Living the Promise: Chapter Three


Joe settled down onto the comfortable, overstuffed couch, took a sip from his wine glass, then set it on the coffee table beside the pile of mail he'd retrieved from his box. The haunting melodies of "Madame Butterfly", a musical indulgence he shared with his gentle-spirited mother, played softly from his stereo. It did little to settle his heart.

Andrea, his secretary, had all but thrown him out of the office today, precisely at 5:30, and for once he listened to her reassurances that the criminal justice system of Manhattan would survive his early absence. He rarely left his desk before ten these days, but it was just as well: He hadn't been accomplishing much today, hardly remembering, now, the reams of paperwork he'd been attempting to pour over in usual fashion.

The problem had been his desk calendar, staring back at him benignly from the organized chaos that was his work area. His gaze kept settling onto that damn calendar in front of him, on the accented words printed conspicuously across the bottom of the day's page -- "September 2l - The First Day of Autumn."

Closing his eyes defensively, Joe sank back into the couch, attempting to gather his thoughts into some less-plaguing order.

Autumn . . . He'd always loved Autumn. As a kid, he adored helping his grandfather and uncles make wine in the basement of the house in South Ozone Park. It was the yearly tribute to a beloved heritage none of his mother's relations would easily relinquish, and he'd been so glad for that. Even his father, of Scottish heritage on both sides of his ancestry, had been swept up into the mysterious and wonderfilled ritual.

Sean Maxwell had, over the years, gained a pretty decent set of skills at the time-honored activities, skills which had at last granted him a covetted blessing -- becoming a trusted confidant of his immigrant father-in-law. It was a rare position, indeed, and one that had come about despite an ongoing battle of wills between the two men that could be traced back to one simple, outraging fact: Sean had had the audacity to marry Joseph Campobasso's youngest daughter, without the benefit of even being remotely Italian.

Joe smiled at his recollections of the respectful/recriminating relationship between his dad and his grandfather he'd been witness to in his tender years. He'd always been amazed that his mother was capable of standing in delightful tolerance of the hellfire-provoking pairing of her father and her husband for most of their married life. Luckily, the house in South Ozone Park had been declared neutral territory every Autumn, and the memory of that wondrously chaotic time had long ago become etched within the younger Joseph's memory.

Even now, Joe could almost see Grandpa's house in Autumn.

The women cooked, constantly, profusely, with cheerful abandon, determined to fill out the "scrawny" frames of every single soul under the age of 17 -- and quite a few older ones, too. Once they were satisfied with the day's wine-making endeavors, all greatly precise and mysterious, the men, too, had other activities to pass the evenings. They played riotous card games with names like "Scopa" and "Scala Quaranta", or concentrated their highly personalized techniques with the bocce balls in the side yard of the house for hours at a time..

The kids, also, dozens of cousins, and children of cousins, and godchildren, and neighbor's kids, had had their favorite autumn-time enjoyments. They all scrambled about the huge back yard, wrestling, or teasing one another with the certain bravado of childhood. Treats were sneaked from the lush garden -- tomatoes and peppers, mostly, or the two venerable apple trees were climbed, which readily yielded shiny, refreshing fruits. When the sun-painted leaves started falling early, or wine-making was started late, there were even drifts of crackling fun to pile up and jump into.

Autumn was beautiful then.

Joe had never lost his feelings for the time, even as he grew into adulthood. Even when his dad died long before his grandfather did. Even when life threw him every curve and obstacle it could muster as he struggled to carve out a worthwhile existence for himself on his own. Autumn was a time of fullness, of ripened abundance. Of life.

Not death.

The phone ringing suddenly into the warmth of his welcomed thoughts nearly stopped Joe's heart.

That's how it had begun, three years ago -- or actually, how it had ended -- the phone ringing at 6:15 in the morning, Greg Hughes on the other end, every nightmare that had ever haunted him over the previous six months all pouring over him in one shattering instant . . . They'd found Cathy . . . She was dead.

Joe was almost terrified to pick up the phone as it sounded so demandingly now for his attention. He forced himself to get up and answer it, unwilling to let the pain and regret fill his heart. But his hands still shook when he picked up the receiver, despite his courage.

Of course, the voice on the other end was not Greg Hughes now. It was soft, gentle, and familiar. But it could offer little comfort he'd be willing to accept these days.

"Hi, Joe. It's Rita. I thought I'd give you a call and see how . . . everything . . . is . . . "

"Rita . . . hi . . . Everything is . . . fine . . . " Joe took a moment to collect himself, then, realizing he'd caught an anxious uncertainty that forced a pause in his co-worker's comments. Noting that his voice probably had been as shaky as his hands, he pulled himself fully and decidedly back into the present. He didn't want to worry Rita.

She would start to worry, too, about him, he knew. The young attorney who'd taken on Cathy as her respected mentor had also seemingly taken on responsibility for his welfare during the past six months. The thought was both welcome, and painful to him. Tonight it was agony.

"Shouldn't I be asking that of you?" he was able to quip back in something of his usual quick wit. "You're the one babysitting chicken pox."

A soft laugh from the other end of the telephone line eased Joe's concern a fraction. God, it sounded like . . . life . . . warm, caring. Hopeful. He suddenly wasn't certain he could endure it. But Rita continued with her usual gentle good humor. "We seem to have survived the worst of it, though I'll never eat oatmeal again. You have no idea what a tub full of oatmeal and three kids with chicken pox soaking in it can do to a person's tastebuds -- scars them for life."

Joe wanted to laugh at her statement, cherish her bright appreciation for the sweetly absurd, the picture she described for him suddenly as vivid in his mind as his own childhood recollections had been. Yet his heart couldn't seem to remember how. He merely replied, "Yeah, I guess so."

"We finally got the kids comfortable and off to bed. I just sent my brother and sister-in-law off to the movies for a breather . . . and I thought I'd give you a call." Rita's spirit took a dive audible in her tone of voice, that brought along with it her hope of ever getting her cherished co-worker to survive the day's memories with only tolerable pain.

The DA heard the undercurrent of quiet worry in his colleague's tones. He'd shut the door in her face again, he knew, rejected her caring friendship so that he could drown in the pain. At least that was familiar, and safe. Rita's tender concern was not. He didn't want it to be.

"Sounds like you've got things under control," he remarked offhand. Then, catching his

soul for a bare instant before it covered itself again with remorse, Joe responded with all the genuine feeling he could rescue, "I'm glad, Rita. And things are how they usually are around here -- enough to get a person committed to Bellevue."

Rita Escobar heard the tentative need in Joe's voice he'd always managed to keep from her at work, despite his attempt at casual normalcy. She'd been right to call him. Thank goodness Andrea had been able to bully him home at a decent hour as she had asked the young woman to. The last thing he needed tonight was to page through the file folder he kept locked in the bottom drawer of his desk, alone in his office. Knowing he was at least home gave her some small inkling of hope to latch onto.

Still, the young attorney knew he'd never let himself show the true depth of his pain, his heartache, to anyone now. Diana had tried, time and again, to help him let go of the guilt. But not even the fiery-spirited police officer had been able to dare him to live past it all. And he certainly was never going to reach out to her, she accepted, yet again, so sadly. Not yet. Not tonight.

Attempting to keep her own assaulted heart from sounding too obviously besieged as well, Rita reverted to her own quietly profound patience. Once more she admonished herself: Just keep things uncomplicated. That's how they'd survived the past six months, touching only on the surface of their souls. Even though her heart was aching to take his pain as her own.

"I should be able to get back by the end of the week."

"Hey, kid," came the defensive nonchalance, "don't worry. We're holding down the fort here without you all right."

Rita's own voice took a bit more courage. She had to at least let him know she cared.

"I really appreciate your letting me do this for my brother and his family, Joe. I mean,

chicken pox isn't exactly your standard medical emergency to be taking time off for."

Much as she adored being with her brother's family, she'd hated the thought of leaving him

to endure this particular day's memories alone.

A wistful softness filled his words to her then, something that caught her off guard. It

sounded almost . . . tender. "Rita, it's okay. You needed to be there for them. That's what's important. Who'd have known all three of your brother's kids would have come down sick like that a week after they'd all moved to a new city?"

For a long moment, the young attorney in Baltimore tried to decipher what she felt coming hesitantly through to her with Joe's remarks: an obviously heartfelt defense of family, responsibility, and what truly counted in life -- relationships between people --

being there, saying, "don't worry, you can count on me", making a commitment to put the other person first.

It was all pretty safe, benignly basic sentiment, that the world seemed to have chewed up and spit out these days. It was the simple, giving logic that had always been Joe's

strongest point of heart, that part of him, so totally honest and ridiculously ready to believe the best within everyone, that had instantly stolen Rita's own heart away from her. Could

that softly caring spirit ever find its way back to it's proper place within him again?

If they'd have been in the same room together, though, instead of hundreds of miles apart, Rita would have been hard-pressed to hide the tears beginning to shimmer in her eyes. He'd always been so quick to offer help to others, genuinely concerned and committed to opening up his heart and his considerable energies to see justice, all justice, in any sort of circumstance, prevail. But, where was his justice?

Rita quickly attempted to steer their conversation to more neutral ground, or risk giving herself away. She'd called to try to help him, on this night, after all. Her own pain could wait.

"Any guardian angels turn up to rescue the Center while I've been gone?"

Joe wished he could have given his co-worker some good news at least, knowing how

saddened she'd be, right now, about his state of soul. Yet, there wasn't even that. It made

his blood boil, in familiar outrage:

Something as important to sane living conditions in the city as the Women's Crisis Center, had become a political football in the election year posturing of high-powered candidates. They had absolutely no idea what they were willing to pick apart in an obscene gesture of budget balancing.

At its inception, every politician in the city had leapt onto the bandwagon of the referral and support Center for battered women and children, touting its invaluable place as a safety net for those most in need. Rita had signed on as its sorely undercompensated legal coordinator. She and her dedicated staff of visionary social workers and law students had

worked dozens of near-miracles in the past year, helping terrified woman get their lives back together again with some hope and dignity.

Now, their public funding was drying up as quickly as their caseload was exploding, all to showcase some high-profile attempts to halt the wash of red ink the city was routinely foundering in.

It seemed simply another well-intentioned effort that would die a quick and merciful death, but the DA was not willing to let the forces that be play their games with what was right, necessary, and simply just. Joe'd been determined to fight it out, somehow, all his

own spiritual anguish and loss fueling his ingrained sense of decency with fiery conviction.

With Rita's support, they had literally turned their cause over to Providence itself, praying that some private entity might help float the Center's budget temporarily until more stable financing could be found. Three months of pleading, mailings, and presentations, had yielded only a few stop-gap supporters, despite their earnest efforts. And the rent on the storefront office was two weeks overdue.

Joe hated to hit Rita with more bad news, especially over the phone. He knew what organizing the Center had meant to her, how much she took to heart each individual case.

The mindless bureacracy they'd been fighting an uphill battle against would take her brightly hopeful spirit as surely as it would rob the women they'd tried to support of their dignity and rights.

His own spirit determined not to surrender without a fight, he knew, now, that he needed to reassure his caring colleague of his support. It was the only thing he could reach out to her with some confidence.

"Don't worry. When you get back, we'll go over the Department budget with a

fine-toothed comb and see if we can come up with something to tide us over again for a while."

Rita's voice returned to him with its usual cheery brightness, even though he knew she was resigned to the weary struggle. "You can hold my salary again. Not that it will amount to much."

"Right. And when you can't pay your own rent, we can move you and the Center into a homeless shelter permanently." It was damned unfair.

Joe ran a nervous hand through his thick brown hair. Everything was so damned unfair in life.

"Things will work out, Joe. We just have to have faith that we're in the right with this. That has to count for something. Don't lose heart."

The reassuring words unexpectedly brought the barest trace of a smile to the District Attorney's weary face. She would be trying always to shore up his beleagured spirit.

The words came out then, in spite of himself. "Rita, you are really special." She would always be able to hope, wouldn't she?

For a moment, the soft-spoken attorney in Baltimore almost felt her heart drop out of her body at the threatened tenderness in those words. She couldn't be hearing it right.

In defensive humor, hoping to get her heart to start beating properly again, Rita replied,

"That's what you say to all your underpaid, overworked, crusading staff, counselor."

"Yeah, well, with you, it's true. Somehow, we'll get the angels on our side with this one." If she could believe, perhaps he could, too, at least about the Center. As for the rest of his life . . . that was something else again, wasn't it?

The voice in Baltimore was suddenly soft, uncertain of revealing too much of itself, but instinctively convinced that she needed to offer something of her true state of heart in return to her tested colleague at this point between them. She prayed he'd not shut her out as always.

"Joe, I'm glad you let me work on this with you. Thanks for trusting me. Thanks for believing." She wanted to say so much more, about things other than the Center, other than their cordial, but guarded, professional relationship. At least Diana had been able to occasionally jolt him into hope. But the police officer's intense spirit was not her own. Rita's quiet heart wasn't easily up to such battles.

It was difficult to keep hoping she could make much difference. She could have used an angel herself as well, she mused. Maybe there was one about, willing to help them both.

"I'm the lucky one there, Escobar, believe me."

The tears began to fall in Baltimore at the sound of that, whether from pain or promise, Rita was unsure. When the phone lines were silent, there was an unexpected, tiny glimmer of hope working its way past the miles and out of the dark, attempting to reach its needful destination. Could it survive its difficult journey? And finally find the fertile soil of a struggling heart where it could thrive?

Joe came back to his seat in his living room, feeling both anxious as well as surprisingly relieved. He threw his head back against the couch, letting the colliding feelings have their way with his spirit for a long moment. Then he spoke his thoughts aloud, as had become his habit of late. "She learned a lot from you, Cathy. And boy am I glad for that!"

. . . Cathy . . . Still so wrenchingly close to his spirit, especially tonight. That reality echoed forcefully through Rita's concerned call to him.

. . . Catherine . . . She would have been the perfect defender of their cause where the Women's Center was concerned, he knew. She would have jumped at the chance to be able to do good in such a basic, compelling way.

That's what it had always boiled down to for her -- the good -- supporting it, protecting it, working for it when everyone else would have turned their backs. She'd kept believing that they could make a difference in the world, even when he barely believed it himself. She recognized the good, what was worth fighting for.

And it got her killed.

Joe felt the tears well up in his eyes at the thought, at the familiar ache shrouding his heart where it had been only a moment ago almost lifted beyond its burden.

The truth, as he always saw it, stared him squarely in the face yet again:

I got her killed.

Defensively, Joe tore into the pile of useless paper on his coffee table, trying desperately to keep the demons at bay, yet, there was nothing he could hold fast to, nothing he could even remotely connect to that would keep him from being buried in the dark pain again. It could become so acute at times, that pain, when he least expected it, even after three years -- and especially on this night.

A word offered in reassuring consolation, a touch that held within itself the grace of forgiveness, a shared insight that could somehow finally set to rest the gnawing fear of having offered up the innocent directly to Satan himself. A shoulder to cry on. Instinctively, Joe knew they were what he needed, particularly tonight, the only solace that he could dream of touching to with some certainty of redeeming power. But there was no one he could reach . . . no one he would let himself reach.

Rita had attempted to break through that heartbreaking barrier, he knew, during the past several months. She would have been there for him, done all she could have for him. He

sensed it in all she had not said on the phone, just as he was capable of sensing it when they were working together, in all they never shared, never talked about. Still, even though she'd always allowed him his guilt-riddled grief in aching silence, her eyes had spoken to him too often in these past days -- they'd been full of kindness and gentle understanding.

He'd have had to have been blind not to see it.

But, moving past it all, finding a way past it all, terrified the hell out of him. It meant holding Catherine, and that part of his life, as only a memory. It meant acknowledging the fact that his heart was still able to beat out its rhythm where hers had been silenced. It meant going on living, in pain, surely, but still living and breathing and . . . feeling.

Rita didn't deserve his pain.

She didn't need to have to fight her way through it to what was left of his heart.

Yet, Joe knew, if he'd give her the barest breath of a chance, the young attorney would have been there for him.

Just as Diana would have been there for him, too.

Taking another sip of wine, Joe let his gaze rest on the haphazard pile of mail before him. It was so strange, he found himself suddenly thinking: So much of his state of heart had been opened to the scrutiny of three very different women at three very different points in his life:

Catherine had been the unacknowledged guardian of his future hopes, the possibilities of what could be, even for him, the hard-scrabble kid from Brooklyn. That was, until she'd been murdered, and he'd been plunged into bottomless, guilt-riddled pain.

Rita had become the quiet keeper of that pain, the softly reassuring influence that might yet convince him he could survive what had become the anguishing reality of his life.

Diana had been the awesome embodiment of total, honest, searingly devoted friendship, the one soul that had shared his blackest terrors and agonies, attempting to force him, again and again, to believe that his very soul was still worth redeeming.

He'd lost one before he'd ever had the courage to truly offer her what could be in his heart.

He was rejecting another out of simple, profound, weary grief.

He'd had to say goodbye to the third even if he knew he'd need her truthful, challenging, compellingly heartening logic if he were ever to believe himself worthy of life.

"God, Diana, I sure could use about three or four hours of your time tonight, to sort this all out." He was nearly startled that he'd spoken his thought, his need, aloud, too. That uncertain amazement was turned immediately to astonished gratitude when he recognized an unflourished script written across the front of a heavy vellum envelope that

was half-buried in the pile of credit card offers, professional magazine subscriptions, and ridiculously irrelevant advertising littering his coffee table.

Joe dug it out of the clutter of paper as a lesser man would have dug for a buried treasure. The relief that filled his heart told him he might still manage to survive the night.

 

"Dear Joe,

 

By the time this reaches you, I'm certain you will be immersed in the confusion and pain of the day as I am: September 21. I thought you could probably use a friend right about now, someone who knows what you must be struggling with, because I'm doing the same struggling myself at this moment."

The DA swallowed hard, both desperate to hear and accept the words reaching out to him from the paper in his hand, and at the same time close to fearful about acknowledging just how truthful they were. God! Diana was as near to being psychic as anyone he'd ever known, Joe conceded in shaken astonishment. But was it supernatural ability or simply a sensitive, caring heart always ready to offer support and encouragement when it was most needed? Joe decided the enigmatic former police officer was probably a good deal of both, and it was a damned lucky thing for him, too.

And now, feeling his intensely spirited colleague so close to him once again, through her words to him, Joe realized just how terribly he'd missed her, the unexpectedly steadying influence in his life she had become over the months and years they'd shared.

She'd stayed in touch, as she had promised, during the six months since he'd last seen her, that day she'd walked into his office and announced without preamble that she was quitting the force. Even so, it wasn't the same as being able to talk to her one-on-one, though he treasured her attempts to set his mind at ease about the changes in her own life's directions. How could he begrudge her her courage? He only wished he could find his own again.

Diana had been able to back him into a corner and forced him to face the truth -- the

real truth -- again and again, with her insightful power of challenging compassion. She'd been more than simply a caring friend when he'd needed one so acutely -- she'd been the very voice of sane conscience in his lately, long-tested existence.

Only she knew how deeply his wounds really reached, and only she had had the guts to dare him to live past their pain.

 

"Has it really been three years? You came to my loft like a lost soul asking for help. You had nowhere else to go. I still can't seem to understand why you were able to convince me to take on Catherine's case, but, for some reason, I did. There was a call from the heart in your voice. It touched me so."

 

Over the course of the past six months, Diana's letters to him had at least reassured him that one soul he'd cared about in the world was living a life of redeemed promise, though that existence was now shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Still, her notes to him had always been filled with genuinely happy descriptions of her new life, or as much of it as she could allow herself to reveal, as much as she felt could serve to urge him on to his own new hopes.

Joe still stood in awe of the evidence of her fierce protectiveness towards what he knew she now truly loved more than anything else in her life. She'd never offered him any more specifics about where she was, or actually with whom she was, though her news to him in her periodic notes sounded as benignly normal as that any other new bride and mother might be willing to share with a close and valued friend.

There had been love-touched depictions, in her past correspondence to him, of Jacob's latest milestones: The child had been in a play production of sorts; he was developing into a masterful little builder, constructing all manner of wonderful objects with blocks; he'd taken to reciting portions of his favorite bedtime stories by heart and was now eager to learn to actually read.

The brightly shared news had been of Samantha, too. Apparently, the spirited, gifted young lady was captivating hearts among her former foes -- the teen-aged boys of her community, and in typical fashion, was totally unaware of the truly lovely, endearing young woman she was becoming.

Diana had shared her own experiences with her new vocation, also, teaching humanities classes to a varied number of age groups, with exciting, rewarding results. She'd written that she'd never felt so invigoratingly challenged as she felt now because of her new role as teacher and counselor.

But the letters that arrived with frequency to Joe's home had rarely offered him much of his former co-worker's own state of heart and soul, though he could tell through her written words that she was happy and at peace. He had guessed that her lack of substance about her own personal experiences rested solely on one directing factor: So much of her new and welcomed fulfillment in life was intertwined with a soul she would protect at all costs from scrutinizing, misunderstanding eyes, his own included.

Yet, the tone of this letter he held tonight was different from the start, and Joe thanked heaven for that blessing. It had more the feel of their past conversations, of the moments they'd spent together as trusted friends in her bright loft or his cluttered flat, attempting to decipher the indecipherable pain the world was capable of inflicting on unsuspecting hearts. It was almost as though Diana was in the room with him at the moment, ready to reach out to him and help him find his direction again.

He could never manage to find it easily on this night.

 

"Joe, I know what you are carrying inside you on this day -- pain, loss, guilt. And even though I never met Catherine, because I came to know her through you, through my work, through the man she loved, I came to carry pain and loss and guilt as well for her, though

for different reasons."

 

For a long moment, the DA read and re-read the one part of her last sentence that struck him forcefully, without warning -- "through the man she loved." Diana hadn't named him, hadn't written, "Vincent", but she had referred to him as she'd never had before.

Joe took in a slow, thoughtful breath. When she'd confessed to him that she was leaving the force, the city, actually to marry, Diana had only described her love as

"Jacob's father." Never had she really, tacitly, acknowledged the fact they were one and the same as she was doing so now. Why?

Even at this moment in time, removed from her former life for months, sharing her heart with a friend she trusted implicitly, she would still not expose that love to danger, to possible threat or harm. She'd always done so in the past, risked everything to keep that love safe, at every point of her investigation into Catherine's death and beyond, to Joe's everlasting, confounding, confusion over the past three years.

He'd confronted her about it, time and again, and she'd merely deflected his exasperated probings. Their most heated conflict had come about when she'd actually attempted to convince him that Vincent didn't even exist, that the shadowy figure was only a conjured, defensive figment of Catherine's imagination. Joe had threatened her with insubordination at her apparent turnaround on the facts of the case. She'd held fast to her protective convictions without blinking an eye, even when her entire world was in danger of crumbling down around her.

It had left Joe in frustrated anger, and yet, he had to look at the fierce intentions of his colleague with awe. What sort of relationship, what kind of soul, could inspire such fearless loyalty, such protective shelter?

"The man she loved" -- the man Catherine had loved.

The man Diana had also given her heart and soul to.

Still, with such a history of intensely safeguarding caution, why was Diana ready to step back from her self-imposed silence with him now? Suddenly, Joe understood why his thoughts had taken him into the direction they just had, what Diana was attempting to explain to him, the feelings and trials they had both shared with such uneasy recognition.

 

"I know you keep denying it to me, but I've carried enough guilt of my own to recognize it in you, where Catherine is concerned. I know your guilt is of concrete substance there within your heart. My guilt was no less encompassing, even if it was actually coming to me as an after effect of Catherine's death. You've been grieving not only for her loss, but because you believe you were responsible for that loss: Catherine died because of you. I've been grieving because I began to live only when she died.

"We've both been carrying around one hell of a load of anguish that should never have really been ours to begin with.

"I can say that now, Joe, with conviction, because I've finally been able to let go of that guilt. Doing so has saved my soul. Believe me. It is what you must do as well, my dearest friend, to survive, because even though I may not be able to see you day to day and read it in your eyes, I know it is still so much a part of your existence that your heart would probably crumble at the thought of living beyond it."

 

Joe set the letter down onto the couch beside him, the trembling of the pages in his hand as he did so evidence of the turmoil Diana had been able to reach in his heart. Why did she have to be so damnably capable of taking hold of the seemingly unreachable? But, there it was, right in front of him -- the sum total of his past three years of agony. And she was just about daring him again to move past it, to take a step beyond its painful, yet familiar boundaries. Because she'd been able to.

Walking around his couch to the tall window behind it, Joe looked out over the city coming alight with the night. But, there was too much darkness still clinging to his spirit, more than what a simple hope could push back.

He'd tried so many times to keep Cathy safe, to protect her in her work, in spite of herself. And yet, he'd been the one to give her the one source of terror that could cost her her life: He'd handed her the one piece of evidence that Gabriel would have overturned Hades itself searching for, the one piece of evidence that got her killed.

The stark circumstances came crashing down within Joe's conscience with a vengeance at the moment. Patrick Hanley, one of Gabriel's attorneys, had been murdered before his own eyes because of that cursed notebook, which he had been willing to reveal to the authorities, a book that contained encrypted evidence of crime so vast in scope and insidious in nature that he'd likened it to hell itself.

Joe had himself been blown to within inches of his life because of it.

But, when he'd regained consciousness, by some miracle, in the hospital intensive care unit, when he'd opened his eyes to the sight of Cathy's gentle face looking down at him with such blessed care, the first thing he'd managed to get her to understand was the fact that she needed to find that notebook among his personal effects in the hospital, that it was important. He'd even told her it was the reason why Hanley had been killed. She'd followed his urging without hesitation, without a thought of the possible nightmarish consequences that could lead the trail of blood right straight to her.

He couldn't have been more responsible for her death than if he'd put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger himself.

But he hadn't.

Diana's gentle, insistent words swept around his heart, and Joe understood what she was attempting to get him to believe: He'd loved Cathy -- as a treasured friend, obviously; as the one woman he could possibly trust his heart to, maybe not so apparently, because he'd never even admitted that wondrous likelihood to himself -- but he had loved her, and he would never have placed her willingly in danger. Hell, he would never have compromised her safety even if he barely knew her, even if she'd have been the most anonymous soul he'd ever stumbled across on either side of the law. He'd have never willingly placed her in danger.

Catherine had only been doing her job, and he had been attempting to do his. They'd both only been trying desperately to fight for the good. Only this time, the good did not win out, did not overcome. This time, the good had been slaughtered, and he'd been powerless to do anything about it.

That should be his only source of guilt.

Looking over the darkening city streets, Joe felt his thoughts being pulled in a direction he never believed himself capable of even considering, to a kinship he'd never believed he could aknowledge, that he guessed could be the very source of Diana's so compellingly

accurate understanding of the truth of his pain: He'd been powerless to protect Cathy, his love and care had been powerless. Vincent had been helpless to protect Cathy, too.

What sort of demons had that shadowy figure been tormented by because of his own

failure, terrors that Joe was certain Diana's love had surely had to face in the past three years?

Running his hand anxiously down over his evening-stubbled face, Joe leaned heavily against the window frame, at the power of that painful thought, and the attempt, always so inconsequential, that he was capable of making to get past those lingering phantoms in his own mind. Diana's letter was trying to tell him that he wasn't alone in this all, that he didn't have to remain so, that he needed to let go of his pain. She was attempting to guide him to the reality she knew from aching experience: That he didn't deserve the guilt, any more than she herself did. Any more than Vincent did.

None of them had abandoned Cathy, nor their commitment towards making certain that her sacrifice had not been made in vain.

Diana was describing to him her own accummulation of pain that commitment had warranted, confessing it to him now without turmoil, because she'd been able to finally get past it and go on living.

Even if Catherine had had to die.

Taking in a deep, ragged breath, Joe tried to settle his awareness on the view outside his window, but his heart kept returning him to all that Diana had left unsaid to him, to the ever-present essence of the unspoken soul in all of this that was suddenly made so very visible to Joe now . . . Vincent.

Cathy's protector.

That is how Diana had described him that evening in her loft. Joe could only visualize him as some incomprehensiblee, terrifying force of darkness, kept to the right only within the fragile boundaries of a woman's love. He would have done anything to protect Cathy, had done anything to protect her, including murdering those who'd ruthlessly threatened her life. Catherine had been safeguarded by an avenging angel so fierce in his devotion to her that he would kill to keep her safe.

Still, she had died, under the most unspeakable of circumstances, brutally kidnapped, held hostage for months, robbed of her baby, and murdered. And Vincent had apparently been unable to do a thing to help her, his efforts to find her only bringing him to her side at her death, so he could carry her precious body away from the mouth of hell so it could set out for eternity from the familiar surroundings of her own home. "He brought her home because he loved her." Diana had known even then, at the outset of her investigations.

What sort of immense burden of guilt could he have been carrying within him because of that hellish reality? He hadn't been able to protect her. Vincent had only been able to set Catherine to rest on her own bed -- cold and dead.

Then the most plaguing uncertainty that Joe carried in his besieged spirit forced him to ask the question he already believed he knew the reply to . . . Had they ever shared that bed together before that black, murderous night? Had Vincent ever held her in his arms when she was warm and alive and aching to be loved, never once thinking of the terror that lay ahead of them?

There'd been no terror between them, Joe knew, as surely as he knew his own feelings for Catherine Chandler now. There'd been only love, and because of that love, Cathy had borne Vincent a child. Jacob.

What had losing her, losing Catherine, the mother of his child, done to Vincent's own soul? Could he have been in any less pain than Joe himself had been?

And what about Diana? She'd written that her guilt had come afterwards. She was raising that child now, another woman's child, and Joe knew it was with as much love as any biological mother could ever hope to be able to hold in her heart, probably even more, because that love, that child had come to her through the most soul-shuddering of circumstances.

Diana was raising Cathy's child as her own, she'd given her heart to Cathy's love as her own, she'd given up her own world to be with Vincent in his. My God! Joe realized with astonished certainty. What sort of guilt had Diana been forced to hold within her heart?

The DA recalled the haunted pain he'd read in Diana's eyes whenever she'd forget herself in his presence when Jacob was with her -- There was a mother's tender delight in her face as she cared for the little boy, surely. The baby adored her. Yet, there was always that uncertain pain, also. He understood where it originated now . . . Diana had been telling herself she should not have been the one holding that child . . . loving his father.

. . . The guilt of the survivor . . . Diana had only begun to live when Catherine had died.

Joe came back to the letter, picked it up and brought it to the window with him to continue reading. That was what Diana had felt he needed to understand, needed to hear, above everything else she might admonish him about from experience: It was still possible to begin again.

 

"I cried so many silent tears the past three years, Joe; I endured more pain than I believed myself capable of even imagining, let alone surviving. I kept all hope and possibility buried so deeply within my spirit that I nearly let them smother in the dark."

 

And then, unbelievably, Diana broke her own self-imposed silence of heart, thought it important enough for Joe's healing to let her crack open the formidible defenses she had built around the very source of her own hope, blessing that source by name:

 

"I never believed I could dare touch the ravaged, aching, fearful love that was trying to find its way back to the light of day from Vincent's soul. I thought I couldn't possibly have a part in helping him see his way through desolation, that I couldn't, in a hundred lifetimes, deserve a breath of the love he'd held for Catherine.

"But, somewhere along the journey, Joe, with heaven's mercy, somehow, I came to understand that I could only resurrect his spirit by holding it with the love that was in mine. I let myself believe. We let ourselves believe. And heaven smiled on our pain, Joe, letting us move on."

 

"Us" . . . the intertwining, encompassing shelter of that plural: Us -- Vincent and herself -- The avenging angel ground to dust by loss and grief and guilt had apparently been capable of letting another source of light into his heart. Vincent himself had begun again, too. How could that be possible? How could he let his heart keep beating?

 

"My baby just moved, kicked, actually, a minute ago as I wrote that last line to you --

our baby, Vincent's and mine."

 

Joe felt his own heart take an unexpected staggering pitch as he read and re-read those words. He let his fingers slip over the line written on the paper, believing he would have

felt white-hot anger in such a revelation to him. A baby . . . Had the supposed love of a

lifetime been set aside so easily then? Could Catherine possibly look down from heaven itself and not ache with desolate pain from such a reality -- that the man she'd loved so totally had found solace enough to love another woman, to conceive a child with her?

The feelings in Joe's own heart should have been burning with anger . . . but they were not. The portrait conjured up in his mind should have been one of shameless, wanton betrayal . . . but it was not.

He could feel, see, in truth, only a love made beautiful because it had been tested in fire and survived.

Cathy would have seen that too, he knew.

 

"It is so remarkable. That thriving life I'm carrying within me now is all the evidence we need to know that we cannot allow ourselves to turn our backs to love when we are most in need of its healing, nurturing power. Joe, I've found more happiness than I ever had a right to dream of for my life. It has come to me by way of pain I never imagined myself able to endure.

"I know you are in pain, still, have been in pain, for so long. But, Joe, you have to believe it now, you have to let me convince you of it now. You are guilty of one thing and one thing alone: You are still making the angels cry.

"You are still making Cathy cry, because you are still holding fast to the unthinkable, which was never even the truth. You didn't murder her. Gabriel did. All you did was love her, silently, protectively, never taking but always ready to give. And I didn't slip into Vincent's soul like a thief, stealing Cathy's place from his heart to shamelessly make it my own without conscience or remorse. All I did was love him, when he was desperately in need of being loved, when I knew he'd lose himself to oblivion if I didn't hold onto him with the last ounce of strength my heart was capable of offering him.

"Cathy will always be in Vincent's heart. I know that and accept that. Loving her made him so much of the man that I love now. He hasn't forgotten that love. He's only been able to meld it to his spirit gratefully, and open his arms to the rightness of our own love."

 

Joe stood looking at the city before him in quiet, incredulous wonder. How had Diana possibly been able to even guess his reactions to her words, her secrets revealed? How?

She knew him well enough to love him, treasure him as a trusted friend, and set herself up for his undeserved rancor, just so she could help him find his hope again.

 

"It's been three years, Joe. You are a decent, honest, thoroughly good person. Don't cling to a sentence you never deserved. Try to learn to breathe free again, my friend. It's a terrifying thing, I know from experience. But Cathy would want you to hold on to her love, not her ghost. She'd want a place in your heart, not in your conscience.

"I wish I could be there now with you and just be able to read a flicker of hope in your eyes. It's there inside you, Joe. I know it, I've always felt it, and you have, too. Look around you, let the light of life warm you to your soul for once, and don't question why. Take hold of love when it reaches out to you again, because, make no mistake, it will, probably from somewhere you'd never even think to look. And you will have the strength to welcome that love with a free heart.

"Keep us in your thoughts and prayers. You will always have ours.

 

Love, Diana"

 

Joe set the papers onto the stereo beside him and for a long moment he fixed his gaze on the street light below that had come on in the deepening dark. One light pushing back the dark.

"God, Diana, if I didn't know better, I'd think you'd slipped into my soul when I least expected and most needed you to. You have a true gift, my friend. You deserve your happiness."

He reached down and pulled open the window in front of him. A rush of warm, unexpectedly sweet air blew into his flat. It almost felt like the backyard in South Ozone Park -- Grandpa's garden in autumn -- full of ripening life.

Life . . . not death.

Pulling on a light jacket, Joe reached for his car keys and headed out into the night.

 


Continued in Chapter 4