THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY
Ann R. Brown
Catherine was far too busy to leave the D.A.’s office for lunch. Instead, she slipped off her Bruno Magli heels and dug a fork into a carton of take-out Chinese while she casually scanned the New York Times.
Joe strolled past her desk, munching a Twinkie and commenting, “You should stick with Italian food. That Chinese stuff is bad for you, it’s full of MSG.”
She shot him a sarcastic look. “While at this very moment, you’re putting something into your body that has a shelf-life of six thousand years.”
With his mouth full, he said, “I’ll have you know this is an Italian Twinkie. There’s nothing in the world better for you.”
Catherine snorted. “There’s no such thing as an Italian Twinkie!”
“Well, I bought it in an Italian grocery, that must count for something.” Joe snapped his fingers. “Hey, any of your Radcliffe classmates getting married this week? Better hurry up and grab somebody, you don’t want to be left behind.” I’m available, grab me any time, he added in his mind.
“I’m going to have to tackle someone soon,” she agreed. “I’m approaching spinsterhood at a terrific rate.” She turned the page and felt a strange pause, as if her life had suddenly been suspended. Everything froze, even time and space, as she stared at a small news item in the Business section.
Joe frowned slightly. “What? Your stocks went down? You’re white as a ghost.”
Although she remained seated, she had the overpowering sensation of falling in all directions at once. Her voice sounded odd and distant in her own ears. “Unfortunate news about someone I used to know. No, I take that back, I never knew him. He was always a carefully disguised stranger.”
Joe waited a minute for an explanation, then shrugged and headed back to his office.
Catherine needed all her strength and self-control to get through the afternoon. She kept herself working steadily, catching up on paperwork, finishing old business. If she was pale, if her fingers trembled on the typewriter keys, no one in the office noticed.
It was a tremendous relief when five o’clock finally arrived and she could grab her coat and head for home.
The elevator in her apartment building was crowded, and it paused at every floor. Eight. Nine. Ten. Catherine’s hands clenched and unclenched, and she rocked back on her heels, desperate for a cup of tea and some quiet time to prepare herself for what had to be done. No doubt Vincent had already sensed her agitation through the bond, and would soon appear on her balcony. She had to think ahead, how to break the news.
She ran down her hallway, keys in her hand, and skidded to a stop.
Blocking her door was a lumpy package four feet high, wrapped in valentine paper and tied with gold ribbons.
Nausea rose in her throat. She didn’t want to touch the object or open it. But she had to know the worst. With cold, stiff fingers she tore a strip from the hearts and flowers paper. Then, as the horror of the thing broke through to her, she ripped the paper with both hands, until she stood in a snowstorm of scraps.
The gift was a shining, red, pot-bellied stove.
Catherine squeezed past the stove, for it was too heavy to shift, and opened her apartment door, then locked it behind her as if the stove could follow her inside.
She sat down on the sofa, closed her eyes, and wrapped her arms around herself, unable to hold back the fear any longer. It was a cold fog that possessed her mind and chilled her body. Rocking back and forth, she tried to organize her thoughts, but her mind was paralyzed.
She forced herself to get up and pace the living room, as if she were lost in a snowstorm, and had to keep moving or freeze.
“Think, think, think!” She hugged herself as she made another circuit
of the room. “There has to be some way out of this.” The only
solution that came to mind, though, was completely unbearable.
A movement at the window startled her. Throwing open the double doors, she ran to Vincent, and clutched both his hands.
“Catherine, what is it? What has frightened you?” His voice was rough with anxiety.
Drawing a shaky breath, she said, “Well, I’ll tell you. After a six-month leave of absence, for health reasons, Stephen Bass will once again be taking the helm of Bassco Investments and the Gargantua Trust Company. The article didn’t mention where he spent those six months, or that his problems were mental as well as physical. Don’t mind me, I’m babbling.”
Vincent’s hands tightened over hers as memories of that night of horror seared his mind. Once again he saw himself clutching the curved steel roof of a speeding train. He stood, fighting the wind and the darkness, gauging the distance, then leaped from one train to another, and then another, sensing her danger more urgently with every mile that brought him nearer to New Rochelle. Burning in his mind were pictures of Catherine writhing on the ground, struggling against the choking hands of her former fiance. A tornado of roaring and slashing left Stephen Bass a bleeding, broken thing. And then it was over, she was safe. Catherine was safe in his arms.
He spoke to reassure himself. “It was your testimony that had Stephen Bass committed to the psychiatric hospital. Even if by some clerical error he has been released, he would not dare to contact you.”
She tried to keep her voice from trembling, and almost succeeded. “He sent me a gift that proves he’s still obsessed.”
“He won’t hurt you, Catherine, not while I’m alive to prevent it.” That was a vow.
She pulled away from his embrace and slammed her hands down on the balcony railing in frustration. “Vincent, you don’t understand, I’m not afraid for myself. Have you forgotten? Stephen has seen you.”
The truth struck him like a sledgehammer in the chest.
Clutching her head, to keep her mind from exploding, she said, “You don’t realize how he raved about you at the hearings, about the ‘man-beast’ who attacked him. The police, the psychiatrists, the reporters, no one believed him. Not then. Listen to me, Vincent, I have to talk to Stephen . . .“
“I have to persuade him that he never saw you - that you were one of his delusions, a symptom of his mental illness.” She slipped her arms around Vincent’s neck and hid her face in the rough wool and linen of his shirt.
He whispered, “You’re trembling.”
“While I was waiting for you, I thought of a plan. A semi-plan. It’s crazy, but … listen to me. We must -- ” Her voice failed, and she tried again, “We must remain apart for the time being. You see, I have to persuade Stephen that you aren’t real.”
She felt his shock through her own body. Quickly she added, “I’ll take on no dangerous assignments, I’ll guard myself every day. Promise me, Vincent! Promise me you’ll stay away.”
Vincent’s arms tightened, holding her closer. “Don’t say it, don’t even think it. You’re asking me to live without air, without light. Without you, I would suffocate in the dark.”
She had to persuade him. Had to. “It might not be such a long time, maybe only a month or two. Stephen inherited an enormous real estate fortune. He could easily hire a detective agency to trace you, hunt you down. That won’t happen if I can persuade him that you’re a delusion.”
“There has to be another way!”
“There isn’t. He could be following me right now! I wouldn’t put it past him to have hired a team of men to shadow me. He must not see you!”
Panic stricken, she pushed Vincent back into the shadows, as if to shield him from the thousands of windows that suddenly looked to her like staring eyes.
He was going to refuse, Catherine could see it in his face. On the edge of desperation, she played her last card.
“If you refuse to promise me, I’ll end it between us right now. I’ll move to another apartment without a balcony.” Sobs exploded in her chest. Tears poured down her face. “Please. Please. Please.”
Vincent couldn’t bear it. Into her soft hair he whispered, “Don’t send me away. You’re the center of my life. The basis, the reason. The only reason.”
Sobs racked her body, but Catherine’s resolution could not be shaken. “I’m not sure I can bear it, either, but I have to try. Trust me, and wait till I send you word.”
“Do you know that I pray for you, Catherine?”
“Do you really?” She was touched to the soul.
“Every night, in the Meditation Chamber, that no harm will come to you.
You’re my only prayer.”
She tried to smile, though her lips quivered. “Then I know I’ll be safe. Will you kiss me once, Vincent? It has to last me such a long time.”
Vincent gathered Catherine close and kissed her, tasting her tears as well as his own. “I’ll abide by your decision. I’ll do as you ask, and remain Below, as long as you’re safe. But if you’re in danger, I’ll come to you, though Hell should bar the way.”
Her brave smile faltered, for she recognized the quote, and remembered how The Highwayman ended. The girl in the poem sacrificed herself, in vain. She died, but couldn’t save the man she loved from his enemies. Catherine turned away and closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t see Vincent go.
She went through the next two days in a fog of misery, working late hours to keep herself from thinking, and taking a sleeping pill to prevent herself from dreaming. She had the red stove hauled away to Goodwill. No other gifts or messages came to her from Stephen.
The next day, after work, she drove out to Greenview, a private psychiatric facility north of the city. Crossing the parking lot, she could see patients and visitors strolling freely among clipped green lawns dotted with picnic tables, a tennis court and a putting green. The hospital itself was a pleasant, modern building. Stephen’s wealth had smoothed the path for him once again.
Catherine’s I.D. got her into the office of Dr. Rob Dickie, the psychologist who had treated Stephen Bass. Then her inquiries hit a stone wall.
“Patient confidentiality, Miss Chandler,” said the therapist, in a soothing tone. He was so young that his face was still spotted with adolescent acne. “His case notes are right here, and here they will remain.” He patted a file folder and pulled it closer to himself.
She held herself back from an explosion. “The man that you freed kidnapped me, almost strangled me. He’s a stalker and he’s obsessed. Is that in your case notes?”
“I really shouldn’t tell you anything, Miss Chandler,” he said, wiping a speck of dust off his desk. “But, just to reassure you, let me say that in all the months Mr. Bass was with us, he never once mentioned your name.”
“That doesn’t reassure me, since he contacted me the day he was released,” she snapped. “Did he rave on about mythical beasts? Tigers, for example? Or lions?”
Dr. Dickie breathed on his shiny new brass nameplate and polished it on the sleeve of his white lab coat. “In fact, Mr. Bass talked mostly about the stock market. He’s very knowledgeable. He gave me investment tips and I doubled my money. He didn’t need to be here at Greenview. It was all a foolish mistake of the court.”
Through clenched teeth, she said, “He certainly fooled you. It takes an old hand, a specialist, to see through his mind-games, to see how dangerous he really is.”
Stung, Dr. Dickie said, “I specialize in the treatment of hysterical women. Make an appointment with my secretary and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Catherine slammed the office door shut on his final words, and raced to her car, where she sat shaking with fury. She wanted to scream until her throat was sore, at the court and the judge, and especially the hospital board, who had followed the recommendations of an inexperienced therapist, and set Stephen free.
On the edge of hysteria, she battled for self-control. She had to stay centered, for Vincent’s sake as well as her own. A sudden poignant image came to her through the bond: a picture of Vincent, alone in the Meditation Chamber, gazing upwards as he lighted a candle, praying that she might be kept safe.
She pulled herself together, then started her car and drove back to the city, concentrating on plans for self-defense, just in case Stephen came after her again. Perhaps it was time to call Isaac, and arrange for lessons in what he called ‘street-fu.’
She was still thinking of Isaac as she opened her apartment door and saw a man in a wheelchair sitting by the fireplace.
“Hello, darling. Long time no see,” said Stephen.
Catherine stood completely still. Her whole body was ringing like a fire siren. She fought to calm herself before Vincent could sense her alarm. “How did you get in here? Did you bribe one of the lobby staff?”
Laughing indulgently, he spread his hands and said, “It wasn’t at all necessary. I own this apartment building. Every month your rent money goes to Bassco Investments. Cathy! I’m your landlord!”
Apart from a certain hospital pallor, his time in Greenview hadn’t changed Stephen’s appearance. A fawn-colored cashmere sweater set off his dark hair and refined features. A lap rug was thrown over his useless legs. He had the same smile, half-confident, half-pleading.
“If I had realized that, I never would have moved here,” she snapped, and pointed to the door. “Your money and your cleverness eased your way out of Greenview and into my apartment. Now get out.”
“Cathy, Cathy, Cathy,” Stephen sighed. “Look at me, I’m in a wheelchair, I can’t hurt you. I never would have hurt you. You never understood that.” He rolled the chair toward the sofa and patted a cushion. “Sit down, let’s talk.”
She reached for the phone to dial 911, then remembered the resolution she had made, the reason she had sent Vincent away. Somehow she had to convince Stephen that the man-beast who had put him in a wheelchair never existed, except in his imagination.
She heard herself saying, “Would you like a drink? You always liked red wine.”
“You haven’t forgotten,” he said, with a sentimental sigh. “All those years ago, in our little walk-up in SoHo, we’d stretch out on the rug and share a bottle and talk about me. It was the happiest time of my life. So far.”
The wine was in the refrigerator. She rested her forehead against the cold white steel for a moment, to cool her fevered mind. “I can do this. I can.”
“I like what you’ve done to the place,” Stephen commented, as she returned with the wine. “It’s like you - beautiful and remote. I don’t see the red stove. I suppose this isn’t the right setting. It needs a country place.”
She forced herself to sit down on the sofa, within reach of his hand.
A toast!” he went on, raising his glass. “To a future of happiness.”
“A future of happiness,” she echoed, adding in her mind, For Vincent and me, with you out of the picture.
Sipping her wine, she began cautiously, “I thought about you, while you were in Greenview.”
He tilted his head and regarded her fondly. “Did you, darling? I wish you had written me, then, or visited.”
She answered slowly, trying to keep a step ahead of his thoughts. “I thought you might hold a grudge against me, for my testimony at the trial.”
His smile was odd and disquieting. “Not against you, sweetheart. It was never you I blamed.”
Catherine refilled his glass. “I wonder how much you remember about that incident in New Rochelle.”
His laugh was harsh. “I remember it all, believe me. This chair reminds me every day.”
She pretended to reminisce. “There was the business about the white dress, and then … “
“That was a lovely dress, much more attractive than the business suit you’re wearing now. It’s too severe.” He pinched her sleeve playfully.
Unable to contain her irritation, Catherine jerked her arm free. “It’s been a long time since I let you pick out my clothes. I have another life now. You don’t know me any longer.”
The mask of sanity slipped for just a second, revealing something unspeakable behind his eyes. “When you say that, I get agitato. You don’t ever want to get me agitato, Cathy. When you do, I start remembering your testimony. You said some terrible things about me to the judge.”
She gave him back stare for stare. “You did knock me unconscious.”
The suave mask was back in place. “But only very, very gently. We played a little love-game, I tied you in a chair and you pretended to struggle against the ropes. That was exciting.”
Other, grimmer memories overtook him. He downed the wine in one gulp. “Then we were outside, I was embracing you, and then an animal came roaring out of the woods. All teeth and claws and hair and there was screaming and blood and pain and then I woke up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed rail.”
You were choking me, not embracing me. Catherine forced herself to pat his clenched fist. “You weren’t thinking straight, back then. Now you’ve been through therapy, you know it can’t have happened that way.”
“You were chasing me around the house and you fell down the stairs and hurt your back, and then the police came.”
“That’s the way you remember it?”
There was something in his eyes that Catherine didn’t like, but she plunged on. “That’s exactly what I told the police that night. It was your raving about a creature from the woods that got you sent to Greenview. But now you’re out! You’re free! You can put all that foolishness behind you.”
“No creature?” he faltered.
“Not a single one,” she assured him.
Stephen lifted her hand to his lips. “Darling Cathy. Can you bring yourself to marry a man who rolls instead of walks?”
“You’re moving too fast for me, Stephen,” she said, pulling her hand free. “Let’s try to be friends first, for a few months, until I can be sure we’re seeing things the same way.”
His smile was a white slash. “No demands, just friendship. I think it’s time for us to talk about that.”
In his hand was the video remote. He clicked it and the VCR flickered on, displaying a grainy, black and white image of a man and a woman embracing against a New York skyline.
“He won’t hurt you, Catherine. Not while I’m alive to prevent it.”
“Vincent, you don’t understand. I’m not worried about myself. Have you forgotten? Stephen has seen you.”
Listening to her, the man bent his head, revealing a face not entirely human: slanting brows, a cat’s muzzle, and the teeth of a predator, framed by a wild tangle of hair.
Somehow, Catherine rose from the sofa and made her way across the living room. She switched off the television and stood quietly, staring at the blank screen.
Stephen explained, “Your TV reception was poor this morning. But an employee of mine named Ludwig, who happens to own a TV repairman’s uniform, repaired it while you were at work. At the same time he scattered a few handy little video cameras around this apartment.”
He rolled to the double doors and pushed them open. “This is where you met him. Cathy, how could you?” His voice was full of reproach. “A misshapen monstrosity like that, when you could have had me. You just don’t know what you really want. You’re confused. But I’ll help you.”
She heard herself ask, “Who else has seen the tape?”
“You have one copy and I have the other. Fast forward and you’ll see the part where you tell him you want it to end. I'm just helping you to be strong and do the right thing.”
Without a word, Catherine ejected the tape and crushed it under her heel. Then red rage poured through her like lava. She pivoted and seized Stephen’s cashmere sweater with both hands. “If you harm him, I’ll throw you over the balcony and laugh when you hit the ground.”
Stephen shook his head, amused. “Drop by my apartment tomorrow evening
and we’ll watch my copy, clear to the end. And we’ll talk about the
future. I think you’ll see things my way, unless you want copies of the
tape mailed to every news bureau in the city. I can just see the
headlines: D.A.’s Sex-Romp with Circus Freak. See you tomorrow!”
He was humming a happy tune as he disentangled her hands from his sweater,
turned his wheelchair, and rolled out her front door.
When he was gone, Catherine made a whirlwind sweep of her apartment, searching for bugs. She found a video camera the size of a pack of cigarettes attached to a balcony railing. A second camera she discovered in the kitchen, and a third in the living room. Another she found in the bathroom, angled toward the shower. It made her skin crawl to imagine the images. A fifth was positioned above her bed. All were empty of film. Either Stephen or his mysterious employee Ludwig had already collected the tapes.
It felt good to get a hammer and smash the spy cameras. There was nothing left of them but scraps when she finally threw them away. There might be other devices, though, that she hadn’t found. Tomorrow she’d call a security company for an in-depth search. In the meantime, she had to think.
She brewed a pot of coffee and drank it all, probably not the best thing for her nerves. In the kitchen she sat with one hand pressed to her forehead, trying to get her thoughts in order. It wasn’t easy. Stephen’s pale, smirking face overshadowed her mind like a nightmare she couldn’t shake off.
It was past ten o’clock when she finally rode the elevator to the
sub-basement. Bare, hanging bulbs cast cones of yellow light over clunking
furnaces that loomed like dinosaurs in the dimness.
She pushed aside a stack of cardboard boxes, revealing a hole in the brick wall. A row of steel brads formed a ladder leading downward. She turned in a shaft of blue light and saw Vincent, a splendid shadow coming out of the darkness. With one cry, Catherine sprang into his open arms.
Her words were muffled against his shirt. “Two months, I said to you, and I couldn’t even get through one week.”
Vincent held her even tighter, if that was possible. “Something has gone wrong, I know it. I’ve been feeling your distress for hours. You don’t know what it’s cost me to remain Below, and let you face all this anguish alone.”
She wouldn’t cry. She just wouldn’t. “The distress you sensed - you were right. The situation has taken a turn for the worse.”
He closed his eyes, bracing himself inwardly. “Tell me.”
“Stephen mounted a spy camera on my balcony. He has a video of the two of us. I go along with Stephen’s blackmail plans, or watch us both on the six o’clock news.”
He uttered a sound that was almost a sob. As always, his first and only thought was for her. “That would be the ruin of your career.”
Her anger burst forth. “Do you think I care about that?”
“I care. You’ve sacrificed so much for me already.”
Through set teeth, she declared, “Nothing I’ve ever done for you has been a sacrifice. I’d do all of it again. This is just one more reason why you have to stay out of sight until I retrieve that video.”
Vincent released her, turned away, and slammed both fists against the stone wall. It tore him apart to see her in such trouble, and to know he couldn’t help.
He growled, “I can’t stand aside and let you face this alone. There
must be something I can do.”
“Maybe the best thing you can do right now is light a candle.“ Catherine put a comforting hand on his bowed shoulder. “We’ll get through this somehow. The destiny that brought us together has guided us through worse trials than this. The one you pray to isn’t going to desert us now.”
“At the moment, your faith is stronger than mine,” he admitted.
“You’ve been strong for me, so often. This time, I can be strong for you.”
He shook his head like a bull in the ring, maddened by pain. “It terrifies me to think you might be too courageous for your own good. I feel like I’m buried alive, down here. Release me from my promise!”
“No, I’m holding you to it.” If Catherine had doubts, she concealed them, for Vincent’s sake, as well as her own. Her face was transcendent with courage and love. “I’m tougher than Stephen, and faster, and smarter. It’ll be a piece of cake.”
The next day Catherine spent in court, breaking down the testimony of a psychiatrist who was acting as a defense witness for a man named Heinz, a twice-convicted child molester. Her smouldering anger at the staff of Greenview turned her into a tiger, and her savage questioning made the psychiatrist look like a fool.
Joe rejoined her as she was striding out of the courthouse. Hands in his pockets, he accompanied her down the granite steps. “You made hash out of that shrink. I’m glad you’re a friend of mine and not an enemy.”
“The insanity plea gets my goat,” said Catherine, as she shouldered through a scattering of newshounds, and waved for a taxi.
A reporter thrust a microphone in her face. “Will Heinz get off?”
“He’d better not,” she flared. “How many chances does the man get before they throw away the key?”
A white limo pulled up to the curb; the driver leaped out and opened the passenger door, blocking Catherine’s way. She took a step back, alarmed, for the man was enormous, a pro wrestler stuffed into a gray chauffeur’s uniform. Embroidered on his cap was the word Bassco.
Stephen leaned out the open limo door, grasped Catherine’s reluctant hand, and spoke to the nearest photographer. “My fiancee, Catherine Chandler.”
A reporter wielded a microphone. “Is it official, Mr. Bass?”
“You can tell the world I’ve bought the ring.”
She had to make an instant decision, for Vincent as well as for herself. Framed in a fireworks display of flashbulbs, Catherine allowed herself to be tucked into the back seat, leaving Joe standing bereft and shattered on the curb.
“Drive carefully, Ludwig, you’re carrying a precious cargo!” Stephen held Catherine’s hand in a tight grip as the limo sailed like an ocean liner through the avenues and boulevards of New York City. Passing Central Park, she stared out at a blur of trees, and felt tears sting her eyes. Vincent was there, far below the city. And she alone could keep him safe.
Ludwig escorted the two of them into Stephen’s apartment, which was beautifully decorated with French antiques, and then stood guard by the door, folding his arms on his massive chest and standing with feet apart.
“Do you talk, Ludwig? Or are you basically just an obedient drone-unit?” she asked.
He stared straight ahead without answering. His face had the stony immobility of an Easter Island statue.
“I hope he paid you well, for breaking into my apartment. That is a crime, you know.”
“Give it up, Cathy, he won’t answer.” Stephen rolled to a cabinet inlaid with rare woods, and poured two drinks. “Those yellow silk drapes were handmade in Italy. I think yellow is a good color for the city, don’t you? Of course, you can make changes, when we’re married. There’s a package for you on the table. Call it your engagement ring.”
Catherine turned the flat box over and over in her hands as she scanned the luxurious living room, looking for a VCR.
“The tape’s not here,” said Stephen, smiling. He sipped his drink and winked. “I’m not a fool.”
Catherine was reaching the end of her endurance. Every nerve in her body was taut and screaming. Overwhelmed with misery, she dropped on her knees beside the wheelchair to plead with him.
“Stephen, you’re torturing me,” she whispered.
Damp fingers caressed her cheek, and she repressed a shudder.
“That creature cost me the use of my legs. You kissed him, Cathy. It’s on the tape. After this, you won’t kiss anyone but me.”
His cold lips squirmed against hers. She closed her eyes and endured the kiss, feeling as if a snail were crawling across her face.
“In front of Ludwig?” she protested at last.
Against her mouth, Stephen murmured, “He owes me, big time. I got him assigned to Dr. Dickey. Otherwise he would never have gotten out of the secure ward.”
He took the gift box from her clenched fist. Something touched her neck and clicked.
“Better than a ring,” said Stephen, drawing back to admire it. “Now everyone will know you’re mine, especially since only I have the key to the clasp.”
She got to her feet and looked at her reflection in an antique mirror. Her face looked drowned, with huge, hollow eyes and parted lips. Around her neck was a diamond dog collar with an engraved tag. Cathy. If lost, return to Stephen Bass. Reward.
She heard her own voice say, “Isn’t that cute.”
Stephen chuckled with delight and clapped his hands. “Soon everything will be as it was before. On Saturday, Ludwig will drive us out to New Rochelle. Bring a load of your things, put them around the house, make yourself at home. There! Now you can never say that I won’t let you be you.”
“Ludwig will drive you home.”
“See you on Saturday!” Stephen blew her a kiss.
“All right.” As soon as she was out the door, she turned up the collar of her coat to hide the diamond choker.
As the limo began to move, she said, “I don’t suppose I need to give you directions to my apartment building. You were there already, when you broke in.”
The hulking shape in the driver’s seat did not answer. He adjusted the rear-view mirror, which had an odd decoration; a naked Barbie doll hanging by one leg.
Home at last, she took a handgun from her bedside table and tucked it into her purse, then took a stand on the balcony, gripping the railing and as she watched evening shadows creep across the city. There was only one purpose in her mind, in her heart, in her spirit - to retrieve that tape and destroy it, before it could destroy Vincent.
“Just rely on me, Vincent, and keep yourself safe,” she whispered. “I’ll get that video from Stephen, though Hell should bar the way.”
News of Catherine’s engagement was all over the D.A.’s office the next morning. She had seen the announcement herself, in the morning paper, accompanied by a photo of Stephen leaning out of the limo and clutching her reluctant hand, while Ludwig held the door open. The article mentioned Stephen’s status as a wealthy and eligible businessman, and her status as an Assistant D.A.
Edie bounced up from her computer desk to hug Catherine. “Congratulations, girlfriend! I’ll take the chauffeur, if you don’t want him. I like ‘em husky.”
“You don’t want Ludwig, trust me on that,” said Catherine, dryly. “He and his master are two of a kind. Besides, the article is all gossip. Not a word of truth in it.”
“You’re not engaged? Oh, I’m sorry!” cried Edie.
“Don’t be sorry unless the announcement turns out to be the truth.” She tugged the rolled collar of her black turtleneck, making sure the choker was concealed. She had tried for half an hour to work the clasp loose, but the “diamond ring” was on to stay.
Joe wasn’t very friendly when he brought her a handful of files. “Try to finish the Heinz case before you quit. Everyone in the office has agreed - we’ll come to the wedding but we won’t do the conga, and what do you want for a gift?”
She slapped open a file folder and went right to work. “When I decide to quit, you’ll hear it from me, not from the newspaper. And tell the office staff not to chip in for a set of silver-plated eggcups until I’ve picked out a fiance for myself. The New York Times is not going to do it for me.”
Joe was whistling when he swung back into his office.
Her phone rang all morning with messages of congratulations, including one from Elliot Burch, calling from his private jet, and sounding as smooth and suave as ever. “Cathy, I ought to say that I’m glad for you, but it makes me sorry as hell that it isn’t me.”
“Elliot, it may not be you, but it isn’t Stephen, either. And you can quote me, but not until after Saturday.”
During lunch hour, she scribbled a note to Vincent. Don’t worry, part of the plan. Always, C.
Hurrying downstairs, she ran in the direction of Central Park, hoping to spy Clarence or Sebastian or any Helper who might deliver the message. Seeing no one, she ran eight blocks until she reached a gate in the stone wall that surrounded the Park. To her astonishment, she spied Father coming out from between the trees, leaning heavily on his cane.
She called out to him and took his hand across the wall, ignoring the curious looks of passers-by. A young woman wearing Armani didn’t often pat the hand of an old man in tattered leather and patchwork. At the moment, Catherine couldn’t be bothered with appearances. She had more urgent concerns.
“Tell me quickly if Vincent is all right, before I scream. Some helpful person sent him the newspaper clipping, I’m sure.”
“Oh, yes, he received it,” said Father. The old man looked white and
tired. “Half a dozen Helpers sent the same clipping and he reacted to
every one of them as if he were being riddled with bullets. Let’s just say
it hasn’t been an easy morning Below. What’s the truth, Catherine?”
She spoke through gritted teeth. “The truth is that I’ll marry Stephen and have his babies to keep that tape from circulating. I only hope I won’t have to.”
Wearily Father rubbed the bridge of his nose. “He’s going mad with worry for you.”
“The tape is in Stephen’s house in New Rochelle. I’m going there on Saturday, and I’ll get it back or die trying.”
Father laughed faintly. “I think I’ll phrase it a bit differently to Vincent.”
“That might be wise.” Her eyes blurred with tears. “Does he … does he think I’m being unfaithful? Remind him what would happen if that video got out. All the people who would come after him - reporters, cops, social workers, vigilantes, trophy hunters, nut cases, anthropologists, zoologists. Reporters with microphones, UFO nuts, psychics, street preachers. The National Star Confidential. They’d destroy him. And if he were destroyed, it would finish me.”
“And it would be the end of your career.”
“My career is expendable!” Catherine exploded. “Vincent is not.” She choked back a sob and wiped her eyes angrily.
“For all of us … thank you, Catherine,” said Father quietly. “Vincent is dear to us, but so are you. Please take care of yourself.”
She leaned over the wall and gave Father a hug. “Give him this note,
and a hug from me. And don’t let him come Above. Brick him into his
chamber if you have to, until after the weekend.”
Saturday morning came at last, and Catherine was waiting impatiently outside her apartment building when the white limo finally pulled up to the curb.
Her former fiance was not in the car. She scooted into the back seat and spoke to Ludwig through the glass partition. “Is Stephen already in New Rochelle?”
Ludwig stamped the accelerator without answering. Instead of his usual chauffeur’s uniform, he was wearing the green scrubs and paper cap of a surgeon, along with a dangling stethoscope.
“You either have a lot of talents, Ludwig, or you swiped that outfit from Greenview. Can you talk, or are you pretending to be a silent movie actor? Did Lon Chaney ever play a doctor?” He did not reply to her needling, and she gave up on him.
The limo was equipped with a bar, a mini television and a music system, but amusing herself was the last thing on Catherine’s mind. Instead, she stared out the window, steeling herself against Stephen Bass. That pathetic excuse for a human being could bring down the bravest spirit and truest heart she had ever known. She would seduce Stephen or shoot him to get that tape.
Her first glimpse of the mock-Tudor mansion brought back a firestorm of memories. Her nails curled into her palms, making crescent dents.
“I can do it,” Catherine said to herself, striding up the curving path. “I can and I will.”
Ludwig opened the glass-paned front door and locked it behind her. There was no turning back now. Her heels clicked on the hardwood floor of the entry hall. The house was unfurnished. Apparently the interior decoration was to be her job, after the wedding.
“I can see it now,” she decided. “Orange plaid, fake leopard fur, and lava lights. What a concept.”
She followed Ludwig up a curving flight of stairs to an enormous beige bedroom. Elaborate draperies filtered the light.
Stephen was stretched out on a king-sized bed, buffing his nails with an emery board. An afghan covered his twisted legs. A wheelchair was pushed close to the bed.
Said Stephen, “We don’t need you right now, Ludwig. You can go play with your dolls for an hour.”
Ludwig bowed and retreated. When his footsteps faded in the distance, Catherine said, “Dolls?”
“He has a suitcase full of Barbies.”
Her eyebrows went up. “Somehow I can’t picture Ludwig as a doll collector.”
Stephen examined his nails, saying casually, “Oh, he doesn’t collect them. He cooks them. When dolls weren’t enough any longer, he was committed to Greenview.”
Nausea rose in her throat. She swallowed and turned away, scanning the huge bedroom. Gold-framed snapshots of a younger Catherine decorated a chest of drawers and hung on the walls. An entertainment center held a large TV and a VCR. An antique wardrobe was stuffed with dresses, most of them white.
“Again with the white dresses, Stephen. I hope you’re intending to wear them yourself this time, because I certainly don’t intend to.”
He just snuggled deeper into the coverlet and snickered. “Oh, you’ll wear them. One of them is your wedding dress. Now be sweet to me, darling, and tell me you appreciate everything I’ve done for you. Come and lie down beside me.” He patted the bed.
She hadn’t come this far in order to stop now. Dropping her handbag by the bed, she forced herself to stretch out on the beige satin coverlet.
Stephen played with a lock of her hair, reminiscing. “In those photos on the dresser, you have curly hair. I like it curly. But enough about you. Let’s talk about me.”
She forced herself to endure his touch. “I’ve always wondered something, Stephen. You once told me you were suffering from a brain tumor. Was that ever true?”
“Kidding, kidding, just kidding you,” he said, with a smirk. “I knew you’d be sympathetic, and hang out with me. Say! I’ve decided to give you a choice of honeymoon spots. We can go to Hawaii or Jamaica, whichever you prefer, as long as it’s the Maui Hilton, because I’ve already made reservations.”
She stared up at the ceiling, trying to keep herself from screaming. “You’re jumping way ahead, considering you haven’t proposed to me.”
Lovingly he stroked her cheek. “Of course I did, right after Professor Lubin’s class. But - do you mean recently? I suppose that’s true! I’ll do it right now. No one could ever love you like I love you, so let’s take up where we left off. We have so much to look forward to.” He pressed kisses across her cheek and neck. “I love this little pulse spot at the base of your throat. It feels like my tongue is tasting your life.”
She clutched a wad of the coverlet, to keep herself sane. “Let me see the tape, and then we’ll talk.”
“Very well, my angel, if you insist.” Stephen propped himself up on a couple of pillows and tapped a remote.
A glass shower door opened and a naked woman stepped out on to a bathmat. She wrapped a towel around her wet hair and took another to dry her bare legs.
“This is my favorite part,” Stephen said, smirking. “I always did love
to see you like this.”
Rage became a red fog in her mind. From somewhere she found the strength to say, “I don’t want to see this, Stephen.”
“But you have a beautiful body, sweetheart. You should be proud of it.” His hand fumbled at her hair, then slid down the rolled collar of her turtleneck. “I’ll film you again, on our honeymoon, wearing just this choker. And here’s something else that goes with it, just for fun.”
There was a click and a slight tug. Catherine realized that Stephen held the end loop of a diamond-studded leash.
Speechless with fury, she sat upright and clutched the dog collar with both hands, trying to tear it off.
“Down, girl, down!” Stephen commanded. “It’s kissy time.”
Rage shook her. It was several minutes before she could speak. “I’ll let you kiss me, after I see the balcony tape. Not before.”
“You need to learn obedience,” he said playfully. “Oh, all right, you silly pet. It’s the tape lying on top of the television.”
It was a long leash, and Stephen kept hold of the loop as Catherine swung her legs off the bed and crossed the room to the TV.
A sob rose in her chest as Vincent’s face appeared on the screen, that face that seemed so inhuman to others, and was so dear to her. Once again she heard his rough, soft voice.
“Don’t ask it, don’t even think it. You’re asking me to live without air, without light. Without you, I would suffocate in the dark.”
The look of anguish on his beloved face sent her over the edge. With one blow, she hit the eject button and clawed the tape out of the VCR, then dropped it and stamped the tough plastic.
Stephen hauled on the leash, dragging her back toward the bed. She threw herself forward, half strangling herself to get free.
“You’re making me agitato,” he gasped. “It isn’t safe, really it isn’t.”
She jerked the leash free of his grip long enough to slam the video against the dresser and work a finger inside the broken plastic to hook the reel. She pulled the tape out with her hands and with her teeth, ripping it madly.
“You can’t love that ugly freak!” howled Stephen.
“I do, though,” she panted. “Completely, totally, and forever. You’re history. You were history six years ago, when I dumped you and never looked back.”
“Ludwig!” Stephen howled. He crawled to the edge of the bed and tumbled off, grabbing in vain for the loose end of the leash.
Heavy footsteps thundered up the stairs and Ludwig burst in, wearing a chef’s white toque and jacket. A maimed Barbie doll protruded from one pocket. He worked his big hands under Stephen’s armpits and hauled him into the wheelchair.
Catherine knelt in a snake’s nest of black tape. Still she kept tearing.
“Obedience school for her,” Stephen gasped. “Bad, bad bitch!”
Despite her struggles, Ludwig threw Catherine over his shoulder and tramped down the curving staircase. Only then, too late, did she remember the handgun in her purse. At least she had the tape. She kept hold of the video, trailing the tape down the steps as she pulled it out by handfuls.
The formal dining room was set for two, with china, crystal, and silver arranged on a lace cloth. Steam rose from a silver serving bowl of consomme. Ludwig dumped Catherine in a chair and held her there until Stephen rolled out of a small elevator and into the dining room.
The thin veneer of sanity that hid his madness had peeled away. His hair stood up and his eyes were glazed. Panting, he said, “Can’t get away never get away mine you were always mine, tell you or show you?”
She fought against the brutal hands that held her in the chair, and hissed, “Even if you kill me, Stephen, I win. He’s safe from you now.”
His giggle sent needles of ice up her spine. “Twelve copies hidden in this house ha ha now who’s crazy, crazy like a fox, I’ll give you a tape every year on our anniversary. Now we’re going to have a lovely engagement dinner so eat up, Ludwig cooked it.”
Only then did she notice the dolls’ legs floating in the consomme. “No. NO!” She brought her knees up and shoved her feet against the edge of the dining table. Her chair flew backwards, throwing Ludwig off balance.
The back of her head struck the floor, hard. Dazed, Catherine staggered
to her feet and grabbed up a chair, fending Ludwig off with the legs like an
animal tamer, while her reeling mind lurched from one mad plan to the next.
Twelve tapes had to be destroyed. There was only one way.
She threw the chair at Stephen and fled, grabbing the lace tablecloth as she ran. China and crystal crashed like asteroids as she raced headlong into the kitchen.
A frantic glance revealed an upright freezer, a commercial refrigerator, shelves of fine china, and doors to a wine cellar and a pantry. A rack of hooks displayed some of Ludwig’s costumes: the black cassock of a priest, a pink tutu, and a deerskin shirt and feathered warbonnet. Picturing Ludwig in the various outfits would have been hilarious, under other circumstances. She had no time to laugh, though, as she sped to the six-burner gas range. Quick twists of the stovetop knobs sent blue gas flames leaping high. Catherine threw the lace tablecloth across the burners, catching it alight in six places.
Ludwig blundered into the kitchen, arms open wide. Catherine looked desperately around for escape, and found none.
She might be able to slow him down, though. One running jump pulled down the rack of costumes. Hurriedly she stuffed them in the garbage can.
The task of retrieving the costumes and tenderly brushing them off sidetracked Ludwig long enough for Catherine to open the liquor cabinet, grab bottles of brandy, and hurl them one after another.
He fended off the missiles with an upraised arm, but some found their mark. Broken glass littered Ludwig’s clothing, which dripped with alcohol. His sleeve dragged across the blazing tablecloth, catching his jacket alight. Startled, he fell back against the kitchen curtains, silently tearing at his burning clothes. Yellow tongues of flame devoured the curtains and caught the ceiling tile. Black smoke thickened the air.
Stephen was screaming like a rabid weasel as he propelled himself in from the dining room, just as Catherine pushed over the empty liquor cabinet and barricaded herself behind it, throwing pot and pan lids.
“Get her, Ludwig! Get the dolly!”
Ludwig heard, and tried to obey. He stumbled toward Catherine, who retreated until her shoulders hit the wall, driven half-crazy herself by a sudden mental image of the dolls in the soup.
Knocking the liquor cabinet aside, he seized Catherine around the waist, carried her to the wooden butcher’s block and pinioned her face-down while he reached up for a cleaver.
Panic exploded in her chest. In her despair, she cried out, “Oh,
Stephen, don’t let him, you loved me once.”
He beat both his hands on the spokes of his wheelchair. “I just wanted to make it better! And you betrayed me, the only man you ever loved!”
Ludwig could only hold her down with one hand; the other held the cleaver
high. She struggled frantically to free herself, shielding her head from
burning tiles that rained down from the ceiling. A falling tile caught Ludwig’s
toque alight. His hair blazed like a torch. Maddened by pain, blinded by
smoke, he released Catherine, who climbed off the chopping block and fled toward
the dining room. She was headed off by Stephen, who blocked the doorway
with his chair.
“Gotcha!” he crowed, clutching her wrist. She twisted free and backed up, dizzy and retching.
Slapping at his burning hair, Ludwig staggered through an open door and crashed down a flight of stairs into the wine cellar. He lurched around the small room, careening into racks of bottles, soaking himself and the cellar with burning alcohol.
Shuddering, Catherine realized that Ludwig wasn’t always silent, after all. His shrieks of mortal agony mingled with Stephen’s ravings.
“This is what you want, isn’t it, you want to be punished, for leaving me!” Stephen snatched up the cleaver that Ludwig had dropped. He could hardly see Catherine through the thickening haze, but managed to ram her legs and corner her between the freezer and the refrigerator.
She had made a brave fight, but couldn’t run any farther. Conquered by smoke, she bent double, coughing, and finally dropped to her knees. She tried to cry out, but had no more breath. The world around her spun and went out, and she slipped to the floor, one limp arm thrown across the footrest of Stephen’s wheelchair. The cleaver swept up for a killing stroke.
A roar split the air. The kitchen window exploded inward in a starburst of broken glass as Vincent came through, feet first. He landed with a tremendous crash, upending Stephen’s wheelchair. Stephen lay with arms and legs in the air, twitching like a poisoned insect. Weakly he sliced at Vincent’s legs.
“You’re too late ugly freak ha ha killed the bad bitch kill you too!”
Bellowing with wrath, Vincent kicked the cleaver from Stephen’s hand, then seized him by the ankles, whirled him around, and threw him out the broken kitchen window.
Catherine saw none of it; she was already unconscious. Lifting his love in his arms, Vincent charged out of the firestorm that was the kitchen, and ran, or tried to run, through the dining room, across a minefield of broken crystal and glass. The burning carpet seared his leather boots. Charred veils of blazing curtain material blew across his face, blinding him.
A bombshell rocked the rooms behind him as a fuel tank exploded. The reek of toxic gasses was overpowering. Somehow he made it into the hall, just as a chandelier crashed to the floor, bringing down a logjam of ceiling beams that blocked his way out.
Vincent bent over, coughing convulsively. Toxic smoke seared his eyes, scorched his lungs. With one hand he felt along the wall, but couldn’t find the front door. Catherine stirred in his arms and that gave him the strength to battle his way through the burning forest of fallen beams, forcing them aside one by one. Sheets of white flame made the hall an inferno.
His strength was going. Vincent knew he had only a few breaths left. He made a wild guess that the main door was straight ahead, and gathered all his power for a final rush. Shielding Catherine with his body, he put his shoulder down to protect her from the impact, and charged.
The door was paneled with glass panes that splintered and split. Again he rammed with his shoulder, and felt the panels give. A mighty kick from his heavy boot broke the door apart and Vincent stumbled out into fresh air, scattering shards of glass. Gasping and choking, he lurched across the clearing toward the trees, with Catherine still motionless in his arms.
He had come to the end of his strength. Sheltered by a thicket of willows, Vincent fell to his knees. Catherine’s face was smeared with soot and her hair was full of broken glass. She didn’t seem to be breathing.
“Breathe, Catherine,” he begged her, and pressed his mouth against hers, forcing air and life into her lungs. Another explosion shook the house, collapsing the roof, but Vincent did not look up. He was sobbing, but didn’t know it. At that moment, everything he was, and everything he had, became a wordless prayer, for her.
A breath quivered through Catherine, then another. Even with her eyes closed, she knew the arms that held her, the lips that trembled as they pressed her own. She had ordered Vincent to stay away, but somehow, she had known that he would find his way to her side. Opening her eyes, she smiled up at him. Her face, though smeared and dirty, was so beautiful with that smile, with the light in those eyes.
“I wrecked the tapes,” she croaked.
Vincent rocked her gently, allowing himself to believe, and to live again. He was far beyond the point of thinking about tapes.
“You … came after me?” Coughing took her words.
His own voice was a thread. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“I forgive you for breaking your promise,” she whispered, and reached up to
stroke his cheek, caressing rough stubble streaked with tears. “Just this
He pressed his mouth against the palm of her hand.
“Help me sit up.” It was easier to breathe, and she wanted to see, so she pushed aside a hanging branch. In the distance, Stephen pulled himself across the lawn, dragging the dead weight of his withered legs. He was screaming incoherently about bitches and beasts.
Shuddering, she hid her face against Vincent’s chest, inhaling the reek of smoke that clung to his woolen shirt.
“Oh, it’s horrible. One man is dead, and Stephen will probably live out his years in Greenview. No one, not even Dr. Dickie, will release him after this. Such a hideous tragedy.” She wept then, for the man she had known once, who had come to this bitter end.
Even after everything that Stephen had done, Catherine could still grieve for him. Once again Vincent marveled at her generous heart. Kneeling with his arms around her, he looked back at the house. Black smoke and debris rolled into the sky. Flames licked out of every remaining window.
“For those two men it is a tragedy,” he said, his voice hushed. “But
you’re alive, Catherine.
Right now, I can’t see or think or feel anything beyond that. I seem to be calm, because you need calmness now, but inside, I’m screaming and shaking. I was almost too late, and the very thought turns my blood white.”
The heat of his emotion stirred her deeply. Between sobbing breaths she said, “I was doing some screaming and shaking myself, there for a while. Especially when I thought of you reading those clippings.”
Vincent closed his eyes and turned his head away. There were no words to tell her what he had gone through during those dark days when he had lived in mortal fear that in her quest for the tape, she would actually marry Stephen Bass. He couldn’t tell her all he had suffered, the torments of jealousy, picturing the intimacy she had once known with Stephen, seeing her as his wife, sharing his home, even unwillingly, and his bed. Mad and crippled as he was, Stephen seemed to have a better right. He was wealthy, with the power to grant Catherine’s every wish. And he was a human being.
It shamed him, that corrosive envy, the grief that broke him down, the agony of loss. He didn’t want her to know about the hours of helpless weeping, the smashed furniture in his chamber, the claw marks on the stone walls.
She could guess some of it, though, and moved to comfort him. Pressing a hand to his chest, she murmured, “It’s all over now. Let it heal, Vincent. Let it heal.”
As she shifted her position, she felt a scratching at her neck, and noticed that the diamond choker had come unfastened. One swing of her arm sent it far into the weeds. It was a release that lifted a weight from her spirit.
Gripping Vincent’s arm, she clambered to her feet, and drew him up, too, for in the distance she could hear the faint wail of a fire truck.
“Vincent, we have to go, before the fire engines arrive. When we parted, and I thought I wouldn’t see you for months and months, you kissed me goodbye.” Gently, with a single finger, she touched his lips. “Would you be willing to kiss me hello?”
“Willing?” He tightened his embrace until he could feel her heart beating against his own, and kissed her with all the love and gratefulness that his heart could hold.
She was still a little unsteady on her feet, and leaned on Vincent as they made their way through the trees.
Concerned, he said, “I’ll get you to an emergency room, unless you want to go to your apartment first and rest.”
Weary as she was, Catherine shook her head, no. “I want to go Below first, there’s something I have to do.”
“What’s that?” he wondered.
She hesitated, then said, “Once you told me that you say prayers for me. Nobody has ever said that to me before.”
He held a branch up for her to pass under. “It’s true. Every day, every hour. That no harm will come to you, that you’ll be kept safe.”
Her eyes blurred with tears. “You don’t ever pray for yourself?”
Everything he felt shone in his face. “It’s a prayer for myself, too. Anything that happens to you happens to me, as well. If I had arrived too late, I would be sinking down on the ground right now, never to get up again.”
She protested “That’s terrible!”
The look in his blue eyes told her otherwise. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a comfort to me, to know I’ll never have to stagger on through years and years, without you.”
She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand, leaving tear streaks on her sooty face. “That’s why I want to go Below. I’m not a believer, but it seems to me that the one you pray to guided us safely through a hideous ordeal. I want to light a candle, too.”
He swallowed a sob. “I don’t think you need to. You’re a light, all by yourself."
Her fingers tightened around his arm “Then we’ll light one together. I can think of a lot of things to be grateful for.”
Vincent glanced back through the trees just as the second story collapsed in a devouring avalanche that shook the earth. She had almost been caught in that. Hell had almost barred the way.
In his heart he renewed his promise: every day, every hour. Because she lived, and spoke, and laughed with him. Because she fought for him, and would never give up. Because she loved him.
“Grateful,” he breathed. “Yes, and Amen.”