CHAPTER NINE


I don't want to go." The words were muffled by the soft fabric of his shirt; his arms tightened around her in response.

"I don't want you to go," he answered.

Water dripped steadily from a nearby pipe. The floor of the little chamber was muddy from recent rains and the winter chill was easily felt this close to the surface.

She clung to him, absorbing his warmth, storing away the comfort of his presence for the time to come. Finally she mustered the strength to step back. "Take care of Nicky for me," she whispered, searching his eyes.

"You know I will," he answered. "Take great care with yourself."

Her nod, laced with the dangers both knew she went to face, was shaky. "I'll try."

He bent and kissed her gently.

She poised a moment, hovering between the need to go and the longing to stay, and flung herself into his arms for one last fervent kiss, one final all-encompassing embrace. Then she tore herself away, facing the stark, haunted look in his eyes for only a moment before whirling to plunge through a narrow, ragged-edged opening in the brick wall behind her.

She stumbled down a short, cramped passage and pushed past a tangle of old crates and boxes, emerging abruptly into a dirty alley, stinking and slimy with rotting garbage and human waste.

Despite the stench, she stood for a long time in the mouth of the alley, nerving herself for the ordeal to come. The afternoon was gray and dismal, the air wet with a fine rain that dampened her face and beaded her hair with tiny droplets.

She glanced back, as if by doing so she might catch a glimpse of the life she was leaving behind... Of her family.

As hard as it was to leave Vincent, leaving Nicholas was worse. They'd waited until this morning to tell him.

"No!" he'd shouted furiously, when she tried to explain. "Don't go!"

"I have to, Nicky," she'd said, choking back tears. "I wouldn't go if I didn't have to."

"Don't have to," he insisted. "You stay here." He caught her hand and held on fiercely.

"Nicholas," Vincent said, kneeling beside him. "There's a man up there. He hurts other people. He has to be stopped, and only your mother can stop him. There's no other way."

"I don't care!" Nicholas cried. "Mommies are supposed to stay here."

His plaintive wail wrenched at her heart and tested her resolve. When Nicholas finally went down for a nap, his expression troubled and his face tearstained, Vincent gathered her into his arms.

"It will be all right," he said, encouragingly. "He's young and adaptable."

"That's another way of saying that after a while, he'll forget me," she said bitterly. They both knew what she was about to do could take months to resolve.

"He won't forget you, Catherine," Vincent said. "I won't allow it. He'll miss you greatly. So will I."

Nicholas had awakened in a foul mood and remained sulky and uncooperative through the afternoon. When she spoke to him, he answered in monosyllables, if at all. When the time came to leave, she took his hand, needing even this small, reluctant contact before they were separated. He followed sullenly, resisting her efforts to coax a positive response. When they entered Father's chamber, she let go and he darted away. Vincent squeezed her other hand, sharing her pain.

At sight of them, Father rose from his chair. He didn't approve of her going back, though whether that was because he feared the exposure of his world, worried for her safety, or was simply concerned that once again Vincent might be hurt, she wasn't sure. Vincent had described Father's vehement reaction when he heard the news, but at least he was putting a better face on his disapproval than Nicholas was.

"Catherine," he said kindly, and kissed her cheek. "We will miss you."

"I know." Her voice was a thin thread of sound. "But I have to go."

Father glanced Vincent's way, his mouth tight. "So I'm told."

Vincent's response was mild. "You'll watch Nicholas, won't you, while I escort Catherine out?"

Father nodded. "Of course. Nicholas and I are becoming great friends."

"I know you are," Catherine said. It was hard to force the words, and her voice sounded wispy. "I'm glad."

Vincent turned to Nicholas, who was occupied in emptying a box of playthings Father kept especially for his younger visitors. "Nicholas. Your mother's about to leave. Don't you want to say goodbye?"

"No." He didn't bother to look up.

Vincent crossed the chamber to crouch beside the toybox. He spent a moment cajoling in a voice too low for Catherine to understand. Nicholas remained obdurate, intent on the toys. Vincent sighed, lifted Nicholas bodily, and brought him back.

Catherine reached for him, but Nicholas stiffened at her touch, and turned his face away when she tried to kiss him.

"Nicholas," Vincent chided, but she shook her head.

"Don't. Don't make him. It doesn't matter." It did, of course. It mattered fiercely, but compelling Nicholas wouldn't make a difference in the way he felt.

Vincent searched her eyes for a moment, then gave a brief nod and put Nicholas down. He bent over their son, speaking quietly, explaining he was to remain with Father.

"Vincent used to do that," Father murmured, beside her. "Refuse to say goodbye. When he was just that age."

"Nicky thinks I'm abandoning him."

"No," Father disagreed gently. "I rather think he's like Vincent in this; that he believes if he doesn't say goodbye, you won't go."

 

At the time, his words had given her hope, but no remembered words could fill the empty place now in her heart. But what she had told Nicholas was true; she had to do this. Blinking back bitter tears, she stepped out onto the sidewalk. Shoving her hands deep in the pockets of her long coat, she forced herself to stride along with purpose so she would blend with others hurrying along the wet street.

The pain of parting outweighed even the fear, and she moved through the once familiar streets without flinching; sometimes she even forgot to scan oncoming faces for a look of recognition, a certain sly alertness that would spell danger.

She stopped across the street from a drab tan office building. Automatically she counted windows up to the fourteenth floor, then across to the window that had once been hers. Someone else must sit at that desk now; someone else gazed out at the street during infrequent respites from the legal tangles of criminal prosecution.

Careful inspection of the street and nearby cars satisfied her that she hadn't been noticed and wasn't being watched. A nearby recessed doorway offered shelter from the rain while still permitting her to watch the glass doors of the main entrance of the Criminal Justice Building. She eased back into a corner of the doorway and settled in to wait.

Nearly two hours passed. The gray daylight faded into a grayer twilight. The mist deepened, wrapping the streetlights in a muffling blanket that made their glow almost useless. It was getting colder, too. Catherine, thoroughly damp and chilled, shivered and tried not to think of the hot coffeepot Natalie kept in her chamber.

Across the street, the door of the Criminal Justice building opened and her heart jumped as a dark-haired man emerged. She watched him turn right and stride into the darkness, then abandoned her doorway, walking quickly to keep the man in sight.

His routine didn't appear to have changed much in the three and a half years since she'd seen him. His pace was rapid, his open raincoat flapping against his legs. After a few blocks, he went into a small Greek restaurant.

She watched through the rain-smeared plate glass window as he was shown to a booth. He peeled out of his wet coat and picked up his menu.

Catherine took advantage of a gap in traffic to plunge across the street. At the entrance to the restaurant, she took a deep breath and a quick look around. No one seemed to be watching, so she pulled open the door and stepped into the warm, dry restaurant.

"Good evening, miss," the hostess greeted. "Just one?"

"No. I mean, I'm meeting someone." She pretended to scan the small, sparsely occupied room. "There he is." She gave a smile of thanks and crossed to Joe's booth. He was intent on his menu and it startled him when she slid into the seat opposite.

"Sorry, this is my..." He stuttered to a stop, his mouth open in astonishment. "Cathy?"

"Hi, Joe," she said softly.

He dropped his menu and tried to rise, but she'd anticipated him and reached across the table to catch his hand.

"Please don't," she said, speaking quickly and as forcefully as she dared. "Don't do anything that might draw attention to us. To me."

He pulled against her for a moment, then abruptly yielded to the fierce pressure of her grip and subsided back into his seat, his eyes darting across faces of other patrons before returning to her.

"It's all right," she told him. "I don't think you're being watched."

He let out a long, incredulous breath and twisted his hand around to take hers in a hard grip. "Cathy. It's really you? I'm not dreaming?"

"It's not a dream, Joe. I'm here." She offered her other hand and he gripped it, too, leaning across the table.

The waitress approached and he waved her away. "My God, Radcliffe, I thought you were dead."

She nodded, her eyes misty. "I thought you might. I'm sorry."

"Where the hell were you, anyway? Why didn't you call? I mean, I thought you were dead!" His voice was low but strident; the grip of his fingers on hers was suddenly hard enough to hurt.

"I was kidnapped," she said bluntly, and his face changed as ire gave way to distress.

"Yeah, I know. I mean, we figured, after we found your car in the parking garage. But that was almost four years ago. Are you telling me you've been captive all that time?"

"No. Joe, I know how unsettling this must be for you..."

"Believe me, Cathy, unsettling isn't the word," he interjected, his expression grim. "Try shocking."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know how else to approach you. I'm trying to keep us both safe."

"Safe from what?" He gave another wary look around. "You're talking in circles."

"I'm sorry, Joe," she repeated. Not that an apology would change the way he felt. "Maybe I'd better start at the beginning."

"That's a good idea. Why did these goons take you, anyway? What did they want?"

"At first they questioned me about the book you gave me... the black book."

He blanched. "Oh, no, Cathy..."

She went on as if he hadn't spoken. "Then they moved me to another building and put me in a room, where I lived for the next six months."

"Where? Why?"

"Here in the city. I can identify the building for you, though I doubt there are any traces of me left there. Why? Because the man who held me captive wanted my baby."

Joe's mouth opened and closed like that of a fish out of water. "Baby?" he managed, gasping.

She nodded and squeezed his hands. "I was pregnant, Joe."

He swallowed. "Pregnant," he repeated, and she could almost see the wheels turning in his mind. "That guy. The one who was sick. Him, right?"

She had to think a moment before she remembered telling Joe, in his office, about Vincent and about how ill he was. "Yes."

"He got better, then."

"Yes, he's fine now."

"What... what happened to the baby?"

"He's safe," she said tersely. "I escaped before he was born. Days before."

"You should have come to me," he said. "I would have helped you."

"I know you would. I tried. I wasn't able to." She shrugged. "Anyway, I was able to get out of the city and my son was born in safety. I've been able to protect him the past three years."

"And now you pop up, looking over your shoulder like you're scared somebody's still after you."

"I believe someone is," she said. "The man I thwarted isn't one to take defeat lightly. He'll never give up."

Joe withdrew his hands from hers and leaned back, rubbing at his eyes. "This is incredible," he said. "Here you are, after all this time, sitting across from me at the Olympiad Restaurant."

"Believe it," she said, and smiled.

He didn't smile back. "But why? I mean, why now? Especially if you're still afraid?"

"I am afraid," she admitted. "Afraid I'll never see my little boy again. Never see his father. Afraid I'll die. But the man who imprisoned me is still out there, Joe. Still wielding incredible power, still crushing anyone who gets in his way. He has to be stopped, and I think I might be the only one who can stop him."

"We never found the black book I gave you," Joe said. "We searched your desk at the office, your apartment. Even got a court order and accessed your safe deposit box."

"It wasn't there," she said.

"Where was it?"

"I gave it to Elliot Burch."

Joe's face grew even grimmer. "Burch."

"Don't be like that," she chided. "I asked if he could help me. He offered to try."

"He's lost his empire, you know," Joe said.

She nodded. "His name was mentioned often enough in the media. I wanted so badly to help him, but I couldn't. I could barely help myself."

"He's disappeared. No one knows where he is."

"He's made a powerful enemy, Joe."

"You're saying the guy who kidnapped you, the guy who would ultimately be implicated by that book, is behind the fall of Burch Enterprises?"

She nodded. "I hope Elliot's gotten far away. And for his sake, I hope he never comes back."

Joe snorted. "But if he had the black book, don't you think he could have come forward with it? Mailed it to me anonymously or something? Without it, we were forced to abandon our investigation of Patrick's allegations."

"It's possible he tried," Catherine said carefully. "But in any case, you shouldn't have needed it."

"Why not?"

"Because before I gave the book to Elliot, I made a photocopy for John Moreno."

Joe would have exploded, she thought, if she hadn't again caught his hands.

"Moreno?" he hissed, clearly furious. "You're accusing Moreno?"

She'd expected this, although she wasn't sure if his wrath was directed at Moreno for his betrayal, to her for making the accusation, or a combination. "It gets worse," she said. "He set me up. Because I trusted him, I put my gun away."

Joe's face couldn't have gotten any whiter. "I'll kill the son of a..."

She shook his hands, hard. "No, Joe. I want him prosecuted. That's why I've come back. I want to testify."

Joe made a couple of phone calls from a pay phone near the restrooms, and then whisked her out and into a cab.

Catherine folded her arms tightly and huddled into a corner of the cab's back seat, trying not to shake. Yielding control of her actions to someone else was something she hadn't done in years. She trusted Joe implicitly, and she'd known, even before she contacted him, that she would literally have to place her life into his hands, but still she trembled.

"I talked to a buddy of mine with the U.S. Attorney's office," Joe said, talking rapidly. "He's very interested in what you have to tell him. Especially what you have on Moreno."

Catherine nodded; she'd known Moreno would be the prime focus at first. Only later, when she was able to delineate and define Gabriel's activities for them would he spring to prominence. She looked out the window at the darkened, rain-slick streets and hugged herself tighter.

"We're going now to talk with him," Joe went on.

Instinct made her alert. "Your friend? Where?"

"His office," Joe said, looking surprised.

"No. Not his office. It might be compromised."

"Cathy, it's a government building. Security, guards..."

"And I was kidnapped from a parking structure adjoining the police station!" she hissed. "Don't you understand? If he has the District Attorney of Manhattan in his pocket, he could have anyone! I'm risking my life here, Joe. I know what I'm talking about."

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked uncomfortable. "Okay. So we don't meet at Jack's office. Where do we go?"

Catherine thought a minute. "I know," she said at last. "Tell the driver to pull over."

Joe leaned forward and spoke to the driver, who grumbled something unintelligible in a heavy accent and pulled to the curb. Catherine got out and stood nervously surveying passersby as Joe paid the cabby and came around the idling cab to join her. "Now what?" he asked.

She felt better now that she was in control. She pointed to a nearby pay phone. "Call your friend," she said. "Find out if he's mentioned your earlier call to anyone. If he hasn't, tell him to meet us at Frosty Jack's Diner. It's just off of Broadway..."

"I know where it is," Joe said. "I'll call."

Catherine stood, shivering as much from apprehension as from the damp chill, while Joe made his phone call. "Come on," he said a moment later, hanging up the phone. "He thinks we're crazy, but he'll meet us."

"Has he talked to anyone?"

"He says not."

Catherine burrowed more deeply into her coat and hoped Joe's friend had told the truth.

Jack was waiting when they reached the diner; Joe spotted him in a booth near the back and waved a greeting as they approached. "Cathy Chandler, I'd like you to meet Jack Butler..."

"A pleasure, Miss Chandler," Jack said, rising politely. "And an even greater pleasure to learn you're safe."

"I'm alive, Jack," she corrected him gently. "I'm not safe."

His face changed in response to her remark, and she could see he was prepared to take her very seriously.

Over the next two hours, and interminable cups of coffee, Catherine outlined for Jack Butler what had happened, who was involved, what evidence she could produce. He interrupted with periodic questions and took copious notes.

"Well," he said at last. "Once I get this typed up for your signature, we'll certainly be able to arrest Mr. Moreno. Your case against this Gabriel is sketchier..."

"I know that," she answered. "I hoped I could get the black book back..."

"Well, until we know where Burch is, that's out of the question," Joe said. "But we have enough to do some heavy investigation, and who knows what we'll turn up?"

"Right," Jack agreed. "Meanwhile, Cathy, you need to be someplace safe."

She cleared her throat. "Actually, I have a safe place to go," she ventured.

"Okay. Where?"

"I can't tell you."

"Look, Cath, you can trust Jack," Joe said, squeezing her hand.

"You're an attorney, Cathy. You understand. You're my only link to all this. I can't lose you. Before I can justify the expense of this investigation, risk people's lives, I have to know where you'll be, have to know you're safe, and have to be able to contact you."

She bent her head. It had been a slim hope at best, that she would be allowed to arrange for them to get her a message when they needed her, so she could return to the tunnels. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "The place I was thinking of isn't easy to contact. I'd be out of touch."

"Then it can't work," Jack said kindly. "Listen, Cathy, I want to put you into a protective facility here in the city."

"A safe house?" She regarded him skeptically, unconvinced that the average apartment or townhouse could be adequately secured against Gabriel's efforts.

"Actually, it's more of a reverse prison," Jack said. "Designed to keep people out, rather than in. More security than the White House, or so I'm told. For people - witnesses like you, mostly - who are in real danger, and for whom ordinary safe houses might not be enough."

She studied his face. "I'm listening."

"It's the top floor of a government office building," he said. "The building I work in, actually. It's utterly secure. The elevator is controlled from the guard station on that floor, and there are video cameras at all access points. The guards are actually federal agents, specially trained for this type of work. No one living there has ever been compromised."

She offered a shaky smile. "Sounds perfect," she quipped. "When do we go?"


Continued in Chapter 10