CHAPTER NINE

THE GHOST OF FOLLY HAUNTING MY SWEET DREAMS


The festival seemed to be keeping the sun shining. Commoners and lords mingled together at the outdoor tables and under the tents. No one -- high or low -- was excluded from the joy. Knights told tales of bravery over their mugs and laughed heartily at bawdy jokes. Maidens with flowers in their hair danced together around a maypole, their laughter a sweet counterpoint to the knights' boisterous guffaws. Performers juggled six balls at once as they walked on stilts. Strange, magnificient beasts from foreign lands were paraded by their trainers. Melodies from lutes drifted through the air like dandelion seeds. The smell of cooking pig made mouths water.

I watched this great festival from a throne. I sat next to my father who was dressed in golden robes. His face beamed as he shared the happiness of his people. Even though he did not dance among them, it was obvious that none of this would have been possible without his wise leadership. His kingdom was a land of peace where none knew want and all were as one.

"Would someone," I said, "please save me from this shit?"

Father turned to me. "Are thou troubled, son?" he asked.

"'Thou' wants to get the hell out of this Renaissance Festival."

A cool hand touched my shoulder. I turned to see Diana dressed in white and her red hair hanging past her shoulders. "Ease thyself," she told me. "Be thou not against the happiness of the people."

"Not you, too, Diana," I groaned.

"What ho!" Grandfather exclaimed as he stood up from his own throne. "A rider approacheth."

A rider was indeed approachething. His horse was black as night, and so was his great clanking armor. The merriment ceased as the black knight strode past the revelers. He stopped right before the thrones.

A mauled fist stretched out and pointed at me.

"This dark stranger hath challenged thee," Father informed me.

"I can see that," I snapped. I rose and stomped toward the horse. "Well, who are you supposed to be? Are you going to raise your visor and show me the face of my twin brother?"

The dark knight lifted his visor, and two colorless eyes stared at me. I could feel my bowels loosening.

Then, with impossible strength, Crown jumped over his horse's head and descended toward me. I held up my hands, cowering, not knowing what to do except wait for armor to crush my bones.

Just before he landed, I figured out an escape. I could wake up.

When I did, I saw Ian Curtis who as always seemed to be staring at some distant point. For a few seconds I could only see the poster. My head was unwilling to turn. When I could finally work the muscles in my neck I slowly turned to my left.

I saw Diana. She was sitting next to my bed and reading Wordsworth. I tried to say 'hello,' but the word only came out as a cough. She glanced at me, then called out, "He's awake!"

Father and Grandfather entered my chambers. Their eyes showed gladness, but their mouths were tight and brows furrowed. A third man was with them, and there was nothing ambiguous about his expression. He was simply pissed.

I cleared my throat and managed to form words. "Hey, Joe," I said weakly to the third man.

Joe Maxwell said, "You must think I'm really stupid, kid."

"Uh..."

"How long did you think it would be before I heard about Russ Garner? Huh? How long after that would I start thinkin' about you?"

"Well..."

"Not. Long. At all. I keep my ears open for this sort of thing. I got people who tell me if somethin' like, oh, a book dealer gets killed and the people who killed him are found dead at the same place. And that they're dead because they bit into poison capsules. And that they turned out to be professional assassins wanted in sixteen countries. Some shit, huh?"

"Hm."

"It also turns out somebody roughed them up before they committed suicide. So I think, 'Now who would do that?' That's when I get on the horn with the Helpers. 'Did any of you know Russ Garner?' I ask. 'Jacob did,' they tell me." Joe slapped his forehead. "Of course it would be Jacob! Where is he? He's fallin' out of buildings on Fifth Avenue and bleedin' out six pints in front of tourists!"

Everybody else watched me squirm as Joe ranted. Diana remained in her chair, giving me a look that said, "You know you deserve this new asshole, right?" Grandfather would occasionally punctuate Joe's rant with an almost indiscernible sigh.

Father stood the furthest away from me. He was leaning against a wall and crossing his arms over his chest. His face usually never failed to reveal his deepest emotions; now it was stoic as rock.

"So may I ask," Joe continued, "what happened to Russ Garner? And what happened at 817 Fifth Avenue? And, once again, do you think I'm stupid?"

"No," I said. "I don't think you're stupid. Could I have a glass of water before I answer the other questions?"

I got one. After I gulped the water down I told Joe...almost everything. I told him about the Keats book and The Wall of Sleep and how I sneaked into 817 Fifth Avenue. After I related what I did to the Actress, Grandfather groaned and Diana said, "Oh, Jacob..."

"Is she all right?" I asked Joe.

"The couple that owns the apartment found her," Joe answered. "My sources tell me that she's fine, but crying about the man who threatened her if she didn't help him. Of course, in reality she's just pissed."

I nodded.

"What I don't get is why she helped you in the first..." He stopped, looked at me and came close to smiling. "Damn, kid. You must be good."

"He used an innocent woman," Grandfather said. "There's nothing amusing about it."

"Trust me, Mister Wells, I know how far from funny this is. Okay, let's get back to this woman you followed -- Alexandra. What were you going to do, slap her until she talked?"

"No!" I insisted. "I...I just wanted to ask her some questions."

"Uh-huh." Joe didn't believe me, since I clearly wasn't telling the whole truth. But what could I say? That I knocked a famous actress unconscious, broke into a rich man's apartment and got stabbed for the sake of a golden voice?

"So you go into this apartment," Joe said, "and then you're jumpin' out of it with your shoulder stabbed."

I instinctively looked down and saw my shirtless body with bandages around my left shoulder. That was Grandfather's work.

I looked back at Joe and said, "It was Alexandra's bodyguard who did this. His name is Crown. He sent the people who killed Russ."

"You have any proof of this?"

I told him of the assassin's dying word. "So you have squat," Joe grumbled.

"I saw the book in Alexandra's hands. Crown and Edward Bradbury are behind Russ' death."

"And if you had come to me after you saw the book in the club, then I could have helped you. Instead you go bustin' in on your own, like you always do. And how did this Crown guy get the drop on you? I thought you were the Super Masked Avenger guy."

"He's...really good."

Joe grunted. "Well, to be honest, I'm not sure if I could have helped you anyway."

"You mean," Diana said, "this Bradbury is rich enough to buy his way around the law."

"No. There's more to it than that." Joe turned to Grandfather. "I'm sure you worried that Jacob here might have risked exposin' the Tunnels."

"It is a concern of mine," Grandfather said in an ironic tone. "We've asked a lot of you, Joe. I'm not sure if you can prevent this from..."

"Don't worry. There's no problem. That's what worries me."

"What do you mean?"

"When a guy falls out of one of New York City's most expensive residential buildings, you would think that there would be an investigation, right?"

"Well, isn't there?"

"Sort of. Officially the police are lookin' for the mysterious long-haired bozo. Unofficially...this is already headin' for the cold files."

Grandfather and Diana looked at each other. Diana said, "So Bradbury doesn't want publicity, either."

"And he holds a lot more power than I thought."

"Who is this Edward Bradbury?" Grandfather asked.

"Other than that he's the inheritor of a big family fortune...and that he apparently likes books...not much. He keeps an extremely low profile. Hell, I hadn't even heard of his name before now."

"But he does wield influence over your office."

"Over me and way above. And when someone with that much power comes out of nowhere I get a feelin' of deja vu."

He didn't have to say the name, not the name of the man responsible for Catherine Chandler's death, the man slain by Diana, the beast who had tried to claim me as a son.

Gabriel.

I looked at my father for his reaction. I was surprised to see none. He had remained quiet and expressionless during my story.

"Of course, I'm not backin' down," Joe said. "I didn't back down from Gabriel. I won't do it for Bradbury. I'll just have to be...more subtle in my investigation."

"Joe Maxwell can be subtle?" Diana wondered with a slight smile.

"Hey, I can be more subtle than Mister Jumps-Through-Windows here." He shook his head at me. "God, you were reckless. You almost died. Or almost wound up in a hospital havin' to answer a lot of inconvenient questions."

"So why didn't I?" I asked. "How did I get back to the Tunnels?"

"Lonnie."

"Oh."

"Yeah, he came back to 817 and watched things. He was worried about you. Of course, as he put it, 'I didn't know he would get into this much of a goddamn mess.'" Joe snorted. "I coulda told him that."

"Okay, okay. I'm an idiot."

"Well, I think the idiot should stay underground for awhile."

I turned to Grandfather. His stern look told me what was headed my way. I couldn't deny that I deserved it, but at the same time I just didn't want to deal with it.

"I'm not sure if I want to hang around here," I told Joe.

"What do you mean?"

"Jacob," Grandfather said, "must be punished for his recklessness. Down here that means thirty days of silence from the other Dwellers."

"Okay. Whatever. I don't care how you do things, but I need Jacob to stay out of sight."

I looked at Diana. I must have seemed sufficiently pathetic because she took a breath and said, "Jacob can stay with me."

"Are you sure?"

"I...might actually do a better job of keeping him hidden."

Joe studied Diana's face, then looked at Father and Grandfather. He knew that something was going on, but decided that it wasn't his business. "All right," he said. "But be careful."

"I will."

"And you..." He pointed at me. "...stop givin' me grief."

After Joe had left Grandfather turned to Father. "You've been quiet, Vincent. Don't you have anything to say?"

Father looked at me. I looked back at him, still unable to tell what he was thinking. Silence hung over my chambers until he said, "Jacob will always do what he feels is necessary."

Those were his only words before exiting. Grandfather turned to me, trying to find wise words instead of angry and frustrated ones. He couldn't, so he departed in silence like my father.

"We'll leave when you're ready to go," Diana told me gently.

I set my feet onto the floor and slowly yet steadily rose. Pain didn't keep me from asking, "Where's my jacket?"

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I skipped certain details in my story to Joe, such as my more personal reasons for seeing Alexandra. I also didn't mention her deformity.

The most important thing I omitted was her knowledge of Vincent and the Tunnels. How could she have known about that? I wondered. Having experienced the Bond, I couldn't dismiss the possibility of telepathy, but that theory seemed almost too easy.

However she knew, I had an obligation to tell Grandfather about her knowledge. I didn't.

Wow, Jacob, you are an idiot. How did you reason that one?

First of all, based on what Alexandra had told me, she knew who I was before we had even exchanged a word. If she had wanted to threaten my community, she would have done it already. Second, I knew that she would keep the secret.

I just knew.

Still, why not tell Grandfather, just to be safe?

Because I wanted to keep secret what I had with Alexandra. It was personal.

What did we have? I wasn't sure then. I had been first drawn to her, then repulsed. In the day after our meeting, I looked at that repulsion with shame. She had pleaded for my life, even after I had invaded her privacy and screamed at her face.

So if our relationship wasn't adversarial, what was it?

That was another mystery I had found through Russ' notebook. Among the other mysteries -- who was Edward Bradbury? Was he really Alexandra's father? What kind of man would kill for a book and hire the likes of Crown?

Despite all the questions and despite my blood being on Crown's knife, I wanted to meet Alexandra again. How did I really feel about her? I asked myself. How did she feel about me? What would we do once we understood that?

I would see her again. Just not the way I expected.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I had been unconscious for over twenty-four hours after getting stabbed by Crown. When Diana and I left the Tunnels, the stars floated in the sky as if they had never left. Neither of us said anything on the way to her apartment. That was appropriate since none of the Dwellers spoke to me as I was leaving. I saw Max. I thought that he might risk a word. Instead he just turned and vanished into a tunnel.

Fine, I thought and stood up straight. I can live with my mistakes and their silent treatment.

However, the moment I left the Tunnels, my shoulders slumped. Above no longer appeared to be an enticing funhouse. It just seemed like an ocean of lights in which to get lost.

My left shoulder felt heavy, but I kept myself going to Diana's apartment. Once there I collapsed onto a sofa. She placed a blanket over me and then went to bed herself.

She didn't say much to me in the morning. She cooked breakfast for both of us. Then she left for Joe Maxwell's office. Joe had hired her as an investigator. Her only words to me were "Stay here."

She was right to assume that I would be more likely to obey her than Father or Grandfather. She had struck a silent bargain with me. "You don't want me to leave again?" she had said without words. "Fine. Let me I know I can trust you. Stay in my apartment and I'll stay with you." I was willing to stick with this bargain because, at that moment, she was all I had left.

The relationship between the Tunnels and me had changed. Or, rather, it had been changing for some time. And now I had finally done something too reckless to be ignored. I should have considered those risks before I invaded 817 Fifth Avenue. Since I hadn't, others could only conclude that Below was no longer relevant to me.

Yet it was relevant to me. I felt guilty about the trouble I had given the Tunnels, just as I felt guilty when I read the newspaper and came across this item in the gossip column --

"What hot young actress was found tied up and unconscious in a Fifth Avenue apartment?"

I hoped that this would just stay a blind item. Even if I had absolved her of any complicity in my act, I had put The Actress in a position of great embarrassment.

Maybe Edward Bradbury will cover up this as well, I thought. Just how powerful is he? If he could exert influence over a District Attorney, then could he squash a news story?

I sighed and put the newspaper aside. I went to a window and tried to see 817 Fifth Avenue. Diana, however, lived nowhere near that expensive part of town.

Was Joe right? Had I stepped into another Gabriel situation? I touched my shoulder and winced. I was feeling better than I had been last night and I healed quickly, but the memory of cold steel entering my flesh would always stick with me. So would the memory of colorless eyes. I had been very, very lucky. I realized later that Crown had just been trying to incapitate me for a later interrogation. He could have stabbed me in the abdomen or between the ribs.

Then, eventually, my thoughts turned to Alexandra; the beauty of her voice; the deformity of her face. I searched Diana's books for a copy of "Lamia." I found a collection of Keats poetry -- another gift from Father. I spent the whole day reading that poem. I studied it, dug deep into each word as if it would bring me closer to Alexandra.

Diana returned around five-thirty. She made us dinner. Then she left again, saying that she had more work to tend. She repeated her order to 'stay here.' I returned to the story of Lamia and Lycius and stayed there for another two hours.

After reading it for the thousandth time, I closed the book and rubbed my eyes. As Alexandra said, words are merely sounds. They couldn't help me now.

Someone knocked on the door.

I immediately tensed myself. It couldn't have been Diana there. Why should she knock? Was it a neighbor?

Another knock. I wondered what to do. Stay quiet? Sneak a look through the peephole?

By the third knock, I decided to hide somewhere and get ready to attack if someone broke into the apartment. My wound throbbed with the fear that it might be Crown coming to finish the...

"Jacob, it's me."

I was stunned motionless for just a second. Then I ran to the door and yanked it open.

Alexandra stood before me, swathed in dark clothing from head to toe.

"We weren't done talking," she said.

 


Continued in Chapter 10