Bright Spirit Descending

by nan dibble

From Chapter 1

[The beginning of the chapter details Paracelsus' production of the drug, and the experience of a model with it, leading to her death.]

———*** ———

"Joe's taken every precaution," Catherine insisted for about the fifth time, looking up at the leonine planes of Vincent's face for any sign he'd become reconciled to the prospect. "I'll be wearing a wire—a microphone, Vincent. They'll be listening. They'll hear everything. At the first sign of trouble, they'll come in, and I'll dive for the floor. I promise. You mustn't worry."

Vincent's response was to turn more fully away from the light slanting down from the basement storage area into this secret threshold, glinting off the gold bra the diagonal drape of Catherine's white evening gown left half exposed. His features in deliberate shadow, he said nothing—neither arguing nor accepting.

And unless Catherine persuaded him, if he thought her in danger he'd barge right into the middle of a police raid. That was why Catherine had sent him a note to meet her here tonight: to talk it out in advance so she could be certain he'd stay well clear.

She was as close as she'd ever come to being truly angry at him and knew her anger arose from guilt. Once before, he'd followed her to a risky meeting she'd considered necessary despite her edgy nervousness: unease strong enough to have drawn him to her in the first place. She'd come out relatively unscathed but he'd been all but deafened and blinded by a pipe bomb and then fallen into the hands of a vindictive street gang, the Silks. He'd been hurt worse, almost killed, before he'd managed to escape them and finally return Below.

Her fault, as Father had bluntly pointed out more than once in the weeks since.

Catherine was determined nothing like that was going to happen tonight. She was entitled to put herself in danger but absolutely didn't want Vincent involved. She'd hoped it would be a simple matter of telling Vincent of her plans and explaining the safeguards, so he'd understand and be reassured…and stay Below, accepting that she'd be well protected by others. But she'd reckoned without his stubbornness. He'd listen, perfectly politely…and then crash into the middle of a gun battle between drug dealers and police, should one erupt, the danger far greater to him than to her, since neither side would hesitate to fire at him.

Whereas Catherine had at least the protections of Law—of being on the side of the "good guys"—Vincent's jeopardy Above was total. He had no place in that world, alien to criminals and police alike.

If he'd been anybody else, she'd have suspected him of using that grim and irrevocable fact as emotional blackmail to force her to give up her plans.

Trying another tack, she set both hands on his arm saying, "Vincent. It's important. It needs to be done."

Finally he consented to look at her—a brief, sideways glance. "But must you be the one to do it? Cannot this man you say already works there¾ "

"Jimmy."

"Can he not wear this wire and gather whatever evidence—"

"He can't, Vincent. Buckman doesn't trust him to get near the drug deals yet. We have to get a line on the supplier, and for that, someone has to go in and negotiate for a big buy, so Buckman will have to make contact."

"Someone," Vincent repeated in an uninflected tone that nevertheless managed to convey immense reservations.

"I volunteered," Catherine admitted steadily. "And Joe accepted my offer. Do you think Joe would have agreed if he thought it was that dangerous?"

Staring straight out into the dark of the brick passage, Vincent said, "Joe sent you to the docks. Where your companion was assassinated. And where you were shot. I came too late."

"And it's my fault, about the Silks," Catherine countered bluntly. Before he could protest, as she knew he was going to, she went on, "I'm due at the club in an hour. What do you want me to do, Vincent? Call Joe and tell him I've changed my mind, when I haven't? Call it all off at the last minute, let everybody down? Let them go on selling their horrible drugs? Go hide in my apartment, not for fear that I could be hurt but for fear something might happen to you? Is that what you want?"

"No. Of course not. But if you were to be hurt again, Catherine…." At his sides, his hands closed into huge, furred fists as he went on, "If you came to hurt I could have kept from you…. What would you have me do, Catherine? Deny the bond, that conveys your fear to me? Deny the danger, that even you do not claim does not exist? Deny¾ "

She broke in, "If there are risks, they're my risks, Vincent. You can't take them for me. Or from me. Who was it that taught me I must face my fears? Well, I'm doing that. But can't you see that you have to let me? I'm not an invalid, a child, or a fool. I gave Joe my promise. I intend to keep it."

Vincent regarded her gravely. "I understand."

She grasped one of his fists, and it immediately relaxed within her clasp: offering no resistance, but still what it was¾ a clawed sledgehammer of bone, tendon, and muscle that had killed in her defense more than once. Whose strength it would have been too easy to rely upon, rather than endure the necessary pain and fear of developing her own strength, her own courage.

She demanded, "But do you accept it? Will you promise to stay away?"

"As you say, Catherine—you are neither an invalid, a child, nor a fool. You must make your own choices. And I shall make mine. We must both take great care."

Realizing he wasn't going to be sensible about this, she turned for the light and her ladder and left him without another word.

———*** ———

[Catherine’s preparation, then her encounter with Tyler Buckman, manager of the club called Fuscia, intervenes here.]

"It's all right," Cathy repeated stubbornly, trying to push Joe's arm away as they wandered toward the van. She was upset and even though she knew Joe was trying to reassure himself she hadn't been hit, being touched at all made her feel frantic. Buckman's finger stroking down her scarred cheek had brought it all back to her—the attack, and the snake-tattooed thug touching her face with just that kind of slimy delicacy, marking the place where he meant to cut her. Had cut her. Only the one scar remained, but Dr. Sanderle had promised that could be removed, too, allowing a few more weeks for the deep healing to be complete….

"I'm all right. Really," she said, trying to soften her voice to a friendly, ordinary tone without relaxing a fraction of the tight control that kept her knees from buckling.

She wasn't helpless now. Joe wasn't steering her toward the van so he could throw her down, pull out a switchblade, and carve her face into a hideous lacework of oozing cuts. Even imagining it was absurd. This was Joe! And Buckman's violating hands were in cuffs. Soon he'd be fingerprinted and booked. With any luck at all, he wouldn't be touching anybody that way for a long, long time.

That was what she had to think about, concentrate on. The danger was over. That was what she had to feel…to the degree she could allow herself to feel anything without collapsing into hysterics.

"You sure, kiddo?" Joe demanded, holding onto her elbow, drawing her past the van she now couldn't look at without wanting to shudder…because of another van, another time, that this night had brought back to her with the clarity and intensity of dream. Approaching a battered parked Toyota, mostly green, Joe added soberly, "I don't think you should drive. Come on: I'll run you home."

"No, Joe. I'll catch a cab. Really. I want to walk a little, catch my breath—" She pulled free, walking backward away from him toward the corner. "We'll do the post mortem tomorrow in the meeting, all right? Just walk a little, clear my head…?"

Joe was still standing by the car, as though any second he might decide to come after her and try to insist she come with him, when she reached the corner and put it between them, walking quickly, almost blindly, nearly stumbling on a discarded plastic soda bottle and reeling toward an alley to catch her balance.

Something large and dark dropped soundlessly from a fire escape and she let herself be gathered into a comforting embrace: patched wool and leather laces against her cheek, and the dear, reassuring smell of smoke and candle wax as a warm and vivid memory of sanctuary and peace.

For several minutes Vincent said nothing, merely held her…or rather, she realized, let her hold him. All he'd done was open his arms, and she'd flown into them and was clinging to his solidity, his steadiness….

A little embarrassed, she brushed hair and laces away from her face, then took his wrist to draw him deeper into the concealment of the alley's dark where lights from some passing car couldn't find them.

"You came," she murmured, knowing she was stating the obvious but not caring. The relief she'd been holding off now claimed her and she was half dizzy and breathless with it, as though she'd taken too many turns on a carousel and couldn't quite find her balance again, now that everything was no longer spinning.

Vincent's response was merely, "Yes," the word so soft it was more felt and guessed-at than heard.

"You shouldn't have," Catherine added sternly, looking up into his face. "It was no place for you, Vincent. Things like this are my world's concern."

"Are you not my concern?" he countered quietly.

"Yes, but—" She released his wrist to throw out an abrupt gesture. "It was necessary. And as you can see, I wasn't hurt. It all went just as planned. Or almost," she added, recalling Buckman's unwelcome fingers stroking her last remaining scar.

She paced from one side of the alley to the other, then back again, as Vincent stood unmoving at the center. "Don't you see?" she demanded impatiently. "I don't want you hurt. And I especially don't want you hurt on my account! You have to trust me to take care of myself, or trust, with me, to others…like Joe. Like Jimmy. Trust the protections my world offers. This has nothing to do with you, and you have to keep away from it, don't you see?"

"Whatever frightens you, whatever can harm you, touches me. I know what you felt in that place…before the shooting began. I know how that man's touch affected¾ "

"Vincent, I had to do this. I had to know I could do this. Please," she said, laying her hands on the sleeve his cloak left bare. "Don't make me add fear for you to whatever fear I can't help feeling, myself. Don't complicate every risk I take by making it a risk I'm inflicting on you, want to or not. It's my world. I can deal with it. Vincent, I have to: I'm the one who has to live in it!"

"I'm glad," he said finally, "that you're safe. There is a threshold not very far from here: may I see you home?"

For a second Catherine considered the distance and her spike heels on the sand and concrete of the tunnel floors. Then she considered Vincent, patiently waiting for her permission to do so simple a thing as share her company for a little while. A little time, she thought, to find his own balance again after the whirligig of uncertainty and fear he'd been on tonight….

She wondered how many seconds had separated the first gunshot from his certainty that she was unhurt, that the danger was over and the other protections had been enough. She wondered if he'd been simply relieved, or just a little disappointed to find she hadn't needed his help after all….

She slipped her arm under his, remarking lightly, "The perfect end of a perfect evening."

Walking with him through the alley, then along the darker margin of a street, Catherine was thinking that time, concern, and company shouldn't have to be the only gifts she could give him in return for all the wonders his advent into her life had opened to her. In a few weeks would be the anniversary of their first meeting: when he'd found her, slashed, bleeding, and unconscious, in the park—tossed away like a sack of garbage. That meeting had irrevocably changed both their lives. It deserved to be celebrated.

Because of his refusal to remain uninvolved or view topside brutality as none of his necessary concern, she'd been able to heal and gain the strength and courage to do what she'd done tonight to repay, a little, a debt of protection she still felt she owed…for the privileged life she'd led and for Vincent's unending concern ever since that terrible April night that had brought them together.

As she imagined surprising him with a special something, a keepsake for him alone, Vincent inquired, "Why do you smile, Catherine?"

"Oh, for the ordinary reason, I suppose—I'm happy. Glad to be alive. And in good company."

Around the corner of a vacant building, Vincent lifted the edge of a sheet of plywood fastened, more loosely than it appeared, over a glassless window. Catherine stepped through, then waited for the clasp of Vincent's hand to guide her through the dark interior. After a corridor and a stair, they came into the tunnels where occasional utility lights cast a glow and there was no longer any need to seek out the shadows: this was his world, and they both were safe here.

"You were very brave, tonight," Vincent mentioned presently in an odd, hesitant tone—as though he worried that paying her a compliment might be taking some sort of liberty. As though he wasn't sure he had the right to offer an opinion on the subject.

"Then maybe I won't be so scared, the next time."

"The next time…." he repeated, and afterward fell silent.

The prospect troubled him—she could tell. It bothered her too. Because she knew there'd be a next time.

The problem they'd faced tonight hadn't been solved¾only postponed. She couldn't welcome his concern for her in one breath and reject it with the next. His was the consistent position…which left him vulnerable to her danger.

Talking it out beforehand had accomplished nothing. There had to be some other way.

It wasn't her danger he reacted to, but her fear. Walking beside him, taking two steps to every stride of his, Catherine hated the thought of deliberately keeping anything from him: only with him, now, could she be wholly without concealments, withholding nothing, saying whatever was in her heart. Nevertheless, the only solution seemed to her to somehow learn how not to feel the fear. Keep it to herself. Bear it alone, if she had to, as the price of keeping safe the most important person in her life.

It didn't seem fair: they were already separated in so many ways—the irrevocable distance, and difference, between his world and hers, his life and her own. It seemed cruel to be forced to impose still another separation…particularly one within the bond that opened all her feelings to him: the deepest connection binding them together. But if she had to, if there was no other way, and if it were possible, then she would. However close they were, they also needed their distances so each of them could grow into what they were destined to become…to one another, but also as individuals.

Quoting Eliot's Ash Wednesday, Catherine thought, Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.

Sitting (anywhere—soon) appealed to her greatly at the moment.

———*** ———

From Chapter 3:

"It's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible."

Two wrangling voices echoing down the dark tunnel, along with burdened steps unevenly splashing.

The second voice, deeper than the first, continued, "Highly improbable, perhaps…but not impossible," and both men chuckled.

The first man persisted, "I'm serious—we can't last out the winter."

"What a terrible pessimist you are. It's only December: wait until January, when the real cold comes down. Why be concerned about shivering when you could be worrying about freezing solid?"

"I was mistaken: you're impossible."

"Only highly improbable," rejoined the second man cheerfully as they came around a turn into the faint light of a caged utility bulb, ahead.

Burdened like pack animals, each of them was bent against the weight of the shapeless bale he bore, strapped and tied, on his back. Untidily bearded and dressed in many layers of ill-fitting clothes, tattered scarves wrapped several times around heads and necks, they scuffed through the shallow standing water toward the light. Reaching that implicit marker, they stopped to rest, leaning their packs against the tunnel wall for the pleasure of straightening.

Both were in their late twenties. The taller man, John, rail-thin, black haired, and sallow, looked comfortable with his scarecrow attire. His wide, serene brow and gaunt cheeks suggested the eager asceticism of a novice monk looking forward to privation, persecution, and eventual martyrdom, except for an inclination toward humor in the relaxed cant of his head and the ironic downturn of his mouth.

The shorter man, Jacob, looked as though he took everything—cold, water, darkness—as a personal affront. Sturdy, quick, insistent, he pulled at frayed threads on his outer coat's cuffs and tried to straighten the lapels, visibly resenting his raggedness. Making sure his pack was braced, he lifted a soaked shoe and tried to shake it dry, scowling, brown hair seeming to bristle with indignation, stubborn chin lifting and locking tight.

"I can see my breath," Jacob observed—as though the complaint were a fresh and telling debating point. John, head tilted back and eyes shut, made no reply. "I tell you," Jacob said presently, resuming their argument, "it's futile. Without some reliable source of heat, we cannot survive. We might as well be on the streets, man. You know as well as I do that one need not actually freeze: hypothermia will do quite nicely. Or frostbite, then gangrene. Have you ever seen gangrene? Would you care to try an emergency amputation under these conditions?"

Eyes still shut, John said, "It won't come to that."

"Fine. Of course. Because you've decreed otherwise? What good are a dozen piano pads going to do?" demanded Jacob, thumping his burden against the wall by way of illustration. "Certainly mattresses will be an improvement over cement. Or hanging them to keep out drafts will be less—"

"We'll wear them."

"What?"

"We'll wear them. Tabards, vests, leggings—that's what you're carrying, Jacob. Conserve body heat. Quilting—dead air between the skin and the cold. A principle the Chinese have recognized and used for centuries. They—"

"Damn the Chinese." Jacob glared up at his companion. "Are you seriously proposing we wear piano padding?"

"We'll be quite medieval. Separate ourselves further from this dreary century. Adapt. And survive."

"Mere survival, upon any terms, is contemptible. Savage. Animal."

"If animals had not been so good at surviving, over the eons, neither of us would be here to dispute the matter, my dear Jacob. Were there not a large admixture of ape with the reputed angel, mankind would have died out long since of simple laziness and stupidity. ‘Mere survival,' as you put it, is sometimes a considerable achievement."

"And sometimes it's not possible at all," rejoined Jacob. "Which is exactly what I was saying. Piano pads, indeed!"

John sighed. "If you want to leave that bale here, I'll come back for it later."

Jacob scowled. "Don't be ridiculous."

"Well, then, do you want to leave? Go back to the streets, the alley where Grace found you?"

"I'm not threatening to desert, John. I simply believe it's better to face facts. Not expend all this energy on something that's hopeless from the beginning."

"If you give up before you've begun, you've lost already. Have you no faith at all, Jacob?"

The shorter man shot him a look. "Not much."

They were silent awhile after that: they knew each other's histories.

At length, John said, "Then rely on mine. Do what's at hand and let tomorrow worry about itself. Anna will have soup ready. Or something. Is that sufficient inducement to continue, or do you require a more philosophical reason?"

Shivering theatrically, Jacob conceded, "Soup will do."

Pushing away from the wall, they resumed their journey, trudging away, single file, into the dark.

Other sources of light lay along their path—rectangular grates set into the sidewalks and gutter-edges of streets only a few yards overhead. But they hurried past those: along with the light flowed frigid air, foul with exhaust fumes and bitter against exposed faces and fingers. Neither man welcomed the din of traffic noise, sirens, shouts, and clicking heels they likewise had to pass through in such places. One felt exposed, like a pair of scuttling beetles apt to be flattened by some giant, ignorant foot.

In his haste to reach the welcoming dimness, Jacob missed his footing, staggered, and thudded to his knees in the runoff water in the tunnel's center. As John helped him to his feet, Jacob's scarf unwound, muffling his face, and had to be rearranged, retied. The instant he could see, Jacob batted off further help: he hated to be fussed over. He was glad when they came to a slanting down-drain, even though they had to go more slowly, bracing each step on slimy, unreliable footing. At least it was quiet here. At least one could almost forget the city's incessant life in the nearly featureless, tomblike sameness of the cement passages.

From the sloped drain, they turned aside into a conduit with ledges on either side of a central trough. Their steps resounded hollowly: they sounded like an army marching in irregular cadence. Sidling along behind John, Jacob remarked somberly, "Until we were forced from the steam tunnels, our situation was merely humiliating and precarious. Now it's truly desperate. I can't see the sense in ignoring that or pretending otherwise. Some privations are simply unendurable. It's too cold, and will be colder. The cold will limit how far afield we dare scavenge, up top; and it will sap the strength needed to scavenge. When more energy is required to find one's food than that food supplies, one runs headlong into the law of diminishing returns. Bluntly, if we don't die of cold, we'll starve. I see no third alternative."

"We could try to force our way back into the steam tunnels," mentioned John, without conviction.

"All nine of us, including only four able-bodied men? Against two dozen savage vagrants fully as desperate as we?" Thoughtlessly flinging out a hand in a scornful gesture, Jacob had to lean hard the other way, toward the wall, to keep himself from tipping into the trough. Recovering, he snapped, "Don't be absurd."

"We need defensible perimeters. A bounded space," John mused, hitching his load higher. "No, I admit that retaking the steam tunnels isn't practical."

"I'm glad to hear you acknowledging some practicalities."

"We'd only be driven out again. This fair city has no shortage of vagrants, and the steam tunnels are a known refuge for their kind."

"'Their kind?' Is there a meaningful distinction of which I'm unaware between them and us?" demanded Jacob sourly.

"I think so," rejoined John mildly. "They're society's rejects: those who haven't prospered from war, as Mr. Eisenhower has. They've fallen by the wayside…with nowhere else to go. Anna and I came here by choice. To live deliberately—on our own terms, not by convention, not lay waste our powers with getting and spending—"

"What it comes down to is piano pads, cold, and restaurant scraps. So much for the contemplative life. As for me, I have no such lofty rationale. I was freezing, and Grace said she knew where I could be warm. However you choose to regard yourself, I'm as much a vagrant as any of those pitiful souls who attacked us and drove us out. The only distinction was that there were more of them. Simple brute force, and force of numbers. Pure might makes right. It's dehumanizing to live like this!" Jacob broke out fiercely. Then, more quietly, he added, "And I don't think that mere survival, without ambition beyond warmth and the next meal, is enough of a purpose to keep me going."

Brushing back lank black hair with a forearm, John slanted him a diffident glance. "You could always share my work," he mentioned with the shyness of one expecting refusal.

Jacob shook his head uncomfortably. "It's kind of you to ask. But that was never my field and I just don't think I—"

"Of course, of course. Forgive me for pestering. One always assumes one's own work will be endlessly fascinating to others. A foible of the specialist—like a dentist whose notion of social conversation is to discourse by the hour on bridgework and can notice nothing about a woman but her teeth," John apologized good-naturedly. "I'll survive if you consider me a harmless crank, like a phrenologist, and are too tactful to say so."

"Not at all," Jacob denied quickly. "We're tarred with the same brush: equally improbable. If you're a crank, I'm a blasted Communist. The pot shouldn't be too quick in judging the kettle. I respect your dedication, to persist and find some value in your efforts even under such conditions. The tact's all on your side, tolerating my stupid inability to take an interest in anything beyond myself. But as to surviving…. I simply don't see how. For any of us."

They trudged along silently for a few minutes, letting the awkward moment pass. Then John said, "But you'll eat the soup."

"Yes. I'll eat the soup. And when there's no more soup, I'll go without. But I won't be proud of it. Soup will do, for an hour, a day. But for a life…. To consent to live on this level…." Jacob fell silent and did not finish the thought.

They were approaching a vertical shaft that admitted light from above without the unwelcome additions of cold or noise. On the way out, they'd laid a plank bridge across the gaping maw of the descending pipe. John went first, halfway, then turned to steady Jacob in crossing. On the far side, John stooped to pull in their makeshift drawbridge, then joined Jacob, already resting against a wall.

"There is," John said presently, "another alternative…."

"What?"

"To enlist help. From people willing to—"

"No. Absolutely not," Jacob cut in. "Picking over refuse in dustbins has at least a certain feral honor; subsisting on charity lacks even that. Assuming even that the charity would be reliable. It wouldn't. People aren't charitable, John: they'd tire of us, tire of giving and getting nothing in return—because what can we offer them?"

"The satisfaction of participating in a noble experiment," John suggested, and was answered by a rude noise from his companion.

"They can't be trusted. I know. To resign oneself to subsist on the kindness of strangers—"

"Somehow, you're not the picture I call to mind when I envision Blanche Dubois," interrupted John idly, and won a grudged smile from Jacob.

"Nor I." Jacob irritably tugged another raveled thread from his sleeve, then snugged his chilled fingers under his arms. "But the principle holds. Accept other people's pity as your only support and you are then truly lost…and contemptible, to boot. Dogs may live like that—not men. No. Regardless of my opinion, or yours, topside eyes would find no noble experiment in this. Calling a service closet a clinic doesn't alter the fact that we are living in the sewers. Neither of us is Albert Schweitzer…nor even Jean Valjean: there's nothing noble or romantic about sewer-stink. This is only squalor, filth, and desperation. Not what appeals to people in adopting pets. They'd do what any sensible tradesman or housewife would do: call the dogcatcher. Have the appropriate authorities dispose of the problem. Our secrecy is our only safety. Inform anyone up top of where we live, how we live, and we wouldn't last a month."

"But there are reliable people," John argued. "Good people, who'd help us. People as disgusted by the emptiness of material modern life as—"

"So they'd help for the good of their souls? Don't be naive. People seek their own advantage. They want to be comfortable, not challenged by strange ideas—especially ideas that would demand something from them." Jacob hugged himself tighter, his grey eyes going distant and cold as he added softly, "And they're such terrible cowards…."

"‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'"

"It's not merely cynicism—it's experience!" Jacob retorted. "Reveal our secret to anyone up top and we're in their hands. Dependent on their mercy. Their courage—which is nonexistent. And even on their petty discretion. Because even assuming they'd listen, even assuming they'd help, they'd soon blurt such an intriguing secret to their five closest friends and the result would be the same: we'd be rounded up and shut away." Jacob gave his companion a grim, steady look. "I've seen the inside of their jails, John. I mean never to do so again. Whatever the cost. I expect that the people I knew assume I'm dead by now. I would rather prove them right than have them know I've come to such a state as…this."

Somewhere close, a subway screeched into a turn. After its departing rattle faded, John said, "I see we're not going to agree. I'll put the matter to a general vote tonight, after supper. Each of us will present his arguments, and we'll all decide. Will you abide by the majority opinion?"

Starting along the tunnel, Jacob countered, "If the others see sense, will you? Let's deal with that issue if and when it arises. I'm wet to the knees and I've lost all feeling in my toes. My only present concern is staving off frostbite long enough to transport these wretched pads. And soup."

"Man does not live by soup alone," commented John, moving to follow.

"How well I know it." Over his shoulder, Jacob added, "There's no particular requirement that man live at all. Over this last year, I've learned one is guaranteed nothing. Nothing at all."

"You've allowed your private bitterness to color everything. Next, you'll try to persuade me that water's yellow, to allow for your jaundiced view."

"You mean it isn't yellow?" rejoined Jacob, mock-astonished, and they chuckled together, falling into step.

———*** ———

Since being ousted from the steam tunnels, they'd relocated to a disused subway station that offered the minimal amenities of bathrooms, running water, and a few utility lights the city hadn't bothered to disconnect. A fire burned in a rusted oil drum at the edge of the platform. Unfastening and dumping their packs by the toll booth, Jacob and John gravitated to the oil drum's heat, where four of their companions were gathered.

Busy breaking up orange crates for fuel, taciturn Pasquale merely nodded to acknowledge their return. Julia, mountainous in overcoats and blankets, heaved up to dip them cups of nameless watery soup from the pot simmering on a makeshift grate balanced across half the drum. Billy, with his iron-grey hair and wheezing breath, was curled up asleep on a pallet of newspapers, twitching like a dog with the strange dreams of alcoholism. Perched on another pile of newspapers, Francine, thin shoulders tucked tight, patched a sweater.

Without needing to be told, Jacob knew that the absent three were out foraging. For tonight's fuel, tonight's food.

They were all, even John, practically strangers to him; and sometimes, as now, Jacob felt that keenly.

It's hopeless, he found himself thinking as he wandered back to a wall and knelt to root through the communal clothes pile for something, however filthy and tattered, that would be dry. He felt dizzy and ill with fatigue; everything ached. Unearthing a grimy pair of overalls, he had an intense feeling of unreality and stared toward the group by the drum with the sense he'd been captured by painted savages whose ways were not and could never be his ways…people who might, with equal likelihood, welcome him into their debased tribe or offer him up in sacrifice to propitiate some incomprehensible deity. And either way, it was exile from all sense, all comfort, everything he thought of and valued as civilized.

Setting the overalls aside, he went on methodically looking for trousers to wear underneath. He bore the surges of unreality like bouts of a familiar fever: they'd been with him a long time. All he had to do was think of his life a year ago, two years ago, and he was filled with astonished indignation.

Six months ago, he'd been in prison, awaiting deportation to his native Britain. The experience had been unimaginable…awful. He recalled filling the empty hours with trying to comprehend the letter that had completed the shattering of his life—Margaret's letter. When his lawyer had managed to arrange bail, he'd simply walked away and kept walking, without purpose or destination—simply from a compulsive, irresistible desire to get away.

He'd been in shock, he judged now, dispassionately…and had remained in that state through aimless months and brief, alcoholic companionships, until he'd found himself huddled, depleted and shivering, under a cardboard box in an alley—his retreat after two days of icy rain.

Five weeks ago…or was it six? He couldn't decide. Things blurred, since the committee hearings.

The hearings. That would have been….seven months ago? In any case, four days of crashing head-on into such willful stupidity and prejudice as were scarcely believable since trials for witchcraft had been commonplace. Incredible. Utterly incredible to him, even now, that such a committee could have the objective facts before them, clearly set out and documented beyond possibility of error, and yet deny them outright in a spasm of paranoid political hysteria. Ignore the real threat, to instead savage the man imprudent enough to force upon their attention such unacceptable news.

That nuclear testing was not harmless, as the government claimed. That residual radiation lingered far longer, and was far more destructive, than the Atomic Energy Commission had assumed. That the government was therefore exposing its own troops to radioactive contamination, to say nothing of the civilians around the test sites, or of transients—including John Wayne, an immensely popular film star known for his outspoken conservative views, his "Americanism," making a film there!—and thereby condemning hundreds, perhaps thousands of people to horrible, lingering deaths from a variety of leukemias and cancers….

Incredible. Absolutely incredible that any Western government could be so indifferent to its citizens' welfare that it would knowingly suppress medical data vital to their wellbeing. Medical data which that government itself had commissioned the Institute to determine.

The Institute. Chittenden—dedicated to pure scientific research, heedless of anything but the truth, with no regard to vulgar practicalities or persons. Seeking knowledge for its own sake—which had attracted Jacob to it in the first place, when he'd completed his residency. So grandly impractical, and therefore underfunded, that it occasionally was obliged to sip at the public trough: accept government contracts. The health implications of current chicken processing methods—that had been one such study, he recalled, though thankfully not one he'd been involved in. But when the one concerning radiation had come up, he'd actually fought and politicked to be assigned to it.

The irony was scathing, even now. He'd been such a fool as to want the project that had been his undoing.

Eighteen months ago, give or take a few. And it'd been wonderful. Pursuing data and case histories. Labwork to all hours, finding new ways of establishing the volatility and half-life of uranium-235 and 238, cobalt, radium, strontium-90; devising experiments to determine their migration into human tissue by all possible means—direct exposure, inhalation of airborne dust, persistence in ground water, ingestion of animal and vegetable products from contaminated land. The effects of such migration, both long- and short-term.

It had been fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. And heightening his delight, a remembered golden glow over all that experience, he'd been, for the first time in his life, blissfully and confidently in love with a beautiful girl who precisely fit all the shapes of all his unrecognized dreams.

Margaret. Lovely, carefree, privileged daughter of one of the American tycoons one was always hearing about, as though they were as thick on the ground as pebbles, though he'd discovered in practice they were actually quite rare…. Margaret. Well educated and intelligent, moving with the calm naturalness of a fish through the upper levels of the socially elite, somehow finding an exotic charm in a perennially rumpled, bookish Midlands orphan who'd clawed his way into a reputable red-brick school, survived on scholarship and tutoring, and landed, by sheer academic merit, a prestigious residency at Mount Sinai, a major hospital in the wondrously strange city of New York….

And more wondrous still, she'd agreed to marry him.

Settling onto the bundle of clothing, Jacob fumbled under his layers of coats, sweaters, shirts, for the packet, wrapped in oilcloth, he kept taped to his skin—a tangible reminder of that golden time. Carefully unfolding the oilcloth, he leaned to angle its contents to the light: a wedding picture. Saturday, May 1, 1954. Himself, in formal morning coat, striped pants, and a dazed expression. And Margaret, looking happy and serene. And so beautiful….

They were to honeymoon in Italy. Only a few more days to complete and submit his report, flushed with his own success and tireless ingenuity. And he'd actually been packing—packing!—when his copy of the report as published arrived from the Institute. With his data misrepresented—some distorted, some suppressed—to the point that it validated the opposite of what the data established. To the point that it was a vindication of passive governmental murder.

Which was intolerable. All those people, innocent residents of New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona; soldiers stationed on that deadly ground; people eating the meat of cattle allowed to range there, contaminated dust blowing eastward on the dry, hot breeze….

He'd stormed into the director's office and complained in the strongest possible terms. When that had no effect except veiled threats to his position, he'd gone to that great American institution, the free public press, which had been far more obliging, in large headlines and sensationalism of the most fear-mongering type. But at least his protest was heard. And within two days' time, he'd been dismissed, discredited, and sitting at the right hand of his lawyer—or, more accurately, his irate father-in-law's lawyer—at a cheap deal table in a drab municipal building on 32nd Street, being accused, by a panel of fat-faced bureaucrats in ill-fitting suits, of deliberate subversion and of acting, on the behalf of some unnamed hostile power—which: Britain?—to impede America's headlong rush into the glorious atomic-powered and atomic-guarded future. Accused therefore of being a pawn, witting or unwitting, of his interrogators' current arch-demon, the international Communist conspiracy.

They might as well have declared him the Antichrist and had done with it!

And in the middle of that insanity, the letter had come….

With fingers shaking from more than cold, he slid it now from behind the wedding picture and sat holding it. He didn't unfold it, to read the words. There was no need. He'd memorized it, compulsively reading and rereading it, during the nights on the comfortless prison bunk. The words now seemed fused in his memory with the jail stench of urine and disinfectant.

My father has had our marriage annulled.
I know you are innocent. Forgive me.
I don't have the strength….
…gone to Europe….

Handed that letter by his lawyer, his friend, just before what proved to be the final session, Jacob had felt all the fight draining out of him. He'd confessed nothing. But he'd stopped protesting, so the effect was the same. Innocent until proven guilty had transmuted into Guilty by resignation.

Another municipal building; another hearing, mercifully brief, when his immigration status had been "reevaluated." Awaiting, in a jail cell, the completion of the proper paperwork to allow his deportation.

…the wreck of my memories….

There were times, now, when rage flared through him; when he thought of things he imagined he'd enjoy saying and doing to hurt Margaret, her ogre father, the jackal committee members, the spineless Institute director. Other times, the hate he felt was more abstract. He loathed cowardice, lies, politics, wasted lives, and the expediencies that made honor a word without meaning.

But hate was exhausting: most of the time, he felt loss only as one undifferentiated ache of emptiness. The best times were those when he felt nothing at all.

His one satisfaction was that the people who mattered would never know how thoroughly they'd beaten him.

And now he'd fallen into the company of this maniac of stubborn optimism, John Pater, who somehow persisted in the belief that there remained, in Jacob Wells, something worth cultivating. He shook his head. John was so transparently eager that Jacob take part in arcane researches that might, quite possibly, be brilliant—a breakthrough of some sort. They might, as possibly, be utter nonsense. Jacob had no interest whatever in determining which.

If John was an obsessed crank, Jacob certainly didn't want the job of telling him so. And if John was a genius, Jacob would be expected to throw himself into a foredoomed crusade against entrenched medical opinion.

Jacob had just done that. Once was quite sufficient.

Some ghosts of the man he'd been remained. The prospect of dying in this wretched place, from cold or starvation, could still rouse in him some vague indignation. Any chance of being dragged back, in his degradation, for the topside world's contemptuous scrutiny, he'd resist to his last breath. His intellect still found solace in debating intangibles—matters of principle and clean, impersonal abstractions that transcended any one life or time. The everyday habits of courtesy and civil conversation covered much of the vacancy within.

But it was all surface. Nothing mattered very much. Often, nothing mattered at all.

Folding letter and photograph carefully back into the oilcloth, Jacob took the dry clothing he'd chosen to the minimal privacy of the restroom to change. When he emerged, Sam had delivered more orange crates which he and Pasquale were noisily yanking apart; John had gone off somewhere; Grace, flamboyant in a colorful collection of rags, was pacing the platform, the gold hoop earrings that gave her a gypsy look glinting at each turn. Perhaps she was a gypsy: she'd never said. Sometimes she claimed her name was really Graciela. Sometimes, despite her heavy New York accent, she claimed to be from Spain. Or sometimes Greece. Turkey…. Jacob couldn't imagine why she bothered. But then, he couldn't imagine why she'd troubled to collect him from the alley, either.

Maybe there was no reason. People were unaccountable; Jacob had given up trying to understand them. It was all too much effort.

As Jacob began draping the wet clothes over turnstile bars to dry, Grace whirled and came running. Seizing his arm, she demanded, "Come on. You gotta see this."

"What is it?" Jacob responded warily, leaning against the pull as she tried to drag him along.

Vulgar and vital, Grace was always agitating herself over something or other. Once, it'd been runoff water cascading down a staircase. Another time, what she'd hauled him off to view had been no more than the moon in a puddle. Jacob couldn't imagine where she found the energy. Or why she bothered.

"What I found," Grace responded impatiently. "You gotta come look at it."

Managing to shake free, Jacob edged nearer the turnstile: it didn't do to turn one's back on Grace—you'd get a hard set of pointed knuckles in your kidney or even more uncomfortable places. Grace wouldn't tolerate being ignored. "You should tell John," he suggested, hoping to deflect her.

"Nah, him and Annie went off someplace. And anyhow, it's not something to tell somebody about—you gotta see it. There's too much talk already. The two of you, you and Johnny, make me sick sometimes, you know? Because you got some goddam medical degree and all you know how to do is talk, talk, talk." Finishing that outburst, Grace regarded him with arms challengingly folded. "So let's go." Already in motion, throwing the words back over her shoulder, she continued, "Now, you're not gonna believe it, Jake, first I was coming back from about Canal and 4th, you know, where the big produce barn throws out early, found a bunch of cabbages and I give 'em to Julie, not then, just now, I mean. But anyhow, then…."

Without having really decided, dragged along by raw enthusiasm, Jacob found himself sliding off the platform's edge and trying not to stumble, with wet, numb feet, on the alternating cinders and cross-ties, carried by the force of Grace's conversation.

———*** ———

[A section concerning John’s researches into the biological causes of schizophrenia intervenes here.]

The enormous, ornate spiral staircase, descending at least ten stories, had certainly been unusual and unexpected. An antique, forgotten relic of the city's past. But not what Grace wanted to show him. Now, stumbling through seams in crooked, unshaped rock in near darkness, what stayed with Jacob was the discouraging prospect of having to climb all that way back.

More discouraging was being effortlessly outwalked by a woman of (at least) thirty. Always more a scholar than an athlete, he still found that mortifying.

Even a marathoner's vigor, he thought rancorously, puffing along, would have been sapped by months of borderline malnutrition and chronic exhaustion. Excuses didn't help. He wasn't fit, but he was young, and a man. Yet Grace was still ranging happily ahead like an energetic dog let off the leash—out of sight, half the time, poking into fissures and skidding noisily down slopes and then climbing back, her tangled black hair full of dust, while he labored to catch up with the wandering will-of-the-wisp, her penlight.

His chagrin made him stubborn. He'd see whatever ridiculous thing Grace was determined to show him, somehow make the return trek, and then collapse in a twitching heap.

The penlight served more to assure him Grace was still ahead than to illuminate the going, which Jacob likened to trying to negotiate the folds and turns of some mythic earth giant's gut. There were holes, pockets, and seams to trip on or fall into, places where one had to duck, edge through, and then climb over an obstruction that turned into a chute, so that one slid and banged down the other side into the blind unknown.

"I think it was this way," came Grace's blithe voice as Jacob sat rubbing a knee banged during such a slide—disconcerting, under the circumstances.

"Grace? It occurs to me that no one knows where we went. Shouldn't we…. Grace?"

Silence.

Hurrying the way he thought—hoped—she'd gone, Jacob banged directly into her as she came back. Fending him off, she passed, commenting, "Must have been the other one, back at the last fork. Come on."

"But Grace, it's easy enough to fall down. Getting back up those slopes will be another matter. We could well be trapped down here. Grace?"

Rounding a corner, he bumped into her again: she was crouched low to poke the penlight into a hole. "Cave," she observed, steadying herself after the bump, then pushed head and shoulders into the hole. Her voice muffled, strange, she remarked, "I don't remember this one. Wanna see?"

So this evidently wasn't what she'd intended showing him either. "I want," he said firmly, to the lower half of her torso, "to go back the way we came, as quickly as possible. This is dangerous, Grace. A sensible city rat wouldn't come down here. Should either of us be hurt, we might never be found. It's—"

"I can't tell how far back it goes," Grace muttered, threatening to vanish into the hole. Jacob grabbed two fistfuls of her top sweater and hauled. She emerged and slapped dust out of her clothes, seeming quite unmoved by the insane risk of venturing into the bowels of the earth to begin with, much less bolting headfirst into overlarge rabbit holes. Remarking, "Maybe it's bigger than that lousy subway station. Check it out some other time," she barged away again, leaving Jacob with the choice of following or being left in absolute darkness.

Scrabbling up the rough slope he'd recently tumbled down, he realized he was sweating. At least, he wryly acknowledged, that was one gain from all this exertion: he was warm—warmer than he'd been for days. At the top, he stopped to nurse his knee—now skinned as well as banged—and catch his breath. And he found himself thinking that this deep, below the reach of frost or weather, the temperature would be relatively constant. Certainly not balmy, but not as frigid as the sewer pipes or the subway tunnels, either. And if there were more caves like the one Grace had found….

Following her along a comparatively level, sandy stretch like a winding path, Jacob stopped protesting, gazing around him and noticing something besides where to duck and what he might bang into or fall off. The air was good. Earthy, with a damp edge, but not musty or stale. No chance of smothering, so far. And though the dark oppressed him, darkness was negotiable: they had a few lanterns. Flashlights would be uneconomical, because of the batteries. But with a nearly endless supply of highly flammable orange crates one could collect at any corner grocery, there could be torches. Perhaps candles. He didn't know how to make candles, but the raw materials were probably inexpensive—he had the vague recollection that animal fat was involved. Beeswax? Surely there'd be books one could consult on such primitive skills….

"Quit gawking like a tourist," complained Grace, grabbing his shoulder and turning him to face front. "From here…."

Her voice fell silent. They both were still, heads lifted, listening. The rattles and bumps, though muted and distant, couldn't be mistaken—a subway was passing. When Jacob's eyes descended to meet Grace's, he found as broad and jubilant a grin on her face as he knew must be on his own. He didn't exactly know why the far-off subway noise affected them that way. Only that it had been a happy sound, full of promise. Somehow, it lifted the heart.

"Now smell," Grace directed, demonstrating.

Jacob imitated her, drawing a deep breath and trying to notice everything about it. After a minute, he shook his head.

Turning, leading him on at a leisurely stroll, Grace remarked casually, "I been down here before, a couple times. But not so far, or so deep. Just poking around, you know? First, I smelled it. Then I heard it. Listen!"

They stopped again, and this time Jacob could distinguish a difference. A hissing, like wind or like static on a radio tuned to no station. As they went on, the sound grew more definite and distinct, but the air didn't stir around them. So Jacob couldn't imagine what the wind-sound could be. He looked a question to Grace, whose shadowed face was vivid with anticipation as she stopped where the passage took a bend.

"I smelled it. Then I heard it. And then—"

She drew him forward and then pushed him, steered him from behind. And ahead, light spilled down from what looked, for all the world, like a high window embrasure cut into a castle wall. The passage sides went up and up, creating a circular bay or turret; and in the far wall of that turret, clear, steady light slanted down to where they stood, faces upturned and wondering.

"—and then, I saw." Grace clicked off the penlight.

From that open window, air moved around the circular space—not wind, exactly, but a breeze stirring. It reminded Jacob of a fresh spring morning….

"Moisture," Jacob announced softly, knowing he'd finally identified what had caught Grace's attention from far away, the inexplicable call that she'd followed. "Not a dank, mildewed odor. Something more like dew…."

"So: who's gonna be first?"

Jacob frowned, puzzled. "First?"

Grace waved at the wall. "I couldn't jump that high, and there was nothing to drag. To take a peek," she explained, exasperated with his dunderheadedness. "So I went to get somebody. To make a back, take turns looking. Don't you want to see what's on the other side of that? It can't be the city. So what the hell is it? C'mon: I'll toss you for it," she proposed, displaying a dime. The coin spun, fell into the sand. She stamped on it, announcing, "Tails!" Then she removed her foot and both of them bent to look.

Tails.

Not sure precisely how to go about it, Jacob first tried to stirrup her foot in both hands, to boost her up, but that didn't work. So he faced the wall, set both feet, and braced his arms against the stone. Grace clambered up his back and then stood for what felt like at least five minutes on his shoulders. Only stubbornness kept him in place: he'd be damned if he'd budge or collapse! Finally Grace pushed away and dropped down. Before he could ask what she'd seen, she'd turned to the wall and braced herself the same way he had. "Your turn," she commented matter-of-factly.

An odd idea, climbing up a woman, standing on her shoulders like some absurd acrobat. But Grace expected it of him, and though ungallant, it satisfied some obscure sense of fairness, turn for turn. In this setting, after such a journey, nothing could be very bizarre.

Trying not to be too awkward or step on anything personal, Jacob went up until he could rest his arms on the "windowsill."

Beyond…was Wonderland.

Fully half a mile away, brilliant in shafts of sunlight piercing the roof of the immense cavern, a river poured over a cliff in several streams. From the vast basin below, drifting clouds of spray slowly ascended, shot with shifting rainbows. Opalescent, dignified, living, and sublime—river, light, air, and stone all hung in one forever-changing eternal panorama like an image in a dream.

Gazing with eyes that stung, then overflowed, Jacob thought, Wonderful. Who could have imagined? A new world.

After what seemed only a moment, his balance was threatened as his support shifted under him. He stepped off and dropped back onto the sand. Then he and Grace stood gazing at each other: witnesses who'd shared a vision.

"Would you like another turn?" Jacob asked humbly.

Grace shook her head. "I won't forget. I don't know what I expected. But that's better. And there's better yet." Turning aside, she crossed the turret and knelt for a moment by a crack in the wall, her back to him. Returning, she lifted cupped hands…from which water dripped.

When she held up the cup of hands to him Jacob recoiled, instantly reviewing diseases one could contract from contaminated water. Cholera, typhoid…. While he hesitated, the water drained away. Untroubled, Grace went to the crack, stooped there, and again returned to offer him what her hands held. And this time, Jacob thought about the beautiful secret river and decided that any disease he could take from such water, he'd prefer to what had lately passed for health.

Bending, he sipped before it was all gone.

The water was sweet. Fresh, not salt. A spring. Clear and sweet as the first water there'd ever been in the world, where ancient things drank.

On impulse, he touched fingertips to her wet palm, then touched her forehead. Smiling bemusedly, she applied the same solemn benediction to him.

He turned aside. He felt as though his heart were bursting. It hurt terribly. It was wonderful.

Grace said, "Whatever it was, I wanted you to see it."

Surprised and unsurprised, Jacob took her in his arms and kissed her gypsy face. Almost instantly, she yanked away, and he was sure he'd offended her. It didn't matter. He said simply, "Thank you."

As she moved away, she looked back at him and he realized what he'd taken for offense was merely an odd, hard-edged sort of shyness. She said, "It's okay. Don't thank me. It's nothing."

But it wasn't. It was everything.

 

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