Catherine moved slowly through the park seeking the darkest shadows, attentive to every sound, anything that might mean danger. Satisfied that she was indeed alone she found the crevice that was home. She dropped to her knees and crept between the rock outcropping and overhanging branches of the huge evergreen. She turned, faced out and peered into the dark night. Blessedly quiet and still. She took a deep breath, savoring the tangy smell of the damp earth and the sharp clean scent of the pine needles, then wrinkled her nose in disgust at the odors emanating from her. God what she wouldnít give for a long bath?
That thought led her to images of her apartment, clean, safe, secure high above the city streets and tears flowed. She swiped at them with the back of her hand and grimly pushed those pictures from her mind.
After a few moments, she opened the bags she had hidden there, pulled out the contents, pushed them to the side and spread the bags out as a makeshift ground sheet. Over them she spread an old tattered blanket folded in half. She picked up a stained and worn ski jacket, a woolen cap and a pair of mittens from the pile of odds and ends and put them on over the layers of clothes she already wore. It wasnít cold yet, but experience had taught her that even at this time of year the night chill would seep to her bones. She would need a better shelter than this soon but was too tired and hungry to wrestle with that problem. She settled herself on the blanket, curled tightly in a ball.
Tired as she was each night, sleep was slow in coming and when it did she was wracked with disjointed dreams that left her dull and fatigued when she woke and no closer to answers for the big questions. Where did she go from here? How could she get a life back?
Tonight, she was particularly restless. She tossed and turned, readjusted the bundle of rags that served as her pillow. Someone had called out to her in the crowds today, knew her name, recognized her even looking like this and she was terrified.
Escape had been ridiculously easy in the end; a mix of pure luck and determination. She had been captive for almost two months. The days had a dreary mind numbing routine. She spent her mornings lying still, fighting nausea or hung over the toilet bowl retching bile. Her days were a fog of cloudy thoughts and fragmented memories. She tried desperately to fill in the gaping holes but she was drugged twice daily, first with injections then, just two days before her break, with tablets that she took dutifully, waiting. She wanted to fight but realized her greatest strength was in catching them off guard.
That particular morning the nurse had been a little less vigilant, and Catherine had successfully palmed the tablets. She feigned her usual lethargy, knowing they had cameras and sure they watched her constantly. She hoped that she could continue to avoid the tablets and find a way out.
In the early evening everything changed. Two men came in instead of the nurse, and demanded that she dress. They had her suit and shoes and purse. She escaped to the bathroom to put on her clothes and though they insisted she leave the door open, she quickly rifled through her purse, found the cash she always kept hidden in the side pouch and stuffed it in her jacket pocket along with the bills from her wallet.
"Put on some lipstick," the burly guard ordered when she came back into the room. He jerked her purse out of her hand, opened it and handed it back to her. She did as he ordered. "And comb your hair." She did that too.
"Whatís all the fuss?" the smaller man asked.
"Has to look natural, in case anyone sees," the big man replied. "Boss said nothing to attract attention."
They escorted her out of the little room she hated. Isaac had always said not to let them take you to another location. This was one time she would have argued with him.
It was when they got to the street that pure luck entered the picture. The smaller of the guards held the back door of the car open for her with his right hand, while he gripped her elbow firmly with his left hand. The bigger man had gone around to the far side of the car. The driver hadnít moved and was securely belted in. Just as the guard was pushing her to enter the vehicle all hell broke loose. Police cars came careening into the street from both ends of the block, officers pouring out of the vehicles before they even came to a complete stop, concentrating their attention on a building just across from the car.
"What the hellÖ" Her guard sputtered. Catherine wasted no time. She slammed the car door shut trapping the guardís fingers. He howled in pain. She deliberately ran straight into the closest policeman nearly knocking him over.
"Lady," the young officer growled. "Get out of here. Fast." He pushed her toward the squad car. She was happy to obey. She crawled into the back, kept low and peered over the front seat to see her guards glaring at her from behind the phalanx of officers. They too, would be ordered out of the area and come after her in seconds. She slid across the seat and slipped out the far door and ran for the alley. She could hear heavy footsteps following. She threw her purse as far in front of her as she could, slipped into a tiny dark slot of space behind a dumpster and prayed that the guards would think she was still running. They did. The burly one slowed only to scoop up her purse. He swore and thundered on, the smaller guard moved less quickly, moaning and cursing. He cupped the fingers of his injured hand in the other and called for his partner to wait up. Then he too, was gone.
Catherine left her hiding place, straightened her suit, brushed herself off and gingerly re-entered the street. She walked as calmly as she could past the police officers to the next hiding place, a shadowy niche, and the next and the next.
Working methodically from one dark spot to another, thankful for the clouds and creeping dusk, she eventually traveled more than thirty blocks. Only then did she pause, slouched behind a row of garbage cans, and plot her next moves.
It had taken her more than half the next day to perfect her disguise. Old clothes from a second hand shop for a start. The woman working there had eyed her suit covetously. It hadnít been difficult to negotiate a trade. She had grabbed clothes quickly from the racks, paying little attention to color or size. As a result, she wore pajama bottoms under a long skirt, a battered pair of runners, three old t-shirts under a worn satin shirt, and over it all a huge plaid lumbermanís jacket. Her one concession was the purchase of a good pair of socks and new shoelaces; ready for running.
She had swiped a knife from a fruit stand and chopped her hair, without benefit of a mirror, then carefully replaced the knife. In the park, she dug through flower beds until her nails were broken and packed with dirt. She had stolen a knock-off Yankee baseball cap from a street stall, rolled the brim to soften it, dragged the hat through three puddles and let it dry on her head. In a public washroom she smudged her face with cheap make-up, washed it off and started again. Finally, after the fourth application she was satisfied that she looked like a dirty demented old lady.
Food had been another problem easier solved than she would have expected. It didnít take long to learn from the homeless that certain restaurants gave out leftover food each evening and she rotated through those. She also discovered the garbage cans behind food markets as good sources of fruit and vegetables, often half rotten but the edible parts helped to nourish her. And when she was desperate she risked the soup kitchens or used some of her dwindling funds to buy tea and a cheese sandwich. She was always hungry but she was not starving.
She wandered the streets, alert and on the move and lost even more weight. This current bed was her third in the past ten days since her escape.
Catherine shivered as the night grew darker and a chill wind invaded her space. Her mind was clearer now that she wasnít drugged, but, because of her fatigue and fear, she doubted her judgment, second guessed herself constantly and became even more worn and drained.
She had immediately dismissed the idea of going to Jenny. Her friend would help her, of that there was no doubt, but Jenny didnít have the resources Catherine needed to stay free of Gabriel and his men. She had risked a call to Peterís office only to learn that he was on holiday for a month. Joe was out of the question. That was the first place they would be watching. Besides, Gabriel had gotten to Moreno. There would undoubtedly be others in the office working for him, not Joe, but others.
She had spent an hour across the street from Isaacís place late one afternoon. Had watched him open the door to friends and students, had almost called out, thought better of it and tears streaming down her face, trudged dejectedly back to her hole. At no time in her escape plan did she contemplate a return to the tunnels. Far too much danger for that. Far too much anger for that.
Today, someone had called out her name. She had run through the crowds, heart pounding, slowing only when she was miles away.
She shivered, pulled the plaid jacket over her as a makeshift cover and counted to ten, over and over again in an attempt to still her raging thoughts. Eventually she slept, the unquiet, restless sleep of the homeless.
Vincent paused as he dragged himself through the tunnels. The pipe message said it was urgent that he speak to Father. It was earlier than he normally returned from his search for Catherine, close to 3:00 a.m. Surly Father would be asleep. Vincent entered Fatherís chamber and found him dozing in his chair a candle burning low. Vincent touched his shoulder. The older man stirred, opened his eyes, "Vincent?"
"Iím here. What is it Father, that keeps you in your chair at this hour?"
"Itís Catherine, Vincent. Lin saw her today, called out to her, but she disappeared."
"Saw her?" Vincent thought his heart stopped for a second and then he felt it leap with joy. "Where?" he demanded, already turning to go.
"Slow down, my boy. Lin isnít even sure it was Catherine. The womanÖ"
"But you saidÖ" Vincent interrupted as dejection settled over him. The news was too good to be true.
"Iím doing this badly. Iím sorry," Father apologized. "Lin said she thought it was Catherine but the woman was dressed in rags, looked like a bag lady, thin, dirty."
"That canít be." An anguished Vincent paced the chamber. "If only I hadnít lost the bondÖ Father, what am I to do?"
"Weíve put the word out to all our helpers. They will be watching for someone who fits Linís description and first thing in the morning, Iím going to see Mr. Maxwell." Vincent stared at him astonished. "Donít look at me like that," Father protested. "I havenít lost my mind. Iíve simply come to the realization that we canítÖ That is we have toÖ What Iím trying to say is that I canít be so unbending."
"Iím going back up," Vincent said.
"Vincent, please, youíve already been searching all night."
"But if the woman Lin saw is indeed CatherineÖ" he left the sentence unfinished.
"I know my boy, I know." Father watched his son take the stairs two at a time. "Vincent," he called. "Before you go, I want to say Iím sorry."
Vincent paused and looked over his shoulder. "For what?" he asked mystified.
"I fear that all of this is my fault."
"No," Vincent protested.
"Please, let me finish. I need to say this. If I hadnít fought Catherine so, if I had had the grace to see the possibilities she saw, to not constantly put limits on youÖ"
Vincent came back to his Fatherís side. "Itís too late for that now," he said gently. "You canít undo the past, isnít that what you always taught me?"
"When we find her VincentÖ"
"Yes," the younger man replied. He embraced his father and left.
"What did Mr. Maxwell say?" Mary asked. The tunnel members had gathered in Fatherís chamber waiting for his return.
"He heard a report of her also, three days ago from Isaac."
"Isaac saw her," Vincent asked eagerly and his heart jumped wildly again.
"No, but a street connection of his claimed he saw Catherine. He described her just as Lin did."
"Maybe it is her then," Jamie suggested hopefully.
"But, if she escaped, why wouldnít she come here?" William demanded. "Doesnít make sense." They all looked to Vincent who shook his head sadly, no closer to answers than they.
Three nights later, Vincent found her in the park. She walked right in front of him, peering into the bushes on the other side of the trail. He didnít need to see her face to know it was her. He recognized her instinctively, the way she moved, light on her feet, smooth, her unmistakable scent almost overpowered by the odors of her unwashed body and dirty clothes. Without thinking Vincent grabbed her and pulled her close.
Catherine didnít waste time screaming. She kicked him in the shin and then brought her knee up into his groin. He doubled over in pain and she hammered on the back of his head with her fist. He didnít go down but made another grab for her. She turned to run but he caught her arm. She jerked sharply, hammered on his forearm and pulled away. Vincent lost his grip on her and she spun away. Her momentum carried her straight into the trunk of a tree. Her head rammed up against the tree and she crumbled to the ground.
Vincent dropped to his knees and without moving her, did his best to check for injuries as Father had taught him. He couldnít find any broken bones, but she would have a concussion, of that he was sure. He gathered her up carefully and headed for the closest tunnel entrance.
"Surprisingly there are no signs of concussion," Father told him. "But Iíll keep a watch just in case. I donít think sheíll waken for several hours though." He paused. "I can hardly believe itís her," he added staring down at the still form. "How did you recognize her in the dark?"
"I would know her anywhere," Vincent replied.
Father nodded. "Sheís been drugged," he stated. "Look, here on her arm. You can see the needle marks. Iíll take a blood sample but with Peter out of town, I canít get much on my own."
"What do you think they gave her?" Vincent asked.
"I donít know and I donít know what the residual effects might be. Not to mention the effects of the trauma that she must have gone through to be in this state." He gestured at her clothes and gently wiped her dirty face. "When she wakes, sheíll be fine physically but her emotional reactions may beÖ"
"Unpredictable," Vincent finished bleakly.
"Yes," Father agreed. "And depending on what they gave her, she may be confused, even have some memory loss."
Vincent nodded agreement. "That would explain why she didnít come to the tunnels," he stated flatly.
"Iím afraid so," Father agreed.
"And I made it worse, grabbing her like that. She wouldnít have been so frightened and gotten hurt if Iíd been more careful."
Father placed his hand on his sonís shoulder. "Mary will bathe her."
"How she must have hated being dirty," Vincent said. He looked at her for a long time, afraid that if he took his eyes off her, she would disappear. "Iíll get her gown," he added at last.
An hour later, Vincent carried a clean Catherine to his bed. He adjusted the pillows, pulled the comforter up over her and brought a candle to study her more closely. He had towel dried her hair for Mary as best he could. It was a mess, cut almost to the scalp in some places, longer in others, as if someone had hacked off handfuls with a dull knife, her face was thin, her cheeks hollow, with deep lines running from her nose to the corners of her mouth and still she was beautiful.
He picked up her left hand, cleaner now, but the residue of dirt under her nails could be removed only with soaking. Mary had wanted to give her a manicure but agreed with Vincent that it could wait. Mary had smoothed lotion over Catherineís face and instructed him to massage generous amounts on the dry roughened skin of her hands.
Vincent watched closely as he worked gently on one hand and then the other. Catherineís eyelids flickered and she smiled a tiny smile. She snuggled deeper under the covers with a contented sigh. The dreams were good ones. He pulled his chair close to the bed, adjusted the candle and began to read Ė Great Expectations.
Several hours later she began to call out, rousing Vincent who had been dozing in his chair, bits of words he couldnít quite grasp, cries of fear, loud clear shouts. No, no, no, over and over again. He sat on the bed beside her, held her shoulders gently and spoke soothingly. Gradually she calmed and stilled. Moments later she mumbled. My fault, Father. Yes. No. Ödonít understand. I wanted him toÖ NeededÖ Maybe ifÖ The next words he couldnít make out. She was becoming more agitated. She struggled against his hands and he let go. She threw the covers off; half rose and then fell back to the bed. Again she calmed and he risked a mad dash to Fatherís chamber.
"How is she now?" Father asked, as he entered Vincentís chamber several paces behind his son.
"For the moment, calm," Vincent replied not taking his eyes off Catherine. "She was talking to you. Saying it was her fault. What did she think was her fault?"
Father hesitated. Vincent turned to look at him. "Tell me," he pleaded.
"Your illness," Father said softly. He continued before Vincent could interrupt. "She thought she put herself into dangerous situations purposefully, knowing you would come."
"No," Vincent protested. "She would never do anything to harm me."
"Oh, not intentionally, of course, but subconsciously, she very likely did."
"Because she couldnít have you," Father held up a hand to forestall Vincentís response. "Not in the way she wanted, that is."
"But you know that was impossible," Vincent countered.
"Iím not so sure anymore. I think all my warnings and protestsÖ" Father didnít say more as he checked Catherineís pulse and eyes and then quietly left.
Before Vincent could even consider Fatherís revelation, Catherine was thrashing about again. Your fault, Vincent, damn you. Her words could not have been more shocking. No, please, not more needles. No. There was a long pause and then she spoke again. Your fault. Coward! The last word spat in anger.
Vincent slumped into his chair. Coward. Coward? He couldnít fathom her words. What was she blaming him for? Loving her? Tying her to the darkness of Below? God, he didnít know what to think. His heart sank and he hung his head, disconsolate.
He jolted upright when she screamed. Her body was almost jumping off the bed, her arms flailing. He grabbed her, lay half across her to hold her down.
"Get off me," she hissed. He looked at her face, startled to see her eyes open. "Let me go, Vincent," she hissed again. "Now!"
He jumped back as if scalded and watched, warily backing away, as she climbed out of his bed.
"How dare you?" she demanded.
"Catherine, what is it?" he pleaded.
"How dare you touch me? Bring me here?" she gestured wildly. "How dare you? Where are my clothes? Iím leaving."
"Catherine, you canít," Vincent protested. "Itís too dangerous for you Above."
"Exactly," she spat. "Where are my clothes?"
"Catherine, you have to stay here."
"Why? Because you lost the bond? And now you canít get to me up there," she pointed upward as she growled out the words. "You couldnít rescue me from Gabriel, so, now that Iíve rescued myself, I have to stay here with you?" she asked. Her voice rose hysterically, her eyes were hard and cold.
"Thatís what youíre so angry about?" Vincent asked. "The loss of the bond?"
"Bingo!" she snapped sarcastically. She searched his chamber as she spoke, opened the armoire, tossed his cloak aside, moved books. "Where are my clothes, damn it?"
"But, why is it my fault?" Vincent pleaded. "What did I do?"
"Itís not what you did, Vincent," Catherine paused in her search to look directly at him. "Itís what you didnít do. Oh, for Godís sake donít stand there looking so bewildered. You didnít come to my bed." She began searching again. "Maybe Jamie could lend me something," she muttered and headed for the door.
Vincent blocked her way. "You canít go Above, Catherine. I forbid it."
Catherine laughed, a mirthless laugh. "You forbid it? After what Iíve been through. Gabriel, the needles, the filth of a bag lady, my pÖ" She stopped. "You canít tell me what to do." Her voice was high and shrill.
"Please, what?" she asked her voice now deadly calm, devoid of emotion, and that tone more than anything, drove him wild. He let out a fierce roar, and another.
Catherine laughed again, that same mirthless, merciless laugh. She sat on the bed and laughed. Vincent lunged, away from her, out the door and almost knocked Father over in his haste.
"Vincent," the older man cried. "What is wrong?"
"Catherine blames me for losing the bond," Vincent sobbed. "She said I was a coward. She wants to leave."
Father looked at him shrewdly. "Lamb to the slaughter," he muttered. Then louder, "there is something you need to know, Vincent." He waited for the younger manís attention. "Catherine is pregnant."
Vincent spun away from his Father and raced back to his chamber. Father followed more slowly and lowered the tapestry, then set the lantern in the tunnel passage. Several tunnel dwellers were approaching, alarmed by the roars. Father shooed them away. "Nothing more than a loversí quarrel," he stated nonchalantly.
"About time," he heard someone mutter as they retreated, Pascal or more likely Kanin he thought as he scurried to the safety of his library.
"Who?" Vincent demanded facing Catherine. "Elliot?"
"You mean there was someone else?" he thundered.
Catherine raised her hand to slap his face but he blocked her move, grasped her wrist and held it tightly. She winced but didnít cry out, nor did she pull away.
"How dare you?" she demanded. "How dare you?"
"Who is the father?" Vincent insisted. "Who?"
"You are, damn it," she said through clenched teeth. "Now, let go of me, you great oaf."
Vincent stared at her for a full minute. The air crackled with energy. Catherine glared at him, unrelenting. And then, suddenly, he was kissing her, great ravaging kisses, and she was kissing him back. They were on his bed, hands under clothing, clothing off, hands moving, caressing, grasping, breathing hard, bodies hot, wet. Passion and fire engulfing, explodingÖ
They didnít talk for a long time after, and when they did it was only to enhance caresses and love making with sweet nothings of love and devotion.
Vincent and Catherine joined the others in the dining hall for the evening meal. Everyone crowded around Catherine, welcomed her home with open arms, asked after her health. Catherine said little, smiled a lot, didnít let go of Vincentís hand. Mouse grinned and said, "OK good, OK fine," at least a thousand times. Jamie offered to go to Catherineís apartment and bring her whatever she needed, an offer Catherine accepted gratefully. Pascal said he would get a message to Peter, vacationing with his daughter, and Olivia offered Catherine soaps and lotions. But it was Father who astounded them all by suggesting they invite Isaac and Jenny and Mr. Maxwell down as soon as possible so they could see for themselves that Catherine was back and well.
As the excitement calmed, Catherine asked for a long warm bath and Mary obligingly took her to the bathing pools.
Vincent spent the time with Father. "Was she really as angry as she sounded?" Father asked.
"Oh yes," Vincent replied. "And rightly so," he added in her defense, although Father had voiced no criticism, nor did he look disapproving.
"It got her what she wanted, hum," the older man said. Vincent tilted his head, hiding behind his hair and endured Fatherís chuckles. "So when is your baby due?"
"Just before Winterfest," Vincent replied shyly. "Youíre notÖ"
"No, my boy, Iím not. Couldnít have been anyone else you know. Surprised you thought that even for a second."
"It was that night, in the caveÖ I didnít rememberÖ"
"Now, now, no need for explanations, my boy." He said no more but looked at Vincent quizzically.
"Yes, itís back. Stronger than ever."
Father had never seen Vincent smile like that before.
All agreed Winterfest that year was the best ever. The great hall had never been so festive or filled with such joy. The newest helpers, Joe, Jenny and Isaac spent the whole evening gawking and smiling and little Jacob Charles Chandler Wells slept through it all, except for the three times he demanded feeding, that is.