Chapter 9: The Tangled Web
By the time Catherine reached their chamber, Valerie had filled her in on the day’s events. “Come on in and sit down,” Catherine called to her as she went into the bedroom. “I just need to change first. My feet are killing me.”
Valerie chuckled. “Heels do seem…impractical.”
“That they are,” Catherine agreed as she toed the vile things off, “but necessary, sometimes.” She dug out her favorite pair of worn tennis shoes from under the bed and put them on, then shrugged into the grey Columbia Law School sweatshirt. “Ahhhh, much better. Make yourself some tea if you want—I think the kettle is on the burner.”
“It is,” Valerie confirmed. “Is this one of Mouse’s inventions?”
“What, you mean the burner?” Catherine asked as she pulled her hair into a loose ponytail and found Valerie staring bemusedly at the burner, which had been jury-rigged to fit neatly above an old carved tea cart. “Yeah, it does. And with a minimum of fireworks too.”
Valerie chuckled. “Mouse, bless him. Above, I don’t know what he’d be—either in jail or running a toy company.” She sobered. “Catherine, he wasn’t…very happy about being left behind. A bunch of people weren’t.”
“I’m sure Vincent had his reasons,” Catherine replied. “It must have been hard for him to choose.”
“It was,” Valerie confirmed, “but he had good reasons. Fewer people means a lessened risk of being discovered, plus…well, you might not have noticed, but Mouse doesn’t come with an ON/OFF switch. I don’t think he knows how to be quiet.” She folded her arms. “Still, I’d expect Vincent to get an earful from some of them. Me, I’m just glad he didn’t ask Cullen to go. He and Leah are all I’ve got, you know?”
Catherine nodded. “I do. I do indeed.”
“What were your plans tonight?” Valerie asked, a shade too carefully.
The question was loaded with some other meaning, Catherine sensed. “I hadn’t really thought that far,” she confessed. “Why?”
Valerie fiddled with the edge of her teacup—a nervous gesture. “There are people gathering in the commons,” she finally said. “It would do them good to see you. To know that you are not afraid. It’s what Vincent would do.”
Catherine sat down heavily in one of the overstuffed chairs, absorbing this. Her husband was as much symbol as man to the tunnels, but this was the first time she’d confronted it quite so baldly. “And if I tell you that I am afraid…what then?”
“Then you’ll be another member of the club,” Valerie said dryly. “At least you won’t be alone.”
The small group traveled mostly in silence for the first few hours. Vincent was pleased by this; they didn’t know precisely where Lucas’s sentries might be and they were much less likely to be discovered if they didn’t make unnecessary noise. He glanced at Mary and Angus and thought their expressions must surely mirror his own: grim determination mixed with just the slightest amount of apprehension.
He took a deep breath, forcing calm over his instincts, the urge to leave the others behind and strike at the people who had harmed his father. There was the instinct of the hunter rising within him, thrumming with the rhythms of his blood; set free…alone…and nothing and no one would stop him. I can do this, the Other said, giving voice to all his inner conflicts. Let me.
Vincent became aware of murmuring, and that Angus had said something to him and was awaiting his answer. “I’m…sorry, Angus. My mind was elsewhere. What did you say?”
Angus shook his head. “Distracted is no way to go about this, you know. I said I think we should stop for a bit—if I remember the maps right, and Mary says I do, the corridors are going to start branching soon and we’ll need to figure out which one to go down. Plus, if we’re going to cut power, we need to know where they’re hiding their junction box.”
Vincent accepted the rebuke with an incline of his head. Winslow would have said much the same. “You’re right,” he said. “My apologies.”
Angus grinned, an unexpectedly wry look on his dour face. He felt the weight of Angus’s hand on his shoulder and through the contact, Vincent sensed there was no true anger in him, just concern. “That’s what you brought me here for, ain’t it?”
Vincent returned the smile with one of his own. “Not entirely, but…yes, thank you.”
“Angela, what’s going on?” Father asked as the door shut behind her.
Angela shifted her son to her shoulder. Her other hand rested on the thin, fragile shoulders of her eldest daughter. “Were you serious, what you said? You would let us join you?”
“Depends,” Rhys said before Father could speak. “Did you know what Lucas was planning?”
“I’m his wife,” Angela replied, as tartly. “Not his counselor. Not his mind-reader.”
Quinn folded her arms. “That doesn’t answer the question. Did you know?”
“I knew Lucas was going to get a doctor—Joshua was sick, and Dr. Peter had told us he wouldn’t be available for a time. I didn’t know… all of this.” Angela looked at all of them, the bravado missing from her eyes, and Father noticed how tired and frightened she looked. “I didn’t. Please. Believe me.”
“I do,” Father said, before any of the others could speak. “But Angela, the council will have to make the final decision as to your asylum. Be prepared that they may not be in a listening mood after…all of this.”
Angela’s smile made her look years younger. “They will, if I help you escape.”
Father felt a certain unwilling respect for her; Angela might well want a better life for herself and her children, but she was going to buy her way into their community with the only currency the council would accept. It was calculating, and a touch cold, but he couldn’t argue with her logic. “Very well,” he said. “I assume you have a plan?”
Catherine followed Valerie into the crowded commons and realized that most of the community must be in here, waiting. There was an uneven, worried tone to the rise and fall of conversation and out of the corner of her eye, she saw a sullen Mouse (sullen? Mouse? she wondered) sitting with Jamie. But in the nervous glances, Catherine saw that Valerie’s assessment had been correct: without Father to lead them, without Vincent to calm them, the community was rudderless and afraid.
She took a deep breath and considered what to do next. There was an empty space across from Mouse and Jamie’s welcoming smile beckoned her forward. “Do you want some coffee?” Valerie asked. “There’s a fresh pot. I can bring you some if you want. Cream, sugar?”
“Both,” Catherine said. “And thank you.” She walked over to the table and sat down. The conversation halted as soon as she sat down. “I told you,” Jamie said. “She’s here, Mouse.”
“I am,” Catherine told her with a confidence she didn’t feel. “How are you two doing?”
“Mouse is grumpy,” Jamie said, forthright as always.
“Wanted to come,” Mouse said, an unusual sourness edging his words. “Should be there. Father’s not just Vincent’s Father.”
He was fidgeting, Catherine saw, with the worn ceramic handle of his mug, and she thought how odd it was to see him without one of his customary tools in his hands. “Of course,” she soothed. “But I’m sure Vincent didn’t want to see you get hurt.” And almost without conscious recall, she remembered the days after the cave-in, coming Below to check on Vincent and finding Father engaged in a serious discussion with Mouse about all the risks he’d taken to free them. “That much explosive, you could have been killed!” Father had said, and although Catherine hadn’t heard the worry in his words then (she’d thought Father was being just a tad unfair, considering Mouse’s risk had saved his life and Vincent’s) she thought she understood now. Mouse didn’t care for his own welfare when the lives of his tunnel family were endangered…and to keep him safe, Vincent had left him behind.
As he did for me. The thought was not a new one, and Catherine knew she would have been of little use—what need had they for a lawyer right now?—and she was buried in work besides, necessary work with the Avery trial starting so soon, but…Jamie’s light touch on her arm broke into her train of thought. “Catherine, you know he’s going to be okay, right? They’ll all come home.”
“I thought I was here to reassure you,” Catherine replied dryly.
“You are. You did. But you needed to hear it too.”
They trudged on in relative silence for another few hours or more. Vincent shut his mental door against his darker thoughts to concentrate better on the faint clues only he could pick up: the smell of fabric, the heavier (and much more unpleasant) scents of unwashed bodies, the emotional residues of fear and worry (Vincent shook his head once; sometimes these emanations were as overpowering in their way as the more obvious smells.) The center corridor was absent all of these clues; clearly no one had come this way in some time. The corridor to the left, though…He picked up a whiff of tea-antiseptic-book and knew. Father and the others had been taken down this passage. The growl rumbled in his chest, unbidden.
Vincent turned at a tug on his cloak: Mary, gesturing them both to a jury-rigged junction box hidden just inside the narrow left corridor. “It’s as I thought,” she said, voice pitched low. “They haven’t made any changes since I was here last. Father and I…saw this on our way back the last time. He was appalled.”
Angus grunted. “With good reason. It’s a fire hazard waiting to happen. Complacent bastards, aren’t they?” He eyed the wiring skeptically. “Been a while since I mucked around with electrical work, but it looks easy enough to cut power.”
“And how far away are we from Lucas’s group?” Vincent asked. He had a mental estimate but he could as easily be wrong.
Angus yawned and glanced at his watch. “Coming on midnight now. Shouldn’t be too much longer.”
Vincent felt a pang of guilt. They had left on his insistence and had not stopped, except for a few brief breaks, for hours. And Angus and Mary were older; he should have given them some time to rest. And you? Aren’t you tired? an inner voice asked in Catherine’s voice—Catherine who had always insisted that he gave his needs and desires as much weight as everyone else’s. Reluctantly, he acknowledged the truth: he too was tired, and worried. And it was only with great effort that he was able to limit the torrent of feelings coming from Father and the others so he could focus on finding them. The strain of that, the constant tug on his own emotions, was beginning to wear on him. “We can stop for an hour or so,” he said aloud.
Mary’s head jerked up. Her hair had come down from its customary knot—a rare enough sight—and as Vincent watched, she hastily repinned it. “I don’t think an hour will make much difference, Vincent. We’ll all sleep better once they’re home.” Her arch look punctuated her words: Don’t stop on my account.
Angus nodded. “She’s right. Better we get there—we can rest on the way home.”
Vincent folded his arms. “There might be…little rest for us on the way back. Are you both certain?”
Angus grinned, a challenging, fierce look. “What do you think, boy?”
Father sat down heavily on the bed, tired to the marrow of his bones. Rhys paced the confines of the narrow room. “Do you believe her?” Quinn asked.
Father sighed. “I believe that she wants a better life for her children. Whether I believe that she’ll be able to cut the electrical power and return to rescue us is another thing entirely. But…it’s in Angela’s hands now. There’s little else we can do.”
Her plan, he had to admit, had been a good one. With Lucas and the other members of their rag-tag council embroiled in a meeting with “her” (Angela’s eyes had flickered nervously to the door as she’d said the word,) it would be easy enough for Angela to bring her children to Father and the others, and then journey to the power junction to cut all power—and the overhead lighting. Then she would return to guide Father and the others out of the community and on their way back home. He fought against another sigh—so many, many things, resting on the frail shoulders of one woman. And if she was caught…well, as he’d said, it was up to Angela.
He heard the muted snick of the door’s lock; the door creaked open. Angela, guiding her children inside. “I’ve fed Joshua and changed him,” she said without preamble. “We should have a couple of hours before he gets fussy again. These are my other children, Susan and Joseph.”
“Joey,” the boy insisted. “My name is Joey.”
The girl Susan rolled her eyes. “Joseph is your full name. I keep telling you that.”
“Joey is a fine name,” Quinn said. She glanced at both children. “Would you like to come with us? There are lots of other kids for you to play with.”
“And there’s food there,” Angela put in. “Food for the taking.”
“Food for the asking,” Father said firmly, wondering how well these children would fare. “We do not steal in our community.”
Joey’s eyes were round with shock and Susan opened her mouth to say something, but Angela’s hand on her shoulder silenced them both. “Maybe we can talk about how you live after we get there, eh?”
Rhys smiled. “Great idea.” He took Joshua from her and sat down on the bed, holding the child with a parent’s practiced ease. “How long do you think it will take you to cut power and return?”
Angela shrugged. “About an hour or so. Once I shut the power off, there will be a lot of confusion and I’m sure Lucas will suspect something is up, so bar the door and don’t let anyone in until I come back.”
“Is Daddy coming too?” Joey asked.
Angela bit her lip. “I don’t know, baby. I’ll ask him though, okay?” She squared her shoulders. “I need you and Susan to stay here for a bit, okay? I’ll be back soon.”
The lights flickered and died on the last of her words. And Father knew, as surely as he knew the sun would rise, or one of Mouse’s gizmos would inevitably backfire…he knew.
Vincent and the others had arrived.
As the hours wore on, more and more people came into the commons, as if to relieve those who had already left, or simply to support those who remained. Bronwyn joined them at some point near midnight. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said simply. “The kids are out like lights, but…I can’t. Can I sit here?”
“Of course,” Catherine said, scooting over on the long bench to make room. “Have you eaten?”
“Some,” Bronwyn replied. “But…you know how it is.”
“I do,” Catherine told her.
Valerie stood. “Oh, there’s Marisol and Miguel. Can I get you something from the kitchen, Bronwyn?”
Bronwyn shook her head. “Catherine, do you mind if we talk a little outside?”
“Of course not,” Catherine replied. She rose and followed the other woman into the narrow corridor just outside the commons. Someone—Kanin, probably—had carved a couple of wide benches into the wall and she sat down on one of them. The tappings on the pipes, even at this late hour, rose and fell and she felt some of the tensions of her day subside with the rhythms of home.
Bronwyn sat down next to her. She smoothed a non-existent wrinkle in her long patched skirt then said, “Catherine, what do you know about what’s going on with Rhys?”
“Only what you do,” Catherine replied and that thought unnerved her more than she could say. Vincent, she sensed, had narrowed the threads of their bond to concentrate better, and although she understood his reasoning, it was difficult to perceive so little from him.
Bronwyn folded her arms. “Are you…I’m sorry, Catherine, but I’ve heard rumors about….you and Vincent’s connection. Isn’t there anything you can tell me?”
“I…I only know he’s well. I have to assume the others are, too,” Catherine said, slightly nettled with discussing their bond so openly. It wasn’t something that needed much analysis…it simply was, like the air she breathed or the moon at night.
Bronwyn flushed slightly. “I’m sorry. I’ve asked you about something personal—”
Catherine breathed out and smiled, recognizing the desperation that had driven Bronwyn to breach the tunnels’ tacit respect for privacy. “No, if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d have asked the exact same thing.”
Bronwyn tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear. “But they’re all right?”
Catherine nodded. Bronwyn’s hand reached out and clasped her own. “Then we’ll have to hold to that.”
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