There are two versions of "The Mirror": this is the second. The first, "Kindred Spirits", was written during the second season, when I first dreamed up the character Victoire, and qualifies as a Classic story. This version came to be after the third season, when I began wondering what would happen if it were Diana who met Victoire first. While the settings, the time, and even Vincent's moods are different in each story, the fundamental interactions between Vincent & Victoire are similar - at some points, identical. And for them, the outcome is the same, no matter what else goes on around them. "The Mirror - Always Here" is rated R.
THE MIRROR - ALWAYS HERE, ALL ALONG
By C. B. McWhorter
Across the world, in a circus tent outside Marseilles, a crowd sits in delighted distraction, "oo-ing" and "ah-ing" over the feats in the single ring. This is a typical European circus: one ring, a small audience, a small band, and impeccable acrobatics. A typical French crowd jams the wobbly bleachers: all ages, entire families, young couples on dates, bunches of young men, all enjoying the show with typical French verve. In the ring, the acrobats are finishing up their performance. They are dressed in tawny red, gold and black Spandex, bright with sequins, glitter in their hair and on their faces. One woman, four men, she all red and gold, they striped like tigers. As they execute one wild flight after another, they shriek and whoop with excitement, and their enthusiasm goads the audience to even greater heights. There is jungle music, tom toms and wild pipes, and occasionally, a lion's roar. This isn't the usual acrobatic show. These artists have designed something different, very fast, bewildering in the way each stunt gives way to another.
And then they stop, a man at each corner of the ring, the girl balanced on the trapeze in the center. The drums beat louder and louder for several heartbeats, until the girl gives a thrilling shriek, and all the acrobats snap into action: the men at each corner fly diagonally, somersaulting, to change places. They look as if they will collide in the center, all four of them, but worse, just as they have launched themselves towards the center, the girl has dropped from her perch, spinning in a triple twist on her way to the net beneath her. She threads the center of the paths of the men as they fly past her, straight as an arrow, and bounces gracefully back up from the net as the men light on their corners. The audience cries out in fear, and then in admiration, as these madmen barely avoid disaster mid-air.
In the shadows of the tunnel that leads into the ring, an old man leans against the wall, smoking nervously. He hasn't taken a breath from the moment the drums began their crescendo, and now that the stunt is done - and, oh!, how it was done! - he gasps for air, not so much with delight as relief.
The men drop from their ladders into the net, and bounce off to join their queen on the sawdust of the ring, bowing to thunderous applause. They are all handsome and well made, but all eyes are on her, with her graceful movements, and her glowing red mane. The ringmaster bellows into the microphone: " Mesdames et Messieurs, Leonie and her Flying Tigers!" But the man cannot be heard over the applause, and the performers seem to like it that way. After all, they're sure that the people know who they are.
As the elephants, trick horses and clowns take the ring for the final promenade, the acrobats dash down the tunnel. Leonie runs lightly up to the old man.
"Well?" The costume mistress hurries up to her with a golden satin cape, which she begins to attach to her shoulders.
"Eh, bien ", the old man smiles. "The routine is nearly perfect. Next week, you show America how to fly!"
The men are also getting into capes, and others are bringing horses into the tunnel. As a horse is brought up to her, she tells him, "I'm getting more and more excited about this tour."
"You want to play in the Florida sun? What is wrong with our Riviera?"
She laughs down at him from the horse. "Florida! Phaugh! It's New York I want to see again."
"Are you ready for New York?"
She becomes grave for just a moment. "Yes, at last." She wheels her horse to lead her men out of the tunnel, and calls back at him: "I'll make you proud!"
He watches her ride out into the parade around the ring, and relishes the screams of the audience as the Flying Lion and Her Amazing Acrobats wave and bow. "I am always proud," he says to himself. "Never more than now."
As he wanders back towards the costume tent, he leaves behind the poster on the wall, the first poster for the Flying Tigers nine years ago. It has her likeness on it, very well done: the flaming hair, the blue eyes, and the face that sparks so much controversy. Does she really look like this? The beautiful cat-like face mocks the viewer: this is fantasy, she says. Watch the flying, dream, and wonder.
Diana is lingering over her morning paper, enjoying a second cup of coffee. Her apartment is filled with the early autumn sun, Catherine's rose bush is blooming, she has no current case to frustrate her, and, after she drops off a report at the office, she plans to go shopping. It isn't often she has days like this. Maybe, tonight, a movie with her sister....
She turns a page of the entertainment section, and stops short. She stares at a large ad for an acrobatic group: "Leonie and the Flying Tigers". The usual hype about the act doesn't register. It is the face of the young woman, Leonie, that makes her stare: the wild mane, the straight nose, the curved mouth - it could be Vincent in female form. Why would someone choose this make-up for a gimmick, of all things? Finally, she studies the ad: "Four shows only! The famous French troupe!" Well, Europeans have dramatic tastes, certainly. In America, a similar group would probably dress up as aliens.
Two sections of the paper later, she goes back to the entertainment section. Then she calls her sister to invite her to a show.
Late in the evening, Diana leaves the shower, toweling her hair. She turns on the TV, and flops onto the couch. The theme music for David Letterman is on, and she pays little attention, until the announcer says "And straight from the Cote d'Or, where all the food is French, Leonie and the Flying Tigers!"
She waits impatiently through the monologue, and the latest barely-dressed starlet, and the Top Ten, until Letterman announces the acrobats. On a section of the stage, a scaffold is raised, with trapezes and a net. Some unusual New Age music starts, and after a few moments, a man in shining black Spandex sails across the space. Before he can land at the top of a scaffold, another flies from another direction, and then two more. They swing and sail, as the music builds up into a definitely non-New Age pitch. At the crash of a cymbal, a woman in black and silver flies as if out of nowhere. She is tall, and athletically built, with a wild mane of red hair that frames a decidedly unusual face. Diana barely blinks through the performance, willing the camera to close in on that face as the performers move faster and faster. Soon enough, it ends, and the acrobats line up to bow, Leonie in the middle, glittering black and silver. Letterman crosses the stage to shake their hands, and mugs for the camera as Leonie kisses him, French style, on both cheeks. And still there isn't a good close shot of her face. As the scene fades to a commercial, Diana is relieved to see Letterman lead the five to the couches.
After the commercial, Leonie is ensconced in the chair next to Letterman's desk, her henchmen lined up behind her, one on the arm of her chair. Letterman is his goofy, flirtatious best, and Leonie plays all the way up to it. She is charming, breathless, with just enough accent, filtered through her cleft upper lip, to be delicious. She sparkles when he cracks jokes, and she describes her American tour as if it were the greatest treat she's ever had. And she is undeniably sexy. At one point, Letterman snatches up her hand to kiss it, and the man on her chair moves to stop him.
"Oh, ho ho! These jealous Frenchmen!," he cries. "Now. Tell me, was that the famous African Star?"
"Oh, no! We can't do the African Star in a space this small." She laughs as he looks past her at the stage set up behind them. "Yes, that stage is too small," she says, almost soothingly.
"Then the African Star must be a really big stunt."
"We need a lot of height for it, yes." She looks over her shoulder as her partners mutter amongst themselves. She says something to them in French, and the man next to her rattles off an indignant speech.
Letterman looks at them with some nervousness. "What is it?"
"Etienne says that the African Star is not just a stunt," she says.
"Non!" says Jimi, emphatically.
"Well, what is it?"
She consults with them, stirring up a storm of French until the audience chuckles. She turns back to Letterman. "In my opinion, the best word is 'phenomenon'", she coos.
He laughs at that. The men say something else. "A phenomenon, eh?" says Letterman.
"Yusef says it's sheer insanity and I won't repeat what Raoul says it is."
She bats her eyes at him. "Mr. Letterman, American television is not as , er, open as European television is." The crowd mumbles a little at this. She turns to them: "In France, we could have done that act nude!", she cries, and they cheer as Dave stares foolishly into the camera.
He leans forward to her: "Really?"
A beat. "No." The audience applauds as loudly as if she'd said "yes".
He tries to turn the conversation to seriousness: "There is a great deal of speculation in Europe about your appearance, Mlle. Leonie," he says. She blinks at him innocently. "They talk about whether you always wear make-up, whether you've had your appearance surgically altered. You are a stunning woman, and if this is make-up, it's very well done."
"Thank you," she says, and there is an air of mischief that goads him: others have tried this. Let's see how you fare.
"Tell me.. and it's just between us, no one else needs to know: have you had plastic surgery? Have you altered your appearance, enhanced your appearance, changed your appearance in any way?"
"Really, Dave", she says, almost sternly. "Do you know any celebrity who hasn't changed her, or his, appearance?" she smiles provocatively at him until he mugs at the camera.
"The best hairpiece that money can buy," he says. The camera closes in very tightly on the top of his head, but never gets particularly close to Leonie. Intimate details of her cat face are still a mystery. Only partly satisfied, Diana turns off the TV, and retrieves the videotape she had the presence of mind to put in the VCR. Her niece, an aspiring acrobat, would love this.
The Saturday matinee crowd files out of the theater, bustling and babbling, adults leading, losing and stumbling over excited children. Diana, her sister, and her niece wander into the lobby. The little girl is so excited and overwhelmed that she chatters about the show nonstop.
"Did you see the way they flew at each other, like they were going to kill each other! Of course you saw it, you were there! Isn't she beautiful! I love her make-up! And the costumes!"
"Jessica! Stop for breath!" her mother says. "Where'd your aunt go?"
"Over there, at the lady selling programs," the girl says, and runs up to Diana. "Aunt Diana!" she cries. "Buy me one!"
Diana turns smiling, "What do you say?"
"Please! Oh, please, please, please!"
"Jessica, you don't need that," her mother starts, and then sighs as Diana hands one over.
Jessica clutches the program to her chest, and then moons over the back cover. "Look at her, isn't she regal?"
Diana laughs. "Where did you learn a word like regal?"
As they head for the door, Ellen notices that Diana has bought herself a program. "You got yourself one?"
"Yeah, it was kind of cool."
After midnight, Paul Marpot closes up a dressing room door, carries a coil of cable and a ledger into another dressing room to leave the book on the dressing table, and closes that door. He has been with the Flying Tigers for nearly their entire career. Before that, he was with the small Cirque de Joie, the French one-ring circus that the troupe had grown up in. A heavy-set middle-aged man, Marpot was a bricklayer before he was hired by Jean-Luc Dedeaux to travel with the circus one slow summer as part of the tent crew. It was strange work, moving from town to town, presenting shows that varied little from night to night. And yet, Marpot enjoyed it. He had no family and few friends. Association with the circus gave him an instant group to belong to, and he didn't have to put much effort into friendship. He'd watched the acrobats grow from dreamy adolescents to the international sensation they have become. Himself, he's never left the ground, but satisfies himself with building the scaffolds and moving equipment. Working for the Tigers gave him a chance to travel all over, and by taking advantage of what opportunities for ingenuity have come his way, he's been able to set aside a fair bit of a retirement fund. No, crewing for a traveling acrobatic troupe isn't going to make him rich, directly, but it gives him a chance to see the world, and to plan a future that might be less strenuous. He shrugs into a windbreaker as he crosses the depth of the backstage area, struggling with the coil that keeps trying to come unwound as he moves. Fumbling for a pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket, he skirts around the curtain at the very back of the stage, and stops cold. He hadn't expected to find anyone here.
"What the hell are you doing?" he growls at the man who is lounging on the pile of mats and rope.
The man laughs at him as he withdraws a finger from the center of a small sandbag. It's covered with a white powder, and he licks it with greedy relish.
"You think you're smart?" Marpot cries as he lunges at the man.
The sandbag falls to the ground, spilling powder and small plastic bags. Marpot lands a punch solidly into the man's belly, making him double over. He follows his punches with a kick to his face, but the man swipes at his knee, knocking him off balance. Marpot struggles to his knees, saying "I'm not going to let you ruin..."
He never finishes the sentence. His opponent has caught up the knife he'd used to slit open the sandbag, and he stabs Marpot in the belly.
As Marpot stops in shock, clutching at the knife, the man laughs again. "Sure, I'm smart," he says. Marpot suddenly arches his back, and, making strange guttural noises, he falls forward. He twitches with convulsions, ignored by his murderer, who gathers up several other sand bags, and walks away.
Diana smiles as the door of the park tunnel entrance slides open, and she sees Mouse standing there. "Hey, kiddo."
"Diana! Vincent says wait a minute. He'll be here. Want to see my new gizmo? Have to show you outside."
She follows him to the mouth of the culvert, where he produces a small plane made of very light balsa wood. "Comes back", he says, and tosses it in the air. Sure enough, the plane swoops in a circle, and returns straight to his hand. "You try."
Diana tosses the little plane, and it wobbles wildly. "No, not that way," says Mouse. "Straight up." A few more false tries, and she has the knack. They take turns tossing the toy and catching it. One of the things that Diana finds so engaging about Mouse is how he makes her feel like a little kid, in a way she never did when she was one. She finds herself laughing and chasing after the plane, trying to knock it from the boy's hands, or catch it out of the air. Her sensitivity to people draws her into the life-wonder where Mouse revels, and she almost forgets that she's waiting for Vincent, until she feels him come down the culvert. She turns to find him in the shadows, watching them and laughing.
"You two are going to attract too much attention," he says, reluctantly.
She offers him the plane. "Wanna try?"
"Yes, I do, and you're wicked." But he doesn't really mean the censure, as much as she knows he'd love to step out into the sunshine. She joins him in the culvert. Reluctantly, Mouse follows.
"Told her, Vincent," he says. "Told her for you, you were coming."
"Thank you, Mouse." And the young man scampers away, to seek whatever fascination comes next.
Vincent turns to Diana, smiles at her breathlessness and flushed face. "So, good morning."
"Hi. Sorry to tease you. I got caught up in the moment." He shrugs good naturedly. More and more, lately, a tiny bit at a time, she has seen some contentment slip back into his life, even now, so soon after the anniversary of Catherine's death. After three years of looking at him through the fog of grief and anger that surrounded him from the night she met him, Diana rejoices in any moment of happiness she sees him enjoy. She credits Jacob's beauty and irrepressibly sunny nature for much of his father's healing, and never thinks that her steady friendship may have an influence as well. Her love for him is a problem she accepts as her own, none of Vincent's business, and doesn't see it as a factor he has come to trust. "You're in a good mood today."
"I suppose. Somehow, I woke up with a conviction that something wonderful will happen soon."
At this, she becomes serious. "Well", she says, slowly, "I came to tell you about something strange." She tells him of the show she saw, the French acrobats and their splendid act. "The strange thing is their lead performer. She goes by the stage name of Leonie..."
"And?" he prompts when she trails away.
"I guess the best thing is to show you her program". And she hands it to him. She watches his eyes dilate at the sight of the cat-faced beauty on the back cover. "Too weird?"
He doesn't answer, but flips through the book, enthralled.
"Why would she go for that make-up?" Diana asks.
"Why do you assume it's make-up?"
She flounders there. She hadn't imagined anything else. "I don't know. Show people strive to be remarkable any way they can. They have to, so people will notice them. But, if this face is real, would she really be able to keep it public without trouble?"
"That would be difficult. The actors in "Cats" take their makeup off."
"Exactly. Apparently, there is a lot of publicity in France about her appearance. She's a celebrity there, and the tabloids all speculate on her real face. There is a rock band, called "Kiss", who never go out in public without their make-up. They have the press pretty curious about their real faces, too."
"Do they look like this?"
"Not even close."
"Perhaps this is her real face."
"Vincent, I wouldn't go too far with that...."
"Look at her, Diana. How altered could this photograph be?"
"I admit, I don't know. And I couldn't get seats close enough to satisfy my own curiosity. They were on Letterman the other night - I taped it, if you want to see - and there never was a good camera close-up. I suspect that was on purpose. She probably wants to keep the controversy alive. It sells tickets. Vincent, I'm worried that someone who's seen you is exploiting that knowledge. That comes a little closer to home than I like. Anyway, I thought this would interest you."
"An understatement. Do they have another show?"
"I think I need to see that show."
"And how do you propose to do that?" She has to repress a mental image of Vincent walking up to the ticket window.
"The Walden theater used to have easy access to the catwalks and lighting bays from the basement. As children, we used to creep in to watch the Children's Theater Performances. That access may still be there."
"Sounds like fun " she starts, and then her cell phone rings. She fumbles with her pockets, wanders closer to the mouth of the culvert so she can hear. He follows her, and sits down next to her as she settles on her heels. He's grown accustomed to her devices. The phone and the beeper once made him nervous for reasons he couldn't explain, but now they are nothing more than an extension of her job, and sometimes an intrusion. "Bennett." She listens for a while, asks some questions. Vincent pages through the program until he hears the tone of her voice change. "You're kidding... Me?... Why is that supposed to be a qualification?... All right, all right, I'm on it." She puts the phone in her pocket, and looks at Vincent quizzically. "There was a murder at the Walden last night."
"No, a stage hand. But they want me on it because the troupe is foreign, and I guess because the star is different. And you know my reputation."
"Do they think she is involved?" She shrugs. "I was going to invite you below.." he continues.
"Nuts. Not today," she says. "Sorry." She looks at him for a bit, fighting the urge to touch him that sometimes comes so violently it brings tears to her eyes. "So, I guess we'll both be at the Walden tonight. I suppose it's pointless to suggest you stay away just because the police are going to be all over the place like a rash."
"Surely, they'll be gone by tonight?" She shakes her head no. " And are we sure there will be a show?"
"The matinee is a lost cause for sure, but the troupe is determined to perform tonight, regardless. Perhaps you should avoid it...." she gives up when she sees the stubborn look on his face. "Just be careful, OK?" When he nods, she turns to leave.
"Until later," he says, and she's glad he can't see her face. Sometimes it's just too hard to control her expressions.
The cavern backstage is dark, chilled, and noisy. Stage equipment and acrobatic props are scattered about the floor, and people bustle about, almost all of them people from the Police department. Hollow booms come from the direction of the stage as parts of the scaffolding are rearranged. Diana wanders through the mess tentatively. There is a terrible sensation sizzling about her, as if the echoes of death have not yet died away. But only Diana can feel that. Yellow police tape festoons the back part of the area. A young policeman stands in front of it. He recognizes Diana, and nods to her.
She ducks under the tape, and behind the great curtain that is the back of the stage. Behind that last curtain, there is a space about fifteen feet wide. A hodgepodge of mats, scaffolding segments, rope coils, sandbags and so forth is piled there. They had been organized, but they are scattered now, and in their midst lies the unnatural form of a man. He is middle aged, heavy, lying on his side in a twisted position that tells of a tortured death. His hand clutches at a knife in his belly, and his face is contorted. The coroner kneels by him. "Who found him?", Diana asks the sergeant who comes up to greet her.
"One of the French crew. Found him about an hour ago."
She watches silently as, for her benefit, the coroner rolls the dead man onto his back. Beneath the body is a two-pound sandbag. It is slit open, but what spills out is not sand. It's filled with small white bags, some of them torn open, the powder inside scattered over the floor and the man's hands. "Well," says Diana, "anyone want to guess what the story is here?"
The coroner looks up. "That stuff isn't exactly what you think it is."
"Terrific." She paces around the area, scanning as she goes. The heavy, clay-like feeling of death hangs over this place, and she knows it will stay here until hours after the body is moved. It's always like that for her: she feels the lifelessness of that body, the absence of its soul, like there's a blank spot in the reality around it. Moreover, something tells her that this isn't straightforward, even if it isn't novel. There's something else to the sense of wrongness, an irritation in her mind. She returns to the policeman who stands at the margin of the yellow tape.
"Where are the theater people?"
"They've been asked to wait in the front, in the lobby. There are a lot of them, Detective. There's supposed to be a matinee, and they're all showing up for work."
"Good. They can assume that they're showing up for questioning." She finds her way off the stage, and walks up the aisle of the empty house to the lobby doors. Even with all the noise on the stage, the theater seems massive, and as she walks past vacant rows, Diana feels very small and isolated. She's never been an empty theater, come to think of it. It's oddly spooky, and she's just as glad to arrive under the protective overhang of the balcony.
That paradoxical feeling is quickly forgotten as soon as she opens the lobby door, and the "wrong" feeling suddenly amplifies. Funny that the simple barrier of the door should block it. There are dozens of people milling about, most of them upset, and many of them being upset, loudly, in fluent French. One of the French company is shouting at the policeman who is stationed at the door Diana has opened. "Your people, they do not let us go to our equipment! How can we put on a show if we cannot prepare?"
"I'm detective Diana Bennett," she flashes her badge to the policeman, who looks very relieved by her diversion. "Who's in charge out here?"
The Frenchman turns on Diana with typical French verve, but he is distracted: "Jules", a silky voice comes from behind Diana. She turns and nearly gasps: she is face to face with Leonie. Cleft lip, straight, broad nose, and shocking blue eyes - she is Vincent all over again. The acrobat barely glances at Diana before she continues to address her stage hand in French. He gazes at her in shock, and then stomps off, looking for another Frenchman to share his outrage. Leonie smiles sadly after him, then turns to Diana and the policeman. "I'm sorry. We are all on edge, and he didn't know that the matinee has been canceled. Madame, are you the detective the Sergeant said would be coming?"
Diana barely collects herself. "Yes, I'm Diana Bennett." She automatically moves to shake hands, and the cat-woman responds. Before she can fathom it, Diana looks down to find herself holding a hand much like Vincent's. Smaller, and more slender, but muscular and clawed - and the claws are painted bright red. Well, why not?
"I wish we could meet under happier circumstances," says the lioness.
"I, uh, saw your show yesterday. I brought my niece. She's a big fan of yours."
Leonie seems genuinely pleased. "Really? Thank you. That makes me feel very good." Diana listens for a note of insincerity, but she does not hear it. She also doesn't hear much of the French accent she heard the other night. In fact, the woman's accent is hard to place. There's a flavor of French inflection, but the vowels seem also to have an English lilt to them. It's the speech of someone who has traveled far and long.
"Once I talk to my men, will you have some time for me?"
"Of course. My name is Victoire Dedeaux. I will be in the manager's office." She points towards the door near the box office, and then the lioness is gone, Diana staring after like a foolish teenager.
"Something else, isn't she, Detective?" says the police officer.
"You have no idea." She ducks back into the theater, and realizes with annoyance that her hands are shaking. She didn't need to look twice to know that the lioness was no product of make-up, and hardly a product of plastic surgery. Where does this woman come from? Are there more like her? And if Vincent meets her, what then? Would she hurt him? Or worse, love him? Once her mind articulated that last thought, Diana conceded defeat. No way can she go about this case with a clear head. 'Everything I don't have is threatened by that woman', she thinks, and laughs at herself. Worse is the possibility that Victoire may be involved in this death, although the man was clearly killed by ordinary human means. Can she find a way to keep Vincent from coming to the theater tonight? Diana seats herself in the back row of the orchestra, watches the group a people roiling around the stage, and tries to organize her mind. There's no way she can get off this case. She's going to have to work her way through it. And get used to the existence of the lion goddess who is a counterpart to the lion god who lives below her feet. And that scratching at her mind will not stop.
Heeding that, focusing on it - it is, after all, why she does this job - she heads backstage again. The closer she gets to that area behind the last curtain, the smaller the new sensation gets. This isn't the usual way a crime scene feels. She is in the presence of death, yes. She looks at the dead man. It isn't his body that scrapes her nerves raw. It's his killer.
The coroner wanders over. "I have one bit of news," he says. "For what it's worth."
"It isn't the knife wound that killed him. His belly's too heavy, and the blade too short. I don't think any vital organs were hit. And it doesn't look like he hemorrhaged to death."
"So the junk on the knife killed him."
"That's not very much speed."
"Someone's smuggling some pretty pure stuff."
Great. So someone has got a courier buried in Victoire's troupe, who can smuggle very high-grade stuff all over the world in acrobatic equipment. Perhaps the dead man found the stash. Perhaps the connection fought him and killed him to save his stash and his neck. Except the killer didn't look underneath his victim, and left behind one last sand bag. And that person is here. Once she accepts that idea, the strange resonation in her mind leaps, like a flame. That's it. He's here. Probably wandering around this lobby, warily eyeing police, and chattering to his comrades. Perhaps it was even excitable Jules. Diana shivers: he's here. Or she.
She searches out the sergeant: "Have we set up a schedule for talking to all these people?"
"Yeah, for what good it'll do. Maybe someone saw something, but I doubt it."
"No one is to mention the drugs just yet, all right? I'll give you a hint. He's here. He may even be one of them, the Frenchmen."
"That's my hunch."
She pauses outside the office door, and listens. Victoire is on the phone, sounding distressed - no, hurt. The liquid tones of her voice come through the door, and Diana nearly shivers. Vincent's voice has the smoky warmth of velvet, and this voice is similar in its near-hoarseness. But it does not evoke velvet. Sueded silk. Damask, something lighter and soft, that whispers as it passes through the fingers. The French accent is audible even as the words are not, and it adds to the exotic nature of the sound. As she listens, she realizes that the policeman who commented on her was seeing her in an erotic light: he saw a very desirable woman, and not simply because of her strangeness. After a brief scandalized thought, she accepts the fact. After all, Vincent is nothing if not disturbingly masculine, and Diana knows enough women who agree with her. What else could this extraordinary woman be to a man? She stops her wild thoughts, and knocks on the door.
"It's Diana Bennett."
"It's open." And Diana pushes the door open. Victoire is still on the phone, but she motions Diana to a chair with an apologetic shrug. She cradles the phone against her shoulder as she rifles through airline tickets. She is seated on a couch, one foot tucked under her, papers scattered all about her. She wears well-cut camel hair trousers, slim boots, and a beige silk man-tailored shirt with a scarf tucked at the throat. Jewelry is minimal: a gold watch, a simple ring on her right hand, and earrings are not visible beneath the tumble of red corkscrew curls. She finishes off the call with obvious words of affection, and hangs up with a sigh. "That was my uncle, "she says. "Back home. He and Paul played poker together. Paul took good care of us. He wasn't the first to sign on with our undertaking, that was Eduardo, but he has been the most reliable. He was very defensive of the equipment. He said it was his job to keep us alive up there, and he used the rigging to do that. All that stuff back there - it was his baby. And his baby killed him." She looks at Diana for a moment. "Do you think this can be settled quickly?"
All Diana can do is shrug. "I think we've already asked you for a list of everyone in your troupe. We'll be talking to everyone, this morning, if possible. Do you think they are all here?"
"I'm sure of it, since we have all come to prepare for the matinee. I also called over to the hotel to tell them that the police will probably want to look at Paul's room. They will keep housekeeping away until then."
This is a bit of foresight Diana hadn't anticipated. "Oh."
"Do you think it was a robbery?"
Diana debates withholding the knowledge of the drug packets from her for a moment. Standard methods advise against it. But, against that better judgment: "I think you should know that we found amphetamines near the body."
"Paul? On drugs? No."
"The drugs were packed into a sand bag."
A long silence follows as Victoire absorbs this with complete astonishment. She settles back against the couch, and stares at Diana as if she can read her thoughts. "One of our sand bags."
"Merdre." As Diana watches, a rage comes up in the lioness that Diana can nearly feel herself. She looks so like Vincent, that Diana waits for her to roar her outrage, but she does not. In a voice terrifying in its quiet, she says: "One of my people is smuggling drugs?"
"Do you know anything about it?"
Abruptly, Victoire rises, and stalks to the door. At these close quarters, her height is imposing - she's at least six feet tall. At the door, she stops. "You probably shouldn't have told me this."
"After all, I could be the murderer. Or connected in some way."
"You are neither."
"Just like that, you know this?"
Diana doesn't answer. She's busy hoping her judgment has not been clouded by her feelings. This woman is so like Vincent, and so different. Diana has a full set of preconceptions that lead her to expect certain behavior from Victoire, and her expectations so far have been fulfilled. But how much can she really trust her? She finds she has to actively remind herself of this, because, almost in spite of herself, she likes Victoire. A lot.
"At this point, we are all suspects, non?"
"I wouldn't go that far."
"Look at me, Detective. Just whom do think will be accused first, if not me?"
"Are you telling me you have no alibi for last night?"
Victoire chuckles a little. "Oh, that." She looks at the door as if she can't remember why she went to it. And perhaps she can't. At that point, Diana realizes that although, totally unlike Vincent, Victoire lives as far out in the open as any human can, she still has harsh limitations on her life, as Vincent does, restrictions and ugly realities imposed by her face. 'She makes it look easy', Diana thinks. 'Where was she going? To run?' It doesn't matter. Victoire seats herself back on her couch, and rubs her eyes. "When was he killed?"
"Why don't you tell me what you did last night?"
"After the show, four of us went clubbing. We went to three or four nightclubs, and closed down the last one. Then we went back to the hotel, and I went to bed. At which point, I cannot prove my whereabouts."
"Who was with you?"
"Etienne, Jimi, and Yusef."
"Those are three of the other performers." Victoire nods. "Where was the fourth?"
"Raoul and his wife, Henriette, didn't join us. She is our secretary. I don't know what they did. They are newlyweds. It's likely they didn't leave the hotel."
Which would make their alibis less than airtight... "Which clubs did you go to?"
"We started at a place called Colorado, and finished at Xanadu. I'm not too sure of the others. The boys should know, unless they are too hung over."
Diana makes a rather wry face. "Well, I don't think that it should be too hard to corroborate your story. I doubt any club management would forget you were there."
"I can give you better than that." She smiles at Diana's questioning glance. "Call any tabloid. Photographers followed us everywhere."
And it was also likely that a photographer waited outside the hotel to catch her if she left later, as well. While it could prove useful to the investigation, it also gave Diana a hint that, if Victoire were inclined to murder or drug traffic, she'd be a fool. If photographers follow her here, they must be horrendous in Europe. And a real deterrent to shady behavior. "Don't you get tired if it?"
Victoire shrugs. "It's a two-edged sword. Without publicity, we're broke. And they're perfectly annoying. But perhaps, today, I'm grateful for them?"
"You are, I think. Paul was killed between midnight and one o'clock."
Victoire smiles. "Then we can be sure about Etienne, Jimi, and Yusef."
"I knew about me," Victoire says flippantly. She looks at Diana for several long minutes. Diana returns her gaze, but she feels that Victoire is looking not so much at her as into her, reading her soul, perhaps. Sometimes, these days, she catches Vincent looking at her like that, and it always unnerves her, as Victoire's scrutiny does now. "You do, too," Victoire says, abruptly.
"You know about me."
"I already told you I didn't think you were a murderer."
The lioness shakes her head, and smiles ruefully at her. "That isn't what I meant. Everyone I meet nearly bubbles with doubts: is she real? Is it make-up? Is it surgery? If they decide I'm a natural phenomenon, they are afraid of me. In you I see no doubt, and no fear, even though I distress you. You know I'm real, Diana Bennett. Why do I worry you?"
"What makes you say this?"
Victoire makes a small gesture, that may convey apology, or self-deprecation. The slow tilt of the head is achingly reminiscent of Vincent. "I know things," she says. "I sense things about people. I can't help but feel the killer's presence. Perhaps the brutality of the action lingers here. Or perhaps he does, wandering around this place ..."
"You sense that?"
"Yes. His nerves rattle all over here, like a rattlesnake coiled in the corner..."
"No. More like a cicada."
They stare at each other with a new understanding. "You do this, too."
Diana nods. "I can't shake the feeling that he's here, either. We have to interrogate everyone today, before the show. We'll probably ask that none of you leave the country until we have finished collecting evidence."
"Is this going to take long?"
"Honestly, I don't know. I also think you should keep the news about the drug to yourself. We'll try to get the preliminary stuff done by show time." She rummages through her bag for a notepad, preparing for the long & tedious grind of the interrogations. "Victoire? Is there anyone in your group you suspect?"
"Please, don't ask me that now. I can't bear to open my mind to the thought that one of my friends is a killer."
"It may be that you'll have to accept that."
"Yes. But not this morning."
The house lights fade in the Walden Theater, and an expectant hush falls over the audience. The curtain rises silently on a darkened stage. There is silence, and darkness, until a rustle passes over the audience. Then, faintly, the sound of chimes. Across the stage, a light floats, dances, swirls so fast that the eye sees streaks of light. Another comes from another direction, then a third and fourth, each joining a dance pattern that becomes rhythmic, almost hypnotic. A flute joins the chimes, and, at the crash of a gong, the stage lights flare, and four dancers appear, leaping so quickly that the eye still sees the swirling lines of the lights. The audience breaks into applause.
High above them, hidden behind an urn on the decorative molding that runs around the ceiling, Vincent catches his breath. It took him an hour to climb up here. He got lost several times in the strange little passages in the wall, and thought he'd have trouble getting back out once or twice. But he's here, and nearly trembling with anticipation. The men on the stage below him change their tempo. Still no evidence of Leonie, and Vincent begins to wonder, when she appears in a cloud of smoke, wrapped in a bronze satin cape. Further curtains rise behind the dancers, revealing scaffolds and trapezes. The men run to climb ladders; the woman spins a series of somersaults across the stage. She slides into a split and tosses her hands into the air. Applause. Vincent stares. A cloud of red hair, and a long, lithe body, but he cannot see her face very well.
There is a narrow channel behind the frieze that runs along the top of the wall. The carvings along the low parapet are lit by lightbulbs set behind them. Gambling that everyone in the place should be focused on the stage, Vincent creeps farther down that channel, closer to the stage. It will make it harder to get out later, but he ducks down behind another urn, and settles in.
Diana lets herself in by the stage door. There is a clot of reporters outside the theater, which she avoids. She stands in the wings, watching the last half hour of the performance. From the stage, the activity of the crewmembers on the ground is hard to ignore. Dressed in black, they handle ropes and wires with intense concentration. For one of the acts on the tightrope, Diana hadn't been aware, seated in the audience, of slim ropes that the acrobats hooked to harnesses under their clothes. Each aerialist is guarded by a man holding a rope that slips through a pulley above the stage. At the first sign of a lost foothold, that man is ready to put tension on the rope, and save the performer a fall. To Diana, rather than seem like they were cheating, this marks the treachery of the job these people take on. On each side of the stage, a manager dashes from place to place, monitoring the ropes, and the set changes, and moving people in and out. Diana learns in a matter of moments that, much as her presence is accepted, she is meant to stay out of the way.
Eventually, she is pushed farther forward until she stands in the downstage wing. From this position, standing nearly underneath their ladders, the African Star is more frightening than anything else; the symmetry of the acrobats isn't as apparent, but the collision course is more obvious. Henriette, also dressed in black, and managing a rope from the wings, turns & smiles at Diana.
"It is so strange," she says, "that this show is standing room only." An odd commentary, that murder will boost sales. You'd think that people wouldn't want to be in the same place as a dead man, so to speak.
After the curtain calls, Victoire is ebullient, as performers often are. She bounces off the stage, and catches first Henriette, and then Diana, into bear hugs.
"Diana! You came! Did you see? How did it look?"
Before Diana can answer, people with questions swamp Victoire, and Diana steps back to snuggle into a corner and watch the crew as they work. She observes the interaction of the French crew with each other and the American theater workers. Jules is stomping around, barking out orders and comments to whoever looks like a target, although no one seems to be paying attention. They know what to do, and are doing it whether he tells them to or not. One Frenchman, Bruno, seems to be the only one who stops to taunt him. At one point, one of the others stops him from baiting Jules.
A few reporters come in from the alley. The security guard gets rid of them. Eventually, Diana wanders out to the stage to watch the scaffold come down. She looks out at the house. The seats are all empty. Vincent is still here. She looks up into the catwalks above the stage, but the lights prevent her seeing them very well. He could be anywhere. Sometimes, she can pinpoint where he is - in the park, for instance, she can walk straight to his hiding place. But tonight, she can only assume he's here. She's sure he's aware of her presence, or that he takes for granted she's around. She toys, only briefly, with the notion of going to the basement and trying to find his point of entry, to meet him if he leaves. She has work to do, and Vincent is not that work.
Victoire joins her on the stage. She is dressed in a sweater and blue jeans, but she retains that annoying fashionable flair that Frenchwomen seem to have no matter what. "Well," she says to Diana. "I can honestly say I don't care if I never see this place again." She seems to have come down off her post-performance high. "I think I will finish the paperwork tonight, give it to the manager, and forget about it. You know, I really was excited to come here. I couldn't help but believe that something wonderful was waiting in New York."
In spite of her goosebumps, Diana says "Like what?"
Victoire shakes her head. "I don't know. Nothing I can think of is worth a death. I guess I was overly optimistic. I'm off. What are you going to do?"
"I think I'm going to hang around and watch the closing-down routine. I suspect it isn't too different from what went on last night." Victoire nods. "I need to get a feel of this place, picture what happened."
Victoire regards her gravely. "I know what that is like. I get impressions from places, and I don't like how I feel when I walk back there." She nods towards the rear curtain. "I can't imagine purposely seeking those feelings out."
Diana shrugs. "It's my job."
"Better you than me. Well, if I don't see you later, I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow."
As Victoire wanders off to her dressing room, Diana looks over her shoulder, back at the light bays, then up at the catwalks again. No one. But she knows he saw her.
Vincent waits until the audience has gone. He sets out to find his way to the stage, knowing that it's a foolish risk, but unable to resist. She was amazing, and beautiful. And he has no doubt that she is real. Occasionally, he heard a lion's roar, as if it were part of the music. He knew better. He ventures out onto the catwalk above the stage, and sees Diana looking out at the house. Looking for him, he's sure. As he watches her, the lion goddess joins her. It astonishes him, the ease with which she walks among all these people. And they take her for granted. She holds herself as if she's never known a moment of doubt, or fear. In her blue jeans, her extraordinary face seems more unusual, and yet, not so. It isn't a shock to look at her. He's on one of the lower catwalks, just above the downstage lights, and he can catch bits of their conversation. He hears her say that she was expecting something wonderful to happen, and it jolts him. Hadn't he just this morning admitted to the same feeling? He has to find Diana. He has to meet this woman, and he knows she can help him.
The stage is empty, and dark. Trouble lights, and the light from the dressing room corridor, barely penetrate the gloom. Victoire & the theater manager are still there, and the security guard wanders around. But for the most part, the place is deserted. Diana circles the stage, and goes to the area behind the curtain. The pile of mats is still there, as are some coils of heavy rope. She sits on the mats, and settles in, to absorb the noises and fetid aura of this place, and to imagine what happened here nearly 24 hours ago. Part of her strains to capture a sense of Vincent, where he might be, and she half expects to hear him behind her at any moment. But for the first time, she finds she can concentrate on her job.
Meanwhile, Vincent remains in the catwalks above the stage. He'd had to draw out of sight when some technicians came up, and then he was caught by surprise when the lights were turned out. Now he creeps through darkness almost as deep as he's ever encountered below. He sees the light below him, near the stage door on the left hand side of the building, but the only exits from the catwalks he recalls are on the right. He feels his way along. He senses Diana below him, in the space behind the rear curtain. Perhaps he can get to her before she leaves.
The click of the stage door is surprisingly loud, and it seems to echo several times. At first, Diana thinks it may be the security guard, but she does not hear the rattle of keys, or the tread of the heavy-soled shoes guards wear.
Out of her line of sight, a young man in a football jacket and a knit cap makes his way quietly towards the back of the stage. He listens intently for the sound of the security guard, and the light in the dressing room corridor unnerves him for a moment. He makes it to the wings, and works his way from curtain to curtain until he is behind the last one. At this point, Diana can hear him, and she's sure that it isn't Vincent she hears.
Above her, Vincent has found a ladder that goes to a balcony walk that surrounds three sides of the stage. With a rising sense of urgency, he starts to look for a stair.
Victoire has finished her paperwork, and folds it to tuck into her purse. She wonders if Diana is still lurking on the stage. She admits to a guilty fascination with Diana's work. Perhaps she will wander onto the stage herself, and see what perceptions she can gather.
Once he's sure that he's hidden by the shelter of the curtain, the intruder lights a flashlight. The beam makes Diana flinch, but he does not shine it her way. Instead, he moves towards a locker against the back wall. He fumbles with the padlock - Diana realizes with a dull shock that he has a key (had her men not searched those lockers?) - and raises the lid. As Diana watches, he pulls out more sandbags, and stuffs them into the backpack he carries.
Victoire reaches the backstage area, and she sees the flashlight beam. After a brief panic, she turns and heads for the light control board.
Shifting as quietly as she can, Diana pulls her gun out of her pocket. After the man closes the locker, and locks the padlock, he turns to find the street door.
"Police! Freeze!" Diana shouts.
The man cries out in surprise, and nearly drops his backpack. He tries to run, but at that moment all the lights for the backstage area and the stage come on. He staggers to a halt, then wheels to shoot wildly in Diana's direction. He runs for the door again, but Victoire is running towards him. He tries to aim at her, but Diana fires a shot that speeds past his head. He spins back towards Diana, which gives Victoire all the advantage she needs. She leaps at him with a roar, knocking him to the ground. He tries to strike at her with his gun, but she can grab his hand, and she pins him to the ground with her knee, snarling terribly while she twists the hand behind him. When he tries to resist her, she yanks on the arm until something snaps, and he screams. By the time Diana has run up to them, Victoire is in possession of the gun.
"Thanks!," Diana says to Victoire. "Do you know this guy?" Victoire shakes her head. Diana shoves her gun in his face. "Who the hell are you?"
The theater manager runs up, and then the security guard.
"My arm! You're breakin' my arm!" the man cries. Victoire only snarls again.
"How do you do that?" the guard asks her.
When Diana cried out, Vincent leapt over the side of the balcony, landing a little harder than he expected near the mid-stage wings. He ran straight out toward center stage, and found himself exposed when the lights went on, but he doubled back to the rear curtain just in time to turn & see Victoire's attack and mastery of the intruder. The sight of her ferocity astonishes him, and he stops to stare. She tosses her head back to smile triumphantly at Diana, and hand her the gun, then dismounts from the poor man's back to allow Diana to handcuff him. When the security guard runs up, Vincent thinks to move out of sight just as Victoire starts to survey the area. Too late.
"There's another," Victoire says, and strikes out across the stage.
Diana panics. That has to be Vincent. "No, wait, I think it's our guy!" she calls. She shoves the man at the security guard. "Take him!" And she runs after Victoire.
Vincent pulls behind curtains, and tries to find his way out. He doesn't know how to get back onto the catwalks, and any approach to safety he sees is flooded with light. He manages to find a space that seems to be walled off, but he backs up too far, and bumps into a chair. Caught.
Diana reaches Victoire just as she reaches for the curtain, and sees her jerk it aside with a snarl. The snarl fades into a gasp of astonishment. Vincent returns her gaze evenly at first, but the longer he looks at her face, this mirror of his own, the less he can disguise his wonder. Diana can almost hear an electric crackle as the two lion creatures stare at each other, making a connection.
"Mais," breathes Victoire. "Je reve."
"I, too," says Vincent.
A siren in the alley causes them all to turn.
"Vincent, you'd better get out of here," Diana says. They'd forgotten her, and they snap their eyes to her in shock. Half unaware, Victoire reaches for Vincent's cape, clutching it to keep him from leaving. That he cannot bear to leave is so obvious that Diana makes a decision she does not want. "Go! I'll bring her to you. At my place. I know you'll know when."
He looks about for an exit. Victoire points to a low ladder to a catwalk. He swarms up, and is gone. Diana turns away from Victoire's inquiring gaze, walking quickly to meet the entering police, but Victoire catches up with her.
"You know him?"
"Not now, Victoire."
"Who is he?"
"Victoire, not now! His existence is hidden. No one knows him, and as far as I'm concerned, it stays that way."
"But you said you'd take me to him!"
"You're not no one." Diana keeps walking, but Victoire turns to look up into the catwalks, locking her gaze on Vincent's for a few moments before the police enter the stage.
Diana and Victoire enter the elevator to Diana's loft. They have fallen quiet, each with her own thoughts. Victoire can barely contain her excitement. Diana has a heavy heart. She has told Victoire only a few things about Vincent, leaving the rest for him to tell. Victoire is aware of the unrest in Diana, an impression she has always had from her. She is accustomed to people being uncomfortable around her, but she is also knows fear is the source of that discomfort. Victoire's appearance seems to be what draws Diana to Victoire. It is what inspires her trust. And yet, Victoire senses a regret in Diana, a reluctance to embrace a friendship that Victoire believes is entirely possible. Perhaps Vincent is the answer. Diana is very protective of him. Or of herself?
When they reach the loft, Diana points to the door to the terrace. "Don't take your coat off. He's up there." She turns away to take off her coat.
Victoire watches her a moment. "You're afraid I could hurt him, aren't you?"
Diana turns in surprise. "No!" Oddly enough, she never thought of that.
"Then what are you worried about?"
"He's waiting," Diana says. After a beat, Victoire goes through the door.
She finds Vincent leaning against the wall, watching the stars. He turns when she opens the door. They stare at each other across an endless terrace. The connection they formed in the theater has simmered in their minds during the past two hours, so that neither has been able to concentrate well on anything else. He neglected his usual precautions Above, some of them even instinctive, because his mind remained focused on the link to her. He was lucky that he encountered no one on his way to Diana's. Victoire had to continually draw herself back to the moment, talking to police, listening to Diana. Now the connection leaps in intensity, drawing them close to a trance. Finally, she remembers to breathe.
"I know. I heard them call your name."
"You were there all night?"
"Yes. The show was wonderful."
"Thank you." She makes the first move towards him, crossing the terrace slowly. "You were there the whole time. I knew something was different. Funny, I viewed it in some romantic light: that tonight was special, as a tribute to Paul." She shakes her head. "I'm not usually that sentimental." She stands next to him now. Tall as she is, she still looks up to him. Breathless again, they stare at each other. "You're doubting me. I can't believe it. Vincent, I'm just as real as you are!"
It's his turn to shake his head. "I don't doubt that. I keep waiting for you to vanish, or for me to wake up."
She reaches up to touch his face. That does it. They embrace, almost convulsively. She raises her face to be kissed, and he hesitates only a moment. Not since Catherine... But the feel of Victoire in his arms is too real, too strong, and the warmth of her body intensifies the awareness he has of her mind. As their mouths meet, their minds open to each other. Wishes made and dreams fulfilled go through them like thought, and they cling to each other tighter, until she finally stops, laughing. "I can't breathe!"
"That didn't mean I wanted you to let me go!"
At this moment, Diana opens the terrace door. She nearly winces when she sees them in each other's arms, and Victoire feels a small pang of regret. That answered that question.
"I've been beeped back in," Diana says. "It's cold out here. Why don't you two come in and sit?" Vincent hesitates, almost guiltily. "Vincent, you may be used to the elements, but Victoire is from a warmer climate. It's OK. Come on." And he relents.
As they pass Diana, Victoire tries to scrutinize her face, but she is too much shadowed. And Victoire gives herself a talking to. 'If I were to reassure her, what would it be about? And would it be true?'
They settle themselves on the couch, holding hands, sharing silence for a long time after Diana leaves. At last, she says: "Diana said there was a woman..."
And it all comes out. How he found her, how he felt. Those first months away from her, and the months waiting for her to accept him, and to love him. The time he wasted over pointless worries and guilt. Paracelsus, and the madness he brought to their lives. And Gabriel, the man who killed her, when Vincent could not find her or save her.
Somehow, Vincent avoids telling her of Jacob. He doesn't know why, but he feels that Jacob should be withheld. And almost out of habit, he leaves out the story of the Tunnel World. She knows he keeps something from her, but she does not press. He tells her of walks in the park with Catherine, of sharing concerts and reading books. He talks about Elliott Burch, and Stephen Bass, and the Stalker who nearly killed her. He talks about Halloween, and the gifts they gave each other, until somehow, he runs down. Two years, a little more. That's all it was. How could all that be all it was?
He finds tears in her eyes, and in her heart. She caresses his face, a gesture that she has made entirely her own: no one has touched him just this way, and no one else ever will.
"I wasted time, Victoire. With bootless fears that make no sense to me now. I could not trust myself with her, no matter how she trusted me. Even the few times she was afraid of me, that fear came from within her, not from something she saw in me. I could see that, and yet, I still didn't believe in my own love for her." He shakes his head. "Perhaps that is my greatest regret."
"Foolish to torture yourself," she says. "When love comes again, you'll know better."
"Again!" He stares at her as if she's committed blasphemy. "How could there be anything like what Catherine and I shared?.."
"There won't be. Every human soul is different, and deserves love in different ways from every other. And you shouldn't be so hide-bound that you think you won't open your heart again. Not you. You have so much to give, and life has so much waiting for you, you cannot keep yourself barred up inside yourself."
"There are so many good things waiting for you Vincent. Just open your arms..."
The echo of Catherine's words resounds in his heart, so like what this extraordinary woman has just said. He looks at her as if he sees her for the first time. She's so sure he'll love again. And, looking at her, he believes that she could be right. For a moment, a flicker of guilt.
"After everything I've had, how could I ask for more?"
"Do you think you'd get a choice? Love doesn't come when called, and it doesn't ask permission to come."
She strokes his face again, and he leans his cheek into her hand without thinking. There is a loving silence. In that space, they reach for each other again, with their hearts, and the connection between their minds takes over. He perceives the voice of her thoughts - not that he hears, as he hears her voice. This does not have the warm damask burr of her throat. No, it is a light, clear feeling, as if his own thoughts have taken a different timbre, a new wavelength. A wavelength that carries intimacy and love, the greatness of her joy in him. And a sentence, very discreet: =Catherine was right, you know.= The words, in his mind, not in the air, make him jump, as she starts beside him. They draw back, not physically, and look at each other in wonder.
"Tiens. That was strange."
"It's never happened to you before?"
"So odd. I heard her words within you."
"They were nearly the last words she ever said to me."
She slips her hand into his, and they contemplate this link they have found, both a little wary.
"I've been in love half a dozen times," she says. "Never was it that beautiful. Perhaps I didn't open myself to it well enough."
"You know why. Caution is the best word for it, I suppose. And there are so many reasons to be careful. I have to maintain a relationship with two strikes against me. There, I did a very American analogy, didn't I?"
"Being involved with such an unusual-looking person is one thing. Being involved with a celebrity is another. But when your lover is both..." She makes a very Gallic shrug. "And so I always half expect each romance to end even as it begins. As if expecting him to leave me will make it hurt less when he does."
"And does it?"
"Of course not. Someday I will learn." And someday, you must learn, too, she does not add. "And how does Diana come into your life?"
If there is a logical connection to Diana and her previous subject, he ignores it. "She saved my life, more than my life, more than once. She was assigned to solve the mystery of Catherine's murder." A ripple goes through him when he speaks of Diana, a sensation he resolutely ignores. But Victoire, so sensitive to all that goes on within him, hears it, and recognizes it. Poor Diana. He tells how Diana found him on Catherine's grave on the night Elliott died, how she brought him here, helped him heal. How she helped him defeat Gabriel.
"Brave woman to bring you into her home like that."
"Must have been a mess. Did she put you in her bed?" He looks at her quizzically. "You. Must have been a mess. I doubt that river is exactly clean. Never mind the smoke, and bilgewater, and fuel oil, and blood. You probably stank to high heaven."
He stares at her, a little stunned. "I don't remember being..." and his voice fails him. It never occurred to him. His clothes were clean when he left. Dear God, what had Diana done? He'd thought there could be no horrors left from that story, and now he sits in Diana's apartment, paralyzed with shame, while Victoire dissolves into giggles beside him. "She never said a word to me." Thank God she is not here. He looks sharply at Victoire. "You won't say..."
She shakes her head, still chuckling. "Of course not. Oh." She settles beside him. "Men are so impractical." His stern glance nearly sets her off again. "Well it's true. Any woman would have thought of it right off. Extraordinary woman, Diana. I wonder how many nights she waited in that cemetery for you?"
"I think I've talked enough about myself, " he says.
And so it's her turn. She tells him of a life almost totally different from his, and yet, very like.
"Jean-Luc and Emilie Dedeaux raised me as their own daughter, " she starts.
"What of your own parents?"
A small hesitation. Someone else might not have noticed. "Who knows? I never knew my parents. I.. was an orphan, and to be honest, the story has gone through so many changes, I can't tell you how it all started."
"I think I could say the same thing," he says, somewhat sourly. "And so?"
"So, the Cirque de Joie was a very small one in the beginning, and very typical. We had dwarves and acrobats and trick ponies and clowns. We also had oddities: the bearded lady, the sword swallower, and such. I fit right in. I was part of a special group, and I knew all the children around me. European circuses are still a lot like American circuses once were: very small, and limited in their activity. The show travels in the summer, and stays in our home town during the winter. We live in a town near Nice. Many of us have second businesses there, and the children go to school there. Families stay behind even in the summer. Some children are too young to go with the show, or people stay to keep the shops open, and so forth. It's home, and it's safe."
"But no one ever kept you hidden?"
Another tiny hesitation. "No. What was a lion child among the dwarves and bearded ladies? I occasionally was teased in school, but the circus children kept together. Even the children of the trainers and acrobats - the "normal" children, if you will - were sometimes troubled by the other children. After all, we were different. We were bohemians, circus people. We learned to defend ourselves, and we also learned how to break down barriers and make friends."
She shrugs. "At one point our another, all our fathers taught us how to fight. Me especially."
"They teased you more?"
"No. I was a troublesome child, with a vicious temper. Me, Lu-Lu had to teach how to... how to... Ooof, English fails me at last. Not be so hard. Be careful. He sent me to learn Savate."
"What is that?"
"It is a fighting, um, martial art. I guess you could call it French karate. It's taught me more than self control. It's taught me how to control a fight, physical or verbal. Lots of things. Lu-Lu also started me tumbling earlier than the other children. Anything to channel all that energy."
Vincent nods. "My Father had me reading books, and studying anything he could get to take my interest." And shattering passages and rooms out of granite. Some things are not everything they seem.
"We started a fashion, Lu-Lu and me," she says. "Pretty soon all the circus kids went to learn. It's useful for them, too. Life on the road isn't always safe."
"I can't believe you've been all over the world."
"All over? I haven't. Most of Europe. Now America. I went to school in England..."
"You went to college?" the dreaminess in his voice was not lost on her, nor was the wistfulness he felt. "In England?"
"Yes. I chose England because I wanted to work on my English. And because I thought that the paparazzi would leave me alone there."
A scornful noise. "Of course not. I was young and naive."
And so the conversation flows, for hours. They talk of dreams they had as children, and how they learned to accept that some of them would never come true. Or that they would come true in ways they couldn't expect.
"I dreamed of roaming the world. My brother Devin and I used to lie awake at night and talk of all the places we would go."
"My foster brother. His father raised me."
"Ah. So, you were an orphan?"
"Yes." She waits, but he offers nothing more.
"And what does Devin do now?"
He sits quiet for a long moment. "He does all the things we said we would do."
She feels the ripples of regret flow away from him, and some sorrow.
"He went without you." He shrugs in answer. "Diana said that very few people know that you exist. You live in hiding?"
She hates it. Something about that shudders in her soul so deeply that he nearly hates it, too. Of course the truth isn't quite the same as what she thinks. And yet, to tell her the truth... He senses her probing his thoughts, and, to turn her away, he says: "Hiding isn't he same as confinement." After all, he clearly goes where he pleases. She sees the adventure there. She also feels the small bit of sorrow for Devin.
"The wild romance Devin seeks came to you, didn't it?"
"I suppose. And yet, he's never had to lose as much..."
"You don't know that."
"Perhaps. He searches for a place to belong, and the place he left..."
"Is where he belongs?"
"Honestly, I don't think so. But that reflects more his spirit than anything else. I think what I learned is that belonging isn't a place."
"He doesn't know that?"
"He's so busy looking, he can't see."
"Funny. New York should have enough adventure for anyone."
This gives him pause, and she feels that he nearly answers, and stops. She looks at him, and into him. But he withdraws. There was more. What? She shakes it off and settles against his shoulder.
"I wanted to be someone I could never be," she says.
"And who might that be?"
"You really don't know?" He shakes his head. "She was a great passion in France when I was a young teen. The ultimate American girl: blonde, sexy, beautiful flawless face, long legs. Desired by one and all." She shrugs. "What girl doesn't want that?"
"Let me guess. Her teeth were all the same length."
"Brilliant, Holmes." Her grin bares her teeth - especially the long ones. "How was I to know that I was to be a sex symbol myself? That the same French magazines that went on about her regimen for her clear skin would spend as much space speculating on the appearance of mine? That others would devote a spread to my work-out secrets?"
They touch on the difficulties of being alone among so many, even if those people are loved ones.
"I know there are times that I have regretted being what I am, but my true regret is that I don't know why," he says. "It nags at me sometimes: why this? What sort of genetic twist, or fantastic story resulted in me?" She has become very still, within. Almost opaque to him, and her withdrawal alarms him. "Do you ever wonder?", he asks.
"All the time," she murmurs. She slips away from melancholy thoughts, and smiles at him. "Given a chance, I could drive myself mad with it. You mean, you have no clue? No fantasy about it all?"
"I don't let myself fantasize about it at all any more. I just accept that the best and the worst of me, no matter what I look like, lies in my humanity. It doesn't seem it can come from anywhere else..."
"What do you mean?"
She turns her gaze on him, her eyes searching his face, but she slides her heart and her thoughts away from him. He finds himself marveling at her face: the symmetry of her cheekbones, the wild blue of her eyes. And the question arises in the back of his mind: could he seem to be this beautiful? She finds that question, and laughs softly. "Are you beautiful, my love? You are magnificent!"
For some reason, this stings. "Don't."
"I don't know. Just.. don't."
She lets it go. She has made a fortune on her face, parlayed her wildness into a career, and in doing so, has nearly forgotten the times when that face set her outside from others, left her alone, and even with faithful circus friends, she felt that isolation. If 'living well is the best revenge', then she has revenge aplenty. But she knows how easily she can be cast out as a beast. Mere words can't take the pain of that away. She remembers her reaction to Diana's questions earlier that morning: for one blinding moment, she had been sure that she was the prime suspect in Paul's death, only because of her strangeness. The relief she'd felt when she realized her alibi had saved her was close to ridiculous. Had anyone tried to call her beautiful then...
She takes his hand in hers, plays with his fingers, snuggles back against him. He leans against her, and their foreheads touch. She reaches up and kisses him lightly. He kisses her back. Perhaps later, he will look back on his automatic responses to her, and regret them. But tonight, he feels her delight in him, and his delight is no less. If there is a sexual promise in their meeting, it seems condign, and he does not question it. On her part, she cannot deny that her mind is wide open to possibilities. Poor Diana. If I had not come into her life, could she eventually claim his heart? And exactly what am I going to do? She kisses him again. I know what I want to do.
"And so you live in hiding, but not in confinement? Where do you live? And how?"
He almost keeps it from her again, but he comes to the decision that she must know about the tunnels - and he can't fathom not introducing this unbelievable woman to Father. "That's rather a long story. Perhaps I need to show you rather than tell you. Can you meet me tomorrow?"
"Tell me where."
In the morning, an officer knocks at Victoire's hotel room door. She is up and dressed, even after so little sleep.
"Ms. Dedeaux? These are Mr. Marpot's things. I thought we ought to give them to you to take back to his family." He hands over a suitcase. Sadly, she accepts it.
"I imagine you looked through it for some information you could use?"
"Of course. We didn't find much."
"He didn't really have any family that we knew of. He never spoke of any."
"You might find some in his address book."
The detective takes his leave, and Victoire sets the suitcase in a corner. She sits at the window with a cup of coffee, her mind whirling. What a night! This was what she felt, what she knew was waiting: Vincent. Was it worth a death? She looks over at the tattered suitcase, and guilt makes her go to it. For 24 hours, she'd neglected the thought of informing his family. Who were they?
She finds a scuffed black book, with a calendar. She smiles sadly as she reviews the listings of the stops on this tour. Paul had been so eager to come to America, and then so scornful of Americans once he got here - so like a Frenchman, she thinks. She pages through the address book. It isn't very full. Most of the names she knows are people associated with the circus. Vendors, agents and repair people. Several women's names, including one well-known madam in Marseilles, which makes Victoire chuckle. Paul, eh? Who would have thought it? How many would really care? There are also several slips of paper stuffed into the little book. One jumps out at her, and for a moment, she can't understand why. It's a phone number labeled "Rino", and she doesn't know anyone by that name. And then she realizes: this is not a French phone number. It is an American number. She pulls the New York phone book out of the desk, and looks through for the prefix that would match it. None do, and then she realizes that the area code is wrong. She rummages through her own briefcase for her appointment book. She scans her list of important American numbers: the area code is for Miami. She has no listing in her book for a Rino. She flips on through the pile of papers in the book; there it is: a New York number. It isn't in Paul's handwriting. Further perusal of the book shows nothing else, and no family-type entries.
She sets the little book aside, pours herself a second cup of coffee - so faint, American coffee. She turns her thoughts to Vincent, just as, with a small shock, she realizes he's waked up. In her heart, she watches him remember last night, and feels his happiness. "Bon jour", she whispers, and nearly drops her cup when he starts as if she's whispered in his ear. He couldn't have heard that, could he? His smile touches her heart, and then: =Good morning.=
She laughs. =Incroyable!=
Something distracts his attention; she feels his regret. She withdraws from him, thinking: 'This could get too close for comfort, I think.'
And perhaps it could. She's always had a sense from the people close to her, but she's never 'heard' their thoughts, and no one has ever heard hers. If this happened when she was younger, she might have been tempted to immerse herself in him, but now... Now, even so soon after receiving this gift, she knows to be cautious. And is it worth a death?
She retrieves her coffee. The book draws her attention like a magnet as it sits closed on her desk. She is obsessed with this. Why?
She tries to turn her mind back to Vincent, but the book recalls her again and again, in a way she has learned to respect. There is something there.
With a sigh, she picks up the phone, and, consulting her own little black book, calls Diana.
Diana's voice is sleepy, and Victoire feels a stab of guilt at waking her, after giving her such a bad night. "Diana?" she says. "It's me."
Later that morning, Diana's phone rings again.
"Bennett? Neal Sherman here."
"Neal? Where have you been?"
"Over here in Vice where I've always been."
"Remind me to quote you out of context. What's up?"
"Got a question for you."
"Those numbers you got this morning."
"Where'd you get them?"
"Because I think you've hit a jack pot. We've had that New York number tapped for weeks."
"Ever heard of a guy named Callende?"
"Drug trafficker. Moves anything anywhere for a price. Doesn't produce, just ships. UPS for the Cartel and more."
"Give that girl a gold star."
"And you thought I never paid attention to you."
"We know that's a connection number. And we've been looking for the connections in other states, and I think you got us the Florida one. Come on, Diana, where'd you get it?"
So she tells him. She outlines the murder, and what she's learned so far. She's vaguely surprised that the story doesn't take longer to tell. So much has happened that she hasn't told, can't tell, anyone. Then she says: "Your turn."
"There's more. Give." He hesitates. "Sherman, so help me God, I'll feed you misinformation next time!"
"OK, OK. Someone's called that number four times. From the theater. And from a room at their hotel."
"Cut it out, Diana. The acting troupe's hotel."
"A guy named Marpot." He pronounces it Mar-pot. Like a kitchen pot, and it's all Diana can do to keep from correcting him.
"That's my murder victim," she says.
"Yeah? I wonder if Callende's crowd had this in mind?"
"I doubt it. The whole job was way too messy. There was nothing professional about it. My guess is robbery, or... Oh, I don't know."
"At any rate, it looks like your victim wasn't so squeaky clean. I wonder who else in the troupe is dirty?"
Unbidden, her alarms go off in her head. "Good question."
"Mind if we check out your people?"
"Hold it, Neal, this is still a murder investigation."
"And if the connection is dead, what do you have to go on?"
There's a pause. "Someone called that number from the theater yesterday."
"Marpot had a roommate." She pronounces it right.
"The dead guy. There are also two other crew members who don't have alibis for that night."
"The murderer may not necessarily be the telephoner."
"True enough. But my first choice for either one would be the roommate."
"He'd have a chance to see what's-his-name acting funny and to snoop through his things."
"Yeah. What's more, he's a creep." And now she knows why her eyes were always drawn to Bruno at the theater. That sick buzzing of her nerves - it came from him.
"Well, that won't hold up in court, Diana."
"You know what I mean. I've been living with these people for the past 24 hours, and I've got a bead on most of them."
"Can I come by? Or are you coming in?"
"Come by, I'll show you my notes."
"You're a princess. I'll be there in about an hour."
"It'll cost you."
What does a European eat in America? McDonald's? No, they have that at home.
Victoire, Etienne, and Yusef are seated in a delicatessen, with pastrami on rye, pickles, and potato salad, among other things. They chat openly and easily, in French. Yusef is suspicious of the potato salad, to say the least, sniffing it and poking it with his fork.
"Give me peace, Yus, it doesn't bite!" Victoire is amused.
"Where were you last night, Vicki?" asks Etienne.
She knew this was coming. They've grown up together. She's spent a good bit of time deciding what to say when this question was asked. And now, she hesitates to lie to him. "I went to the police station," she says. So far, this is not a lie. "I think I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about American police, or police in general."
"You came in so late."
"How do you know how late I came in?"
"I waited up for you in the lobby. I went to bed at two."
"Why did you wait for me?"
He casts her a reproachful glance. "This is New York, Vicki. And you don't blend into crowds anymore here than anywhere else. If I let something happen to you, Lu-Lu would kill me."
Almost as if on cue, a young man approaches them. "Are you the Flying Tigers?"
Yusef makes a fleetingly sour face, but he has his back to the man. Etienne and Victoire pick up their roles immediately. "We are," says Etienne, pointing to Yusef and himself. "This is Leonie, the Flying Lion." His accent is very thick.
Victoire flashes her sapphire eyes at the man, and smiles. He falls into those eyes, as most men do, and then recollects himself.
"I'm a photographer," he says. "Mind if I take a candid?"
They pick up their sandwiches, he snaps, and is gone. They exchange almost bewildered glances. "That one wasn't bad," says Yusef. He has finished his potato salad.
"You shouldn't have spoken," growls Etienne.
"Leonie?" asks a woman at her elbow. She has a notepad.
"I'm Hilary Marks from the New York Post," says the woman. "Would you mind?..."
"Oh, Ms. Marks, I just talked to an Aaron Abbot from your paper on the phone this morning," says Victoire. "I'm sorry. We are hoping to have some time to ourselves."
If this reporter is nonplused about being caught in a lie, she doesn't show it. "I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Paul Marpot's death...."
Victoire's eyes fill with tears. "Oh, no," she whispers. "Not that. I just can't talk about Paul anymore, please."
Yusef rises from his chair, and stares grimly at Hilary Marks. "Please leave us alone. He was a father figure to us. We can't bear it. Please go."
As soft as his words may be, his manner is stern, and the woman beats a retreat. "Vicki," he asks. "When can we go home?"
She shrugs, dabs the forced tears away. "When they let us." She sighs. "It is a bit much." She pats Etienne on the hand. "Don't wait up for me tonight. I'm getting out of the hotel."
"What!" they chorus together.
"I told you I have friends here."
"And what if the reporters get your friends involved?"
"Don't worry. I have it planned. They won't know I'm out of the hotel."
They exchange worried glances, but make no argument. She's executed hotel escapes successfully for years, and they used to worry Lu-Lu sick. Now the men worry, but they are accustomed to the results of arguing against it.
Yusef makes a tentative effort. "You haven't got a lover here, have you?"
She laughs. "Nosy. Change the subject. What arrangements have been made for the equipment?"
"Eduardo has arranged for it to go back by surface on a freighter that sails Thursday," says Etienne. "If we get it back from the police. There's another thing. Why do they need to keep our set?"
"Did the police say what was going on?" asks Yusef.
Another moment of truth. Diana had asked her not to tell her crew about the drugs found under Paul's body, and that had been easy enough yesterday, but last night's events raised too many questions. While she's debating what to do, Etienne speaks up.
"You know Eduardo says he's quitting."
"He always says that," says Yusef.
"This is different. He says he's too old to get killed like Paul."
That does it. "Well, there are some extenuating circumstances with Paul."
She takes a breath. "I'm not supposed to tell you, and the others better not learn from you."
"Paul was killed over a sandbag full of contraband drugs."
There is a long silence. "Someone's using our equipment to smuggle drugs?" Etienne whispers, grateful for the noise around them, and for the fact that they can hide by speaking their native language. Victoire makes a tiny nod. "And they think that the smuggler killed Paul?" Well, perhaps. But her suspicion that it was Paul himself who has put their company at risk leaves her disillusioned and sick. She simply lets that question hang in the air before them.
Yusef and Etienne stare at each other in horror. "One of our people has betrayed us," says Yusef.
In unison the men say: "Bruno."
Early in the afternoon, Victoire emerges from the hotel. She almost blends in as she walks purposefully down the busy side walk, a graceful young woman in a long suede skirt, boots and a voluminous black denim coat with a hood. The look of the coat is very reminiscent of Vincent. The hood is pulled far forward on her head, and only people who look straight at her notice her face. One man stops and turns to look, but people on the streets of New York are famous for ignoring each other. She passes two ratty-looking young men, who see her face, and grin at each other. They have found some sport. They start to follow her. She is aware of them, and is wary, but something in her manner is a little disdainful. They catch up with her as she crosses an alley, and flank her.
"Hey, funky lady. Aren't you a little far from the Village in that get-up?"
"Don't feel bad if you are. We like a little wild life."
They find themselves amusing. She gives them a cold glance, and walks on, but they block her way.
"Don't be so cold, baby. We wanna invite you for a party."
"Whatsa matter? Cat got your tongue?"
Her scorn becomes intense, and she pushes the first one out of her way. He experiences a moment of doubt when he feels the strength in her arm, but his buddy pulls her down the alley, and he goes along.
"Come with us a minute," says the second man.
"You won't like it", she says. The deadly quiet of her voice should be a warning, but they are too cocky, and too drunk, to notice.
"Oh, yeah? Get this, man, and what you gonna do?"
"Let go of me."
The second man shoves her against a wall. "When I'm ready." He grabs her face roughly, and moves in to kiss, when she snarls at him. It gives him pause, but not enough. He moves toward her again, when she roars, and he jerks as if something has happened to his midsection. And indeed, it has. She has raked her claws through his clothes, and serrated the skin of his side. He clutches at the wound, and then he finds himself flying across the alley, hitting the wall hard. He slumps to the ground, and looks at his bloody hands. The first man pulls a knife. He'd run, but Victoire is between him and freedom. When he lunges clumsily for her, she grabs the knife hand and swings him around, still roaring in his ear. She throws him on top of his friend, and he finds he has embedded his knife in his own thigh. They try to scramble to their feet, and the first man makes to move towards her, but she starts at them, flinging her arms in the air, and snarling like some monster out of B-grade horror movie. They fall back on each other, then they start crawling for the street in a blind panic. She advances on them as they go, snarling softly. At the very edge of the alley, one of them looks back at her, and his face registers a look of greater terror. He screams, staggers to his feet, and runs. She watches them run down the street, with her hands on her hips, and an attitude like that of a lady shooing small boys away from her apple tree.
Then she turns and smiles at Vincent. He had burst into the foot of the alley in time to see Victoire throw a grown man through the air, and he stopped when he realized that she was not the one in danger. He watched in fascination as she drove them away, and as his own appearance sent the last man out in blind panic.
She saunters up to him, still smiling. "Good afternoon. Friendly people you have here in New York."
"We need to get out of sight," he says, and taking her hand, he leads her down a staircase into a basement. He leads her through a hole in the basement wall, and into the tunnels.
"Where are we going?"
"To my home."
"You live underground? All alone?" She looks around with barely concealed dismay.
"It isn't what you're thinking. I have a great story to tell you."
By the time they reach the outer core of the tunnels, he's told her about the Tunnel World, or at least he's started the story. "I knew you were holding something back," she says. He returns her gaze for a moment, nearly telling her that he had the same thought about her, but she slides her thoughts out of reach too quickly. How did she do that? One moment, she was open to him, the next, closed to him, with an artificial opacity that he's seen before. Catherine could shield her feelings from him when she needed to, and it felt just like this. And since then... She distracts him when she says: "That ringing. That's a message system, isn't it?"
"What are they saying?"
He listens for a moment. "Mouse wants to know when Jamie is bringing him lunch..."
"...And the sentries have seen me come into the tunnels with a stranger." He smiles a bit. "And one says no one will believe who the stranger is. Or what."
"What do you expect?"
"Who's Mouse? Or what?"
Diana is making the third pot of coffee of the day. Sherman glances up at her. "You know, you look wiped out."
"Well, thank you, Neal."
"When did you sleep last?"
"I got a couple hours earlier this morning."
He drains his mug, finishes his deli sandwich. "I say we ask for tails for all of them."
"All ten of them." Oh, no. This would not do.
"I know. It's a lot."
"You can cut out the star."
She looks at him sharply. "Funny. I can show you why. They were on Letterman last week. I taped it for my niece, who's a gymnastics freak." She puts the tape in the machine, watches his face as he watches the troupe. His eyes widen when he sees Victoire, and then the expression on his face does the same thing she's seen repeated several times by her cops: adolescent lust, pure and simple.
"Whoa," he says, finally. "Is she for real?"
"Yeah, she's that good."
"She always looks like that. Photographers follow her everywhere, in Europe, and even here."
"So she's not the killer. And I can see the argument against her serving as a courier."
"Way too visible."
Another thought comes to her. She kneels in front of the VCR, and rewinds. "Look. I can show you the other crew members." She reruns the tape of the performance, on slow motion. She didn't notice the action of the black-clad men when she first saw it, but now that she's been on the stage, she finds their job almost as interesting as the performance. One by one, she's able to show Sherman the crew, even if the images are fuzzy.
He sits back from the TV. "All right," he says. "You want to keep an eye on your roommate?"
"Would you watch your grammar?"
"Huh? Oh. Sorry. I mean.."
"I know what you mean. We're on him."
But that doesn't mean that Victoire is safe from scrutiny, and her movements may not attract the right sort of attention. Now what?
Vincent takes Victoire to the Painted Tunnels first, hoping that they might simplify some of the telling of the story. Once they stand facing the images, he realizes that there is a great deal more here than just the beginning of the story, and some of the images are from chapters that he doesn't necessarily want to tell. But others...
"That's Catherine," she says, pointing to the portrait of Catherine in the white dress she wore to Winterfest, the night Paracelsus nearly killed them all.
"She's beautiful, Vincent. You could love her for her face alone."
"And there was more to her than that."
She moves on. "Who's that?"
"That was Paracelsus."
"Humph. After all that, he just looks like a man."
"After all that, he couldn't escape that that was all he was."
"Human nature at it's finest..." she muses. " It's a strange paradox, you know. Who would have known, just looking at him, that he was such a threat? And just a look at us leads people to draw the opposite conclusion - just as erroneous."
"Is it really erroneous?"
"The worst in me is most assuredly from my human side, of that I have no doubt."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Look at him. How can you not be sure?"
They wander through the gallery, he tells her more stories about the Tunnel World, shows her pictures of those whose names she knows, like Elliott Burch. She pauses before the portrait of young Father holding the infant Vincent.
"So, you were born here?"
"No. I was brought here by Father when I was an infant."
"He knew your parents?"
Another tiny beat, "You were an orphan?"
"I assume so. Father found me in a trash heap outside a hospital."
Her reaction surprises him: something leaps in her, cries =I knew it!= before she can pull it away from him. She's wracked to her own depths, and the mix of horror, shock, and delight confuses him enormously. "What is it?"
She is regrouping beneath his inquiry, pulling her thoughts in where he can't follow. "It sounds so dramatic. Can it be true?"
"So the story goes." He touches her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
She smiles at him, as if the question is silly. "Yes." She moves closer to the painting. "So that is your Father."
"Victoire, I thought..."
"What?" She faces him, blue eyes questioning, acting as convincingly as any professional, except that she can't fool him. Yet the plea comes to him: =Please?=
He casts about for a distraction. "You know, perhaps our childhoods weren't so different. I had a group of friends who knew me, and accepted me for what I am. We had countless adventures down here, and Above, at night. And they protected me from the World Above, when we went too far, and risked meeting people who could cause us - me - harm. When it came to the World Above, none of us really fit in there. Our World was so much safer, to us."
"We had sawdust and trapezes. You had tunnels and darkness."
"Darkness isn't so bad."
"Nor are trapezes. But plenty of people are afraid of them."
Near the end of the murals, there are family groupings, including a picture of Vincent with Jacob. She stares at that with some confusion.
Why does he want to hesitate to answer this? "My son, Jacob," he says finally, and then he knows why he held back. A surge of surprise, and then a deep sadness.
"Catherine gave birth to him just before she died. Her pregnancy was why Gabriel did not kill her outright. He wanted the child."
She leans against him, searching his thoughts. She knows his melancholy, and when he speaks of this, she glimpses the cavern of grief within him, and pulls back from its edge. "If I go there, I fear I will be lost forever," she says as she moves her body away from him , and his thoughts as well.
"So would I have been if at had not been for Jacob," he answers.
After Neal leaves, Diana makes a phone call. "Hi, this is Diana Bennett," she says.... "I'm doing pretty well. Haven't seen you in a while, not since Winterfest.... Of course I'll be there. If they ask me. What's that I hear in the background? ... Good Lord, is she talking already?... Listen, could you get a message down there for me?"
They are walking through wider passages, lit by torches and the ringing of the pipes.
"Well?" she says.
"You are deeply into something. What?"
"Those men in the alley..."
"What about them?"
"You enjoyed that."
She smiles wickedly. "Is it so bad? They were so surprised!" She shrugs. "I guess that is rather bad of me. It isn't as if they had a chance."
"You could have killed them."
She shakes her head. "Not at all. Fools learn more from terror than actual harm." He remains unhappy. "What is it, my love?"
"It was like I was watching myself, there in that alley. I've never seen anything so frightening, or so magnificent. And you were holding back..." He paces on a moment, then turns to face her. "I've known that rage - it was there in you. I know the force in the wellspring of that anger. And so many times, I've yielded to that force because I could honestly say that I was entranced by it. For me, the only thing to follow is self-hatred. But you. You reveled in it. And you controlled it."
"I have never felt that I could do that."
"I learned early about my strength. I told you that Lu-Lu sent me to classes. The discipline is.. well, a discipline. I learned how to brake my anger, how to command it, and not be commanded by it. And once I learned that I am the one in control, I then learned that every fight doesn't have to be desperate." She caresses his cheek, and as always, he leans to her hand. How have they lived all their lives without each other? "I think, my darling, you have never learned that the violence of your anger can be controlled, even as you let it loose. You keep such a terrible rein on yourself that you don't know how to deal with a very basic emotion when it presents itself. To you, it's all or nothing, non?"
He ponders this. "Not always." He remembers times he stalked men in the tunnels who came to deal death to his family. Those actions, however repugnant to him, were taken with method, and no emotion. He has mulled over these memories for several moments before he realizes her presence, not just beside him, but within him, watching some part of his thoughts with understanding. How far can this go? Obviously, not far enough to fully understand the import of those memories, or she'd be more distressed. The terrorizing of fools is one thing; taking life is another.
She touches his arm. "What?"
"I have killed, Victoire. Too many times; sometimes with justification I can bring myself to accept. But even then, I've been swept by a black tide that carries me beyond what I can condone. And I loathe myself."
That was more than she'd anticipated, but she recovers, and stays on the subject. "You let your passion frighten you."
"Why shouldn't it?"
"There is always time for fear later. If you're into a fray, there must be reason, and there must be something important at stake. Why waste time with philosophy? Your rage, and your strength, are your servants to command. They deserve no respect from you, only from those you oppose. If you respect and fear your own anger, it gets away from you: what good is your action if the first person you frighten is yourself? It is battle, and battle is best engaged with a strategy in mind."
She says all this so simply, with the straightforward grace he has heard from himself. He looks to her to see if she is joking, but she returns his gaze, and his thoughts, with all the blue-eyed serenity they share. For the second time today, he's seeing himself in her, and this time it is a self he can trust.
"And sometimes, when you are out in the world, no matter how strong your principles, or your will, some stranger will force you to violence. That happens to anyone, you know. Some people succumb, and are hurt or killed. Some fight back."
"But when we fight back, we have an unfair advantage."
"There are no unfair advantages in war," she retorts sharply. "There is nothing unfair about defense. If there is a choice between the health and welfare of someone who means me harm, and the health and welfare of my self or someone I love - phaugh! That is not a choice! There is one regret that is impossible to swallow: hanging back and allowing evil to occur."
"You truly believe the evil is not in yourself?"
The question rocks her. She's spent a lifetime being different, as different as possible. She has fought, step by step, for the right to go out into the world, and to conquer it in her own way. She has struggled against prejudice, and fear from others. And she has prevailed. She has prevailed by accepting that the world will not change at her bidding, but even so, she can manipulate the world, just enough that she can carve a niche in it. She has used the difference that has foretold her life as a tool to make her life. Never has she entertained a concern that the difference made her evil. As she said to Diana, she's always known about herself.
"You think that you are evil?"
"There have been times when I've been sure of it."
"There is evil in everyone, Vincent. How can there not be? But that evil does not lie in our shape. It lies in our minds, and our hearts. It isn't my claws that make me good or bad. It is, indeed, in how I use them. The same goes for you. I told you, my love. All that is the best, and the worst in me lies in my humanity, nowhere else. It doesn't need to be anywhere else."
In Father's chamber, Father and Mary are sitting on opposite sides of his desk, she with a list, he with a ledger.
"All right," he says. "What is the expiration date on the Augmentin?"
She consults her list. "August '99"
"We'll have used it by then. The Keflex?"
"May of this year."
"We can eke another 6 months out of that if we have to..." He looks up as Vincent enters the room. "Vincent." He knows his son's face too well. "What is it? You have someone with you. Who?"
"I don't think I know where to begin. But there's someone I want you to know." He turns towards the chamber door. "Her name is Victoire."
Even with the cryptic messages on the pipes, even with the way they have come to accept that inexplicable things surround Vincent, they are not prepared for the black-cloaked woman who enters the room. She stops at the top of the short stair, and raises her furred hands to sweep the hood back from her face. Her gaze sweeps the room, and she appraises both Father and Mary with great gravity. But when her eyes meet Vincent's, she smiles.
"My God!" Father murmurs. Mary remains speechless.
"Father," Victoire says. "And Mary, I presume."
"Yes", Mary breathes, and then she realizes she is staring. She puts away her list, and rises from her chair as Victoire descends the stairs and comes to Vincent's side.
"I don't know which question to ask first", Father says, and he sits back weakly in his chair. "Please, have a seat."
By the time Vincent and Victoire have pulled up chairs, the others have regained some composure. "Two mysteries", Father says. "Never in my life could I have thought there would be two."
"Victoire has an acrobatic company that is visiting New York on tour," Vincent begins. "Diana told me that this unusual French troupe was here, and I went to see them last night."
"Acrobats?" Father says.
"French?" Mary breathes.
At this point, Victoire begins to laugh. "Vincent, this isn't nice of us to surprise these people like this. They're your parents."
Mary starts at this, and stares at Victoire. "Yes, I suppose we are."
"Have I shocked you horribly?"
"I'm not sure," says Father. "How many of you are there?"
"Until last night, I thought I was the only one on the world", says Victoire.
They are distracted by a small shuffle in the tunnel. "Who's out there?" Vincent says, and Samantha and Jaimie appear at the door, looking rather sheepish.
"Excuse us," Jamie begins. "Kipper said..."
"Never mind," Father says. "Come in and meet Victoire."
They run down the stair, and into the room, introducing themselves all at once, and trying to be cool. At which point Pascal comes in. He says nothing, but stops and stares at Victoire in fascination.
"Pascal," Father says. "Just how many people do you think we may expect?"
"The pipes are still being rather mysterious," Pascal says. "I came because I was standing watch. I suppose I could put out the word that everyone can meet Vincent's twin at dinner?"
Vincent and Victoire are both absorbed in Pascal's word "twin", when Mary says, "Victoire, you will be with us for dinner?"
The twins exchange a glance. "Thank you," Victoire says distractedly.
"Actually," Vincent says slowly. "I asked Victoire to stay the night."
Father coughs at this, but he recovers. "Vincent told you his story, and ours, I suppose?" he says. Victoire nods. "Will you tell us yours?"
"I saw your ad in the paper," Samantha says. "I thought it was make-up."
"Lots of people do," Victoire says. "I'm a foundling, like Vincent. Only I grew up in France, and Jean-Luc, whom I call Uncle, had a circus. It was perfect for me."
"You grew up in the circus?" says Jamie, who is obviously more than a little taken with that thought.
"Sounds like fun, doesn't it?" The girls nod. "It was. We went to school in the small town where the circus wintered, and in the summer, the older children traveled with the circus all over France, and sometimes all over Europe. I began tumbling lessons when I was very young, and I was performing with the troupe by the time I was 12."
"But now you have a different act," Father says.
"Yes. After I finished college, I thought it was time to branch out. Two of my partners and I had come up with a new act for the circus, and we just expanded it for the stage. It started small." She shrugs and smiles. "It hasn't stayed that way."
"College?" Mary says.
"Yes. I went to a small school in the South of England."
"What did you study?" asks Father.
"Business!" This is not what Father had envisioned.
"Of course. I am to assume the control of a growing entertainment concern. What else would I study?"
"How can you be sure your act will always be so popular?" Jamie asks.
Victoire nods approvingly. "You can't, and we don't count on it. There's more to it than that. One of my partners, Etienne, has a degree in engineering. A few years ago, he and I designed a system for scaffolding that is portable and strong, but lightweight. We had a local manufacturer make it up for us, and we patented it. We arranged with the factory to sell the product, and then, Lu-Lu bought into the factory last year. So far, it's doing well, and we are thinking of some new products to add. One can fly only so long. It's a retirement plan, when our joints won't climb the rig anymore."
Father leans forward in his chair. "Tell me, Victoire. You go all over the world. You went to school. Even in a circus, you had to stand out. Aren't you taking risks? How do you handle the exposure?"
She smiles apologetically. "I'm afraid I exploit the exposure," she says. "When I first started touring with the summer show, we made a point of making up the whole acrobatic team to look like me, and Lu-Lu had at least one other person in cat-face whenever we went out. I believed it was for my protection, but lately, I wonder if he didn't know what kind of a gimmick it was. We carried cards for the show with us wherever we went, and when someone gawked at us, we handed them a card, and told then to come see us.
"I exploited the same gimmick when we started the stage troupe. The press became interested in me, and we marketed the "mystery of Leonie" until we were blue in the face. Once people came to see us, we knew we had to give them a good show - but that was the easy part. The first job was to get everyone's attention."
"Has no one ever wanted to... to study you?"
A hesitation, small, but there. "Perhaps, when I was small. I wouldn't know. Lord knows, in my profession, I am forever spraining and breaking things. The company doctor knows me well."
"And he does not reveal what he knows to the press?" Vincent asks. She shakes her head.
"But," says Samantha. "The press know about you already."
"They know what I look like. They think it's make-up, or that I've had some sort of plastic surgery. The big desire is to catch a photograph of my 'real' face."
"And so the press follow you everywhere," Mary says.
"That seems horrible to me," says Father.
"It brought an audience into the theater," she says. "It made us famous. It gave us the chance to show what we could do."
"It's the opposite of the life Vincent has lead," says Father. "On the other hand, if there were a soul who knows why you are the way you are, he would have come forward by now."
Another hesitation. "I'm not sure that would be good for business."
They sit on a rock outcropping in the waterfall chamber. She has her head on his shoulder, and he has his arm around her. The sight of the waterfall and the river fills her with a quiet awe that she waits a long time to explain.
"I have seen this before", she finally says. "In my dreams, when times are bad. I dream I am here, listening to the water, watching the light. And I always wake up feeling better."
"This is a part of our world I especially love." He waits, smiling, letting the picture form in his mind until the suspense prompts her to poke him, and he relents. "When I am sad, I dream of a garden, and a bench under a lemon tree." He can feel her smile. "And a white-washed house with red tile roof, and flowers everywhere."
"Like a Van Gogh painting?" He nods. =Home!= "Vincent, that's the garden of my house."
They sit up, and look at each other. Finally he grunts, "huh", and they laugh.
"All along," she says. "We've been here all along."
They turn to the tunnel entry, where Mouse is standing. "Mouse." The young man comes forward, gaping at Victoire.
"You could be him," he says. "Only a girl."
She laughs. "You must be Mouse!"
"How did you know?"
"Who else would you be?" He turns beat red, and stands somewhat confused under her smile. "Vincent says you're one of the smartest people down here."
That's more than the boy can take. He stammers a while before he can say; "Good with gizmos."
"Mouse," Vincent says. "Were you looking for me for something?"
"What? Oh!" He fumbles in a pocket. "Message. For you. From Chinatown."
He gives Vincent a crumpled slip of paper, and smiles shyly at Victoire. "Coming to dinner?" he asks. "It's soon."
"We'll be there," she says. And Mouse wanders back out the way he came. "What's in Chinatown?" she asks.
"We have some helpers who can get a message to us through the pipes from there. This is from Diana. She says that if I see you, and if you come Below, it would be wisest if I brought you back by her loft. There's a chance that the police will be tailing you."
"Tailing me? You mean, following me? Now what?"
All he can do is shrug.
They wander back towards the Center, passing by the nursery to collect Jacob on their way to the dining chamber. Victoire has mixed feelings about meeting the boy. Vincent probes. =What's wrong?=
She squeezes his hand. "I'm a little jealous," she says.
He releases her hand to wrap his arm around her. They stop in the door of the chamber. Jacob is easy to pick out among the other children: tall and very slim, his blond hair is wild about his head, and his blue-green eyes flash. In appearance, he is Catherine all over again, but he moves like his father. He doesn't even turn to see who is there before he launches himself at the doorway. "Daddy!"
He leaps into Vincent's arms and hugs his neck. "I'm hungry!"
"Me, too," Vincent laughs. "Look, Jacob, here's a friend for you to meet."
But the little boy has already seen Victoire, and he stares at her open-mouthed, as do all the other children in the room.
"Hello, Jacob," Victoire says, as she reaches to touch his hand. Jacob does not recoil from her as others might - why would he? But in his astonishment, he does not speak. "I'm Tante Victoire," she continues.
"Hi," he says finally, and flashes a blinding smile that pierces her to her heart. "You're just like Daddy."
"Oh, no," she says. "I'm prettier."
He laughs at this, and waves good-bye to his friends as he rides Vincent's arms out of the chamber. Victoire glances over her shoulder at the other children, and at Brooke and Rebecca, who are with them. If the two women were surprised, they only smile back at Victoire with delight now.
"See you at dinner!," Brooke calls.
Dinner was a wild affair, since more people than usual showed up to meet Victoire. Those who might have eaten in their own chambers with their families, and those who might have found reason to go Above, came to the dining chamber instead, and Victoire found herself besieged.
As much as she loved it, she was loved. This was Vincent's first glimpse of Victoire the performer. She sparkled among his friends, spreading delight and charm. As far as he could tell, very little of it was an act, although she was a good deal more amused by the clumsy advances of the younger men than she let them see. Mouse, for one, was quite smitten.
She sat across from Vincent, his mirror, and in odd ways, his mirror image. Where he might be grave, she was vivacious. But when she turned her head just so, or watched someone's face with such gentleness, the similarities were impossible to escape comment. She loved William's meatloaf, and Rebecca's candles. She was delighted when some tried out their rusty French, and answered as if their accents were perfect, and their grammar flawless. She told Father stories of England, and even better, she listened. She was particularly taken with the children, who surrounded her like she was the Pied Piper. And perhaps she was. What circus child worth her salt did not learn a magic trick or two? (At one point, she looked over eager heads at Vincent. =Who's Sebastian?= He only smiled.) The older children were enthralled with tales of travels, and adventure, and she was glad to provide. What circus performer does not learn how to tell a good story?
And so the evening wore on. Before anyone would leave, a story was demanded from Vincent, who was, it seemed, only halfway through Watership Down. Rather than repair to the children's dormitory - the usual place for bedtime stories, it was decided that the reading should take place right there in the dining chamber, and the book was brought.
Everyone settled into their seats, and Jacob came to claim Victoire's lap. It seemed that, among the children, the right to sit in her lap was deemed his. He clambered up onto her knees, and snuggled into her, and she reeled from the sensation that he brought with him. The gift that was his father's, and Victoire's, was also Jacob's, although she had to touch him to feel it, and as he leaned his head under her chin, she felt awash with childish trust and contentment. As Vincent told of the adventures of the hapless rabbits in the story, she felt Jacob's responses: happiness, and fear, and hope again. She leaned her cheek on his silky hair, and closed her eyes. "I love you, Tante Victoire," she heard him whisper, and she squeezed him as hard as she dared.
"I love you, too," she whispered back.
Eventually, they meandered back to their chambers, Jacob's head heavy on Vincent's shoulder. He was readied for bed, and tucked into his little cot in a new chamber hewn next to Vincent's, and kissed, and blessed.
And now they wander to the guest chamber. "What a family," she says. "You are lucky."
"Yes." They smile at each other. "Now more then ever," he says. "I should tell you. I sent a message back to Diana that you are here. I asked if you should return Above tonight. She sent a reply that you should be at her loft in the morning. At dawn."
"I wonder what's going on?"
"You'll be bound to learn that tomorrow."
Now what? They stand at a crossroads they hadn't anticipated. Parting. They've been together hours, and now, to separate seems unnatural. She moves into his arms, and feels the power of his thoughts surge through her. And she feels her own happiness wash back from him. She's been poised all night, but now... now she is awkward, and so is he. When she leaves his embrace, he stands still, and easily, as if he's always watched her walk away. Just as she has schooled herself to control her anger, he has learned to master his impulses, restrain his happiness. Catherine never felt his yearning when she turned away from him to climb that ladder, but Victoire is not Catherine. She sees the effort in his apparent calm. And it brings her back into his arms. "Dream of me," she whispers, and he chuckles.
"How can I not?"
And she breaks away from him to enter her room. His footsteps recede down the passage as she stands inside the doorway and listens. She takes stock of the chamber, warm with candle light, and almost filled with the old oak bed. She pulls her clothes off absently, and then dives into her bag.
Minutes later, she is perched cross-legged on the bed, brushing her hair. She is dressed in satin pajamas the color of autumn leaves, and the matching robe lies across the coverlet next to her. She can feel him moving about his own chamber, readying for bed, checking on Jacob. She can feel his wistfulness, matching hers. And then she feels him slide away from her, closing a window. She nods to herself. They could move into each other's souls with much too much ease, and then what? Both of them such strong individuals, how would they do, drowning in each other? On the one hand, the thought is romantic, and draws her. On the other, she finds the logical extreme daunting. There are depths to him that frighten her, just as she yearns to explore them. But was this much closeness ever intended for mortals to share?
She leaves the bed, and seats herself upon the cold stone floor. Long ago, she learned that she could clear her mind while she stretched her muscles, and she would slip into a near-meditation when she warmed up for work. She adopted the practice when she needed to calm fears, or restore order to her thoughts, and now she slides into the routine, stretching over her knees and listening to her heart beat, and the air move through her body. One with her world, she lets the world slips through her limbs, and out into the ether.
In his chamber, he settles into his bed. He can hear his son's breathing, feel his peaceful sleep. And through walls of rock, he feels Victoire, his mirror image, closing her own window to him. He feels the release of her mind as she slips into herself, but he cannot follow her there.
"All along," she'd said. She's been here all along, some odd tiny part of her, deep in his mind, with a dream all her own. From the other side of the world, she's always come to him, and he's gone to her, although neither of them knew that was what they were doing. How could this be? What was it that made this phenomenon possible? He cannot shake the conviction that somehow, she knows. She knows why she is the way she is. She knows where she's come from. And she has hidden that from him, hidden it so deeply that he can't even say for sure that the knowledge is there.
He sits up to rest his head on his knees, and reaches for her again, feeling the stretch in her limbs, and the peace in her mind. Just like that, she can leave care, and find a pool of stillness within herself, a feat he has always found impossible. How does she do that? And how is he going to bear it when she leaves?
She sits up abruptly. She heard that cry in his heart. How will he bear it? How will she? When she leaves, it will be the effort of her will that will carry her away from him, not his. And then she makes a decision.
He raises his head as she enters his chamber. She stops next to the bed, tosses her robe across its foot. "All my life, you've been half a world away, and now I cannot bear to have you a few feet down the corridor. Move over. I'm staying here"
He reaches to stop her as she pulls back the covers. "Victoire, I can't..."
"Shhh!", she says. He watches in surprise as she curls up next to him, her back to him. "Go to sleep!" After a moment's consideration, he lays beside her, snuggles in spoon-style. When he throws his arm around her, she accepts him with a sigh. He realizes that her mind is again open to him, and he follows her. She takes him to that still place she'd left a few moments ago, and he finds the peace she keeps. Before he knows it, he is asleep.
He awakens before dawn to find her next to him, her face turned a little towards him. The astonishment of her is nearly beyond his grasp. He raises up on his elbow to study her face, so like his own. All his life, he's thought of himself as repugnant, horrifying to see. Catherine's first reaction at the sight of him was fear. (Of course, it was no help at all that he snarled at her.) And yet, when he looks at this remarkable woman, he can only see her as beautiful. Strange, yes. Wild, yes. And lovely. Before he explores the narcissism of what this means to his self-image, he kisses her forehead, and then her cheek.
She stirs, and smiles. "I love you", she murmurs. The delight that flashes through him at this jolts her fully awake, and she opens her sapphire eyes to his. She caresses his cheek, and he kisses her, a long and sensual kiss, hinting at passion. She responds, pressing her body against him with a sigh. The combination of the warmth in their bodies and the pleasure in their minds is a little more intoxicating than he's anticipated. Reeling, he pulls her over to rest her head in the hollow of his shoulder. She molds her body to his. Through the nearly insubstantial fabric of their clothes, they can feel each other's heartbeats, count each other's breaths. She spreads her hand across his chest, and traces down his arm, feeling the dense muscle there, the body of a stonemason. When she reaches his hand, she twines her fingers with his, stopping again to regain control of her feelings. The very act of touching him this way is sensual enough. Feeling the thrill in him as she does this is nearly maddening. He brings their hands up to his lips, kisses her fingers, then, almost fascinated, watches their two hands together. Father's words echo: 'Never would I have thought there would be two.' Their two hands dance before them, claws and fur, before he brings them to rest on his chest.
Maddening, yes, but irresistible. Impish, she wriggles her fingers from his, finds the edge of his shirt, and slips under it. He gasps as she begins an exploration, sliding her claws into the dense line of fur that runs down his belly, and following it up until it fans out over his chest. She finds the hollow at the base of his throat, and then traces his collarbone over to the bulge of his shoulder. Now he's barely breathing as she slides straight down to the nipple, teases it under the flat of her palm, and then leaves it - a small breath from him, and her, as she does.
There is no peace to be had, however, as she finds the tender flesh on the side of his abdomen, and learns that he is ticklish. The shiver in his flesh that makes him buck also rushes through her, and she recoils, chuckling. They exchange amused glances, and she reaches for his side again. He's too quick for her, though, and with a growl, he seizes her hand, flips her on her back, both wrists pinned against the bed. She gazes up at him with wicked intent: just wait till you release me. He shakes his head: "That is not a sensation I wish to experience twice again..." He forms an intent of his own, however, and reaches, quick as thought, for her ribs.
Now she laughs aloud. "I'm not ticklish..." But she finds she's disappointed, though not as much as he is. Before she can say anything else, she finds herself distracted by the feel of his hand against her bare skin, and she sees his look of confusion, for he is not caressing fur, but soft skin. 'How much we don't know about each other,' she thinks. Holding his gaze fast, distracting him from probing her thoughts, she begins to unbutton her satin shirt. The whisper of the fabric across her breasts as she pulls it away from her body nearly takes his breath away, and all thought stops at the sight of her nakedness. The modesty he's held fast for so long is forgotten when she slides her hands under his shirt. He pulls it off. The light from the stained glass window casts a glow over them. It isn't enough, and he reaches to turn on the little light by the head of the bed. The stare at each other, fascinated again, she swathed in russet satin, he framed by the window. She can see the light downy fur over his chest, thinning at his sides to non-existence, and the heavier dark ruff that plunges from his chest to his groin, all delineating rather than hiding his power. She reaches up to trace that line again, downward this time, and he closes his eyes and trembles. The shock goes through her as well, so that she almost jerks her hand away. Instead, she spreads it flat against his belly. He takes a breath, sees her lying beneath him, eyes closed, lips parted just a bit. =Oh, God. =
Her eyes fly open, and she nearly leaps into his arms. There is no mere hint at passion in this kiss, this time, she is wide open to him, and he to her, on every level. She perceives the grip of her hand in his hair, as he does, the softness of her breasts against his chest, as they feel to him; he feels the ridge of his arm across her back, the sharpness of his own teeth against her tongue. Thoughts, sensations, come together in a vortex that draws them deeper into each other, until, nearly at the same moment, they panic.
They collapse on the bed, panting. He buries his head in her shoulder. "We've both wondered how far this could go", he says.
"I didn't think it could go that far," she untangles her fingers from his hair, kisses his forehead. "That was a little scary." They rest against each other. A melancholy steals over him. "All right," she says. "Say it."
That embarrasses him. "Catherine."
"It could have been like this with her. And I denied her that."
There is no point in saying anything, and no point in reminding him that it might not have been like this. The thought had to come, it had to be dealt with. He is so good at denying himself so much, that this grief has to be allowed. She pulls him closer, and lets it all wash over both of them, until it is gone, back into that hidden place in his heart that grief will always claim, back to its home. Later, he realizes that somehow, she has taken part of it to herself, so that he could move through it, but now, he only senses her sharing with him his grief, and he is grateful. Finally, she says: "It will always be there. How can it not be? That does not make it a landlord."
Against her neck, he nods. He runs his hand over her naked arm, over alternating fur and flesh, and once again, his curiosity is aroused. She rises up on one arm, lets the light fall across her. While his body is covered in a pattern that is symmetric, she has less of this. She has no heavy ruff across her chest, no stripe down her belly. Fur runs almost in stripes across her ribs, interspersed with large patches of fair, totally human skin. There are similar patches on her arms, and across her bosom, so that parts of her breasts are softened with a light golden down. Her nipples harden as he touches them, and he cannot help but caress them. She sighs under his hand He draws her down to him, kissing first her mouth, and then her neck, and then those nipples, first one, then the other. The resonance of the sweetness this brings her causes his hand to spasm against her back, and even the sharpness of his claws against her skin is sweet. But it stops him. This was just a little of the pain he was so afraid of causing in passion, and yet, she presents no objection. In fact, she murmurs when he stops. It easy to think that it is different with her, so like him, but he knows that isn't true. He had been so careful with Catherine that he had denied her the whole of himself, and he might be so afraid again, if he ever came this close with ....
And in his mind, he runs from that thought, but too late. She's seen it, felt it, and knows what she's suspected all along. He kisses her, but she's searching, questioning, and he hides from her. No vortex this time. It's just a kiss.
She stops, and suspends herself above him. She tries again to reach inside him, but he closes her off. He cannot meet her eyes, but he presses her more tightly against his chest, a closeness she does not resist. "This isn't right for us, you know", she says. She brushes the hair from his face, and smiles at him sadly.
He frowns, and blocks her again as she tries to show him that part of him she's found. This isn't Catherine that comes between them now. It isn't the past. "Victoire, I can't..."
"Shhh. Stop." She has to pull her body away from him. Like a querulous child, her flesh cries out for more of him as she rolls away, props herself on her elbow inches - miles - away from him. "I told you that I have always expected a romance to end before it begins.."
He sits up abruptly. "You don't think I would leave you!"
She puts a hand against his lips, unable to resist a small smile. "Of course I don't. It's I must leave you, actually. We both have families that need us, and mine is not here. But even if that were not so, if we persisted with this, I know you would not leave me, which almost makes it worse. I know your heart....This part of you isn't mine." Her fingers trail regretfully across his chest. He feels her regret, matching his. But she's right. This part of him isn't hers, and this part of her shouldn't be his. There is some resonance that should not be reached here, some likeness to the bond that should not be breached.
Revelation. Is this what she really means? There is more about them that she knows, and she will not share....
"Victoire, won't you tell me what you know?"
"What I know?"
"What I know about us has nothing to do with this, and you know it."
"There is something. Can't you tell me?"
"Of course I will. But right now, my love, I only know half a story. I need to learn more." She rolls onto her back. She's being noble, but it's too hard to look at him while she does it. Her body still wants him - badly. "I'm to meet someone today who will help me. Why don't you come with me? I have an appointment with him at one o'clock." One o'clock. At mid-day, with her. At mid-day. "Oh, Vincent, not even for this?"
"Perhaps especially not for this." He is right. What guarantee can she give him of safety? She can guide him through the streets, and show him what to do with the stares, but once they reached their destination, what could she really promise him?
He waits, but she offers nothing more. Yet, it is enough that she has said that she will. Eventually, he turns towards her, draws her into his arms again. She snuggles against him. She debates confronting him further, but the warmth of his arms around her is distracting, and it's work enough for her to resist again making love to him. One thing at a time.
They walk through the tunnels, and then through the streets, hand in hand, sometimes with their arms around each other. High above them, the sky is becoming pale with the autumn early dawn, but the streets are as dark as they could ever be. He had wanted to make the whole journey via the tunnels, but she insisted on walking the last few blocks in the open. "There are two of us", she said. "And if we did encounter someone at this hour, do you think they'd be in any frame of mind to believe what they've seen?"
He smiled at this. There have been times when someone has looked straight into his face and believed none of what they've seen. Hey, Halloween was yesterday, buddy. But... "And if that person we've encountered is a policeman?"
"Easy. Just you don't speak English." Her manner was impish, but barely. She's done this before; she's practiced at this.
They avoid discussing the night's intimacy. If it were possible to pretend it never happened, when their bodies are still warm, and their minds still clamoring for more, they would try. As it is, all they can do is close their minds to each other enough to stay isolated with their own embattled feelings, and talk about anything else. He can tell that she is annoyed with herself, as if she feels she should have known better. He struggles with guilt, but he won't define or cannot face it's true nature. He repeats to himself that he's not ready to betray Catherine's memory. Victoire can sense his feelings of loss. The last woman he held is dead. And it's almost as if he returns to that memory by force of will. He hides behind his grief. There is another who would willingly fill his arms, if he were not so stubborn. Yet he avoids her. Victoire can't yet put her finger on his reasons, but she has a growing knowledge of the man, and she can guess.
"This meeting you have today," he surprises her with the question. "Do you know the man?"
"Yes, I do."
"Can you trust him?"
"I won't tell him about you, if you're worried."
"I'm not concerned about that. I trust you to know what's right. But can he hurt you?"
She smiles. "No. He's known the secret of Leonie for years. I'm not worried." He tries to pursue this without words, but she blocks him. Later. He must wait until later.
He grows more distant as they approach Diana's loft. He has his arm around her shoulders, and he slows his pace, pulls her closer to him as they get nearer. "What is it?" she asks.
"I'm reluctant to leave you," he says, slowly. Just as she's about to challenge him for a poor liar, he grasps the bottom rung of a fire escape, and pulls himself up.
"No," she says. He looks at her in surprise. "We take the elevator."
He freezes on the ladder. He's never done that - that he recalls. She stares him down. He drops to the ground. "Shame to wake her so early," she says.
"She's awake," he says, before he can catch himself.
Diana buzzes them in without asking who's at the door. Who else could it be? He sweeps Victoire into his arms as the elevator moves, one last heartfelt hug before... the heat is still there. Perhaps it was a mistake to hold her so close. As the door slides open, he's overwhelmed by a sense of incomprehension that he cannot fight through.
Diana stands by the stove as they enter, making coffee. Her hair is still tousled from sleep, and her face still pink from the scrubbing she's just given it to wake herself. In spite of the air of calm collection that usually surrounds her, she seems a little lost.
"Hi," she greets them, as normally as if she sees people at this hour every day.
"Bonjour," says Victoire. "If it is yet really day."
"Give it time," says Diana. At first glance, they seem terribly happy, and Diana suppresses a wince. If he's happy, she won't deny him that, even in fantasy. But on second glance, she finds a tension between them. What happened? She wants to prod into this, but she risks opening herself to them, to him, in doing so. She isn't sure he knows that she can sense him. She's guarded herself against him for years now, protecting him from the possibility of invasion, protecting herself from exposure. Now is hardly the time to let that go.
"So," says Victoire. "Why am I coming here and not to the hotel?"
It's been a long night, full of nightmares and even tears for Diana. She'd felt their connection the moment it was formed. She'd spent the night struggling to accept that she may never again be able to hope for anything but friendly affection from Vincent. Early in the evening, she'd also struggled with the possibility of hiding the truth from Victoire - after all, it was against regulations to tell her what the investigators were doing. But she couldn't see how she could lie, so she'd once more settled on telling Victoire everything. That was hours ago - she'd almost forgotten all about it. "Let's see. When did I see you last?"
Victoire looks at her watch. "We spoke nearly 24 hours ago."
Diana flops onto the couch, sighing. "Is that all?"
Vincent looks at her with concern. "What's happened, Diana?"
"Those phone numbers you called me with?" Victoire nods. "You were right, they're special. They are phone numbers for a drug merchant, both here in New York and in Miami." She lets that sink in a moment. "We happen to know that an especially large shipment of very pure heroin came in to town this week." She waits again.
Victoire sinks onto the couch next to Diana. "Those were in Paul's book..."
"Paul's been... All these years..." Once again, Diana watches a rage build in Victoire, as powerful as any she's ever sensed in Vincent. The affront, and the sorrow, and the sickness rise, and Diana can almost feel their bitterness in her own throat. Victoire takes a slow breath, straightens her back, and spreads her fingers in front of her, just for a moment. And she channels it all somewhere else. Diana, without thinking, tries to find it, but it's nowhere. No rage, no turmoil. Just a tired melancholy, a decision to find a way to correct whatever this new problem will bring her. Diana can almost hear her thoughts, and another, comforting thread, and realizes that she's feeling it all through Vincent. Hastily, she shuts the connection down, hoping Vincent hasn't noticed. "I hoped it was someone else in our group," says Victoire, a little sadly.
"It is." Two pair of blue eyes fix on her, and she admits that it's a disturbing sensation. How alike can two people be? And how different? "Someone called that number after Paul's death. One of the Vice detectives has now taken an interest in the case. To me, it's a murder investigation. To him, it's something else. He's hoping it will lead him to the boss of the set-up. And it's a matter of time before the FBI gets involved."
"And the Vice detective wants to put police tails on everyone in the troupe," says Vincent.
"Including me?" asks Victoire.
"Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if they noticed your absence. If you show up at the hotel now, when they have no record of your leaving, it might lead someone back to the Tunnels. I can't take that chance."
"So, where did I spend the night?"
"Wouldn't that be considered highly irregular?" says Vincent.
"Sure. But I'm known to be irregular, and at least it leaves you out of the line of suspicion for last night."
"Well," says Victoire, looking at the arms of the couch. "It's a nice couch. I've slept worse places, most definitely."
"The possibility of the FBI bothers you," Vincent says to Diana. Damn. She thought she'd shut it down. Or is he drawing on prior knowledge? She only nods. "So, the sooner you solve this murder, the better," he finishes. She nods again.
"If it's been Paul trafficking drugs, who killed him?" says Victoire. She rises from the couch, and wanders over to the bulletin board behind Diana's desk. She surveys the collection of photographs, notes, and artifacts that covers its surface is no obvious order. "This is all of it."
"No. If it were all of it, the answer would be there," says Diana. She joins Victoire before the board.
"You once said that the answer is probably staring you in the face up there," says Vincent, as he moves to stand with the women.
"It may be," answers Diana. "But as I recall, at the time I said that, the answer wasn't there at all."
"You've got photos of everyone," says Victoire. "How did you do that?"
"I have my own paparazzo."
"Ah." She scans the photos once more. "I see. There are groups. Those who could not have killed Paul. Those who could. And of them, those who wouldn't, and those who might."
"You asked me who I thought it might be."
"I did. And you stonewalled me."
"It was Bruno."
"Just like that, you know?" says Vincent.
"I can't prove it. But perhaps it's up here, as you say. These four performers are accounted for that night." She points to their photos, including her own.
"Four more crew members playing poker..."
How many times has Vincent stood here with Diana, reciting with her whatever she knows, listening for what does not ring true? How many times have they finished each other's sentences almost before they were completed even in mind, trading thoughts as if the words were unnecessary? He falls into the pattern automatically, taking Victoire along with him. "With no other witnesses for their activities except each other..."
"But there's no evidence of more than one killer at the scene."
"One gone to a movie and God-knows-where, with no proof of that except a club match book, and some girl's phone number..."
"Just what was he hoping for, with that phone number? We were scheduled to leave New York in two days..."
"It's a hint of an alibi."
"The matchbook from the club may still lead to an identification.."
"It was a strip joint."
"What of it?"
"Believe me when I tell you that people aren't talkative in those places."
"I don't suppose there's a chance of finding the girl..."
"Since the phone number was fake."
"Or written in error. Even so, it is this one, I feel."
"Two in the hotel bar."
"Plenty of witnesses there."
"But only till midnight."
"One said he went to bed."
"The other has nothing to say."
"Doesn't matter. You're both right. It was Bruno."
"And Raoul and Henriette."
"A room service order at 12:30 settles Raoul and Henriette."
"Really? What did they order?"
The word shoots through Diana's mind like an echo, but it was not a spoken voice. A silence falls. Or was it always a silence? Who had just said what? Or did anyone actually say anything at all? And that last voice was unmistakably his, in a way she's never heard it. Is this what Victoire hears from him? Is it really hearing? 'It's too confusing, the three of us alone together in a room,' Diana thinks.
"I know," says Victoire, and Diana gasps.
"Did I say that out loud?"
"I think so." Diana looks a little green, and she doesn't dare look at Vincent, even though she knows he steadfastly would not look at her. But Victoire has swiveled around to face her, and her expression is almost amused. "I think I could get used to it."
"Could you?" asks Vincent.
"It's only fair after all," she says. "Each of us has been eavesdropping on other people one way or another all our lives. We should get a taste of our own medicine." She smiles at them, and sees them together, really sees them, for the first time. 'Tien, she's as stubborn as he is. But she's not afraid of the same things.' "It's almost easier."
"Except that there's a forced honesty that could be hard to compromise with," says Diana. That didn't come out the way she intended.
But Victoire understands. "Sometimes we need to leave our privacy and take a risk," she says. She exchanges a glance with Diana that the two of them fully understand.
Vincent looks at them with a small sense of shock. Sometimes we must leave our safe places and walk among our enemies empty-handed... There are no enemies here. He trusts them both implicitly. And they both know that that is not true. He only trusts them as far as he trusts himself. They've both closed him out, left their communication between themselves, and he admits something he's refused to see for years. Confronted with the false opacity he's learned to recognize as Victoire's shielding the privacy in her mind, and recognizing it coming from two sources, he has to admit: Diana has been aware of him all along. And she's hidden it all along.
Disturbed, he paces to the window. Light is growing outside, and he starts. "It's late," he says, turning back to them. "I can't stay." They stand nearly side by side, and his heart bumps. There's so much there - he could almost fantasize Catherine standing between them. That thought frightens him in a way he hadn't expected. And before he can shake himself, Victoire has invaded him: =Catherine was right, you know.= In despair, he looks to Diana, and finds her standing behind her false wall, where she's always been. For the first time, she feels very far away from him. How much of this did he generate himself?
Victoire breaks the stalemate by coming to him for a hug. He recruits some humor. "You don't have to keep saying that," he says, and is surprised to feel the small ripple of pain that comes from Diana. She is aware of him, and of the communication he has with Victoire.
As she moves past them to undo the deadbolt on the terrace door, he almost reaches out to touch her shoulder. Instead, he hugs Victoire, and turns away. Diana will never hug him. She almost never touches him, and with chagrin, he realizes that he's never noticed that. Never wondered why. He stops at the door, tries to make eye contact. "Thank you, Diana." She glances at him briefly, then away. He leaves.
A dose of crisp morning air swirls around the room after the door clicks behind Vincent. To Diana, it seems that the room shrinks without him, and that the electric charge that had filled the room - and her - has somehow diminished. Admittedly, it's always this way when he leaves her; there's always a feeling of deflation, as if her senses have weakened. But the strange communication that just occurred might have been a figment of her imagination. She glances at Victoire. Does she feel his leaving to be a loss, as Diana does? A competitive thought, and unworthy of herself, she decides. She starts to take mugs from a kitchen cabinet. Truth be told, he seemed somewhat eager to get out of there, as if being in the same room with the two of them frightened him somehow.
"I think our three-way telepathy bothered him," says Victoire. That she has so accurately pinpointed Diana's own thoughts gives her goosebumps. She covers by pouring coffee - amazing how busy one can makes oneself with the most mundane act. She holds up a mug, looks a question at Victoire, who shakes her head. "Black," she says. "Thank you." She sips. "Mmm! It's real!"
Diana smiles at this. "I like it stronger than most." She watches the cat woman settle into her easy chair. She moves with a dancer's grace, and Diana reflects that that is the best description. Not exactly cat-like, but more trained, athletic, with a learned art that her brawnier male counterpart has not acquired, graceful though he may be. She wouldn't blame him if he loved her. And she couldn't help but love him. Would she want to entice him away with her to France? And if she went without him, how would he take it? Watching him endure another heartache is almost unthinkable.
She's jolted out of this reverie by Victoire: "So it is known that Paul was using his job with us to traffic drugs. Did he work alone?"
"I'm not sure. Someone else has that number. Someone else may be trafficking."
"Tiens. Knowing Paul, I'm sure he worked alone." Victoire drops her head against the back of the chair. "Our reputation may never be the same," she groans. "I can't imagine how to control our publicity over this. You don't want me to act on any of this knowledge you've given me, do you?"
"You're not supposed to know it."
Another groan. "What difference would it make? I might as well go live underground like Vincent."
Something in her tone catches Diana's ear. "There could be worse places to live."
"And worse people to live with."
Diana sits on the couch. She stares at Victoire for a long moment. "You didn't like it..."
Victoire's eyes fly open, and she starts to speak, but then she laughs. "Not entirely. If I tried to stay very long, the darkness alone would give me claustrophobia." She hides behind her coffee mug. "I tried to hide that from Vincent, but he'll figure it out soon enough."
"What are you going to do?"
Victoire gets up to get herself more coffee. "I think that's called an open-ended question. If you are asking about our lovely murder, and our reputation, I will wait just until you tell me I can do something, and I will call our lawyer and our public relations firm, and get some, er, spin control - isn't that what it's called here?"
Diana nods. "I have your beeper number."
Victoire laughs at this, but then she becomes serious. "If you are asking about my "twin" as those Below call him, I don't know what to do."
"Twin? Or mate?" Diana blurts this out before she can think, and she is further humiliated by the deep red blush that floods her face. Victoire sits to face her on the couch.
"He isn't my mate," she says. "Although I think he believes that it would be easier for him if he could be."
"I don't understand."
"He's a stubborn man. The last five years have brought him enough change and enough loss to shake his deepest foundations. Part of him believes that the only way he and those he loves will be safe is if he refuses to accept anymore changes. Even ones he yearns for."
"And where do you come in?"
"Ah. It's a certainty that I will leave. Even if we wanted to, we cannot stay together. And he would never leave his home."
"Speaking of change."
"An absolute cataclysm. So. He must stay. I must go. There's an end-point. It's safe."
"Weird definition of safe." Diana drains her own mug. There are places this conversation can go that she does not want to explore. Especially not with Victoire. But at least she can let herself believe that she gave herself a bad night for no reason. "Are you hungry?" she asks. "How about some waffles?"
"You have an iron?"
"Wonderful." Diana digs into a cabinet. Victoire watches her for a moment. "You know, Diana, you may just have to trip him."
Diana bumps her head on the cabinet. Rubbing her head, she looks at Victoire with definite fear. Of all the places she did not want to go, this was the first. "What?"
Victoire only smiles at her wickedly. "First of all," Diana says, "Vincent is not the sort of man you trip." She casts about, remembers that she was about to make waffles, and starts rummaging for flour and sugar.
"It would take some planning," Victoire admits. "Any man can be tripped."
"I don't think I want to have this conversation," says Diana.
"What's the second thing?"
"What second thing?'
"First of all, you said, he couldn't be tripped. What's the second thing?"
"Not couldn't. Shouldn't."
"Perhaps you're right. You're just going to have to be honest with him. He's wasting time."
"Can we change the subject?" To her complete surprise, the Frenchwoman shrugs.
"Of course." She'd done what she wanted to do, anyway.
The waffles are made, and bacon fried, and all washed down with more coffee. Conversation has ranged all over the world: Diana has heard about going to school in England, Victoire has learned Diana's version of the Gabriel story. They've discovered a mutual love for cooking.
And then the phone rings. "Your workday starts early," Victoire comments. "It's barely light."
"It's almost 7:30. Hello."
"We may have a problem. Or we've struck paydirt."
"We're missing an acrobat."
Diana raises an eyebrow at Victoire. She'd been right. "Yeah?"
"No one's seen Cat Woman since last night."
"She spent the night here."
"What did you do that for?"
"She wanted to get away from the paparazzi, so we tried it. I guess it worked."
"You knew we wanted to keep tabs on everyone."
"And we did."
Neal Sherman laughs. "Her buddies told us she said she was spending the night with friends. They decided she had a lover."
"Don't go there, Sherman."
The sprint across the lawn of the Park to the tunnel entrance adds the last bit of adrenaline to his early morning. The sun is truly up, and the open area well lit as he ducks into the culvert. He stops before the tunnel gate. Above him, he can hear a park service cart rumble on the asphalt path. Just barely.
He sets off for his chamber, but the thought of facing that empty bed alarms him as if it could speak to him. This was not what he thought would happen. This is not how he thought he would feel. His steps slow as he realizes he doesn't know where he's going. He stops altogether, and leans against a wall. Two episodes of extraordinary exposure in a matter of hours, and he's not sure how to assimilate them. "Confused," he mumbles to himself. "I'm confused." He reaches for Victoire, not at first realizing that it is an old habit: he reached for Catherine when he was worried or unhappy, drawing comfort from the vibrations of her mind. Now, he searches for her, and finds that she is in deep thought, and concentrating on Diana. He recoils. The juxtaposition of those two is too disturbing.
Shaking this off, he moves on down the tunnel, deciding eventually to make his way to the dining hall. It was still early enough that he might be able to get breakfast before most of the others.
He finds William alone in the kitchen, beating a large bowl full of eggs. "Good morning!" he says stopping to wave the whisk at Vincent. "You're up early."
"I'm making omelets today. Would you like yours now?"
"Yes, thank you."
William ladles egg mixture into a hot fry pan. "Where's Victoire?"
"I just took her back above."
Vincent helps himself to a mug of tea while William creates. The older man watches him. "You miss her already?"
Vincent thinks about this. "No, I don't have to."
A sharp glance under beetle brows. "No? Why not?"
"Because all I have to do is reach for her with my mind and she's here."
William busies himself for a moment with filling the omelet with cheese and ham. "Like you had with Catherine?"
"No. It's... more - different." He hunches over at the table, trying to find the right words. "I could sense Catherine, but she could barely sense me. Victoire is like me. And when she wants to, she barges into my mind like it's a bus station." This isn't the thought he wanted to express, but it describes some of how he feels. Stranger still, William seems to understand him quite well.
"That would explain why you two seemed to be having a private conversation while you were on opposite sides of the room last night," he says as he slips the omelet on to a plate.
Distracted as he's been, Vincent finds the aroma from the stove irresistible. He is gratified to see that William sits down with him when he brings the omelet to the table. In his own domain, William is usually a whirl of activity, but this morning, he's more at ease.
"She was quite a hit," William says. "Everybody loved her."
"And there are plenty of people who think it's a good thing for you she showed up. It's time you moved on, fell in love again, they think." Leave it to William to state things as plainly as possible, leaving nothing close to doubt. While Vincent stares at him, he shrugs. "Maybe they're right. A good man deserves a happy marriage."
"And what do you think?"
"About you and Victoire? I never thought two people with so much in common could be so unalike. You're opposite ends of the spectrum."
"I suppose growing up in a circus could make one gregarious."
William shakes his head. "You would still be you if you grew up that way. And, no, Vincent, you're not really a loner, but I can't imagine you acting like a ringmaster." Neither can Vincent. "Don't let that omelet get cold."
Obediently, Vincent returns to his plate, while William pours himself another cup of coffee. They fall into a companionable silence, and Vincent's thoughts drift towards the events of the night. The memory of her touch is still strong, his body still aching for more. Instinctively, he reaches for her, to find that she's fighting the same memories. =Stop that= she says. =You're not helping.= But what is he supposed to do? "We almost made love this morning," Vincent says, surprising William and even himself at the intimacy of this confidence.
"What stopped you?"
"I don't know." Too many things. "It wasn't... I don't know."
"That's hard to do - start and then stop like that. Takes a while to get over, even if your mind is made up. Especially if it's been a long time." This last is delivered with such a masculine edge that his meaning is unmistakable. "I wonder if it's as hard for them."
Considering the regret he's just felt from Victoire, Vincent says: "I'm sure it is."
William makes a satisfied grunt. "Well. Maybe you'll change your minds later."
"I doubt that we will."
William watches him brood, finishes his coffee, and makes a decision. While they're having this frank a conversation, he might as well press on. "You know, Vincent, I know that what you had with Catherine was close to magic. But that doesn't mean that you won't love again. And the last thing it means is that you shouldn't. You deserve the happiness love brings, never doubt that. Just don't deny it when it comes."
Vincent looks at the older man sharply. "You sound like Victoire."
"Do I? Well, she may be nothing like you, but she's no dummy. So you've heard it twice now."
Victoire swings through the vestibule of the elegant restaurant in her hotel. To the photographer who has shadowed her from the elevator, she appears oblivious. He skulks behind a pillar while she waits for the hostess to locate her reservation, and he doesn't hear her say to the young woman: "Watch this". He is about to snap a shot when she swings on him, smiles, and walks straight up to him. "Hallo," she says. "Come here. I need you." She grasps him by the hand that holds his camera, and hauls him to the artistically draped curtain by the restaurant door. "Mademoiselle," she says to the hostess, "would you be so kind as to take a picture of me with my friend, here?"
Before the poor man can collect his wits, she's snatched the camera from him, and tossed it to the hostess (who is barely concealing a grin). The photographer babbles in panic to watch his camera sail through the air, but the young woman catches it, and aims it at them. The lioness has wrapped her arm around him, and she purrs, "Smile". A snap, and the hostess is giving the camera back to him. As Victoire walks away, the hostess whispers to the man: "If I see you again, I'm calling security." He hastens away before things get worse. He'd wanted an exclusive of Leonie, but this picture is one he could never sell.
The hostess leads Victoire to a small private dining room off the main dining room. It has a table big enough for four, and a small sideboard. The door is shielded by another artistic curtain, which has been let down. The hostess bows her in, murmuring the usual things. Victoire sweeps aside the curtain, and smiles at the man seated at the table. He is older, with thinning silver hair. His smile is filled with delight as he leaps to his feet. "Vicki! My dear! Look at you!" Rather than look, he wraps her in an expansive hug, which she returns with affection. Then he holds her at arm's length. "It seems you've taken New York by storm." He has a mellowed German accent.
"I doubt that," she says. "But this tour has been a little more eventful than I planned."
He looks about the little alcove. "This is an interesting idea," he says. "I must say it makes me feel rather young and wicked."
She giggles. "You were almost wicked on record. A photographer nearly followed me on in. For that matter, who knows if there was only one? Edna is an understanding wife, no?"
"About you, certainly. About my getting my picture in the New York Post, no. But tell me, what is all this murder and intrigue about?"
In between reading the menu, and placing orders, and all the in-and-out that comes with starting a lunch, she tells him what has happened. When the waiter comes in, she changes the subject, so that, if he eavesdrops, he learns no more than what has been in the papers. They speak in German, hers somewhat accented, but she wants to take no chances.
Her companion is horrified. "You mean to say that the man who has been one of your most trusted stage hands has been using your tours as a front all along?"
"Who knows how long he's been doing this?"
"Did he have no care about your reputation? What if he'd gotten the rest of you implicated in his antics?"
"I doubt he cared for a moment about our reputation. It remains to be seen what sort of a name we'll have left, but at this point, if Paul were alive, I'd want to kill him."
"I can sympathize with that."
They discuss the rest of the tour, and the cities she's been to. When the salads are taken away, he becomes serious. "My dear, you have no idea how it pleases me that you want to spend some time with me. I have always thought you were terribly angry with me."
"I was, twenty years ago. I was a brat, wasn't I?"
"You had some justification. I'm just so glad you've done so well. I can't really take any credit for it, but I am so proud."
She becomes shy at this. "Thank you, Papa."
"But," he says, patting her hand. "I have the feeling that there is more to this visit that reminiscence. Ordinarily, you wouldn't mind eating out on the sidewalk, and let the paparazzi have their heyday."
"Maybe at home. This is New York. They would know who you were, and those are not rumors I want to wade through. This year."
They wait as their main courses are set before them, and once more, the waiter leaves them alone. "But you're right," she continues. "I have some questions for you, if you don't mind. I suspect it surprises you that there would be more to ask."
"A little, yes."
"It's about the other baby..."
"Coop, it's Diana Bennett."
"Yoh, D. I got something for you."
"I'm all ears."
"Well, the knife was too bloody to get prints off it, except for the dead man's."
"It was his knife?"
"No, he was trying to pull it out."
"And the sandbag was rubbed clean of anything useful underneath the guy."
"Coop, you're killing me."
"But there were partial prints on two of the little baggies inside the sandbag."
"They match Bruno Dorni's."
"Hallelujah. Cooper, you're the best."
Victoire saunters up the front steps of the police precinct. She takes stock of the hubbub the boils around her as she climbs the steps to the second floor. She's passed three people on the steps, and an officer seated at a desk downstairs, and no one has even glanced at her. She's thinks of reaching for Vincent, to tell him about this (See, my love?), but she changes her mind. She has a basic idea of where she's going, but now she needs to ask for help. She stops at a secretary's desk.
"Excuse me. I'm looking for Detective Bennett."
The secretary gapes at her a moment. "Um. And you are?"
"Oh! Yeah! Right! She's, um, on the third floor, in Detective Sherman's office."
"Thank you." She heads for the steps, pointedly ignoring the way the woman stares after her, and motions to other people in the office to look at her.
She finds Diana easily enough, visible through a wall of glass just ahead of the stairs. And she's pretty visibly upset.
"Look, let's pick him up, and we can work on it from there. Who's to say he won't talk?" Diana says to the men who have - how did this happen? - backed her up against the wall. She looks to Neal Sherman for support, who refuses to meet her eyes.
"You sound like you're bargaining with us, Detective. I told you, this is no longer your case," says the man in the camel sports coat.
"If we don't pick this guy up, he's going to bolt out of town!"
"Detective, there is no 'we'," replies the man with the receding hairline.
She crosses her arms and glares at them.
"Your files, Ms. Bennett," says Camel Coat.
"Are safe in my loft."
"Where one of the suspects could examine them during your pajama party last night?" says the other man.
"Oh, aren't you just too cute. Proving to me that you have so little understanding of the case that I have absolutely no confidence left in your ability to handle..."
"We are the FBI, Ms. Bennett..."
"Meaning? What? You don't make mistakes? Just how long have you been working on this case?"
"We'll interrogate the suspects on our own."
"Then you don't need my files..."
Before they can answer this, Sherman speaks up: "Well, hot shots, looks like you're in luck. You can interrogate the star right now." He nods towards the door, where Victoire stands, ready to knock. The FBI agents turn in time to see her opening the door. For a moment, their stuffy demeanor slips.
"Diana?" she says. She looks over the three men in the room with a glance that is almost dismissive. Diana suppresses a grin. Being able to eavesdrop on each other's frame of mind has its advantages.
"Hi. This is Neal Sherman, whom you know about. And these are Agents Scott and Venable, from the FBI."
Victoire shakes hands with Sherman, and nods to the agents. "FBI?"
"Yes. They are assuming control of the case, as they put it."
Victoire looks at the government men more sharply, and studies them until they both look uncomfortable. "And why is that?" Her accent is thickly British, not French, and painfully aristocratic.
Camel Coat, otherwise known as Agent Scott, rouses himself. "Miss Leonie.."
"My name is Victoire Dedeaux."
His partner jumps in. "There are some new facts in the case that are important to another case we've been working on for some time, and we believe it would be to our mutual benefit (a snort from Diana) for the Federal branch to assume the burden of the case."
Victoire looks to Diana. "You've identified the murderer, haven't you?" Diana nods. "And how long have you gentlemen been working on this other case?"
Venable starts out in good authoritative form: "Ma'am, the details of the situation, I'm afraid, aren't..." He catches a glimpse of Victoire's unblinking stare. He clears his throat and takes another tack. "If you'll excuse us, we have to discuss..."
"No, I won't excuse you," injects the lioness. "One of my employees has been killed here, in your country. You have the murderer, and you presume to tell me that I don't need to know who it was? At exactly what time yesterday do you think I was born?"
Diana finds herself glad that she doesn't work for Victoire Dedeaux.
"Tell me, have you arrested the murderer?"
"No? Why not?"
"They don't plan to, just yet," says Diana. The FBI agents start at this. Victoire rounds on Scott, who is glaring at Diana. "Why in Hell not?"
He makes an effort to regain some authority. "Are you aware that your employee was smuggling drugs?"
"The dead man."
"And who killed him?"
"Do you know anything about the drug smuggling?"
"Why? Do you think the killer will try to hurt the rest of us?"
"That never crossed your mind, did it?"
"Who killed Paul?"
The two FBI agents exchange glances. "Ma'am, we'll be setting up interviews with your people. I'd appreciate it if you'd get hold of them and ask them to remain available at the hotel."
Victoire stares him down, and then smiles sweetly. "Of course, Agent Venable. I will talk to them as soon as I have finished at the French Consulate."
"The French Consulate?"
"Of course. If you are going to put us through another round of interrogation, I believe it is time our own government be available to assist us. And they will be very interested to know that the American police have identified the killer of a French citizen - however spotted that citizen may be - and they are going to let that man walk free."
"I'm going to ask you not to make that information public..."
"And I am going to refuse."
"I hope you're not going to obstruct justice.."
"Allow me to remind you that you are the fool letting a killer walk around. And if you talk of obstructing justice, then arrest me for going to my own embassy. Believe me, my famous first phone call will be to alert them to what you have done. And the press will have a wonderful day!"
"There is more at stake here than Paul Marpot's death!" Scott roars.
"Really?" Victoire coos. "Am I to take your word for that?"
"Agent Scott, Venable. May I have word with you? Over here?" says Diana, motioning them to the other end of the room. Not having any better ideas, they go to her. "Had enough of the French ego?" she asks. They look uncomfortable. "I'd like to point out that I had a pretty good working relationship with her before you came and tried to put the strong arm on her. She isn't an American citizen, you can't pretend to have authority over her..."
"If she's trafficking drugs, we'll have plenty of authority.."
"It's damned unlikely that she is. If you had this woman as an ally, your job would have been a whole lot easier. The crew takes their cues from the acrobats, and the acrobats follow her lead. If she goes back to that group and tells them that you do not have their well-being at heart, you are going to encounter this kind of, of haughtiness 12 times over. There's no way you can be bigger snobs than these people."
"What are you saying?" says Venable.
"If you play it straight with her, she'll work with you. If you lie to her, or keep up the attitude, she'll do nothing to help you. And she will go to her government."
"How do you know she isn't involved?"
"Oh, for God's sake. Look at her. She's been all over the world for ten years. She's got paparazzi following her at all hours. You know how we confirmed her alibi for the night of the murder? The front page of the New York Daily News. Paul Marpot operated for years without getting caught, until his greedy little roommate ferreted him out. If someone as high-profile as Victoire Dedeaux were involved in drug smuggling, don't you think some reporter would have blown her cover long ago?"
"Stranger things have happened."
"Of course. But that doesn't mean they have to. You guys are supposed to be so smart. Then play it smart. Offending Victoire is just going to make your life harder. And at this point, you've got her pretty offended. I don't want to know what happens when the French government gets involved. Once they discover that the murderer is another French citizen, they'll be screaming 'extradition' before you can dream up a report number. Your best hope is to get Dorni arrested before that happens. Not that I haven't been suggesting that.."
They confer for a moment. Venable sighs and goes over to Victoire. "Ms Dedeaux, we need to ask for your help to get through this." She only stares at him, impassively. "We have reason to believe that the killer can lead us to Marpot's drug connection. We've been trying to crack that ring for almost a year."
"A year! And how long are you going to keep us in New York?"
"Actually, we were going to ask you to make plans to leave on the weekend."
"I'm very relieved to hear that - I'll set that up this afternoon. But why?"
"We think that it might make the killer try to contact Marpot's connection within the next few days."
"Because the killer is one of your crew."
She takes a deep breath. "Bruno Dorni."
"How do you know?"
"I didn't. He's the most likely candidate. It was a shock to me to learn that Paul Marpot was smuggling. He'd been with us for years, and I would not have thought that he would put us all at risk for his own personal gain. But then, that is the sort of question no one has ever asked me. For the last three days, I've been thinking about my crew a good deal. And Bruno Dorni is just the one I would point to as the sort of man to kill, and run drugs. I wasn't crazy about hiring him a few months ago, and my opinion has not improved over time. I was planning to fire him once we got home. I suspect he knows that."
"So he has motivation to get some other sort of... job," says Diana.
"One that doesn't require too much work." Victoire paces a moment, and the men in the room watch her walk in fascination. "What if he gets away?"
"We've got people on him now. Tailing him. We'll know if he tries to leave the country."
She frowns at that. "I'm not as sure as you are."
"Look, we know it's risk. But it's a risk worth taking if we can close this import service down." Everyone in the room seems to know that the balance of power has shifted. "Ms. Dedeaux, is there anyone else in your group that you think could be involved?"
"There's one back home, who did not come with us. I plan to ask some harsh questions when I get home. But of these people, no. Paul wouldn't have diluted his earnings like that. His ambitions weren't huge. I know he was hoping to get enough money to be able to retire early. He's talked to my uncle about a small vineyard he's wanted to buy. Easy work, compared to being a carney. Furthermore, he was the foreman of the group. He wouldn't put his authority at risk, or leave himself open to blackmail.
"So, if the question is whether someone else might have been working with Paul, he wasn't the sort to take a partner. And Bruno Dorni is generally disliked. No one would work with him. He isn't trustworthy."
After giving all this some thought, Scott says: "Thank you. We're going to want to talk to everyone tomorrow. We'll be at the hotel early in the morning. I'd appreciate it if you would not discuss any of this with them."
"At last, you are making sense. I'll tell them only that they are to prepare for another series of questioning. I suspect that Bruno will assume that you've gotten nowhere, and are starting over."
"If we are lucky, you will be right. We'll arrange to talk to him first, so that he can have time to act on our interview."
Victoire looks at Diana. "Are you heading out of here?"
"I guess so."
"Good. I have favor to ask of you."
"Lord knows I have time to do something, since I am currently without a project."
They leave the room. The FBI agents whistle in unison, after the door closes. Sherman shakes his head. "Meeting two lionesses in their dens," he says. "You guys nearly had your you-know-whats handed to you. Twice."
"She is.. something. Is she for real?" says Venable.
"Ooh, yeah. Bennett is a firecracker. And the best there is."
"I meant the French girl."
Sherman shrugs. "I don't know what her deal is. But the two of them sure know how to play good-cop-bad-cop." He laughs, and leaves the room.
"So", says Diana, as they walk down the stairs. "What's the favor?"
"Take me Below tonight."
"Sure, I guess. Won't Vincent know if you're coming? It isn't as if you'd get lost."
"No, it isn't. But I need to talk to Vincent. And I think he'll need you there."
Diana looks a question at Victoire, who only smiles. "All right."
"By the way, how do you know it's Bruno?"
"There's this amazingly persistent guy in the fingerprint lab."
Father & Vincent are in Vincent's chamber, playing chess - and, for once, Father has won. He sits back in a glow.
"Must be a miracle," says Vincent.
"Nonsense. There are better uses for miracles. But I'm willing to take advantage of your temporary disability. Shall I let you win the next one?"
"Let me?... Certainly, we'll play another, but it must be later. Victoire is coming, and I think she wants to see you."
"Did she say so?" Vincent tries very hard not to look like this is a silly question, and with anyone but Father, he would have succeeded. "So, the gift is back at last," says Father.
Vincent nods. "It's been back quite a while, but it is very strong with Victoire."
Before Father can ask anymore, Victoire & Diana appear at the chamber door, with Mary in tow. Vincent rises, and goes to Victoire. They embrace. Then Vincent turns to Diana. "What's wrong?"
She meets his eyes, and tries to shut him out, but finds that she cannot. He's in her mind - like it's a bus station - and she's too upset to put up much of a barrier. "It's a long story," is the best she can muster.
"Three letters," says Victoire. "F.B.I."
"What does that mean?" asks Father uneasily.
Diana sits heavily onto the edge of the bed. "It means that we've identified the killer, and the F.B.I. has taken over the case. And they won't arrest him."
"Because they hope that he'll lead them to their quarry. He's a possible connection to a drug transporter that they want to catch," says Victoire.
"And if he escapes?"
"It'll probably turn out to be my fault," says Diana glumly.
"And meanwhile, they're keeping the whole troupe here in New York?"
Victoire answers this with a heavy sigh. And then she shakes herself, and turns to Vincent. "It's time for a talk."
"You've learned what you wanted to know?"
"Yes." She seats herself next to Diana, leaving the third chair for Mary, and pulls a thick envelope from her purse. She gathers her thoughts for a moment, and then she begins: "You assume that I was born in France because I said I was raised there. Well. I was born here. In New York City. The story of my birth has always been a close secret - first to protect someone, then to enhance the box office, so to speak. Although, truth be told, the true story of why I am Leonie would cause quite a stir." She settles into the pillows at the head of the bed. "I'm just not sure it would be a good stir.
"I spent the first six years of my life in the home of a Dr. Helmutt Brauhier."
"I think I know that name," says Father.
Victoire nods. "Well you might. He's an obstetrician, about your age, and a geneticist, and the chairman of the Genetics Department at one of the Universities here. I've long thought he was the greatest victim of this story. Now I think he may be the only one.
"When I was six, he took me to Europe. His intention was to take me to family he had in Austria, where I could grow up in relative obscurity. But we stopped in Paris, and I changed his plans rather radically.
"I was quite adventurous, and rebellious even then. I ran away, for a lark, and I got lost. Jean-Luc Dedeaux found me. The rest you can guess. It took poor Papa Helmutt two years to find me."
"Why so long?" asks Diana.
"Well, as far as anyone else knew, I didn't exist. He couldn't go to the police and ask for help. He couldn't let anyone know what I was like. It was a challenge. I thought he did rather well finding me at all."
"At any rate, Papa came to the South of France to see me that summer, and I was simply hateful to him. When I lived in his house, I'd been kept hidden. He and his wife were so afraid that my discovery would cause trouble - for him and for me. I was a great threat to his career, you see. I hated the confinement.
"I'm rambling. On my sixteenth birthday, Papa sent me a letter describing the circumstances of my birth. The original is in a safe in France. I keep a copy with me when I travel. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is for you to read this, Vincent." She hands him the envelope. "It also applies to you."
Diana can only imagine the enormity of this last sentence to Father and to Mary, as well as to Vincent. His hand trembles a little as he opens the envelope, and slowly unfolds the papers. "It's your copy," Victoire says.
"This is.." he says, and falters.
"This is it, my love. The fantastic story that resulted in...us."
He's almost afraid. He looks into her eyes for a long moment, trying to find some hint, but she's closed him out. Then she smiles at him. =Just read it.=
And he does. "My dear Vicki," it begins.
"I want to wish a very Happy Sixteenth Birthday! I think that this is the birthday upon which you deserve to learn how you came to be as you are. Keep this letter safe. It may be a help to you. It may also do you great harm.
"When I was just starting my career, I did research on early embryonic development. The techniques for maintaining cells alive in culture - living in a test tube - were just new then, and we were learning how to maintain embryos in culture, at least for a short while. My partner was a brilliant geneticist and veterinarian named Patrick Meecham. Together we studied the earliest form of the embryo, called the morula, which has 16 cells or fewer. (You may have already studied about this in school: the fertilized egg divides into two cells, then four, then eight, and so on. At those stages, the embryo remains a solid ball. After the sixteen-cell stage, it starts to organize its parts into a different configuration.) We used anything we could get: chicks, rats. Sometimes we fertilized the eggs in a petri dish. Meecham became very good at that technique. We watched the clusters of cells organize themselves and migrate around as they tried to form a new creature, and we took notes on everything we saw."
"Meecham," says Father. "I remember that name, too. It isn't very common for a veterinarian to come to medical society meetings, but he did. I guess he came with Brauhier."
"You remember him?" asks Victoire.
"He was hard to forget. He was a tall charismatic Irishman, all red hair and ruddy cheeks, full of bluster and yarns. Held his whisky rather well, and yes, he was a genius. A loud one. Some people didn't like him much, because he was so.. so.. Oh, all I can think of is 'over-the-top'. But he was brilliant. I think I could recognize Brauhier, now, too."
"Yes. A bit taller than I am. Broad-shouldered. German accent. Rather shy, especially compared to Meecham."
"I didn't know you were interested in reproductive sciences, Father," says Vincent.
"The medical community was smaller then, especially among the basic scientists. We had some rather eclectic meetings. Never mind that. Go on."
And Vincent reads on: "I had finished my residency in Obstetrics, and I was just starting out in my own practice. In the course of patient treatment, in a day when our treatment options were few, I performed hysterectomies on many young women. Careful pathologic examination of the organs I removed from these women produced, every so often, a viable egg in the Fallopian tube. These finds I stored, frozen, not knowing what else to do with them.
"My partner knew about them, since I kept them at the lab we shared, but we never discussed them. I never dreamt that they might be viable, but Meecham thought otherwise. He was the staff veterinarian at the zoo, and he had had to perform a hysterectomy on a lioness who turned out to be pregnant. He salvaged eight embryos from the uterus, and froze them next to my human eggs.
"What happened next may have been triggered by the tragic loss of Pat Meecham's sister, who died of kidney failure. She was a good ten years younger than he was, and he adored her. He kept talking about how he should have known how to save her life. I suppose I should have thought that something beyond normal grief was at work, but I missed the signs. God forgive me, Pat Meecham was going mad before my eyes, and I never noticed until it was too late.
"As I said, maintaining embryonic tissue in culture was new. The techniques that became the almost routine methods for in vitro fertilization, and surrogate gestation, were things of which we only dreamed. Some researchers have done experiments wherein they fused embryos from two different individuals, and incubated them to their complete forms. These mixed forms are called 'mosaics'. The best known of these experiments involved salamanders, but to date, there are no published efforts involving mammals. Meecham knew of these efforts, and imagined beyond them, overstepping the bounds of ethics to unbelievable lengths.
"He later told me that his intention was to develop a method of creating organs that could be transplanted into those in need, like his sister. He dreamed of a safe, plentiful supply of donor organs, and he thought he'd found a way to achieve this. All that at a time when organ transplantation was still barely a possibility!
"Unbeknownst to me, he began a series of experiments involving his lion embryos - and my frozen human ova. There is a way to separate the cells in a morula. If ones does so, and allows the separate cells to sit, they divide on as if they are eggs themselves. They form new, identical individuals. You know this happens in nature from time to time, and a woman will bear identical twins.
"Meecham fused the cells of human and lion embryos, thinking that the lesser life form would act as a vehicle for the human organs, serving as an incubator of sorts until the vehicle was sacrificed to give up the donor organ. I don't know how many of his initial attempts failed, but he finally found a way to produce a viable product.
"The first batch of successes, Meecham implanted in a lioness at the zoo. How he thought he could risk the life of one his charges without having to answer a lot of questions later, I'll never know. He was behaving pretty strangely by that time, and I worried a little about him, but I was also seeing very little of him. The unfortunate lioness suffered a prolonged gestation, and a difficult delivery of three badly deformed, nonviable cubs. He wrapped them up, and brought them to our lab. While walking in from his car, he feared that someone was following him, and he hide the most obviously deformed cub in some debris under a dumpster outside the hospital where our lab was."
Vincent's voice fails at this point. He stares into space, stunned. Finally, he looks to Victoire, and then to Father, who has tears in his eyes. "Dear God," he whispers. He looks back at the page in his hand, and then gives it to Diana. "Please," he says, "will you?"
She takes the sheaf of papers, and reads: "When he went back to retrieve the corpse of that failure, he could not find it. He assumed that some wandering dog had taken it. I remember I found him in the lab that morning, very distressed, alternately raging and weeping. I thought that the loss of these lion cubs reminded him somehow of his dead sister, and I begged him to go home. I never examined the little corpses. I never questioned.
"Meecham had time to try once more before he went perfectly mad. This time, he found a human surrogate mother, a young woman whom he promised a large sum of money. Who knows what he told her, but he impregnated her with his last unbelievable experiment, and shortly afterwards, suffered a complete breakdown of mania."
"Oh, no," murmurs Father.
"A few weeks later, the woman came to the lab, at first demanding her money, and then begging for help. I had no idea what she was talking about, and she had no clue what she carried.
" I went to the asylum to see if I could learn anything from Meecham, and it was then that I learned of the incredible things he had done. Alternating between grandiose triumph, and wild despair, he told me the whole story. He told me where his notebooks were hidden, and even begged me to carry on in his place! The interview ended with his obsessing on the whereabouts of the missing cub's corpse - there was an element of paranoia that some unseen rival had purloined the specimen, and was even "beating him to it", whatever that was.
" I remember telling the psychiatrist at the asylum that I couldn't make heads or tails of Meecham's ramblings. It's a wonder I didn't suffer a breakdown of my own. My partner in research had endangered a young woman's life after nearly killing a lioness, and losing lives that were half human anyway. That young woman was wandering around the city - I was nearly frantic with fear that she would go into labor and go to a hospital - and then what? If this became public knowledge, my career would be ruined. Guilt by association, and Meecham was not able to answer for his own crimes.
"Secretly, and terrified, I delivered that baby - you, Vicki. Your first few days were tenuous at best, but you rallied, and you throve, the world's only living human mosaic.
"I never told him about your birth. I lacked the courage, and when I did go to see him, he'd become nearly mute as he descended onto the depressive phase of his illness. He occasionally mumbled some words, most often calling his sister's name. I didn't admit to anyone that I knew what the rest was about. Not long after, he managed to kill himself, even in the asylum.
"As you grew, I constantly marveled at your intelligence. Edna and I may have made a mistake in keeping you so closely guarded, but we meant to do right by you. I admit, I think of you now, and I cannot think of Patrick Meecham's effort as a total failure, or even as evil. That isn't possible.
"This is your story, my dear. Write to me with your questions. Mama Edna and I want to come to France in the summer. Perhaps we will see you then."
Diana stops reading. They sit in a shocked silence.
It's Father who speaks first. "I don't know which question to ask first."
"As I recall, my first question was: 'Which part of me is which?'", says Victoire.
"Can you tell?" asks Mary.
"Most definitely. I've learned a bit more embryology in my day than the average aerialist. After the morula stage, the embryo starts to flatten out, and the cells wind up in sheets." She holds her hands out, one on top of the other. "The cells on top migrate about to form certain organs - specifically the nervous system. The middle cells form heart and muscle. The inner cells form the gut, and so forth. Wherever one of those 16 cells goes, it stays, and contributes to specific parts of the body. Very few of my organ systems are mixed. My heart and kidneys are leonine, my gut and liver are human. And, obviously, my brain is human."
"How do you know?" asks Diana. "About your heart and liver, I mean?"
"For the heart, mostly by the shape. And then there's the labwork. My liver functions are perfectly normal for a human, and my kidneys function along lion parameters."
"Well that would explain Vincent's unusual physiology. It's probably quite normal," says Father. "If we just knew what we were looking at."
"What keeps your body from rejecting organs?" asks Mary.
"I have bone marrow from both sides, and have had from the beginning. So I have white cells from each species that recognize both sets of native organs. That is one of the happier things. What germs the human cells are susceptible to, the lion cells are not, and vice versa. I'm rarely sick."
"Neither is Vincent," says Mary.
"Vincent," says Diana. "Say something."
He shakes himself. "I was just thinking how disappointed Paracelsus would be." He shoots an apologetic look at Father. "A rather inappropriate thought, isn't it?"
Father nods. "The irony is there."
"Well," says Victoire. "That's what you are. An ordinary lion. An ordinary human. Not particularly mysterious, except for the appalling lack of judgment on Meecham's part. Perhaps, if he'd lived now, his bipolar disorder could have been managed. It's a shame his creativity was lost."
"I think the term is 'thinking outside the box'", says Diana.
Victoire chuckles. "Well outside." She takes a breath. "I saw Papa Helmutt today, and I had quite few questions to ask him about the cub that was lost by the dumpster. I must tell you that, when he asked my why I was interested in that, I told him you live."
Father and Mary look a little alarmed at this, but Vincent nods. "What did he say?"
"Well, nothing for several moments. I think he was near tears. He always carried a burden of guilt about that child. He said he had a name for it - for you. He called you the 'man-cub'."
"Kipling," says Father, and smiles, as does Vincent.
"Devin would call me that, sometimes," he says.
"Papa was so relieved to learn that you survived, and that you grew. I told him that you have a child, and he was delighted. I didn't tell him where you live - actually, I said you grew up outside the city." There's some laughter at this. "But I did tell him your name. He said it was so odd that we'd have such similar names. And he wants you to know that you may write to him in complete confidence. He'll never give you away."
"Now I know why you laughed at me when I asked you about him this morning," says Vincent.
"I get the impression," says Diana, "that the other two cubs were not, um, bipeds."
"No. They are shaped like lions."
"Are?" says Father. "Have you seen them?"
"Yes, Papa has kept them. And he's kept Meecham's notebooks. Today he offered to give them to us - the notebooks, not the specimens."
"Why were two babies quadruped and two biped?" continues Diana.
"Because two have lion brains, and two have human brains." This is met with confused looks all around. "The development of the skeleton and musculature is governed by the growth of the nervous system. There were experiments done in the 70's that proved that if the nerve bud to a limb of a developing fetus was microsurgically removed, that limb would not develop. The experiments were done in lizards, but it is assumed that the same is true of mammals. I guess you and I prove that, Vincent. We may have feline muscle and bone, but we stand upright."
"That must be why you are so strong," says Mary. "And I guess it explains your profession."
"Acrobatics?" laughs Victoire. "No. I am very strong, but I don't think that's where the grace required comes from. Do you think Vincent could tumble?"
Vincent answers that with an emphatic "No!"
"I know that my human mother was a ballerina. It more likely comes from her."
"How do you know that?" asks Father.
"There were only two eggs left when Meecham made his last attempt. One was from a 44 year old woman with fibroid tumors. The other was from a dancer in her twenties, who was quite fair." She pulls up her sleeve. There is a stripe of golden fur running down its side, and next to it, creamy human skin, dotted with a few freckles. "My human skin is very pale. So it must be the dancer. She had uterine cancer. This sounds very strange, but she died before I was born." She becomes wistful.
"Um," Diana starts, and then she loses her nerve.
"Never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about."
"Perhaps you do."
No use for it. Someone would have to ask at some time. "It was eggs Meecham stole from Brauhier. Not embryos."
"He had to fertilize them."
"Oh, dear," says Father.
"No," says Victoire. She looks at Vincent. His face is unreadable, but she doesn't need to read it. "There are worse things than being Patrick Meecham's children."
"You're right," he says, finally. "I could be any of the things I've fantasized, when I've hidden in the dark." But then he does look troubled. "What does this mean to Jacob?"
"I don't have anything very currently in the manic-depressive syndrome," says Father. "Looks like I'm sending a message to Peter - who would be fascinated with this, by the way." He looks under his brow at brother and sister. "Victoire?"
"Who is Peter?"
"A medical school classmate of mine, and one of our first Helpers. He's helped take care of Vincent, and of all of us, when the need has arisen."
"Then he can be trusted with a secret."
"Then trust him."
"Have you yourself suffered any mental trouble?" asks Father, abruptly.
"Father," protests Vincent.
"No, love, it's a fair question. I had a bad bout with depression when I was about eighteen, after Tante Emilie died. I can truly sympathize with Meecham's grief. Fortunately, Lu-Lu knew what to do, and I was gotten into treatment right away. There are medicines now; they make a real difference. That was the only bad time. I thought I was slipping again a few years ago, and I sought help. I started some medicine so quickly, I don't know if it was real or not."
"You've never had an episode like mania?"
"No. And now that I've met Vincent, I'm reasonably sure that a theory I've had for a long time is true."
"And what is that?"
"I think that there a lot of things that are part of a continuum, and the mania is only one of them. The depression I felt wasn't just a dense sadness. I was separated from everything around me. I couldn't feel anything in a way that I was used to. That alienation alone was horribly distressing. It was as if I'd become blind to my own feelings, as well as everybody else's. What if the bright side of this unawareness isn't always the fireworks of a manic attack?"
"What if it is a continuous awareness of the world that is so sharp, you can feel not only your own thoughts, by those of others?" says Vincent.
She smiles at him. "Even of another you've never seen, half a world away."
It suddenly comes to Diana that she's been saved from the fear she spent the better part of last night facing. Victoire is not, as she so clumsily put it to herself only a few days ago, a threat to everything she doesn't have. She closes her eyes, and thinks that, for a moment, she can hear the whir of an arrow just missing her heart.
The following morning, Agent Scott crosses the hotel lobby, and dials Victoire's room number on the house phone. A few moments later, he hangs up in disgust, and joins Venable. "She's not there."
"I wonder how much trouble she's going to give us," gripes Venable as he goes to the front desk. "I'd like to leave a message for Ms. Dedeaux," he says to the clerk.
"Oh, Mlle. Dedeaux says that if anyone is looking for her, she is at breakfast," says the clerk. She points towards the restaurant.
Venable clears his throat, adjusts his jacket, and strikes out for the restaurant. She's easy enough to find, even though she has taken a table near the back of the room. She is talking on a cell phone as they walk up, and she covers the mouthpiece. "Good morning, gentlemen. Please, have a seat. I won't be a moment." She waves for the waiter, and points to her coffee cup, and to the agents as she resumes speaking into the phone in rapid-fire French.
The men sit and chafe as she talks on. Her tone is impassive, business-like, as she takes notes. She is clearly giving instructions to someone. That they cannot understand her irritates both of them. The waiter brings cups, and a fresh pot of coffee as she turns off her phone. "I apologize. That took longer than I thought."
"May I ask who that was?" says Venable.
She raises an eyebrow at him. "That was my lawyer."
Ms. Dedeaux, we specifically asked you.."
"Well, aren't we just a little narcissistic?" she interrupts. He decides that he's going to hate this. It isn't just that she gives him no credit for authority. It isn't just that she interrupts. She does so with such authority herself that he feels like a schoolboy. "There are more things in this world than catching a killer. The airlines are being difficult about the return tickets. Or, to be more exact, the return fares. And the insurance company is already balking about their contract. This unplanned vacation in New York has erased a good portion of the profits for this tour, and recovery is going to be a headache. Have I satisfied your curiosity?"
There is an uncomfortable silence as they drink their coffee. Victoire cuts up an under-ripe slice of cantaloupe. "You're eating fruit?" says Scott.
"You expected Little Friskies, perhaps?"
"Look. Where do you want to start? My people are all here, and nervous, I might add. Although they were delighted to know they can go home."
"Venable and I will be talking to Dorni," says Scott. The others will interview the rest."
"Be sure you ask about his knife."
"Are you telling us our job?"
"No. I'm telling you ours." She digs in her skirt pocket. "No carney is ever without a good knife." She tosses a pocket knife on the table.
"Rope. There's always rope to shorten, or splice, or whatever. There's always a knife. Where was Paul's?"
Scott looks to Venable, who looks a little alarmed. He flips open his briefcase, sifts through a file. "One three-inch pocket knife, brown tortoise shell handle, left rear trouser pocket. In a leather case."
"And where's Bruno's?"
"Presumably, it's the murder weapon."
"Good morning, Mary." He relieves her of a heavy load of freshly laundered and folded blankets.
"That was quite an evening last night."
He smiles at her. "An understatement." As if Mary would ever make anything but an understatement. "It's odd how it changes everything, and nothing."
"The important facts of life can be like that."
"Father once said that there is a greater truth than all others."
"Yes. And I think that is the part that has not changed." They enter the children's dormitory, and he drops the blankets on a nearby bed. To her surprise, he turns to her, and gathers her into his arms. "You loved me from the beginning, and you never let me feel that I was anything but loved. No matter what. Whoever my biological mother was, she could not have given me more than you did."
She raises a tear-stained face to him. "All of the children are like my own," she says. "But you..." She stops a happy little sob in the collar of his jacket. "You are the child of my heart, Vincent."
Venable scribbles another note in his book, and glances up at Dorni from under his brow. "I find it a little unusual that you can share a hotel room with a man for weeks, and fail to notice whether he's even made phone calls."
A police department translator, a young man from Haiti, whom Bruno has been treating with heavy scorn, translates for him. Bruno snickers. "You assume I actually spent time in my room," he says. "I had places to go. The old man could hang around in the hotel if he wanted."
"Places to go? And where might those be?" interjects Scott.
"What sort of American connections have you yourself made?" asks Venable, and almost at once regrets the wording.
Dorni laughs again, and blows smoke into the translator's face. "Certainly, connections!" He makes a crude gesture with his hands. "Some people like sight seeing. I like sights, too. And sound." He makes a feminine sigh. Casts a taunting glance at the translator. "Especially the black ones." The word he uses is a racial slur in French. The young man winces a little, and Dorni laughs at him.
"Connections like this?" asks Scott, holding up a matchbook with a phone number.
Dorni snatches the book away from him. "That's mine. You shouldn't have kept it."
"I can't understand why you would say that," says Venable, taking it back from him. "Since it's fake."
Bruno blinks at him. "Fake?"
"Fake. The number does not exist."
"She gave me a fake number."
They stare at him, unblinking.
"Or else she was very drunk. She wrote it wrong."
"Very drunk. Everyone in this bar was very drunk. Not one person in the place remembers seeing you there, from the bouncer to the bartender. And they have never heard of a 'Marilyn' there."
"Maybe she lied about her name."
"Maybe you did." Scott holds the matchbook up. "The seven in this number is crossed."
"Americans don't write sevens like this. Frenchmen do."
"Where were you, really, on Saturday night?" asks Venable.
"I told you. I went out and got drunk."
"Where else did you go, besides the Bombay Club?"
"All over. There are a whole row of clubs on that street."
"Where no one recognizes your picture."
"This is getting repetitive," says Scott.
"What did he say?" Bruno asks the interpreter.
The young man shrugs. "Police business."
"What did he say?" To which the interpreter only smiles vindictively.
Scott stands up. "Well, Mr. Dorni. We have more people to interview. You've given us a great deal to think about. Don't go too far away."
"What do you mean?"
"I'd like to ask to you to stay close to the hotel."
"Why?" But the agents only leave the room, taking the translator with them.
Yusef drops the oars of the rowing machine, and props his arms on his knees. "Vicki."
Victoire looks up from spotting Etienne, who is lifting weights. "C'est moi."
"What's going on?"
"Eti is slowing down in his old age."
Etienne blows an indignant breathe up at her as he hefts the bar, and drops it into the rack. "Don't play the age game with me! And don't change the subject."
She looks as if she'll make another joke, but she shrugs instead. "All I know is that we can leave. And the airline is trying to extort a fortune from us in the process."
"Why are they letting us leave all of a sudden? Does that mean they've found Paul's murderer? And that they don't think it's one of us?"
She shrugs. It's easier to lie to them now that she knows there's an end in sight. "I don't know, Eti. These jokers aren't very informative."
Etienne stands up, and puts an arm around her shoulders. "Vicki. I think you know more than you say."
She looks him straight in the eye, and loses her resolve. "I know more than I'm allowed to say."
"It's the Rat, isn't it?" says Yusef.
Yusef nods towards the picture window that opens on to the hotel swimming pool. "Him."
The three of them watch as Bruno pulls himself out of the water. He looks up to find them watching him, and he leers. "Why did we hire him?" Victoire grumbles.
"We didn't," says Etienne. "Paul did."
Victoire didn't know this. She pulls away to stare at Etienne in shock just as Bruno slouches into the room.
"Oh-oh, Eti," he says. "Don't offend the lady. You won't get any tonight if you do."
Yusef slaps the back of his head. "Watch your mouth."
"Hey!" Bruno snarls. "Keep your hands off me!"
"So, Bruno," says Etienne. "How did the FBI treat you?"
Dorni sneers. "They're idiots."
"Really? Why? Because they haven't arrested you for murder yet?"
Victoire pokes Etienne in the back, and tries to throw a warning glance at Yusef, but he's already entered into coalition with Etienne, and it's too late to stop them.
"Sure," says Yusef. "The others all say the same thing. All the FBI wanted to know from me, was questions about you. Why are they so interested in you?"
"You're full of shit," says Bruno.
"You know they are," says Victoire, glaring at her friends. "I do not want this kind of dissension, guys. Keep it civil."
"You're awfully high-and-mighty," says Bruno. "Who do you think you are?"
"She's the person who signs your paycheck," shouts Yusef. "I told you to watch your mouth."
"Although you might not be getting that paycheck for much longer," says Etienne.
"I'll say what I want, to anyone I want," Bruno growls at Yusef. "I don't take orders from some desert snake. And I don't have to take orders from any other freak." As he says this, he blocks Victoire as she moves to the stair machine, leering. It's the wrong move.
Victoire grabs the towel draped around his neck, and nearly jerks him off his feet as she snarls in his face. He's never heard her lion's voice before, and he cries out in alarm. She treats him to a low growl before she drops him. He backs away from her, still too alarmed to speak. "Get out, before I change my mind," she says, in her human voice. He runs.
"Well, Vicki, you haven't lost your touch," says Yusef. "The FBI don't scare him, but you have him wetting his pants."
"If I had my way, the FBI wouldn't have to be troubled with him at all."
Yusef & Etienne exchange glances.
"Is that what you can't tell us?"
She flashes Yusef a look. She hadn't meant to say that aloud. "I'm pretty sure that it is."
"Are they sure?" asks Etienne.
"I don't know if they know what they're doing." She climbs on to the stair machine.
Etienne crosses to stand by her. He watches her work until she turns to face him. "Now what?"
"There's something else, isn't there?"
"Something else is happening that you haven't said anything about."
"I told you," says Yusef. "She has a lover."
"Never let it be said that you do not have a cruel streak," she snipes at him. And to Etienne. "Not a lover."
"There's something here for you," he presses.
Victoire works away at the steps for a while, considering. "You've known me too long."
"It isn't hard to see," he says. "You've been God-knows-where the last three nights. You had a secret tete-a-tete at lunch yesterday. And you look happier than I've seen you look in years. What is going on?"
She smiles an apology. "That is something I can tell you about. But not until we get home."
She shrugs. Etienne waits. Finally, she says, quietly so that Yusef cannot hear as he grunts away at the rowing machine: "Not a lover." And louder: "Let's go to lunch at the Tavern on the Green tomorrow. I'll have a new dress to wear."
"Yes. I'm going shopping this afternoon. Want to come?" They make faces. "Get something pretty for Miriam, Yus?"
He looks thunderstruck. "Oh, God, I forgot!"
Bruno Dorni leaves the hotel, and strikes off down the street. He stops into the first likely-looking bar he can find, and settles at the bar, orders a beer. He's at loose ends. And he's worried, now. It isn't exactly to his taste to sit in his room and do nothing. And hanging around the hotel bar doesn't strike him as the safest thing to do. Not with those bastards tossing around accusations he'd just as soon not hear again. What if they were heard by the police? He has hours to kill before nightfall, and no creative ideas how to kill them. He drains the beer, and sourly reflects that he can't even indulge in this the way he'd like. Now is not the time to be drunk.
The bar door opens and closes. A man slips in, and sits at a table. The only reason Dorni notices him is that he's wearing a jacket much like one Dorni has at home, and for a moment, he wildly thinks that the coat might have been stolen, until he recalls that he did not bring it with him.
After a while, Bruno sighs, and slides off the barstool. He tosses money on the bar, and trudges out the door. A half-hour gone. Now what?
He strikes down the street, and spots a movie theater. Lacking any better ideas, he buys a ticket. It isn't until later that he realizes that he saw the man in 'his' jacket stop and buy a ticket as well.
Two hours later, Dorni is back on the street. He stops in a Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. And the man in 'his' jacket wanders by the restaurant window. Something clicks in Dorni's mind, and a cold tide of panic overtakes him, just for a moment. For now, he's safe. For now, it doesn't matter if someone knows where he is. And there follows a small exultation: he's beaten the American FBI! Seen their spy sent to follow him, and now he can shake that man.
He leaves by the back door. Ducks into a drug store from there, and spends some time looking for interesting magazines. After a futile search, he nearly laughs aloud. Americans are really idiots. They deal their drugs right on their streets, but their pornography, they hide behind the cashier at the drug store. Fools.
Twenty minutes after leaving the store, he catches a glimpse of the jacket. Merdre! This will never do. If he can't get rid of this bastard within the hour, his plans will be ruined, and his life worthless. He stops at a music store, and browses down the aisles. If he weren't so distracted, he might have found some time to gape at the selection available, and the prices. At home, American music is the fashionable stuff to know, and to buy. Here, it is cheap, and there are many artists he's never heard of. Under other circumstances, he might have bought who knows how many? But tonight, he can't weigh himself down. And the jacket man slips in the door. The man is good. He doesn't even so much as glance Bruno's way.
Bruno waits until his tracker gets to the back of the store, and he nearly runs out the door. He checks his watch: time is running out. He runs through a parking lot, and down an alley. He can hear feet in the parking lot behind him, and he ducks down behind a dumpster. There's only one way out. He fumbles in his pocket, tenses his body, and waits.
Victoire, Etienne, and Yusef enter the hotel loaded with packages. "Whoever heard of shopping in New York?" scoffs Etienne.
"What are you talking about?" says Victoire. "We found plenty of things."
"But we're French. We have Paris. We aren't supposed to need to go to New York."
"And when was the last time you made it up to Paris?"
"Eh." A long time. Enough said.
"Now what?" says Yusef.
"Supper next door?"
"OK," says Victoire. "But I think I have just a little time. I have a date."
"With whom?" Etienne speaks a little more sharply than he's intended. And she grins wickedly at him.
"With the people I'll tell you about when we get home."
"People?" says Yusef. "She's got two lovers."
She pokes him so that he drops his bags. "You two have to help me get out of the hotel tonight."
"Because I'm asking for a favor."
Diana leaves the bookstore loaded with textbooks the likes of which she never imagined she'd buy. How many times has she been in this part of town, and she'd never given any notice to this store, a technical store devoted to engineering, math and science, and, it so happens, veterinary texts. She'd gotten lost in there, and she laughs at herself that she can spend hours even in a bookstore like this one, loaded with what can only be called tomes. Choosing the right books had taken longer than she'd expected. But then again, she couldn't say she knew what she was looking for. In the end, she'd selected a book that dealt specifically with the medical problems of big cats, a book of veterinary pharmaceuticals, and, of all things, a veterinary Merck manual. Admittedly, she doesn't know how to choose what Father might be able to use, but she feels she's been pretty successful.
It's a surprise to her that it's nearly dark. The sun had been out when she'd gone in there. She struggles with the bag as she opens the trunk of her car, and dumps the heavy load in. Just as she slams down the trunk lid, she catches a movement out of the corner of her eye. A man is walking through the alley, lighting a cigarette as he walks. Oddly enough, it seems to her that his hands are shaking, but he's too far away for her to really be able to see that. Something is wrong with the appearance of the man, something that gives her an all too familiar frisson of sickness. As she looks at him, the buzz in her rises, the same electric 'zing' she felt as she stood in the theater where a murderer moved about, carrying his poisoned thoughts with him. He raises his head to blow a stream of smoke, almost defiantly. It's Bruno Dorni.
Diana watches him proceed to the street, and he turns towards her to walk down the sidewalk. She ducks to reopen her trunk, keeping her face down. He doesn't notice her as he passes. She looks around for his FBI tail as she shuts the trunk again. With a dull feeling, she realizes that she won't find the agent. Dorni has killed again. She lets him get farther down the street, and follows him.
The three acrobats return to the hotel, and head for the house phone. Victoire dials. "Jimi?" she says. "How is your headache? Want to go to a movie?" She listens, meanwhile, she is scanning the lobby. "Probably something with a lot of explosions, or else Yusef won't go. Oh, wait. Talk to him yourself." She passes the phone to Yusef. And she cuts her eyes over towards the hotel bar for Etienne. He shuffles away a bit, fiddles with his jacket zipper, and spots the paparazzo lounging by the fountain. He looks over his shoulder at his boss, and makes a face. She grins.
Yusef hangs up the phone. "He's coming. He'll bring a paper with the movie listings."
"Let's go sit over there," says Etienne, nodding towards a cluster of chairs near the fountain.
"You know," Victoire mumbles as the saunter across the lobby. "With all the practice we get dodging reporters, how does the FBI think they can tail any of us?"
"At least the crew doesn't have our experience," says Yusef.
They settle in the chairs, and then Victoire says, "This coat is too light. I'm going to get my sweater, and check my messages. I'll be back."
They nod at her, and sit back to wait. Presently, Jimi joins them , and they devote a good twenty minutes to choosing a movie. Jimi raises his head, looks towards the elevator.
"So where is she?"
At that moment, the concierge calls towards the men, "Mr. Guillaume?"
Etienne jumps up, goes to the concierge's desk. The man holds a telephone out to him. "What are you doing?"
When he returns to his friends, he says, "I thought this would happen. There were messages when she got to her room. She won't be coming out - she has to call Japan."
"Why are you speaking in English?" asks Yusef.
"Oh! I forgot."
The men walk out the door, trailed by their photographer.
On the mezzanine above them, Victoire watches them go, and watches a little longer the movements of people in the lobby, until she is satisfied there is no one else to bother her. She walks slowly down the corridor, and finds a service stair. She slips into the stairwell, and stands by the door, waiting. Minutes pass. No one comes. She runs down the stairs.
Moments later, she opens the door by the silent loading dock, and peers out into the alley. No one. An eerie noise rings up the alley as a nearby manhole cover begins to move. She descends the stairs, and glides over to crouch next to the floating metal disk. When the opening is clear, she pauses to grin at her brother below her before she drops into his arms.
For more than half an hour, Diana has trailed the Frenchman through the busy sidewalks of Manhattan. Over that time, the crowds have thinned, and the night grown cooler. She'd pulled on her gloves and a cap minutes ago, stuffing her red hair out of site. But it's becoming harder to follow at a distance without being noticeable.
He's consulted a slip of paper several times, and checked street signs. Obviously, he's headed somewhere with purpose. They're getting closer to the Park. Bruno stops abruptly, takes his bearings, and Diana clumsily ducks into a store doorway. Then, with as little warning, he crosses the street and strides briskly down the ramp of an underground parking garage.
Diana thinks about this for a moment. Has he made her, and this is a trap? Is this where he's headed? As a meeting place for dealers, it's a typical choice. She digs in her bag for her cell phone. She hasn't had a chance to call for backup till now. And now is a good time to do so. She leans against the window of a video store.
"Yeah, this is Detective Bennett. I've got a make on a suspect who's supposed to be under surveillance, Bruno Dorni. He's gone into a garage under the McKenzie building....I don't know about the surveillance, I picked him up at the parking lot across from Detweiller's Books on 43rd. I'm going into the garage, requesting backup." She hangs up before there can be an argument, and before she loses her nerve. She hasn't done this kind of grunt work in a while. But then again, she's dealt with more psychos in the last few years than garden variety criminals. There has to be some extra training in that.
She crosses the street, and heads down the customer entrance of the garage, digging in her purse as if searching for keys. Who knows if the attendant is just an attendant? She pushes open the door to the elevator room. There's a stairwell next to the elevator, and she goes into it. Now that she's out of sight of the man in the booth, she stops, and listens. The cicada shrilling in her mind tells her that Dorni is nearby. Vincent could use that sense as a locator, but Diana has never been that good. And with all these concrete walls, how good would Vincent even be?
Quietly, she moves down the stairs, listening and feeling, until she reaches the bottom. She opens the door. At this level, there is no enclosure around the elevator. There are also very few cars parked. She looks around as if she can't get her bearings. Who knows who's watching? She slips behind a pillar, listening. The low rush of air that echoes in parking structures becomes almost deafening the longer she strains her ears. But she hears no voices.
The best plan of action seems to be to walk up the parking ramps, and so she does. One level up, she hears voices. She runs back into the stairwell, and up two flights, exiting above the level where she heard the voices. She looks around, they're still there. She glides over to the edge of the ramp, crouching down by a truck.
There! Across the drive ramp, several men. And Bruno Dorni stands facing her, would see her if he just looked up. She eases backwards, and peers around the wheel of the truck. She can barely see another man, and the legs of a third behind him. Dorni is not within her sight this way. But she can hear.
"I can replace Marpot for you..."
"Forget it. Every narc in the world is going to be watching that group for the rest of our lives. Marpot's death soured a safe shipping zone for us for years. What an idiot!"
"He was old. Old men make mistakes."
"There was dope missing! The bastard who killed him stole our merchandise." Diana cranes forward to watch the man, who speaks with a Puerto Rican accent, thrust his face into Dorni's. "You wouldn't know who killed him?"
Dorni swallows. "All I know is that I can be useful to you. And I can get merchandise back into France for you tomorrow."
"How? In your suitcase? I told you, your little troupe is going to be watched like a girl in a bikini!"
"It won't matter. The riggings go back on a freighter tomorrow morning. They're waiting already at the dock to be loaded. I can change the shipping labels, and one crate will not make it back to the circus school. It will go wherever you like. The manifest has already been checked, the crates are secured. I can do it."
The other man paces away from him, kicking at the ground and whistling tunelessly between his teeth. "It would only work once. What do you think you can do for us after that?"
"I don't plan to go back to France. I want to come work for you."
"Why should I accept a wimp like you?"
Dorni's English fails at this point, but he knows he's been insulted. He hisses a few epithets in French at his desired employer.
The Puerto Rican laughs at this, and returns fire in Spanish before he becomes sharply vicious. "No one who works for me treats me with disrespect, I don't care what language he uses!"
"If I worked for you, I would not treat you with disrespect," Dorni replies, pretty evenly for someone who is straining to maintain his bravado.
"I don't think you're smart enough to work for us."
"I'm smart enough to figure out what old Paul was doing."
"You yourself just said he was old, and careless. Maybe he was dumber than we thought."
Diana eases farther back from the edge of the pavement. It figures that Dorni isn't going to admit to this crew that he was the one who killed their man. But what she's heard is damaging enough. Now is time to slip out of the way, and wait for the backup she called to appear. What was taking them so long, anyway?
"Where are we going?"
"No place in particular."
"Vincent, this is me. I can feel her through you, and she is, if you'll pardon the expression, nervous as a cat. What in the world is she up to?"
He shrugs. "Working, I suppose."
"On what? She's off our case."
"That's according to them. Not necessarily according to her. Something happened an hour ago. I think she's following your man."
"Where is she?"
He points away from the Park. "Over there."
"Then lets walk over there."
They stroll down the paths of the Park. Occasionally, they pass someone: a jogger, a couple. No one takes any note of them. Admittedly, in the dark, their faces are hard to see, especially since they are both hooded. As they amble along, holding hands, they are no more remarkable than some other people they have encountered - who were in far more unusual clothing.
"Something troubles me."
"Yesterday morning, you would have made love to me."
"It was not the concept of incest that stopped you."
He stops, and faces her. "How could it not?"
She pauses before answering. "You remember that I told you that I know which of my organ systems are which? That I know my heart and kidney are lion, and my gut and liver are human?"
"You can make some deductions on your own. Your brain, of course, is human. And so is your reproductive tract. You have a human son. There's only one way you could have conceived him." At this point, she turns away from him. There is an ache in her now, the same sorrow that he felt in her every time she looked at Jacob. "I don't have that good fortune. My womb and ovaries are...not human. On a rather fundamental level, I am not a woman, and sex with me is really a form of bestiality..."
He gathers her into his arms. For the second time that day, a woman cries on his shoulder. He kisses her forehead. "You don't really see it that way?"
She pulls herself together. "Oh. In a way I do. And I so resent not being able to have children! I mean, I suppose I could deliver a fine litter, but really...!" Bad joke. It isn't funny. "Sex, for me, is truly just a sport. There can be no higher purpose to it. To some men, I could be some sort of ideal, but if there is to be any sort of real relationship - here's this stupid truth that gets in the way!"
"Who else knows of this?"
"My uncle, and my doctor. Certainly no lover ever heard about it. But I did lose one romance when he learned just that I cannot have a baby."
"Not much of a love there, was it?"
"No. I suppose not. But I loved him."
"So. What did stop you?"
"Yesterday? You know what did. I learned a long time ago that you can't replace a love in a man's heart, no matter how hard you try. Giving in to desire and - I'll admit it - curiosity would only make a difficulty between us."
He walks on in silence, struggling. "Victoire...."
"Stop it. You can't lie to me. And you do too good a job of lying to yourself. You love her, Vincent, and you're wasting time!"
"It isn't that easy."
"Haven't you figured out yet that love is not easy?"
"She may not want my love..."
All she can do is open the floodgates of her mind, and let her response assault him, broadside.
"Some day, you are going to have to tell her the truth... Good God! What was that!!!"
Slowly, and as silently as she can, Diana creeps back down the length of the truck. Normally, she carries a Dictaphone is her purse. Tonight, she did not bring it. It might have been useful just now, if its recording quality could have been trusted. She ducks under the truck for a moment to scan for the nearest fire exit. Certain that she's far enough from the edge of the ramp that she will not be seen, she stands.
And then, with a shock that nearly paralyses all thought she feels the hard metal of a gun against her head. As she turns to face the man holding the gun, Diana tries desperately to sort out her options. Perhaps if she could silence him, and neutralize him before he alerts anyone else to her presence.... But too late for that, as he shouts "Hey! Look what I have here!"
Roughly, he grasps her arm. For the first time in three years, after a dozen scrapes, shocks, and near-misses that she got into and out of with asking for help, she allows her mind to wail for Vincent.
"How can you find her?" Victoire asks.
"She's in that building," he points up, to the top of the McKenzie building that they can see through the trees. "Below ground. Probably in that garage."
"Let's go." To her surprise, he runs away from the street. "Where are you going!"
She races after him.
Damn. Where's backup? This isn't even supposed to be her case, and she's about to get killed for it. The FBI might think that a good idea. She's thought up and discarded a dozen options as the man has dragged her around the ramps - and what is that on his breath, dear God? - and the only one she's struck on is to play the idiot woman. "What are you doing?" she whines. "You're pulling my hair! Let go of me!"
Once she's hauled into the little group, she gives up. No way Dorni will not recognize her, and by the look on his face, he does. To her surprise, he doesn't reveal that recognition. He's smarter than she thought.
One of the men in the group snatches her purse. "Oh!" she gasps. "Take whatever you want! Just don't hurt me, please! And let me have the picture of my baby, please!"
"What the hell is this?" growls the Puerto Rican. "Are we kidnapping the general public, here?"
"She was watching," says her captor.
"No!" she wails. "I was looking to see who was arguing. I was afraid that someone was going to hurt me in the elevator!"
Her apparent fear seems to be working, and the men look at her with the disgust she'd hoped for, until the man with her purse finds her badge. She drops the pose as the men stare at it with near-horror.
"Oh, great," says the leader. He strikes Bruno across the jaw. "You brought the cops right to us, you little shit!" Bruno falls to his knees, and his assailant says to one of the others: "Tie her up."
The man with her purse says, "She don't have no handcuffs."
"Figure out something." The Puerto Rican paces while Diana's captor leads her over to a column. Someone else opens the trunk of a car, and pulls out a rope. The knots aren't exactly expert, but they're tight.
"Ow!" she complains. He laughs. Note to self, she thinks. Kick that one in the nuts first chance I get.
The Puerto Rican stalks over to Diana. "What the hell am I going to do with you?"
"Give me that little turd, and I can take him in where he needs to be."
"Just like that, eh?"
"Sure. He just added cop-killer to his resume."
Dorni jumps at this, and looks like he's going to run. His former future employer turns on him. "Yeah? You don't say? So now you think you can make me be one, eh?" he grabs Bruno's collar. "You little punk! Don't you know that's one way to get the NYPD after you until you're DEAD!"
"Actually, it wasn't NYPD," says Diana, offhandedly. "It was FBI."
"FBI? FBI!" And Bruno gets hit again. The man rounds on Diana. "Why?"
"Because he killed Marpot. And they thought he'd lead them to you guys. And they were right."
Vincent and Victoire crawl through a sewer conduit, and into the alley behind the McKenzie building. "Now what?" asks Victoire.
He looks about, finds a service door. "There."
He forces the door, and they run down the stairs into the garage levels. "I hope there are no security cameras," she says.
They stop at the third level, and peer through the window in the door. The group is plainly visible from there, and they can see Diana tied to a pillar, and Dorni on his knees, rubbing his jaw.
They run down one more flight, and begin to quietly work their way up the ramp. She slides behind the outer row of cars, and stops behind a minivan. =Listen.=
All they can hear is the agitated conversation above them, but no one else. No footsteps of a sentry. Nothing.
=I can go in.=
=No! Not alone!=
"Look," she says in a whisper. "There are just four of them. And I can think up an explanation for my being there. But two of us? How would we explain you?"
"They are armed," he says.
"So? There are only four. Diana and I can handle that. You just make sure no one sees you."
=Diana is tied.=
She gives him her knife. =So untie her.=
She leaves before he can argue more. He follows her at a distance, and settles at a point where he can see her approach. She's been taught well about attack and surprise, and she cases the group for several minutes before she moves behind the cars near the men. She keeps drifting until all four men have their backs to her.
A low, evil rumble floats across the pavement at the embattled group in the middle. The men look up, and Diana suppresses a smile.
"What the hell is that?" says the man who guards Diana.
"What's what?", she says, just to be perverse.
The growl becomes louder, and then seems to come from all over, and Dorni begins to scream.
The Puerto Rican grabs his collar. "What the hell are you screaming about?"
"She's here!" Dorni babbles. "She'll kill us!"
The roar that accompanies her attack resounds off the concrete walls with terrible force. Only Diana realizes that it comes from two directions. Victoire leaps into the back of the rear guard, knocking him to the ground. His gun flies from his hands, and goes off as it lands. It slides across the floor towards Diana. "Grab that when you can!" Victoire shouts to Diana.
In the first shriek of confusion, Diana is able to land a satisfying kick in the groin of her guard, and as he falls to the floor, again in his belly. When he rolls to his back, she plants her foot firmly against his throat. It's a tenuous stance at best, but she can't do any better. She nearly jumps when she feels tugging on the rope that wraps around the column.
She looks up in time to see Victoire lift the pistol-whipped guard off the ground. She holds him with one hand, and draws her fist back. "Victoire!" Diana yells. "I need them alive!"
Victoire tosses her a scornful glance. "I know that!" she replies, and punches the man into unconsciousness.
Just as the group's leader tries to aim a gun at Victoire, she rounds on him, and kicks it away with a deafening roar.
The man at Diana's feet rouses, and rolls away from her reach - well, she tried anyway, and the rope on her hands is almost gone. He approaches her, furious and frightened. Not a good combination. He grips her throat and begins to throttle her. From around the pillar, a strong arm strikes, and the man falls unconscious. He never hears the furious snarl that accompanies the blow.
She looks up into Vincent's snarling face. "Thanks. Can you get me undone?" He saws at the last of the ropes, and soon her hands are free. "Thanks. OK. Who's next?"
Victoire has dropped her latest opponent into a heap on top off his guard. Vincent grabs the collar of Diana's would-be strangler, and drags him over to join them. He picks up the fallen gun, and hands it to Diana.
She checks it. "Good," she says. "My own gun is in my purse over there. I hope."
He retrieves the bag and opens it.
Victoire has Dorni backed up against the rail. "Salaud!" she hisses in his face.
"At least I'm not a freak!" he retorts. She raises her hand, claws spread, above his head. He screams, expecting her to rip out his throat, but she deals him a blow to the base of his neck, and he crumples. She practically throws him near to the others.
"Define freak," she says. She looks up at Diana. "So, how have you been?"
"Peachy," says Diana. "What brought you here?"
"You called," says Victoire.
"Fortunately, you were close," says Vincent, as he gives Diana her gun. "And here we are."
"Well, you did better than New York's finest. I phoned them minutes ago." She passes the other gun to Victoire. "Do you know how to work one of these things?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Even if I didn't, I know how to look threatening with one."
They contemplate the pile of men. A siren wails. "Ah!" says Victoire. "I believe I hear them!"
"I must go," says Vincent, and he runs to the stairway door.
Diana watches him go. "He heard me?"
"I tell you, dear, you're going to have to trip him."
Three people sit in the interrogation room at the police station: Venable, a somewhat battered Frenchman, and a small woman of about 50. The air is heavy with impatient silence. The Frenchman smokes, and tries to look defiant.
Venable leans forward. "We have evidence that proves you who killed Marpot."
"Fuck off," says Bruno, in French, casting a leer in the direction of the neatly dressed woman. To his dismay, she translates that without blinking. Worse, she imitates his tone of voice as she does it. He has a lot to learn about New Yorkers.
Outside the room, Diana, Victoire, and an Assistant DA watch through two-way glass. The lawyer paces nervously. "He isn't talking, is he?"
"He may be stupid, Mr. Bertrand, but he's sly. And he's been in trouble with the police before, I think," says Victoire. She glances at Diana sourly. And no, I didn't know that when I hired him.
"What do you think he's doing?" says the DA to Victoire.
"He doesn't know what they know for certain. Whatever he says can be used against him, and he doesn't want to give them the opportunity to fool him."
"Bottom line, Al: French low-lifes aren't really any different from American ones," says Diana.
"That's a relief, I guess."
"Just how unorthodox would it be for me to speak to him?"
Bertrand looks at Victoire for a moment, and shakes his head.
Agent Scott enters the room, looking grim. "We've found Wilson in the alley behind the parking lot where you picked him up," he says to Diana. "Stabbed." He looks over at Victoire. "Now we are very interested in his knife." He watches the people in the room for a moment.
"How's it going with the other guys?" asks Diana.
He shakes his head. "Two of them are still at the hospital." He turns to Victoire again.
"Just what did you do to them?"
"I hit them."
"Is that all?"
"I also scared them witless. I seem to have a gift for that. I don't think it should be a surprise to you that any seasoned circus hack is also a good street fighter."
"No," says Scott slowly. "It wouldn't be. Just one more question. How did you know where to find her?"
Diana and Victoire exchange glances. "You don't want to know the answer to that," say Victoire.
"Yes, I do."
They confer again, again silently. That they correspond seems obvious. And eerie. The Assistant DA, who knows Diana, speaks up. "She's like you, isn't she?"
Startled, Diana nods.
"Meaning?" says Scott.
"Detective Bennett is what you would call a profiler," says the lawyer. "She has a way of knowing things that isn't easily explainable."
"Hogwash," says Scott. "You want to tell me that you two are psychics?"
"Phaugh!" says Victoire. "Telling the future and reading your fortune? This is the real world!"
"It's more of a form of communication," says Diana. "Of hearing what isn't exactly spoken, knowing what was felt. It's the way the circuits in the mind work. And when two people with similar circuitry meet, they communicate in more than the usual ways."
"I wasn't far away when Diana was caught," says Victoire. "I felt her adrenaline, if you will."
"You mean, my panic."
"I was able to follow that sense, and I found her. That I went down into the garage & not up into the building was luck."
Scott doesn't look as if he's willing to buy that. "Next you're going to tell me you can read my mind."
"With the two of us in the room, we could probably triangulate a pretty accurate assessment. And right now, you don't want us to do that, because you're too upset about Wilson to want to talk about it. Apparently, he was a friend of yours."
He looks at the two of them as they stand on either side of him, and decides not to challenge that statement.
"Meanwhile, back at the police station," say the DA. "Your buddy is getting nowhere."
They all look into the room. "I'm telling you, I can convince him to talk," says Victoire.
"You might taint his testimony," says Scott.
` "If he can say later that you intimidated him into talking, then his testimony can be thrown out," Diana explains.
"Let me see what I can do," says Scott. And he opens the interrogation room door. "Let me see your knife," Scott says, as he approaches the table.
"Your knife. Every circus crew man has a knife. Where's yours?"
Taken aback, Bruno moves to reach for his back pocket, but his handcuffs get in the way. Venable retrieves it for him, and tosses it on the table. It is a hefty four-blade knife, with a bone handle, and obviously brand new.
"How long have you had this?"
Bruno shrugs. "Three, four years."
"You're lying," says Venable. "That's a new knife."
"Not to me."
Scott picks up the knife. "What will I find when I send this to a lab?" asks. Bruno says nothing.
Another stalemate. Scott looks sideways at the window, and nods. The lawyer opens the door for her, and Victoire enters the room quietly, but she lets the door close with a loud click. The occupants turn and stare at her as she stands against the door. She whisks an airline ticket out of her coat pocket and waves it playfully in front of her, smiling. She crosses the little room to stop at the table, the heels of her low boots tapping a rhythm as she steps, and as she speaks, in French, to Bruno.
"Don't say a word, Bruno. They can't use what you don't tell them. And who knows? They may not have very much evidence against you for Paul's death. Or for that other body in the alley. And who knows what your little friends in the garage will do to you if they think you've talked to the police? Of course, I'm sure they think you are talking.... But just keep your mouth shut, and maybe, if you play your cards right," she slaps the ticket onto the table in front of him. He jumps. "You can go home." She leans on the table, and smiles into his face. "With me. I'd like that."
And very quietly, one corner of her upper lip curls, and she snarls. The others in the room can barely hear her, but Bruno pales. She picks up the ticket, her claws scraping evilly on the table as she does. She leans back a bit, looks at him speculatively while she slips the ticket back into her coat pocket, then turning on her heel, leaves the room.
Bruno stares at the door for a long moment after it closes. When his cigarette burns down to his fingers, he starts, and looks at the FBI agents like he's never seen them before.
Diana watches him though the window. "What did you tell him, Vicki?"
Victoire shrugs. "Nothing he didn't already know. I reminded him that freedom wasn't necessarily safe. There are advantages to having legends circulated about one."
Diana laughs. "Which reminds me. There is a report about two young men who were brutally savaged by some sort of supernatural beast on Monday. Do you know anything about that?"
"Two young men?"
"In their early twenties?"
"One about six feet tall, the other shorter?"
"One stabbed in the thigh with his own knife?"
"No. Haven't heard a thing."
The DA laughs at this. "So, uh, what do you think happened?"
"I think they found out that it's probably safer to try to assault someone who's a little more normal looking." She sighs. "Unfortunately, I doubt they learned to avoid hurting people at all. But you can't have everything."
"Are you interested in pressing charges?," he asks.
"Heavens, no! At this point, they think the creature who scared them witless might still be out there, waiting for them. That's a much more powerful deterrent than anything you can come up with."
"Sad, but true."
"Vicki, what do you think he'll do?" Diana nods at the window.
"I suspect he'll think about it long enough to save face, and he'll give them whatever they want. Another thing: they still have the death penalty in France. Once he hears the word "extradition" for sure, he'll cooperate just fine."
"It would be so good if this worked," say the DA. "You know we might ask you to return to testify?"
"Count on me."
It's ending, and beginning. Police business is done. The equipment is shipped (and checked for contraband, just to be sure). Half the crew have already left on what flights could be arranged. And Victoire is ready to go to the airport for a stand-by flight herself. "Let's hope there's a seat," she says. "I hate sitting around airports. You'd think I'd be used to it by now."
She'd checked out of the hotel the night before, when Yusef and Etienne left. Etienne had been nervous about her plans.
"Why can't you go somewhere that we can reach you if we need you?"
"Stop. You're not the least bit worried about needing me. I'll see you on Sunday." For some reason, his concern always has given her a warm feeling. From someone else, she'd feel confined, but when it's Etienne who worries - somehow it seems right.
She'd spent Friday Below, teaching children to tumble, and listening to a string quartet in Father's chamber. And spending hours alone with Vincent, both of them aching at the parting to come.
"At least now I'll know what it is I'm dreaming about," he says.
"Maybe you'll see me in the dream," she answers. "Oh, how I wish you could come to the airport with me!" she clings to him a little harder. "A part of me really wants a crowd to see two of us bidding a fond farewell at the gate."
"And the other part?"
"Is just as happy the world will not know I am not unique..."
"You are. You and I couldn't be more different."
They embrace for a long time, allowing their thoughts to say the rest.
Diana's voice echoes down to them. "Are you there?"
"Yes, worse the luck," Victoire replies. They climb up the ladder into Henry and Lin's shop. Lin gapes at her.
"You're so beautiful!" she cries, and then blushes.
"Thank you. My brother has wonderful luck in friends," say Victoire. She shoulders her carry-on. "Thank you for letting us make our escape from here."
"You are always welcome." Lin holds out a small package. "I thought you'd like some goodies for the journey. Airports can be awful."
Almost overcome, Victoire accepts the packet with thanks. She turns to Diana. "I'm ready."
One last breathless embrace. One last look. He brushes away a tear from her cheek. She takes a deep breath, and walks out the door.
Lin lays a comforting hand on Vincent's arm. "Now you have a sister."
He covers her hand with his. "Yes. Even to see her leave doesn't take away how good that is. Now. Where is my goddaughter?"
C. B. McWhorter has been a passionate devotee of BatB since its beginning, but she only came to find the wonderful fanfic websites in 1998! She wrote stories to amuse (and console) herself during the intervening years. This is one of the first. She'd be interested in feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org, if you feel so inclined.