This love is & like liquid.

I am drunk on my desire.

But I love the way you smile at me.

I love the way your hands reach out and hold me near.

I believe,

I believe this is heaven to no one else but me.

Sarah McLachlan: 'Elsewhere'

From the album: 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


It was the voices that eventually woke him: hushed tones of worry and fear, the sounds of a quiet argument just outside his chamber door. 'Why won't they just go away?' Vincent thought in sleepy annoyance. 'Don't they know I'm&?'

He was what? Tired, most certainly, but a very pleasant and replete sort of tired. Comfortable? Extremely so. Happy? Oh, definitely. Happy didn't even come close to describing how he felt. A blanket of wonder still remained wrapped around his heart. Last night had been a revelation.

Beside him, Catherine shifted with an unintelligible mumble of protest at the intruding voices. Her warm, soft body snuggled backwards to rest against his chest, hips nestling in the cradle of his own. Vincent felt a heavy stir of arousal at her movements, and he bent his head to nuzzle her ear, exposed from beneath her sleep-tousled mane. The soft brown rim of fur along the edge tickled his upper lip deliciously. She was a marvel.

"Vincent? Vincent!" Father's hushed voice spoke from the other side of the curtained entrance.

Vincent hesitated at the tone of that long-loved voice. Reluctantly he noted Father's feelings of concern and fear.

"Vincent, please answer me!"

He lifted his head and drew breath to answer, but stilled as Catherine mumbled again, rolled on her stomach and dragged the pillow over her head. An irrepressible smile curved his lips. Was she always this reluctant to waken? And was she always this cute in the morning? She wouldn't like that description, he thought with wry amusement. Oh, how he looked forward to finding out! But for now, she was tired and should sleep. After last night, she deserved it.

Across the pipes the hour notation rang out. Three o'clock? In the afternoon? No wonder Father was concerned; they had been cloistered in here since just after evening meal. Cautiously Vincent slid from the warm quilts, taking care not to disturb Catherine's rest. Usually he left his dressing gown beside the bed, but last night such practicalities had eluded him, as did the need for any sort of sleeping attire. He quietly fetched the garment from his armoire and padded across the chamber to slip past the heavy curtain.

"Thank God!" Father's relief was palpable as he watched his son straighten and turn, tucking the curtain back to completely hide the interior of his chamber. That task complete, his son turned to face Father, noting the worried expression.

"Vincent, is everything& all right? It is so late. I had begun to worry. How is Catherine? Jamie said&" Father's embarrassed concern slid away as he absorbed his son's condition.

The rough mane was a mess. Under his dressing gown, his normal sleeping attire of fleece pants and thermal shirt was absent, and the riot of wavy golden fur on his chest spilled unabashedly from the opening of the quilted garment. If eyes could be said to speak, Vincent's virtually glowed with relaxed contentment. His neck& his throat bore several small bruises, in a pattern which betrayed their most probable origin. Father cleared his throat in dismay.

"Please, don't be concerned. All is well. We are simply& rather tired." Noting the direction of Father's gaze, Vincent touched the sore spots on his throat, and lowered his head with a bashful half smile when remembering how they came about. It was the third time& wasn't it? He thought so. Catherine had been quite& assertive. It had been beyond incredible, beyond anything.

Father observed the unfocused, dazed happiness clearly evident in Vincent's eyes. So, that was the way of it. "Well, then, I'll leave you to your rest. I'm sorry to have disturbed you".

Vincent's musings were cut short by the sense of distressed embarrassment emanating from the older man. Distress and& grief? A feeling of being unneeded?

"Father." Vincent reached out to lay his hand on Father's arm. "It is I who should apologize. I should have realized how you would worry, especially after the incident in the dining hall." Vincent stepped forward and swept Father into a warm hug. "I'm sorry." This man had been there for him all his life, loving and guiding him for more than thirty years. How could he think he was no longer needed? Vincent would always need him.

Swiftly Father's arms went around his son's waist to squeeze tightly.

"Perhaps tomorrow we could spend some time?" Vincent asked quietly. "There is a certain issue of two chess wins this week which needs to be addressed." Father's relief was like a soothing balm.

"Yes. Perhaps a third would put you in your place." Each fought to hide a smile at the patently false confidence Father displayed. Father stepped back and grasped Vincent's arm, eyes serious. "Tell me, what did happen in the dining hall? William said-"

"I think the whole incident is best forgotten. Catherine and I have resolved certain matters. Circumstances have& changed. Suffice it to say I truly believe nothing like that will occur again." With a gentle squeeze to Father's shoulders, Vincent turned to slip back through the curtain.

Father stood for a moment. From behind the curtain he caught a muffled feminine inquiry, and the uncommon but welcome sound of his son's laughter. Indeed, all was well. With a shake of a head and a slight smile, he turned to leave the couple to their privacy. After all they had been through, no two were more deserving of happiness.

* * * * *

Vincent had carefully closed the curtain and begun to sneak back to the bed, when he realized his efforts were in vain. One apprehensive eye peered out from beneath a disheveled shock of mane and the wreckage of bedclothes.

"Was that Father? Is anything wrong?" Catherine sat up and ran a hand through her rumpled mane, only succeeding in making its condition worse. As she lifted her head to look at him, Vincent couldn't hold back a spurt of laughter at the sight.

While sleeping on her stomach, Catherine had obviously had her face pushed into the mattress. The fur on her nose was bent sideways, giving her a ridiculously lopsided look. The net effect was hilarious& and adorable. And sexy. But then, how could she not be alluring to him? Laughter segued into a light masculine rumble of appreciation as his gaze grew heated.

"Ohhh, no, you don't! Don't even start! If I don't get to the bathroom I'm going to explode!" Scooting to the end of the bed, Catherine jumped out and began desperately hunting for her clothes. Donning the bare necessities, she rushed past him and through the curtained doorway with a whimper, leaving Vincent blinking in consternation. None of the romantic literature he had contented himself with over the many years had ever touched upon such inevitable practicalities.

* * * * *

Two figures glided soundlessly through the darkened corridors. In the later hours, when most of the tunnel dwellers slept, many of the lanterns were extinguished in order to conserve fuel. The pair took advantage of the dark shadows as they approached the last curve before the dining chamber.

"Vincent," Catherine hissed quietly. "What are we doing? Is this stealth necessary?"

"No. Not absolutely."

"Then why are we sneaking around?"

"Did you not notice that wonderful smell as we started in this direction?"

"Yes& William's been baking."

"Yes, and I know that smell. He's made pies for tomorrow's dinner. He gets quite irate if he finds his work has been enjoyed before the appointed time. Occasionally, nonetheless, certain of his treats have been& liberated."

Catherine's keen eyes caught the barest twinkle of devilment in Vincent's, washed to a gentle gray by the lack of lighting, before he turned away.

"It's you! Last Winterfest William was complaining about someone stealing sweets. He was sure it was one of the children. You're the thief? You sneak! Oh, I am appalled!" Catherine almost laughed aloud at this new facet of her lover's character.

"Appalled? Why? It's not really stealing. Just& taking."

Catherine smothered a snort of laughter. The lighthearted conversation ceased as they slipped into the dining chamber and through the short tunnel to the kitchen.

Unerringly Vincent made his way to the large wooden cupboard in the corner, and easily shifting the heavy barrel blocking the front, opened the doors to reveal several dozen apple pies on shelves.

Catherine giggled helplessly as she felt his greedy anticipation. "I can't believe what a sweet tooth you have. You're going to rot the teeth right out of your head!"

"I read something several years ago that became words I live by, Catherine. 'Life is short. Eat dessert first'." Carefully, Vincent rearranged the pies on the bottom shelf to hide the fact that one was missing, closed the cupboard, and resettled the heavy barrel in its former guardian posture. Stopping only to grab a fork and steal a quick kiss, he returned to the dining hall to dig into the sweet treat with relish, leaving Catherine to roll her eyes indulgently.

"Just save me a piece, OK?"

"Mummmhh," Vincent mumbled past a mouthful of pastry as he noticed a copy of the New York Times folded on the seat beside him.

Leaving Vincent to his ill-gotten gains, Catherine rummaged through the cool room for the makings of a cheese sandwich or three, unable to repress a flutter of happiness. Or was it a rumble of hunger? Probably both. After she had returned from the necessary bathroom break, she and Vincent had visited one of the bathing pools. That had been definitely& inspiring. So inspiring in fact, that they had missed evening meal. Again. When they had finally come up for air, they had decided to stage a raid on the kitchen. The small can of coffee on the top shelf received a disgusted glare as she finished constructing dinner and left to join Vincent.

"Don't tell me we get newspaper delivery down here?" Taking the chair beside Vincent, she set the plate of sandwiches and large glass of milk on the table, and dug in. Her leg lightly brushed against his under the table, the physical contact welcomed and reassuring to both. Glancing beside her, she noted that over half the pie was gone.

"Not quite. One of our helpers runs a newsstand. He usually sends down a copy of the previous day's Times for Father and any other residents to read. We're not totally cut off from Above, here. Just a bit behind."

Quiet settled over the couple as they ate hungrily. Catherine immediately snitched the front page, while Vincent contented himself with local news and the Arts and Entertainment section. For a moment, Catherine felt a touch of disbelief. Was this really happening? To them? After years of moving in circles, and the shocking changes of the last few weeks, could this be real? Her and Vincent, sharing a midnight snack and reading the newspaper, like any other normal couple?

Catherine almost choked on a bite of sandwich at the sudden gust of shock from Vincent. "What? What is it?"

"It's Joe. Something has happened. Look." Vincent swiftly spread out the local news section in front of them and indicated the photograph of Joe on the second page. It was a stock shot, a portrait style picture given to the press for their use. But it was the headline below that screamed for attention:

<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>

Deputy District Attorney Reported Missing

Deputy District Attorney Joseph Maxwell was been reported missing early this morning.

Mr. Maxwell has been directly responsible for the incarceration of many of this city's worst criminal elements. At last report, he was concentrating on a recent series of assaults suspected to be linked with the black market in human internal organs.

At present, city police are requesting anyone who has information that could be pertinent to please contact Sgt. Mike Carlson of the NYPD at 555-5903.

Catherine lifted her head, stunned. "This paper is almost two days old. Maybe they found him. Vincent, I have to find out! I have to know if he's OK."

* * * * *

"Come on, Edie. Pick up the phone!" Catherine stood hunched over the pay phone near one of the public washrooms in the park. Nearby, hidden in shadow, Vincent stood watch. They'd had to wait for almost half an hour for a local gang to leave the area. This was the only telephone that wasn't in a wide-open space that still worked.

At first Catherine had thought to go to her apartment, but the newspaper article gave her pause. During the time of her assault and disappearance over two years ago, and with the recent experience of Spirko, she had learned well just how tenacious and resourceful reporters could be. If they were looking for Joe, chances are they could be trying to locate her for comment. Involving a helper was not an option either. They couldn't take the chance that an innocent party could be dragged into this.

Finally Catherine heard the receiver being lifted and a muffled, hoarse voice speak. "Hello."

"Edie. It's Cathy. I-"

"Cathy?" Edie's tone sharpened as she came awake fully. "Where the hell have you been, girl?"

"I just heard the news. Have they found Joe? What's going on?"

"He's still missing, and they don't have much to go on. Last phone call he got was from some woman looking for you. He left early that afternoon, I think they arranged to meet somewhere. She's missing now, too."

"Do you remember who it was?"

"Yeah, name's Sandra Berringer. Word is she worked at the hospital where Greg got shot. Listen, Cathy are you OK? You really resigned?"

"Yes, I did. But don't worry, I'm fine. There were reasons& I can't talk about it. One more thing, Wednesday morning, did Joe put out any kind of surveillance on a vet clinic regarding the organ-snatcher case?"

"Yeah, matter of fact he did. Couldn't figure that one out at all. Some sort of anonymous tip. Surveillance didn't net anything and I think they dropped it." Edie's voice softened with concern. "Cathy, is there anything I can do? I mean, if you're in trouble or really sick or something?"

"Thanks for asking, but no, there's nothing. I'm not in trouble. This is just something I had to do. I'll let you go back to sleep now. Thanks for the update."

"Wait!" Catherine paused as Edie gathered her thoughts. "Why do I get the feeling I'll never see you again?"

Catherine sighed. This was so hard. "You probably won't. I'm sorry. But I won't lose touch, OK?" Without waiting to hear her answer, Catherine softly hung up the phone.

A warm hand descended to her shoulder and gently pulled Catherine into a comforting embrace. "He's still missing?"

Catherine nodded against Vincent's ridged vest, taking brief comfort in the rub of his cheek against her hair. Squaring her shoulders, she drew a deep breath and straightened. "Yes. And so is another woman, a contact I made at the hospital. I think I know who took them both. Or at least, who might know where to look. I have to do something. I have to try. Joe's my friend."

Vincent raised his head and looked across the dark park. He could feel her determination. Again, her loyalty and courage drew her to danger. But not alone; never again. "Then we must find him, together."


Continued in Chapter 18