Chapter 50: To Fly Towards a Secret Sky 
Catherine saw Vincent and his small party off at dawn, nearly a week later. It was a small group heading to the Crystal Caverns: Geoffrey, Zach, Samantha, Alannah, Brooke and Cedric, plus a taciturn Angus as an additional chaperon and guide. “You sure that’ll work out okay?” she’d asked Vincent the night before.
He’d paused coiling his ropes and folded his hands. “No. But it was either Angus’s turn or Kanin’s and Luke and Olivia are both sick. I couldn’t ask Kanin to leave them.”
She nodded; the stomach flu had hit the tunnels hard over the previous week. “I worry,” she said simply. “Angus is still such a…”
“Powder keg?” Vincent supplied. “Yes. At times. But he knows these caverns almost as well as I do. And,” he continued thoughtfully, “it’s high time there were other expectations of him than just being the tunnel…grouch.”
Catherine couldn’t help it; she laughed at the apt description. “But is he ready for six teenagers for five days?”
Vincent grinned. “I’m not sure I am.”
Now she looked at the group gathered outside their chamber, the teenagers talking in low voices in deference to the hour, Angus nursing a thermos of coffee. Vincent shouldered his pack and gathered her close, his head resting on top of hers. “I will be safe,” he promised, his voice a soft murmur against her hair. “I will return to you.”
There was no one, save Mouse, who matched Vincent’s familiarity with this world and its hidden places, but as they’d both learned on their honeymoon, simple knowledge wasn’t always enough to guarantee safety. “You carry my heart,” Catherine said, kissing him gently.
Father rested his hand on her shoulder as they watched the group leave. “He’ll be fine.”
“I know,” she said.
The phone rang, startling Catherine out of her train of thought as she glared at the thick motion--- a motion to dismiss---which she knew full well wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Lack of evidence, no jurisdiction...Devin would have written a better motion. She located the receiver, buried under an avalanche of paper, and picked it up. “Catherine Chandler.”
“Hi, Cathy, this is Debra at reception. There’s a Mr. Smith here to see you.”
It couldn’t be that late, could it? Catherine wondered. But the clock didn’t lie; she’d spent the entire morning working on the response to the motion. “Thanks, Debra. I’ll come up there to show him back.”
Rita arrived at her desk as she was hanging up the receiver. “You ready for this?” Catherine asked.
“Oh, sure,” Rita said. “Even bought a fresh box of band-aids, just in case.”
“My kind of party,” Catherine replied dryly. “Let’s go and tackle those bank records.”
“It’s so good to see you again, Catherine,” David said as they took their seats.
“You two know each other?” Rita asked.
“We have mutual friends,” Catherine replied, raising her eyebrows at David.
“Small world,” Rita said as she shook her head.
“Isn’t it, though?” Catherine said, amused, thinking how true the statement was. “David, what can you tell us about where all of this money is going?”
Rita turned to retrieve a fallen pen and David dropped a wink, then returned his attention to the copied stacks of bank statements that ringed the conference room table. “Well, on the surface, it all looks perfectly legitimate. Max Avery is the principal on a consulting firm with active bank accounts in Manhattan. Tax records filed, all very on the up and up. I’ve examined them and if I didn’t know Max Avery was a crook, I’d have a hard time believing it.”
She’d been a prosecutor too long not to hear the “but” in his words. “And?”
“Avery Consulting also owns a series of shell corporations with bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, and those are very, very far from legitimate. The corporations have no other function except as a front for money laundering. According to Investigations, Mr. Avery is the principal on all of them, and the corporate officers are either known associates of Max Avery or the Rotolos. And they all use the same agent for service of process, which goes back to a law firm with ties to----”
Catherine closed her eyes briefly, thinking of Mischa and Sophie. It was the same scheme Elliot Burch---or his attorney---had once used to cloak his illegal activities. Elliot, it appeared, had learned how to be dirty from the best. “The same law firm the Rotolos used?”
“Gosh, Catherine,” David said with a wry grin, “you'd think you had worked a few cases in your time.”
She remembered Elliot's attorney, his utter willingness to do whatever it took to achieve Elliot's goals. Elliot claimed he’d fired the man but somehow, she thought not. His methods had been effective, after all, if illegal. “Let's just say I'm not...unfamiliar with shell companies. Or the people who use them. I am stunned, though, at how complex this operation appears to be; I once would have doubted Max Avery knew the Cayman Islands from Staten Island.” I badly underestimated him. It won't happen again.
David spread his hands. “It could be he's getting a lot of very good advice, or the Rotolos were running this racket through him just like he was running Moreno.” Catherine hid a wince; Avery's influence had spread far in the DA's office, but to hear it stated so baldly... “I was able to go through the bank records we've received so far, and I have an approximate total of how much money Avery extorted,” David continued.
“How much money are we talking about?” Rita asked, flipping through his spreadsheet as she made a notation on her notepad.
“On average, about four to five million dollars a year.”
It was true, as Joe had said once, that Avery’s operation was small potatoes, especially compared to the amount of money the Rotolos’ other rackets must have brought in. But four to five million dollars was still a staggering amount to be extorting from construction crews and contractors all over the city, and Max Avery had been in business for years. “So, just to make sure I understand: Avery takes in kickbacks, funnels the money through these shell corporations and then it circulates back to the Rotolos?” Catherine asked. And also into John Moreno’s pockets, Catherine thought but did not say. Who else was bought and paid for with that money? Will we ever know who all of them are? The same worry was heavy in Rita's dark eyes; they had all paid, and paid dearly, for the actions of John Moreno.
“I believe so, yes,” David said. “There are some bank records I’m still waiting for to confirm all of this, but that’s the general shape of things. Give me a few weeks and I’ll have a nice chart so you can explain it all to a jury.”
“Which bank records are you missing?” Catherine asked. “If I have to rattle some cages, I will.”
David consulted a chart. “Bank of America is being its usual pleasant self, I assume, since I haven’t received records from these two accounts…”
At noon, they took a break. After Rita left to go meet her husband for lunch, David stood and arched his back. “Where are you eating lunch?” David asked.
She had half a roast beef sandwich---William’s leftovers from last night’s dinner---and a salad waiting in the office fridge. “I thought I’d eat at my desk,” Catherine replied, the meal feeling somehow…uninspired. “What about you?”
“I know a little Italian hole in the wall; one of Renata’s brothers owns it. You game?”
The weather was unseasonably clear for a late winter’s day and the confines of the office---yet another lunch break spent pouring over motions and pleadings and the minutiae of the Avery case---seemed suddenly oppressive. She stood and put on her coat and retrieved her purse. “Sounds good to me.”
Renata’s son, Paolo, greeted them when they entered the restaurant and guided them to a back room where their conversation wouldn’t be overheard. The air was heavy with the spices of Italian cooking---red wine, pasta, tomatoes, sausage, and garlic---and Catherine relaxed. They perused the menu for a time in silence and Catherine almost didn’t hear David’s question. “How’s…everyone doing?” He tapped what sounded like an abstract rhythm on the table. Tunnels. Below. Vincent.
“They’re all doing fine,” Catherine replied, smiling at his use of pipecode. “He’s on a camping trip this week.”
“We used to do that when we were kids,” David said. “I wish I could have gone this time. The things we used to get into…or out of…”
“Oh?” Catherine asked, intrigued.
“Some of those stories…I’d better let him tell you,” David said, grinning. “But I owe him my life---more than that, actually.”
The waitress came and took their orders; once she’d left and was well out of earshot, David continued. “My parents were helpers.”
“They’re still alive. They should be anyway,” David replied. “I haven’t…seen them for years.”
“I’m sorry,” Catherine said.
“Don’t be. It was my choice.” As he spoke, he played with his gold wedding band but his hazel eyes were calm and clear. “Joshua isn’t only my business partner, Catherine.”
She remembered seeing the two of them at her first Winterfest, so happy, so clearly in love. “I’m not surprised.”
“You’re ahead of my parents, then,” David said, a certain bitterness darkening his words. “When I…came out, they kicked me out of the house, disowned me, the whole nine yards. Vincent…I don’t know how he did it, but he found me a place to live until I was able to get on my feet. It’s thanks to them I was able to finish college. I owe them…everything.”
Everything. She touched David’s hand. “I understand.”
They made the beach at Masthead Point by early evening. Vincent did a quick headcount and made sure there were no stragglers as Angus began setting out their cooking supplies. He entered the cavern and the teenagers stopped talking almost immediately. “All right. This is your first task. We're below the level of the pipes. Maybe you're lost. What's the first rule, Cedric?”
“Stay together,” Cedric replied promptly.
Vincent nodded. “Very good. Never get separated from your group; it’s too easy to become disoriented.”
Geoffrey raised his hand. Vincent smothered a smile; it was difficult to believe this was the same young man who’d taken part in a water balloon fight only a few days before. “Yes, Geoffrey?”
“How do you do it?”
“You’re always going camping by yourself,” Brooke interjected and Samantha nodded. “We’ve always wondered how you never get lost.”
Vincent ignored the muffled snort of amusement coming from Angus. “I have been lost below, though rarely,” he said, not really wanting to get into an explanation of abilities he only barely understood himself, of the needs which had driven him, time and again, to seek out the darker hidden reaches of this world. “It’s made me more cautious in the risks I do take. And…this is not about me. This is about what you’ll have to learn to survive here. Now, why don’t we get a fire built so we can have some dinner?”
“You sure that’s necessary?” Angus asked.
Vincent knelt by the small pool, filling a jug. “Purifying the water?”
“Yeah. It’s safe to drink here, ain’t it?”
“Yes. But not every source of water below is.” He remembered a foul stream, heavy with poisonous metals, several days journey to the east. So desperate had he been, so thirsty, that he’d almost risked it. Almost. “They need to be wary of assuming the water is safe to drink.”
Angus handed him two of the little purification tablets. “Here you go, then. Pasta will be ready in a few once the water reaches a boil.”
Pasta. William’s secret sauce. Vincent could almost taste the basil, the heavy peppered spices. He glanced down at the jar Angus held in his hands. “Will there be enough for everyone?”
Angus grinned unexpectedly, the expression looking so different on his usual dour face. “There’s enough for at least three of you; you know how William is.”
Vincent unwrapped two of the tablets and dropped them in the jug of water. “Very well.”
After dinner, he continued his lesson, an abbreviated version of the one he’d given Catherine the morning after their marriage. These children had grown up in the tunnels and understood the symbols used on the hand-scrawled maps. What they did not know, and which only experience could teach them, were the common-sense skills that would enable them to survive long enough to be rescued. He removed a bundled kit from his satchel and unrolled it on the sand. “What do you see here?” he asked.
The children---so they were to him, except these were children on the verge of adulthood---gathered around and peered closely at the bundle. “A compass,” Samantha said. “And …waterproof matches?”
“Yes,” Vincent agreed. “What else?”
“There’s a whistle,” Alannah said, blowing into it experimentally. Brooke rolled her eyes in disdain, and Vincent only barely refrained from clapping his hands over his ears as the echoing shriek assaulted his ears.
“Thank you,” Vincent managed, retrieving the whistle. “As you can see, it’s quite effective.”
“Yeah, at blowing out your eardrums,” Geoffrey said, elbowing Alannah in the ribs.
The girl---no, young woman, Vincent corrected himself---was instantly contrite, pale face flushing hotly. “Sorry, Vincent. I didn't realize...”
He nodded. Her ignorance wasn't surprising, not when he'd always taken such great pains to keep the odder facets of his abilities secret. Enough. Catherine had slowly led him from his life-long reticence---was he now to continue it? “My hearing is...particularly sensitive. You couldn't have known, just please keep it in mind.” He redirected their attention back to the kit spread out on the ground. “What else do you see?”
Once the lesson was finished, they bedded down for the night. Geoffrey, Cedric, Zach and Vincent slept on one end of the cavern, with Angus sleeping between them and the young women. His raised eyebrows spoke volumes: There will be no snuggling in this cavern tonight. Vincent smiled as if Angus had spoken and settled down to his own rest. Catherine was…near. Not near enough to touch, of course, but her heart spoke of home…their chamber, then. There was a mild jolt of pleasant surprise---what?
He was beginning to drift off to sleep, content in the warm waves of their bond, when Angus’ whisper brought him wide awake. “Vincent,” he whispered, “how are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he whispered back. “Why?”
“That pasta ain’t agreeing with me.”
Vincent remembered the outbreak of stomach flu the previous week. “How bad do you feel?”
A groan was his only answer. Vincent rose and stepped over Zach’s long legs and bent down next to Angus. “Nausea?” he asked, though in some unnamed fashion, he already knew, the roiling queasiness threatening to take up residence in his own stomach. Angus bolted for the cavern entrance, his hand over his mouth.
Vincent raked one hand through his hair. It had taken them the better part of the day to get this far; if Angus had the flu, it would be another day’s travel to return. Perhaps longer. He poured a cup of water and left it beside Angus’ bedside and waited for him to return.
“So what do you think?” Cullen asked.
Catherine stared at the heavy wooden doors, the black iron hasps gleaming in the torchlight. “I saw your design but this….this is amazing. How did you make it so fast?”
Cullen grinned. “This is probably where I should launch into a story about how I worked far into the night and into the wee hours of the morning…but the honest answer is, I found them.”
“And they just happened to fit?” She touched the polished wood. The solidness of age, the mellowing of the varnish, spoke volumes. These were no machine-made doors.
Cullen leaned back, one foot braced on the wall. A hammer, the wooden shaft scarred and worn, dangled from his hand. “Kanin and I had to reroute one of the storage chambers on this level while you and Vincent were on your honeymoon; the doors we removed for salvage, in case they could be used somewhere. I wasn’t sure they would fit but…” He shrugged. “Kanin and I were lucky that the doorways in this section tend to be more or less uniform in their width and height; it didn't take a whole lot of carving to make them fit.”
“They're lovely,” Catherine said, making a mental note to find Kanin and thank him as well; he had recently succumbed to the same flu that was making its way through the tunnels. “Thank you for saving them.”
He acknowledged this with a nod; uneasy, she noticed, with outright praise. “I'm just glad these old doors are being used again. Seemed a shame to let them stay in the storeroom.”
She thought of all the things, all the people, remade and reformed with a new purpose in this place. “Yes, I agree.”
“...And then Angus came down with the flu,” Vincent said, nearly two days later. “That's why we came back so soon.”
Catherine laced her arm with his, noting how tired and drawn he looked. The return journey couldn't have been easy with Angus sick. “He'll be fine, though?”
“Yes,” Vincent replied. “Angus is just dehydrated. Father will take good care of him.”
“I'm glad.” Just before they reached the corridor leading to their chamber, Catherine tugged on his arm. “I have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” Vincent echoed. “I...thought I felt your mischief but...” He smiled. “I didn't want to ask you.”
She playfully slapped his arm; it was like hitting a tree and had as little effect. “Hush, you. Close your eyes, and let me lead you.”
Catherine guided him down the short corridor until they arrived at their chamber. She took his hand and placed it on the door. “Open your eyes, love.”
His shock flooded their bond. Whatever he had been expecting, it clearly hadn't been this. “What...these are the doors to the old storage chamber. And...”
“And now they're ours,” Catherine finished for him. “Cullen found the doors in a storeroom and Kanin---before he got sick---helped him install them.” Vincent stared at the doors, transfixed. “What do you think?” she asked gently.
He opened the doors and closed them behind them as they entered their chamber, a solid weighty thud echoing. “You have opened so many doors for me, Catherine. And now this too. I never thought...”
She turned to drop the old iron bar lock in place, then took his hands in her own. “You deserve...everything. Please let me...show you?”
Click here for Chapter 51...
 “This is love: to fly towards a secret sky,” quote by Rumi