Bring me the face. Without the face I cannot do it.

Whatever you require, Tamara, that you shall have.

You talk so sweet...that voice will get you anything. Bring me the face and I will make it yours. The man who wears it now won't be needing it, will he?

No...I don't imagine he will.

Dead of Winter (Written by George R.R. Martin)

It was a miserably-hot July afternoon in Central Park. Those unfortunate enough to be outside in the heat of the day were far too occupied with finding shelter within to notice the tall, lanky man who leaned against a large shade tree. He was obviously a homeless derelict, hanging out in the park until rush hour began and his chances for bumming a handout improved. He was hardly an unusual sight in Central Park, only one which had become much more common as times became harder. It was the facade he wanted any who passed by to make of him. For those who stared too hard or too long, there was something about the man that caused them to quickly redirect their attention. They were right to do so. John Spirko was the embodiment of all that wasn't safe; all that wasn't right in a society where poverty, crime, and death flourished alongside the natural beauty of the park.

From a nearby bench partially hidden by a large hedge, Tamara sat and observed the man she had not yet decided to meet. Word had reached her just that morning that there was a stranger hanging out in the park who was willing to pay for certain information: information about the underground tunnels. She had no idea how long he had been waiting for one of the regulars to take him up on his offer, but she supposed that by now he was beginning to suspect that it wouldn't be quite so easy to hire a guide for the world Below. Strangers from the outside were invariably under the impression that money could buy them anything, and this stranger was no exception. Tamara smiled as he shifted his position again, a sure sign of his growing impatience. It was apparent that he was puzzled that no one had pounced upon his offer. What he didn't know, what he couldn't know, was that regardless of how desperate their circumstances might be, those who knew the tunnels also knew exactly who dwelled in them. There was no amount of money this stranger could offer that was worth bringing down the wrath of Vincent upon their heads.

Yet, Tamra had not completely ruled out assisting the man. For one, she wasn't a member of the tunnel community, although she had lived Below for all of her adult life. On the run from the police after being implicated in several murders, she was in her late teens when she first stumbled into the tunnels and realized that she had found the perfect hiding place. That had been more than four decades agoÐeven before the arrival of Jacob Wells or John Pater. The inventive genius of John Pater, matched with the organizational skills and charismatic leadership of Jacob Wells had transformed the world Below into a safer, not to mention more habitable refuge for all. But Tamara was not inclined to acknowledge that particular truth. For more than four decades she had nurtured a grudge against Jacob Wells and his tunnel followers. Helpless to stop the establishment of the underground community, complete with its own brand of ethics and morality, Tamara had moved further away from the interlopers into the most uninhabitable sections of Below.
There also existed a handful of others who had claimed the tunnels as their home, but Tamara paid scant attention to them. For reasons of their own, they chose not to live within the society Jacob Wells had established or to be governed by its rules. Over time, those who walked a different path from that of the rapidly growing underground community came to be known as outsiders. It was a label Tamara despised, given that she was one of the remaining few who had claimed Below as her refuge long before Wells arrived with his grand plans for a utopian society.

Yet, despite it all, those who lived Below, whether alone or as a part of the Wells commune, did so under an informal truce in which established boundaries were observed and differences were tolerated (if not always agreed with). The vastness of the tunnels and subterranean caverns allowed for this co-existence, and even more, encouraged the one imperative shared by all: that every man, woman, and child guard against the discovery of the world Below by those Above. Thus, it was unusual for a complete stranger to know about the existence of the tunnels, much less want to go down into them. Still, unless he was escorted by one who actually lived within, the chances were minimal that he would ever locate those who lived Below.

These thoughts and more came to Tamara as she played with the idea of approaching the stranger. The fact that his inquiry had been relayed through the network of indigent patrons of the park whose help could be bought cheaply (usually for the cost of a bottle of whiskey) told her that this man knew his way around the underbelly of society. That, alone, had been enough to bring her Above to personally inspect him. Now peering out again at him, she felt a shiver of excitement run down her spine. The man had cold, dead eyes, and even the distance that separated them could not cloak the ruthlessness that clung to him like a second skin.

While he was dressed appropriately enough for the role of a park vagrant, Tamara could see the real man hidden beneath the ratty clothing. This man was no homeless derelict. Tamara knew he was aware of every movement in his proximity. Regulars sat on benches scattered throughout the park, much as she was doing. As his eyes passed over them, Tamara sensed his keen assessment. In the end, she knew he was determining which of these human specimens were of any use to him. None held his attention for long, and Tamara had no doubt that if the need arose, he would have no compunction about ending their lives. No, he was no park bum: he was definitely a killer.

Tamara felt the spark of excitement spread. She hadn't been this intrigued by anyone since she had met John Pater. Pater, later known as Paracelsus, had been the first and only one of Wells' underground community that she had ever permitted to encroach upon her territory deep withing the bowels of the earth. Though their relationship had been based on using one another to their mutual advantage, there had been similarities between them. Paracelsus shared her contempt for Jacob Wells and her hatred of the community where the man who would have all others call him 'Father' ultimately became the sole leader. And yet, there was one inescapable difference. Tamara didn't share Paracelsus' single-minded determination to destroy Wells and his community, nor was she preoccupied with Vincent. And she certainly wasn't willing to die for either the tunnel community or its hybrid lion mascot. While she might assist in the nefarious plans of others to bring about the tunnel community's downfall, she had no desire to lead such a project herself. Tamara had her own creative interests, and they kept her busy.

Tamara had keenly felt the loss of Paracelsus in her life. With him she had enjoyed a long and fulfilling association; one she had never thought to experience again. Paracelsus' line of work often left him with an excess of corpses which he, in turn, would generously bestow upon her. The only condition was that she be available when he desired the exclusive use of her unique talents. Thus, while she didn't actually grieve for the man, she did genuinely grieve for the loss of a good supplier of many of her most interesting masks. Since his death, she had been alone, forced to go Above to find deceased subjects in deserted alleys and the poorest sections of the city. Those places invariably produced the worse human specimens for her to work with, and in turn, the quality of her masks had suffered.

Now in the presence of this man, Tamara saw someone with whom she could once again join forces. It was a heady sensation; and the possibility, however remote, of entering into partnership with this stranger as a means of improving her craft infused her with eager anticipation. Things could be just like the were with Paracelsus! Certainly this stranger reminded her a great deal of the man, especially the arrogance that even a beggar's clothing could not disguise. She suspected that just like Paracelsus, he would see himself as superior and underestimate her at first. She was certain that given time he would recognize his error and her worth. She, and she alone, had the gift of mask-making, and even her fellow outcast tunnel dwellers walked a wide circle around her. Her ability to transform the faces of the living into masks of death was the ultimate fool-proof disguise. Instinctively she knew that in this stranger she had finally have found another who might have a need for her talent, that is, if she wasn't forced to kill him first. Pulling herself away from these inner reflections, she looked again to where the man still stood, only to feel her insides clinch at the realization that he was now standing directly beside her.

He stared down at her with dark, penetrating eyes, his mouth a thin, tight line that held the barest hint of a frown. If his expression of grim determination was any indication he had gotten tired of waiting for a volunteer and decided to take matters into his own hands. Tamara instinctively knew he carried a gun. He probably had it pointed at her at this very minute, and she knew that he wasn't above murdering a woman, even an old one. So it didn't come as a surprise to her when he grabbed her elbow and forced her behind a large cluster of bushes which effectively hid them from the main body of the park. It now only remained to be seen if he were foolish enough to try to harm her or if there was truly a good reason for her to help him find his way Below. If the former proved true, he was in for a surprise as she released a hidden lock on her bracelet from where a small needle emerged. It would only require a second flick of her forefinger across the button to shoot a lethal dose of poison straight into the man. He would be dead before his body hit the ground.

"Are you the one who can tell me about the tunnels?" Spirko asked in a rasping, typical Bronx accent that actually made Tamara wince. She realized at once that she had obviously attributed too much to this man. Accustomed to the smooth, cultured tones of Paracelsus' voice, which so successfully disguised the evil of his nature, she had expected something similar from this stranger. What she heard, though, had been a shock to her sensibilities. He was menacing, and he exuded danger. There was nothing suave, subtle, or cultured about him. In the cruel reality that was her life, Tamara had met many people just like this man. He was, simply, the killer she had hoped for.

Calmly she answered him. "It depends on what you want to know about the tunnels, and what I'll get from telling you."

"Look," Spriko ground out. "I've been standing in this hell-hole for most of the day waiting for one of you to take up my offer. First thing you better learn is that I don't like to wait. Second is that I don't play games. So if you're even half as smart as I think you are, you won't waste my time."

Tamara responded with no trace that his words had given her the slightest cause for concern. "I never said I wouldn't tell you what you want to know. In fact, I'd like to think that we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, that is, if you can bring yourself to turn that gun away from me."

With grudging acknowledgment, Spirko eased his finger away from the trigger of the gun he'd had trained on her since he first noticed her spying on him from behind the bushes.

"The name is John," he told her.

As Tamara rubbed her hands together, she carefully pressed a second button on her bracelet and smiled as she felt the small vibration which told her the pin had safely receded back into the chamber. "I'm Tamra," she said, "and what exactly do you need to know about the tunnels, other than the fact that they're dangerous?"

Recognizing that he had finally found someone who would tell him what he wanted to know, the flicker of a smile crossed his face. "All I need to know is how to get around. I'm looking for a group that lives down there."

"And I can assume that your visit isn't for a friendly get-together?" Tamara asked with growing interest.

"Yeah, you can assume that."

"And you really expect to just go down there and locate this group?" Tamara insisted.

His patience eroding, Spriko shot back tersely, "What I plan to do is none of your business. All I need from you is directions."

"I do believe," she said quietly, "that you're going to need quite a bit more from me than just directions. You see, most everyone around here knows the tunnels are down there, but only a few of us know how to get around in them. And of those, I'm likely the only one who doesn't give a damn about the others who live Below, and so the only one who won't steer you straight into the Abyss. So if you're serious about going down there, finding this group, and getting out alive, you're going to need a guide. You're going to need me."

"Is that so? Well, the more you talk, sister, the more I'm thinking I'd be better off on my own," he shot back.

Tamara refused to allow his words to provoke her. He was an arrogant man who didn't understand that the rules Above didn't apply in the place where he wanted to go. So with more patience that she was known for having, she tried to explain. "I don't know what you've heard, but within an hour in those tunnels alone you'll be hopelessly lost and lucky if you ever find your way out. And if anyone knew you were going down there gunning for someone in that group, you'd never leave that place alive."

"Lady, I don't need this," John spat out.

Taking a step closer to him, Tamara lowered her voice. "Oh, so you don't need my help? Fine. Go ahead, but you're signing your own death warrant. Do you really thing you're the first killer to come near these tunnels? There was another one, you know, about a year or so back. Snow they called him."

If the deadly menace in her voice wasn't enough to give him pause, the mention of Snow's name definitely was. Spirko knew Snow, and he was reported to be one of the best.

"So Snow's been here," he finally said. "Small world. He's almost as good as me. He's a little too flamboyant for my tastes, but still he's good."

He waited for her to respond, but when she didn't, he figured he'd have to come right out and ask. "So....Snow was here a while back. You gonna tell me what happened?"

"Oh, not much, really," she replied with a secret smile that sent a shiver down his spine. "This Snow guy just kind of reminds me of you. He thought he could go down there, too...into the tunnels...alone. They say he had all kinds of modern equipment.....stuff to see in the dark.....stuff that could make you hear a pin drop.....and enough firepower to blow up the entire park. In the end, though, he was the one to die. They said every bone in his body was broken...that he was hung like a rag doll. I only wish I'd been able to get hold of his head . . . ."

Her expression turned wistful, and Spirko was not quite sure if she was playing with a full deck. Yet, if Snow had met his end in those tunnels, they were a lot more lethal than he had suspected. He hadn't lived this long by being a fool, and if she wanted to help, he figured he couldn't do any worse. Plus, he could always get rid of her when her usefulness ran out. So with feigned disinterest that fooled neither one of them, he asked her.

"So who took Snow out?"

Staring him straight in the eye, she said, "It's not a who, it's a what, and his name is Vincent. Seeing the spark of recognition in his eyes, she added maliciously, "And if he's the one you're after, you better believe you're not only going to need me, but plenty of luck, and even with that, I wouldn't bet on your chances of making it out alive."

For the second time in less than five minutes, John Spirko found himself revising his opinion of the old woman. The bitch had known all along that he was gonna have to get into bed with her if he were to have a real chance of killing this Vincent. It was obvious that she'd been toying with him all along. Now seeing the self-satisfied smirk on her face, he was sorely tempted to slap it off just to regain the upper hand. The part of him that was a professional, though, stifled the impulse immediately. He still didn't know what her angle was, but he was now certain that he had the right person to help him get below. Reaching out, he took hold of her arm again in a firm grip.

"t just so happens that I agree with you. I do need you," he bit out. "So why don't we go where we can talk. You lead, and you can wipe that look off your face. I may need you for now, but that can change real fast."

Tamara, former colleague of the now deceased Paracelsus, slowly let the smile fade from her face, but it fooled neither one of them. For all that he held her arm in a punishing grip, he was no more in control of her than he had been when they first met. Yet she was reluctant to deflate his ego any further. She still had plans for this John Spirko, and if they didn't pan out, she could always get rid of him when his usefulness ran out. So turning, she pointed toward the open culvert to the North, and stepping ahead of him, she led him into the tunnels below.

> > > > > > * < < < < < <

As John Spirko followed Tamara down the seemingly endless series of winding passages, he was mesmerized by the enormity of the underground world. The farther down they proceeded, the more he was convinced that he had made the right decision: not about resisting the temptation to kill the old woman, he still might do that, but he would have never been able to traverse this world on his own. And it wasn't just knowing the way. Several times he had been forced to pause with Tamara as they quietly waited for others to pass them by. At other times they dodged sentries who stood watch. He had to hand it to her, the old woman knew her tunnels.

He also became increasingly aware of the heat. They had left the cooler air several levels above, and Tamara explained that the temperature would climb as they continued downward. While she assured him it would not get dangerously hot, Spirko found himself uncomfortably reminded of childhood terrors instilled by his grandparents' threats that he was going to burn in hell for his misdeeds. Even though it meant being shuffled off to another set of relatives to live, the young John Spirko had actually rejoiced when both grandparents died in an automobile crash years later. Now their ominous predictions mocked him, as he continued down the endless twists and turns like a rat trapped in a maze. Repeatedly he palmed the gun in his coat pocket for reassurance, and when they finally reached their destination, Spirko couldn't hide his obvious relief.

That relief lasted but a few short seconds, however, as he stepped into the large cavern behind Tamara. At the threshold he was met with the sight of masks: hundreds of human faces that seemed to occupy every available open space in the huge chamber. They hung from the walls and ceilings, were piled on top of several large tables, stacked in corners and strewn across the floor. With morbid fascination, he walked further into the chamber, stopping before an ancient sewing machine complete with manual foot pedal. A mask lay half finished on the adjoining table, and Spirko bent down to examine it. The workmanship was stunning. He could barely discern the small, nearly invisible seams on the hairline of the partially bald head.

More curious than alarmed, he wondered if Tamara made money from selling her masks to the numerous novelty shops and costume outlet stores that were so prevalent in the area. If she did, she couldn't be as indigent as she appeared. She definitely wouldn't have a reason to live underneath a ton of rocks. Looking closer at the fifty or more masks lying on the table, he admitted that she obviously had a rare and unique talent. The masks appeared so authentic, so real, so life-like . . .

Abruptly, Spirko turned around, looking for Tamara. She had preceded him in, but in the face of the macabre scene that had greeted him, he'd lost track of her. Noticing that one corner of the cavern had been partitioned off with an old flannel blanket, he walked over and pushed it aside with his gun. There he found Tamara sitting on the side of an wrought iron day bed, rubbing her feet. She looked at his outstretched gun, and then at him, but said nothing. The silence in the chamber stretched out between them. Spirko realized that as bizarre as it might seem, he had hit on the reason the masks were so life-like: because they had lived. On the heels of that thought he suddenly turned away to look back into the main chamber with its assorted collection of face masks and then whipped back around to glare at Tamara. She still hadn't moved, hadn't spoken, and she hadn't smiled.

Although he was sure he'd figured it out right, he needed to hear her admit it, so nodding back toward the outer area, he asked her. "Those masks out there, they're real faces - I mean they were made from human faces, right?"

Now came the smile. "Of course they're made from human faces! How else would I achieve the quality of my craft?"

Looking at the strange, eery smile she bestowed on him, Spirko heard an inner voice warn him that perhaps this was just a little too much, even for him. There was a closer voice, though, a harder voice that whispered his brother's name. In his mind's eye he could see Bernie, at least what was left of him to identify once they'd dragged his soggy, decomposing corpse out of the river. And just that quickly the rage was there. It still burned deep in the pit of his stomach, and it didn't give a damn about a crazy old woman or her chamber of masks. All that mattered was that he excise the pain and guilt, and slowly his grasp on reality reasserted itself.

Taking in a deep breath, he looked around the chamber again and discovered he couldn't drum up even an ounce of real outrage at what he saw. He killed for a living. She made masks from human faces. For all he knew, she might have killed the people attached to those faces. Then too, she might have only taken the remains of another's killing. In the end, it really didn't matter to him as long as she provided the information he needed to avenge his brother. Thus, he pulled a chair up to the side of the daybed and sat down. Placing his Colt 45 Super across his lap, he looked over at her with no more emotion than the masks that surrounded them.

"Why don't we get down to business?"

> > > > > > * < < < < < <

Several hours later, the deal had been closed. A rudimentary plan had been devised, with Tamara's input, for Spirko to infiltrate Father's tunnel community. Sipping at a cup of tea liberally sprinkled with whiskey, John Spirko actually marveled at the simplicity of the plan. Tamara had the knowledge about the people down here that he needed to get inside. She also had the perfect disguise, and in return for her services, all she wanted was for him to supply her with the heads of those he killed. Given the many chasms they had passed while coming to her chamber, he figured this place would be as good a place as any to dispose of the bodies, beginning with the one he would target to get their plan in action. All in all, it had proved to be a very satisfactory day.

Tamara returned with her own cup of tea, and sitting down, she now bestowed a smile that for the first time had genuine warmth. She, too, was pleased with their arrangement. The man needed her help, and he wasn't above asking for it. He had definitely lived up to her expectations, and so she asked him, "Anything else you want to know right now?"

Spirko nodded brusquely, and Tamara had the satisfaction of knowing that he would hang on every word that she said. If the truth were known, she was enjoying herself immensely. Despite her age, she wasn't immune to the flattery of having the undivided attention of a man in his prime. So when Spirko asked about Vincent's son, she answered him without a second thought.

"About two years ago, Vincent had a woman who lived Above. Catherine Chandler was her name. Word has it that she was kidnaped and kept a prisoner by this big shot from Above. His name was Gabriele, if I recall correctly. Evidently she was pregnant by Vincent at the time this Gabriele snatched her, and he decided to keep the woman alive until the baby was born. After that, he didn't need her anymore and she was killed. Now I've never seen the child, Jacob they call him, but it's said that he looks human and for some reason Gabriele wanted to keep the boy. That was when all hell broke loose down here. Vincent just about went crazy over his woman's death and his missing kid. He was on the prowl everywhere trying to find his son, and I guess Gabriele realized he'd never have a moment's peace unless he got rid of Vincent. That's when Snow was sent down here: to kill Vincent. But I've already told you it's not so easy to get rid of Vincent."

Then, with a conspiratorial wink at John, she ended with a hacking laugh, "Snow was a fool to think he could go against the devil himself with nothing but a gun and goggles."

"So I take it you subscribe to the belief that this Vincent is the devil," Spirko commented without hiding his sarcasm.

"It doesn't matter what you believe," Tamara replied. "It only matters that he is probably the most dangerous killer you'll ever come up against."

Sitting up suddenly, Spirko leaned forward with intensity. "That, Tamara, is where you are wrong. What you believe matters very much when it comes to killing. There's a psychological advantage, and if this Vincent is as sharp as you say, I'm sure he's aware of the edge his looks give him in hand-to-hand combat. But no one, not even Vincent, is indestructible. Everyone has a weakness, and it's only for me to figure out his."

"Maybe so," she conceded, "but those who go up against him seldom live to call him anything but death. Paracelsus once described him as death incarnate. Of course, Vincent eventually killed Paracelsus, too."

The silence in the chamber was ominous as John Spirko sat and considered everything Tamara had said. As unbelievable as it seemed, her stories fit neatly into everything he'd uncovered from his brother's notes and tapes. Looking up at her with a predator's gleam in his eyes, he smiled and took another sip of his tea.

"So," he said finally, "tell me more about this son of Vincent's. You said his name was Jacob?"

Continued in Chapter 9