QUANTUM BEAST

by Lee Kirkland


Leaps were always disorienting and this one was no exception. With the usual lack of warning, Sam Beckett found himself hurled into a new body, a new place and a new time. The body he suddenly occupied was pacing slowly through what appeared, at first glance, to be some sort of mine shaft, dimly lit by an unseen source. Sam put out a hand, supporting himself against the rough rock wall as he looked around. He turned to examine the wall itself and stopped, staring transfixed at the hand braced there.

It was not a human hand. It had four fingers and an opposable thumb, but there its humanity ended. It was large, strong-looking, and the back of it was covered with long, dense reddish fur. Sam turned the hand over, curling the fingers to examine the tips more closely. What passed for fingernails weren't really nails at all... they resembled nothing so much as claws.

Gingerly Sam touched the point of the forefinger against the pad of the thumb and learned the claws were as sharp as they looked. He lifted the other hand slowly to join the first, turning them back and forth in awe and amazement.

A faint clinking sound from a side passage just ahead drew his attention. Sam waited warily as a bobbing, wavering beam of light appeared and grew stronger. Finally, the source of the noise and light, a rather curiously dressed young man, rounded the corner.

As the young man approached, Sam assessed his strange outfit in bewilderment. It seemed to consist of layer upon layer of worn, threadbare sweaters topped by an unevenly fringed leather tunic. Tied to the fringe and hanging from his belt was an incongruous assortment of tools; pliers, wrenches, wire cutters, screwdrivers, a geologist's hammer, a short-handled folding spade and a large coil of insulated wiring swung and tapped together at every step. Balanced across one shoulder were several long lengths of white PVC pipe. PVC joints and metal brackets protruded from every pocket and he carried a twelve-volt dry cell battery in one hand.

The oddest thing was what the young man wore on his head and Sam stared in fascination. It appeared to be a welder's cap with common flashlights fastened to leather earflaps on either side. The lights bounced haphazardly and the entire effect was ludicrous.

Trying not to laugh, Sam set his jaw and clenched his teeth, receiving a shock. Forgetting the strange young man, his tongue probed swiftly, discovering, to his astonishment, that all four canine teeth were elongated and sharp. He had fangs!

He had no time to ponder this, however, as the young man greeted him cheerfully, a smile lighting his guileless blue eyes."Vincent! Mouse was looking for you! Mary sent you tea! In your chamber!"

None of it made sense. "Mouse?" Sam managed, a little surprised to find that this strange mouth with its animal-like teeth and thick upper lip could speak.

"No time!" the young man exclaimed. "Jamie's waiting!" With that cryptic goodbye, he scurried around another corner and was gone.

Sam stared after him, his bewilderment growing by the second. Well, at least I know my name, he thought. I'm Vincent. But who am I... what am I? Again he stared at the unusual hands. And where am I? Totally disoriented, he looked up and down the narrow, rock-walled passage. 'I don't think I'm in Kansas anymore!'

Looking down again, he found that his style of dress was no less odd than that of the young man's... layers of sweaters covered with a padded gray vest that laced up the front. His corduroy trousers seemed fairly normal, but some sort of padded knee guards were tied over them with elaborately knotted lacing. Knee-high boots were made of stout, worn leather. A heavy black cloak hung from his shoulders, swaying slightly with his every move.

Footsteps sounded behind him and he whirled. A young girl, perhaps eleven or twelve years old, was coming down the passage. Her quick, light step slowed when she spied him and he wondered what she saw, wondered if he frightened her.

She continued toward him, her expressive brown eyes filled with sad concern. "You didn't find her yet, did you, Vincent?" She seemed not to expect an answer as she stopped in front of him. With a curiously adult gesture, one meant to comfort, she reached out to take one of his large, furry hands between her own small smooth ones. "I know you'll find her, Vincent, I just know it!"

Find who? Sam wondered wildly.

"She's been gone for so long!" the girl went on. "I really miss her."

"So do I," he murmured. It seemed a safe answer, and Sam found himself fascinated with the quality of the voice emanating from his throat. It was deep, husky and gentle and he wanted to hear it again.

"Are you all right, Vincent?" the girl asked anxiously. "Are you getting sick again?" She looked worried, even a little frightened.

"I'm just tired," he said quickly, and realized it was so. Whatever this body's owner... Vincent... had been doing recently, it was something which exacted a physical toll and Sam could feel fatigue in every muscle. "Could you help me to my chamber?" he asked, remembering the tea waiting there and knowing he needed a guide.

The girl seemed pleased to be asked, putting a supporting arm around his waist. She's not afraid, he thought as he let her lead him. Whatever I am, I'm intelligent. I speak. I'm peaceful. Whatever I am.

The girl took him through curving rock tunnels, making several turns in the process and soon Sam was completely lost. Where am I? he wondered yet again. This place was totally alien to anything he'd ever seen, ever heard of, ever read about.

The girl stopped and Sam looked around, amazed again. They were standing in a medium-sized room which had been carved out of solid rock. A splendid stained-glass window in gold and blue dominated one wall and the furnishings had a slightly medieval flavor.

"Will you be all right now?" the girl asked anxiously. "Should I get Father?"

Who, thought Sam plaintively, is Father? "No," he said aloud, noting again the rough, soothing voice. "I'm okay. Thanks," he added, and the child gave him a quizzical look as she went on her way.

A delicate china teapot steamed faintly on the heavy round table in the center of the room and Sam went to it. He poured himself a cup of the fragrant liquid, spilling some because the hands fascinated him so much that he forgot to watch what he was doing.

Cup in hand, he began a tentative exploration of the chamber. As he lifted the cup for a thoughtful sip, he found drinking unexpectedly difficult. Setting the cup on a shelf, he used his fingers to gingerly investigate his mouth. As with the earlier exploration with his tongue, his fingers found a thick, stiff, almost immobile upper lip. The center of it was deeply cleft, the split going all the way to the base of the nose.

Sam wondered why, in this day and age, the rift hadn't been repaired by plastic surgery. You idiot, he reminded himself. You don't know what day and age it is. For all you know...

He sighed and looked around the cluttered shelves and cabinets for something to use as a mirror, but found nothing. All the while, one hand was touching, probing his face gently. He found the nose to be broad and flat with virtually no bridge. Short, soft hair grew along it. His cheekbones were high and prominent with deepset eyes beneath a prominent brow. Ears, forehead, chin and neck all felt normal, although it felt as if he could use a shave. Coarse, tangled reddish blond hair fell over his shoulders and once more Sam wished for a mirror.

Wandering the room again, he began touching items as he tried to get a feel for their owner. A polished geode, an ornate pewter figurine, a leatherbound book of poetry all attracted his attention. In the corner, a small jukebox sat on a shelf.

A handsomely bound book on an antique writing table drew him and he opened the cover. Inside, in a strong, feminine hand, was the inscription, 'With love, all things are possible.' It was signed, 'Forever, Catherine.'

"'With love, all things are possible,'" he said aloud. "'All things are possible.'"

He turned a few pages and was surprised to learn that this was a journal. Before he snapped the cover shut, one line caught his eye. '...she is lost to me. I fear...' Suddenly, he felt like an intruder.

"'With love, all things are possible,'" he said again, and this time there was an answer.

"Take it from me, Sam, love's not all it's cracked up to be. It's..."

Sam couldn't remember ever seeing Al look so surprised. Al's eyes were wide as he looked Sam up and down, circling him slowly. "Wow! This is incredible! This is great!" The hand holding the ever-present cigar waved ecstatically. "This is terrific! Sam, you ought to see yourself!"

"Well, I can't," he snapped, and found that the voice wasn't conducive to snapping. "There aren't any mirrors."

Al had stopped staring at Sam and was now walking around the eclectically decorated chamber, making more excited comments and gestures. "This is great! Who would have guessed this was here?"

"Al. Al. Al!" Sam's voice grew progressively louder until he finally succeeded in capturing Al's elusive attention. "Where am I?"

"You're..." Al looked down, consulting his hand-held computer. "...about a half-mile below Central Park."

"Central Park? You mean New York? Manhattan?"

"Yeah. This is great, Sam!"

"What year is it, Al?"

Al consulted the computer again. "1989." He went on with scarcely a breath. "This is incredible!"

"Will you stop with the 'greats' and 'incredibles?'" Sam demanded. "What am I doing here?"

Al gave the computer a cursory glance. "Don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" He didn't notice the man who limped into the room with the aid of a cane.

"Vincent? Who are you talking to?"

Sam spun to face the man. He wore more of the strange clothing that was beginning to seem normal and his lined face wore a worried frown. "Samantha said you didn't seem well. Is it... your illness returning?"

"I don't think so," Sam ventured cautiously, wondering what this illness was and why it worried everyone so much. "I'm just tired."

The man's mouth tightened. "I'm not surprised. You've never allowed yourself the time to recover... every waking moment is spent searching..."

"You're looking for someone, Sam!" Al said in delight. "Now we're getting somewhere! Find out who it is!"

"For Catherine," Sam said slowly, remembering the journal entry.

"I know how difficult this is for you, Vincent, but it's been six months. Perhaps there is a reason why you have not found her, why your connection with her is still lost."

"Six months! Persistent fellow, isn't he?" Al commented.

"I can't stop looking," Sam said, hoping it was the right answer.

It must have been, because the man sighed. "I know. But you must try to rest, Vincent. If your illness should return, Catherine is not here to bring you back to us. I don't think you would have survived last time without her."

"A woman, Sam! You're looking for a woman! Wonder if she's like you?"

Sam had been wondering the same thing. Was it possible that a group of creatures like... whatever he was... lived in tunnels below New York City? It seemed incredible, and yet... He glanced down at his hands again.

The man seemed to find nothing unusual in his bewildered silence, coming closer to take his arm in a warm, fatherly grip. "Your love for Catherine and hers for you is a precious thing, Vincent. Rare and wonderful. I suppose you are right not to give up hope." He turned away, as if imparting bad news. "One of our helpers sent down word that the D.A.'s office is ending their investigation into her disappearance. She's one of their own... perhaps they know more than we do."

At a loss for a response, Sam simply stared. His lack of reaction seemed to trouble the old man, who approached him again, taking him into a sudden embrace. "When you were a boy it seemed so simple to help you solve your problems and calm your fears. I wish I could ease your pain now." He sighed regretfully. "Rest now, my son."

"I will... Father." The man accepted the name and Sam heaved a mental sigh. Upon his arrival in a new body, one of the hardest things was to identify people he was supposed to know.

Al was still talking in the background. "I'll bet that's what you're supposed to do, Sam. You're supposed to find this Catherine."

After the man called Father left the chamber, Sam turned to Al with a sigh. "If I'm going to find her, I'd better know more about her. What does Ziggy say?"

Al punched a few buttons and waited. "Not much. There's no record of this place. No record of any Vincent who looks like you do." He looked up. "Ziggy needs somebody's last name, date of birth, something."

"The journal," Sam mumbled to himself.

Al brightened. "A journal! Yeah, good idea! Well, what are you waiting for?" he demanded when Sam hesitated. "You're not getting principled on me, are you? We've had this discussion before..."

"I know." Sam sighed and reached for the book, his fingers caressing the finely embossed leather. He read the inscription on the flyleaf again. 'With love, all things are possible.' "I think we're looking for an ordinary woman, Al," he commented. "I mean, I don't think she's like him." He looked down at his hands yet again. "What I'm trying to say is, if she loves Vincent, she can't be ordinary...

"Didn't Father say something about the D.A.'s office?"

"Yeah," agreed Al. "Something about one of their own..."

"That's a starting place. See what you can find out about someone named Catherine who worked for the D.A. and disappeared six months ago. I'll see what I can learn from this," Sam said, and began to turn the pages.

After reading all of the current journal, Sam found he was completely captivated by this Vincent whose body he inhabited. He marvelled over the depth and perception of the thoughts contained within its pages. The journal focused on Vincent's search for his beloved Catherine, who had mysteriously disappeared six months before. He had found her once, only to lose her again as her captors made a narrow escape. Heartache and longing fairly shimmered on each page.

Sam found other journals, neatly shelved in chronological order. His hand touched some of the early ones. He wanted to explore more of Vincent, learn more about him, what he thought, how he felt. But while Sam could justify looking through recent journals for information about Catherine, snooping through Vincent's boyhood was another matter. Regretfully, he left the early journals shelved, pulling down the next newest journal and opening it.

While this book was of lesser quality and had no loving inscription to grace the flyleaf, the feelings and thoughts inside were no less powerful and incisive. Sam pored over it, reading of many things... the death of Catherine's father and her ensuing grief; a painful, telling reunion with someone named Lisa; an anniversary celebration which culminated in Catherine's near death; her reinvolvement with someone called Elliot; Vincent's agony and self-reproach during a crisis with someone called Paracelsus, a crisis which apparently prompted the illness which had Father and Samantha so worried.

Vincent's handwriting during this period grew less and less legible, but his struggle against what he called 'the darkness' came through clearly. A final page was covered with a large, untidy scrawl and Sam could decipher only an occasional word. A blank page was followed by more pages, once again covered with Vincent's neat hand. In these pages he spoke of being in a dark place, and of Catherine coming to bring him back. He mentioned memory loss, and the loss of something he called a bond. 'I can no longer feel her in my heart,' he'd written sadly. 'Something troubles her, for I can see it in her face. Why won't she tell me?'

Sam was impressed and intrigued by everything he read. As he closed the journal quietly, he wished he had leaped into some other body so he could sit down and talk to Vincent, get to know him. On the other hand, he mused, if I weren't Vincent, I wouldn't have been able to read the journals.

His eyes were tired and he thoughtlessly rubbed at them, almost instantly jerking his hand away with an exclamation of pain. A more cautious finger touched to his eyelid came away spotted with blood and he regarded the claws on the offending hand with rueful humor. "These things are dangerous," he muttered.

At least his blood is red. The random thought was immediately replaced by a more impatient one. What color did you expect? Green, like Mr. Spock?

"I'm getting punchy," he said aloud. Putting the journal aside, he removed his boots and stretched his rather large frame out on the bed. The mattress and pillows were firm but not uncomfortable and as Sam pulled a blanket over himself, he realized how weary he was. Soon he was asleep.

 

When he woke, he had the usual moment of uncertainty before he remembered where he was. He lifted one hand to confirm the memory before rolling out of bed.

After sleeping in his clothes, he felt rumpled and grubby. A hot shower would feel great... Or maybe just a bath, he mused, looking at his surroundings. Logic dictated that there must be somewhere to bathe, but he had no idea where to start looking. Ah, the hell with it. A change of clothes will have to do.

He found clean clothes folded neatly in a cabinet and removed what he needed. He disrobed slowly, hesitating when he reached the last layer, wondering what he would find underneath. He was relieved to learn that Vincent's body was that of a man... normal in all respects except for the fine, downy fur which covered it. The fur was thicker in the places where most men had body hair and Sam found that oddly reassuring. Not too unhuman, he thought. A china pitcher and basin caught his eye and he managed a cursory wash, dressing quickly afterward because the room's opening had no door, leaving him with no sense of privacy.

Some of the garments in the cabinet defied his imagination, but he found a pair of dark blue wool trousers and pulled them on. A long-sleeved t-shirt thin and soft with wear went on next, followed by two much-mended sweaters and a fringed suede vest. Clean socks covered Vincent's rather furry feet and Sam stamped them firmly into yesterday's... (yesterday? He had no time sense away from the rhythms of sun and stars... no idea if it were day or night...) boots and stood up. Rolling the soiled clothing into a compact bundle, he placed it on a chair near the door and addressed another need.

He was hungry. He wasn't sure when Vincent had last eaten, but he had a feeling Vincent's meals had not been exactly regular lately.

His short trip through the tunnels with Samantha had taught him how easy it would be to get lost down here, but he'd have to chance it. Starting out the door, he stopped and turned back for the long black cloak. It seemed a necessary part of Vincent's dress, so he swung its weight over his shoulders and ventured into the unknown.

Direction didn't matter, since he didn't know where he was going anyway. Choosing the left-hand passage leading away from Vincent's chamber, he began walking. He tried to memorize the landmarks... openings into other chambers and side passages... but these were many and soon he had lost track of the turns he had made. Great, he thought in exasperation. Now you're lost. And you still haven't found where they keep the food.Three children turned a corner and came down the tunnel toward him. He recognized Samantha, the girl from yesterday. She was accompanied by two boys about the same age and they hailed him cheerfully. "Hi, Vincent!"

He acknowledged their greeting, wishing there was a way to ask them the location of the kitchen without arousing suspicion, but they seemed to be in a hurry and passed him without stopping. With a mental sigh, he moved on.

As he approached the type of narrow opening that heralded a living chamber, a tiny, frail-looking elderly woman peered out. "Vincent!" she cried in delight. "I was just going to send someone for you! I need your help!"

"Of course," Sam agreed at once, wondering what sort of assistance he would be expected to render, and if he would be able to deliver.

"Come in, come in," the woman urged him, leading him into a quaintly decorated chamber. It reminded Sam of his grandmother's house, with every conceivable surface covered with hand-crocheted doilies, needlepoint pillows and painstakingly hand-stitched quilts.

"What do you need?" he inquired. The woman indicated an immense, intricately carved oak armoire which stood against one rough rock wall.

"I dropped an entire box of hairpins, Vincent," she explained. "The box fell behind the armoire and I can't reach it to get it out. Would you move it for me, please?"

Sam stared at the massive piece of furniture in dismay. The thing had to weigh four or five hundred pounds. He stole a look at the woman who was looking at him expectantly. Well, there was no help for it... he'd have to attempt it.

Moving to one side of the armoire, he found a solid grip, braced himself, and shoved, exerting all his strength. To his amazement, it slid away from him with ridiculous ease and he almost stumbled as its support moved away from him.

"There was no need to move it so far, Vincent," the woman scolded him gently, stooping to retrieve a small carved wooden box. "Oh, good, it's not damaged," she said, placing the box on an antique dresser. "You can put the armoire back now, Vincent."

Her reminder was gentle.

Sam was more cautious this time, using less strength and moving the armoire back into place more slowly. He flexed the muscles in his arms and shoulders in awe. Vincent's body was enormously powerful and Sam's respect went up another notch.

The woman was twisting her long gray hair into a compact knot at the back of her neck and securing it with a few hairpins from the wooden box. "There," she said in satisfaction. "I can't thank you enough for helping me, Vincent. I couldn't very well go to dinner with my hair down my back, now could I?"

Sam's ears perked up at mention of the word dinner. "No, I suppose not," he said. I'll follow her, he planned.

"Do you suppose, Vincent, that I could trouble you for one more favor?"

"Of course," Sam agreed instantly.

She came closer and placed a thin, frail hand on his arm. "My old feet aren't as steady as they once were," she confided. "Would you be kind enough to escort me to the dining chamber?"

Things couldn't have worked out better if Sam had planned them. Adjusting his long stride to the woman's slower one, he allowed her to guide him as he steadied her. At last they reached a large chamber furnished with long tables flanked by wooden benches and hand-crafted chairs. Against one wall, a large, gruff-looking bearded man was ladling something from an enormous cast iron pot suspended over a small bed of coals. Several loaves of fresh bread were stacked on a nearby table and a sharp-looking bread knife lay across a crumb-strewn cutting board.

"Vincent and Martha!" The big man smiled, greeting them both heartily as he reached behind him for more bowls. He ladled a savory smelling soup, thick with vegetables and meat, into one of the bowls and handed it to Martha. "Bread on the table," he invited. "Help yourself." Not waiting for a reply, he turned to Sam.

"Haven't seen much of you, Vincent," he said, filling another, larger bowl. "Father worries you aren't eating right."

Sam made a non-committal reply, accepting the bowl with thanks. He helped himself to some of the bread, found a place at the end of one of the long tables, and began to eat.

The soup was delicious, hot and filling, and Sam was so busy appeasing this body's ravenous appetite and dealing with the physical difficulty of eating that he barely noticed when the man called Father sat down opposite him.

"I'm surprised to see you here," Father said, probing.

"I guess I was more tired than I thought. I slept longer than I meant to," he explained.

Father leaned back in a deceptively relaxed manner. "You know, Vincent, I can't remember the last time you actually sat down to a meal like this."

Sam groped for a reasonable answer. "I realized you were right. If I'm going to find Catherine, I have to be strong. I need to rest and eat."

It was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Father sat up straight and stared at him.

Sam pushed his empty bowl away uneasily. "Don't worry. I'm fine. Really I am," he said, trying to reassure.

The apprehension on Father's face said he hadn't been successful. Not knowing what else to do, Sam terminated the conversation by the simple expedient of getting up and walking away.

In the corridor outside the dining chamber he sagged against the wall. It had been a long time since he'd handled a conversation as badly as he'd handled that one. Father was becoming suspicious and Sam needed to be more convincing.

Starting down the passage, he hoped to meet someone who could be persuaded to lead him back to Vincent's chamber, or, better yet, lead him to the surface. His wish was granted almost at once as the curious young man he'd met yesterday (this morning?) barreled around a corner and almost ran him down.

The young man seized Sam's arm enthusiastically. "Wait, Vincent! Got news!"

"News?" Sam asked cautiously.

"Told Jamie Mouse could find you!" the young man went on, following his own peculiar stream of logic.

"News," Sam repeated, clinging to the one word he clearly understood.

"Found her maybe! Helper heard men talking... strange men... move Chandler today. Building on 53rd."

Chandler, Sam thought. Catherine Chandler.

Head down, the curious young man was rummaging through his many pockets. "Paper somewhere," he muttered. "Here!"

Successful at last, he thrust a grimy scrap of folded paper into Sam's hands. Unfolding it, Sam tried to decipher the address.

"Ready to go? Mouse go too!" the young man volunteered with bright-eyed eagerness.

Mouse. He said that yesterday, and Vincent wrote of someone called Mouse. Sam decided to risk the name. "Mouse, yeah. Come on, walk with me back to my chamber. I need to get something first."

"Okay, good! Okay, fine!" Mouse turned to accompany him willingly enough.The journey to Vincent's chamber was shorter than Sam expected. "Wait a second, Mouse," he said when they reached it. Inside, he picked up a smooth lump of soft limestone he'd noticed earlier. Vincent evidently used it as a paperweight, but Sam was going to put it to another use. Sorry, buddy, he apologized silently, and returned to Mouse.

We're off to see the wizard, he thought bemusedly as they started off. Lagging half a step behind, he allowed Mouse to show the way.

At every turn and fork, he used the limestone to make a surreptitious mark on the wall. Should he and Mouse become separated, he could use the marks to find his way back.Mouse led him through what seemed like miles of rock tunnels, brick passageways and concrete steam tunnels, but at last they came to a dead end. Mouse pointed to a vertical ladder made of iron staples set into the concrete wall."New entrance," he announced proudly. "Just changed the walls yesterday. Couldn't use it before."

Sam found that remark to be cryptically Mouse-like and incomprehensible. He decided to ignore it.

Mounting the first rung, he wondered if he should have let Mouse go first. What if I come up in the middle of Fifth Avenue? Well, it's too late now!

The ladder led to a manhole cover and Sam was glad to have Vincent's strength as he shouldered it aside. He climbed out cautiously, finding himself in a dim, narrow alley. Mouse followed quickly and Sam replaced the heavy iron disk carefully.Keeping to the shadows, Sam let Mouse lead him down the alley, around a corner and up another, narrower alley. Mouse stopped beside an older, well-maintained building and pointed up. "Here it is," he announced with satisfaction.

Sam looked up dubiously. A fire escape led up the building's side and the bottom rung of its spring-loaded ladder was a good six feet over his head.

"Jump, Vincent," Mouse suggested impatiently.

It's too high, thought Sam, then remembered the ease with which he'd moved Martha's armoire. Well, maybe not. Gathering himself, he sprang. His first leap, made tentatively, fell short but on his second, he succeeded in catching hold of the ladder and it dropped under his weight, carrying him none too gently to the ground. He held it down while Mouse ascended and followed.

The apartment number on the scrap of paper Mouse had given him was 9B, so they climbed silently to the ninth floor. The fire escape access door was handleless, meant only to be opened from the inside. Sam wedged claws under the door's rim and tugged but, as expected, the door was latched firmly and the release lever could only be reached from inside. There was a small window beside the door and Sam peered in cautiously. By craning his neck, he could just make out the numbers on the two doors nearest. The apartment they sought was immediately to their right and Sam pointed out the appropriate windows to Mouse.

"No problem! Easy," Mouse said with confidence, climbing over the fire escape's protective railing. Sam watched, horrified, as Mouse stepped out onto a narrow ledge which ran the length of the building, edging along surefootedly. He looked back expectantly. "Coming?" he demanded.

"Uh, sure," Sam mumbled. He cast one wary look down before averting his eyes. Heights were not his favorite thing. Heart pounding, he followed Mouse out onto the ledge. It felt smaller under his feet than it had looked and Sam pressed back against the rough stone behind him as he sidled along. He dared not look down again, concentrating instead on moving along the ledge one careful inch at a time.

"Hurry up!" Mouse urged impatiently.

Turning his head cautiously, Sam saw Mouse had already managed to open one window and, as Sam watched, Mouse disappeared through the opening. He tried to sidle along a little faster and was finally able to hook one hand inside the window frame. His secure grip gave him confidence and a moment later he, too, was inside the dark apartment.

The apartment was deserted. A broken-down chair stood against one wall and a plethora of abandoned miscellania littered the room. Mouse was scavenging eagerly through a haphazard pile of discarded items in a corner of the room, all thoughts of their search for Catherine Chandler forgotten. Sam left him happily pocketing useless items and began a methodical search through the trash which had been left behind, looking for something, anything, that would link this place with Catherine.

"Mouse," he said a moment later. "Tell me again what was said about Catherine..."

Mouse turned reluctantly away from his newly discovered treasure trove. "Didn't say Catherine," he reminded. "Said Chandler. Move Chandler today."

"Yeah." In his hands, Sam held a torn envelope. The typewritten address was still intact and he read it sullenly. It was addressed to this building, apartment 9B. The addressee's name was Tamara Chandler. "Damn!" he whispered. "Not here!"

"What?" Mouse was only half listening as he sifted through his pile of treasure.

"I said she's not here, Mouse," Sam repeated more loudly. "She never was here. This Chandler is somebody else."

"Too bad." Mouse looked truly disappointed, his attention, at least for the moment, focused fully on Sam.

"Yeah," Sam agreed. "Too bad." Too bad in more ways than one, he thought. If it had been the right Chandler, maybe I could have found something to point me in the right direction. Now I'm back to square one... I can't even go back down, he realized a moment later. Vincent wouldn't. Vincent would search until dawn.

"Vincent keep looking," Mouse urged. "Mouse stay here." With that pronouncement, he turned back to sorting junk and Sam stared, envying his single-mindedness. Since Mouse clearly expected him to leave, he couldn't stay.

Going back to the open window, he peered out. I'm not getting back on that ledge, he decided suddenly. It can't be more than six steps from the front door to the fire escape. How much risk can there be? He knew it didn't really matter how much risk there was... nothing was getting him back on that ledge.

Crossing to the front door, he used the fisheye peephole to scan the hallway. It appeared deserted, but it was also well lit. Pulling his cloak's hood over his head, Sam took a deep breath and opened the door. Five of Vincent's long strides took him to the fire escape and within seconds he was safely outside, leaning back against the firmly closed door in relief. Mouse hadn't even seen him go.

Sam stood on the metal landing a few more moments, catching his breath and getting his bearings. His options were limited. He couldn't go back into the tunnels yet, but he didn't want to chance losing track of the only tunnel entrance he knew, either. His only choice was to remain close to this building. But he couldn't very well stay on the fire escape all night... it was too exposed and someone might see him.

With a sigh, he yielded to the inevitable and started to climb. The building wasn't tall by New York standards and a few minutes later he reached the roof. It wouldn't exactly be a comfortable place to spend the rest of the night, but it would be safe. Besides, Al should be showing up any time with information about Catherine and here, no one would be wondering who Sam was talking to.

Making himself as comfortable as he could, Sam let his eyes and mind wander. A high-rise tower of steel and smoked glass a block or two away kept drawing his attention and it took him a few minutes to figure out why. All the other skyscrapers he could see were brightly lit even at this time of night. This building alone was darkened. It seemed almost eerie and its strangeness was compounded by the single light which shone from a solitary window high above the street.

What kind of building has as many rooms as that one must have, he wondered, and only one light is on? Weird!

 

Several hours later, he descended the fire escape by the pale glow of dawn. Al had never showed and coming daylight made it reasonable for Sam to return to the tunnels.

He found the manhole cover and levered it up, dropping through the hole and pulling the cover back into place. He was impressed by the easy economy of Vincent's movements even under the somewhat uncertain commands his mind was giving it.

Vincent's extraordinary eyesight was a blessing too, as Sam was able to pick out the limestone marks he'd left on the tunnel walls without benefit of light. He was almost to Vincent's chamber, in fact, before he missed a mark and lost his way. Well, he thought philosophically, at least I'm not in one of those remote tunnels Mouse took me through. If I wander around long enough down here, I'm sure to find someone who can show me the way home.

It was still very early, even for tunnel folk, however, and Sam met no one on his explorations. Wrong turn followed wrong turn and soon he had left the residential area of tunnels behind. He had resumed making marks on the walls with his chunk of limestone so he was fairly certain of being able to find his way back. Unexplored territory beckoned and for a moment he was ten years old again, about to crawl into the narrow opening he'd found in the hillside near his grandparents' house.

Drawn by the faint sound of water, he went down a side passage that opened into a large chamber lit with what appeared to be diffused sunlight. Sam was looking up, trying to find the source of the light, and almost walked off the edge of the wide stone ledge. He looked down just in time to see the still, glassy pool which lay before him. He jerked himself back, catching a fleeting glimpse of his reflection in the water as he did so. Kneeling by the side of the pool, he leaned over, eagerly studying the image in the water for a long time.

The features were much as he had imagined them. What surprised him was that the overall effect was much different than he had expected. Somehow, taking into account the hands with their fur and claws, the sharp teeth, and Al's astonishment, he had expected something more savage. The intensely blue eyes looking back at him were filled with sorrow and compassion; for all who looked for it, Vincent's humanity was plainly there to see.

"Pretty neat, huh, Sam?"

Al's voice in his ear made Sam jump and he turned to find him looking over his shoulder. "You scared me," he said. "You have no reflection."

"That's because I'm not really here," Al reminded him. "Never mind that. I found out who she is!"

Sam was on his feet in one smooth move, the fascinating reflection in the pool forgotten.

"Her name's Catherine Chandler," Al explained rapidly, waving his cigar with enthusiasm. "She was an attorney working for the D.A.'s office. The case she was investigating seemed to have mob ties and one day she just disappeared. They found her car wrecked in a parking garage."

"Do you know where she is?"

"Yeah. Took me a while to get hold of the file, but I found it. And you don't have much time, Sam. Day after tomorrow, she turns up dead in her apartment."

"I'm not here to find her... I'm here to save her life!"

"Looks that way," Al agreed. "And it gets better."

"Better?"

"She's pregnant, Sam. She has the baby just before she dies."

"What?" Sam was shocked, his mind racing. Vincent's journals made no mention of a pregnancy. Indeed, the slant of them had led him to believe that, even though Vincent had, in some ways, wanted a physical relationship with Catherine, he had also feared what might happen.

"It's still a mystery, Sam. No one ever figured out how her body got to her apartment or what happened to the baby."

"They never found the baby?"

"Better sit down, Sam. This is gonna take a while."

Reluctantly, Sam made himself comfortable and Al began. "The police investigated and so did the D.A.'s office. The D.A., some guy named Moreno, turned out to be crooked. He was murdered in the carousel in the park. Slashed to pieces. They arrested a guy named Elliot Burch, who used to be Chandler's boyfriend, but he disappeared while out on bail. They finally got onto this guy named..." Al paused and consulted his computer. "...well, actually he had a couple dozen names. Nobody ever figured out which was the real one, so, for simplicity's sake, I'll call him Gabriel. Anyway, they tracked him down and raided his house. They found him dead in a room with a crib, but no baby. He'd been shot. Eventually they were able to link Gabriel with the building where Catherine Chandler died. There was a room with a bed and a table, nothing else, covered with her fingerprints. Another room was a fully equipped delivery room, complete with birthing chair. More fingerprints were found there, evidence that Chandler probably had her baby there. Best guess is that Gabriel kept her captive until the baby was born and killed her. Nobody knows why."

"Whose baby was it?" Sam asked.

"Nobody knows that, either. She wasn't seeing anybody..."

"Except Vincent..." Sam whispered.

"Who? You? You gotta be kidding..."

"I've been reading his journals, Al. He loves her. I don't know when it happened, but this is Vincent's baby." Sam got to his feet. "A phone call to the police ought to take care of it."

"Don't be crazy, Sam. You can't make a phone call looking like that. Besides, the security on this place is fantastic and there's a helipad on the roof. They'd kill her or have her out of there before the police ever got close to her. Anyway, some of the police are probably in on this."

Sam looked at Al in frustration. "How do we get to her, then?"

Al looked inordinately pleased with himself. "I have a blueprint of the building and details on the security," he said. "One man, especially one who looks like you, might be able to get past their defenses."

Sam considered that for a moment before nodding his unwilling agreement. "If she dies tomorrow, we'll have to get her out tonight," he said with determination. "Where is she being held?"

Al whacked the side of his computer impatiently. "1900 Sixth Avenue," he said. "On the sixty-fourth floor."

"Where's that?"

"Near 53rd," Al answered. "I don't know how you're going to get there, though. You can't very well walk down Sixth Avenue."

"No, I guess not," Sam agreed reluctantly. "I'll have to reach it from underneath. And," he added more hopefully, "I know just the guy to show me how to get there!"

As if on cue, Mouse scurried around the corner. He didn't seem to think it unusual that Sam was apparently talking to himself. "Vincent, good, you're here!" he exclaimed. "Looking for you!"

"For me?"

"Pascal said Mirror Pool."

Mouse was losing Sam rapidly. "Pascal?.." he echoed weakly.

"On the pipes," Mouse explained impatiently. "Sentry saw you."

"Oh." Sam found it a little alarming that Mouse was beginning to make sense sometimes. Messages on the pipes, he repeated silently. That must be the tapping I keep hearing. They've devised some sort of code and use it for communication. Ingenious!

"Find Catherine?" Mouse was already going on to other things.

"Yes, Mouse, I did."

Mouse's eyes widened. "Found her!" he exulted gleefully. "Where is she?"

"I said I found her, Mouse. I know where she is. I don't have her yet."

"Where?"

Sam gave the address and Mouse frowned. "Know that place," he said darkly. "Can't get in."

"Someone I know has plans to the building," Sam explained. "Maps of the security setup."

Mouse's face brightened again. "Know how to work the gizmos?"

"I think he means the electronic devices Gabriel has on the doors and stuff," Al commented helpfully.

"Uh, yeah, Mouse. Gizmos," Sam agreed. "How do we get there?"

Mouse frowned quizzically. "There last night!"

Sam was incredulous. "That's the building we were in last night?"

"Not there!" Mouse's patience was wearing thin. "Close. Block away."

"Okay," Sam said. "Will you take me there tonight?"

"Sure," Mouse agreed. "Tonight."

"Thank you, Mouse." Sam was about to ask Mouse to accompany him back to Vincent's chamber, but didn't speak quickly enough. Mouse had already scuttled out, muttering, "Gotta get ready. Get stuff!"

"Strange kid," Al said as Mouse vanished around a corner. He looked back over his shoulder. "Oops! I gotta go..."

"Al!" Sam's entreaty was too late. Al had disappeared. Great, he thought in exasperation. They've both deserted me! Two of a kind! He spoke aloud. "Now what do I do?"

Following his limestone marks on the tunnel walls, Sam made his way back to where he had first become lost. By trial and error, he stumbled across Vincent's chamber and entered it gratefully. Tea must be a morning ritual, because the same china teapot was again steaming on the table. Sam downed a cup quickly before opening another of Vincent's journals and stretching out on the bed. I need to know more about him, he rationalized. I need to know more about Catherine.

With his conscience twinging only a little, he began to read. He was tired from his long night and soon the words began to blur on the page. He drifted into dreams of knights and tunnels and princesses held captive in towers.

In between periods of fitful, dream-filled sleep, Sam worried about Mouse's reliability. He didn't yet know how he was going to get Catherine Chandler out of that building, but without Mouse to guide him there, he'd never even have the chance to try.

Nightfall and Mouse arrived about the same time and tonight he guided Sam through a different series of tunnels. Al appeared half-way through the trip.

"Tell him to take you to the tunnels directly under the building," he instructed.Sam did and Mouse stared at him. "Can't get up that way, Vincent."

Al insisted. "I know the way in!"

"There is a way," Sam said. "I'll show you." In a hasty aside to Al, he whispered, "I hope you know what you're doing!"

"Trust me, Sam," Al said magnanimously.

"Yeah. Trust you," Sam muttered, and hurried to catch up with Mouse.

Mouse finally stopped in a square concrete passage and shrugged. "Here," he announced. "No way up."

Sam glanced around for Al. Oh, great, now he disappears on me! he thought irritably. He turned to Mouse and opened his mouth with no idea what he was going to say. As he did so, Al materialized in the passage behind Mouse.

"Over here, Sam," Al pointed to a metal hatch set into the top of the tunnel. Sam moved closer and looked up.

"Won't open," Mouse announced. "Tried."

"Will," countered Al. "If you know how."

"Cut the chatter, Al, and tell me how to open it," Sam muttered between clenched teeth. "Hurry!" The hatch was a metal circle, not unlike a manhole cover. It fitted tightly inside a metal rim. Both were covered with raised letters and markings.

Al's smile was smug. "First, line up the letter G on the edge with the little arrow on the rim."

Sam did so, surprised when the metal disc moved easily. Al waited until he had the arrow and letter aligned before continuing, "Turn it exactly one and a quarter turns clockwise!"

Sam did and Mouse voiced his disapproval. "Tried turning it. Doesn't work!"

"Now turn it one half turn counter-clockwise!" Sam reversed the direction of spin and Mouse frowned again.

"Not that way, either!"

"Clockwise one full turn and it should come out!" Al said.

Each time he had reversed directions, the disc had dropped a little lower in its rim. This time, with Sam following instructions precisely, the heavy iron circle almost fell on him."Wow!" Mouse was amazed, coming closer to look up the newly revealed vertical shaft as Sam propped the hatch cover against a wall.

"It's like a safe," Al explained. "Gabriel has gadgets like this all over. The man's a security nut. Go on," he urged.

Sam stood under the dark circle doubtfully. After a moment, he gathered himself and jumped, grasping the upper lip of the opening and pulling himself through. The aperture led to a small, square room lit by a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. One wall was a mass of wires and electronic circuitry and Sam realized why Al had brought them here. This was the heart of the security system. Reaching down quickly, he held out a hand to Mouse. Mouse seized it and Sam drew him up.

"Gizmos!" Mouse's tone was reverent as he looked at the complex system.

"Gabriel has the whole place on a closed-circuit monitor system. This is just about the only room in the entire place that doesn't have a camera," Al advised, coming through the floor as he spoke. He pointed to the wall of circuitry. "You're gonna have to turn off everything... make 'em think there's a blackout."

"Blackout?" Sam questioned, a little too loudly.

"No lights! Yeah! Easy!" Mouse exclaimed, moving closer to the wiring.

"If the lights go out, somebody's going to come see why," Sam said under his breath.

"Well, yeah, but not more than two... well, maybe three. Take care of them, and you have the run of the building!" Al said cheerfully.

"Two... maybe three?" Sam hissed. "Armed, too, I'll bet."

"Come on, Sam, where's your sense of adventure?" Al prodded him with an enthusiastic verbal nudge.

"Left it in my other suit," Sam muttered back. Mouse had turned and was staring at him.

"Vincent talking to Mouse?"

"Uh, no, Mouse. Just to myself. Sorry." Sam moved over to the circuits, running a thoughtful finger from one to another. "Lights, lights..."

"Here, Vincent." Mouse pointed and Sam gave him a sharp glance.

"You're right," he agreed, wondering. He had first thought of Mouse as simple, but the boy was proving to be more and more complex and capable. "What we have to do, Mouse," he explained carefully, "is turn off all the electricity to the building. Someone will come to see what happened and we'll overpower them. I wish I'd thought to bring some rope or something to tie them up," he added to himself.

Mouse dug into one of his many voluminous pockets and produced a lengthy coil of stout cord. "This?" he offered.

"Perfect!" Sam accepted the cord.

"Lights," said Mouse, and reached out, pulling loose all of the appropriate wires with one yank. The room went dark.

"Oh, great," muttered Sam. "Where's the door?"

"Behind you, big fella," Al encouraged him. Sam turned, making out the darker outline of the door just as it swung open.A flashlight beam cut through the darkness, wavering before catching Sam's sleeve. The man holding it stopped and the beam travelled up Sam's arm and across his chest. When it reached his face, the man screamed and the light hit the floor, bounced, and went out. With one fluid movement, Sam reached the man, spun him around and decked him with a solid right hook.

"Go for it, Sam!" Al cheered.

Another figure shadowed the doorway. This one had an Uzi sub-machine gun cradled in his arms and he juggled his flashlight frantically as he tried to bring the gun to bear. Sam opened his mouth, intending to let out a war whoop as he launched himself at the man. He was as surprised as his quarry to hear what sounded remarkably like a lion's roar coming from his throat. In panic, the man dropped his gun and tried to flee. Sam caught him before he'd gone two steps and the man fainted in fear.

Sam crouched beside the fallen body, straining his ears in the blackness. The only sounds he could make out were the soft moans of the man he'd hit, the erratic breathing of the man who lay at his feet, Mouse's excited gasps and Al's non-stop commentary.

"Shut up, Al," he said, rising to his feet with the second man's unconscious body in his arms.

"Who?" questioned Mouse from the other side of the room.

"Nobody, Mouse. Help me tie these guys up."

Mouse came quickly and soon both men were immobilized with cord bound tightly around wrists and ankles. Rags from Mouse's pockets were pressed into service as gags.

Sam had an idea. "Mouse, can you make the lights go back on?" he asked.

"Lights on? Why?"

"Not on for good," Sam explained. "But maybe on and off once in a while, so they'll think someone's working on them?"

"Good idea!" Mouse approved. "Better than good!"

"Gotta go, Sam," Al warned.

"Coming," Sam said. "Promise me something, Mouse." Even in the near dark, he could see Mouse's wide blue gaze. "Promise that if you hear anyone coming, anyone at all, you'll go back down into the tunnels and get out of here, fast!"

Mouse didn't answer and Sam took his shoulder, shaking him slightly. "Promise, Mouse!"

Mouse's voice, when it came out, was very small. "Leave you?"

"Leave me, Mouse," Sam affirmed. "These men are dangerous. I don't want anything to happen to you. Promise me."

"Promise," Mouse agreed at last, with obvious reluctance. Sam's grip changed from one of insistence to one of approval. "Good boy."

"Come on, Sam!" Al was already outside the circuit room, calling impatiently.

"Find Catherine!" Mouse called after Sam. "Bring her back!"

"I will," Sam returned. "I hope," he whispered to himself.

Al was wending his way through a series of dark hallways and Sam hurried to catch up. Their convoluted path finally terminated at a solid steel door. The word "Stairwell" was stenciled across it in shiny black paint.

Without electricity, the door's electronic security deadbolt was locked, but it was meant to keep people out of the basement, not out of the stairwell, so the manual override was on their side of the door. Sam pushed it and pulled the door open. Light spilled out of the opening and he recoiled from it.

"Battery-powered safety lights," Al said matter-of-factly. "All buildings have 'em." He leaned out the door to look up the stairs. "No one there. Let's go."

The safety lights, floodlights mounted on gray metal boxes attached to the walls on alternate landings, cast a barely adequate light, creating eerily elongated shadows. As they climbed the stairs, noises from floors above echoed hollowly down the steel and concrete stairwell. Because of Vincent's natural grace, Sam knew there were no sounds to betray his presence.

"Closed-circuit cameras were what we were worried about, Sam," Al explained, pointing one out as they climbed. "You don't want Gabriel to know you're here."

Almost twenty flights of stairs lay behind them when they encountered their first obstacle. Al was a few steps ahead of Sam, acting as scout because he couldn't be seen. Pointing and waving his arms, he whispered frantically, "Stop, Sam! Don't talk!"

As Sam eased forward silently, he peered through the stair rails. An armed guard, alert and ready, stood in the shadows of the landing above. Rocking back gently, Sam pondered the problem. Although he had the advantage of surprise and the additional edge provided by Vincent's appearance, the guard had the benefit of higher ground and the Uzi in his arms. Somehow, the advantages didn't seem to balance out.

He was still thinking a minute later when the guard repositioned his gun and bent over to scratch his ankle. Sam used another of his advantages - Vincent's uncanny speed. Moments later that guard, too, was unconscious and tied with lengths of Mouse's cord. A torn segment of the guard's shirt was used as a gag and Al and Sam resumed their ascent.

Two more guards were met on the way. Each succumbed to a moment of inattention and was left on his respective landing to repent. The building lights flashed on briefly twice during the climb, showing Mouse was conscientiously executing his part in the rescue.

At last Sam reached his goal - the sixty-fourth floor. Al put his head through the stairwell door to reconnoiter. "This is gonna be trouble," he said, pulling his head back. "The hallway's crawling with guards!"

"Crawling?" Sam repeated in trepidation.

"Well, maybe not crawling," Al conceded.

"How many?" Sam demanded.

"Three... I think." Al put his head through the door for another peek. "Yeah, three. Only two have sub-machine guns," he added helpfully.

"Oh, that's good. Only two sub-machine guns." Sam's sarcasm was completely lost on Al.

"Hallway's not long - about forty feet. The guards with the Uzis are about twelve feet from the door, standing on opposite sides of the corridor."

"Where is the other one?" Sam asked, wondering desperately how he was going to get past two guards with automatic rifles.

"He's at the other end of the hall." Al disappeared through the door.

Sam tried the handle tentatively. It was locked. After a moment, Al's face emerged from the door. "What are you waiting for?"

"The door's locked," Sam pointed out.

"Look at you, Sam! A locked door should be no problem! Break it down!"

"Break it..." Al vanished again and Sam's voice trailed away. Break it down. Sure, why not? He took a step back and gathered himself. He was just about to launch himself at the door when Al appeared once more. His face, full of anticipation, remained in the center of the door.

"You're going to have to move, Al."

"Why? I'm not really here. You won't hurt me. I gotta see this."

"I don't care. I can't break down a door if your face is in the middle of it," Sam said patiently.

"Oh, all right." Al grumbled and withdrew his head.

Taking a deep breath, Sam launched himself at the door with a roar, feeling only vaguely surprised when the steel buckled and burst away from its hinges. As the door came to a spinning, precarious stop against a wall, he sprang. There was no time to subdue his opponents one by one... he had to be sure anyone who went down stayed down.

Letting out another of Vincent's spine-chilling roars, he slammed the first man back against the wall. The man went limp and slumped to the floor. The sound of his fury seemed to confuse his adversaries and Sam roared again. Spinning, he caught the barrel of the other gun, deflecting it as it went off, spraying bullets into the wall and ceiling. He brought his other hand across in a vicious swipe, experiencing a moment's horror at the bloody slashes he left across the man's chest.

There was no time to inspect this unexpected result, however. The third man, the one at the end of the hallway, was aiming an automatic pistol at him with trembling hands. Sam lunged and the first shot went wild. He felt the breeze of a bullet pass his cheek as he hurled himself onto the man, bearing him to the ground. Two or three well-placed punches rendered the man unconscious.

In the sudden silence, the rhythmic chopping of helicopter blades could be clearly discerned overhead. "Oh, no," Sam gasped. He took two quick steps toward the stairwell, stopping only when he heard Al calling him. Turning, he found Al, in the disconcerting way he had, leaning through a white door at the end of the hall.

"She's in here!" Al called. "Gabriel's in the helicopter. Hurry up, Sam! There's another woman in here with a hypodermic needle!"

Al retreated into the room; Sam stood outside, studying the lock. Keys, keys, he thought ruefully. Where will I find keys?

"What's taking so long, Sam? She needs help!"

"I need keys," Sam replied, bending to feel through the pockets of the unconscious guard at his feet.

"Sam," Al's voice was unnaturally gentle. "The door's not locked."

"Oh." Sheepishly, Sam reached out and turned the knob.

Two women were locked in a struggle in the middle of the room. When the door swung open, the one nearest, a dark-haired woman in nurse's white wielding a hypodermic needle, was distracted by the sound. As she began to turn toward it, the other woman, the one largely blocked from Sam's view, swung clasped hands in a fierce, desperate blow. The nurse went limp and slid to the floor.

Catherine Chandler stood motionless, staring for a moment at the unconscious woman at her feet before looking up at Sam. He had only a fleeting impression of expressive, wide-spaced eyes and regular features before she flung herself into his arms. Any doubts Sam might have had about the identity of her baby's father were dispelled by the intimacy of the embrace in which he found himself.

Al's commentary continued non-stop. "Did you see that, Sam? She decked her with one punch! This is some woman, Sam! And she's beautiful, besides!"

His mission accomplished, Sam half-expected to leap out at any second, but in the meantime, he had to act as Vincent would. Ignoring Al, he put his arms around Catherine and held her tightly.

"Vincent. Vincent." She whispered the name over and over, clinging to him as if she feared he would disappear.

"I'm here," he said softly. "It's okay."

"I was afraid I'd never see you again," she whispered. "I was afraid you wouldn't find me in time." She lifted her head to look at him, bringing her hands to his face, touching it gently, reassuring herself of his solidity. "I knew you'd find me. Vincent!"

Vincent is one lucky guy, he thought, taking in the love shining from her eyes as she looked up at him. Al's right, she's beautiful, he added to himself. Briefly, his gaze shifted downward and she moved back from him, biting her lip.

"I'm pregnant," she said unnecessarily.

Not knowing what Vincent might say to that, Sam remained silent.

"I was coming to tell you... the day I was kidnapped..." His continued reticence seemed to unnerve her and she stumbled on, her words tripping over each other.

"It's our child, Vincent. Yours and mine." She stopped, her eyes pleading with him.

Sam was suddenly very glad he had read more of Vincent's journals. He felt now as if he knew him, and he knew absolutely that Vincent would accept and love this child because it was Catherine's, no matter who its father was. That Vincent himself was the child's father would probably be harder for him to accept, but Sam was certain Vincent could come to terms with that, too. For now, though, reassuring Catherine was the only important thing. Sam put as much tenderness and compassion as he could manage into his eyes and voice.

"With love, all things are possible," he told her softly and she smiled. He held out his hand and she took it, her trust complete as she followed him into the hallway.

Outside, Al was lounging against the wall. Of course, what he was really lounging against was a wall of the imaging chamber, which explained why he seemed partially buried in the wall. As Sam and Catherine appeared, he straightened. "About time," he said impatiently. "Sam, we've gotta get out of here. It isn't safe."

Keeping a firm grip on his hand, Catherine allowed Sam to lead her toward the stairs. She did not seem surprised at the unconscious bodies of the three guards in the corridor. Her expression at sight of the first of the stairwell guards as he lay bound and gagged was one of bewilderment but she did not comment as Sam helped her past the man's semi-conscious body.

Because of Catherine's advanced pregnancy, their descent was slow. Despite Al's constant barrage of entreaties, begging Sam to hurry up, Sam could not be rushed. He was beginning to feel a little possessive of this woman who trusted him so completely. After all, he hadn't gone to the trouble of rescuing her only to allow her to tumble down a flight of stairs in a moment of carelessness.

While they were still in the upper portion of the building, Catherine pulled away from Sam's grip and stopped, standing tensely with her hands on her sides. Her eyes were wide and unfocused, her mouth slightly open. Her breath came rapidly, audibly.

"Catherine?" Sam returned quickly to her side. Slowly she relaxed and looked at him. "Are you all right?"

"I... don't know. I think so."

"Can you walk?"

She nodded, taking his hand. They resumed their slow, careful progress down the seemingly endless flights of stairs.Suddenly, the lights flickered on and off again, quickly. Catherine jumped, looking back fearfully. "What's wrong with the lights?"

"It's Mouse," Sam explained. "Creating the illusion somebody's trying to fix them."

She smiled. "Mouse. I've missed him and his gizmos. I've missed everyone." Her gaze fell on the next landing and the guard, bound and gagged like the one above. She stopped, viewing him with more than curiosity. She shot a quick glance at Sam but again said nothing.

A moment later she stiffened again, leaning against the cool cement wall for support.

"She's in labor, Sam," Al offered cheerfully. "Looks like you got her just in time."

Sam had just figured that out for himself. He steadied Catherine for a long minute until she relaxed. "I don't suppose you know how far apart they are?" he asked out loud.

Catherine looked startled, gazing at him quizzically.

"'Bout eight minutes," Al said. "You should still have plenty of time to get her out of here."

Good, thought Sam in relief. The last thing I want to have to do is deliver this baby in the stairwell. He looked at Catherine more closely. Was it his imagination, or was she becoming pale?

Sweeping his cloak off his shoulders, he spread it on the landing. "Sit down. We'll rest." Sensing her reluctance, he added, "It's safe. We have time."

Gratefully she lowered herself to the floor and sighed. Leaning back, she closed her eyes tiredly; a second later, they snapped open again in alarm as Sam took a step down. Reaching a hand toward him, she said, "Don't leave me."

Seeing the apprehension on her face, Sam returned to the landing, sinking down to sit beside her. "It's all right," he assured her, wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders. "I'm really here."

As she leaned against him, he felt some of her fear drain away. He held her until Al materialized on the landing below.

"Are you going to sit there all day?" Al demanded.

Throwing him a look of annoyance, Sam got to his feet and helped Catherine to hers. Dusting off the cloak, he swung it over his shoulders again. His arm went around Catherine, lending solid support as they travelled downward to safety.

The lights flickered one more time and they stopped twice for contractions before reaching the safety of the lower level. Suddenly, as they started down the first of the dark basement hallways, the lights went on. Sam and Catherine froze, waiting, but they did not go out again.

"They're on to us, Sam!" Al sounded more excited than worried.

"Where are they, Al?" Like everybody else he'd encountered, Catherine probably thought he was cracking up, talking to air, but it had to be done.

Al peered cautiously around the corner ahead of them. "Get back!" he hissed. "Hide! Two of them! With guns!"

"Vincent?" Catherine was staring at him but time didn't allow for explanations, even if there had been one he could offer her.

Spying an open doorway, he dragged her through it and pressed her into a darkened corner, shielding her from view. As the careful tramp of footsteps grew louder, he tensed, ready to protect Catherine at any cost. The footsteps passed without slowing and he heard the door to the stairwell open and close.

Al stuck his head in. "One's gone, Sam. The other went down another hallway."

Sam didn't like the idea of making their way back to the tunnel entrance with an armed man on the loose, but there didn't seem to be much choice. Catherine's hand on his arm gave him courage as he cautiously led the way back into the corridor.

Al was already at the corner and he waved them on. "Hurry up, Sam. The coast is clear."

Catherine was barefoot and Sam had Vincent's easy grace so they made no sound as they crept down the now brightly lit corridors. Al checked around each corner as they approached it. "Bad news, Sam," Al announced as they neared the final corner. "The room with all the wires is guarded now. There's a man outside the door."

Sam gave a mental groan. The door to the circuitry room was a good twenty feet down the corridor and he'd faced all the guns he wanted to for one night. Still, there was no other way.

A finger to his lips, he motioned Catherine against the wall. She understood and obeyed instantly, her eyes wide with apprehension. As he started to turn away, her hand caught his sleeve.

She looked as if she wanted badly to say something but instead, she reached up, taking his face in her hands and rising on her toes to kiss him lightly on the lips. Her gaze was intense as she stared at him. "Be careful," she mouthed silently.

Feeling as if he had cheated Vincent out of something precious, Sam nodded before moving noiselessly to the corner. Al was halfway down the corridor, offering enthusiastic advice on how to deal with the guard. Ignoring him, Sam decided to use what had been so successful thus far; Vincent's fearsome appearance and ferocious roar, coupled with his incredible speed and strength.

A moment later the guard lay motionless at his feet, the barrel of his rifle smoking faintly. Sam stared down at him, still shivering inside from the narrowness of his escape. This time, he was sure he had felt the bullets whizzing past his head. A soft sound behind him drew his attention.Catherine stood at the corner, her face full of concern. "Are you all right?" she whispered, coming closer.

"I'm not hurt," Sam replied. The door to the circuit room had no lock and he wrenched it open, dragging the guard's insensible body through before holding his hand out to Catherine. She took it and followed him inside.

The metal disc that separated them from the tunnels below had been replaced and Sam hoped fervently that Mouse had made good his escape. Kneeling beside the hatch, he worked the opening combination in reverse and the disc fell away from him, clanging loudly as it dropped to the concrete floor below.

"Come," he whispered. "I'll help you down."

He went first, dropping easily to the tunnel below and reached back up. As Catherine lowered herself carefully through the opening, he steadied and guided her, finally catching her gently but securely in his arms. Setting her firmly on her feet, he replaced the solid iron disc for the last time.

It was much colder down here than above and Catherine hugged herself, shivering slightly. All she had on was a simple cotton gown that buttoned down the front. Berating himself for his thoughtlessness, Sam removed Vincent's cloak and draped it tenderly around her shoulders. Her bare feet were another problem and he solved it by scooping her up in his arms.

With her arms around his neck and her forehead resting securely against him, he carried her down the tunnel with long, purposeful strides.

As usual, there was no warning; one moment he was Vincent and the next... he had time for only one frantic, regretful thought. Oh, no! I wanted to see what the baby...

 

THE END