It was late Friday afternoon before Catherine heard from Dara and when the phone rang, she was so engrossed in the motion she was drafting that it took her a moment to recognize the sound as coming from her desk. Shoving aside law books and her own early drafts, she delved for the phone. “Hello, Catherine Chandler,” she said, just on the last ring.
“Hi Catherine, it's Dara. Do you have a moment?”
“I do,” Catherine replied, smiling. “Did you hear back from the seller?”
“Yes, I did. He works nights so he'll be bringing the keys by before he goes to work. I did some research on the place; there's a tunnel entrance to it near the flower shop on 2nd, in the East Village—Renata’s Flowers and Gifts. Are you familiar with that store?”
Catherine nodded, smiling. Renata was a helper, one she'd met last Winterfest. Again she wondered how many helpers there were, and how many of them knew each other. “I know the place. What time are we meeting you?”
“Well, what time can you get off work?” Dara asked. “I know you work some long hours.”
“It's 4pm now,” Catherine replied, glancing at the clock with its remorselessly slow hour hand. “It'll be full dark by 6. Is that a good time for you?”
“It's fine by me,” Dara said dryly. “Not many of my clients want to be out that late in the winter anyway.”
“I can't imagine why,” Catherine said, laughing, “New York City winters being as mild as they are and all.” She looked again at the clock, wondering if the sax player was still outside so she could get a message to Vincent. “Let me check with him and make sure that's a good time. Do you have an address for the building?”
“I do,” Dara replied. “Here it is,” and she rattled off an address that Catherine recognized as being near the East Village.
“Dara, that’s awfully close—“
“To civilization?” Dara replied, teasing. Her voice lowered, the instinctive caution of a long-time helper. “It’s close to the East Village, but not in it, and it’s located right over a tunnel entrance and the neighbors aren’t….going to be a problem.” There was the sound of a telephone ringing in the background. “Hey, Catherine, I’ve got to go. Call me if you need to change the appointment; otherwise, I’ll see you tonight, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Catherine said. “Thanks, Dara. Bye.” She hung up the phone and tore off the back sheet of her paper tablet. It was not the thick bond paper she liked for their correspondence, but it would do. Vincent, she wrote, are you available tonight at 6pm? Dara found a house. Meet me at the threshold? C. Carefully, she folded the note into thirds and slipped it into her coat pocket. “I’m stepping out for a bit,” she said to Rita, who was passing by with an armful of files. “Be back in five.”
“Right,” Rita said. She glanced outside the window. “Cathy, are you crazy? It’s snowing out there.”
“I just need some air,” Catherine replied, smiling. “Back soon.”
She stepped out into the frigid air and wrapped her scarf more snugly around her neck. The note felt warm and heavy in her coat pocket, laden with possibilities. As she’d hoped, the sax player was there at the corner---she thought his name was Gideon---and Catherine stood there, listening to him play for a few minutes. When Gideon broke into “That’s Amore,” winking, she grinned and handed him the note, wrapped in a five dollar bill. “For Vincent,” she mouthed, and the man’s eyes smiled at her over the bent metal curve of his instrument as he spared a hand to place the note in the sanctuary of his own pocket.
When she returned to the office, oblivious to the snow flurries, she was still humming.
Vincent greeted her as soon as she descended from the basement ladder. “Where is this house located?” he asked as they began to walk.
She pulled out the scrap sheet of paper where she’d written the address. “That’s an East Village address,” Vincent replied. “Near Renata’s flower shop and our co-op. Do you know the neighborhood well?”
Catherine shook her head. “Not as well as I used to; I used to go hang out in the East Village back when I was in law school.” She paused. “That’s the second time I’ve heard about a co-op; Marisol was telling me about it the other day. What co-op?”
“We have a small artists’ co-op in the East Village, where people like Marisol and Rebecca and Cullen sell some of their wares. The space belongs to a helper who gives us a generous discount on the rent and the money helps take care of things our world cannot supply.”
“Like what?” she asked, curious about the never-ending facets of life Below.
“Medicine, for one,” Vincent replied, taking her hand. “Some medicines Peter can bring Below without any cost, but the others…paying for them becomes a challenge at times.”
“I understand,” Catherine said, thinking of the plague that had infected the tunnel community only the year before. She’d never thought about how hard it must have been for Peter to have gotten all those drugs together so quickly and made a mental note to talk to him. “Vincent---if there was a need, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I would,” he replied, smiling gently. “We would never let one of our own go without just to prove a point. But we always try to strike a balance, Catherine---between what the world Above can provide and what we can and must do for ourselves. The co-op doesn’t bring in a lot of money, true, but it helps us remain independent and take care of our own.”
“The co-op is such a nice idea,” Catherine marveled. “It never occurred to me that the tunnels might have something like that. Who else sells there?”
“Elizabeth,” Vincent said. “She’s sold a few of her paintings through the co-op, though it’s been a few months since she’s had one for sale there.”
Vincent grinned. “Elizabeth is never done with a painting. She’ll finish one, then insist that something must be changed and she ‘can’t possibly sell it.’ I believe she doesn’t like to let them go, but that’s fine. Her needs, as she says, are small---paint, now and then, and brushes, canvas and the like. When she finishes a painting---really finishes it---Marisol will take it to the co-op.”
“There’s so much about this world I never knew,” Catherine said as they turned down a narrow, dusty pathway she’d not noticed before. “Where are we going?”
“This will take us directly to the basement of Renata’s shop.” His hand swiped at a cobweb and Catherine smothered a grin, remembering his reaction to the spiders in Connecticut. “We don’t use this passage often; Renata doesn’t visit as often as she used to, especially during this time of year. The cold air bothers her arthritis, so she sends her donations down with one of her sons.”
They walked up a narrow, twisting staircase to another level, more recently traveled. “Dara was here,” Vincent said.
“How do you know that?” Catherine asked.
“Her scent, for one,” Vincent said.
He’d told her, back in Connecticut, how acute his sense of smell was and Catherine supposed if she had a smell, so did everyone else. But some inner imp prompted her to ask, “So, what does she smell like?”
Vincent’s blue eyes danced, as she’d noticed they did when he knew full well he was being teased. “Copier toner, dry cleaning fluid, soap and lemon tea.”
“Well, she works in an office, so that makes sense,” Catherine said, chuckling. “There are days I’m sure I smell like dusty law books and White Out.”
“No, never,” Vincent replied, smiling at her fondly. “Sometimes you smell like ink, when you’ve been writing at work, or coffee, or sometimes there’s the dry musty smell of the cases you handle…but mainly, you just smell like…you. Sunshine, and light. And love.”
The tenderness in his gaze nearly took her breath away, the recognition that she was loved like that, cherished as she had been by no other man. “Come, love,” Vincent said, drawing her close. “We’re almost there.”
There was another hairpin corner turn and another and finally, some steps leading up to a locked basement door. “This is Renata’s shop,” Vincent said, picking up a rock and tapping on the lone pipe that ran into her shop. “It echoes through her radiator; if she has customers, they’ll simply think it’s a noise from that.”
“Clever,” she said smiling, absently translating the message. Vincent and Catherine—Renata’s tunnel entrance-we’re here.
There was the clatter of feet nearest the basement door and then it opened. “Vincent, Catherine, welcome!” Renata said. “You’re just in time, I just locked the front door and dropped the shades.” She shook her head. “Frankly, I was glad for the excuse to close a little early; business has been slow all day and I’d rather be at home in front of the fire. Come in, come in!”
Vincent ducked his head to enter into her shop and Catherine followed him, breathing in the deep scents of damp earth and growing things. “Dara called,” Renata said, “she’ll be here soon.” She was tiny, barely coming up to Catherine’s shoulder, but her eyes were bright and sharp and, Catherine thought, they missed nothing. “So you’re buying a house? And Father didn’t blow a gasket? How did you manage that miracle?”
Catherine glanced at Vincent; she, too, had wondered at Father’s calm when they’d mentioned the subject. Vincent smiled. “He still worries but he’s made his peace with the idea.”
“Huh,” Renata said. “I’d have thought it would require sedation before he got to that point. Though,” she said, grinning a tad wickedly, “perhaps after you two went to Connecticut, came back, and announced you were getting married, nothing else could shock him.”
Vincent laughed. “Perhaps.”
There was a light rap on the door—again in pipecode. Renata, it’s Dara.
Vincent instinctively headed for the shadows as Renata opened the door. “Hello, Dara, it’s been a while.”
“It has,” Dara said, shaking the snow off her coat and hugging the other woman. “I’m sorry it’s been so long, Renata.”
“Eh, time flies, I know,” Renata said, smiling. “Now off with you all before it gets too much later. The weather looks like it’s going to turn nasty by morning. Vincent, tell Father I’ll have Paolo bring by some flowers for the kids’ art projects tomorrow.”
“I will,” Vincent said, smiling. “Be well, Renata.” Vincent pulled the hood of his cloak up to shadow his face, and Catherine buttoned her coat as they headed out into the chill air of winter.
“The house isn’t far away,” Dara said as they walked. “And I’ll warn you now, the house does have some problems, but I think you’ll both agree it’ll be worth whatever work needs to be done.”
Vincent, face shadowed against the orange glow of the street lamps, looked up and started laughing. “At least the neighbors will be quiet.”
Catherine followed his gaze to the wrought iron gate across the street and her jaw dropped. “Dara, our neighbors are…dead? We’d be living next door to a graveyard?”
“Well, yeah,” Dara said as she fumbled with the combination on the lockbox. “The dead are good at keeping secrets, after all.” The lockbox clicked open with a muted snick and she turned the handle on the wooden door. “Go on in and take a look.”
The first thing Vincent noticed about the house was the smell---the overwhelming smell of damp and decay and ill-use. There had clearly been water damage to the building at one point; the plaster was cracked and peeling off the walls. “The last time anyone lived here was several years ago,” Dara said, handing them both a flashlight and pulling out a clipboard of scribbled notes. “There was a fire next door that didn't spread to this building; Nathan---my client---told me his great aunt owned this building as an investment property. I checked with the city; she had numerous code violations filed against her. Now that she’s passed away, Nathan just wants to sell.”
“Are there any other lights?” Catherine asked, turning on her flashlight.
“I think so…yeah,” Dara replied, reaching up to pull the chain of a lone light bulb. The light flickered but came on, illuminating not only the cracks in the walls or the poor condition of the hardwood floors but various scurrying insects that ran for cover.
“It has five bedrooms, plus the study, and two bathrooms which were cut up into apartments over time. None of them are in great shape but as a whole the building is doing better than the one next door.”
“What’s wrong with the one next door?” Catherine asked from the hallway.
“It’s been condemned,” Dara replied. “The owner’s health had begun to deteriorate after the fire and she decided not to fight the condemnation order.”
“Vincent,” Catherine called from the hallway, “you need to see this.”
Intrigued, he followed her voice into the hallway, which branched off into what he assumed was (or had been) the study. “Look up,” she said, her voice full of awe. “Is that what I think it is?”
His eyes widened. Her flashlight had illuminated a long rectangular stained glass piece set into the wall just over the boarded-up window---stained glass that had somehow survived the ravages of time and misuse---two bluebirds sitting on a stylized tree branch. “’And over our heads floats the bluebird/singing of beautiful and impossible things…”
“…’of things that are not and should be,’” Catherine finished for him. “Yes. I can’t help but think this is Providence. Our providence.”
A vision rose before his eyes: this room, perhaps their library, and their children, their life, here.
“Yes,” he said, drawing her near.
“Now, I know this building should probably be leveled for a parking lot or something,” Dara said, sometime later as they were preparing to leave. “And you should definitely have someone check it out before you commit to this sort of renovation, but in a lot of ways, this building can be made to be ideal for what you both need. Catherine, if you bought the lot next door, you wouldn’t have neighbors on either side of you. And I’m pretty sure the basement has---or had---a tunnel entrance.”
“What makes you say that?” Catherine asked, curious.
“Something Nathan mentioned in passing. His great aunt was a teenager during Prohibition and she kept telling him stories of all the parties in the basement. It might well have been used as a speakeasy and if so, there would have been an exit of some sort, in case the cops came.”
Vincent nodded. “Sometimes, when we make new pathways in our world, we find remnants of those years---broken liquor bottles, that sort of thing. It’s entirely probable. Tomorrow I’ll dig out our maps of this area and see what I can find.”
“Well, like I said, you’ll want to investigate it further and see it in daylight, of course,” Dara continued. “I don’t know that I’d want to take a project like this on, but if you choose to, it could really work well for the both of you. Think it over and let me know, okay?”
“What do you think?” Catherine asked later that evening, holding a cup of hot chocolate in her hands and trying to warm up.
“The work involved will not be small, nor will the cost,” Vincent replied. Intellectually, he knew Catherine had a great fortune, but such things rarely mattered in their life. Now though…he was not unfamiliar with the cost of renovations, having learned from and worked with people who had once made their livings doing construction. This was not going to be a simple project.
“But…?” she asked, smiling at him over the rim of her cup.
“But I think Dara is also correct. It does bear further inspection. If this is something you think worth doing, then we’ll find a way to make it work.”
She stretched her legs out in front of her and Vincent watched as the candlelight flickered in the gold of her hair. “Well, we'll have to consult some experts to make sure it's even worth the aggravation to rehabilitate it but....” Catherine grinned. “I must be insane. I’ve got a trial coming up, you and I are getting married soon, and we’re thinking of buying a house that will need months of renovation before we can even think of moving in.”
“But…?” he asked, teasing, and was rewarded by her gamin smile.
“But…if the brownstone checks out as anything other than a vertical pile of rubble, I think we should.” She stood and walked over to where he sat on the bed, relaxed against the bolsters. “As for the rest…” and her lips touched his own, “sanity is highly overrated.”
Click here for Chapter 6....