“What happened?” Catherine asked. Had Avery's men found a way to get to him after all? “Why is he in the hospital?”
“Joe didn't say in his message. But he wants you to call him.”
Catherine nodded and dialed his office number. Joe picked it up on the second ring. “Maxwell.”
“Joe, it's Cathy. What happened to Mr. Mueller?”
She heard the creak of his chair as he leaned backwards, his tie surely yanked askew. “Cathy, I'm glad you called back. Mueller's wife took him into the hospital for some routine tests and...the news wasn't good. It's cancer. Terminal.”
Catherine thought of the pictures on the walls of his house: his two daughters, a new grandson born last month, of Marge Mueller and the way Herman's eyes had darted in fear during the interview. “Oh, no. I don't have Mrs. Mueller's phone number handy---could you please give it to me?”
“Funny you should say that, Radcliffe. Mrs. Mueller definitely wants to talk to you.” There was the sound of shifting paper, as he presumably dug through whatever files were scattered on his desk. “Here it is. 555-9312. She said she'd be at the hospital until late tonight, but she'd be home tomorrow morning.” There was a pause, then, “Cathy, I don't have to tell you Mr. Mueller is one of the strongest witnesses you have, aside from Elliott Burch. If there's any way at all...”
She repressed a sigh; while her own preference---and Joe's, she was certain---would be to leave the Mueller's alone, they didn't have the option if they wanted to see Max Avery behind bars. “I understand, Joe.”
His exhausted distraction had not gone unnoticed, Vincent knew; the tunnels were too small a community for it to go unremarked. But it wasn’t until Valerie stopped him during dinner from picking up a hot soup tureen with his bare hands that he became fully aware of how much he was being watched. At the other end of the long table, Cullen eyed him, concerned, and Olivia's light touch on his shoulder as she sat down next to Kanin spoke of her worry. When Father cornered him in the library after dinner, Vincent was not surprised; there was little affecting the community or its members that Father didn’t know about. “Vincent, how much are you actually sleeping?” he asked without preamble, accent more clipped as it was when he was worried.
Vincent couldn't give the answer he'd given Cullen earlier in the day; it would be an outright lie to claim he was getting enough sleep now. “I...don't know, Father,” he replied. “I slept a couple of hours this afternoon.”
Father guided him to a chair, clearly intent on performing an examination right then and there. “And how much sleep did you get before today?” Not waiting for an answer, he plunged on, “If you were anyone else, I'd give you a mild sedative and take you off the work crews. But...”
But. Vincent knew all his parent wasn't saying. His reactions to drugs were often unpredictable and sedatives the most unpredictable of them all. “I'll be all right, Father.”
Father grunted. “You're a poor liar, Vincent.” He sat down in the chair opposite him and leaned forward. “Is it your...bond with Catherine?”
The question was asked out of care and concern, not with the scorn and mistrust it would once have been uttered. He nodded. “At night...she dreams, as do I.”
To his great and eternal relief, Father didn’t ask about the content of the dreams. Instead, he studied his folded hands for a moment. “And when does Catherine return?”
“Next Wednesday,” Vincent replied, though he could have named the precise amount of hours, minutes, and seconds with little effort; his time sense, at least, was undimmed by his weariness.
Father brightened somewhat. “That’s less than a week now. Do you think you’ll be able to get some rest in the meantime?”
“Perhaps,” Vincent allowed. “Though I’m not sure how, to be honest. It's not as if we can control our dreams.”
“Well, is there anything you’re working on now that can’t wait until next week?”
Vincent considered. “The rerouting of the entrances. Lena and Warren’s chamber will need to be expanded soon---or, at least, largely finished before their wedding---since there will be no time to do it once we start preparing for Winterfest, and then there’s the reinforcing of the tunnel entrance to our home.”
“I see,” Father said. “And you’re also teaching the beginning readers and tutoring Brooke and Jamie as well as the Elizabethan Literature and the composition class?”
“Yes,” Vincent replied, remembering that he really should get to work on the lesson plan for the composition class and review Brooke’s math homework and Jamie’s geometry…
“I believe we can find some teachers for at least a few of those classes; I taught the Elizabethan Literature class---”
“As I well remember,” Vincent put in, smiling.
“I’m sure,” Father said, though the severe tone was belied by the twinkle in his eyes, “though I’m not sure how I survived you and Devin staging an impromptu performance of Macbeth.” He gestured to the chaos of books and paperweights and papers stacked all around him. “I might even be able to find my old notes.” He paused, fiddling with the edge of an old ledger resting haphazardly on the corner of the desk and his tone softened. “You’ve taken a lot on, haven’t you?”
Vincent shrugged. “I suppose so, yes.”
Father shook his head. “We’ve all…settled too much on you over the years. Are you sure these projects won’t get done without your presence?”
Kanin’s comment about Angus, Rhys and Jeremy rose to his mind again. Winslow might have stood in his place for strength and skills but Winslow was gone, years gone now, and the gap left by his absence remained unfilled. “The situation on the work crews…now that Angus has returned, it’s possible things could become…explosive.”
Father acknowledged this with a nod, but his gaze was concerned. “Nevertheless....Vincent, Angus is not your responsibility. The classes can be taught by someone else and will be. I want you to rest. You could have burned yourself badly tonight.”
Vincent raised an eyebrow. “And if Angus should become...difficult?”
“Then call the sentries,” Father retorted. “It's what they're there for, and it's high time we all remembered it.” He picked up a clipboard and studied it. “I see there's a meeting regarding the bridge repair scheduled in an hour. Do you want to reschedule it?”
“No,” Vincent replied. “I need to be there.”
“All right,” Father said. “Then I want you to promise me that when you're done, you'll go back to your chamber and try to rest.” He waggled his finger, as he hadn't done since Vincent was a small boy being chastised for some infraction, and Vincent fought to repress a smile. “By which I mean, I don't want to hear about any late-night---or early morning---excavations in that tunnel entrance. Do I make myself clear?”
A stranger to the tunnels might, Vincent reflected some time later, believe tunnel meetings were the essence of order and rationality, people coming together in a common cause to make decisions for the future of their world. The reality---tonight, at least---was proving to be something far different. Nearly two hours into it, tempers were beginning to flare and Vincent felt his own patience wearing dangerously thin. “I don’t know what your problem is, Cullen,” Valerie snapped, exasperated. “I don't want to keep having this argument. I’m pregnant, not dead. And I was a rock-climber before. I know what I’m doing. If we want this bridge repaired, and repaired correctly so we're not redoing it in another three or four years, then this plan is the only way. And you know it.”
Cullen looked at Vincent as if to say Come on, buddy. Help me out here. Aloud, Cullen said, “No one’s doubting you, but Val…We can find someone else.”
“Who?” Jamie asked reasonably from the other end of the table. “I’d go, but”---she swallowed---“I can’t handle those heights, not over the Abyss. And if you don’t want Valerie going down there because she’s pregnant, then Marisol’s out too---she’s further along.”
“And Marisol doesn’t like the heights either. It’s a fair question,” Vincent said calmly. “If Valerie is not to attach the new rigging for the bridge, then we should consider who might go in her place.”
“Vincent, I---" Valerie began, only to be silenced by Vincent’s quelling look.
“Who can’t go down there? Is there a list?” Vincent asked.
“It’d be a long one,” Cullen grumbled, unfurling a spare sheet of paper, marred with various drawings and calculations. “Marisol. Jamie. Quinn---”
“Why is Quinn on the list?” Valerie asked.
“She’s leaving this weekend to help care for her mother in Rochester. She can’t be spared; there’s no telling how long she’ll be away,” Vincent replied.
“Scratch Quinn, then,” Cullen muttered. “If we take Valerie off the list too, it leaves….”
“No one,” Vincent finished. “No one both small enough and unafraid of heights. Even if we sent one of the older teenagers down, they don’t have Valerie’s experience with climbing.”
“I did,” Vincent said. “But I was eleven or so.”
“You? They sent a kid last time?” Cullen asked, clearly aghast.
Cullen’s face flushed at the implied rebuke. “If he wanted to risk you---”
“—that was his choice but Val…”
You’re all I’ve got in this world. Vincent heard the words as clearly as if Cullen had spoken. “Cullen. If you don’t want Valerie on this repair crew, then you need to find some alternative. The bridge won’t wait forever.”
A dark, angry expression twisted Cullen's face. “And if it was Catherine? Would you send her too?”
Vincent recalled all the times Catherine had been in danger, directly or indirectly, because of the tunnels. Because of him. Lisa. Mitch. Paracelsus. All she had risked for the tunnels, for him. Laura. Dmitri. Ellie. “I already have,” he said, the growl roughening his words.
Cullen's eyes widened and Vincent felt the sharp tang of his fear. The urge to dominate, to make Cullen hear his words, flowed through him, molten and fierce. He breathed out to force the dreaded sensations away---Cullen was his friend, this was only a disagreement, he must not react this way---and felt a tenuous calm return. “And if Catherine was here and had the skills we needed, I wouldn't have to ask her to go. She'd volunteer.”
Valerie glanced between the two of them. “As I did.”
Cullen closed his eyes---in surrender, Vincent thought. “All right,” he said, defeated. “But Val...you'll be careful?”
She touched the side of his face, a gentle gesture of love and familiarity, and Vincent had to look away, the ache for Catherine, the balm of her presence, a sudden deep longing within him. “As if you have to ask,” Valerie said.
Catherine had just closed her eyes, sliding softly into a dream of some other place where she and Vincent had never been---the snowy wilds of Alaska---when the phone rang. She fumbled for the receiver and managed to pick it up on the second ring. “Hello, Ms. Chandler? This is Marge Mueller. I'm sorry; am I calling too late?”
Rita stirred in the other bed and put her glasses on, turning the bedside light on low. Catherine mouthed I'm sorry; it wasn’t the first time, and it probably wouldn’t be the last, a witness called after working hours. Rita acknowledged this with a rueful smile, curiosity in her gaze. Mrs. Mueller? Rita asked, and Catherine nodded. She opened up her notebook. “No, Mrs. Mueller. How are you doing? Joe told me about your husband. I'm so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Mueller replied. “It's....been a terrible shock but---” she breathed out, a tear-clotted sigh--- “that's not why I called. Herman asked me to contact you. He wants to make sure Max Avery stays behind bars. Is there any way you could get his testimony now?”
Catherine blinked. Of all the reasons Marge Mueller could be calling...“If I may ask...what do his doctors say?”
“They say it could be six months. A year, at the outside.” She swallowed, and when she spoke again, her voice was stronger. “Herman and I, we talked about this, Ms. Chandler. He didn't want to talk to you at first, didn't want more trouble from Avery or his crew but now...he wants to go out knowing he did something good. And if that's what'll let him go in peace when it's...time, then that's what I want too.”
Catherine nodded, though of course the other woman couldn't see her. “There's a way, and we'll have to jump through some legal hurdles first but...let me see what we can do.”
“Thank you, Ms. Chandler. It means a lot to my husband.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Mueller. I'm at this number until Wednesday; I'll contact you as soon as we have a signed order from the judge. If you need to contact me, please call.”
When she'd hung up the phone, Rita spoke. “She called about her husband?”
Catherine nodded. “Yeah. What do you think the chances are of us getting an order signed for a conditional exam?”
Rita whistled. “Graham Sparks won't like that.”
“He's welcome to argue against it,” Catherine said grimly, “but if Elliot Burch decides to make himself unavailable---”
“Do you think he will?”
Catherine shrugged. “Right now? No. But a lot can change before we get to trial...and Elliot has the resources to make things very difficult on us. If there's any way to preserve Herman Mueller's testimony, we have to try.”
Rita yawned. “I think I’m going to try and get some sleep. What about you?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Catherine replied, though she doubted she’d get much rest this night or any other until she could return home to the candlelit world that seemed so far away now. She switched off the bedside light. “Good night, Rita.”
After the meeting ended, Vincent returned to their chamber and padded into the bedroom. For a moment, he considered trying to work further on the security reroute, but Father’s admonition rang in his ears. It would not be worth the quarrel that would surely erupt if he was discovered, and besides, he was tired, his fatigue an aching burn in his muscles. He sat down on the edge of the spavined mattress, hardly hearing the squeal it gave as his weight settled upon it. Tugging off his shirt and removing his shoes and pants, (for once, not caring where they fell,) he lay down and pulled up the quilt, the utter quiet of the room drawing him deeper into the fine grey edge of sleep. And somehow, the currents between them opened again, a shining current of thought and emotion.
I need you.
I know. Her breath, warm against his neck, her touch at his temple, smoothing his cares and worries.
I never thought we could....
Catherine’s smile. Light in his dark places, the soft trill of her laugh. Are we really…
Talking? Perhaps. Or we’re just dreaming together.
Mmm, I like that.
Oh, yes. I’ve missed you so. He felt her arms surround him, a hug fierce for one so small. Her body curved against his; his heart beat with hers.
I’ve missed you too. But I’ll be home soon.
Four days. I…will be waiting.
The lambent glow of her mirth. You’re not the only one, love. Her lips brushed his own, a kiss, a promise. Rest now. We both need it.
Vincent didn’t feel her go, but he sensed her, near to his heart. Always. The thought belonged to neither of them, but in the moments before his conscious awareness fled, Vincent smiled.
And somewhere in a hotel in Albany, Catherine followed him.
Click here for Chapter 40....
 “Exposed on the Cliffs of the Heart,” by Rainer Maria Rilke