“There are no words, Catherine,” Vincent murmured in the quiet of the tunnels. It was night and Catherine slept finally, after her long labor. The baby---Hannah Caroline, they'd decided to call her, though her name wouldn't be announced until the Naming Ceremony in a few days---stirred a bit in his arms and he looked down at her.
His daughter. After all the months of waiting, it still hardly seemed possible. She was so tiny, a miniature kitten with Catherine's green eyes. The leonine features which had always seemed so heavy and abnormal to his own eyes echoed gracefully in their daughter—finer, as if drawn by a delicate, wispy brush.
Catherine awoke then as they were staring at each other. “Vincent?” she said softly. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” he said. “Rest, Catherine. I'll stay up with Hannah.” He could sense her utter exhaustion through the bond, see it in her eyes. She smiled up at her husband and touched one hand to Hannah's downy head, already showing reddish-blonde curls. “Sweet love,” she said, and closed her eyes again.
Vincent sat down in the rocking chair and held his daughter. Of all the things he had seen or ever wanted to see, this was beyond his imagination.
Catherine awoke to the sound of the baby's squalling. “She appears to be hungry,” Vincent said wryly as Hannah rooted against his chest. “I've changed her diaper.”
Gently, he handed the baby to Catherine and watched as Catherine unlaced her blouse and the child began to suckle. “Oh, that feels better,” Catherine murmured.
Vincent raised his eyebrows. “It does?”
Catherine shifted her arm to support Hannah. “Yes. I'm sore.”
“Shall I get Mary?” Vincent asked, concerned.
“No, I don't think Mary can help with this one,” Catherine replied, grinning.
Abruptly, Vincent understood. “Oh.” Incredibly, he felt heat in his cheeks, something that surely hadn't happened since he was a teenager. He'd seen tunnel women breast-feed before, but had somehow never connected that with....
“She's a strong eater,” Catherine said wryly. “Though I could do without the teeth.”
“Teeth?” Vincent hadn't noticed. She had teeth? Like his? He glanced at the baby's small hands, already tipped with sharp nails that would one day thicken into claws.
She was just like him. Abruptly, he remembered Devin's old nickname for him: Fuzz. He remembered Mitch teasing him, meowing as he passed by and always, always being the one left behind, the one who didn't look at all like anyone else, the one who couldn't go everywhere or do everything because of the way he looked, because of the face that stared back in the water. The facts now stared him back in the face, in the tiny hands of his nursing child: I am no longer alone. There is myself, and now there is Hannah.
Catherine touched his arm with her free hand. “What is it?” she murmured.
Vincent drew in a breath, trying to calm his racing thoughts. “I used to think,” he said softly, “that having a child would be a cruelty.” He clenched his hands, feeling the claws bite into his flesh. “I looked at these hands and saw nothing human, more beast than man. How could I do this to anyone else?”
“And now?” Catherine challenged. As always, her fierceness astonished him; he sensed she was quite willing to do battle with him over his sense of self, as she had so many times before.
“Now,” Vincent smiled, relaxing, “I have Hannah and she looks like me. And it occurs to me that...it is not such a bad thing after all.” He reached over and touched the bottom of Hannah's foot, watching the miniature toes curl inward. “How do you argue with a miracle, after all?”
Preparations were in full swing for Hannah's naming when late one afternoon, Father came to their chamber. He was a frequent visitor and clearly doted on his granddaughter. “I can't quite get over it, Vincent,” he said. “You were so small, so sick, when you were born and look at her. She's so big.”
Right then, Hannah was amusing herself by gnawing on Vincent's fist. She looked up at her grandfather through a cloud of red hair and smiled a toothy grin. “She has your smile too,” Father said. “And I see she's focusing early, just as you did.”
Catherine smiled at the three of them fondly as she folded some of Hannah's baby clothes and put them away in a basket. “You said you had a question about the guest list, Father?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. It seems you've left off someone.”
Vincent raised his eyebrows. It seemed as if the entire population of Manhattan had been invited to Hannah's Naming; he couldn't imagine whom they would have forgotten. “Catherine,” Father said, “it occurred to me that we have not been entirely fair to you.”
It was Catherine's turn to raise her eyebrows. Her relationship with Father had not always been a good one, but they were long past that now. “There will be no one from your world there, Catherine,” he continued. “Is there no one you wanted to tell?”
“Well, yes, Father,” Catherine replied. “But I gave my word. None of my friends know of this place.” After so long, she had grown accustomed to the half-truths, the shaded words that kept those she loved safe. But it had never been easy: Jenny would have loved the bookish types here, Nancy would have been so amused by the childrens' antics, and Joe...Joe would simply have been amazed.
“You have carried our secret alone for too long, Catherine,” Father stated. “We have asked other helpers to recommend trusted friends or family, but we've never asked you. That was a mistake.”
Catherine looked up at Vincent's indrawn breath. “Someone from Catherine's side of the river,” he breathed.
“Yes,” Father replied, smiling as Hannah grabbed Vincent's mane. “Vincent and I had a conversation a number of months ago about how there was no one from your world whom you could talk to. I would like to suggest that if you have a person in mind, that you ask them to the Naming.”
Just when she'd thought Father couldn't surprise her anymore...”Yes, Father, I'll think about it.” She eyed him curiously. “What made you change your mind?”
Father tilted his head slightly, in a gesture that was so much like Vincent's that a smile crossed Catherine's face. “I have not always been fair to you, Catherine. I questioned your relationship, your intentions, from the start. I don't for a second believe that having someone on your side of the river makes up for my harsh words, but it's the best I can do.”
She reached over and clasped his hand once, hard. “Father....it's long past. And over. You had to question, then.” Margaret's name, and Lisa's, hung in the air, unspoken. “But thank you.”
After he left, Vincent moved to sit next to Catherine on their bed as she fed Hannah. “What do you think about that?” Catherine murmured.
“I think it is a very good thing, and long overdue,” Vincent replied. “This is how our community of friends grows, Catherine. One leaves, another is brought in.” Vincent studied her face, felt her unease through their bond. “You seem troubled. What is it?”
Catherine smiled. Vincent could never claim ignorance of her feelings; it would never occur to him to try. “It's just...how do I explain this, to anyone? Sometimes I think if I weren’t living my life, I wouldn't believe me either.”
“Perhaps 'once upon a time' would be a good place to start,” Vincent replied wryly.
Catherine chuckled. “Perhaps. But I hardly think we're a fairy tale.”
“Oh?” Vincent asked, raising his eyebrows. She knew that look: to him their life certainly seemed like a fairy tale at times, complete with the “happily ever after” part.
“No, love,” she said, and he kissed her. “We're better.”
The next morning, while Hannah took her nap and Vincent was teaching Pride and Prejudice to the teenagers' literature class, Catherine began writing a list. She had to pick one of her close friends to tell about his world, her husband, and their daughter. Who? Nancy might be a natural choice; she already knew more about her relationship with Vincent than either Joe or Jenny, and had helped her through a very rough time. Then she remembered: Nancy and her husband Paul were taking a long-awaited second honeymoon to Hawaii. She'd received a postcard from them just last week.
Then there was Jenny, dear, kind Jenny who probably had guessed more than Catherine knew about her relationship. But Jenny was on a publishing junket in Scotland and wouldn't be home until next month. Maybe I can tell her later, Catherine mused, then smiled at the thought. Until yesterday, it hadn't occurred to her that she might be able to tell anyone.
And then there was Joe. Joe, who'd been her boss and then her friend through any number of strange occurrences, disappearances and half-truths and evasions. She owed him the most in terms of an explanation, for she had worked with him every day, and had lied to him nearly every day in the things she could never say. If he saw this world, what would he say?
She picked up her pen and finding some blank stationary in one of the pigeon-holes in Vincent's desk, she began to write. Dear Joe...
There were days when Joe absolutely hated his job. Today was shaping up to be one of them. There was the joint press conference with the FBI announcing the latest round of indictments arising from the investigation into John Moreno. Joe had hated that the most of all, because while he was the acting DA and as such, was glad to have Moreno and his co-conspirators off the streets, there was also a part of him that wondered about his mentor and friend. When had John gone on the take? And why? The FBI, for all their talk of a joint investigation, had been unable or unwilling to share much in the way of details, but Joe suspected the arrests were far from over. Which left him with a whole host of questions he couldn't answer and a nagging feeling that he should have known sooner that Moreno was dirty.
There was also the matter of Cathy's temporary replacement, a man who couldn't find a file on his desk with a map and a flashlight and who lacked the passion Cathy had brought to her work. Not to mention her contacts, Joe thought; somehow, Cathy had always been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat when a case looked to be going sideways. Joe threw a dart against the door. Frank Abner had been pulled from another unit to cover Cathy's cases while she was out on maternity leave, but once Cathy was back, Abner could go back to prosecuting misdemeanor jaywalking cases—or what ever he'd supposedly been doing---for all he cared. That is, if Abner survived the wrath of his co-workers and the support staff, who had gotten tired of Abner's frenzied, last-minute emergencies.
And finally, there was the latest mystery, an invitation scrawled on heavyweight paper like his grandmother used for her important letters. It was from Cathy, but it left him perplexed. And with one too many mysteries on his hands already, Joe didn't want another one. She was inviting him to dinner at her apartment that evening, but she'd invited him with a letter, not a phone call. It was so odd, so totally unlike Cathy's direct personality, that he was beginning to get a strange feeling that this wasn't completely a social call.
“Hey, Radcliffe, what's this all about?” Joe asked that evening in her apartment. She looked good, he noticed, though tired, as he'd expect from the mother of a newborn. Looking around the place as Cathy hung up his coat, Joe didn't see any baby goods---no diapers, no clothes, or toys or anything to indicate there was a child living here. Mentally, he prepared to have yet one more thing added to the growing pile of Radcliffe's Secrets. Like who'd tended her when she disappeared a few years back, who had rescued her from that sinking car in the middle of the lake, and a thousand other things he'd wondered about but never quite had the courage to ask
She handed him a beer out of the fridge. “The baby is why I'm here. Her name is Hannah and she's about a week old now.”
“Oh, hey, that's great. Congratulations! Do you have pictures?”
He was astonished when she shook her head. “No. And there won't be.” The words were said in a careful, even tone that he'd long associated with Cathy's deeper secrets. She's protecting her daughter. Why?
Cathy sat down on the dinky chair across from him. “Joe, remember when I disappeared?”
Joe almost asked, “Which time?” but stopped himself. “Yeah, I remember. Your file said you disappeared for ten days, but couldn't remember who you'd been with and who took care of you.” He said it carefully, but he could hear his words to Moreno when they'd discussed hiring her. Right. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. The police, as he remembered, hadn't found the story remotely believable either but under pressure from Cathy's father and her then-boyfriend, they'd dropped any further inquiry.
Joe watched as her hands tightened on her mug of tea. “That's not...entirely the truth, as I'm sure you've guessed. I'm about to tell you who took care of me, and I'll answer any questions you want answered. But I do ask that you keep this conversation a secret. A lot of very good people's lives depend on my silence---and now, yours.”
Joe sat back on the couch and considered. Over the years, he'd made up any number of mental stories to explain Cathy's mysteries but failed to come up with any one explanation that would explain everything. So he'd learned to let it go; Cathy's work was above-par no matter what, and beyond that, he was her friend. And he wanted to remain her friend. “All right. So, what happened?” he asked.
A brief look of amusement flitted across her face. “I've been told I should start with 'once upon a time,' but that's not quite it...”
Two hours, one beer and one large pizza later, Joe stared in frank amazement at the fire. “I don't believe this.” Maybe that bridge in Brooklyn really is for sale after all....
“I know,” she said softly.
He remembered the pictures in some of the cases she'd worked, the men who'd been slaughtered. “The men who died. You know who did that?” It was the greatest of Radcliffe's Secrets, and the one that he'd always had the hardest time reconciling with her. She was fierce, but not lethal, not like that.
“Yes. It was self-defense,” Catherine replied, a touch too evenly.
“Isn't that a matter for the courts to decide?” he shot back. Joe had a very dim view of vigilantes.
“Joe. I know I've put you in a tough spot.”
He leaned back in his chair. “'Tough' doesn't begin to describe it. I'm an officer of the court, Cathy. I can't ignore what I saw.”
“Isn't that what you've been doing all along? You saw the files, you could have asked me at any time what was going on, but you didn't. You never asked,” she said reasonably, not denying or defending anything.
Joe swallowed a mouthful of beer, and considered. “You're right. I could have asked, but I didn't. I wasn't the only one who noticed.”
Cathy paled. “Who else?” she managed to get out. And Joe wondered then, about the cost of living a double life. The people she protected must be something special, to make her live like that.
Joe placed the beer bottle on a coaster. “Moreno noticed. Even brought it up to me once or twice. But the results you got were just too good, and he...stopped noticing. I imagine there were other things he had on his mind,” Joe finished, bitterly. His mouth twisted as he remembered the friendship he'd had with Moreno, whom he'd once thought a good, decent man. How many other people did you betray, John?
A flash of motion from the balcony caught his eye. “Who's out there?” He tensed, thinking of prowlers, until he remembered that Cathy was seventeen floors up; most prowlers wouldn't bother.
Cathy smiled. “That would be Vincent. His father is the one who took care of me. And he's the other part of the secret.”
Joe put two and two together and got five, and from the warmth in her smile and eyes, he was sure he wasn't wrong. It sure wasn't a look she'd ever given Elliot Burch...or him, for that matter. “And Hannah's father?”
Cathy nodded, slowly. “And Hannah's father.”
The balcony doors opened slowly and Joe felt all of his casual, ordinary assumptions about what was possible begin to dissolve. “Holy shit.” If he hadn't put his beer bottle down, he'd have dropped it.
The---man? beast?---was well over six feet, broad-shouldered and....abruptly, Joe's mind ran out of adjectives to describe him. Lion? Man? Something in between, but neither? He didn't know. “Mr. Maxwell,” the man said, in a low cultured voice, “my name is Vincent. I am Catherine's husband.”
Joe tried to imagine the two of them together, delicate, petite Cathy and this giant of a man. It wasn't as hard as he'd thought.. His world had already been rocked by a monster wearing the face of a good man, and it seemed entirely possible to him, somehow, that a good and decent man might be behind the lion's face.
And then there was the other, more important factor: Cathy was happy. Happier than he'd ever seen her with any number of suitors who'd tried to claim her, happier than he'd ever seen her, period. And Vincent loved Cathy; it was there for anyone with half a brain to see. Besides after a whole night of shocks---a community living under the streets of New York? Cathy protecting them all these years?---Joe simply wanted to see where this all was going.
Joe's eyes slid back to Cathy. “You never told me you were married.”
“You never asked,” she responded, amused. Cathy gestured towards Vincent. “And now you see why I couldn't tell you.”
“The home she told you of, and the people who live there, are the only place I can survive,” Vincent said, resting one clawed hand on Cathy's shoulder. “She trusts you, as do I.”
“And Hannah...looks like you?” Joe managed, a bit nervously. He felt Vincent's eyes on him, measuring him, ready to defend Cathy and his family no matter the cost. And Vincent's claws explained all too clearly what had happened to the men who'd threatened Cathy. All right. “Self-defense,” she says. He defended her, saved her life. Am I gonna prosecute him for that? Put her through that? No. I may be an officer of the court, but I haven't seen a thing.
Vincent nodded. “She does.”
Joe tried to imagine that, failed, and settled for drinking more of his beer. “What happened to you?” He realized as soon as he spoke the words that it came out sounding harsh, accusatory. Great job, counselor. Why don't you get the guy mad at you already?
Vincent smiled slightly, revealing the sharp tips of fangs. “I don't know. I was abandoned by my parents as a baby and brought to the tunnel community. There is only me…and now, Hannah.”
“Cathy, why did you tell me all this tonight?”
A look passed between Cathy and Vincent, one which left Joe with the distinct impression that there was a whole other level of conversation going on. Impossible. And yet, there's a six foot tall lion in Cathy's living room, whom she's married. And she's had his child. Who am I to say what's impossible? “Joe, I haven't ever told anyone this. I'm telling you because I trust you and because we want you to be there at our daughter's Naming Ceremony.”
“It's how a child is welcomed by our community,” Vincent said, by way of explanation.
Joe relaxed minutely. He was an uncle to any number of nieces and nephews; this was something he understood. “Of course I'll be there. How do I....?”
“A helper—that's someone who helps the community, Joe----will come for you Thursday evening. You'll get a note from the sandwich seller the day before with the time.”
“The sandwich seller? Gary?” This was becoming more surreal by the minute. He wondered how many other people in his life were helpers, that he would never have known or suspected.
“Gary,” Cathy confirmed wryly. “So don't turn your nose up when he offers you a tongue sandwich, okay?”
Joe chuckled. He had noticed Cathy occasionally buying some odd sandwiches, but would never have thought that to be a signal of any kind. “Will do.”
Another of those looks passed between Cathy and Vincent. “Is there anything you would like to ask, Joe?” Vincent asked.
Joe had never thought himself a particularly imaginative man, but all he had seen and heard tonight stretched his imagination, his beliefs about what was possible and normal, into directions he’d never thought they’d go. “I’m sure I’ll think of something later,” he murmured.
Cathy laughed. “You’re certainly handling it better than I did when I first met Vincent,” she said wryly.
Joe raised his eyebrows, feeling that there must be quite the story there. And relaxed. Leaving out that one of the people in Cathy’s living room was a six-foot tall lion, he might have been having this same conversation with any other friend. Emily Post sure never covered this situation, he thought wryly. “Let me guess,” he said lightly to Vincent, “she flirted with you and you fell for her at first sight?” He waggled his finger at Cathy. “You uptown girls, I tell ya…”
Cathy threw a pillow at him. “Not quite,” she laughed. “I threw a headlight at Vincent.”
“I startled her,” Vincent said mildly, clearly not bothered by the memory at all. “She hadn’t seen me the entire time she’d been ill because her face was bandaged.”
“And you missed, right?” Joe asked, remembering that Cathy had never been able to land a dart on his dartboard.
Cathy smiled, more than a little ruefully. “Nope. Hit him right on the side of his forehead. He probably still has the scar.”
Joe thought, suddenly, that something like that could have ended their relationship, that Vincent could have shown Cathy the way home and never talked to her again. But he hadn’t. He’d returned, again, and again, risked everything, because he loved her. This was clearly no one-sided infatuation, this was love, alive and present.
He smiled as he noticed Cathy holding back a yawn. Right. Newborn at home. Wherever home is. “Look, it's getting late and I need to get home. Cathy, it's been a pleasure.” He stood, glanced at Vincent's blue eyes set in that strange, leonine face, and held out his hand. Vincent shook his hand, gently, though Joe was very much aware of the restrained strength behind that grasp. “And Vincent...it's been amazing.”
The next day was the usual humdrum: arranging for coverage of yet another hearing that Abner had forgotten about, settling a thousand and one details that came with the job yet made him feel unmercifully tired. He hadn't gone to law school to be an administrator; what he lived for, thrived on, were the trials. Cathy would be great in the Trial Division. Get her off the streets, out of investigations, into a safer job. I'll ask her when she comes back. And maybe once the dust from all of this settles, and they find someone who really wants to be the DA, I'll join her there.
As the day wore on, Joe found himself awaiting the sandwich cart like a child at Christmas. Sure enough, there was that tongue sandwich on rye, and tucked in between the mustard packet and the salt and pepper packets was another note: 6pm. Your apartment. Wear layers. C. He tucked the enigmatic note into his pocket and felt a smile breaking out on his face. Already, the day was looking up.
Joe dumped the rest of the sandwich in the garbage----tongue sandwich? People eat that?---and bolted for the door. “Rita,” he called on the way out. “I'm taking a long lunch. Tell Abner I said that if he misses one more court appearance, he can go back to prosecuting misdemeanor avocado rustling.”
“Right, Boss,” she said, grinning. “Enjoy your lunch!”
Joe waved back at her, smiling in return. He was going on an adventure tonight and old boyhood memories rose up of excitement and the joy of a new place, a new experience---of camping with his brothers, of scuba diving, the first time he kissed a girl (Alice Martinelli from the next street over; her father had come out just in time to see them and had not been thrilled that his only girl was being kissed by Joey Maxwell.) Hailing a cab, he gave the address of the nearest toy store. Every baby needed a stuffed tiger. Especially, as Joe smiled again, remembering, if her father was a giant lion.
It was just starting to rain by the time the doorbell rang at his apartment, precisely at 6pm. Joe looked through the peephole and found a teenaged girl. Dressed as she was, there was nothing to particularly indicate that she came from Vincent's world, except for the patched-together look of her garments. “Mr. Maxwell?” she called out. “I'm Jamie. Catherine asked me to bring you down.”
Joe put on his jacket, grabbed the wrapped gift and bolted the door shut behind him. “Mr. Maxwell was my dad. I'm just Joe. Nice to meet you, Jamie.”
Jamie gestured towards the elevator. “We need to go to your basement. There's a threshold there.”
The way she said it made something prickle in Joe's memory. Stories he'd heard from his aunt or his grandfather, of miles and miles of tunnels and chambers abandoned deep below the earth, accompanied with the usual rueful laugh about city waste and inefficiency. “Access? You mean most buildings have them?”
Jamie looked at him as if he'd said the earth didn't orbit the sun. “Of course,” she replied, as if it was the most common thing it in the world. Joe reflected that to her, it probably was. “Most of the older ones do. The others...we can add to, if there's need.”
He'd been in and out of that basement a thousand times and never would have guessed...”Right. So it's through the looking glass for us, eh?”
Jamie giggled, which made her look and sound years younger than her age. “We don't have any white rabbits, though.”
The first thing that struck him about the tunnels was just how big they were. The pathways were long and meandering, with switchbacks and turns and with no signs, no signals to indicate which way to go in any particular direction. “I don't see how you ever learned your way around this place,” Joe commented.
“I've lived here since I was a kid. It's not easy at first; I think Father keeps the chalk companies in business up-top,” Jamie replied.
“Chalk?” Joe didn't immediately understand, but then he thought of the old myths he'd loved as a boy, of Theseus and his ball of twine in the minotaur's lair, and understood. “Oh. What color did you use?”
Jamie grinned. “Purple. It stands out.”
“What color did Vincent use?” Joe asked idly, as they came to another fork and Jamie turned right. He wondered if some of these paths were designed to confuse visitors, and decided that he didn't much blame them. The people down here had a right to their secrecy.
"You know, I don't think Vincent ever needed to use it. Aside from Mouse, he knows these tunnels better than all of us.”
“Mouse?” Joe asked.
A faint blush rose to Jamie's cheeks in the dimness. “Ah, so it's like that, eh?” Joe teased.
“He's just a friend,” Jamie said, but the blush deepened.
“Like Cathy and Vincent are friends?”
Jamie smiled again. “Well, they started out that way.” Abruptly, she stopped and picked up a rock to beat out a swift tattoo on the overhead pipes. “I'm just letting them know I picked you up.”
“It sounded like Morse code,” Joe said, remembering his grandfather's stories of World War II.
“It is,” Jamie said. “Or was. It's changed a lot over the years; Pascal could probably talk your ear off about it.”
At length they came to a narrower tunnel where, surprisingly, Joe felt the first stirrings of a draft. “We're almost there,” Jamie called over her shoulder.
“Where?” Joe called back. The draft was getting stronger. Wind? Weather? Down here?
“The Chamber of the Winds,” Jamie replied, louder. “Take my hand; there's no rails on the stairs.”
Joe took her small hand in his own as she guided him down the steps. The crosswinds were furious, tugging at his hand and coat and the pink bow on the package. This was a wild place, a dangerous place, one with its own rhythms. Granddad, your tales didn't cover the half of it. They came to a giant wooden door, one that Jamie surely shouldn't have been able to push open on her own, and yet, it gave, if not without a bit of resistance.
The next thing Joe saw, once his eyes adjusted to the light was candlelight. And people---hundreds of people. “Surely they all don't live down here?” Joe asked in astonishment.
“No,” Jamie said, “a lot of them are helpers. Our community isn't this large.”
Over in a corner, he saw a table laden with gifts and just beyond it, Vincent and Catherine, holding a bundle he assumed was their daughter. They were talking to an older man who was leaning on a cane. Despite the size of the crowd, it all seemed very comfortable. There were musicians playing something vaguely folk that reminded him of the last time he'd been at a Renaissance Fair, and children scampering in and out of the crowds, laughing.
This was family. This was home. And it hit him then: he'd been in crowds before, larger ones than this, and felt alone. Not here. These people knew one another, and although they might disagree or argue, they were there for each other, each of them guarding the secrets protected here.
Joe smiled as he saw Cathy wave at him from across the room. “Jamie, would you excuse me?”
Jamie smiled back. “No problem. I've got to keep an eye on Mouse anyway.” And she was off like a shot, finding another teenager with a shock of rough-cut blond hair standing next to the punch bowl.
He found himself chuckling as he made his way over to Cathy. “Hi, Joe,” she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “I'm glad you made it.” She turned to the older man. “Father, this is Joe Maxwell. He's my---”
“Overseer, task-master, boss, friend,” Joe finished for her. “Did I cover everything?”
Cathy laughed. “I'd say that about covers it.”
There was something familiar about the old guy, something Joe couldn't quite place. Then he remembered; last year, Cathy coming back from an interview in in the Tombs so distracted, and hastily stuffing a file back into her briefcase. The file had had this man's face on it. And Joe had pressed for a reason, a real one this time, and Cathy had given him what even then he'd sensed was a heavily edited version of the truth. “Wait a second. This is where you knew him from? Benjamin Darrow?”
Cathy gazed at him evenly. “Yes. That was the name he was released under. It's not his real name, but I couldn't tell you that then. But the rest of what I told you was true: he was wrongly accused.”
The man Cathy called Father pinned Joe with one sharp grey gaze, like a hawk's. “Catherine saved my life, and not for the first time.”
Joe smiled and felt the mood lift again. “She's good at that.”
The bundle in Vincent's arm stirred. “Can I see her?” Joe asked.
Vincent nodded, lifting the blanket slightly. Joe peered at the infant girl and was unutterably charmed. She looked like her father, all right: kitten face, Cathy's green eyes, and a mass of curly red hair. But the features that could look so forbidding on her father were, frankly, cute in Vincent's daughter. Get my sisters down here and they'd be oohing and awwing for hours, Joe thought, wryly. He wasn't too far from that himself. “She's lovely,” Joe said, and noticed that Cathy and Vincent were both smiling, though Vincent's smile looked a little off, owing to the presence of fangs.
Father blinked rapidly. “You did well in your choice, Catherine,” he said. Recovering, he said briskly, “Now that everyone's here, I suppose we should start this before the guest of honor sleeps her way through the party.”
Joe watched as he moved to the center of the crowd and thought that no matter how long he knew these people, he'd never get to the end of their stories. The old man was their leader, that much was obvious. Who had Father been, before he came here? How had this place been created? And why?
Joe's musings were interrupted by the sudden hush that fell over the crowd. “Catherine, Vincent, would you come up here please?” Father asked. Cathy and Vincent moved to the center of the crowd.
“It has been said that the child is the meaning of this life. Today we celebrate the child - this new life that has been brought into our world. We welcome the child with love that she may be able to love. We welcome the child with gifts that she may learn generosity, and we welcome the child with a name. Catherine and Vincent, what name have you chosen for your daughter?”
“Hannah Caroline,” they said as one.
“Hannah Caroline,” Father repeated, “we welcome you to our home and into our lives.”
And Joe thought then, that if he lived a long and fruitful life, he'd never see anything quite as magical as that child of possibility, of hope and imagination and love, welcomed by her family.
The End (for now :-)