“Oh, thanks, Gertrude, we do need some supplies. Our van's been laid up another week, something about having to special order parts,” Catherine said, feeling Vincent's warm presence behind her. He brushed aside her hair and began to nuzzle the side of her neck. The warmth uncurled, low in her belly and she nearly lost track of the conversation. She reached up and felt the back of his neck and the rough silk of his hair flowing over her hand. “Just the staples will do just fine. I don't think we need the oysters. Thanks so much, Gertrude. Keep the receipt and I'll pay you when you get back, okay? Yes, I insist. Thanks again.”
Catherine hung up the phone and started laughing. “Obviously, you're hungry,” she said, kissing him. “But be careful when I'm on the phone. For all I know, Gertrude could be bringing us pickles and ice cream for us to eat for the next few days.”
Vincent looked at her from where he leaned against the copper sink. It was that look, the one that made her have a hard time remembering that they'd spent years without ever kissing. He was certainly a fast learner. “So I disrupted your conversation, then?”
“And short-circuited my brain,” Catherine replied, throwing a handful of soapy bubbles at him and laughing when he ducked. She didn't entirely miss him; a crown of soapy bubbles rested at the top of his head and slid slowly down his long nose. So quickly she nearly didn't see it, one clawed hand flung a wet soapy mess at her, hitting her square in the chest.
“Oh, this means war, buster!” Catherine laughed. She grabbed the hose from the back of the sink and turned the water on full blast, soaking him in the chest.
Vincent was too quick again; he turned the faucet off and advanced on her slowly. He touched the hem of her turtleneck, which was soaked clear through. “Catherine, you're all wet.”
“Yes, so what else is new?” she said, and kissed him hard. She felt his hands roam underneath her sweater and shivered when he rubbed the soft fur on the back of his hands all along her spine.
“Why don't we get you out of those wet clothes?” Vincent said, silken against her mouth.
Catherine smiled. “I thought you'd never ask.”
Later after their loving, Vincent read in the library while Catherine took a shower. She'd insisted on taking one alone this time. He had to admit her judgment was correct; if they'd taken one together, neither of them would have actually gotten clean. Looking at the bookshelves, he found an old volume of poetry and began to read, content in the sunlight and the peace of the fall that was enveloping him.
A faint sound from the entryway drew his attention, the distinctive sounds of a lock being turned. Who can it be? Vincent though frantically, looking for a place to hide. There were some shadows clinging to the edge of the library, but it wouldn't be enough. Perhaps if he went upstairs....Vincent sprinted for the stairs, and just as he reached the top of the upstairs landing, the door opened.
“Oh, hello there,” an older female voice said. “I was just coming to drop off the groceries; I didn't mean to disturb you.”
Vincent stood frozen on the landing with his back to the woman, afraid to turn around, and at that moment, Catherine opened the bathroom door, her eyes wide---clearly, she'd sensed his fright---and stepped out to look down the staircase at what had frightened him so. “Vincent, what is it?” She gathered her towel more securely around her and came to stand next to him to look down at the bottom of the stairs. Incredibly, she smiled.
“Oh, hello, Gertrude. Let me get dressed and I'll help you with those groceries.” Catherine placed one hand on Vincent's shoulder. “Vincent,” she said for his ears alone. “It's okay. Really. I promise.”
Trusting her as he did, he turned to look down at the woman. There was a strange intent rigidity to her expression and Vincent abruptly realized why.
Like Narcissa, Gertrude was blind.
Sometime later, after the groceries had been put away and Gertrude's husband had called to say he'd be back to pick her up in a few minutes after making a quick return trip back into town, Vincent and Gertrude were sitting at the kitchen table while Catherine made a quick lunch. “I'm so sorry for startling you both,” Gertrude said. “I didn't know anyone was here; I just figured I'd put the groceries away and wait for Matt to come back.”
“It's fine,” he said. “Thank you for bringing the groceries.”
Gertrude smiled. “You're welcome. I've never met any of Cathy's...friends. How long have you known her?”
“Three years this April,” Vincent said, liking her. He didn't know how much she could see, but since she hadn't run for the hills yet, he decided to trust his instincts. His sense of her was faint, but still present. Gertrude might ask questions, but she meant neither of them any harm
“He met me soon after the attack,” Catherine said, tossing a salad and casting a quick, nervous glance at Vincent. He knew what she was concerned about, that Gertrude's curiosity might open the door to questions that neither of them could answer.
“I see,” Gertrude said. “You have such a lovely voice, Vincent. Do you work in the theater?”
Vincent nearly laughed. His voice, that lisped when he was tired and growled when he was angry---beautiful? Catherine put the salad plates in front of them, along with the sandwiches. “I keep telling him his voice is wonderful,” Catherine said. “But he doesn't believe me. Even his students listen to him.” Her hand played with his hair and Vincent relaxed, minutely. After a lifetime of believing himself as something less than human, it continued to be a source of wonder that Catherine found anything about him beautiful.
“Oh, so you're a teacher? That's fantastic. I taught some before I had the girls, and now our eldest is a teacher. What do you teach?”
Vincent thought fast. “Literature mainly. Though I fill in where I'm needed.”
“And he does a fantastic job of it,” Catherine said, clasping his hand under the table. It occurred to him then that this was the first time he'd met someone who also knew Catherine but who didn't know about the tunnels. Catherine's friend Jenny had been brought into the secret some months earlier and was settling into her role as helper quite well, but she knew about the tunnels and understood about the secrets she had to keep. Gertrude knew only that he was Catherine's friend, and the thought was somewhat unnerving, like he was swimming in very unfamiliar waters. Am I being foolish, risking this much on a gut feeling that she means us no harm?
“Gertrude,” Catherine asked, turning the conversation to safer matters, “have you seen anyone on your land recently?”
“You mean, like a trespasser?” Catherine nodded. “No,” Gertrude replied, grinning, “but then, I wouldn't. But Matt hasn't seen anything and the dogs have been quiet. Why, has someone been lurking around here?”
Catherine nodded. “We thought we...saw someone recently.”
“I wouldn't worry about it too much, Cathy,” Gertrude said. “Every so often, we get some break-ins, that sort of thing, but it's pretty rare. Usually what we get up here are lost hikers. Just lock your doors, and if you see anything suspicious, call the sheriff ”
“Thanks, Gertrude, I will,” Catherine replied, but Vincent knew she would do no such thing. The risk was simply too great.
They talked back and forth for a few minutes and Vincent slowly became astonished at Gertrude's ability to draw him out of himself. She didn't ask where he lived or where he taught or anything too specific; indeed, she avoided the entire topic with an adroitness that reminded him of Catherine, back when they were still getting to know each other. He found himself telling stories of the children he taught, of young Samantha being entirely too realistic in her role as Katharina the shrew, when Geoffrey had annoyed her too much one winter day; of Eric, announcing with all the gravity a nine year old could muster that Caesar should beware the ides of March; of Michael, who had made the dean's list for the second year in a row and who was thinking of becoming a teacher himself.
“I loved teaching,” Gertrude said, “and I can tell you do too.” The sound of a car's wheels on gravel broke up the conversation. “That'll be Matt. Vincent, Cathy, it's been a pleasure. Call us if you need anything and both of you, don't be strangers.”
After Gertrude had left and the lunch dishes were dry and put away, Catherine sank onto the couch next to Vincent. “It's been quite a day, hasn't it?”
Vincent pulled her close, the sort of hug she had longed for and received on many nights on her balcony. “Yes. Gertrude was...surprising.”
Catherine laughed. “She has that effect on people. I think about all she's managed to do and she's really quite amazing.” At Vincent's questioning look, she continued, “She wasn't always blind. When I was a kid, she used to take me hiking in these woods along with her daughters. But as Gertrude grew older, her vision began to fail. I never heard her complain. She and Matt just adapted and went on with life.”
“Catherine, she saw me,” Vincent said.
“She couldn't have,” Catherine responded. “All she can see now is light and shadows.”
“Narcissa is blind from cataracts, but she's always been able to see me and the world she lives in. Gertrude is the same way.”
Despite occasional visits from Kristopher Gentian, Catherine was still no great believer in the supernatural. But Vincent's own abilities she trusted absolutely. “Are you sure?” she said.
“Yes, as sure as I am of you. She...sees things in pictures sometimes, I think. Gertrude saw me when I came back down the stairs.” He shrugged. “I can't explain it.”
“You don't have to,” Catherine said. “I believe you. If you're sure, you're sure.” She kissed him. “She must have found you as beautiful as I do.” She laughed then. “Vincent, you're blushing.”
“I don't,” he said.
“Yes, you do,” Catherine replied, chuckling. “It's quite the lovely shade of red. I can't believe I finally found something to make you blush.” He gave a short chuff of amusement and pulled her closer.
She glanced through a crack in the closed curtains, at the sunlight shining brightly. “Normally, I'd suggest we take a walk but...”
“But you still wish to be cautious,” Vincent finished.
She ducked her head briefly. “Yes, I guess I do. I know Matt would have called if he'd seen trespassers, and we've been locking our doors every night, but I still worry.”
“Catherine,” he said, touching the side of her face with one warm hand, “it's quite all right. Besides, there are...things we can do inside, are there not?”
Catherine pulled back to look at him. “Why, yes,” she nearly purred. “How about a game of Scrabble?”
As the sun was setting, Catherine put away the Scrabble board. “Vincent, does Father play this game?” she asked, innocently.
“No, I don't think he does. Why?”
“Because it might rescue him from his depression when you always beat him at chess.” She shook her head, smiling. “I cannot believe how bad you are at this. I mean, really. Doesn't anyone in the tunnels do crossword puzzles?”
Vincent thought for a minute. “Mary, I believe. And Pascal, sometimes.”
“Pascal? Really? I thought he spent all his time in the pipe chamber.”
Vincent smiled. “He does. But the crosswords are to help him pass the time when things get boring.”
“Sometimes,” Vincent said, smiling. “I've done a stint or two on the pipes when Pascal's been sick. Once you get used to the sounds of the routine message traffic, the whole thing can be quite..repetitive.”
“Show me,” she said. “I've always wanted to learn pipecode better; right now, I can manage an emergency message and most of the shorter ones, but longer messages are harder.”
“They're harder for most of us, including people who have lived there for years. Pascal is constantly working to shorthand the system even further so that it's easier for our newcomers to learn. You've learned quite a lot already, Catherine.”
“But I want to learn more,” she replied.
“Very well,” Vincent said. “Is there a pencil handy?”
She walked over to the desk and pulled one out of the drawer. Catherine handed it to him and sat down next to him. “Give me your hand,” he said. “On longer messages, the first code is the name of the person, then the location where you want the message to go. So if you were sending a message to me, and you knew I was in the Commons, you'd start by tapping this message out.” He tapped a brief rhythm into her hand. “That's 'Catherine to Vincent—Commons.'”
“But what if I didn't know where you were?”
“Then you'd tap this rhythm.” A different beat, a longer tattoo of sound, with some similarity to the first message. “That's 'Catherine to Vincent-query location.' Pascal would pick that up and route it along with another message asking anyone who'd seen me to route the message back to him with my location. I would then relay it to you and then you'd send the message back to me with the location code.”
“That must be...inconvenient,” Catherine said wryly. At his raised eyebrows, she said, “Always having someone around who can find you. What if you don't want to be found?”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Pascal is the keeper of many, many secrets. So is Mouse. If I've gone down below the level of the pipes or to the nameless river, he sends the message to Mouse and Mouse finds me if the matter's urgent. If it's not, it waits.”
“And that's accepted?” Catherine asked, thinking that Father for one wouldn't have been happy to have his son completely out of reach.
“Father accepts it. Having no choice,” Vincent said, dryly, and Catherine wondered just how many battles were hidden behind that simple phrase.
The rest of the evening, Vincent took her through the shorthanded Morse of the tunnels' pipecode until she was able to follow most of the longer messages he tapped into her hand. “Wait, I got it. That one was, 'Vincent to Catherine-Chamber of the Winds-need avocados for guacamole. Dinner tonight. Suggested meal?' Right?”
Vincent nodded. “Very good. You're quick at this.”
“I have a good teacher,” Catherine said, and kissed him.
Click here for Chapter 13....