HER VOICE WAS FAINT AND SWEET
Alexandra came first to the Tunnels. She waited for Jamie to open the secret entrance. Then she stood in the entrance tunnel and waited for me to get word of her arrival. When I came to the entrance, Alexandra was standing perfectly still on her spot as if she could have waited an eternity for me. She held a book in her arms. Jamie was leaning against a wall near her. The Head Protector had her arms over her chest, a crossbow hooked over her shoulders and a watchful look on her face.
"Go to the Cavern of the Falls" was the only thing I said to Alexandra. She said nothing in reply. She just went deeper into the tunnels with the cautious yet fluid stride I recognized. Jamie followed behind her.
I waited for Layla. That took twenty minutes. I don't recall any of my thoughts from that time. When Layla arrived, I opened the entrance for her. "So," she said after the wall slid shut behind her, "what did you want to show me?"
"It's what I want to show everybody." I picked up a wrench behind one of the pipes. I tapped a code several times. Then I put down the wrench and said, "Come with me."
Layla kept her hands in her pockets as she followed me. I wondered if she had brought her knife. Or a gun. Strangely enough I still didn't feel worried around her.
Not too worried, anyway. I felt confident that I knew her mind. She did not blame me for Joe's murder. So what else could make her want to kill me? I considered all the angles and came up with no answer.
There was one angle I didn't consider, though. And that was precisely the angle at which Layla would surprise me.
For the moment she didn't seem much of a threat. As we got closer to our destination, the Builder Robert and his son Max emerged from an intersecting tunnel. They stopped suddenly when they saw Layla. She froze as well.
"It's okay," I said. "She's with me."
Both Robert and Max looked at me with more suspicion than at Layla. For the past two months I hadn't been one of their favorite people. Robert thought that my reckless actions had almost destroyed the Tunnels. Max regarded me as someone who would turn against his friends. Both of them were right. Or they would have been right two months ago. I was different now, hopefully.
After giving me the eye for a few moments, Robert softly said, "Let's go, Max." Then they went on their way.
I turned to Layla. Before I could say anything, she said, "Robert Sawyer."
"You know him?" I said in surprise.
"I know of him. Ten years ago he was a construction worker who learned which crime boss had taken over his union. He agree to testify against him."
"Oh, yeah. Right. Joe was handling the prosecution."
"And that's when I started working for the D.A. office." She winced. "What a fuck-up that turned into."
"I know all about it." The source of that particular fuck-up had been a mole in Joe's office. The Sawyers had been placed in protective custody, including Robert's wife. The mole led hitmen straight to Molly Sawyer.
"Well," Layla said, "what I didn't know was where Robert and his son went after the mother was killed. Joe said that he would 'take care of it,' but he didn't say how."
"By then, he knew about the Tunnels. He asked Grandfather...he's our big elder around here... Joe asked him to protect them. So Robert and Max lived down here until Robert had to pop up and give testimony."
"And then he came back here."
"Robert feels that he and his son are safer down here. Can you blame him?"
I didn't follow up with the obvious question -- do you think the Tunnels are crap now? That would have been a little cheap. Instead I let Layla mull over this new information as I led her further.
We encountered more Dwellers heading in the same direction we were. They greeted her with cautious looks, but nobody objected to her presence. In return Layla stared at the men, women and children crossing our path. At one point she leaned over to me. Before she could speak, I whispered, "No, I don't know why they're dressed like they're at the Renaissance Fair. That's just the way it is."
Layla raised her eyebrows and smiled a little. Then she almost jumped when she heard, "Hey, Jacob! Who is this?"
We both turned to see Mouse running toward us. "Layla," I said, "this is Mouse. Mouse, Layla."
Mouse stuck out his hand. "Hello!" he greeted.
"Hello," Layla said as she shook his hand. "What is that on your head?"
Mouse looked confused at first, then touched his head. He felt the football helmet there. Two long antenna rose from its surface.
"Oh, this," he said with embarrassment. "Just something I'm working on." Before Layla could ask more questions, he removed the helmet and said, "Excuse me! We're having a meeting!"
Then he took off. Layla gave me a look. I shrugged. We continued on our way.
After we made a turn into another tunnel Layla saw a familiar figure walking ahead of her. "Hey, Vincent!" she called.
He turned. So did the woman who was holding his hand. Once again, Layla looked surprised. I was getting used to that expression.
"Diana?" Layla said. "Diana Bennett?"
"Hello, Layla," Diana responded politely.
"You knew about this place?" Layla said as she strode toward Diana and Father.
Diana nodded and said, "So do you, now."
Layla looked down at Diana's hand and Father's hand. She looked back at Diana, then at Father.
Father returned her gaze for a moment, then looked at me. "Did you summon this meeting?"
"Yes," I said.
"She's waiting for us."
"Very well." Father gave Diana a slight pull, and the two of them continued on their way. Layla waited for me to catch up with her.
"Your dad...and Diana?"
"That kind of blows my mind."
"Yeah. Come on."
I took her down two more levels and then we reached our destination. She stepped into the Cavern of the Falls. In a night already loaded with startling things the hugeness and beauty of the Cavern almost knocked her off her feet.
"Fuck me twice," she said. I heard giggling. I turned and saw children covering their mouths. Their parents did not look so amused. Layla was oblivious to them and everyone else in the Cavern. Her eyes were blinded by the colors and waterfall's flow.
Then she lowered her eyes and saw Alexandra. The young woman in black was standing next to the shoreline. Her head was inclined toward the ground, but you could never be sure where her covered eyes were looking.
"Look who's here," she muttered.
"Alexandra is my final surprise."
"I was surprised enough by her last night."
"That's why I want you here. Just stay and listen."
I didn't answer. I walked a path through the crowd of assembled Dwellers. My coded message had called everyone to the Cavern. They were gathered on the wide shore before the lake, talking and whispering and wondering why they were here. Most of all, they talked about Alexandra. Word about her attack on Layla hadn't spread past a select few, but her motionless posture and covered face were enough to make them uneasy.
I reached her side. She didn't look at me. I held up my arms and said, "Excuse me, everyone. Please, I need your attention."
The talking and whispering faded out. "Everyone, please get comfortable," I requested. Most of the Dwellers sat down on the ground. Some remained standing. Not surprisingly, everyone who knew about the incident in the Library remained standing. Father and Grandfather watched Alexandra intently. I could see Diana had already gone into profiler-mode. Jamie still carried her crossbow. And Layla did not look pleased at all.
"Alexandra wants to read something to you," I said. Then I turned to Alexandra and whispered, "Go."
She still did not raise her head. She remained motionless as I made my way back to Layla. She muttered, "What the hell, Jacob..."
Alexandra didn't move for another few moments. Then she raised her hand and pulled the scarves off her mouth. Layla tensed as she saw those white lips.
Then Alexandra opened the book in her hands. She began to read out loud.
"'Tis the middle of night by the castle clock/ and the owls have awakened the crowing cock...'"
I had not heard Alexandra read poetry for many weeks. The experience was as wondrous as the first time I had heard her voice. When she spoke of night, you didn't just see the stars and the moon in your mind's eye. It *was* night as far as you were concerned, even if the time had been noon. The castle clock was towering over you, and the owls were flapping their wings over your head.
The experience was a shared one. Nobody moved an inch. It was as if every muscle in each body was caught in the act of listening. Grandfather and Diana were stunned. Jamie almost let her crossbow slip from her shoulder. Father closed his eyes and let the words rush over him. Even the children were completely silent and attentive. Trust me, if you can get children not to laugh at phrases like 'the crowing cock' and 'a toothless mastiff bitch,' you're one hell of a reader.
And then there was Layla. Nothing on this night -- not Robert and Max, not Diana and Father, not the Cavern of the Falls -- startled her like Alexandra's voice. She stared at the woman who had tried to kill her, but there was no suspicion in her eyes now.
I felt so happy. Others could now see why I loved Alexandra. At the same time, I thought --
Holy shit, I didn't know she was going to read this poem. Not 'Christabel.' If you know this poem, then you know why I was uneasy about kids hearing it. I don't think we're particularly prudish down in the Tunnels. We don't worry too much about what the young 'uns get 'exposed' to. Of course, we don't have television.
But I knew what was coming. So did Father and Grandfather. So did everyone there with knowledge of poetry and that was a lot of people. (Again, no TV, so the Dwellers read.)
No one tried to stop Alexandra, though. I don't think anybody could have. We were all transfixed by that voice.
So Alexandra got to tell everyone the story of Christabel and Geraldine. She described how "the lovely lady" Christabel met Geraldine by a "huge, big-breasted oak tree." And through her voice and Coleridge's words we could see "a damsel bright...
"Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandal'd were,
And wildly glittered in her hair."
There was no doubt that this was a woman "beautiful exceedingly!"
"'Mary mother, save me now!'" Alexandra cried out. A collective shiver traveled across the Dwellers and me. It wasn't just the emotion in her voice. It was a different voice. She had assumed the character of Christabel -- the daughter of a baron, the girl who lost her mother during childbirth, the young woman entranced by the stranger she had met in the forest.
Then she became Geraldine -- "'Have pity on my poor distress, I scarce can speak for weariness.'" Even though I knew that Geraldine had a secret agenda, I was completely fooled by her "faint and sweet" voice. Or, rather, I was fooled by Alexandra's voice. But, again, it wasn't her speaking. There were three separate people living inside that dark outfit -- the narrator and two female characters. It was frightening and lovely at the same time.
Christabel brought Geraldine back to her father's hall. I was reminded of Geraldine's intentions as Alexandra described how the woman in white had to be carried across the threshold and how the mastiff bitch moaned in its sleep. They reached Christabel's chambers where Geraldine commanded the spirit of Christabel's mother to leave. "'Off, woman, off! This hour is mine!'"
Then Geraldine drank the wine made of wild flowers. (Even though I had no idea what such a thing tasted like, I could feel the wine pouring down my throat.) She said to Christabel --
"But now unrobe yourself; for I
Must pray, ere yet in bed I lie."
Oh, jeez, I thought. Here it comes.
"Quoth Christabel, So let it be!
And as the lady bade, did she.
Her gentle limbs did she undress,
And lay down in her loveliness."
I had to sit down on the ground. The last thing I wanted anybody to see was my growing erection.
Yeah, laugh it up. You weren't there. You didn't have to listen to Alexandra describe how Geraldine "unbound the cincture from beneath her breast." Or how her "silken robe, and inner vest dropt to her feet and full in view."
"Behold!" Alexandra said to her audience. "Her bosom and half her side/ A sight to dream of, not to tell!/ O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!"
Shield us, I thought as my groin warmed. I instinctually looked at Cynthia and Jane, our token lesbian couple. Their heads were touching, and Cynthia was breathing on Jane's neck. They weren't aware of what they were doing, nor were they the only ones getting cuddly. Diana had one hand under Vincent's vest, and his lips lightly touched her forehead. Every married and dating couple in the Cavern were getting intimate, including some people who had just discovered another person willing to hold their hands. As for Layla, her breasts rose and fell with deep breaths. The youngest kids didn't quite know what was happening, but they knew it was something intense.
But there was also fear as well as sensuality in the air. We wanted to hear more of Geraldine and Christabel lying in bed together, but we feared the price that Christabel would pay. "In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell," Geraldine said, "which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!"
Then came the morning, and Christabel got a look at who was in her bedroom. "Sure I have sinn'd!" she declared. Oh, you don't know the half of it, Christabel.
After that Christabel's father met the visitor. Sir Leoline realized that this was the daughter of Lord Roland of Tryermaine. It turned out that Roland and Leoline were friends long ago, but
"...whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain."
Our other resident gay couple, Alex and Tom, could figure out what kind of love this had been. Hell, we all could. But we all felt the pain of the words --
"A dreary sea now floats between; --
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been."
Nor murder, I silently added.
Even as Sir Leoline welcomed Geraldine as a friend, though, Christabel realized that she had allowed something sinister into the hall. A bard described a dream of "a bright green snake coiled around" a dove. And then "the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head/ Each shrunk up to a serpent's eye/ And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread/ At Christabel she looked askance!"
Christabel begged her father to send the visitor in white away. ("By my mother's soul do I entreat...!") She only received her father's disgust that his own daughter would ask him to treat a guest -- much less the child of a friend -- in such a manner. Under Geraldine's spell, Christabel was unable to explain her fears.
"'And turning from his own sweet maid,'" Alexandra the narrator said, "'The aged knight, Sir Leoline/ Led forth the lady Geraldine!'"
Then she closed the book and sat down on the ground. She placed the book to the side and began to wrap the scarves around her mouth.
There was more to the poem -- a conclusion not written by Coleridge, but by a friend after his death. Yet it was obvious that Alexandra chose to go no further.
For over a minute nobody said a word. Gradually Alexandra's spell lifted from us. We suddenly became aware of our heat and the way we were touching each other. Couples pulled apart in embarrassment. Children stared at the flustered adults. Everybody knew that something wonderful and terrible had swept across the group, and it had risen from the lady in black.
My father had to break the silence. He cleared his throat and said, "I believe the meeting is adjourned."
One by one, the Dwellers left the Cavern. They didn't say a word, but they kept looking back at Alexandra and me. Their numbers dwindled down to Father, Diana and Jamie. Father studied the scene for a few moments, then said to Jamie, "Let's leave."
Jamie opened her mouth, but her protest didn't come out. She had been as spooked and aroused as any one had been. She walked awkwardly toward the exit.
"Diana?" Vincent said.
Diana was gazing upon Alexandra. A stranger would have judged Diana's expression to be dreamy and disconnected. I knew, however, she was staring straight into Alexandra's soul.
Then she turned that same look upon Layla. The other woman didn't see the look. She was watching Alexandra and trembling slightly.
Finally Diana turned to Father. They left together, but without holding hands.
I walked gently up to Layla. "So," I said, "what did you think?"
"It was another stupid fucking story about evil lesbian vampires," she hissed. "That's what I think."
"It was more than that," I replied sternly, "and you know it."
Layla closed her eyes. I watched her jaw muscles tighten.
Then she opened her eyes and walked toward Alexandra. Her footsteps were deliberately heavy as if she was sounding out her defiance. She kept her hands inside her pockets.
She stood before the younger woman. And Alexandra slowly raised her covered head. This time there was no doubt about where she was looking. Layla stared back at her reflection in the dark glasses.
Then Layla turned to me and said, "We need to talk alone."
"Okay," I said. "I'll be just outside the..."
"No. Not here. My apartment."
"I still don't feel comfortable here, Jacob."
"Yeah, but...remember what I told you?"
Layla gave Alexandra another long look, then said to me, "I think we'll be all right. Won't we?"
Alexandra said nothing, but that seemed to be the answer Layla wanted.
"Right," Layla said. "I'll see you in the morning, Jacob." Layla then motioned to Alexandra, and the two of them left the Cavern.
So now there was just me by the lake. I felt more than a little confused. I had arranged this reading so that others could see the wonder inside Alexandra. And they did see it now. It was just...
They could see something else alongside that beauty. I saw it, too. I didn't know what it was.
Maybe, I thought, I should ask somebody who might know. I went looking for Diana.
I eventually found her in Father's chambers. I could hear her in faint conversation with Father. "Hello?" I said at the entrance. "May I come in?"
"Come in, Jacob," Father said. I walked into the chambers. Father was seated in a chair, hands folded under his chin. Diana was standing next to him.
"Well, Diana?" I said.
"Well..." Diana cleared her throat. "...I admit that was...impressive. But it didn't give me any real insights into Alexandra."
Diana laughed nervously. "Yeah. I can see why you're so attached to her. I'm sure everybody can see that now."
"And I hope you can see why others can be intimidated by her."
I let out a long sigh. "Yeah. I know."
"There's also the simple fact of the Tower."
"I've never forgotten that."
"Haven't you, Jacob?" Diana walked toward me. "Do you really understand what's at stake?"
I blinked. "How can you ask that? You know what I was willing to do to protect the Tunnels."
"I'm not talking about your bravery. I'm talking about..." Diana glanced at Father as if trying to get the right word from him. Father said nothing.
She turned to me and said, "Have you considered all the possibilities? Do you really understand what Alexandra can do?"
"Well, of course I can." My voice rose in indignation. "Christ, I was there when she kill...she took care of Crown. Don't you think..."
Diana grasped my hands and pressed them together between her two palms. "You're right, you're right," she quickly said. "I'm sorry." She smiled wanly at me and said, "I don't want you to get hurt, you know. You're my little Jacob."
"I understand. And trust me, I'm being careful."
She nodded, but I could see the doubt in her eyes. I just attributed that to her concern.
"Where is Alexandra now?" Father asked. "And Layla?"
"They, um, went back to Alexandra's apartment."
Diana's grasp tightened around my hands. I yanked my hands away from her and held them up to get silence. "If Layla feels it's okay to be alone around her, then I don't know how we can object."
Father said, "You don't think that's...strange?"
"What around here lately has been normal? I think Layla will be safe around Alexandra. Besides, Layla isn't the type to let somebody get the drop on her twice."
"What about you? Are you safe around Layla?"
"Well, that's still an open question. But not a certainty either way."
"Sounds like you're doing what you're accusing us of doing."
"Waiting for an attack rather than planning ahead."
"Layla is not the Tower, Father," I said, irritated. "She's not a threat to the whole Tunnels."
Father considered my words, then said, "Granted."
"She's just...someone who has wandered into our little story."
"Actually, Jacob, you let her in."
I laughed. "Yeah, I did, didn't I? Leave it to me to complicate things."
Father grunted. "So what will you do now?"
"Stop by Layla's apartment tomorrow. See what else I can do to get inside Alexandra's mind."
"Maybe you're there already," Diana said. "You just don't know it."
"Maybe. If I am...well, we can only do what we think is best, right?"
Diana slowly nodded.
I left Diana and Father soon after that. I went to my chambers and spent many hours awake in bed. I was thinking about the events of the past few days. Something was nagging me -- something important I was overlooking.
Later on I realized that something wasn't nagging me -- it was kicking at me, biting my leg, yelling in my ear. I wasn't overlooking something. I was staring straight at it, but I was too stupid to notice it.
Alexandra wasn't the only one whose perception could be blinded by emotion. I was going to get some rude shocks in the next week. And, in the end, everything would change.
Absolutely fucking everything.