To Hope Anew

Chapter Eighteen


Vincent pulled his converging thoughts together finally to focus on his little boy. Jacob was carefully examining the ring that Diana would soon be wearing. Pascal had seated the child on his lap on the lowest stair and was patiently offering his observations about the specialness of this day. Vincent could just make out the words above the happy murmur of the gathering crowd: "They love each other very much."

Standing a few feet away and a bit separate from the familiar members of his family and community, Vincent had been silently marveling at the gentle transformation within the Underworld today. He readily sensed that it went far beyond the physical changes in the Great Hall, even though the room had miraculously become a bower in springtime, alight with candles and wondrously bedecked with abundant bunches of flowers everywhere.

The transformation seemed to encompass the very people who had taken the time today to come and join in this gathering, echoing the spirit of the place that was once again new, within the very heart of the crowd of family and friends. There was so much an overwhelming sense of long-awaited hope and joy finally grasped at in every face he saw.

Because of it, Vincent realized then how much his own trials and pain had affected his community. At times burdened by the constant need to give himself continually to those around him in the many day-to-day experiences of life in his world, he hadn't always seen how difficult it had been for each soul that he touched to realize their attempts, to in some small way ease his pain, had been all fruitlessly inadequate.

But, one blazing spirit had taken it upon herself to ignite the restoration within his heart that so many of his loved ones had sadly abandoned in defeat. And her accomplishment had very much brought the brightness, the -- rightness -- back to the entire community. It was always there, that gentle, nurturing support that was the true heart of the Underworld, but it had long been shadowed by pain endured by a loved one that no one could seem to touch. Diana had managed to work another one of her small miracles again, her subtle transformations that seemed always to actually have been there all along. Because of it the Underworld was resurrected in spirit as much as he.

A soft smile stole over the unique contours of Vincent's face. Even Pascal had succumbed to the magic.

The quiet, monkish, brilliant pipe master had actually consented to leave his beloved pipe chamber for most of the day, so he could participate in the celebration fully with his childhood friend. Over the course of the past months, he had actually found excuses to leave the pipes in Zack's capable young hands, so that he could spend some time interacting with other members of the Underworld family. He'd made it a point to personally show Jacob a bit of the wonder of their so uniquely musical communications system, helping the little boy learn some simple codes. In the process, he had shared with those around him his own wise and uncomplicated heart.

So, hearing Pascal speak to the child now of love, quite unselfconsciously, was suddenly not at all out of place or surprising to Vincent. It was simply part of the blessed transformation Diana's own hopeful nature had brought about.

Hope.

She had never completely lost it in her relationship with him.

Despite the pain, fears, guilt, and overwhelming sense of futility that had sometimes encompassed them both, her generosity of heart, her spirit so willing to share pain as well as promise, had brought them both to this day.

Would he be capable of embracing the totality of that hope as well at her side today? She deserved it so. She needed it so. Diana had been so immersed in her redeeming rescue of his soul that she'd very nearly lost her own.

That near loss had terrified Vincent more than anything he'd yet endured, except for his blackest grief and his ongoing battles with the darknesses he feared within himself. It had been a moment as searingly painful as his last instant with Catherine in his arms. It was the instant he knew he could never live his life without Diana at his side, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifices.

That revelation had come to him on a snowy evening at the beginning of last winter . . . a night that began in turmoil . . . passed through anguishing fear . . . touched to breathless sweetness and tenderness . . . and found him breaking Diana's heart to keep her safe.

 

The hot water from the shower was near to scalding, pounding at her delicate skin with a force to render her numb, but Diana held her body under the torrent without flinching. The steaming baptism was hardly enough to wash away the feeling of tainted violation she'd been overcome by.

Joe had called her that afternoon. They had just gotten the warrant for DeSalvo's arrest. All their months of painful effort had paid off. They were going to get him off the streets.

Diana demanded that Joe let her in on the arrest. She'd never done that before, preferring always to remain in the background, profiling suspects, directing avenues of investigation. This time, though, it was untellingly important for her to be there when the cuffs were put on DeSalvo. She wanted to see him being hauled off. She needed to see it.

Against his better judgment, Joe had consented, deciding that perhaps it would give Diana a sense of closure that could help her pull free from the case that had consumed so much of her energies for so long. At least until it came up for trial.

So, they'd come for DeSalvo at his shipping company office and arrested him. He never missed a beat, coolly informing the officers, and Joe, that they'd be hearing from his attorneys within the hour and that they'd all forfeit their jobs in light of their "harrassment" of him.

Then, he unexpectedly slipped up in his cool demeaner again, as he had when Joe and Diana had first questioned him. As he walked past the police woman on the way to an awaiting squad car, in cuffs and between two uniformed officers, he suddenly lunged at Diana, nailing her to the corridor wall with all the weight of his body obscenely pushing up against her, a stare that froze her blood leering from conscienceless eyes.

"I'll be looking forward to meeting you again, soon, Sergeant Bennett."

Joe had seen her blanche at the threatening contact, turning her head away from the meticulously groomed suspect as he actually thrust his face against hers, his mouth to hers. The DA had forced his way immediately between Diana and her tormentor, even before the uniformed officers had had time to react. Pulling the suspect off his companion with his own rage just seething beneath the surface of his tested patience, Joe had slammed DeSalvo against the opposite wall.

"You can add assaulting an officer to the charges," he quickly announced.

DeSalvo simply shook himself, as though he needed to resettle his European suit coat back onto his trim frame preparing to walk into the board room of a sales meeting. A self-assured smile on his face nearly caused Joe to snap, but the other officers quickly maneuvered their suspect out of the building and into the awaiting black and white.

When the DA had turned to his companion, the look of startled terror had disappeared from her face, but she was still pale and breathless. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Joe," she responded, a bit unsteadily. "Don't worry. It's not the first time I've been cornered."

Her attempt at regaining her hold on the moment did little to quell Joe's anxiety for her. She may have gotten used to the scum of the earth shadowing her every move, but it was the first time that Joe had ever seen her affected so visibly.

And it was the first time he'd reacted so . . . instinctively . . . to protect . . . someone he cared about. Not since Cathy. It unnerved him.

"All right, you got in on the collar. Now I'm ordering you off the case for the rest of the week, Bennett," he pronounced shakily.

"I take my order from Captain Phillips, Maxwell, remember?" Her usual quiet defiance did not disguise the grateful relief he saw in her eyes at his imperative.

"It's already arranged. You are not to set foot anywhere near that case till Monday morning."

Diana truly appreciated the concern she read in the dark eyes holding hers, but Joe's pulling rank on her was the one thing that could set her off. She'd worked on her own terms too long. She knew what she had to do draw herself from her obsessive mindset.

"You forget, all my work is at home, Joe."

"Not for long. Get all your files together when you get there and I'll send someone over for them in the morning."

"You don't trust me to take some down time? I may be a bit battle-fatigued, but I'm not completely out of my mind, Maxwell. Not yet, anyway."

The look on Joe's face moved from frustrated honesty to one that was tender and caring. He took hold of her arm and urged her quietly with all the influence one trusted friend could have upon the decisions of another.

"I mean it, Diana," he spoke softly, his earlier resolve of getting her into a more protective environment very much on his mind. But it was more than just trying to keep her physically safe from the morass that could spawn the likes of DeSalvo. Vulnerable as she had appeared at the instant that she'd been assaulted, he'd seen a trembling, terrified edge of her spirit that she'd never let anyone among her colleagues witness before.

"You told me once not to let the angels cry. To get on with my life. Well, I've been trying, and maybe succeeding at times actually. What have you been doing for yourself, Diana? You can't go on like this, and I don't just mean having to endure a bastard like DeSalvo. This case is off priority for you now. You are what is important."

The gentle tone to his voice made Diana swallow hard. Why was she no longer angry at Joe's interference with her work methods?

Then the words she would have so willingly taken to heart: "There has to be somewhere you can go, something you can do, to help you balance yourself out, someone you can be with. You haven't been taking care of yourself. This case just proves it."

Diana reached over for his hand and held it tightly for a moment. "Joe, they don't make friends like you anymore. I'm lucky to have you."

Gentle eyes shimmered hopefully a moment back at her. Maybe he'd reached her after all. He couldn't bear the thought of losing someone else again. "I should have followed my first instincts about you and fallen in love, Bennett," he teased defensively.

"Italian, Scottish, and Irish: Wouldn't that have made a pleasant, volcanic mix!" came the finally familiar, acerbic edge to her wit. Joe was grateful to hear it. He was used to having to deal with Diana with a mixture of awe and exasperation. Seeing her frightened and lost was not anything he'd wish to experience again. It broke his heart.

"At any rate, you have my word," Diana continued. "I am a civilian until Monday morning." She reached over and squeezed his hand affectionately. The words of gratitude that accompanied that gentle acknowledgement were from the heart as well. "Thanks, Joe."

The DA waited a moment before following her into their awaiting car, trying to truly gauge her state of mind and heart, despite her reassuring words. He prayed she'd really be able to give herself some breathing room now, sensing that she'd been closer to the edge than she'd ever let him know. But he'd seen it, felt it, the pain, the hopelessness, making its insiduous way through her spirit.

It had been a long while since he'd caught sight of the tender warmth in her green eyes that always managed to reassure him about her. He had felt she had someone in her heart, someone capable of steadying her course in life, self-consuming as it was. But it was difficult for him to reconcile that light from within her to his perceptions of what, or who, could be its possible source.

She'd only accepted a ride home as far as her subway transfer. Joe had almost insisted on seeing her all the way home, afraid, still, to leave her alone, the blatant threat of DeSalvo's words to her ringing in his ears. But she'd again persisted in telling him that she was all right and would continue to remain so. Turning down the street to the subway stairs, she left him with a quiet self-determination that he almost trusted. Almost, but not quite.

Diana had headed home, then, actually feeling a deep sense of relief, as if some burden had been lifted from her, despite DeSalvo's outburst against her. She'd done her best. Their suspect was being charged. There was little else she could do except hope that the legal system in the city should work for justice and the truth. Now she needed to get past the feeling of isolating responsibility. For all his mother-hen tendancies, she knew Joe was right about her.

So, she left a message at Laura's flat, to be taken Below: If it was agreeable to Father, she'd like to come down in the morning to spend a few days recuperating in the welcome solace of the Underworld.

As if she actually needed permission to spend time in the tunnels.

Diana had become so much a part of the community in her own right that Father had to, at times, remind himself she wasn't a child of candlelight, born among the stone chambers herself.

Yet, the welcome promise of quiet time spent within the nurturing confines of the tunnels still held a daunting reality about it: She'd be thrust once again into the confounding circumstances of heart that would mean spending time in Vincent's presence.

It had been difficult to come Below regularly for quite some time, because of her involvement with the case, surely, but also because it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to part from her very essence of spirit. It remained there, long after she'd returned to her loft, to the city's wealth of supposed freedom and possibility. That most profound depth of herself remained bound to another heart that ached to keep her near, but could never find the courage to believe she would welcome the entreaty.

This time, though, it would be different, Diana promised herself. They would find their equilibrium somehow, manage to wrest out a balance between the sweetness of the dream and the heartache of the present reality.

As if to bless her thoughts on the matter, by the time she'd exited the subway for a brief interval of grocery shopping, it had begun to snow. The first accumulating snow of the year. No matter how old she was, she still marveled in the wonder of the large, frosty celetial sugar crystals drifting slowly down to the earth. It always made her feel like a child.

At the moment, it even momentarily erased the still nagging feeling of violation that clung to the back of her mind.

Her thoughts turned to the Underworld again. And to Vincent. For all the earth-shattering experiences they'd shared in the past months, in truth, she'd come to know very little of the life he'd led before Catherine had ever blessed his existence. The thought of him as a child merged with her own happy remembrances of snowy evenings as a little girl.

Had Vincent ever had the opportunity to play in the snow as a boy? He would not have been able to come Above until well past dark. Did his memories include the delicious feeling of snowflakes on his cheeks? His long hair would have easily caught the crystals of snow. Did he ever find himself laughing and dodging snowballs flung at him from playmates with bad aim?

From the benign possibilities of the past to the realities of the present: Could he ever share a winter evening thus with Jacob?

By the time Diana made it to her loft with a bag full of food luxuries for the community Below, she couldn't actually tell if the tears in her eyes were a result of the now biting cold or the ache that had settled itself around her heart again.

That ache came this time, though, at the thought of all the dreams that life's actualities were capable of extinguishing. The limits of Vincent's existence, the boundaries beyond which he'd never be able to reach, suddenly came crashing down around her as well. She fought for her hope, awash in pain and loss, as she'd been so often in past months because of the case that had consumed her.

The boundaries between the pain of that tragedy and her own sense of futility and fear became blurred and, indeed, indistinguishable. Hopes, dreams . . . love . . . all seemed indistinct enticements never to be held to, or shared. Connie and Ritchie had been robbed of their dreams, by violence, by the infernal darkness that could twist paternal care into jealous rage. There was so much darkness out there, and so much more . . . within. Was this what Vincent feared of himself? Wasn't it what she feared of herself as well?

What little hope she'd taken hold of in Joe's presence was completely lost by the time Diana found herself stumbling through the chaotic, horrific mental images that now assailed her, images of blood and pain, of trust betrayed and tenderness defiled. Without warning, she began trembling, as the feeling of DeSalvo's hard body thrust perversely against hers ran a violent chill through her very soul. The obscenely threatening contact had been no less lethal to her spirit than a bullet could have been to her slender form.

God, she whispered, help me pull away from it all. Shaking her head to try and clear her mind, Diana sought to draw her spirit free of the pain that was threatening her hold on herself. She needed to focus on something concrete, something she knew was there in reality, beyond the phantom images of the past two months. Moving her tear-misted gaze around her apartment, she tried to take in the details of the room, called to mind the particulars of her life away from the case, hoping to rest on something familiar and real, and actually, hers.

But, her desperate struggle for separation from the morass of darkness only brought her attention to the bulletin board behind her work desk. The irony of it all simply overwhelmed her: That was what would always be familiar for her -- the pain and ugliness of a dangerous city whose deepest, most hideous secrets she had been given the dubious privilege of exhuming. There was little freedom or promise her world could offer her any longer, only more darkness that would slowly keep hold of more of her own soul.

Joe had told her to pull back. She had believed it was possible to do so, wondering incredulously at his insistence. Of course she'd pull back, recenter herself. Did he actually believe her incapable of letting go of the pain? Did he think she had nowhere to turn her energies at self-restoration to?

Connie DeSalvo had managed to find that place in her young life, even if it was only for a heartbreakingly short time.

The classmates Diana and Jimmy had interviewed had all painted a similar picture for them of the first victims: that of two totally dissimilar people finding a welcome oneness in their lives together. These kids would have grown from a sweet high school romance to a fulfilling adult relationship, to a commitment that would have lasted a lifetime, in spite of all the odds. She sensed it.

To be loved like that. To love like that.

Perhaps such depth of communion was not a once in a lifetime thing capable of existing only in a shadowy world of rock and candleflame. Perhaps Catherine and Vincent had not been the only ones to find it.

Perhaps there would be a chance for her, too.

Diana walked up to her working board purposefully, feeling the helplessness ease back from her a fraction. She steeled her resolve, determined to move past the panic of uncertainty. Slowly she began to unpin all the photos, clippings, and notes she had compiled on the board over the past two months, gathering it all as Joe had instructed her to, preparing it for whomever would be cursed with its revelation next. She'd find the strength to do this, now, hand it all over, because she'd done all that she could possibly do for two pairs of murdered teenagers.

Finally, she set the yearbook photos of Connie DeSalvo and Ritchie Alavar on the top of the pile in the file folder.

They'd managed to find peace in each other, somehow. They'd found the courage to dream past artificial limits that had no basis in truth.

Until the world's ugliness had devoured them, along with their hopes.

It was no use.

With torrential power, Diana was thrust back into the lives of the two young lovers with terrifying clarity, as she stood and stared at the photos she'd just set down. They'd been willing to dream together, share their hopes with one another, a treasure, a gift. They were at peace with one another. She could see it in their faces. She could feel it in her own heart.

 

The air was becoming crisp and she cuddled closer to the warm, beloved body under the stadium blanket they were sharing. His arm went around her automatically, as if holding her was the only place it could possibly rest comfortably. She was stretched out easily on the park bench against the metal arm, and he was laying on her, his dark, curly hair brushing softly against her skin where he'd set his head on her chest. Even though her blouse was halfway unbuttoned, she wasn't cold. The warmth of his body reached hers, the sweetness of their sharing still sweeping its heady tenderness over their forms. She could almost drift asleep.

The "I love you's" weren't even necessary. All she needed was to read it in his deep, limpid eyes when he raised his head up to catch sight of her face, those eyes she'd carry in her soul till her dying day, full of gentle warmth, humor, and bright hope. A gold cross around his neck hung down between them as he moved over her more closely.

 

With uncertain ability, Diana drew herself back to her own surroundings again, the reality of her loft, the papers and photos stacked before her. With unexpected emotion, she reached to the final item hanging on her board, with a trembling hand: the gold cross. It was simply fashioned, not very large. "Riccardo" was inscribed on the back with a date.

The minute Diana touched that cross, the tears began to flow, with abandon. Glowing golden now, the cross hadn't appeared at all like that when she had first seen it. The first time Diana had seen Ritchie Alavar's crucifix was at the morgue.

It was imbedded in Connie's right hand, piercing the flesh of her palm at all four points, drawing blood, and leaving an agonizing imprint after it was removed.

With her own hand still shaking, Diana picked up the cross by the chain and set it onto the pile of papers, closing the file folder over it defensively. Even though she knew there would be no stopping the pain now.

 

They were kissing, lovingly, with the hungry ache and total abandon romance between high school sweethearts could so easily nurture. She could lose herself in that kiss so easily, feel him losing himself to the tender rush of emotions enclosing them that they could no longer deny.

He slipped his hands to search softly over her bare skin, the touch so beloved and welcome. She could hear the hypnotic rhythm of her heart meld with his. This is how it would be for them, forever. She knew it, felt it, deep within her soul. They'd be together, forever, finding their way past the pain and fear somehow, bearing the wounds of limits that would reduce the reality of their love. They had the strength to hope. She believed it.

From somewhere behind the bench, a shadow fell between them, startling Connie from her thoughts. She caught sight of it as Ritchie pulled momentarily away from her body, to read her need. The shadow lengthened behind him. She wasn't certain what it was, but watched it come down over the young man she held in her arms, almost in freeze-frame motion. Ritchie didn't see it. His eyes were full only of her, shining with their love.

Without comprehending why, she saw those eyes go slowly blank, those deep dark eyes within which she could always find his devotion to her. Why were they so unfamiliar, suddenly, lacking that spark of vivacious life that always radiated out to her? Ritchie leaned closer and closer to her, as if he would whisper some sweet word into her ear, but she understood with a shock that he was actually falling forward upon her, his face coming heavily to rest back on her chest.

In soundless horror she realized that was all that was left of his head. The rest of it was splattered, on the bench, on the blanket . . . on her.

Frantically, Connie twisted her head around, the weight of Ritchie's oppressively heavy body pinning her to the bench. Aware that they were no longer alone, she saw nothing but the trees and shrubs shifting in a gentle autumn wind.

Without warning, something, someone, grabbed her by the hair, yanking her brutally off the bench, using her flowing chestnut locks against her. She felt herself moving out from under Ritchie's limp form, the metal of the bench arm digging across her spine. Not a sound had she been able to utter since their kiss had ended, though she wanted to scream out her terror at the top of her lungs. She had no voice, and no way of defending herself against the black shadow that was dragging her away, pulling her away from Ritchie. Who was dead.

With some unknown strength born of anguish and fear, Connie reached out for the beloved body, clung to it against the force that would so heartlessly separate them. She felt something strike her right hand, give into her hand as she was pulled away into the surrounding brush.

 

Diana had collapsed onto the chair at her desk. She was trembling so violently she couldn't remain on her feet, uncertain of what was happening to her. No, that was not right. She knew what was happening to her, or at least guessed. And what was most terrifying for her was the fact that she, too, had no way to defend herself against the blackness that was dragging her down.

For an instant, the thought of Joe entered her mind. She could call him, have him come over. He'd been obviously concerned for her as they'd parted earlier. But, what could she tell him was happening? And could she track him down? He could be anywhere by now, at his office, at the precinct, on his way home. What could he possibly do for her if she did get a hold of him?

Still, instinctively, Diana knew she shouldn't be alone, go through whatever was happening to her alone. She needed strength and understanding to fight it, hold on to herself against the onslaught of panic and confusion infusing her spirit with a rapidly overwhelming force. Never wishing to drop her burden of turmoil onto an already beleaguered spirit, Diana's heart, nevertheless, reached far out to the one person she knew with the courage to help her pull herself free of the nightmare threatening to drown her now at last.

"Oh, God, Vincent. Please come," she prayed breathlessly, never once doubting that he'd hear her heart's plea for help.

For a long moment Diana clung to the sides of her desk, needing the tangible support despite the fact she was seated. She tried to even out her breathing, managed to after an eternity, and finally distanced herself far enough from the images in her mind to steady her erratic heartbeat. She closed her eyes and rested her head wearily onto her folded arms.

This was insane. No, this was insanity.

She had felt herself so completely within Connie's soul that she could feel the girl's terror of that night as her very own. Never had she gone so deeply within a victim's mind before, found herself so totally encompassed by another's spirit that she feared her hold of herself. It was as terrifying as the dead girl's own experiences.

Ten minutes passed before Diana could trust herself to move, carry her own weight. Her body was suddenly leaden, burdened by physical pain, every fiber of her being bruised and abraided. With the greatest effort she pulled herself wearily to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub. Reaching behind herself awkwardly, she let the water run into the tub, hot and full force. Maybe it would be able to soothe her violently converging emotions.

Or maybe she'd lose her sense of self again and drown in her own tub.

Diana stretched an arm up and pulled on the diverter for the shower head instead. It would be a safer choice. She slowly drew her clothes off, leaving them in a heap on the floor, not even noticing she hadn't brought her nightshirt into the bathroom. She stood her exhausted body under the hard stream of near-scalding water, fighting the revulsion she felt from its force as an unholy assault.


Continued in Chapter 19