"My love you know that you're my best friend.

You know that I'd do anything for you.

And my love, let nothing come between us

My love for you is strong and true&

Am I in heaven here or am I at the crossroads?"

Sarah McLauchlan: 'Hold On'"

From the album: 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN


A cool evening breeze rustled through the tall trees and sighed across the grassy clearing. Above, some stars shone brightly enough to pierce the smoggy New York air and show themselves to any midnight strollers with the time and inclination to seek them out.

The open air was a relief. Not that the tunnels weren't wonderful, but sometimes a person needed a breath of fresh air, and the feeling of open space surrounding them. Catherine secured the hood of her cloak from the brisk late spring gusts, and resettled her hand in the crook of Vincent's arm.

It was like a whole new world. She could hear the rustle of a paper bag being blown against a bush, and the indignant chitter of a squirrel, disturbed into wakefulness by their passage. The faint moonlight revealed the park as brightly as if it were mid day, although colors were faded. The smells were myriad and complex, trees, earth, growth, people, cars, and baby smells from a lost pacifier lying at the path side. It was mind-boggling and yet, at the same time, reassuring.

Evening meal remained difficult. Although the worst of the stares had tapered off, there were still one or two residents who were obviously uncomfortable with Catherine's changed features. Again, however, there had been a few humorous moments to lighten the tension. A new fad seemed to have become rampant with the tunnel boys - adamant refusal to wear shoes. A ruckus had broken out when Kipper had shown up without any. When Father insisted he don his footgear at once, Kipper had responded with the comment 'Vincent doesn't have to'; which resulted in Father stating quite unequivocally that Vincent's feet were tougher than his, but not nearly so hard as Kipper's head must be to take to such a foolish notion. It had caused a bit of embarrassment for both Vincent and Catherine. They both needed a break.

Catherine drew a deep breath of cool night air.

"This was a good idea."

"Yes. Sometimes even I need an escape from Below. Your balcony provided such an escape. I'll miss it."

"Me, too." So many wonderful moments had transpired on that balcony, their window to the world. It was really too bad they couldn't go back& could they? "Vincent, why couldn't we go back sometimes, just to visit? I left a key underneath the planter for you. It should still be there. The place belongs to me, we could even go inside if we wanted to." Catherine's voice rose as she brainstormed, excitement creeping in. Perhaps not all her old life had to be abandoned. And& she could feel he was actually considering the idea! "It could be our place still, even more so."

Catherine quieted, allowing Vincent the time to mull over her proposal. This was how he worked. Her beloved rarely made snap decisions anymore, especially where she was concerned. The last time he had was the Connecticut trip, and just look how that had ended up. No, Vincent liked to thoroughly ponder all sides of a question before giving a definitive answer.

"Perhaps, we-"

A sudden brilliant flash of light to the left assaulted their night-adapted vision. Almost blinded, they stumbled off the path to take refuge behind a stand of birch trees.

Blinking furiously, Catherine wiped a watery tear from her face as every sense strove to determine the location and probability of threat. Beside her, she could feel Vincent doing the same. From the small parking lot ahead, she caught an answering flash, although since this one wasn't pointed in their direction, the results were not as severe.

Catherine felt a gentle tug on her hand. A wash of uneasiness from Vincent found its way to her.

"What is this? Do you know what that was?"

"I have an idea. I have seen this sort of thing before, although not from so close."

"A drug deal?"

"Perhaps. Probably." Vincent tugged her hand again insistently, and they began to sneak away.

From ahead the sound of a van door being slid back was soon followed by voices.

"You're late. Let's see the payment."

Catherine started at that voice. A low, nasal twang. It was familiar. Searching her memory, the remembered smell of disinfectant and caramel mints prodded her. The hospital. This was one of the men she had overheard talking in the hospital. Freezing, she released Vincent's hand and concentrated on the voices.

"Don't worry, it's all there. Twenty-five thousand dollars, just like I promised. Listen, do we really have to do the deal this way? I much preferred having the product delivered. This looks too suspicious."

"No one's going to see you. Besides, I've never come that close to being caught before, and I don't plan to make it a habit. I could explain a dead animal in the van, but not this stuff. I'm not taking a fall over this, I just want my money. I got the meat for you, that's all you need."

Catherine carefully moved closer and crouched behind the stand of birches.

"Catherine!"

Ignoring Vincent's hushed warning, Catherine peeked around the edge of the trees. There! A blond-haired man was accepting a cooler from an older, bald man. There was a silver van as well. Dimly, she could make out a female figure sitting on the passenger side, but specific features were hidden by the windshield reflections. All she could discern was a faint scent, an unidentifiable perfume. A small paper bag was handed to the bald man, who peered inside and gave the contents a grunt of approval. The blond carried the cooler to what appeared to be a late model sedan of some kind, started the engine and drove quietly from the parking lot, followed by the silver van, which turned and proceeded in the opposite direction. Automatically, she made note of the license plates.

"Vincent, did you hear? Do you know what that was? I have to get word to Joe. Vincent? Vincent!" That last was hissed as she realized that, sometime during her concentration on the organ seller, Vincent had disappeared. Immediately she consulted the location sense. He was nearby, about fifty feet away. Just as she began to trace her way to her, his muffled call caused her to run.

Breaking through a copse of trees she found him kneeling on the ground beside a supine figure. Moonlight revealed it to be that of a woman, late twenties, covered by a blue sheet. An iron-copper tang of bloodscent flooded the area, along with a disgusting oily overlay, a familiar cloying odor that left a distasteful residue inside her mouth.

"She's hurt," Vincent spoke softly. He moved the sheet aside, revealing the woman's body, nude except for a large white bandage wrapped around her lower midsection. The bandage showed several bloodspots.

Grimly, Catherine looked at the bandage job. Rough, but adequate. It fit the MO. "I think I know what happened here. This woman has just had an organ removed for transplant. That was what that man was selling. And we need to find a phone and call an ambulance for this lady. Now."

* * * * *

At her request, Vincent escorted Catherine directly to the hospital chamber, stopping only to send a message on the pipes for Father to meet them there immediately.

After using a nearby public telephone to call for help, they had remained until the ambulance was almost upon them, to ensure the young woman kept breathing and was safe. When the police arrived and began searching the surrounding area they had had to leave, but not before they had overheard a grim prognosis regarding the victim.

The tap-shuffle of Father's uneven gait was heard long before he arrived in the hospital chamber himself. Disheveled from sleep, he looked harried and panicked.

"What's happened? Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm unharmed. Catherine is the one who needed to see you, although I'm unsure why."

"The drug you used on Vincent. Can I see it?"

Looking confused, Father limped over to the old metal locker, which doubled as a medicine cabinet. Rummaging about he withdrew a familiar unmarked bottle. "What's going on? Why do you need this?"

Distracted, Catherine held her hand up to stop his curious questions. Removing the lid, she braced herself and, concentrating fully, waved the bottle under her nose. Oh, yes. The disgusting heavy scent rolled out of the container to assault her with its oily, sour odor. "What's the name of this drug?"

"It's a morphine opiate derivative. I believe the official name is ketamine hydrochloric."

Catherine closed her eyes in relief. She wasn't crazy.

Beside her Vincent made a grunt of distaste as he caught the drug's stench.

Capping the bottle, she handed it back to Father. "Can you tell me where you get this?"

Father looked rather uncomfortably at Vincent. "Umm. Well, it's-"

Catherine could sense the older man's reluctance. "Father, it's important. People have died and this is my only clue. I need to know."

Father shuffled his feet and sighed. Oh well, he had tried. "As you know, I learned about this from those reports you smuggled from Hughs' office." Vincent winced at the memory, and Father sent him a look of apology. "It's commonly used to anesthetize cats, as well as small children. Hughs had gotten the drug from a vet supply center, so I requested it from one of our helpers who is a vet, just in case it was ever necessary to use it. I'm very glad I did."

Catherine eyes widened in revelation. Pieces clicked together as the overheard comment suddenly made sense: "I could explain a dead animal in the van&"

"Bingo!" Catherine cried, as she remembered the vet clinic she had visited, the one that carried a certain brand of caramel mints. "He's a Vet! That's it! That's why the jobs are so rough, he's not used to operating on humans!" Overcome with elation, she grabbed Father and pulled him into an enthusiastic hug. "We've got him now! Just wait until I tell Joe!"

* * * * *

Joe Maxwell sat slumped behind his desk. The letter, which lay on his blotter, had arrived yesterday, but he still could hardly believe it. This place, without Radcliffe? It was impossible to imagine. It was one thing to have her gone temporarily, but for good? Replacing her would be& Humph. Who did he think he was kidding? She wasn't replaceable. Oh, her skills were, by maybe two or three people at a conservative estimate. But her smile, her wit, her ability to pull the best out of people? Her intuitive mind, with its leaps of logic, had been the cornerstone for many a case. Those things were one in a million.

"Hey, how's tricks?" CJ, the rough looking youth who brought a lunch cart to this floor every day around this time, smiled at the morose man who was idly swiveling in his office chair. "You're lookin' a little down, man! Say hey, this here might give you a little happy. My treat."

"Yeah, thanks, CJ. I definitely need something." Responding to the cheerful "Catch ya later, man," Joe waved half-heartedly. Mildly curious, he looked at what CJ had dropped on his desk. It was a Milka bar, one of those expensive imported chocolate bars that CJ kept on hand especially for Cathy. That wasn't what caught his attention, however, it was the folded piece of heavy paper that was tucked beneath it. 'What's this?' Joe pulled the note open, and read its contents with growing surprise.

Dear Joe:

Please excuse the unusual method of delivery. I need to see you. I have some information regarding the organ-legging case. Could you come to my apartment this evening, at midnight? I must ask that you come alone, and that you speak to no one about this meeting.

Affectionately,

Catherine

'I should'a known that woman couldn't let this place go completely. She's worse than a dog with a bone.' A smile creased Joe's face as he focused on his work.

The world wasn't such a bad place after all.

* * * * *

"Are you sure?" Catherine stared with trepidation up through the hole in the elevator roof.

"Yes, I've traveled this way a hundred times. Quickly now, press the button and give me your hand."

Biting her lip, Catherine punched the button for the eighteenth floor, and grasped the furry hand that reached down through the emergency access hatch. The claws on her feet scrabbled against the smooth metal elevator wall as his arm easily hauled her through the opening.

"Watch your footing. Only put your weight on the metal crossbar, otherwise you might fall through," Vincent warned as he swiftly replaced the panel. With a lurch, the elevator began to rise. Cables whined and loosened. "Be careful. Don't let your cloak get caught in the machinery," he whispered. The elevator slowed and halted at the main floor, and several people got on. The group exited silently on the fourteenth floor, and the car continued its ascent. As the car rose towards the roof, Catherine swallowed nervously. Surely it would stop? But of course, it did. As the car came to the apex of its route it slowed, bringing into sight a small emergency landing and exit. Confidently, Vincent crouched and stepped off as the car came level, lending his arm to Catherine for assistance. They opened the small emergency door and emerged onto the roof.

Relieved, Catherine took a deep breath. Fresh air and open sky never felt so good. Vincent chuckled at her reaction, and she pinned him with a dirty look. Turning her back, she walked to the railing and looked down over the city.

"Do you remember the last time we met here?" Vincent's soft voice whispered from behind her, and she leaned back against his sturdy chest.

"Yes. When that stalker was after me. You met me here, on this side of the building where we didn't think he could see. I was so frightened for you, of what he could do to you, to us."

Vincent slid his arms around Catherine's waist lightly, encouraging her contact. "As I was for you. I almost lost you to him. And now, I find myself here yet again, and as before you will be at the mercy of a stranger."

Catherine took his hands and tried to convey reassurance. "I think any reporter would have given up by now, if there ever were any here. And Joe's not a stranger."

"To me, he is."

Catherine nodded slowly. He had a point. And it was not without some risk, this plan of hers.

"Come, we must hurry. I want to make sure it is safe, before I leave you there." Releasing her, Vincent turned and made his way across the roof to the corner above her balcony.

Living on the top floor had its pluses, but she had never thought that one of them would be that it was a short climb from the roof. Glancing down at the eighteen-story drop to the ground, Catherine felt her stomach lurch, and closed her eyes tightly. So far to fall& "Vincent, are you sure?"

"The masonry is sound, I have been over it many times, as you well know. The climb down the cliff was much more difficult. And it's not so far. If you start from this point, it's only a few feet to reach your balcony wall. Look, see?"

Prying her eyes open, she followed Vincent's indication. He was right; it didn't look too hard. It was just the psychological factor of being so far from the ground. Just one slip, and&

Vincent swung over the edge, and nimbly climbed down the fifteen feet or so to reach the balcony. Standing, he looked up at her frightened face. "Catherine, you can do this!"

Screwing up her courage, Catherine slid a leg over the side of the building, foot claws finding and gripping the bumps and cracks in the concrete. Once she had started and was no longer looking down, the descent was completed in seconds.

Vincent's arms enfolded her and lifted her down from the balcony edge, giving her a squeeze of pride for her accomplishment.

Catherine hugged him back, delighted, before moving to the far corner of the balcony. Lifting the planter, she retrieved the door key, and unlocked the door to the living room. Both focused their senses on the apartment, seeking any hidden presence or sign of a trap. When nothing was forthcoming, Vincent eased his way inside and checked each room thoroughly while Catherine entered the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. Forlornly she looked at the full coffee canister, one of the only food items remaining in the fridge. Oh, well.

The ringing of the phone just about sent Vincent into orbit, but Catherine calmly approached and waited for the message machine to pick it up.

"Ms. Chandler, this is the lobby calling. There's a Mr. Joe Maxwell here to see you."

Catherine picked up the receiver. "Hello, Maurice? This is Cathy Chandler& Yes, I do have a cold. Just send him up, I've been expecting him. Thank you." Replacing the receiver on the cradle gently, she looked at Vincent. "He's on his way up now."

"Please, Catherine. Reveal as little of yourself as possible. Reactions to our differences are often unpredictable."

Catherine nodded slowly. It would be difficult to keep Joe at bay, but she would do her best.

"I'll be outside on the balcony in case of any trouble."

All too soon, a soft knock came from the apartment door. Soundlessly, Vincent melted to the balcony, closing the French doors behind him. For a moment, Catherine stood frozen. But this was Joe, her staunch supporter and loyal friend. Arranging the drape of her hood to cover as much of her face as possible, she undid the chain and locks.

The door eased open, and Joe looked into a dark apartment. Only a small portion of light leaked in through the sheer curtains to the balcony, casting most of the apartment in deep shadow. "Cathy?"

"I'm here. Please, come in."

As Joe stepped inside, Catherine swung the door shut and re-engaged the locks.

"Why is it so dark in here, Cathy? What's wrong? That is you, isn't it?" Joe felt his eyes beginning to adjust to the drop in light level, and he could see her, wearing some kind of long coat or cape, moving away from him.

"Yes, and it's dark because I don't want you to see me."

"Why not?"

"It's not important. I have some information-"

"Wait a minute here. You're not going to tell me what's wrong? What this mysterious medical problem is that would make you quit the office? Whatever it is, I can handle it, I promise. Anything's better than not knowing if you're OK. Can't you just tell me?"

From outside the apartment, Vincent could hear the concern in Catherine's friend's voice, as well as feel it empathically. That was not all he felt, however. This man& This man had feelings for Catherine. Feelings that were mostly buried, but strong. A surge of possessiveness swept through him, but he firmly crushed it. This was not the time.

Steeling herself to ignore his worry, Catherine tried again. "I have some information regarding the case-"

"Screw the case! There's something more important at stake here. Why won't you let me see you? Just what is so wrong? You're scaring me here, Radcliffe. Start giving me some answers!"

Catherine sighed. She could feel the intense concern and worry from her friend. This was proving more difficult than she had anticipated. "I can't let you see me. What happened& it would just frighten you."

"Frighten me? Frighten me? Oh come on, you can do better than that." Mocking sarcasm rolled through Joe's voice, as it usually did when he was upset. Or very concerned. Abruptly, his tone gentled, and he moved around her to stand facing her. "You should know by now that I don't give up that easy. Whatever it is that you're so frightened of, I can deal with it. I'm a big boy." Slowly his hands rose to grasp the sides of the concealing hood, and gently he pushed it back.

Vincent felt every muscle in his body tense as the man touched his Catherine. Possessiveness and fear for her twined together as he watched the man reach out and tilt her chin up to face him. Lips peeled back from white fangs as a quiet warning growl slithered from between them.

As a ray of moonlight struck the face of his friend, Joe felt the bottom drop out of his world. "Oh, Jesus. Cathy? What is this? What the Hell happened to you?" Shaking his head in denial, he backed up until he hit one of her couches, and collapsed into it. Desperately trying to focus on something else, his eyes caught the silhouette of a huge menacing figure staring in through the balcony doors. "Get down! There's someone on your balcony!" Reaching under his jacket he pulled out the gun he carried everywhere with him now.

Catherine felt a spike of raw panic. "No!" The goad of her fear was the last straw for Vincent, who burst in through the doors, a snarling avatar.

With a strangled scream, Joe lifted the gun to take aim at the vicious apparition.

Throwing herself forward, Catherine used her incredible strength to push the gun aside, covering his hands. "Don't shoot! He's a friend! It's OK!"

Joe's eyes flicked desperately, shocked, between her face and Vincent's as he loosed his grip on the gun.

Vincent backed up until he reached the French doors. Although he regretted his protective impulse, the damage had been done.

Catherine continued to speak soothingly to her friend, who abruptly released his tension with a moan.

"Awww, Radcliffe, what the hell is this?" Finally Joe's eyes settled on her face in disbelief. Her speech had exposed the tips of long white canines, increasing the bestial appearance. Joe felt his heart clench in response. This couldn't be real. Unable to bear the sight, he looked down towards his hands.

Carefully, Catherine sat down beside the visibly shaking man. "I don't know how to explain. I've been very sick, and this was the result. Or the cause. Something like that. It's complicated."

Joe raised his eyes to look towards Vincent. "And who, or what, is that?"

Catherine bristled at his tone, but forced herself not to respond with anger. Joe was just shocked and upset. This required a gentle touch. "It's a who. His name is Vincent."

"Vincent? The Vincent?" Joe stared unbelievingly at the huge unmoving figure in the corner.

"You know about him? How?" Catherine reeled in shock. How could he know? What did he know?

"Edie. She mentioned once you had someone special in your life, but she only knew his name was Vincent."

Vincent stepped forward with resolve. 'After all, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.' "Mr. Maxwell. Catherine has spoken of you often. I apologize for my... abrupt entrance. When I saw you reach for the gun, I feared for her safety."

Joe lifted his eyes to stare at the being in front of him. "That's the reason he's always been a secret, isn't it? His looks." Standing, he approached the horrifying looking creature. "I'll just bet you made her like this, didn't you? Just like you. Yeah, Bride of Frankenstein!"

Vincent's low growl was cut off when, from out of nowhere, a clawed hand slapped Joe full across the face, hard, leaving four light scratches in its wake. A steely cold voice, with a snarling undertone, spoke, "Don't you ever, ever say anything like that again. To Vincent, or to me. Is that understood?"

Joe blinked, shook his head, and refocused on Catherine, who vibrated in anger and indignation beside him.

Suddenly, all the fight leaked out of Joe like air from a balloon. Turning, he stumbled back to the couch and sank down, resting his face in his hands. After a minute, he slowly lifted his head. "I'm sorry. Both of you. I have no excuse, except shock. You have my apology."

Catherine relaxed. Based on her limited experience, the worst was over. She went to the kitchen, returning with two cold sodas, and passed one to Joe. He only stared at her furred, clawed hands for a few seconds before taking it. She didn't bother even to ask Vincent, he hated soda unless it was flat. Joe popped the top of his and took a long restoring swallow.

"Now, gentlemen, shall we try this again? Joe Maxwell, this is Vincent, my&" Just what did she call him? Not husband. Not lover. Boyfriend sounded ridiculously juvenile.

From beside her, Vincent completed her introduction. "Her friend."

Nervously, Joe extended his hand to take the one he was offered in an unsteady handshake.

* * * * *

"So you got a good look at the guy. And the license plate of the van?" Quickly, Joe scribbled down the descriptions Catherine gave. "And you recognized the smell of the candies, and since they were at the vet clinic and Ketamine is also used on animals, you think this guy's one of the vets there? Or has some connection?" Joe shook his head in disbelief. Talk about a built-in bloodhound nose.

"It's got to be. It all fits."

"All right. I'll arrange for surveillance on that clinic, see what we can find out. Gotta love anonymous tips, right? This is great." Joe let out a deep breath. "I have to hand it to you, Radcliffe, you still got it. You sure you have to retire completely? Maybe we can work something out. Think about it."

Catherine ducked her head, pleased with the compliment. Oh, this felt so good! But& "I can't. I think it's obvious why I can't return to work. The office is a closed book for me, now."

"Who says anything about the office? Cripes, half the time you work at home anyway. There's still a lot you could do, Cath. You just won't be able to take credit for it anymore."

Looking up innocently from beneath shaggy bangs, Catherine just couldn't let that one slide. "Oh and just who would? I can't imagine. Maybe... the same person that has for the last two years?" The syrupy sweetness of her voice flowed like glue.

"Is that sass, I hear?" His customary teasing slipped out before he considered his words, and Joe glanced at Vincent warily, to ensure that the rather dangerous looking man had not taken offense. He noted with relief that Vincent didn't look upset, but amused.

"Seriously though. Think about it. We could make some kind of arrangement. You can't tell me you really want to get out from under my thumb."

Catherine glanced at Vincent. Would he mind?

Vincent picked up on the cause of her concern immediately. "I doesn't matter what I think. This is your life. If you feel this is something that would give you happiness, you know I'll support your decision."

"Yes, I will think about it."

 


Continued in Chapter 16