This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine Within the Crystal Rose, in 1990. It was my first Beauty and the Beast story, and I've learned a few things since then, so I gave it a face-lift, but no major changes. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.
He let his eyes close, faintly aware of the tired whir of the fan in the corner and traffic noise from far below. Thoughts drifted across his mind's eye, unpleasant thoughts that he tried to shove away. But they would not be banished. They had plagued him all week, nipping at his concentration and filling him with vague sadness. Next Tuesday marked the twentieth anniversary of his father's death. His father's murder.
Joe took a dart from the pencil holder and threw it, hard. He watched with satisfaction as it struck deep into the dart board and trembled there. You'd think I'd be over this by now.
He hoped the evening ahead with Cathy Chandler would help. She had recently lost her father, and he knew her mother had died when Cathy was a child. But Shea Stadium was hardly the perfect setting for a heart-to-heart chat. Maybe they could go somewhere after the game and talk. He was still mildly amazed that she had accepted his offer of a spare Mets ticket. He'd caught her on her way to an appointment.
"This Friday? Sure, Joe. Sounds great." Cathy had smiled at him and whisked out, leaving him staring after her, mouth ajar.
He winced as he remembered Escobar's smirk. "Spare Mets ticket? Pretty lame, Joe. And close your mouth. You look silly."
He had asked Cathy out many times before and almost always received a gentle refusal. But it seemed she had finally grown weary of Mozart and white wine, and decided to sample life's simpler pleasures--baseball and beer. The idea made him grin. Today they had both worked late, trying to wrap up the slippery details on an extortion case. He glanced up at the sound of her footsteps, hushed but audible in the silent office, coming closer. A sudden mischievous impulse made him snatch up a stout rubber band.
As her slim, green-clad form crossed the doorway, he fired. The rubber band flew across his office, just missing the swirl of dark, honeyblonde hair.
"Damn!" He'd missed.
And he'd also forgotten that today, courtesy of a visit by Rita Escobar's niece, Cathy was packing. She lunged around the door frame and aimed a pink water pistol at him. Before he could duck, a thin stream of water spurted against his chest. "Gotcha!"
"Hey!" Joe sputtered, leaping out of his chair. But he laughed as he crossed the office. The cool wetness felt good next to his skin, since the upstairs air conditioner had gone on vacation with everyone else at the beginning of August.
Lounging against the door frame, he surveyed her smug grin. "This insubordination has got to stop, Chandler."
His growl didn't intimidate Cathy. It never did. She smiled up at him, eyes dancing. "Yes, Oh-Lord-and-Master."
"That's better. Ready for the Mets tonight?" He mimed a fastball pitch.
She glanced at her watch. "I can taste the peanuts now. I'm going home to change. Is seven o'clock in front of the ticket counter okay?"
"You bet. I'll buy the first round."
She smiled over her shoulder as she walked toward her desk. "I'll hold you to that, Joe. See you later."
"Hey, Radcliffe!" he yelled after her. "How about giving me the Mets? Friendly ten-dollar bet?"
"Seven o'clock, Joe!"
Chuckling, Joe went back to his office for his suit jacket and briefcase. To soothe his conscience he gathered up a few files to take home and retrieved his tie, draped as usual over his desk lamp. Monday would come soon enough.
He tucked his gear under one arm and began his usual circuit of the bullpen, turning off forgotten desk lights. The office, so frenetically busy during the workday, now looked forlorn and dingy in the amber sunlight of late afternoon. Lazy swirls of cigarette smoke still floated in the air to mingle with the bitter scent of overdone coffee. He was usually the last to leave, in charge by default of shutting off lights, copiers, the coffee machine. Even though he knew the cleaning people would be in later, he couldn't resist the impulse. He felt as if he had his mother at his elbow: Don't waste electricity, Joe. It's not free.
As he shut the office door behind him, he spied Franklin, the janitor, unloading his vacuum cleaner from the elevator. He headed down the hall at a half-trot. "Hey, Frank. Hold that."
Franklin gave him a wide grin. "You, leaving early, Maxwell? I can't believe it. Usually I have to sweep around your big feet."
Joe smiled as the elevator doors began to close. "Don't work too hard, Frank." He thumbed the Lobby button, wishing vaguely for a beer. He knew he didn't have any in his refrigerator; he couldn't even remember the last time he'd opened it. He grinned crookedly, as he thought of his tiny, nondescript comer of the Village. It was a far cry from Radcliffe's uptown digs.
He waved at the night guard and took a deep breath of the air-conditioned cool in the lobby, like a swimmer going underwater. As he emerged onto the street, the dog-day humidity wrapped itself around him, an unwelcome second skin. Not a breath of breeze stirred the city's carefully placed trees. He slung his jacket over one shoulder and headed for the subway station a few blocks down.
Friday's mass exodus from the business district was nearly over. Only a few obsessive-compulsives like himself were left, vying gamely for taxis or hoofing it toward public transportation. Joe bought some cheese curls from a street vendor and grinned at a redhead who gave him the eye as she passed. With his dark eyes and easy, sensuous smile, he didn't often have to ask twice for dates. Except, that is, when he asked out a certain diminutive lady lawyer. Joe continued on toward the subway entrance, musing idly about Cathy Chandler.
She had worked with him almost two years now, and she was by far his best investigator. She had an uncanny knack for getting into and out of dangerous situations in a way that shed glory on the department and made her the apple of Moreno's eye. Joe wasn't jealous, but he was curious. Sometimes she was downright mysterious about the exact way things had happened, and every once in a while she would vanish to who-knew-where. If she weren't so good at her job, he wouldn't put up with it. But she was, and he did.
He was embarrassed to remember that at first he'd thought her a bored Park Avenue princess looking for thrills, and expected that her major distinction around the office would be her vast collection of earrings. Cathy had proved him wrong and become a good friend.
Joe scowled to himself as he began to descend into the subway, trying to ignore the sour smell of hot, tightly packed humanity. More than a friend, buddy, he told himself. Or at least, you'd like her to be.
Still scowling, he groped in his pocket for a token and pushed through the turnstile. He joined the crowd waiting on the platform to take the subway to the Village. Lately, he wasn't entirely sure what he felt about Cathy. He knew he was instantly aware of her when she walked into a room. He noticed what she was wearing, he listened for her laugh...And then, a few weeks ago, that head-case had nearly killed her. He'd been scared down to his bones, scared and protective and angry. And he thought maybe he'd cared a bit too much for mere friendship.
You wouldn't call it a date, he thought, watching the train approach. With an ear-splitting roar, it barreled into the station and slowed to a halt at the curb. An old woman carrying several bulky packages trod heavily on his foot as she shoved past him into the car. No, you wouldn't call it a date. Just friends, taking in a ball game.
Joe boarded the car and automatically reached for an overhead strap, before he realized there were plenty of seats in this particular compartment. Besides himself and the old woman, there were two business suits, one pregnant woman who looked miserable in the heat, one student sporting an NYU T-shirt, and a blonde-haired man asleep in a corner. Joe took a seat and dug into his briefcase for a file. He ought to be home in no time.
Vincent's eyes were blue, a blazing, electric blue; but their beauty was hidden in the tunnel's darkness. Cloaked in flowing black, he was a shadow among shadows, as silent and potentially lethal as they--and as soft and protective. His booted feet made scarcely a sound on the gritty floor as he moved unerringly toward his destination.
Ahead the shadows faded and fled as they met illumination from above. Vincent walked until he stood at the base of a rusted metal ladder that reached away into the light. It was time to go up.
Tiny hairs on the backs of his hands lifted as a shiver of automatic apprehension, bred into him by a protective parent, ran beneath his skin. He reminded himself for the hundredth time that he was perfectly safe, that the basement of Zeke's delicatessen was Helper territory. It was just that he felt so horribly exposed, climbing blindly into the light.
Vincent grasped the ladder in large, furred hands and began to ascend. He swung himself up using only his hands and arms, letting his feet dangle. A guilty pleasure, this display of his strength, but one he did not deny himself when he was alone. He slowed near the top and rested his feet on the rungs as he peered over the edge of the manhole-sized opening. He held his breath and listened. No one was near.
Cautiously, he climbed the last few feet, emerging behind a stack of fat, dusty flour sacks. He had been here many times before. The kindly shopkeeper had long made a gift to the tunnel dwellers of whatever food he could not sell the day he prepared it.
Zeke had known someone would come and had moved the flour sacks from their customary place over the opening. Vincent could certainly have shoved them over himself, but Zeke hadn't known it would be Vincent who picked up the food today. Perhaps if he had, thought Vincent, squinting, he might have dimmed the lights a little. But it was bright in the small basement, for things had happened to Zeke that made him abhor darkness. A long, phosphorescent tube blazed white along the length of the rectangular ceiling, and all the surfaces were spotless, though crowded with foodstuffs. At one end of the room was the massive metal door of the walk-in refrigerator. Closer to Vincent, a narrow stairway led up to the shop above.
"Who's that?" came Zeke's hoarse-voiced challenge. Vincent saw the old man's shadow move on the stairs, but knew he would not descend until he heard the identity of his guest.
"It's Vincent, Zeke," he called softly. "I've come for the food."
"Ah, Vincent!" Zeke hurried down the stairs, as though to compensate for his earlier reluctance. He was a stringy scrap of a man in his seventies, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a gruff kindness about him. An immaculate white apron covered his old-fashioned trousers and shirt, and his shoes were buffed to a reflective shine. His black eyes crinkled at the corners as he welcomed his visitor. "Didn't know it would be you today, Vincent. Usually they send the young ones." Zeke hastened forward to shake Vincent's hand.
"Michael and Lena have taken most of the children on a...field trip," Vincent explained, groping for Lena's term. "They've gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
Even to him, his voice sounded wistful. Zeke seemed to understand, laying a warm hand on his arm. "Never you mind, Vincent. Everyone knows you could lead tours in that place."
Vincent smiled at Zeke's effort to comfort him. He had long ago ceased to be bitter about his limitations, but that didn't mean he didn't chafe against them now and again. "Have you been well, Zeke?" he asked as the small shopkeeper led him toward the refrigerator.
"Not bad, not bad. Business is picking up. Lots of folks are coming over on their lunch hours. Can't resist 'everything fresh, every day" Zeke chuckled. He grunted as he unlatched and pulled open the heavy door. Cold air rushed outward, driving back the sticky summer heat.
"Prop that open, would you Vincent? Darn thing's not hung just right, and we're liable to get shut in here." Zeke tugged on a string that dangled overhead, and dim yellow light flooded the room.
Vincent dragged a crate in front of the door and made sure it was heavy enough to keep the door open. "Cullen could probably fix this for you, Zeke," he offered.
The old man piled sandwiches and Styrofoam containers of potato salad and coleslaw in a large box. He shook his head emphatically. "Nah, I'm used to it. Same as you get used to freckles on a wife, you get used to the little things around here. Wouldn't change it for love nor money."
Vincent smiled at that. Just as he reached to help Zeke lift the box from the floor, the lights went out, plunging them into darkness. Zeke sucked in his breath and voiced a ripe Yiddish curse that Vincent politely pretended not to understand.
"Power's out," Zeke said shakily. "Got a flashlight around here somewhere."
Vincent didn't answer at once, absorbed by the sudden swoop of fear within himself that radiated from his bond with Catherine. The tension eased as he felt her emotion, which had been mostly surprise, level off and fade. He heard Zeke take a few hesitant steps, as if he forced frozen muscles to work. Vincent knew how Zeke hated darkness, had hated it since a nightmare boxcar ride toward Auschwitz. Vincent strove to soothe with his voice.
"Stay still, Zeke, and tell me where to look for the light. I can still see."
That voice, deep and whisper-soft, was one of the few Zeke trusted, coming at him out of the dark. He cleared his throat and wet lips gone dry with remembered terror. "I think it's on the second shelf to the right of the door."
Vincent found the flashlight and thumbed it on. The cone of light seemed of immeasurable comfort to Zeke, who took the flashlight from him and sighed heavily, expelling his fear. "If the electric is out for long, I'll have a lot more for you to carry Below, Vincent." He gestured around him at the shelves packed with produce, meats, and cheeses of all kinds. "All this will go bad within a couple of days."
"Surely they'll fix it before long," said Vincent. Disquieting thoughts of Catherine, alone in a darkened city, troubled him.
"Maybe, maybe not. Depends how widespread it is and what caused the blackout. Could be hours, or days." Zeke shuffled glumly out of the refrigerator, followed by Vincent with the box of food. "There was looting during the big one in '65. Better find my shotgun."
"You must come Below, where it's safe, if that happens," said Vincent quickly.
Zeke shook his head, and a little steel came into his voice as he replied. "What, and let those hooligans steal everything I have? I lost everything once, in Germany. Never again!"
Vincent let that pass, but made a mental note to have some of the people Below help him watch over Zeke. He would not see the old man hurt or robbed.
"The ones I feel sorry for are the poor folks stuck in the subway tunnels," said Zeke. Memories of the boxcar were in his shudder. "Sitting ducks for the muggers."
"You're right," Vincent said slowly, For a split second, he felt a repulsive flash of what Catherine called "city-think": There are miles of subway tunnels; what good can one man do.... Instantly he was ashamed of the thought, and decided he must see if he could help.
"I must go Below, Zeke, and see if I'm needed," he said. "Will you be all right?"
The old man waved him away. "Sure, sure. No need to worry. You go on." Zeke waited, lighting Vincent's way as he made his careful descent, the box of food balanced on one shoulder.
Vincent called out his thanks and then began to retrace his path, his movements graceful and sure. In the Tunnel world, darkness was the norm; the city's lack of light mattered not a whit. He moved swiftly, and once he reached an intersection that contained one of the main pipes, he tapped out a message for someone to come and pick up the food. As soon as he received a reply, he was off in the opposite direction. He wanted to check on Catherine, but he would go to her home via one of the subway lines. If he came across any trouble, he would deal with it.
Joe froze as the lights cut out and the subway car began to slow. Like a dying animal, it groaned to a halt.
"Aw, hell, this I don't need!" someone whined. Joe thought it was the student. Reflexively, he closed his eyes to think, even though the inside of his eyelids was no darker than the subway car. He mentally pictured the car and tallied its occupants. He thought only himself, the student, the slumbering man, and the pregnant woman were left, plus one teenage girl who had boarded after them. He had a vague memory of the business suits and the old woman leaving the car.
After a few moments of utter blackness, weak emergency lighting flickered on, dim and intermittent. Joe was able to see that his head count was correct. He saw the passengers staring nervously around at each other, judging possible friends and foes. Joe saw the pregnant woman draw her purse in closer and curve one arm protectively over her belly. She was pretty, with dark hair and eyes and olive skin. She looked like pictures he'd seen of his own mother when she was young.
The student stood up and moved toward the door. "Always wondered what you'd do if you got stuck in one of these," he said to no one in particular. He wedged the fingers of both hands into the crack that halved the door, braced his long legs, and pulled. With a grunt, he managed to separate the doors a couple of inches.
Joe got up to help. Pulling opposite one another, they forced a three-foot exit into the pitch-black tunnel. Joe looked askance at it and wondered just who--or what--he might encounter stumbling around out there. He almost wished he hadn't quit smoking, after the interminable nights of studying torts and precedents were over. If he hadn't quit, he would have had a lighter in his pocket.
The student seemed to feel no misgivings. "Hey, thanks dude. I'm outta here. No telling how long this will last."
"Mind if I go with you?" The teenager, a skinny girl with lots of jangling bracelets and impossibly tortured hair, stood up. "I got somewhere to be."
"Sure, babe. Let's go." He helped her climb onto the narrow strip of concrete that ran along the underground tunnel at about waistlevel. He looked back at Joe. "You coming, man?"
He wanted to go. Hours sitting in a dim, sweltering subway car held no appeal, and Cathy would be worried about him. But when he glanced behind him, he saw panic forming on the pregnant woman's face. If Joe left, it would be only her and the man slouched in a comer, who hadn't moved or spoken, though he now seemed to be awake. The woman was in no shape to climb around in the dark.
"Nope," he answered. "I think I'll hang on awhile. I'm a long way from home, and the electricity might come back in a few minutes. "
"Suit yourself," the student said. He climbed out of the car, and his footsteps receded as he introduced himself to the girl. "The name's Van. You know, like Van Halen."
"Maya. Like nothing you ever heard of...."
They were gone, swallowed by the dark tunnel. Joe thought about closing the door. He felt vulnerable with this black hole at his back. But they might need the ventilation. As he returned to his seat, he caught a grateful look from the woman. He smiled at her and sat down again, his eyes fixed on the only other passenger. Street rules told him to give the guy a hard stare, let him know he was being watched. But the man, cap pulled down low, wasn't looking his way.
Joe leaned back with a sigh, stretched out his legs, and unfastened his second shirt button. Could be a long wait, and not enough light to read by. He decided to try conversation.
"Guess we're instant friends," he said, smiling across the aisle at the woman. "I'm Joe Maxwell."
She smiled tentatively in return and gave him a damp hand to shake. "Connie Reichert. Think this will last long?"
Joe shrugged. "Depends what went wrong. Cops'll be along with flashlights. They won't leave us in here forever." A thought occurred to him, and he grinned at her, well aware of the charm in the expression. "You weren't trying to get anywhere important, were you? Like the hospital?"
Connie gave a nervous giggle. "No. Another month to go, and I won't take the subway, you can bet on that. Where were you going?"
"Home, to the Village. Then to a ball game." Joe heaved a gloomy sigh. "Guess the Mets will have to win without me tonight."
They said little more as they settled down to the business of waiting. Joe kept setting ten-minute deadlines. In another ten minutes, he promised himself, he'd try to talk Connie into chancing the tunnel. Heat and darkness, darkness and heat, pressed on them almost palpably, like a smothering blanket. Despite his intention to remain watchful, Joe felt himself grow drowsy. It seemed to him there was not quite enough air to go around. . . .
It happened before he could even register that the man had moved. Steel-wire fingers grabbed his shirt and hauled him halfway to his feet, before a haymaker punch slammed against his head. Joe found himself on hands and knees, spitting blood.
Connie screamed. "No! No, get away!" she shrieked.
"Gimme the purse, lady," growled the punk. He shook her with one hand, and tried to wrestle the purse away with the other.
Panicked, Connie continued to scream and claw, holding on to the purse with the same ferocity she'd have shown if he'd threatened her baby. The punk slapped her once before Joe jumped him from behind.
Joe dragged the punk away from Connie, who pressed herself into a corner, sobbing. He jabbed a solid body punch at the would-be mugger, and grabbed him by the arms to wrestle him to the floor. Neither could get swinging room, but Joe knew he had a weight advantage and capitalized on it. As he rolled on top of his opponent, who was struggling and cursing wildly, Joe clutched a handful of dirty, white-blond hair, and began to slam the punk's head viciously against the floor, ignoring the fists pounding his back and arms.
The smaller man gave up trying to punch and, with a manic burst of strength, shoved Joe over and wrenched free. Drugs, Joe realized as he stared at the bloody mass of hair in his hand. He didn't even feel that.
The punk backpedaled, his glittering eyes fixed on Joe. Like a magician's trick, there was suddenly a six-inch switchblade in his fist. "You are dead meat now, pretty boy," he whispered. "Gonna carve you up."
Connie yelped at the sight of the knife and tried to press herself further into the wall.
Joe sucked in a ragged breath as he got to his feet. He knew that giving up his wallet and Connie's purse now wouldn't stop the fight. He'd pushed this guy too far, and was probably going to pay for it. His mind, which should have been fixed on survival, was shrieking Dad, Dad...DAD!!! All he could think of was his father's murder. He'd been knifed in an alley, and bled his life away on a cold morning, twenty years ago.
Warily, the combatants tested each other with feints, each waiting for the other's move. Joe knew not to watch the evilly glinting blade, but the man's eyes, equally evil. When they flickered, he lunged. Closing one hand around the man's wrist, Joe tried to drive the knife upward. But his fear made him slow, and his palm was slick with sweat. The punk's wrist twisted out of his grip, freeing him to slash at Joe crosswise.
For an instant, Joe thought he hadn't been touched; then he felt a shriek of pain and a spurt of warmth from his abdomen. The punk grabbed him, hauled him close. Numbly, he watched the knife rise and hang poised to deliver the killing blow. His thoughts raced. This is not happening it just can't be happening I'm gonna get cut just like Dad this is why I'm not a cop OhgodOhgod, my poor mother--
Something happened. Even afterward, Joe couldn't clearly recall what. There was someone else in the car, a huge, black-and-gold someone else, and was this guy really roaring, or was it only the blood in his ears and the buzz of pain in his mind? His knees banged painfully on the floor as he was dropped, and his head nearly followed. He heard a sickening thunk, as the newcomer swung the screaming mugger against the wall of the subway car. The limp body crashed to the floor a few feet from him.
Joe glanced over and saw that the punk still breathed. Then his eyes traveled upward. The black outlines of his rescuer loomed above him. Clothed in a black, flowing cloak, the huge figure seemed a part of the darkness; even his face was shadowed.
The voice was strong and gentle, like the hands that lifted Joe, as though he were no heavier than a child, and laid him across a row of seats. Joe squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his teeth together to hold in a cry of pain. The reaction was fortunate, for the sight of the furry, claw-tipped hands attending him would have compounded the day's shocks.
He felt most of his shirt being torn off. His hands, held flat against his belly in an instinctive effort to stem the blood loss, were nudged away. With seemingly trained smoothness, the stranger pressed a wad of cloth against the long wound and wrapped the sleeves of the shirt around Joe's torso to hold the bandage in place. Only when the hands left him did Joe experimentally open his eyes. He couldn't see very well; his ears seemed more reliable. He could hear quiet breathing close by, and Connie's hushed sobs, farther away. He peered in her direction, and motioned weakly. His rescuer's head turned.
"Are you all right?" he heard the man ask.
Both hands pressed against her eyes to shut out the nightmare, Connie moaned, "Stay away...stay away from me!" She sounded very close to hysteria.
The stranger sighed deeply, and did not try to approach her.
"Who are you?" Joe asked, his voice humiliatingly weak. "Where did you come from?"
"I am a friend," came the soft reply. The voice, soothing and deep, floated to his ears as though disembodied. The massive figure was hooded, and even his hands were hidden.
Joe reached up without thought to push the hood away, the movement driving a spike of pain into his gut. His rescuer reared back out of reach, and Joe's hand fell.
"Please don't," said that distinctive voice.
Joe peered at him, still trying to see. Succor without a face was not entirely to be trusted. But his thoughts seemed to bleed away, just like his wound, until suddenly, a solid wedge of light parted the dimness and a gruff voice came through the gaping door. "Police. You folks okay in there?"
Vincent froze as the policeman barked his demand. He had been so distracted that he hadn't even heard the approaching footsteps. He saw the injured man draw breath to reply, and then wince. The woman was weeping quietly. Vincent would have to answer. "There's someone hurt in here, officer. He's bleeding. We will need a stretcher to move him." Vincent's muscles trembled as he resisted the urge to flee. Discovery seemed imminent.
The chagrin in the officer's voice was plain. "Gonna be a problem, friend. Been lots of injuries with the blackout, and they'll have to come down on foot from street level. Can you hang on?"
The woman, hearing a sane, sensible voice from the world she knew, heaved herself to her feet. "Get me out of here!" she whimpered. "Don't leave...get me out!" She stumbled toward the door, arms outstretched.
"Easy, lady. I'll get you out," came the long-suffering voice. The officer grunted as he bore most of her weight, hoisting her up to the narrow cement walkway of the tunnel. He shone the beam of his light inside again. "How many more of you in there?"
"Three," Vincent replied. "Myself, the injured man, and the one who attacked him. He's no longer a threat. We'll be all right until your return." He sweated, willing the officer to go for help without coming inside the car. There was nowhere to hide.
The cop, thus reassured and with an hysterical pregnant woman hanging on his arm, made the wise man's choice. "I'll get up top and call the squad, then. Sit tight." The light vanished as he led his charge away, droning encouragement to the tearful woman. Their voices faded gradually.
Vincent sighed silently with relief, and looked over at his patient. The man hadn't spoken or moved since he had reached for Vincent's hood, and looked to be unconscious. His eyes drooped nearly closed and his skin was a pasty white. He was probably in shock.
Vincent glanced around for something he could use to cover the man. He couldn't part with his cloak lest his features be revealed. Spotting a coat on the floor, he scooped it up and draped it over the still form. Surprisingly, the man's eyes opened and he peered again at Vincent; he was not unconscious after all.
"Hey," the man murmured weakly. "Got a name?"
Vincent hesitated, then shrugged; in for a penny, in for a pound. "Vincent. My name is Vincent."
Joe tried to smile; maybe he'd succeeded, maybe not. Blood loss, he thought, was almost as good a buzz as three beers and football on Sunday. Almost. He wished he could turn and make sure the punk was still face-down and unmoving; he wished he could see this Vincent's face. Still, he shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth...or a gift Ninja in the face....
He lifted his head, trying to clear it, and found that to be a great mistake. The movement made his stomach muscles go taut and the already white-hot pain intensified. A groan escaped between his clenched teeth. The hooded figure shifted fractionally closer. "You must stay still," warned the soft, gravelly voice. "Help will be here soon."
"Hey, Vincent, I haven't thanked you," Joe managed. He had to talk, had to think; anything but feel the amazing pain of his rent skin--the same pain his father must have felt when he died. "You came out of nowhere."
He heard rather than saw the smile.
"I came out of the tunnel when I heard the woman cry out."
"Not many men would've helped," said Joe. "This is New York, after all."
"You helped," said Vincent. "You fought that man to protect the woman, despite the fact that this is New York."
The mockery was gentle, and Joe shrugged. "Well, you know. Couldn't just sit there. My father was a cop...he would have done something." But he didn't, hissed a tiny voice in his mind. He didn't do a thing, except let himself bleed to death. Let himself be taken from us....
Vincent stirred. He sensed more pain in this man than that of the wound. It was rare for his empathy to touch those to whom he was not close. Perhaps the sharpening of all his senses in the absence of light had enabled him to feel this man's pain. It was fresh pain, laced with old grief.
"You know my name," he said. "What is yours?"
"It's Joe," came the answer. "Joe Maxwell."
Vincent froze, eyes widening in shock. This was Catherine's Joe, the friend from work she liked so much. She had told him she would not see him tonight until late, because she and Joe were going to a baseball game. He was doubly glad he'd been here, able to help Catherine's friend. He would go to her later, let her know the man was safe.
"Helluva thing, huh?" Joe murmured. "They say if you live in New York long enough, statistics are going to get you." His words had begun to slur.
Vincent made no reply, glancing anxiously at his patient. Before he'd covered Joe with the coat, he'd seen the battered face, the spreading stain on the bandage. If help did not come soon, he would have to take Joe to Father. He winced at the thought; it was easy to envision his parent's displeasure. Vincent prayed for the sound of help approaching. As soon as he heard it, he would melt back into the shadows, into his own world.
Suddenly, he wondered what he would do if the power were restored before he could escape. He would be caught in full light, which was something he feared almost as much as Zeke feared darkness. But he could not leave Joe, injured and helpless, alone in the car with the one who had attacked him. Vincent sighed silently. He was trapped.
He watched as Joe shifted restlessly on the hard plastic of the benches, fruitlessly trying to ease what had to be a hellish amount of pain. "I was going to a baseball game with a friend of mine," he said. Vincent knew he was talking only to stave off panic. "Hope Cathy doesn't think I stood her up. It took me months to get her to go out with me. See, we work together in the D.A.'s office--in fact, if I live through this, I think I'll put her on the prosecution for that scum-of-the-Earth." He jerked his head toward the still figure on the floor. "She's some lady."
Vincent smiled to himself. Indeed.
"And," continued Joe thoughtfully, "she's got great legs."
Vincent raised his eyebrows at that. Something, some feeling, stirred in him that he didn't name and quickly repressed. It left a nasty aftertaste.
Joe continued blithely on, apparently unaware of his effect on his listener. "I always wondered why she never hooked up with anyone else after she gave Burch the heave-ho. Once in a while she mentions a date with someone, but no one from the office has ever met him. She never even says his name. She's going to just lose it when she hears about this." Joe paused, leaving Vincent to wonder what Catherine was going to lose.
"Awhile back, Cathy was mugged herself," Joe remembered. "Missing ten days, and hurt pretty bad."
Vincent closed his eyes. Memories, some harsh and some wonderful, cascaded through his mind. He said nothing as Joe went on.
"That was before I knew her, but I always felt it had something to do with why she gave up corporate law and came to work for us. She has a way of looking at things dead on, you know? She's not afraid to say what needs to be said, to decide what's right and...and refuse to compromise." He paused, seeming to grope for words. "It's like that knife attack cut away all the shadowy grey areas for her," he said at length. "What happened to her made her stronger." Joe sighed. "Me, I sometimes feel like I'm going to unravel. And it wasnt even me who got...well. Until now."
Vincent waited, sensing there was more. His generous heart wanted to help this man, Catherine's friend.
"My father died like this, Vincent," Joe said presently. His words were slowing, his voice going thick as shock took hold, but Vincent knew this was no delirium. Catherine had spoken of the years-old tragedy. Yet for Joe, the loss seemed as raw and fresh as the wound still seeping beneath the makeshift dressing.
"Dad bled to death," Joe said. He blinked, slowly. "Just laid there and...got cold and...left us. I always wondered what he felt, those last moments. Now I know."
Ah. Now we come to it. Vincent knew this was the source of that other pain he had sensed before, the pain that was not the wound. And this, he could do something about.
"You said your father was a police officer. He died in the line of duty?"
Joe had to strain for the quiet words out of the dark; his ears didn't seem to be working so well anymore. He wondered if Dad had felt...if Dad had
He drew in a breath that cut him in half. "Got knifed by a couple of kids on his way home," he bit out. "Just about killed my mother, losing him. If you hadn't come along today, I hate to think...." Why was he raking over ancient history at a time like this, especially to a stranger? But Vincent didn't seem to mind.
"It must not have been easy for you, either, to lose your father. You were young?"
"Fourteen. And I was so mad at him," Joe heard himself say. And then his words were galloping way out ahead of him, and he was struggling to catch up. "I was mad, see, because it was his fault he got cut up and died, you know? Dammit, he was a cop, he had a gun! He was my father, he should have been able to do something--"
Joe cut himself off, appalled at the flood of grief and rage that had somehow broken loose when the guy on the floor cut a hole in him. He had sworn never to feel like this again. Never.
Shaking, sick, he dragged in another breath, setting razors churning in his gut. He thought Vincent wasn't going to speak again; after all, what could he say? Then that unique voice, quiet and strong, reached him. He found himself thinking irrelevantly what an asset that voice would be in the courtroom, even as he listened.
"I, too, have a father who has disappointed me on occasion, either in deed or in understanding. I have been angry, and resentful. But I know that he always does his best. And I love him."
The words were piercing and clear in Joe's head, even though almost everything else had gone as hazy and soft-edged as a watercolor. Suddenly, new pain slashed at him, pain in his eyes, as light blazed in the compartment. He blinked, caught a glimpse of a swirling black mantle, tawny hair, and a face...a face that was....
Vincent hid himself in shadow after bolting from the car. He didn't know whether Joe had gotten more than a glimpse of him. Chances were, despite the man's undoubted intelligence and tenacity when presented with a puzzle, he would think he'd imagined whatever he'd seen. The cars jerked as full power returned, but did not move. Peering down the tunnel, Vincent spotted paramedics approaching with a stretcher, led by a beefy police officer. Joe was safe.
Lest he be discovered, Vincent faded noiselessly back into his world, where darkness was not an emergency, but a blessing.
Joe counted the water spots on the ceiling tiles of his hospital room. There were eighteen, and he'd counted them three times already. He was bored, bored, bored. And there weren't even any pretty nurses. It was with a welcome sense of dejà vu that he spied a slender form in his doorway.
Cathy saw that he was not asleep and came all the way in, smiling at him. "Maxwell, I have never been so insulted. Stood up on a first date." She carried neither a potted plant, which he would have killed with kindness, nor a box of candy he wasn't allowed to eat. Instead, she'd brought him three newspapers, separated into sections to spare him lifting the heavy sheaf of paper. She knew him pretty well.
"Sorry, Radcliffe. In the mood for excuses? I've got a whopper of a story." He gave her a sheepish smile. "Thirty-nine stitches, Exhibit A."
Cathy settled into the chair beside his bed and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. "I'm glad you're all right, Joe," she said. She didn't try to hide the concern in her eyes, and Joe gently brushed a finger along her cheek.
"Thanks, Cathy. So am I."
She smiled shakily. "So spill it already. You're a hero, they tell me."
Joe recounted his adventure from start to finish, and found her suitably amazed by his mysterious rescuer. As he spoke, he tried to convey Vincent's odd synthesis of gentleness and strength, his quaint way of speaking, and his almost medieval appearance, in the glimpse he had gotten. He shook his head, stymied.
"He was big, and really strong," he said at length. "He threw that creep against the wall like an old shirt, and picked me up like I was a six-year-old. But he said he was a friend, and he stayed almost until the paramedics got there. I never got a good look at him. His face...."
Joe's voice trailed off, and he shrugged as he met her expectant eyes. What he wanted to say was, He looked like a lion. Cathy would scoff at that, and tell him he'd dreamed it. Perhaps he had. But he doubted his own ability to dream up someone like Vincent.
"We talked about my dad," he admitted, a little shamefaced. "It's been twenty years, since...well." He saw by the change in her eyes that she knew what he was feeling. "They say when you get in situations like this, strangers become your best friends. It was true for Vincent and me, at least on my side. He...well, he helped me. Let me talk about it." Joe felt like a fool. She hadn't been there, couldn't understand.
But it seemed she did. Her voice was compassionate, as she again took his hand in a warm grip. "I'm glad you had someone there for you, Joe. Thank goodness for Vincent."
"Yeah," said Joe quietly.
They talked a few more minutes before Cathy left. She promised to keep him posted on the goings-on at the office. Joe was sleepy, the painkillers and his own exhaustion drawing him to the brink of slumber. Just as he slipped over the edge, Vincent's words echoed again in his mind, and they became Joe's own.
I know you did your best, Dad. And I love you.
Catherine sighed as she settled against the hard vinyl of the taxi seat and gave the driver her address. Joe had given her quite a scare, and it hadn't been easy, listening wide-eyed to his story as though she hadn't just heard it all from Vincent. She wondered if Joe would ever ask her how she'd known he was in the hospital.
The streets were only marginally crowded this late on Saturday night, and Catherine soon alighted in front of her building. She hurried, knowing who was waiting for her above. As the elevator whisked her upward, she got out her keys, and was barely through the door to the balcony before Vincent was there, drawing her into his arms. She pressed herself closer to the beloved figure and nestled her cheek just where she could hear his heart beating. No matter that she'd just seen him an hour ago; blissfully, she lost herself in the feel and scent of him.
"Joe is well?" Vincent questioned, his hands lightly rubbing her shoulders.
Catherine nodded and leaned back in his arms. "He lost a lot of blood. They'll keep him in the hospital at least until Wednesday." Her lips curved in an impish smile. "Were your ears burning about twenty minutes ago? He was singing your praises."
"Does he remember much about me?" Vincent asked.
Catherine shook her head. "He remembers a large, strong, gentle man named Vincent who saved him, but didn't want to be seen. I think the secret is safe."
Vincent sighed with relief. "Joe is a good man. I trust him. But when I think what Father would say, if I told him I'd been seen, again..."
Catherine laughed. She drew him to the balcony rail and they gazed out over the sparkling city. Light and power, its lifeblood, had been restored, and all was as it should be. Catherine took Vincent's hands in hers and turned him toward her. She was learning, in small ways, to lead him into the closeness she was quite sure they both wanted.
"They said on the news that the blackout was caused by a car that smashed into a transformer," she told him. "It took out whole blocks of the city, but they got it fixed quickly...." Catherine paused, puzzled by Vincent's expression. He was not looking directly into her eyes as he usually did, reading the play of emotions there. He was looking at...her legs?
When the power had gone off, her air conditioning had gone with it, and she had changed from the jeans and shirt she'd put on for the ball game into a knee-skimming knit dress and sandals. She looked down at herself and saw nothing amiss.
"Yes, Catherine?" Belatedly he met her eyes, his a guileless, innocent blue.
She shrugged, and wrote it off to momentary inattention. "Anyway, Joe's going to be fine in a week or two, except that he'll have a nasty scar. He says it doesn't upset him, since he knows a girl named Lilah who thinks scars are sexy."
Vincent chuckled at that, and slipped an arm around her shoulders as he turned to lay his cheek against her hair. They stood in companionable silence for a while before Catherine whispered, "Tell me what you're thinking?"
"I am thinking of darkness, and light," he answered at once. "Some of us so at home in the former, some needing the latter to survive."
"Sometimes," said Catherine, circling her arms around his waist, "the brightest of lights grows out of darkness. It was out of the darkest time in my life that you came to me. And I have never feared darkness since."
Vincent hugged her hard, wordlessly, letting the radiance of their bond speak for him.