisoner in the extension for an unknown amount of time. No one in Girardís employ had known of his existence. It was a mystery that was never solved and no one was ever prosecuted for the deaths of the two men.

*****

On the flight to New York, Catherine abandoned and bought several cars from private owners. The last one was a large SUV that gave Vincent plenty of room to stretch out.

To pass the dreary hours of travel, Catherine told Julian of his long line of ancestors stretching back to the Revolutionary War and further back to their Welsh ancestors. She noted the eagerness of his questions about his ancestors and answered them to the best of her knowledge. He was beginning to have a sense of pride about himself that he had never felt before.

When Catherine had related all that she knew, Vincent recited the history of the tunnels and his story. Then together they told him their tale and all that had led up to his conception and the imprisonment of both his parents. He learned of the dreadful things that his so-called father had done before and after his birth, and he was glad that none of the blood of that pitiless, evil man ran in his veins. By the time they reached New York, he knew who he was and his place in both worlds, infinitely proud of both.

After arriving safely in New York, Vincent directed them to an old, seldom used (ten years ago) entrance. Relieved, he noticed that it appeared to be in constant use now. Vincent and Julian, now called Jacob, ducked immediately through the doorway. With a final glance at the blue sky visible between the roofs of the two warehouses, Catherine followed the only blue that meant anything to her: Vincentís eyes.

The abandoned SUV was soon a gutted and useless mass of metal, recognizable as a vehicle only by its shape. The trail of the fugitives ended abruptly in the warehouse district of the great city. A minor bureaucratic storm ensued, which involved an astounded Joe Maxwell and Jenny Aronson in the search for the friend they thought they had lost. Cathy alive? And with a son? But they were unable to tell the authorities the identity of the man. Their hopes were raised only to be dashed when no trace of the trio was ever found. Knowing how resourceful she could be, they had to content themselves with the belief that, wherever she was, she was safe.

What happened below the streets of New York no one knows. Was there a tearful reunion of Vincent and his tunnel family that included the unlooked for but dearly loved Catherine and Jacob? Or were the tunnels empty, dark and desolate, devoid of light? Will we ever know? Only if they choose to tell us. But those among us who know their story prefer to believe that somewhere they are healthy and content, living the happy life that had long been denied them, safe from all who could bring them harm.

Fini