"A World to Believe In" by Judith Nolan

First Part

(Story Index Page)





Father once spoke of an angel…

I used to dream she’d appear…

Now as I speak, I can sense her…

And I know she’s here…


                                                          Phantom of the Opera (paraphrased)



Vincent stood motionless in the drainage tunnel entrance, arms folded beneath his mantle. He tipped back his head to stare up into the night sky. Far above him the moon floated, clear and bright, accompanied by its endless battalions of twinkling stars. How many years had it been since he’d seen that remote and unattainable lady for the first time? How long had it been since Devin had drawn him from the safety and security of the tunnels and shown him a world and a nightscape which, until that glorious moment, he did not fully realize existed? A world he came to claim as his exclusive domain.


“I have been one acquainted with the night…” Vincent quoted the Robert Frost poem softly. “I have out-walked the furthest city light…” He shook his head, drawing a deep, wistful sigh. Must it always be so…?


He moved forward, looking around him. The sounds of the night teased his senses. A soft, sighing wind, someone walking far away in the park and then he heard the sad call of one of the few birds that thrived in the darkness. All these filtered through his great soul, bringing a sense of restlessness he didn’t wish to define. But as before, whenever his thoughts turned in this direction, the truth was inescapable…


His questing eyes traced the luminous lines of the pathways and tracks that criss-crossed the park. He glanced to the roadway where the little girl had seen his face from a passing car in that long ago moment of frozen horror before she had begun to cry. Briefly he touched on the uniqueness of his nose and mouth. To be able to walk among them, hand in hand with his family, through the hordes of people who thronged to the park in daylight, without drawing any attention or curious glances. To feel the sunlight on his face and know all the colours that shone in the daylight. This was the precious, unattainable dream that had given rise to the puzzling nightmare of his and Catherine’s shared vision centred on the park. It was a simple wish fraught with so much difficulty and danger. 


Catherine had once planned for the two of them to go away to the lake house in Connecticut her family had owned. It had all come to nothing of course, except for a similar type of nightmare about what could happen if he was ever discovered. What could come to pass if his world was ever exposed to the ignorant city far above it. It had been almost unbearable.


“So much for dreams…” He sighed now, reaching back to draw his hood over his hair, his cloak whispering against his legs as he moved forward into the sheltering night. That same sense of restlessness had drawn him from the warm comfort of his place beside Catherine in their bed. He didn’t wish to disturb her slumber with his inability to rest easy. As he left the home tunnels, he had clamped a tight rein on his roiling emotions, not allowing them to flow along their bond. The confusion was his alone to bear, in silence and solitude.


Summerfest would be here again soon, another face of the park would be revealed, its warm, soft heart becoming green and verdant. Just as it had been in the shared dream about the innocent victims of the Snapper case…


If wishes were horses…” Vincent’s mouth compressed at the memory of that long-ago night at the carousel when he and Devin had nearly been caught by the police horse patrol. It had all seemed so easy then, to go out and not think they could be discovered, to move around with the ease of innocence.


But the resulting incident had confirmed the worst of Father’s worries and concerns for his adopted son’s safety. He had forbidden any more forays into the park. He would not allow Vincent’s need to be endlessly roaming in places he could be seen and potentially caught. Of course his son had not listened to the sage advice of his troubled parent…


Vincent crested the nearest hill, stopping to stare out across the moon-bathed landscape of black and silver. Towards the place he had found Catherine on a long-ago night. That night he had found the other half of his soul, and everything else that had come to pass flowed through his senses from that night to this very moment. He did have so much to be grateful for. He should be content.


But still it did not feel like enough. Surely there had to be more. He turned to look back. Behind him and far beneath the earth, cocooned in its fragile heart, his newly-born daughters, his young son, and his beloved wife slept unhindered by disturbing dreams. He dropped his chin to rest on his chest, closing his eyes. Drawing deep and steadying breaths, he allowed the slow rhythms of their sleep to flow through him, calming and comforting his agitation.


But the need remained, quiescent for now, but alive none the less. To give Catherine everything, everything she wanted or desired, had always been his guiding hope and wish. In that way he and Elliot were in total agreement, with different ideas of what everything might be. Even when Vincent had been trying to distance himself from Catherine, to gift her with another life free from secrets and furtive meetings, his had been the best of intentions.


But Catherine had told him he was all she’d ever wanted. Nothing else mattered but their love, one for the other. Everything else would fall into its place in time and with patience. All he had to do was open his arms, for them to be his.


“If it was only that easy…” Vincent raised his hands, palms uppermost before him, dispassionately studying the long fingers, with their pointed nails and soft clothing of fur. He raised them ever higher into the moonlight, turning and flexing them like a penitent supplicant before an ancient, unknown god.


He drew another, deeper breath, making a silent wish upon the moon looking down on him with her serene white face and careless beauty. Somehow, some day — he had no idea when or how — he would make that dream come true. He and Catherine, along with their children, could walk and laugh in the sunshine...and no one would look twice


a small black rose 


“Okay yes, okay all right. I think…” Mouse sat back to study his creation.


His secret world slumbered peacefully around him, underscored by the rhythmic chatter of the pipes. Messages received and answered, reassuring the citizens that all was well for another night. But, try as he might, Mouse couldn’t rest. He had long ago abandoned his bed for more interesting pursuits than sleep. Besides, there was too much to do, too much to work on, for the tinker to rest easily. Sleeping was such a waste of precious time!


“Got stuff to do…” Father’s Summerfest present was finally complete. Mouse moved back to study it critically. He nodded, liking what he saw. There was only one very small concern — almost too small to be bothered about. But it niggled at him none the less.


“Well, okay, one tiny problem…” Mouse finally admitted to himself, raising a denying shoulder and blowing a discontented sigh.


Months before he’d discovered the mahogany bookcase abandoned in a heap of rubbish Up Top. “Topsiders throw away the best stuff,” he’d muttered as he took it carefully apart and carried it piece by piece Below, his fertile brain already buzzing with ideas and plans. Now with its newly-installed, hidden shelves and hand-cranked, revolving units the ornate bookcase was just a touch too big to be removed from the clutter of his chamber in one piece. Well, perhaps more than a touch. To transport it to Father’s chamber would require the bookcase to be completely dismantled and reassembled once again.


“Okay, Mouse can do that…” The tinker grimaced. “Well, with Vincent’s help. And a lot of others’ help. But then they might tell someone. Could be problem. Father must not know.”


It had all begun when he’d overheard Father speaking with Cullen at the meal table. He was complaining about his memory. He’d stated it was well past time he remembered to ask the woodworker to construct something for Father’s chamber. Some shelves to store his ever-growing over-supply of books that threatened to cascade down on his head at any moment! The area where he slept was the only place left uncluttered.


Cullen had nodded understandingly, but he’d also pleaded the pressure of a more urgent project requiring his immediate attention. That needed to be completed before Summerfest. However he did promise to come and do some measuring in the near future. Father had accepted the postponement with a philosophical shake of his head and a sigh, but he didn’t look at all pleased. Rubbing his hands with glee, Mouse had hurried from the Long Gallery, leaving the remains of his meal untouched, intent on making Father’s request a reality as soon as humanly possible. He’d gone Above to search for inspiration, and had soon found what he was looking for.


He wondered why Father hadn’t asked Mouse in the first place...


He jumped up now to pace the chamber, talking to himself. “But Vincent and Catherine just had two babies. Maybe Vincent too busy to help. Catherine might not let him come to help Mouse. Got to think.” He sat down again, chin propped in his upraised hands. “Could ask Cullen or maybe even Richard. But then they would know Mouse’s secret, and Cullen might get mad. Father asked him first. But he did say he was too busy.”


Arthur came to sit beside him, chittering plaintively. He paddled his black paws against Mouse’s arm.


“Arthur needs food?” Mouse looked down at his pet. “Okay, Mouse hungry too. Will need to think some more about this. Maybe ask Azrael…”


He turned to lay his hand against the lightning ball beside his chair, laughing at the flickering blue bolts of electricity as they followed the contact he’d created. He was endlessly fascinated with the device, ever since Catherine had given him the parts to make it. He frowned. Well, of course, this was the replacement for the one Charles had broken when he’d gotten lost and scared in the Mousehole years ago.


But Mouse had forgiven him for that. Charles was Devin’s friend, and Devin was good to Mouse. Sends him all sorts of wonderful things every month in the mail Peter collected and brought Below. Devin said in his last letter he was coming home for a visit from his vineyard in New Zealand soon. Mouse would like to see that place where Christmas was full of sunshine and no snow. He frowned, shaking his head. It didn’t seem right somehow. It turned the whole world upside down.


“But that’s for later. Not for now. Mouse gotta think.” He sighed, frowning at the lightning ball. It was a pity the tunnel community couldn’t bleed power off the main lines from the city. It had always been a project very dear to his heart. “But too dangerous. Men will come to see where it’s gone. Could be discovered, Father said.” Mouse pulled a face of discontent. “And Vincent said no, too. Too bad.”


He sighed, then brightened. He was excited about the possibilities of the power they could generate from the water wheels and wind turbines from the garden Azrael had helped them create far below Mouse’s feet. The project was almost finished. A few more days and they could have all the power they could ever need, and no one Up Top would ever know. He’d been working on plans for Elizabeth’s Painted Tunnels too. Get better lights for her to see by.


“Need lots more cable, more supports. Gotta be sure. Need to last forever.” Mouse jumped up, shuffling to a nearby table where a mess of plans and blueprints were strewn about. He rustled through them, frowning and smiling by turns. “Gotta be made right by Summerfest. Big party, everyone gonna come to see.”


Arthur scurried after him, chattering his displeasure at being ignored. But his master was far too occupied to notice.


“Mouse…? Are you in here, my friend?” A familiar voice asked from the chamber door.


Vincent!” Mouse started. “Can’t see bookcase. Not till Mouse says so. Big secret.”


He grabbed at a pile of blankets and sheets carelessly thrown into a corner.

“Be out in a minute, Vincent,” he called in reply. “Can’t come in now.” Hastily he covered his creation. “Big, big mess in here.”


“What are you up to this time, Mouse?” Vincent asked mildly, when the tinker came scampering out of the long tunnel leading to his chamber.


“Nothing…” Mouse tried to assume an innocent look that didn’t fool his good friend for a single second. “Just talking to Arthur. And thinking. You’re up early…”


“And you do not look as if you have slept. You worry me when you look too innocent, Mouse.” Vincent placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Is there anything in your chamber I need to know about? Anything that may cause Father sleepless nights?”


“No.” Mouse shook his head in strong denial. “It’s all good. Just working on garden plans. Got to make sure all okay. Almost done. Azrael coming back down in a couple of days. Gotta be ready. Summerfest going to be great this year.”


“Well, please remember the last time…” Vincent lifted a hand to pass the pad of his thumb across the twin arches of Mouse’s missing eyebrows before touching on the lack of hair above the boy’s forehead. “All this will take time to grow back. You were lucky it was only your hair that got incinerated. Perhaps we should ask Elliot to give you lessons in how to handle plastic explosives before you do any more blasting work.”


“Mouse learns always from mistakes. Just need to be faster.” He grinned upwards at his larger friend. “Big bang!” He waved his hands expressively. “Like when we saved you and Father from the Maze. Just a touch too much. But got the work done in half the time. Now it’s good to knock off digging out new chambers for a while.”


“Very good indeed, Mouse,” Vincent acknowledged. “But perhaps you should come to me before you decide to use any plastic explosive again. It’s not good for everyone to be woken up by your blasting projects. And you may draw unwanted attention to our world down here.”


“Okay cool, okay great.” Mouse bobbed his head. “Babies need sleep, I know. Catherine needs to sleep too. But what do you need now, Vincent?”


“Your companionship, my friend.” Vincent smiled down at him. “And the loan of your impressive brain, along with your ability to find stuff. I have a project in mind that I also need Cullen and Winslow to help with. They already know their parts and are willing to assist us.”


“Is it something for Catherine?” Mouse asked eagerly. “Something special for Summerfest? For the babies?”


“Yes, something for Catherine to celebrate the safe arrival of our babies,” Vincent acknowledged, smiling.


“Catherine, Vincent’s Catherine…yes, we can find something very special indeed. Mouse can do it. What do you want, Vincent?”


“That is where I need your mind, Mouse. I have an idea, but I need your help to make it a reality. But we need to keep it all a big secret. Only the four of us need to know for now.”


“Need anything, just ask Mouse.” The tinker grinned. “Everybody does. He can fix it. And he likes secrets. He knows everything…”


 a small black rose


“I am trying to decide just exactly how angry I am.” Seated before the fireplace of her drawing room, Lady May Heathcote-Smythe held her diminutive frame rigidly erect, her hands resting on the ornate gold head of the ebony cane grounded between her feet.


The elderly widow of an aristocratic English industrialist who had settled in New York many years before and proceeded to enlarge his already immense fortune, May was still a formidable force in the city’s social scene. Her parties were legendary, and she had an opinion on everything…which she never failed to express at every opportunity.


She stared frostily at her unwelcome visitor. “To make you come all the way to the surface on the slight matter of a trifling chest pain. It is insupportable, Jacob. I thought you knew me better after all these years. When I wish to avail myself of your advice, I will ask for it.”


“Olivia and Mary were deeply worried about you.” Father stood in the middle of the room, his medical bag in one hand, leaning on his cane, not daring to sit until he received permission. He felt like an errant schoolboy being grilled by a stern headmistress and found wanting. “The last time they visited, you were unwell. Your young charges have said you have not been yourself lately. And they also told Olivia you haven’t seen a doctor in months. The last time you managed to come and see us Below was for Vincent’s birthday party. That was nearly three years ago. I well remember a time when I had to force you to return Above to keep us all safe. You were young and wild then.”


“Well, they should know better than to gossip about me now I’m old and crotchety,” Lady May snapped. “And it was simply a small matter of my doctor choosing to die before me. Since then, I have not found anyone suitable to my requirements. I may be old, but I am neither a fool nor am I senile. And I will not be treated as such by some young shave-tail just out of short pants with the ink still wet on his medical degree.”


Father’s lips twitched at the all too accurate description, but he managed to retain his grave expression. “So you choose to ignore your ongoing symptoms rather than ask for help. You know how vital you are to us. To our world.”


“You simply cannot do without me to keep and train those among your young girls who wish to have a life Above. I am well aware of that.” Lady May sighed roughly. “Oh, sit down, for heaven’s sake! You’re giving me a stiff neck, making me look up at you standing there like some homeless penitent hoping for alms.”


“Thank you.” Father grimaced as he subsided thankfully into a nearby chair. “You simply must learn to take better care of yourself, May. That is all we ask. We care very deeply for you. And I wish you could come Below more often. We all miss your visits.”


“I am well aware of the passage of time, Jacob.” Lady May inclined her head and compressed her lips. “I must tell you Shannon brought her young man to visit with me last week. Elliot Burch is an interesting choice for our little songbird, but a good one. At least, from what they told me, he cares about her and is well able to protect her from the dangers of any unwanted attention. Not like that ghastly beast of a man she married, putting her on show like some exhibit. God rest his foolish soul. Of course, Burch once tried to buy my house, for some awful development or other he was planning.”


She thumped the end of her cane on the floor. “I wasn’t so nice to him in that encounter. I sent him away with a very large flea in his ear and I swore he would never darken my door-sill again. But, for Shannon’s sake, I consented to receive him. And this time he paid his respects with just the right amount of civility and proper courtesy. Therefore, you will be pleased to know, the match has my blessing.”


“Thank you, May.” A relieved smile curved Father’s lips. Of course, it had been under his advice that Elliot and Shannon had made a point of visiting May, to make peace and amends. The old lady hated to be left out of anything, despite her recent, self-imposed isolation.


He knew very well the obstinate rod of pure steel that ran through one of his oldest friends and most valued helpers of his world. He had also come to know Elliot Burch. The man could charm the birds from the trees, if he chose to do so, and one elderly lady would not be immune to his considerable address and deft handling.


“And you must tell Vincent to bring those lovely children of his to visit me, as soon as Catherine is well enough to travel,” May commanded. “You know how much I love the little ones. It has been too long since I’ve had babies here.”


She shook her head. “A grandfather three times over now, Jacob. It is a true miracle. I wish I could attend the naming ceremony, but it is a long way down to the home tunnels, and I’m not so young anymore. Now that Vincent is well settled and happy, all we need to do is find a suitable wife for Devin. Where in the world is my naughty boy now, by the way?”


Father knew a delaying tactic when he heard one, but he decided against pushing the issue for the moment. “The most recent letter I received was from New Zealand. The last time he was there, I believe he tried his hand at adventure tourism, with some considerable success. This time he writes of taking over an island vineyard and making a go of it. He does talk of coming home again soon. I’ll believe that when it happens.”


“Excellent.” May nodded. “Then you must tell my boy I wish to place an order for ten cases of his first vintage. I know his taste will be exquisite. I will not be disappointed, and I will also make sure the good word gets around. He can count on me to ensure his success.” She spoke without conceit.


“Thank you, May. I shall tell him. But discussing my family will not allow you to escape the purpose of my visit. I will not leave until you change your mind.”


“And even if I asked you to respect my wishes, you will not consent to go away until I allow you to examine me.” May lifted one shoulder dismissively. “You do like to try my patience to its limits, and it is simply unfair. I am, after all, just a frail, old lady. You are taking unfair advantage.” Her firm chin might have trembled and her face become pensive, but her blue eyes glinted with a deeply rebellious look.


Father watched her with resignation. “It is only because I love you very much, May. You know that. And you are not as frail as you like to make out. Please save that line for those who do not know you so well.”


“Oh, very well. Give me your arm then, young man.” May stood, extending her hand imperiously. “Afterwards, when you have decided I will live for a few more years, you will take tea with me and tell me all about the latest happenings in your world down there. I wish I could be that young woman once more and open to such wonderful adventures as you and I had.” She sighed.


“That day I accidentally discovered the entrance to your world right down there in my own wine cellar was the happiest moment of my life. In those times I could be truly free in the tunnels. And Lord knows there were never many of those moments back then.” She smiled sadly, wiping away a tear with an impatient hand. “But I do have my memories. And what times we did have together, when we thought the whole underground world was ours and we could never grow old.”


“You will always be young to me, May.” Father kissed her soft, wrinkled cheek as they left the room arm in arm. “And very beautiful…”


“Flatterer…” May tapped his arm warningly, but her eyes twinkled with delight.


 a small black rose

 Vincent looked up when Father limped into his chamber. “You have been away a long time and you look very tired. How is Lady May, or should I not ask?” 


“Oh, May is as stubborn as ever.” Jacob shook his head wearily. “And just as hardy. A little indigestion from eating too much rich food coupled with a decided unwillingness to slow down or compromise her lifestyle. I cannot believe she is nearly seventy-five. I remember a young woman who could run the legs off any of us, once upon a time. She virtually lived in the tunnels whenever her husband was away overseas on business. Many times I had to force her to go back Above and put in an appearance in her own life. She only went because she knew her presence here compromised our safety. I know she would rather have stayed. She said we made her feel alive and loved. We were the family she never had.”


He sighed as he moved closer, placing a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “She loved all the tunnel children like they were her own. You, in particular — she couldn’t get enough of you when you were a baby. She and Mary often disagreed over your care…” He shook his head. “May won more times than not. And she often aided and abetted Devin in some of his more outrageous schemes too. It is a shame she never had any children of her own. She is a natural mother. Now she looks after those of our girls who choose the life up there.”


He set down his case before crossing the chamber to look down at Vincent’s three-week-old twin daughters sleeping in their adjacent cribs. “She insisted I stay to take tea with her and regale her with the tales of all our doings. But at least, before I left, I managed to secure her agreement allowing Peter to take over as her physician. She is not happy with me for telling her a few home truths about her condition.”


“I can well imagine. And I wonder if Peter will still be speaking to you at next month’s Summerfest.” Vincent laughed as he came to stand beside his parent, placing a comforting arm around his slumped shoulders. “You have succeeded in a very difficult task. May is not the easiest of people to deal with.”


“She requested — no, make that commanded — that you and Catherine must visit as soon as you are all well enough to travel. May said your children are a true miracle.” Jacob stroked one of the sleeping babies softly on the cheek. “And I agree with her. Have you and Catherine decided on names yet?”


“We have.” Vincent nodded. “We were waiting to talk to you about the naming ceremony.”


“Of course, when you are ready. Everyone is looking forward to it. It was such a shame Jacob’s ceremony had to be so private and held under such impossible circumstances with us all in hiding and afraid of our own shadows. I cannot tell you how glad I am for all that to be behind us now. We are finally free of the past, so we are going to celebrate in style. And, despite my misgivings over her state of health, I think we should do our best to see if May can attend this one. She expressed a wish to revisit her youth and I’ve a mind to help her realize the dream.” Father looked around the chamber. “Where is Catherine? I hope she is resting as I ordered?”


“Yes, Father.” Vincent laughed and nodded. “Shannon has gone Above to spend the weekend with Elliot. She insisted Catherine must use her chamber whenever she needs to do so. Last time I checked on her, she was asleep. Mary is reading a bedtime story to Jacob in her chamber.”


“Good, at least one of my patients has listened to my advice.” Father picked up his medical bag. “So now I must go and write a referral to Peter on May’s behalf, before she has time to reflect and change her mind. She will not escape this time. I’ll send Geoffrey Above with it, first thing in the morning. Good evening, Vincent. I can only hope you will sleep better than l will tonight.”


“Good luck, Father.” Vincent kissed his forehead before the older man left the chamber, shaking his head and talking to himself. 

a small black rose

“So explain to me, exactly what is all this?” Joe stood in Diana’s loft apartment frowning at the two large bulletin boards she had set up.


He’d arrived at her door in the early evening, overworked, harassed and driven by a nagging doubt Diana had not let anything go. She had been very reluctant to admit him, claiming she was working on something important and couldn’t spare the time. Whatever he wanted, she wasn’t interested. She’d only acquiesced with a fulminating glare when he’d refused to budge from her doorstep and threatened to make a scene fit to disturb her neighbours and bring the NYPD down on both their heads.


Now all his nagging doubts and suspicions had crystallised into uncomfortable reality. He wondered what else the woman was keeping from him. From what he could see, he didn’t doubt she’d copied all the files on Cathy Chandler’s case before she had brought him the originals for disposal.


“Just work. It’s what I actually do for a living when I’m not needed by the D.A.’s office,” Diana replied as she crossed the room to stand before one board — blocking Joe’s view of it — while pointing to the other. “I am still working my way through the maze of Gabriel’s companies and shady dealings. I never stopped, even during the Snapper investigation. I just pushed it all onto the back burner. I have some extremely powerful and very impatient clients waiting for the results. They want to know how and where they are implicated. And what damage control they need to do to distance them from it all. They won’t wait much longer. Time is money.”


“And this one…?” Joe waved an imperious hand, indicating he wanted her to move aside before pointing to the second board with his chin. “This doesn’t have anything to do with the other, does it? More secrets, Diana?”


Diana lifted a denying shoulder. “It’s just something I’m working on for my own satisfaction. There are still too many unresolved questions and issues around Catherine Chandler and her relationships. Nothing adds up like it should. Just when I think I have it all, it slips away again like smoke. Even where she lives now is a complete mystery. And who with. What do you know, Joe?” She slanted him an inquiring look.


“I don’t know anything. But I thought I told you to drop the Chandler case,” Joe growled. “This looks to me as if you’re disobeying my orders.” He surveyed the board and all it contained. “Dates, times, places…are you launching another crusade against a very good friend of mine? I won’t stand for it, Diana. I told you to bury all this and walk away. It’s over.”


“Since I do not work for you, Joe, I can’t see how I am disobeying you. This is what I do in my own time. I still have a living to make. And it’s not a crusade; I only want answers.”


“But if you ever want to work for my office again, you will drop whatever it is you think you’re doing here. Cathy deserves to be left in peace. It does no one any good to rake over what’s well dead and buried.”


“Perhaps, but I still have those unanswered questions.” Diana spread her hands. “I still want to know what happened at the carousel that night and why. Where did James and his friends come from and go to? A pair of refugees from a pantomime, as you once said. Remember, Joe? And how did you and Elliot Burch find your way all the way down to me in virtual darkness without maps or any other signs to guide your path? And you didn’t look at all concerned. And where did you find that Mouse boy? Who is Cathy’s lover? That is the biggest question. She loved him enough to bear him a son. That’s a matter of public record.”


She took a turn around the room. “Her lover is the most puzzling thing in all this. Azrael and his mother managed to live all the way down there. I would guess her lover does as well, but where? Is she also down there with him? I’ve asked Elliot, but he swears he knows nothing, and now he’s blocking all my calls. I wish the two of you would stop treating me like a fool. I’ve seen the Manning operatives who dog every step I take outside this apartment.”


“They’re for your own good. I asked Elliot to keep an eye on you. I don’t want to have to rescue you again from the consequences of your own nosiness.” Joe thumped his fist into an open palm. He didn’t dare tell her their secondary reason — their mutual need to know where she was at all times — to make sure she wasn’t making an effort to find her way Below once more. “Why can’t you just be grateful you survived everything? Leave it alone, Diana. I’m warning you for the last time. Why must you continue to chip away at things you have no business investigating?”


“Because I’m curious about what you and Burch know and what you’re not telling me. I saw you two and Azrael all huddled together at the new gallery opening the other night, whispering behind your hands like a gaggle of schoolgirls! You should learn to share and play nice. And as for Shannon Cole…”


She drew a steadying breath. “And don’t insult my intelligence by trying to tell me any of you were discussing the paintings. Azrael goes all squirrelly on me and won’t open up when I try to get some answers out of him. He disappears regularly, sometimes for days on end, and then reappears like magic. Where’s he been and exactly who has he been with? It leaves me to think you all have something to hide. Something incredible and mind blowing, and you won’t — or don’t — have the courage to trust me enough to share in it. So I make do with what I have.”


“For Pete’s sake, Diana, you really do need to see a shrink.” Joe shrugged on a bitter laugh. “Now you’re sounding paranoid. I don’t have any secrets, and you know more about Azrael’s life than I do. Can’t say the same for Elliot Burch, but then we’ve never seen eye to eye on anything anyway. His secrets I would love to know. How about setting up a board on him?”


Rubbish!” Diana snapped, turning away to her desk and sitting behind it, her face set and determined. “You and Burch know too much. You tell me what I’m missing, what this is all about – then I’ll leave it alone. Until then… goodbye, Mr. District Attorney. Don’t call me, and I won’t bother you.”


“Diana…” Joe advanced warningly. “Drop it. Now!”


“Get out…” Diana pointed at the door without looking up from her computer screen. “Make sure you shut the door behind you on the way out.”


“Very well,” Joe conceded grimly. “But you haven’t heard the last of this. I’ll make sure anything you dig up is inadmissible — the product of a deluded mind — and I’ll bury it so deep, even you won’t be able to find it again.”


Fine!” Diana flung him a look of contempt. “You play your games and I’ll play mine, and we’ll see who wins in the end. But I’ll be here when you change your mind. Unless, of course, you decide to tell me the truth before it’s already too late. I get results; I always do.”


“Save me from all the do-gooders and mad crusaders,” Joe snapped, flinging his way out of the apartment and slamming the door behind him.


Diana sat and stared at the closed door for a long time. Suddenly her shoulders slumped and she felt unaccountably close to tears. She sighed, shaking her head before she went back to work, more determined than ever to solve a puzzle that was eating away at her ability to sleep or eat or even concentrate.


But after trying to make any kind of sense of the work and failing, she looked up to frown at the closed door of her bedroom. Hung in there, safely out of sight of anyone but herself, dwelled the nude Azrael had painted of her stepping from the sulphur pools. It was the first thing she saw in the early morning when she opened her eyes and the last thing she saw at night. Its raw, elemental power still gripped her, just as the many secrets it concealed distracted her from more important work. She still could not bear to part with it. But the secrets it held had begun to invade her dreams…


The hints were all there, cloaked in the multi-layered shadows that hung in the background behind Azrael’s broad shoulders. Darker places that looked like tunnels or doors and — if she peered close enough — she could almost swear there were lights flickering in their depths and what looked like tiny, animated figures...and other things too small to identify.


How many times had she stood before it, trying to make those shadows speak to her? Azrael was an extremely gifted painter, and he used his incredible photographic memory of what others saw to great effect. But Diana had begun to doubt the evidence of her own eyes. Surely he wasn’t that good and she was simply imagining things.


There were worlds down there, places and things she knew existed. And people… She frowned over the memory of the night at the carousel and Catherine Chandler’s lover. Him she definitely wanted to meet, if only to thank him. She just needed to find the right door and open it… Sometimes she even missed Mouse, with his wayward charm, weird speech and even crazier personality… He had made her laugh, a rare talent.


“It’s so unfair…” She clenched her fists, turning to stare at the telephone beside her, wondering what Azrael was doing right now or even where he was. Seeing him — talking with him — on a daily basis was fast becoming a necessity, a habit she didn’t wish to analyse too closely. She had always been a loner. She didn’t need anything…or anyone...


“Come on, I’ve told no one of what I know, Azrael,” she muttered. “I would never harm your world. So you can trust me, you know. If you truly loved me — like you say you do — you would tell me all you know…”


She sighed, swiping away the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. She knew he was not in his apartment or at the newly opened gallery where his artwork was being displayed and selling very well. The whole world seemed to be clamouring to know the history of a blind man who could paint so exquisitely. Diana had checked with the manager several times over the last few days, but Colin said he hadn’t seen Azrael for some time. Diana was not the man’s keeper, but it irked her that she didn’t know where he was and he did not wish to inform her.


Following Azrael was not an option. Firstly, she didn’t wish to expose wherever he went to the intense scrutiny of the Manning operatives who were, in turn, following her with a dogged determination that she couldn’t shake. She knew Burch must share some secret knowledge with Azrael, because when they’d met on the night of the gallery’s grand opening two weeks ago they’d spent quite some time laughing and talking together, quickly turning their whispered conversation to mundane matters whenever Diana tried to get close enough to overhear what they were discussing.


She also knew they were watching her, seeming to also be discussing her as she circulated through the crowded gallery in her self-appointed role as Azrael’s unpaid PR person. But when Joe had arrived later in the evening and immediately joined them in their whispered conference, Diana had known an intense longing to fetch her gun, corral them into a secluded corner, and demand they all talk. It irritated her beyond reason that they still had secrets they were not willing to share with her.


Azrael, of course, had looked disturbingly handsome in a black tuxedo. His long auburn hair, tied back at the nape of his neck with a black silk ribbon for the evening, coupled with his wearing one of a number of designer sunglasses Diana had first purchased for him when he moved up into the city, made him look remote and mysterious. A powerful magnet, combining a quaint, old world courtesy with a wary, diffident charm, he drew the women at the opening like moths to an exotic flame. He tried his best to keep their fawning attentions at arm’s length, but often he was forced to retreat behind the certain shelter of Burch’s urbane protection whenever anyone sought to become overly familiar or pressed too close for his comfort.


Diana had watched him longingly, wishing they could be alone together, instead of being trapped in this seething crowd. She knew she should be grateful for the interest they all showed. But she — who’d always prided herself on needing no one — found she was coming to depend more and more on having Azrael around. Understanding him and knowing he would be there for her if she ever asked for his help. To be near him made her feel less confused and alone.


However she’d soon discovered he would always shy away from true intimacy with her, whenever she got too close. She quickly realised the disturbing trend of her thoughts — as well as her body language — were all too easy for him to read, but she couldn’t help it. Being near him stirred deep levels within her.


Places she had been unaware of until now. Needs that shifted and flowed like quicksand, trapping her in the flux of uncomfortable, emotional turmoil. But Azrael was always quick to put distance between them, as if he were still not sure of his ground with her or how to respond in kind. But he had an ongoing dislike of discussing his reasons, which left Diana feeling more than a little frustrated and very short-tempered at times. After all, in a manner of speaking, he’d already gotten to see her naked. There was certainly no room for modesty in that painting. But patience was not one of her virtues…


But lately she had become aware of him watching her, as if she were a puzzle he had not yet worked out to his satisfaction. That gave her some hope. He wasn’t immune to her; she knew that. The half-finished gestures that he quickly abandoned whenever he sensed she was turning towards him. The sudden catch of his indrawn breath as he quickly withdrew from her immediate vicinity, and the swift exits, when it was obvious he could no longer remain close to her without completing the tentative journey and actually laying his hands on her.


Diana remembered his unusual upbringing and the crippling physical and emotional boundaries imposed on him by his late mother. The mad woman’s deeply revolted reaction to the painting that she had wanted to destroy in the fire. Diana sighed and shook her head.


It was so easy to enjoy Azrael’s company and his unique perspective on life in a world that was still very alien to him. His comments made her see the city in a whole different light and understand many of its hitherto-hidden places and the curious ways of its more unusual inhabitants. But she knew he was not ready to share all his secrets, any more than he was willing to share her bed. She must learn to be patient…for now…


At the gallery opening Diana had stood still, enviously observing the easy interplay between Burch, the worldly-wise billionaire, and the young artist with a jaundiced eye. The designer tux Azrael wore was a gift from Elliot. It was another open-handed gesture from a man well known for his unquestioned ability to extract every last drop of blood from Manhattan’s schist bedrock in reciprocation for his help. He did nothing — for nothing — for anyone without payment in kind, and a steep, compounding interest rate.


And yet there he was, gifting property, advice, and clothing to a once penniless outcast from a very different world with jaw dropping generosity. As if he actually cared for the man, as a friend, certainly as a confidant. It made no sense at all that Diana could see. It was yet another link in the strengthening chain of their mysterious involvement with a hidden world. 


And, of course there was the frustrating case of Shannon Cole — or, as she preferred to be called now — Shannon O’Neill. Another of Burch’s charity cases, though this one was fabulously wealthy in her own right. Perhaps that was her attraction, her considerable ability to contribute some serious financial help to his schemes. Though now it seemed the woman was planning to use a large part of her wealth to set up shelters and new charities for the poor of the city, and Elliot appeared to be actively assisting her in this ambitious venture.


Things just keep getting weirder wherever anyone becomes associated with Catherine Chandler, Diana decided with a sigh. Recently Shannon had been very carefully shepherded by Elliot and Joe Maxwell through the maze of question and answer demanded by the D.A.’s office and the voracious media still probing the mysterious death of her late husband. Diana had been allowed one brief session with the widow, closely flanked by Burch and six of his large bodyguards.


The men had all crowded into the airless interview room, standing virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, exuding a ton of testosterone per square inch, armpits bulging with hardware, and they would not leave the room, refusing to allow Diana to conduct a one-on-one interview with the opera singer. Burch had even demanded to see her list of questions, which irked Diana immensely. She marked him down for special attention when she was free – Elliot Burch and that oddball young employee of his, Mouse.


In the end the interview had been short and intensely dissatisfying on Diana’s part. But she had been forced to settle for what little more Shannon could tell her that she didn’t already know.


And that woman was another component of the mysterious group clustering around Azrael that excluded Diana from everything they knew or understood. Shannon O’Neill had been on Burch’s arm the night of the gallery opening, looking stunning in a full-length silver designer gown and dripping diamonds that must have cost Burch a fortune. Azrael had hugged and greeted her like a very old friend. Towards him Shannon was warm and animated, laughing at something he said and taking his hand on occasion to emphasis some point or other. Quite unlike the stiff, virtually unresponsive woman Diana had tried to interview the previous morning.


But while Diana fumed about Burch and what he might know, she had no idea what Manning knew, what his boss may or may not have told his chief investigator. As much as she was tempted to do so, she wouldn’t risk exposing whatever their secret was by going after Azrael on one of his mysterious disappearances. She had come too far and gotten too close to jeopardize it all now by being stupid.


And there was also that annoying disadvantage that Azrael could sense Diana any time he chose to concentrate on her thoughts or her whereabouts. His perceptions of the world around him were highly tuned and inescapable. He would know instantly if she tried to tail him, and he’d been quite forthright in telling her she was not to try. She just needed to bide her time


“Which leaves me sitting here, crunching numbers, and getting nowhere…” Diana returned her gaze to the boards, contemplating the biggest secret of all — Catherine Chandler and her lover.


The man had saved them all from certain death at the carousel that night, without a doubt. Diana was enough of a realist to know that it was really Catherine he was saving. Simply their close association with her had rescued Diana and Joe. But Catherine had also loved this mystery lover enough to have a child with him. And then vanish so completely with him to somewhere unknown and unseen. Was it to some magic kingdom where no one died and everyone got along together without greed or envy?

“Get a grip, Bennett. You don’t believe in fairy tales. Well, not many anyway…” Diana sighed, her gaze going out of focus as she chewed distractedly at her bottom lip. Something in this case had to give and soon… Damn you, Azrael! Where are you?


 a small black rose


Azrael placed his hand on Mouse’s shoulder. “What do you think, my friend? How does it all look? Will everything stand the test of time?”


“Built strong. Made to last.” Mouse nodded. “Will be good for all time. They will say one day, we did fine things here.”


“Very well.” Azrael smiled. “I think we can live with that assessment. So I think we can finally declare the entire project a success.”


“Okay good. Okay fine. Must go and tell Father. See Vincent.” Mouse hopped from foot to foot. “We need to have a party. Celebrate. Everybody can come.”


Azrael laughed. “Yes, I think a party would be an excellent idea.”


The pair was standing on a ledge overlooking an echoing cavern where many of the tunnel dwellers had laboured ceaselessly over the months since Azrael had shown Mouse and Vincent his garden. During the intervening time they had transferred much of the garden to the higher levels of the tunnel system. The water wheels and the wind turbines had been simple to disassemble and then reassemble where Mouse thought they would be most effective. Even the bees had co-operated without too much fuss. Except Mouse had been stung several times by his new charges, and he’d complained extensively to anyone who was prepared to stop and listen.


It irked him immensely that Vincent and Azrael seemed to be immune to the bees’ anger. The insects had swarmed around them, but never attacked the two men as they laboured to transfer the beehives to the higher levels. Set up once again along the far rim of the cavern, the industrious bees quickly settled into their new home and now provided endless entertainment for the Tunnel children. But Mouse disavowed there was any further need for him to become a full-time beekeeper. That task was finally delegated to a roster of the older children who Azrael had trained extensively in their new deployment. They loved the work, and were more than willing to help out.


“Azrael…” Jamie appeared beside them. “Father asked to see you. I will take you to him.”


“Thank you, Jamie.” Azrael nodded, smiling at her.


He could sense her watching him closely, but she didn’t speak again. She seemed to be assessing him for some reason of her own. The arrows in the quiver slung at her hip rattled softly as she shifted from one foot to the other, as if she were impatient to be getting on with more important business than being his unofficial guide. But she was reluctant to leave him to find his own way. Azrael had some idea of the reason, and he could understand it completely.


“Good, go to see Father. Tell him, all done. Good job.” Mouse seized Azrael’s arm. “Mouse will go down into garden, talk to Winslow and the others. Tell them all it’s fine. Go home now and rest. Then will go tell Vincent. He will want to come and see.”


“Very well, thank you, Mouse.” Leaving Mouse to scurry down into the garden to inform the men working there, Azrael followed Jamie down the tunnel towards the home area.


Even without the benefit of sight, he now knew the way instinctively, but he sensed some of the other Tunnel dwellers like Jamie still didn’t entirely trust him, and they liked to keep an eye on his activities whenever he came Below. His unfortunate relationship to the late Paracelsus was still a topic of ongoing discussion and much comment. Azrael was sorry for the pain and suffering his late father had caused this hidden community, but he could do nothing about the past. He could only hope that, in time, Jamie and the others would come to trust him and approve of his ongoing involvement in their world.


Unlike Mouse, who had accepted him immediately and wholeheartedly, not pausing to question his help or presence. But then they shared the common bond of being on the outside for some years, dwelling on what they could scavenge or steal from the community’s storehouses and resources, without being seen or caught.


“Ah, Azrael. Come in, please.” Father looked up from the book he was reading. “Sit down with me. Can I offer you a cup of tea?”


“Thank you.” Azrael accepted the offer. “You asked to see me, Father?”


“Yes, I did. Thank you, Jamie.” Father dismissed the girl with an acknowledging smile before he poured the tea and pushed the cup near to Azrael’s hand. “There you are.”


He sat back to consider his guest. “I have wanted to talk with you for some time now. But you have always been with Vincent or Mouse and the work crew, and you all seem to be coming and going with such purpose and concentration.  I didn’t wish to intrude on your efforts for our world. And I must thank you for them, as well. You have performed a miracle.”


Azrael inclined his head, accepting the older man’s words. “Thank you, Father. Your world is now my world. Apart from my new life among the Topsiders, which is still strange and mysterious to me, this is where I come when I need to escape the city life. I belong down here, and I’m simply grateful you have accepted me as you have, despite my background and parentage. Some among your people still find my recent connections unfortunate.”


“Yes, I have often wanted to talk to you about your father…” Father shuffled the papers on his desk. “Many years ago John was my good friend. He helped us found this whole community. We owe him a great deal for those early years. But I am afraid John soon outgrew us and our need to remain a shared community, and not a dictatorship with him in undisputed control. Once he even imagined having the Great Hall as his own chamber. He always did things on a grand scale. As he was endlessly recreating himself.”


“Yes, Vincent told me what happened.” Azrael shook his head with sadness. “He also told me many other things about my father, in words and also mental images that said so much more. He allowed me to experience some of what you and your community were forced to suffer because of my father’s obsession with power and control. I understand now what happened was not your fault, even though that is what I was taught to believe all my life.”


He raised an impatient hand to his eyes, concealed behind the wrap around sunglasses he habitually wore now. “He took my sight. He tried to make me more than I was born to be.” Azrael sighed. “And I know he tried to commit the same crime against Vincent. He tried to create some tortured soul who was never meant to be. His obsession with trying to mould him into something he truly never was, for John Pater’s own ends, was terrible. I have no words to excuse his crimes.”


“Nor should you try to do so. They were never yours. But I am afraid your father may have lied to you as well.” Father fiddled with his teacup, searching for the right words. “Your mother…Emma…I’m afraid she was grossly deceived into thinking John could ever love her or truly care what happened to her. As far as I can ascertain, John’s first wife was Anna, a woman who lived here Below, with us. She died some years ago and is buried down by the Whispering Gallery. I never knew John had married again or brought his family Below. But then, he loved to keep his secrets, and I know he came and went between our worlds as he pleased.”


Father paused and then continued. “He also invented another life in the city above us, one where he commanded wealth, power and position. I know he always had plans — great things he wished to do and create. Your world, the world he created down there in the bowels of the earth, we suspect was simply one of many he held under his remorseless sway. Now we wonder how they continue to survive. Or if they now survive at all. I shudder to think what has become of them.”


“There be dragons…” Azrael shook his head. “Yes, Vincent told me of your suspicions. The need to control and have mastery over everything my father

touched or cared for in his own way, was everything to him. My mother was simply another tool to be used or abandoned at whim. But she was utterly blind to his faults because she loved him. And my brother may have fled to one of these other worlds. I have no idea what became of him after he left us.”


“And there it is. We have come to the whole centre of my troubled thoughts.” Father pushed his cup aside. “As far as I was aware, John could not father a child. I know he and Anna tried for some time, but the fault, he finally told me, was with him. Now I have the evidence of you before me and I do not know what to believe any more. And you have told us about your missing brother. There lies another mystery. Was John simply trolling for sympathy with such an admission? Or was it a fact that he tried to get around by some other means.”


“Are you saying…?” Azrael’s hands clenched. “Are you intimating that John Pater may not have been my biological father after all?”


“I have come to understand that anything is possible where John was concerned. But I simply do not know…” Father raised his hands helplessly. “Again the mind games he played, the twists and turns within his consciousness were diabolical. I doubt any of us could truly follow or hope to understand them all. He was a master of manipulation, and he gloried in his superiority over lesser men. His insanity had no boundaries.”


He leaned forward to place his hand over Azrael’s where they lay clasped tightly together on the table. “As I said, I have wanted to talk with you, but each time I try to approach the subject, I have no words. I am aware you share the same depth of empathic intuition as Vincent. Perhaps you have your own suspicions from what he has told you or allowed you to see through the link you share. Perhaps we shall never know the whole truth. But I needed you to be aware of what I do know. And that we will always be here for you…always…”


“Thank you, Father.” Azrael returned the pressure of the older man’s hand. “My mother’s relationship with my…” he paused, frowning before continuing, “…with John Pater was not bound by love, but by some kind of dark, greedy sickness. As if my mother desperately needed to believe in what he had told her, in what he made her believe. That somehow, down there, in the depths of the earth, they were creating a new and better Eden, perfecting some great experiment for the betterment of man. Impossible, I know. But they fed off each other in an endless cycle of co-dependency. Many times I ran away from home whenever my father would return. I felt unable to tolerate being forced to listen to their constant arguing. I feared I would become my father in time.”


He passed his free hand wearily across his eyes. “Perhaps it is better that we consign it all to the past. And do not speak of it again. The memory of my father only seems to cause pain. For me it was another life now — a place I do not care to revisit for the sake of my own sanity.”


“Then that is what we will do.” Father nodded gratefully. “John Pater will no longer be granted the space in our memories to threaten all that we have built here. I believe it is for the best.”


“Then it shall be so.” Azrael sat back. “Mouse insisted I inform you that the garden project is finished. He has sent the workers home, no doubt to their relief. The work has been hard and not always straightforward. But Mouse is sure we now have an excellent excuse for a party.”


“Any excuse is good enough for Mouse,” Father acknowledged on a laugh. “I’ll admit I’m anxious to see the garden for myself. I know William is planning all sorts of gastronomic delights now we have our own supply of fresh produce. Do you feel up to giving me the grand tour?”


“Of course. And we shall have to make sure we do not disappoint William.” Azrael got to his feet, reaching to assist Father.


“And what of Diana?” Father worried, as they left the chamber together. “Is she still intent on discovering all our secrets?”


“I am afraid we may have to disclose our existence in the near future,” Azrael admitted ruefully. “She is fully capable to finding out the truth on her own. I know she does not rest; she works day and night. She was extremely short tempered at the gallery opening. She watched me talking with Elliot and I could sense she was eager to know what we were saying. And when Joe joined us later in the evening…”


“Then we must leave that to your judgement. Come and talk to Vincent or me when you judge the time is near. I know the woman is determined and resourceful. But we do have a lot to thank her for in exposing Sarah’s killer and disposing of Gabriel. Perhaps she has earned the right to know of our existence. If you think she can be trusted, then the council will meet to consider it.”


“I will, Father.” Azrael laid his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “I promise to give you fair warning. But my time spent down here is limited by her need to know more. After we have seen the garden, I must return Above before she becomes too suspicious over my present whereabouts. I can only hope Diana will be satisfied once she knows the truth. She is not an easy woman to please. But now that I know the truth about my father, perhaps she and I…” He shook his head helplessly, leaving the rest of the statement unsaid.


“Do not give up!” Father seized his arm in a tight grip. “I once advised Vincent to forget Catherine. I told him she would only bring him unhappiness. He said then he would be unhappy because he could not forget her. You have seen the evidence of how sage my advice can be sometimes.” The old man shook his head ruefully. “Diana is an astute woman who deals in the truth. Do not be afraid to ask for what you want.”


“You have given me much to think about…” Azrael exhaled slowly. “My poor mother went mad with grief and loneliness. But if it is true about John Pater not being my father, then the taint of true insanity has been removed from my blood. Perhaps there is hope, after all…”


 a small black rose


“We’re being twenty different shades of decadent here, you know.” Lying naked on her stomach on a sun lounger beside the pool, Shannon propped her chin in her hands to watch Elliot going through some papers at the table before her. “I mean, a private jet to Jamaica for breakfast, and then a helicopter to your own secluded island hideaway for lunch. I know you said we should get away for a long weekend…”


“I felt we needed to get away from the city. From all the media attention…” Elliot looked across at her somewhat absently before returning his attention to the paperwork. “That Bennett woman was just too nosey. She needs to cool off a bit. Joe telephoned yesterday to say she’s still running a private inquiry into Cathy. He only found out by accident. He’s trying to shut her down for good this time. We may have to fly back sooner than I’d planned.”


“Yes, well, on the night of the gallery opening, Azrael said he didn’t know how much longer he could keep her from discovering the truth. Short of kidnapping her and taking her out of the country, I don’t see what more we can do.”


“Joe and I have discussed disposing of her once before.” Elliot grimaced, shaking his head. “Her best attribute — her excellent detective skills — are becoming a liability now. But we do owe a great deal for using those same skills to save us, and all we care for, from certain destruction.”


“Well, we must leave it to Joe and Azrael’s judgement of how much more we can tolerate.” Shannon rose from the lounger, tucking a large cotton sarong around her body and beneath her arms as she walked to his side to look over his shoulder at the papers he was studying. “But what has got you so distracted in these?” She tapped the paperwork with her fingertip.


“An old mansion on the Upper East Side…” Elliot mused, tracing a finger down the page he had been studying. “Overlooking the river. It’s one of the last of its kind. My real estate investment company has been buying up properties there over the last few years, as they became available. Now my agent assures me they are an excellent investment opportunity and it’s a great time to sell up. We had been discussing how soon we could pass them on for a substantial profit. It will need some renovation work done on it first.”


He looked up at Shannon, studying the picture she made in the sunlight. “That was two years ago, before I met you. Now my agent is getting restless, and I’m stalling for time while I think about it all.”


Shannon gently smoothed the hair back from his forehead with a loving hand before bending to kiss the tip of his nose. “Thinking about what? Tell me…”


“So many things...” Elliot put aside the papers and reached to pull her down into his lap, placing a line of lingering kisses across her naked shoulder. “Thinking about the man I was before I knew anything about you and your world. Before meeting Vincent and knowing Catherine loved him, such an incredible human being, with all her heart. Wondering what I could do for them to repay them for what they have given me. I’ve been sitting here studying the provenance of some of the properties and I found something interesting...”


He reached for the discarded paperwork. “I found this.” His tracing finger stopped at a name. “It appears that Charles Chandler once owned this house. It looks like it’d been in his wife’s family for years, until she died. Then, within a year, he’d sold up. I don’t know, perhaps the memories were just too painful for him to go on living there without her.”


“Charles…you mean Catherine’s father?” Shannon turned to frown at the notation. “Surely not…”


“Well, I know Cathy lived on The Upper East Side; she told me so herself. I can only assume this is the same house. It all fits. The last owner sold it to me because they couldn’t afford the on-going upkeep. It needs a lot of work.”


“But…” Shannon moved to cup his bearded cheeks between her palms, staring down into his warm grey eyes. “Think of the possibilities… Do you… I mean, could we make something of this, for Vincent and Catherine…and their children? It would be wonderful if we could. It fits so neatly with the rest of my projects. It would make an incredible gift for everyone to enjoy.”


“That’s exactly what I was contemplating.” Elliot nodded thoughtfully. “It would take some doing. First I want to know how deep beneath this area of Manhattan the bedrock schist goes. It would be interesting to get hold of a map and see exactly what is down there, below the basement level. What accesses exist and what could be created. An old house like this must have some kind of steam tunnel beneath it. Perhaps even an old subway connection. Some of these old houses used to have their own lines once, back in the day. Whatever the access, it would have to be made very secure to work for them. Though I bet Vincent or Mouse would know exactly what’s down there. Maybe I should employ them, after all…”  


“Have I told you recently how much I love you, Elliot Burch?”


“Not in so many words, not within the past few hours.”


“Then we must remedy that oversight immediately.” Shannon leaned down to capture his smiling mouth in a deep, intoxicating kiss.

The paperwork fluttered unnoticed to the tiled pool surround as they surrendered to the sensual pull of their mutual desire. Surging to his feet, in one fluid motion, Elliot stood to carry his love across the tiles towards the billowing white gauze curtains that concealed the oversized bed inviting them into the cool, shadowed interior of the bedroom…


 a small black rose



 Part Two

 Story Index