CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Pleasantly tired and glowing from a vigorous workout, Catherine left the gym the next morning and started towards her own room and a hot shower. She turned a corner and nearly collided with a man coming the other direction.

"I'm sorry," she began, automatically, as her gaze flicked up toward the man's face.

She blanched and instinctively stepped backwards.

"Hello, Cathy," he said.

Adrenaline pumped through her veins, making her heart pound and her hands tremble, and effectively tying her tongue.

He seemed to take her reaction in stride. He nodded and, acceding to a guard's tug on his arm, went around her and continued down the hall.

Frozen in place, she stared after him; only when he opened the gym door and stepped inside did she move.

Ten minutes later, she stopped her furious pacing long enough to unlock her door and admit Arlen Miller.

"I'm here," Arlen said briskly. "What is it?"

"You tell me," Catherine hissed between clenched teeth. "You tell me why your newest guest here is John Moreno!"

"First of all, Mr. Moreno isn't a guest," Arlen said. "He's a prisoner. But since he's also a witness in an important case, against a man who would not hesitate to have him killed to prevent him testifying, he's been placed in protective custody. That means here."

"You have other facilities."

"Of course," Arlen agreed. "But none so secure as this one. Mr. Moreno's enemy is not to be taken lightly. You told me so yourself."

Catherine blinked. "Gabriel? He's going to testify against Gabriel?"

Arlen inclined her head in assent. "My understanding is that Gabriel Vandt was arrested this morning. Mr. Moreno has agreed to a plea bargain."

"Immunity from prosecution?"

Arlen hesitated. "I'm not certain," she confessed. "My job is to protect him, and I've concerned myself with learning the things that will help me do that."

Catherine reached for the telephone on her desk. "I want to talk to Joe Maxwell."

It was three hours before Joe reached the facility; by then, Catherine had worked herself into a fury.

"They're dealing with Moreno," were her first words, delivered in a savage undertone.

"I know," Joe said wearily.

"Why?"

"Come on, Cath," he said, sounding annoyed. "Get real. You can't give any hard evidence against this Gabriel guy. You never actually saw him do anything."

For the first time, her fury faltered. "I know."

"But you've given them exactly what they need to put Moreno away. He dealt personally with Gabriel, I'm told. Took direct orders. He can convict Gabriel."

"In exchange for what? Arlen said not immunity."

"No," Joe agreed. "Even the Feds wouldn't stoop that low. Reduced sentence."

"Reduced to what?" Catherine asked. Her voice dropped to a whisper.

"Ten years," Joe answered. "In exchange for testimony leading to a conviction."

"That's five years with good behavior," Catherine said.

"Yeah, but it's also the end of his career. He'll be disbarred. Dishonored."

"He's taken more than four years of my life, Joe," she said bitterly. "Five years of his hardly seems a fair trade."

"I know," Joe said, his voice softening. "It isn't fair. But it gets the big guy. Doesn't that matter?"

"I suppose so," Catherine admitted. "I've worried about how they'd convict him without the book I gave to Elliot."

"Now they don't need it."

"Do they still need me?" The question came out of the blue, startling even her.

Joe's eyes were sorrowful. "I already asked that, kiddo," he said gently. "Yeah, they do. You add credence to everything Moreno says. Your testimony isn't enough to convict, but it's sure enough to hammer a few nails in the coffin."

"Yeah," she said shakily. "I guess." She looked at him. "It's dangerous for you to be here."

"So I'm told," he answered lightly.

"You shouldn't have come."

"You call me in a panic, begging me to get over here, and I shouldn't have come?"

She couldn't help smiling at his open incredulity. "No," she told him. "You shouldn't."

"What should I have done? For future reference," he added, smiling now.

"You should have told me what I wanted to hear until I calmed down."

"I don't know, kiddo," he said dubiously. "You were pretty distraught."

"Yes, I was," she admitted. "More than I should have been."

"I admit, it surprised me a little. I figured you'd have guessed Moreno might roll over for us."

"I would have, if I'd thought about it," she said. "But I haven't been sleeping well; I've had things on my mind."

"Oh?" His eyebrows went up. "Anything I can help with? Since I'm here anyway?"

She gazed at him in open speculation and came to a sudden, desperate decision. "Yes," she answered. "See if you can find out what's wrong with my son."

"Your son?" Alarm showed on his face. "Is he sick?"

"I don't think so. But something's wrong and no one will tell me what it is."

"You haven't talked to him," Joe said, with certainty.

She shook her head. "No."

"Not to his father, either."

"No."

"Then how do you know something's wrong?"

"It's what they don't say in the letters. Never, 'Nicholas sends his love,' or 'Nicholas wants you to know he's learned to write his name,' or even 'Nicholas misses you.' And look." She pulled Nicholas's drawing from the drawer where she'd put it. There was no danger in displaying it. It was a typical three-year-old's rendering; faces were drawn with blobs of color for eyes, nose and mouth.

Joe studied the crayoned scrawls carefully. "What is it?"

"He drew a picture of his family," she told him, and waited while he looked again.

"Is this you?" he asked finally, pointing to the figure with the long hair. "Looks awfully big."

"No," she said unhappily. "That's his father."

"Oh." Joe carefully didn't ask about the hair. "Who's this other person? The one with the stick?"

"That's his grandfather. Leaning on a cane."

"And the little one with the yellow hair is Nicholas," Joe guessed.

"Right. Holding his daddy's hand."

"You're not in it."

She was silent, the agony of exclusion cutting through her anew.

"Cathy. Why aren't you in it?"

She had to take a deep breath before she could answer, and even then her voice emerged sounding thin and shaky. "I don't know. I don't know what it is."

"Well, what can I do? Can I call somebody? Nicholas's father, maybe?"

"No," she answered, too swiftly. "But maybe, if you could carry a message?"

"Of course," he replied promptly. "Give it to Dr. Alcott, right?"

She nodded. "It's Peter, then, who's bringing you the letters and packages?"

"At first," Joe said. "The first two or three. I think he's still the source, but to be honest, I haven't seen him personally in a few weeks."

She frowned. "Then how do you get the packages?"

"A locker at the bus station. Or Grand Central. Just like in a spy novel. Can you believe it?"

"But how do you get the keys to the lockers?" All along, she'd been imagining envelopes and packages passing neatly from hand to hand.

"Different ways. Mostly, I get them from Benny the sandwich guy when he brings me lunch. But I got one from that old black guy who plays sax sometimes on the corner near the courthouse, and another one from some street kid who ran into me and pushed it into my hand."

Catherine smiled. "I understand," she said. "Can you wait while I write a letter?"

"Sure," he agreed, instantly. "Listen, I'll go out and shoot the breeze with the guards or something, okay? Give you some privacy." He went out, closing the door behind him.

Catherine got up and turned the deadbolt, locking Moreno out.

She had no formal stationery, but there were several yellow legal pads in her desk. She pulled one out and picked up a pen.

Dear Vincent, she wrote, and paused. Dear Vincent. It looked cold and stiff on the page, and not at all indicative of the way she felt for him. Strange, how it bothered her to write it here, in this letter he would actually hold in his hands, and not in her journal.

Dearest Vincent was no better. She thought of My Vincent, the way he'd claimed her as his Catherine in the salutation of every letter he'd sent, but that seemed derivative and anyway, she never thought of him as completely hers. Parts of him belonged to Father, and to his community. And part of him belonged, now, to Nicholas. She tore off the top sheet of paper and started anew.

Vincent. Just that. His name. Long the sweetest word she knew.

She didn't have time for all the things she wished to say; Joe was waiting. Besides, Vincent knew her as well as he knew himself. He'd know already what she was thinking, feeling. How she was enduring this dreadful separation.

Vincent. I miss you terribly, every day. Even if he knew, she had to say it. Sometimes I think I'll die if I can't see you, touch you, hear your voice. Then I remember your faith in me and the things I have to do, and it gives me the strength to stay here another minute, another hour, another day.

But something's wrong. It's in all the things no one says in letters - and it's in the drawing Nicholas made of his family. I'm not there, Vincent. What's happened? You promised you'd make him understand I didn't want to leave him. That you'd remind him every day how much I love him.

She was crying, her tears spilling down to mark the paper. She brushed them away impatiently.

Don't let him forget me, Vincent, she pleaded. Please don't let him forget me.

She glanced at the door and decided she had time for a little more.

I love you, she wrote, the fervent wave of it bringing fresh tears. Forever.

She signed it and turned to another page.

Dear Nicky, she began, printing carefully so he would be able to recognize his name. How are you? I am fine, except that I get very lonely sometimes. The people here are nice, but there aren't any children, and especially there aren't any little boys. I miss you. I wish I could see you. Everyone tells me in their letters how big you're getting.

I love you very much, Nicky. I hope you know that. I think about you every day.

She signed it, love, Mommy, and folded it in with Vincent's letter and put both in an envelope. She sealed the envelope and wrote Vincent's name on the outside.

"I give this to Dr. Alcott?" Joe asked when he returned.

"If you can do it safely," she said. "Benny might be safer. Be sure no one sees you, Joe. It's a terrible risk."

"I'll be careful," he promised, and glanced at his watch. "I'm sorry, kiddo," he apologized. "But I have to get back..."

"I know," she said wistfully. "I've taken up too much of your busy day already..."

"Don't worry about that," he said. "I'm here any time you need me, Cathy. Any time."

"I'll remember that." She hesitated, loath to let him leave.

He seemed similarly reluctant, and after a moment he grinned sheepishly and opened his arms. "Come here," he commanded.

With a wan smile, she did, pressing her face hard against his chest. "I miss you, Joe," she whispered.

"Yeah, I know," he said. "I miss you, too."

He must have made it a point to pass on the letter immediately, because two days later she had a reply. Several replies, in fact.

This time, she read Vincent's first. My Catherine, he began. Please don't be alarmed. I haven't spoken of it because I didn't wish to distress you. Nicholas is well. It is simply that he refuses to speak of you. Father and Peter assure me our son's reaction falls within parameters considered "normal" and that there is no cause for alarm. I speak of you every day, as do others, and Nicholas has by no means forgotten you.

I read your letter to him. He wouldn't look at it, and pretended to be playing with his zoo, but he listened. His heart is mine, Catherine, and I know he understood.

He misses you, as do I. We both long for the day when you will come home to us.

She knew he was trying to reassure her, but in actuality, his letter said frustratingly little.

Natalie's letter, tucked in the envelope next to Vincent's, was more blunt. I haven't said anything before because Vincent asked me not to, but if you ask me, Nicholas is furious with you for going away and leaving him, she wrote. Vincent probably won't tell you any of this; he's protecting you, I think. But I'm a mother, too, and I know I'd want to know what was going on with my kid. So now I'm telling you. Nicholas is mad. He doesn't talk about you. Ever. If someone else mentions your name, he gets this obstinate look and turns his back. But I also know he wakes in the night sometimes, crying for you.

He needs you, Catherine. You're his mother, and no one else could ever take your place. Maybe being tough is the only way he knows to cope with being without you. But he's a strong little boy surrounded by lots of people who love him, and a daddy who adores him, and he's going to be okay.

A third letter, delivered in a separate envelope, was from Peter Alcott. Dearest Cathy, he wrote, and she could almost see the rough kindness in his face. I delivered your letter, and, since I knew you wouldn't risk sending one without great cause, demanded to know what you said. So Vincent told me.

I don't blame you for worrying, Cathy, but as your friend and as your son's physician, I urge you not to. What Nicholas is experiencing is a very natural reaction to the loss of a parent. Especially as, in Nicholas's psyche, you are very likely his only parent. Even though he idolizes Vincent, he hasn't known him long enough for that deep reliance to form. That's my opinion, anyway.

What Nicholas is doing is very simple. He's angry, and he's rejecting you. Something in her chest twisted, making the breath catch in her throat. She swallowed hard and forced herself to read the next sentence. But I'll tell you a secret, Peter went on. The pain in her chest eased and she smiled a little. That was her father's pet phrase - "I'll tell you a secret."

"Go on, Peter," she whispered. "What's your secret?"

Only children who are very secure in their parents' love display this sort of behavior. Children who are unsure don't dare take the risk. Deep down, Nicholas knows how much you love him, and he knows that no matter what he does, you will still love him. That makes it okay for him to be mad at you for going away. For leaving him. And don't kid yourself; in his eyes, no matter what explanations Vincent tries to give him, that's exactly what you've done. You've left him. But he loves you, Cathy, and I feel sure he'll be happy to see you when you come back.

"You feel sure," she repeated aloud. "Not quite a guarantee, Peter." She let his letter slip from nerveless fingers. "My little boy hates me," she said to the empty room. "He thinks I've gone away from him." She raked her hair back from her face with both hands. "And, of course, he's right. I've left him. Just as surely as my mother left me."

Bitterness filled her throat and she fought the urge to walk out, get in the elevator, and not come back. It would be so easy. No one here would try to stop her; they couldn't. She wasn't a prisoner of anything but her own sense of obligation.

But that sense was backed by Vincent's belief in her, and threatened by the fear that waited for her to falter. If she went now, she would never have the strength to come back; worse, the case against Moreno would fall apart, and without Moreno's testimony, Gabriel, now incarcerated in a high-security cell in a nearby federal holding facility, would be released. Released to steal and corrupt and murder. She couldn't allow that. She couldn't face the look in Vincent's eyes if she did.

So she swallowed the bitterness and clung to the hopeful bits of the letters. Nicholas needs you, Natalie had written. He misses you, said Vincent's letter. He'll forgive you, Peter's letter all but promised.

"I hope you're right," she whispered. "I hope you're all right. My precious little boy..."

Despite her understanding of the need for Moreno and his testimony, she could barely tolerate knowing he was there; she knew she couldn't bear to see him again. She was grateful she didn't have to.

She was there of her free will; Moreno was a prisoner, subject to a plea bargain. In the hierarchy of the security facility, that gave her precedence.

So Moreno wasn't allowed near the gym during her workouts, wasn't permitted in the library when she was there, had to vacate the kitchen if she was hungry.

It probably inconvenienced him, she thought spitefully. She hoped it did.

Still, his presence was a reminder of the dangers still to be faced. She combated the oppressive fear not only with her rigorous routine, but also with her memories. She was engrossed in a particularly comic one of Nicholas at about eighteen months, liberally smeared with his first Oreo cookie, leaning out of his high chair to offer her a soggy bite, when someone tapped on her door. "Who's there?" she called as she went to answer it. She had tried leaving it open, but Moreno's presence on the floor had roused old fears and she couldn't bear the vulnerable feeling she had when it wasn't closed.

"It's me." Malek's voice.

She unlocked the door and opened it. "Hi."

"Hello," he answered. "Are you busy?"

"Not particularly. Come on in."

He complied, glancing at the TV as he did so. "Soap opera?" he asked, not quite hiding his distaste. "Do you watch those?"

Catherine made a face. "Not really. I mostly have it on for the company."

"Ah, the company. I understand that. Being a federal witness is lonely work."

His matter of fact attitude made her smile. "Yes, it is," she agreed. "What can I do for you?"

His smile was conspiratorial. "I'm hoping you will tell me you play chess."

"I do," she admitted, "but not very well. I haven't played in a long time."

"That doesn't matter," he said. "There's a board in the library. Would you like a game?"

His open eagerness decided her. "Yes," she answered. "I would."

By the time he returned with the board and pieces, she'd pulled her desk out from the wall to give them a playing surface and gone across the hall to Malek's room to borrow his chair.

"Excellent," he said when he saw her preparations. "I took the liberty of visiting the kitchen. I've brought you a diet cola."

"Wonderful," she said. "How'd you know that's what I drink?"

"Simple," he answered. "Before you arrived, we had none. Now we do. You must have requested them."

"They asked what I wanted to drink," she agreed. "Pretty good reasoning, detective."

He smiled and began to set up the board. "Not detective, no," he said. "Simply a man with the wrong relatives."

Catherine gathered up a handful of pawns and began lining them up in the appropriate spaces. "Relatives?" she asked cautiously.

Malek nodded without looking up. "My cousin."

He didn't seem inclined to go on, so Catherine let the matter rest. She took a pair of pawns, one in each hand, and offered Malek her closed fists. "You choose," she said.

He tapped her right hand and she turned it over to reveal the black pawn.

"I go first," she said, and moved her king's pawn forward.

Six moves later, Malek had checkmated her.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I didn't give you a very good game."

"No apology is necessary," he said, and began returning pieces to their starting squares. "Would you like to play again?"

He seemed in earnest, and she shrugged. "Sure. Maybe I can take you to eight moves this time."

He smiled. "I will play without my queen. Perhaps that will make us even."

"I doubt it," she answered frankly, "but we can try."

Malek won that game, too, although Catherine had lost track of the number of moves by the time he did.

"You see?" he said, setting the men up once more. "You are learning."

"It's always hard for me to visualize moves ahead of time," she confessed.

"That seems odd," Malek commented. "I was told you are an attorney."

"Used to be."

He looked up. "I understood attorneys were like doctors and claimed their titles by virtue of education."

His sincerity made her smile. "I suppose you're right," she said. "And sometimes I do say I'm an attorney, rather than I used to be one. But it's been so long since I've practiced law that I'm afraid I've forgotten a great deal."

"You've certainly lost the capacity for long range planning," Malek said. "If your chess game is anything to judge by."

She laughed. "I don't know if it is. I was a lousy chess player even when I was a practicing attorney."

"How long have you been playing chess?" he inquired as he moved a knight.

"I learned in college, but after graduation I didn't play for a long time. Years. Then I met someone who plays and he persuaded me to try it again." She smiled. "I never beat him, either."

"You speak of this person with fondness," Malek observed. "He is a close friend?"

Instinct made her wary. "Yes, he is," she answered, struggling to keep her voice casual.

"You miss him, this friend?" Malek asked with perception. The compassion in his voice made him hard to resist.

"Yes," she answered quietly. "Very much."

"Are you permitted to tell me his name?"

The odd phrasing of the question made her glance at him.

"I do not wish to ask for information you must not reveal," he explained, and she realized he thought she might need to keep the name secret because of the witness protection program.

"His name is Vincent," she said softly.

"Ah. Your friend Vincent."

"More than a friend," she said, her voice suddenly wistful. "Much more. He's the father of my little boy."

"You have a son?" Malek asked, surprised.

She nodded. "Nicholas. He's three."

"So young to be separated from his mother," Malek observed. "He is safe, yes?"

"He's with his father," Catherine said. She was aware she was telling more than necessary, perhaps more than was safe, but some part of her desperately needed to confide in someone, and Malek was a compassionate listener.

"I'm glad," Malek said, a bitter edge creeping into his voice. "My son was not so fortunate."

Foreboding traced an icy path down her spine. "What happened to him?"

"My cousin had him killed. As a warning to me."

Catherine's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, no. Malek, I'm so sorry."

He managed a sad smile. "You would like to see a picture of him?"

"Very much."

"I will get it." He left, returning a moment later with a framed photograph. It showed a boy of perhaps seven or eight, with laughing dark eyes.

"He's very handsome," Catherine said, studying it.

"He looked like his mother," Malek said softly. "And he was so smart! He spoke four languages by the time he was five."

"Four!" Catherine repeated, with astonishment.

"Yes. English, French, Arabic, and Hebrew."

"Hebrew? That's an odd choice for an Arab child, isn't it?"

"Many of my countrymen think so," Malek answered. "But Israel is our neighbor. Learning her language seemed the right thing to do. Since I knew it, I saw no reason not to teach it to my son."

"And then he died."

"My cousin was selling arms to terrorists. Right here in this city. When I found him out, I tried to persuade him to stop. He laughed at me and refused, so I went to the authorities. Two days later, my son was kidnapped from the van that took him to his private school. The van driver was badly wounded in the attack. Two days after that, my son's body was found. He had been tortured before he died. His fingers had been broken. His feet, burned. They had cut pieces from his ears and his nose."

Catherine made an inarticulate sound of horror.

"I knew then that my cousin must be stopped." Malek's voice was curiously expressionless.

"How..." Catherine paused, swallowed hard. "How did you know it was your cousin?"

Malek didn't look up. "There was a note pinned to my son's shirt. A simple reminder that I have a wife and two daughters. I knew it was a warning."

"What happened to the rest of your family?"

"They have been sent away," he said. "My father, who is outraged over the things his brother's son has done, sees they are safe."

Catherine let her breath out in a long sigh. "Oh, I'm glad."

"It will be a year, next week," Malek added. "Since my son died. I tell you this so that if I am especially melancholy, you will understand."

She reached across the width of desk and gripped his hand. "Any time you want to talk about him... or about your wife, or your daughters, I'm here," she told him.

He lifted his head and graced her with a smile. "I knew, when I first saw you," he said, "that we would be friends."


Continued in Chapter 14