Chapter 10: Those Who Wait
Father had always had an instinctive fear of the dark; as a young man during the endless hours of the Blitz, the enforced, constant night had made him claustrophobic and many years later, in the tunnels, he had kept a small candle burning, regardless of the risks. Several cramped hours as Paracelsus’s prisoner hadn’t helped the feeling and now, as he followed Angela’s light, even steps, he took deep measured breaths and thought of home. The darkness pushed in and he breathed against it, forcing it away. “You all right?” Quinn murmured (off to his right, he thought, but it was difficult to tell.)
“Yes,” he said, as quietly. He found himself wishing for the solidness of Vincent’s presence, for his son’s unerring awareness. It was difficult to be afraid around Vincent, though only Father (and Catherine, he supposed) understood just how much of an act his son’s pose of restrained calm really was.
Quinn clasped his hand. “You’re really not okay. Your pulse is hammering like a jackhammer.” A pause, then: “Father, are you claustrophobic?”
It was a difficult thing to admit, given their usual living conditions. “Yes. No. Sometimes,” he allowed.
“We should stop,” Quinn began, but Father cut her off. “No. We need to keep moving, Quinn. If Lucas and the others should find us—”
Quinn sighed. “All right. But—”
Angela’s voice carried a whispered urgency. “Hush. I hear something.”
“There’s someone up ahead,” Vincent murmured as they stopped. He tilted his head slightly. “Seven people.”
“Not Father and the others then,” Angus said as quietly. “Scouting party?”
“Perhaps,” Vincent replied, uneasy. There was very little noise for such a large group and that alone was reason for concern. If he’d heard seven people, there could easily be twice as many that he hadn’t heard.
“Can you see anything?” Angus asked.
The pathways and corridors around them were cloaked in shades of grey; Vincent knew this looked like pitch darkness to the others. “No. But they’re not far away.” He looked around the cavern, trying to find a place where they could hide. Perhaps in the rocky arch over the left corridor...
A child’s whimper echoed in the stillness. Vincent glanced at Angus and Mary, saw they hadn’t heard the noise. “There’s a young child, a baby, with them.”
Mary shook her head. “That’s no scouting party. Refugees, maybe? Though I don’t know if---”
Vincent tapped on the rock---pipecode for “silence”---and Mary stopped talking. His sense of Father told him, inexplicably, that Father and the others were coming closer. They’re escaping, he realized, and there are other people with them.
Catherine stretched and yawned. “That good, is it?” Marisol asked dryly.
Marisol looked tired, her black hair escaping from the fraying strands of her braid. “I was about to ask you the same,” Catherine told her. “Everything all right?”
“Sure,” Marisol said, “if you count a baby who won’t sleep as ‘okay.’” She yawned hugely. “Miguel is with him now. I have it in mind to take a nap.”
“You should,” Catherine agreed.
“I can’t,” Marisol replied. “Miguel has to go into work soon and he can’t drive a bus half-asleep.”
The waiting was the hardest, Catherine had heard before in other contexts, but here was something she could do. “I could take him for a couple of hours at least,” she said.
Marisol smiled. “Bless you for offering, and I will take you up on it.”
Catherine rose and followed Marisol to the chamber she shared with Miguel and their infant son, Benjamin. It was slightly larger than most of the chambers she’d seen, but the pale rock walls—evidence of a new chamber carved for Benjamin—accounted for some of that, as did Marisol’s loom, resting against the opposite wall, a brightly colored tapestry half-finished.
Miguel was pacing the interior of the chamber, trying to soothe his fretful son. “Mijo, mijo,” he murmured, but his voice was nearly lost in the boy’s fretful wailing.
“Catherine, this is Benjamin,” Marisol said dryly. “Miguel, you’re off duty.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said. “He’s fed, he’s dry, he’s just—”
“Being a baby, I think,” Marisol replied over the noise. “Don’t worry. Catherine’s going to help me get some sleep—why don’t you go get something to eat before you go to work. I’ll get her filled in on what he needs.”
Benjamin was passed from his mother to his father and Miguel gave a grateful smile. “Gracias, Catherine.”
At the whimpering from her youngest son, Angela stopped. “Give him to me,” she hissed in a whisper.
Rhys obediently handed the boy over. “What are you— oh,” he said. If it hadn’t been dark as a tomb, Father was certain he’d have seen the man’s blush light up the corridors.
Father’s eyes had adjusted somewhat to the darkness but he thought Angela smiled. “What, you had a better idea?”
Rhys shook his head. “No, not at all. I’d have done it myself but the plumbing’s a bit lacking.”
She might have chuckled. “Use what you got, I always say.” She tilted her head. “Whoever else is out there, they’re coming closer.”
“Are they…dangerous?” Father couldn’t keep from asking.
“If they are, there’s not much we can do,” Angela replied reasonably. “I didn’t have time to get the guns from the armory. But only a fool would fire into the dark.”
Father withheld his opinions of the relative intelligence of Lucas’s group and said instead, “Very well. What do you suggest? Do we go forward or backtrack or…?”
“Staying here isn’t an option,” Quinn said. “They’re coming closer.”
Vincent stayed in his listening position—eyes closed, head tilted—for several seconds. He could feel the concern from the others, the uncertainty arcing through him, but couldn’t spare the attention to deal with it. There were two groups approaching, from different directions, and he needed every bit of awareness to assess the situation. He breathed deeply, unleashing the hunter’s instincts; Catherine had taught him that his abilities were not something to be feared, but understood and accepted, and trusting in her counsel, he loosed the reins.
The hunter, the Other, his hidden self—he knew precisely who was coming. A group of seven—Father’s group—and another, whose scent and steps he didn’t recognize. Five men, one woman, and the woman was not…entirely unknown. The vaguest scent of sulfur, of something evil and grasping…the vile impostor unmasked…the mask…the mask…the maker of the mask…
There was more too, the faint heavier metallic smells of gunpowder and unwashed bodies. They have guns. They are armed. Vincent opened his eyes. “Father and the others will be here soon. They…are not alone.”
Angus rolled his eyes. “Of course they aren’t. Why would anything be easy?”
Mary shook her head. “How many, Vincent?”
“Six. With weapons,” he answered. “There are few places we can retreat to, if they start firing.”
“So we’re sitting ducks. Great,” Angus put in. “Explain to me why Father doesn’t allow us actual weapons again?”
It was obviously a rhetorical question and Vincent didn’t answer. Instead, he turned to them. “Go. Send a message. Tell the others—”
“No,” Mary said firmly. “We’re not going. We’re not leaving you alone to face this, Vincent.” She touched his arm gently and the warm bubbling of her emotions was soothing. She was the only mother he had ever known. “Not ever again.”
Catherine walked the hall outside Marisol and Miguel’s chamber with Benjamin in her arms, the baby’s hands clutched in the collar of her blouse. He was still fussy, but his wailing had died down to an occasional whimper, soothed by the movement. “Hey Catherine, who’s your new friend?” Valerie called as she entered the corridor. “Ah, young Benjamin. Good, I’m glad Marisol finally asked for some help.”
She came closer and Catherine saw Leah in her patchwork sling, which had clearly been repurposed from at least one backpack. “How’s your baby doing?” Catherine asked.
“About as well as Benjamin is,” Valerie said ruefully. “I finally got her to sleep and Cullen said to wake him in a couple of hours and he’ll take the rest of the night.” She yawned. “I’ll let him, too.”
Catherine chuckled. “I’d imagine so.” One of Benjamin’s hands had clenched in her hair; wincing, she gently she unwound the hair from his fist. “Has there been any word at all?”
Valerie bit her lip. “That’s one of the reasons I was looking for you. Pascal stumbled into the commons a few minutes ago for the strongest coffee William makes. He said there was a…ghost of a signal on the pipes, something in an old code we’ve abandoned, but he thought it came from Lucas’s community.”
“Was he able to translate the message?”
Valerie nodded. “Not really. The message broke off but…” She trailed off and Catherine thought how rare it was to see Valerie broken out of her usual serenity. “Catherine, are you at all familiar with the concept of signatures in pipe code?”
“Not really,” she replied. “Vincent taught me pipe code in Connecticut, but I don’t think we got that far.”
“You probably…had other things to keep you busy, I’m sure,” Valerie replied with a wink. “Basically, everybody knows the same pipe code, but there are subtle differences. After a while, you get to the point where you can tell who’s tapping without knowing who sent the message.”
“I bet Pascal knows everybody,” Catherine said as she tucked the blankets closer around the baby against the perpetual tunnel drafts.
“You’re not kidding,” Valerie agreed with a laugh. “Sometimes I think he knows who’s tapping before they even start the message.” She sobered. “Catherine, Pascal thinks it may have been sent by somebody who used to be one of Paracelsus’s followers. Have you heard of…a woman named Tamara?”
Catherine shook her head. “No. Should I have?”
Valerie stared down at her daughter and Catherine had the momentary impression that she didn’t want to meet her eyes. Finally, Valerie spoke. “When Vincent was recovering from being so ill…”
“A bunch of us went to the remnants of Paracelsus’s community.” She met Catherine’s gaze and there was steel in her hazel eyes which hadn’t been there before. “I’ll be honest with you. We intended to drive his followers out of here permanently. By whatever means necessary.”
“I…see,” Catherine replied, stunned. “I had no idea.”
“You weren’t supposed to,” Valerie said. “You had enough to worry about. I don’t think we even told Father, but….he knew when we came back exactly where we’d been. Never said a word to us.”
“And you encountered Tamara?” Catherine surmised.
“Yes…and no. You’ll recall Paracelsus had a particular gift with masks?”
Catherine shuddered, remembering Winterfest and Lou, and the oh-so-precise imitation of Father which had driven Vincent over the edge into madness. “Yes. Tamara was his mask-maker?”
“That’s what we were…told by one of Parcelsus’s cronies,” Valerie said, and Catherine had no doubt of the circumstances of that particular confession. “Tamara was, of course, long gone by the time we were taken to her workshop. She had masks, half-finished, and some which were nearly done, all over the place—on the walls, on stands, everywhere.”
“Did you…recognize anyone?”
Valerie snorted. “Who didn’t I recognize? You. Pascal. Cullen. She hadn’t finished theirs, but she was…really close to finishing yours.”
Benjamin had grown heavy in her arms; Catherine rubbed his back and he made a small squeaking noise and subsided into sleep. “That’s disturbing, to say the least. How could she expect to fool anyone with that?”
“You’re asking me to explain that kind of crazy?” Valerie shook her head. “I have no idea. But it was plenty scary enough seeing it.”
Catherine certainly couldn’t disagree. “And now Pascal thinks she’s resurfaced?”
“You know Pascal. If he says it’s possible, you can believe it. She’s back.”
Father looked askance as Angela stopped. “What is it?”
“We’re trapped,” she admitted. “There are two groups approaching from opposite directions, and we can’t go back.” She didn’t bother lowering her voice; there was, as Father acknowledged, no point if they had no place to hide.
“One of the groups is likely Vincent’s,” Quinn put in. “That means we outnumber the other group…right?”
“They have guns,” Angela reminded them. “Most likely, anyway. It wouldn’t occur to Lucas and…her…to try and reason without them.”
Her, Father mused, their so-far nameless phantom. “Who is she, Angela?”
“She wouldn’t tell me her name,” Angela responded. “ ‘Names have power,’ so she says.” She blew out her breath. “My granny on the rez used to say the same thing.”
A bolt of ice shot up Father’s spine. Paracelsus’s own words, when he’d abandoned the name of John Pater in what felt like an eternity ago. Someone very close to Paracelsus, then. “Is she an older woman?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Of course, I haven’t been around her much to say.”
Father glanced at her, at the children listening so raptly, and decided his questions could wait for another time. Angela seemed to think the same thing and held up her hand again. There was only the sound of the baby’s soft snoring and the rustle of clothing as they breathed. “We should move forward,” Angela announced. “Sitting here waiting isn’t going to accomplish much.”
He breathed deeply himself, hoping against hope they had not come all this way to be injured or killed now. “Very well.”
Click here for Chapter 11...
Click here for Chapter 11...