Catherine returned above shortly after dawn. She hated the thought of leaving Vincent for any amount of time, but she had to talk to Joe and arrange for a leave of absence and pack some clothes and toiletries for what she suspected would be an extended stay below, and neither of those things could be accomplished by one of the tunnel messengers. Before she left, she kissed Vincent softly on his mouth and whispered into his ear, “I'll be back soon. I love you.” Only his breath had stirred, moving slightly faster, but he had settled back into sleep.
In her apartment, with its shattered balcony doors---must remember to get that fixed, Catherine thought to herself, then almost at the same instant dismissed the damage as unimportant---she showered and changed and thought, long and hard, about what she could or would tell Joe. He knew she was involved with someone; it was part and parcel of the things he knew about her but would never ask directly about. But Vincent was, in so many ways, beyond explaining. Keep to the facts, she reminded herself. The man she loved was sick, and he needed her. All else was details, details she could not, must not share.
But when Catherine saw Joe that morning, she was not prepared for his reaction. “Good God, Cathy, you look like hell,” Joe said, ushering her to a seat in his office and pressing a glass of water into her hand. “What's wrong? When was the last time you slept?”
“This morning, I think.” She took a drink of water. “Joe, I need to ask you something. I need a leave of absence.”
“It's not the flu like you told Rita, is it?” he asked, and Catherine was reminded of why he was such a good prosecutor. Not much ever escaped him.
“No,” she replied, not liking to admit she'd lied to Rita but Vincent's welfare was, as always, paramount. “The man I love is sick, and he needs me. And I can't keep splitting my life---I have to be with him now.”
“How long do you need, Cathy?” Joe asked.
“A month, maybe more,” Catherine replied, not at all sure even that time would be enough.
“Cathy, look, I'm not gonna lie to you---we're going to have to rearrange all of the assignments for the cases you were working on, but it's okay, we'll work through it. Escobar needs the practice anyway.” He studied her face. “He must be something special, am I right?”
She'd managed to hold her emotions together throughout all the awful days before, and the nights and the hours when she'd had to be strong for Vincent, and even for Father, but this last bit of kindness undid her completely. She started crying and it was like a dam had burst---all the fear, all the worry, all the grief and horror of the last few days and weeks crowded out of her in a flood. “Hey, hey, easy now,” Joe said, his arms around her. “It's going to be all right. It's been rough, hasn't it?”
She blew her nose, nodded. “Sorry about that,” Catherine said, feeling suddenly exposed, afraid she'd revealed too much.
“Hey, Radcliffe, no one can be strong forever. Take the time you need. The work will still be here. You do what you have to do.” He stepped back, released her. “You okay?”
“No, but I will be,” Catherine replied, smiling. And in a strange way, she felt it; life had changed, her priorities had shifted and become more focused but the way before them was starting to become clear.
Vincent opened his eyes to the true dark of a tunnel night. His dark alter sat cross-legged on Vincent's own bed. “Ah,” the Other said, “I wondered when we'd get back here.”
“Why are we here?” Vincent asked. There was somewhat less clutter, but in all other respects, this chamber was very much his own. His eye fell on the chess game, half-completed, that sat on the table. The chess set was different than the one he used now; Phillip had carved the first one and after he died, Vincent hadn't been able to look at it. Perhaps Lark had taken it when she returned above. He couldn't remember.
“Because you insist on blaming yourself for things which were never in your control,” his twin replied, following his gaze to the chess set.
“She blamed me,” Vincent said, seeing the aftermath of the funeral as though it had happened yesterday.
“She did,” the Other agreed. “She was wrong. Do you see that now?”
He tore his gaze from the chess set to the Other. “How can I? Phillip died because I was too late to save him.”
The Other rolled his eyes. “When will you learn that not everything in the universe is under your control? Phillip died because he'd been shot five times. You couldn't help him because you were shot twice. You nearly died---ask Father some time. He'll tell you.”
“But I should have---”
“What? Kept him from being shot? Kept Phillip from helping you? Phillip saw you as the son he never had. He wouldn't have stayed behind while you risked danger for his home. It could not have gone otherwise, Brother. Let me show you.”
And at his words, the world dissolved again.
They'd disposed of the drugs, large parcels of them, down the Abyss, then returned home. For a time, things were quiet and the tunnel routine slowly began to return to normal. Vincent and Father had been planning the closure and reroute of the tunnel entrance the smugglers had used when James failed to show up for sentry duty. “That's not like him,” Father said, concerned, and indeed it wasn't.
“Where was he last seen?” he asked Ethan, who was relaying the message from Pascal.
“Pascal heard from him about an hour ago, near that tunnel we had marked for closure,” Ethan replied.
“He was measuring it for the supplies we'd need to rerout it,” Father said. “Vincent, will you check on him?”
Vincent nodded. “Don’t go alone,” Father continued. “Take someone else with you.” His eyes met Vincent’s and Vincent understood the older man’s concern. The incident with the smugglers had been only a few days earlier and it was possible that whatever had befallen James was related. The predator’s instinct within him shifted, rising to the surface. That they might return here, to his home…unthinkable. And not to be allowed. He gathered his cloak and went to see if Phillip would be available to aid in the search.
Vincent heard Phillip, long before he saw him, deep in conversation with Lark. Vincent halted just down the hall from their chamber, not wishing to intrude or overhear but very much afraid he could not avoid it. To his surprise, they were discussing him. “And he could have gotten you killed, Phillip,” Lark was saying. “Why did you have to go with him on that fool stunt? And now James is missing and….”
“Lark, this is our home. What do you want me to do?”
There was the rustle of cloth; Lark embracing her husband, Vincent realized, backing away further so as not to hear further. He and Lark did not really get along; she’d come below shortly before the incident with Lisa and Vincent knew that her distrust of him was rooted in her fear of what she’d seen him become during that dark time. She was cordial enough, but her fear of him rode every word she spoke and every glance she shared.
Phillip met him at the end of the corridor. “Lark, she worries,” he said by way of explanation.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Vincent said. It was a lie and surely Phillip knew it as such, but if he did, he made no comment.
“This thing with James,” Phillip said. “It doesn’t sound good. Does it?”
Vincent shook his head. “No. It’s unlike James to fail to appear for sentry duty, and then to not respond to Pascal’s messages on the pipes. It is…troubling.”
They met up with Davy and Alex at the juncture of another corridor; they’d been checking some of the more uninhabited areas of the tunnels where James might possibly have fallen or become injured. “No sign of him,” Davy said, frowning. “Alex and I, we called for him but didn’t hear a thing.”
“I think we should start where James was seen last,” Vincent said.
Alex nodded. “Davy and I will keep searching; it's just possible he went for a walk and got hurt somehow.”
The group separated, and Phillip and Vincent made their way back to the tunnel where they'd rousted the drug smugglers only a few days before. It was there that they found James, face down in the dirt, dead of a gunshot wound to his head. Phillip gently turned the body over as he looked up at Vincent. “They came back,” Phillip said, agonized.
Vincent knelt beside the body of James and the roar that escaped him was full of grief and sorrow.
The day after James' funeral, Father held a council session. It was a smaller meeting than usual; just Father, Winslow, Pascal, Vincent, and Phillip were present. “We need a plan,” Father said, clearly in shock. James had a been a young man, and well-liked; his death by violence was something they all thought they had left behind when they came below.
Winslow, leaning up against the bannister, spoke. “I still think the idea of calling the police wasn't a bad plan.”
“It's gone too far for that,” Phillip said. “Vincent found evidence that they've been into the other chambers branching off from that tunnel. Calling the cops will only make them find us quicker.”
“How far have they gone, Vincent?” Father asked.
Vincent pointed at the map unrolled on Father's desk. “I found tracks here, here, and here.”
“And you're certain it's from them?”
“Yes,” Vincent nodded but didn't elaborate. He didn't really want to describe just how he knew, that the smell of drugs and blood and gunpowder had hung thickly in the air long after James' killers had left. It was something else that marked him as different and with the Other beating at his mental barriers, demanding to be set free to wreak his vengeance upon the smugglers, he hardly needed the reminder. “I believe they were looking for their drugs when James stumbled upon them and...”
“I see,” Father said. “And the drugs are...disposed of?”
“Down the Abyss, after we chased them off,” Phillip said, his mouth twisting bitterly. “We thought we were so smart, getting rid of it.”
“You couldn't very well leave them there,” Father said. “James' death was a tragic accident, but the fault lies only with those who killed him.” He paused, looking down at his folded hands. “My fear is that whoever those drugs belong to will come looking for them.”
Winslow nodded. “Ain't much doubt about that. It wasn't just a couple of joints we threw down the Abyss.”
Father sighed, suddenly looking old and haggard. “I see no other course for us but that we should arm the sentries. Winslow and Phillip, will you see to it?” Father asked.
Phillip and Winslow exchanged shocked glances. Father, wanting to arm the sentries, after twenty odd years of insisting they must never be? “This is our home,” Father said, clearly understanding their reaction. “I very much hope that such weapons need never be used...but at the same time, I can't leave us defenseless.”
“No, you can't,” Vincent said, the instincts of a predator denied its rightful prey running hot and violent within him.
“Pascal, we need to make a community announcement,” Father continued. “The women and children will have to stay near the home chambers at all times while this threat remains.”
Phillip looked at Father. “You're afraid of hostages.”
Father nodded. “Very much so. Who knows what such desperate men might do, in search of their drugs? We've already seen what they're capable of.”
“Anything else?” Pascal asked, making notes on a bit of scrap paper.
“The sentries will travel in pairs only. Who's on the roster for tonight?”
“I am, Father, as is Ethan,” Vincent replied.
“Ethan was James' best friend,” Father replied. “Let's give Ethan some time...Phillip and Winslow, are you available tonight?”
Winslow nodded. “And I don't think my dance card is full,” Phillip said, smiling. “Sure, I'll switch sentry duty with Ethan.”
Sentry duty that night started out as it usually did; checking the entrances and the main tunnel arteries looking for water leakage or cracks that might need to be fixed, making sure the torches in the hub were lit, and keeping an eye out for signs of incursion from the world above. Phillip carried a torch and a hasty copy of one of Father's maps to mark where they'd been and what they'd seen, if anything.
“Do you...sense anything?” Phillip asked.
Vincent looked at him in some surprise. “Oh, come on” Phillip said. “Maybe everyone else here doesn't notice—or doesn't want to---but I know how good your senses are. So...do you hear anything or smell anything?”
“Just dust,” Vincent said, and sneezed. “A whole lot of dust.”
Phillip chuckled and they kept walking, making notations on the map as they went. They were exiting one pathway, a little used access tunnel slated for closure when the main entrances were rerouted, when a prickling sensation began to tug at Vincent's nerves. The feeling, the impression that they were not alone. He touched at Phillip's arm, gesturing into the shadows.
“What is it?” Phillip asked.
“Listen. Do you hear it?” Vincent said. Phillip shook his head. “Two or three people, in tennis shoes, carrying...carrying something,” Vincent whispered.
“Where are they?” Phillip asked.
“The fourth junction to our left,” Vincent replied.
“---the level above Eileen's candle workshop. Yes.” Vincent's fist clenched against the rocky walls, trying to hold the Other at bay. Let loose, he would kill the smugglers one and all to defend this place and these people...but Vincent dare not assume he could control the beast then. The boiling rage was too strong and he growled low in his throat.
Phillip glanced at him, startled. “You okay?”
Vincent nodded, not trusting his ability to speak just then. “We need to get an exact count for Father,” Phillip said. “Are you...can you....?”
“Yes,” Vincent said, shoving back the fury and finding his words. “You're right. Father will need to know what we're dealing with.”
They found out, soon enough. The dull scrape of metal—gun metal---against stone was all the warning Vincent received when one of the smugglers (a scout, he realized sometime later,) began firing at the two strangers. Vincent lurched forward to shove Phillip out of the way but he was just out of arm's reach, and was cut down almost instantly. Phillip fell forward, bleeding into the sand.
The rage burst forward, the awful, heated fury that admitted no injury, that could not be bargained with. Vincent only remembered what happened next in a series of disjointed images: the blood of one smuggler spraying his face as an artery was laid bare, the guts of another as he was torn to bits, the dying screams of a third.
When it was over, Vincent stood in a pile of bodies and wondered why it was so hard to breathe all of a sudden. The agony in his chest was a terrible, spreading weight, matched only by the pain in his heart as he stared at Phillip's dead body.
Alerted by the sounds of gunfire, Winslow arrived just in time to catch Vincent as his knees buckled.
Weak from infection and blood loss, Vincent could not attend Phillip's funeral, but he mourned Phillip just the same. “Lark wants to see you,” Father said after the funeral. “As your physician, I'm not sure I'd allow it. You're running a fever and one of those bullets I took out of you nicked an artery. It's only due to Winslow, luck and these sutures that you're still alive at all.” He gave Vincent an injection from their precious store of antibiotics.
“She blames me,” Vincent said. He needed no special senses to know this; Lark's shrieking that he'd killed her husband had echoed off the rock walls as soon as she'd been told of Phillip's death.
“She does,” Father said, touching the side of his face in a reassuring gesture Vincent remembered from his childhood. “You must know she's wrong.”
“Do I?” Vincent asked, feeling the heat of the fever prickle at the corners of his eyes. “Phillip is dead because he went first into that cavern. If it had been me---”
“If it had been you, you would be dead. You were ambushed, Vincent. And there's no way you could have known.”
Father stood then. “There's something you should know. Lark has announced that she's returning above. She says there's nothing for her here now that Phillip is gone.”
Vincent closed his eyes. “She must not abandon her home because of me.”
“Vincent,” Father said, “she's angry. And in pain. Perhaps Lark will return above; if she wishes to, that's her right. But if she does, it's not because of anything you did.” He replaced the bottle of antibiotic in the small refrigerator— one of the ones, Vincent realized with a pang---that Phillip had installed only a few days earlier. “I want you to rest; I'm going to go and talk to Lark.”
Vincent didn't mean to close his eyes, but close them he had, for he opened his eyes to see Lark standing just outside the entrance to his chamber. “May I come in?” she asked.
He tried to sit up, but the pain in his chest and Father's dire warnings about reopening the sutures stilled his action. “Please,” he said, gesturing to the empty chair at the end table.
“I just realized---all the years I've lived here, I've never come to your chamber.” Lark sat down, and Vincent was reminded of how little they knew each other. She had lived here for nearly six years, but they were still strangers to each other. Her thick braid fell over her shoulder as she settled in the chair and she impatiently pushed it back.
“Why did you come?” Vincent asked, curious.
“I had this idea that I'd come here and blame you for Phillip's death and yell and scream and that would make me feel better. But he's just as dead.” Her cold brown eyes stared into his own. “Not that I don't blame you. I do. He had no business going out there on sentry duty; I begged him not to go, but he wouldn't listen, said he couldn't send you out there alone. Well, if he had, you'd be dead and he'd be alive. And I'd have preferred it that way. He was...everything to me. He was my life. I don't suppose you understand that.”
“No,” Vincent replied. “I've never known that. I doubt I ever will.”
Lark folded her arms. “I doubt you will either. It's not something that's common.” She stood. “I don't know why I came, really. But I can't, I won't, stay here. Every time I see you, I'll think that Phillip should still be alive and you should be dead in his place, and that's no way to live.”
“I loved him too,” Vincent said, the waves of her pain and grief enclosing him in a storm so loud he could barely hear himself think. “Not like you did, of course, but he was my friend and he...”
She held up a hand. “Please. I don't want to hear it. Not from you.” Lark turned her back on him and left his chamber.
Vincent opened his eyes, not surprised to find his face was wet. “She left the following morning.”
“I know,” the Other said. “Again, that wasn't your fault. Father had the right of it---Lark could have stayed below and healed among her friends and family but she chose to leave. It was her choice.”
“But I was responsible for getting Phillip killed,” Vincent said. The grief had lodged in his heart so long he no longer knew what it was like to live without it.
His dark alter sighed. “One of these days, I'll have to tell Father that 'infernally stubborn' doesn't begin to cover it. Look, Brother, what were we doing there? What was Phillip doing there?”
“We were trying to protect the tunnels,” Vincent replied. “Phillip volunteered to go with me that night.”
“Phillip was a grown man. He knew what he was facing---you both did. He chose to go with you because your safety, and the safety of the tunnels, was worth it to him.”
Vincent nodded. Phillip had been like that; fierce and loyal in defense of his friends and family. For the first time in years, Vincent felt that stone of grief begin to dissolve, just a little.
He looked down at his hands and saw the blood that had covered them, stiffening the fur and clotting under his nails. “What about the others? The smugglers I killed?”
“Again, we've never hurt those that didn't have it coming,” the Other said. “You can't tell me you regret killing them.”
“No,” Vincent said slowly. In the face of the threat the smugglers had represented, there had been no question about the rightness of his actions, only regret that James and Phillip had been killed before he could act. “But what I feared then, and now, is the rage. I have no control over it.”
“Really?” his twin said. “You have no control over me? Then why aren't you snarling when Father angers you? Why aren't you lashing out when Catherine has to cancel on us because she has an early court appearance the next morning? You truly have no control over your emotions?”
“That's different,” Vincent began, but his twin cut him off.
“How is it different? Don't you see, Vincent? Your rage, our rage, is a protective rage. It only emerges when those we care for are threatened. The tunnels. Catherine.”
At the sound of her name, Vincent's head jerked up. She must be terrified, he thought, remembering the shards of those last few minutes in the cave. How she could still stand to look at him after all the men he'd killed was a source of utter shock.
“She is our mate. Of course we have killed for her, to protect her,” the Other said.
Vincent stared at his twin. He'd never dared to consciously think of Catherine in those terms, so convinced had he been that she must be free to choose a life without him. But the Other, it seemed, knew. Had always known. As did I, Vincent thought. If I survive this journey, I must tell her.
Click here for Chapter Five....