"I believe this is heaven to no one else but me&

Oh the quiet child awaits the day when she can break free

The mold that clings like desperation&

Can't you see that I've got

To live my life the way I feel is right for me?

Might not be right for you but it's right for me&

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

And I'll defend it as long as I can be

Left here to linger in silence if I choose to.

Would you try to understand?".

Sarah McLachlan: 'Elsewhere'

From the album: 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Three a.m. in the back alleys of Manhattan is neither a safe nor a friendly place. Many predators stalk the urban jungle and, as in any wilderness, the most dangerous hunt under cover of night. Shadows move within shadows; and potential dangers lurk in every pool of darkness.

From one of these places of thick shadow, two heavily cloaked shapes materialized and moved silently down the littered alleyway. A stray shaft of light reflected off a lock of light hair, and delved beneath a heavy hood to unveil a brief gleam of watchful eye. Both shapes froze and melded with the darkness as a sound came from the end of the alley. Two sets of eyes sought out the source, a trash container near the alley mouth. From beneath, the sinuous black form of a stray cat slipped out and slunk away, looking disgusted and bedraggled in the cold drizzle of rain.

Vincent felt the rush of Catherine's relief. She had been badly startled by the seeming nearness of the sound. After allowing her a moment to settle, he touched her shoulder and motioned for her to continue.

Catherine paused at the trash container the cat had exited, and carefully rummaged inside to retrieve a discarded newspaper. A few cautious steps later, she held up her hand and indicated a door.

"This is the back entrance of the vet clinic." She crouched low to the ground, picking up a broken piece of brick and several empty soda cans.

"I don't understand. What do you plan?"

"It's three in the morning. The clinic is closed. No one is in there. I have to make it so that one of the employees has to come here." At Vincent's puzzled tilt of the head and the sense of worry through the bond, she gave a small smile of reassurance. "I know what I'm doing. Trust me."

Together they stealthily made their way to the mouth of the alley and halted. Both sets of senses stretched to their limits, seeking any source of potential danger beyond. The clinic was directly beneath a street lamp, and exiting the alleyway would result in certain exposure. Finally, as satisfied to their safety as possible given the circumstances, Catherine slipped out onto the street, Vincent a step behind.

The clinic had a well-secured and locked door, and its windows were barred to prevent theft. Catherine slipped up to the window and, indicating Vincent should help, flung her strength into bending the central bars. A sense of satisfaction welled inside her as the tough steel bars gave under their combined effort. Hefting the brick, she smashed it against the thick glass. The window shattered, flooding the quiet street with an explosion of sharp sound. Glass fragments rained down and carpeted the clinic floor as she tossed the cans, one after the other, into the dark reception area beyond. Once the last can had bounced against the reception divider, she followed them with newspapers, individual sheet after sheet. Quickly she slipped back into the alleyway, followed by Vincent, and stood listening intently. A few moments later, through the now open window, they heard the muffled beep of the office telephone ringing.

Nodding with satisfaction, Catherine moved further back into the shadows. The old brick building beside the clinic proved a simple exercise to climb, and soon she and Vincent were huddled behind the lip of the roof. She couldn't help but smile at the expression of puzzlement on his face. Leaning towards him, she whispered quietly. "I've been here before, investigating a lead. They use a company called Sentry Alarm Systems as a security provider. A few months ago I was involved in a robbery investigation and the same company was used. Their standard package includes an invisible light beam across all doors and windows. When the system is on and someone enters, the beam is broken. The person has to enter a preset code into the system keypad within thirty seconds to deactivate the alarm. If not, the Security firm is alerted and they telephone the alarm location. If no one answers, or the person who answers doesn't know the correct code word, then Sentry security alerts the police, and also contacts a representative of the client to alert them of a break-in. That's what I want. One of the employees or owners should be on their way here shortly."

"So, the bent bars&"

"Is to make it look like there has been a break-in. If we just broke the window, there is a chance the police might cancel the alert, thinking it was just minor vandalism. This way, someone could have entered and stolen things, so someone will have to come and ascertain whether this was a burglary. Also, just in case they have the deluxe system, which if I remember correctly included motion detectors, I tossed in all that junk to set that off, too."

Vincent regarded the woman beside him with amazement. She never ceased to surprise him.

It was not much later that two vehicles approached and came to a stop in front of the clinic. A cautious peek revealed two patrol cars, and two policemen entered through the broken window. Fifteen minutes later, another car approached, a late model sedan, which parked behind the patrol cars. A slim, middle-aged man got out. After speaking to one of the patrol officers that remained outside, he handed one of them a key, and they unlocked and entered the clinic. Automatically, Catherine noted the sedan's license plate just in case.

During the next half an hour, Catherine and Vincent watched the policemen perform a fruitless search of the surrounding area. An overheard conversation between officers revealed that, since nothing except the window was really damaged or stolen, they felt the whole incident was just vandalism. Soon afterwards, the last police car drove away, leaving the employee to clean up before the clinic opened.

Cautiously, Vincent and Catherine climbed down from their rooftop hiding spot and crept to the end of the alley. Catherine nearly jumped out of her skin at the sharp sound of tape being pulled from a roll. Exchanging a glance with Vincent, she collected herself, rounded the corner of the building and threw herself into the clinic through the broken window.

The young man who had been taping plastic over the window frame to keep out the drizzling rain was thrown back by the impact of a leaping body. Unbelievably strong hands grasped him and threw him to the ground face first. His frantic struggle ceased abruptly as he felt the cold stab of what must be tiny knives against the back of his neck. The weight of a knee in his back pressed down as a husky female voice spoke inches from his left ear.

"We need to talk."

* * * * *

'Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.' Catherine thought frantically as she looked behind her to watch the subway train glide to a stop. 'What am I doing?'

"Catherine. You can do this! Remember the climb to your balcony? This is the same; it's easier than it seems. The top of each car has a series of small grips for maintenance use. Just drop down and grab one. The train is not moving very quickly at this point. Trust me."

"What's wrong with taking my car from the garage and just driving there?" Catherine felt as well as heard the edge of panic in her voice with a jolt of disgust. 'What the hell's wrong with you, Chandler? Buck up!'

"You told me why. The reporters might be watching your apartment building. Relax. I've done this many times."

Catherine closed her eyes briefly. Yes, she had been the one to point that out, but that was before she was hanging onto a ledge twenty feet inside a subway tunnel, waiting to jump down onto a moving train!

The man at the clinic had proven quite helpful. Absolute terror often has that effect. Catherine's description of the bald man she had observed in the park had borne fruit. It seemed that Dr. Malcolm Brighton, one of the resident vets, matched the description perfectly. It also seemed that Dr. Brighton had called in sick Wednesday, and had been off ever since. She had been very careful to blindfold the clinic worker, to ensure he didn't see her, although the psychological effect of that move on his willingness to answer her questions was not unwelcome either. After getting the good doctor's home address, she had tied the man's hands and feet, taken him to the back room, and locked him in a kennel.

Of course, it would be that Dr. Brighton's address was way out of tunnel range, into the very outskirts of the suburbs, and almost out of subway range. As it was, the route they must take would travel above ground for many miles.

"Remember, you don't know the routes as I do. Keep your head down until we leave the underground." Catherine blinked. The few passengers traveling at just after four on a Saturday morning had boarded and the train began to move. The front car passed beneath her.

"Catherine!" Looking down, Catherine could see the series of protrusions she had to grab. So small!

"Catherine, hurry!"

Taking a deep breath, Catherine focused and jumped.

The four-foot drop seemed to take forever, but her feet did finally make contact with the cold metal roof. For a moment, she felt herself slide as her body attempted to compensate for the forward movement of the train. Claws scrabbled against metal as she dropped to her knees and frantically grabbed for one of the small handles. Once she had one, she fell prone and tucked her head down. She could feel Vincent's relief for her as he dropped down himself, several cars back.

The buffeting wind was nothing. It was the stopping that was tough. She hung on to her handle for dear life as momentum forced her body forward when the train slowed to a halt. Soon however, the musty scent of the underground was behind, replaced by fresh air, and she lifted her head cautiously to observe their swift passage. Being able to see helped, and soon she found herself relaxing. Her sense of Vincent fed her a tickle of his excitement, and after examination, she had to agree.

Once you got used to it, this could be fun!

* * * * *

Joe Maxwell hurt. Everywhere. Force of habit made him test the bonds that held his arms to the back of the chair. Needles of pain shot through him as he moved his hands. Useless. His left eye was still swollen shut from the vicious punch he had gotten when he had tried to run. Burning pain in his side indicated at least one badly bruised if not broken rib.

A small feminine moan, heard through the total darkness, came from his left at last. Sandra was awake.

"Joe? Are you still here?"

"Yeah, I'm here. You OK?"

"No. No I'm not. But I'm not dying either. At least, I don't think so."

What a mess! It had all started with Cathy's information about the vet clinic.

First thing the morning after their meeting he had registered an anonymous tip and had arranged for surveillance on the Best Friends Veterinary Clinic. Then, following a hunch of his own, he had decided to talk with the woman at the hospital Cathy had mentioned. Sandra Berringer. He arranged to meet her at a small restaurant a few blocks from the hospital after she got off work for the day. A nice lady, Sandra proved very easy to talk to, and quite helpful. Yes, it seemed that a viable organ was acquired late last night, from a victim of a car accident.

That ol' Maxwell Italian charm still worked. At least in combination with a District Attorney's ID. Even though it was late in the evening, Joe had persuaded Sandra to go back to the hospital with him. Her in-basket held the paperwork for the organ donation, a liver, taken from a recent traffic accident victim. The operating physician was a Dr. Steven Carson, one of the staff doctors. In response to his request to check out the body himself, Sandra had escorted him to the morgue. Dr. Carson worked nights, Sunday to Thursday, but the pathologist on duty was quite cooperative. His records indicated the body was to be picked up first thing in the morning, for transfer to a funeral parlor for cremation. Imagine his surprise when the drawer containing the 'donor' held a body that had extensive abdominal damage, and whose subsequent autopsy revealed a present, though badly damaged liver.

It hadn't taken long to put the wheels in motion. Joe had called to request Dr. Carson be brought in for questioning, thanked Sandra for her help, and gone home. Later, several toughs dragged him roughly from sleep, threw a coat on him and marched him from his apartment to his car, a gun pressed to his side. They had brought him here - wherever here was. Somewhere outside the city proper, judging by the length of time it had taken to travel. He had been locked in the trunk for the entire trip.

"Joe? We're not going to get out of this alive, are we?"

* * * * *

Things smelled different outside the city. Cleaner. The acrid overlay of exhaust fumes was less. All senses were focused for the slightest hint of movement, of danger, as Catherine and Vincent crept through the underbrush along the side of the road, counting house numbers.

This area to the north of the city was one of the older neighborhoods. Formerly a small town that had been swallowed by urban sprawl, many of the old homes still remained. These houses, purchased by the wealthy commuters who spent years fixing up the heritage homes, were generally for the well off and enjoyed a relatively large lot size.

After creeping along the road for about a mile, they reached their destination, an old box style farmhouse, fitted with many additions over the years to make a sprawling structure. The grounds were not well kept, and allowed the couple plenty of cover as they stealthily approached the house. Several times Vincent checked the sky worriedly. Dawn was so close.

The noise of a car engine preceded the sweep of headlights over their place of concealment. Both felt a stab of alarm when the vehicle slowed and turned into the drive. A large series of shrubs and the dark concealment of their cloaks hid the couple well as the vehicle drove past their hiding place and pulled to a stop beside the house.

Something about that particular black sedan, a high end Mercedes, picked at Catherine's memory. The driver's side opened and a huge black man got out, crossed to the opposite side, and opened the rear door. From the vehicle stepped a tall older man, a ring of white hair adding cold emphasis to a pinched, pale face. Lifting her hood so she could get a good look, she smothered a gasp of shock

"What is it? Do you know those men?"

Catherine shook her head and refocused. Yes, she could swear& "That man, the old man – I'm sure that's Aaron Downy. He's one of John Montolli's men, fairly high up. Joe's been after Montolli for years. Around the office, he's called Teflon John, because we can never get anything on him that'll stick. He's a major figure in organized crime."

Two nasty looking companions exited the vehicle after Downy. Together the three men walked to the front door, ringing the doorbell promptly. Several minutes and several rings later, Catherine heard the door open, and the beginnings of a loud complaint. One of the large brutes grabbed the unseen person, ending his little speech, and the group quietly entered the house, leaving the chauffeur alone.

After waiting several minutes, the chauffeur lit a cigarette and leaned back against the car. Seeing him relax his guard, Vincent began to slowly lead the way from the vehicle. Sensitive night sight registered an abrupt increase in light level from the back of the house, and they ensured they stayed as much in the shadows as possible. Creeping even more cautiously, Catherine and Vincent gave the chauffeur a wide berth. They were just rounding the back corner of the house, when the muffled crack of a gunshot was heard.

* * * * *

Voices. Yes, those were definitely voices coming down the stairs. Joe shook his head, trying to rid himself of the persistent buzzing noise that had been present since the blow to his head. The sudden flare as the overhead light switched on was blinding

"Well, well, well."

Joe's eyes flew open at that reedy, ice-cold voice. It couldn't be&.

"It seems you find yourself in a bit of a predicament now, don't you, Mr. Maxwell?

"Aaron Downy. I should have known your outfit would have its fingers in a nice little profitable business like this. Typical. People are just product to your kind."

"Now, Joe! Let's be civilized. I must apologize for taking so long to visit you, but your little surveillance arrangement on my friend's business needed termination, and a few leaks plugged. I've managed to eliminate any potential problems, though. Now there's just& you."

"What, you come all this way to gloat?" Through watering eyes, Joe watched with loathing as a smirk threatened to crack Downy's tightly drawn skin.

The pale man laughed, a nasty scratching chuckle. "Gloat? Why? Do you really think your piddling little attempts to stop the organization even hinder our operations? You flatter yourself, my friend. People like you are like flies on a horse. Annoying, but definitely not a threat. No, Joe, I have a proposition for you. Roger, please release our friend."

One of the burly men who had accompanied Downy moved quietly around to the back of Joe's chair and untied the ropes. Joe tried to move his arms. For a moment, his mental commands had no effect, but finally his shoulders began to roll forward and his fingers flexed. The pain that followed was excruciating, red-hot knives driven into joints and muscles. The intensity made his stomach heave, and a taste of bile rose to the back of his throat. Being tied to a chair for several days will do that. The inevitable bodily functions had eventually won out over control, as well. Altogether, he was a mess. Downy waited patiently as Joe finally managed to stand. At his order, Joe was fetched a glass of water.

"Mr. Joseph Maxwell. Deputy District Attorney. Trying so hard to make a difference in this town. Not that it does much good now, does it? Oh, you get some third class hoods off the street, some wife abusers behind bars. Mostly, they eventually get out to steal or murder or assault their women again, don't they? And for all this work, this heartache, what do you get? A good salary? A nice office? The satisfaction of cleaning up the streets? Well, let me tell you something, my friend. You work in a hole, you live in a dump, they pay you crap, and nothing you do, in the long run, really makes a difference at all!"

"People like me, like John, we are totally unaffected by your pathetic efforts. Yet you keep on trying, like a beaten horse pulling a cart until it drops. Then what happens, once you're burned out from your useless labors? Do they take care of you? Oh no. You are forgotten, just another casualty, and some other poor idealistic schmuck is harnessed in your place."

"But you have the power to change that. I can give you that opportunity. Yes, I can. You will find my friends and I can be extremely generous to our friends. Generous enough for you to get a decent place to live, maybe a nice vacation, and some interesting toys as well. Decent enough so you will never have to worry about money again. And all we ask of our friends is a little help sometimes. A little indulgence. Nothing too

difficult. What do you say?"

Joe focused on the white haired man before him. He knew Downy's kind. Snakes. They used you, and stabbed you in the back when your usefulness was done. And while they had you, your life became a living hell; it was no longer your life, it was their life. But all that was secondary to the fact that he would never do it. Period. Joe Maxwell was no one's puppet lawyer. "Go to hell, Downy. It'll be like old home week for you."

The pale gray eyes gazed at Joe for a moment, before shifting to focus coldly on the unconscious figure of Sandra Berringer. Casually, Downy strolled over to her, close enough to rub a strand of her dark hair between his fingers. "Ah now, Joe. Don't disappoint me. After all, you're not the only one in this predicament now, are you? There's this lovely lady to consider." Joe lifted his head and looked away, steeling himself to ignore the obvious taunting. A slow sigh filled the chamber. Eyes like dirty ice flicked to the huge man on his left as he moved away from the chair where the woman was bound. The shaved head inclined in understanding before the paw-like hands reached inside his overcoat to draw out a large handgun. Taking aim, he fired. The high caliber bullet smashed into her right knee, which exploded in a shower of blood, bone, and tissue fragments. Sandra jerked and inhaled a sucking scream before slumping forward again.

Downy flicked a fragment off the lapel of his expensive wool overcoat with distaste. "What a pity you made that unfortunate action necessary. Did I mention that you and the woman get to live as part of the bargain?"

"You son of a bitch!"

"Now Joe, calm down and let's re-think this for a moment. Agree to be our man in the DA's office and you get friends, money, and you get to live long enough to enjoy them to the fullest. Refuse our offer, and you and the woman die. Painfully. The intelligent choice I would think is obvious."

They were going to kill her. How could he be responsible for that? He had to get them both out of this&

"Alright, you win. I'll do it. Just make it worth my while."

Downy studied Joe. Even swaying with exhaustion, he wasn't a very convincing actor. He was agreeing just to get the woman and himself released. No doubt, as soon as he was free, he would put her into protective custody, and prosecute. But, maybe... An idea slithered snakelike into Downy's thoughts. Yes...perfect.

"Good, good. You've said the right thing. Now explain to me why I don't think you're sincere?"

"I said I'd do it! What do you want, blood?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. I think, in this case, a demonstration of good faith, of loyalty if you will, is necessary."

"Demonstration? What are you talking about?"

Downy motioned one of his muscled companions over, and spoke quietly. The man nodded and moved to stand next to Joe.

"You know as well as I that I can't let this unfortunate lady go. Not now, she might remember me, or any of this conversation. We can't have that. So, as a gesture of good faith, of support, I'd like you to take care of this problem for me."

From behind, Joe felt his right arm captured and brought forward. Keeping a harsh grip on his wrist, the man behind him pressed the gun into his hands, and pointed it towards Sandra.

"Shoot her," the cold voice hissed from close behind him. "Pull the trigger. Do it, Joe. She's already dead. You're just& expediting matters. Pull the trigger, and it will all stop. Then you can go home, and we'll forget this ever happened."

It wasn't going to work, and in his condition he was too weak to have a chance at overpowering even one of the two bodyguards.

"No."

Downy released a hissing sigh. It might have worked& maybe next time. "You've disappointed me. I did want to trust you."

Roughly, Joe was shoved to the concrete floor. The man who had held him impassively replaced his gun in its holster.

"Get this straight, you bastard. I will never, under any circumstances, work for you or your kind. My mother brought me up better than that."

"Your mother will be next, Joe." The cold eyes bore down into his, as Downy uttered this threat.

Joe gave a mirthless laugh. "You obviously don't know my momma. If she ever found out that her boy was kissing your ass, she'd kill me herself, if that knowledge didn't drop her first. You can't hold me with that."

"Ah well, it's truly a pity. I think we would have worked well together. Roger, Fergus, take care of this problem, please." The one called Roger was reaching for his own handgun, as his boss turned and left the basement.

A bare flicker of movement was the only warning as the basement window shattered inwards. The rain of glass was accompanied by what sounded like the high grating roar of an enraged animal.


Continued in Chapter 19