RICHES

By Becky Bain

(Originally published in the fanzine Within the Crystal Rose, Vol. 6, under the pseudonym Anna Gerard.)

 


"`No, I'll never love anybody but you, Tom, and I'll never marry anybody but you' ...Geoffrey!" Samantha stopped reading and jerked the book back out of the boy's reach.

"Skip that part," Geoffrey commanded. "It's dumb, mushy stuff."

"I'm the one reading it," Samantha replied loftily. "I'm going to read it all."

"Then I'll read it!" Geoffrey lunged for the book, but succeeded only in knocking it out of Samantha's grasp. Both children watched in horror as *The Adventures of Tom Sawyer* bounced once on the edge of the bridge before tumbling down, down into the bottomless abyss below the Whispering Gallery.

"Father always says," whispered Geoffrey hoarsely, "we're welcome to borrow his books, but we have to take care of them and put them back when we're finished."

The children stared at each other. "Maybe we could get him another one?" Samantha suggested timidly.

 

"Can I help you kids find something?" the sales clerk asked.

"Please, we're looking for *Tom Sawyer*," Geoffrey explained hesitantly.

"Children's books are over here," the woman directed them.

"Excuse me, but we don't want that kind," Samantha told her. "We need the kind with leather on the covers."

The woman looked startled. "We don't carry those," she explained to the wide-eyed children. "You'll have to try a rare or used book store. Are you sure that's what you want?"

"Yes, ma'am," Geoffrey assured her firmly. "Could you tell us where we could find that kind of store?"

The woman kindly wrote down the addresses of several used bookstores within walking distance. In the third one, the children found what they wanted.

"It's just like Father's!" Samantha whispered excitedly. "Maybe we could just put it back and he'd never know!"

"What do you kids want?" growled a gruff voice as a large hand removed the book for Samantha's grasp. A disgruntled elderly man eyed their patched and darned clothing with open disapproval.

"Please, sir," Samantha asked politely. "How much does it cost?"

"This?" The man's answer dripped scorn. "A hundred thirty-five dollars. Which, obviously, you don't have." With that, the man imperiously shooed them out of his store.

"A hundred thirty-five dollars!" Samantha was horrified. "That's a fortune!"

"How much money do you have?" Geoffrey asked her. "I have four dollars and sixty-three cents saved."

"I have three dollars and eighty-nine cents."

They looked at each other grimly. "That's... eight dollars and fifty-two cents," said Samantha finally, working the figures out in her head. "Where will we get the rest?"

"Maybe we could borrow it," Geoffrey suggested uncertainly.

"I don't know anyone who has that much money," scoffed Samantha. "Nobody we know, anyway."

They trudged slowly back toward the tunnel entrance, dreading having to tell Father they'd lost one of his precious books. Suddenly Geoffrey stopped, his expression at once distant and eager.

"What is it?" Samantha tugged at his arm.

Geoffrey pulled away absently. "I just remembered," he said, breaking into a smile. "Cullen said once that Catherine had lots of money... she's rich!"

"Rich enough to have a hundred thirty-five dollars?" Samantha was skeptical. Growing up in a society that used no money left both children woefully uninformed about it. The few dollars and cents they managed to acquire went quickly for candy or toys. Larger amounts were just numbers.

"If she's rich..." Geoffrey sounded less certain but still determined. "Come on! I know where she lives." Seizing Samantha's hand, he pulled her with him in the direction of Catherine's apartment building.

 

Enjoying the rare luxury of a Saturday afternoon with no obligations, Catherine was sitting out on her balcony in the warm spring sunshine with her feet up. A browning apple core and a plate of chocolate chip cookies were on the wrought iron table at her side and another apple was in her hand. A worn copy of *Little Women* lay open in her lap.

Engrossed in the adventures of the March sisters, she barely heard the timid knock on her door. When the sound did penetrate, she hesitated, hating to interrupt her wonderfully self-indulgent afternoon. The knocking continued, though, and with a sigh, she put down her book and her apple and went inside.

"Who is it?" she called through the closed door.

"It's Geoffrey," answered a child's voice.

"And Samantha," piped another.

Catherine unlocked the door and opened it swiftly, looking quizzically at the two solemn children. "Do you have a message for me?"

Geoffrey shook his head and exchanged a quick glance with Samantha. Gathering his courage, he blurted, "We need to talk to you. Samantha and me... we need sort of a favor?" He ended on a questioning note, suddenly sure that this was a bad idea.

Catherine smiled a little as she stepped back to let them in and led them out onto the sunny balcony.

Immediately, Geoffrey went to the low wall and leaned over, looking down. "Neat!" he exclaimed, observing the eighteen-story drop.

Catherine was about to caution him when he rocked back and gave her a wide grin. "This is where Vincent comes, isn't it?"

"Yes," Catherine agreed. "Be careful, Geoffrey!" she exclaimed as he leaned over to look down again.

"That's some climb!" he remarked brightly, his curious gaze wandering. His eyes lit up at the sight of the cookies left by Catherine's chair.

"Help yourselves," she offered, rescuing her book from Samantha's hands and sitting down.

"I've already read *Little Women*," Samantha informed her.

"Me, too. But sometimes it's fun to read an old favorite again. That's what I felt like doing today."

"Oh."

There was a brief lull as the children munched cookies. Catherine watched them speculatively. "Tell me about the favor you need," she suggested at last.

Nervously, the children swallowed half-chewed mouthfuls and exchanged worried looks. "It's sort of hard to explain," Samantha began hesitantly.

"You can say no if you want," Geoffrey added.

"All right." Catherine glanced from one anxious face to the other.

There was a long pause. "We need to borrow some money," Samantha blurted finally.

"We'll pay you back," Geoffrey assured hastily. "We pick up bottles and cans in the park."

Catherine pressed her lips together to control a smile. "Before I could agree to lend you money, I think I would have to know why you need it," she said gravely, matching their serious manner.

"Well, we were reading in the Whispering Gallery," Geoffrey began.

"And Geoffrey knocked the book out of my hand!" accused Samantha.

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"Geoffrey! Samantha!" Catherine suspected this could go on for some time, and interrupted. "What happened to the book?" She was afraid she already knew the answer.

"It fell," Geoffrey admitted, shamefaced. "It was one of Father's."

Catherine's heart sank. Father owned many old and rare books, some of them precious first editions. Of course, to Father, the value of a book lay in its contents, not its monetary worth, but still!

"You need money to replace the book." She hid her dismay and spoke quietly.

Samantha nodded. "We found one just like it in a book store," she said eagerly. "But it costs a lot of money," she added in a more subdued tone.

"How much do you need?" Catherine inquired, her mind already made up that, one way or another, Father's book would be replaced.

Again the children exchanged looks. In a voice barely above a whisper, Geoffrey told her the price of the book.

Catherine wanted to laugh at the comparative modesty of the sum. Instead, she turned and looked out at the skyline. Only when she felt she could keep a straight face did she turn back to the solemn youngsters.

"All right. I'll lend you the money."

Their eyes lit in relief.

"But," she added sternly, "there are some conditions you will have to meet."

 

Catherine rested her chin on her fist as she watched Vincent and Father in the last few moves of a long battle at the chess board. She focused her attention on the board, trying to anticipate the best moves and improve her game; only occasionally did she yield to impulse and glance up to study Vincent's beloved face.

Father chuckled as he slid a bishop across to put Vincent's king in check, then looked up as Samantha and Geoffrey hesitantly entered the chamber. "It's late, children," he told them sternly. "You should be in bed."

"We know, Father, but we have to tell you something," Samantha explained, with a surreptitious glance at Catherine.

Vincent rose and reached for Catherine's hand. "We'll finish this tomorrow, Father," he said, drawing Catherine to her feet.

Father nodded absently, his attention already focused on the children.

As Catherine moved past Geoffrey, he furtively pressed something into her hand. Momentarily startled, she recovered quickly, casually sliding her hand into her pocket. She could hear Samantha behind her, earnestly explaining about the accident to the book and showing Father the replacement.

"A book like this is expensive. Where did you get it?"

At the chamber's entrance, Vincent turned at the sudden sharpness in Father's voice.

"We bought it. At a bookstore," Samantha said.

"You went above?"

They nodded guiltily. "We had to."

Father sighed. "Well," he said slowly. "You're back safely. But where did you find the money?"

"We borrowed it," Geoffrey said.

"And from whom," Father asked patiently, "did you borrow it?"

The children looked at each other. "We aren't allowed to tell you," Samantha finally admitted.

"That's one of the conditions," Geoffrey added.

"Conditions?" Father asked, raising an eyebrow.

Catherine could feel Vincent looking at her intently, and as the children launched into an explanation, he drew her out into the passageway.

"So that's your secret," he accused her gently, when they were out of earshot.

"My secret?" Catherine tried to sound innocent. Then she laughed ruefully. "I should have known I couldn't hide anything from you!" She dropped his hand to take his arm, clasping both hands loosely in the crook of his elbow.

"Tell me about the conditions," Vincent said as they began a slow stroll in the general direction of her apartment.

"They didn't say so, but I suspect their original plan was to simply substitute the new book and hope Father didn't notice," Catherine explained. "So the first was that they had to tell Father what happened."

"And the second is that they keep their benefactor's identity a secret," said Vincent thoughtfully. "Is there a third?"

"They have to pay me back." Laughing, Catherine took her hand out of her pocket, displaying the handful of coins Geoffrey had slipped to her. "I think this is the first installment."

"I wondered why you jingled," Vincent teased gently, slipping his arm around her shoulders and drawing her close.

"Vincent..." Catherine hesitated. He waited patiently for her to finish. "Will Father believe that they truly borrowed the money?"

"Samantha and Geoffrey are truthful children. I think he will believe them," Vincent reassured her.

"If he's worried, you can tell him they got the money from me."

"It was good of you to help them, Catherine."

"It's only money, Vincent," Catherine demurred.

"No," Vincent corrected her. "You showed them a way to admit their mistake and set it right... a valuable lesson for a child. I am curious about something, though," he added. "Why did they come to you for the money?"

"They think I'm rich," Catherine smiled up at him.

"Aren't you?" he asked, smiling back.

Turning, she slipped her arms around him, pressing her face into his shoulder. "Yes, I am... in all the ways that really count."

 

THE END