I want our fastest runners posted as sentries. Adults only.
No children. I don't want to endanger the children. Oh, by the way,
are they safe within?
Kipper returned a few minutes ago. He was the last. Mary is with them.
Good. Well, get Winslow and Michael to stay with them as well in case...hmm...in case the unthinkable happens. Oh, and tell Pascal I want an all-quiet on the pipes. We're going to seal ourselves tight. We'll raise false walls here, here, and here. Mouse will turn off the lights when the intruders have first been sighted...let them wonder around in the dark for a few hours. Perhaps they'll give up.
Humph! You do not know Chang. He's relentless. If he must search a whole year, he will, 'til he finds a road down here.
It's me he wants. I'm the one who killed Peter. I have to do something! Don't you understand? This is my fight!
There will be no fight if we can help it. We'll do everything in our power to avoid bloodshed.
What if you can't?
This is our home they threaten. We will do what we must.
You don't know them!
Chang does not know us.
China Moon (Written by Cynthia Benjamin)
Glancing around one last time, Cullen bent down and with both hands heaved, lifting and sliding the drainage lid to one side. Quickly, he lowered himself down and straining even more, pulled the lid back into place. Once again Below, he paused. It felt good to be back in the underground corridors of his home, and leaning against the cool tunnel wall, he released a pent-up sigh of relief. He was hot and sticky-wet, his clothes clinging to him as if he'd just come in from a downpour. It still stung where salty sweat tracks had run into his eyes, and pulling a cloth from out of his back pocket, he wiped his face and sweaty palms. He allowed himself a minute longer to collect his frayed nerves.
Ever since the incident with the gold, he seldom went Above. Just the thought of it tied him into knots that took all his concentration to unravel. He knew in his head that his slip into unbridled greed had not been the fault of the world Above. It was his, and his alone. His mind could accept it as fact, but his thoughts had little sway over the fear in his heart that he might be tempted again. He wondered if he would ever feel differently. Even if the others had forgiven him, including poor Mouse, he didn't trust himself. He hadn't forgiven himself, and it was the heart, not the mind, that granted forgiveness.
If it weren't for the fact that the Council urgently needed this report, and that Father had personally asked him to make these trips Above, he would have never have gone. If it weren't for the fact that the quick surveys of things Above had to be conducted during the day, he would have recommended that Vincent go. But in the bright light Above that was burning everything and everyone to a crisp, Vincent would have had slim to no chance of remaining hidden. Even the shadows Above had seemed to radiate light under the dazzling blaze of the sun. At least this time he hadn't become physically ill before leaving.
Thinking over the past week, he shook his head sadly. Things were bad Above, very bad. This time of year was always hot, but this year the heat was unprecedented. Mid-August now found the state of New York caught in the second week of a wretched heat wave that had the entire Northeastern United States seething in record high temperatures. Under a relentless sun, tar-paved roads gave off shimmering waves where city children played in the shadows of high-rise project buildings, and the elderly sought refuge of any kind from the sweltering heat. Even now, Cullen could feel the hot waves that seemed to engulf him as he had walked the streets of New York, making him wish that his sojourn could have been made in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. He chuckled to himself, thinking of Father's expression if he had asked the Council to rent him a car for this assignment. But his humor was short-lived as he remembered the sights he had seen: ambulances speeding up and down, no doubt going to aid those who had succumbed to sun stroke and heat exhaustion; the desperation of the people rushing on crowded city streets, as if the rat race Above wasn't enough to contend with; the wail of police sirens racing to intercept the violence that had erupted along with the brutal heat.
Even the nights brought only modest relief, as overburdened generators struggled to meet the onslaught of residential demands for more electricity to cool sun-baked homes. The results were as futile as they were predictable, with nightly power failures sweeping through the city. Hot, sweaty, and short-tempered urban dwellers were convinced that nothing short of another ice age would ever be enough to assuage the unbearable torridity. Then, after only a week under the unremitting onslaught of soaring temperatures from an unforgiving sun, a new phenomenon began to emerge on and off the streets of New York. Traffic accidents doubled, and incidents of gang and domestic violence as well. In and around the area of Central Park, crime was at a record high; and even those who were accustomed to the rhythms and routines of the Park steered clear of it in the midst of daily muggings and assaults. It was as if the heat, frustrations, and pressures of life Above had finally collided to create a volatile mixture that exploded into senseless acts of violence. The odds favored that things would get worse long before they got better; and for those who had found homes within the secluded sanctuary of the tunnels, it was generally agreed that it was a bad time to live Above.
Cullen knew that his family Below generally prided itself on being truly separate and apart from the problems that plagued their sister world. Still, it was not lost on them that the business of managing and maintaining their virtually utopian society was intrinsically linked to the conditions of the world Above. No matter how the environment and philosophies of the two worlds differed, theirs was a dependent existence: dependent upon the survival of a society from which many of them had fled. Thus, when Father had approached him last week with the mission of observing first-hand the conditions top-side, Cullen was fully aware of the significance of his assignment. The Council needed to know the extent of the problems as seen through the eyes of one of their own.
The special Council meeting would be held this afternoon and, determined to give as current a report as possible, he had decided to make one final trip. His words would impact heavily on the deliberations to determine what, if anything, should be done Below in response to the state of affairs Above. It was a humbling experience to realize just how much Father still trusted him.
Pushing away from the wall, Cullen began his trek back to the hub. There would be barely enough time to change his sweat-soaked clothing and arrive promptly to the meeting. He didn't even consider attending as he was now. The insulation of rock and earth kept Below too cool for him to attend a meeting that might well last several hours in wet clothes. And while Father might lead the Council, he was first and foremost, a doctor. Cullen could well imagine being ordered out of the meeting until he'd gotten into something dry; but what chilled him even more was to think what would happen if those suffering Above knew that relief from the heat was right beneath their feet. Never before had he felt the vulnerability of his adopted home so keenly; and he wondered just how much longer they could keep their secret place safe. He had to convince them of the danger. He just had to. With that thought, he picked up his pace and turned down a side tunnel that led to his chamber.
It was early afternoon, and as was customary, Father sat at the head of the table and waited patiently for all the Council members to arrive. William, Mary, and Pascal arrived on time, as usual, with Jamie, Cullen, and Rebecca right behind them. Others trickled in until every seat at the large center table was occupied. From informal discussions he'd overheard in the Commons, he knew that there were two prevailing attitudes. Several members felt that the problem was not yet serious enough to warrant any action on their part. It was their position that violence Above was, and would always be, a fact of life: business as usual. It was simply the result of too many people living under a stressful, chaotic social system that afforded too little love and support and too much avarice, hate, and aggression. With people having to compete for even the basics of life, it was little wonder that under the sun's blistering heat, mindless acts of violence exploded at the slightest provocation. In any event, that was all Above, and with a certain degree of diligence on their part, it would stay there.
Then there were those who insisted that it was only a matter of time before the desperation and violence Above filtered down into their world to threaten their existence. And even if it didn't, how could they remain passive while others suffered so! Was it compassionate or prudent to sit by idly and hope that the madness gripping Above would pass them by? Could they truly afford to flirt with disaster by merely waiting and hoping it wouldn't touch them? The naive foolishness of such inaction had already been proven with their encounter with the Outsiders. If Below was to remain protected, then steps would have to be taken to either avoid or prepare for the possibility of trouble coming Below. To do otherwise was irresponsible. These viewpoints and their implications had given Father little rest over the past few weeks. The precarious foundation upon which their world rested, namely, their inherent dependence upon the world Above, had been a source of worry for him since their small community had first established itself within the hidden recesses of the tunnels Below. Although the community had grown larger over the years, and therefore more able to stand on its own, the fact remained that they could not supply all of their needs. There were certain foods that simply would not grow Below, medicines that could not be synthesized, and equipment that they could not manufacture. Now, in the midst of the crisis Above, never had their fragile existence and dependency weighed so heavy on his shoulders. In truth, they would always remain in debt to the world Above for certain essentials. Yet, must that dependency spell disaster to their community any time a problem occurred Above? And while Father was inclined toward the idea of preparing for the worst, there was too much at stake for even him to make the sole decision: thus, he had called an emergency meeting of the Council.
Looking up from the notes he had compiled, Father was not surprised when Mouse slid in almost ten minutes late. What Father did find unusual was that Vincent had not yet appeared. Still, with Mouse now present, he was loathe to delay the meeting any longer. Mouse was the barometer that the Council had come to accept as the absolute latest any proceeding could be held up. Thus, clearing his throat, Father brought the attention of their small group full circle to himself.
"I'd first like to thank all of you for gathering on such short notice. I had hoped that this meeting would be unnecessary, but recent reports indicate that things Above may be far worse than we suspected. Upon my request, Cullen has served as our observer Above for the past week. Cullen, please be so kind as to report your findings."
Cullen ran his long, graceful fingers through the top of his thinning hairline and looked around the table. It was apparent that he was nervous, and everyone understood his discomfort. Although forgiven, no one on the Council could forget the time of "madness" that led an irrational Cullen to stab Mouse and compromise the security of the tunnels. Yet, looking around, he could see the understanding of all present, and clearing his throat, he took a deep breath, and began.
"To discover the extent of the unrest Above, for the past week I've gone above twice daily: once during the day and once at night. I'm afraid to say that it's really bad up there, worse than anything I've ever seen. The heat Above has people popping off left and right."
"Popping off?..." Father interrupted.
"Forgive me Father, acting strange, hostile I guess would be a better way to put it. People are ready to fight at the least insult, inconvenience, or provocation. And it's not just the groups you'd expect, like gangs. Arguments occur at the drop of a hat, and tempers are flaring everywhere. I think it's the heat, but it's also fear...it's an oppressive, pervasive fear that's so thick you can cut it with a knife. The strangest part is that I couldn't put a finger on why. For example, near the Park, vagrants are fighting over the scraps they would usually share with one another. I still consider myself relatively new down here compared to many of you, but I know Above, and I've never seen the people so afraid and so willing to lash out without thought. In my opinion, it's extremely dangerous up there. It's a time bomb just waiting to blow, and I'll admit it's got me worried. If this craziness should come Below . . . . ."
No one needed Cullen to explain further as his words sent a collective shudder down the heart of their group. All who had fled Below knew the kind of mindless violence that could grip the world Above. Yet, it was even the hint that their world could be revealed that suddenly immobilized the Council, making words difficult. As usual, William got his voice back before the others and leaning a thick, muscular arm across the table, he fixed Cullen with a skeptical eye.
"Maybe you're too new with us to know some of the stuff we've had to face down here, but we're not as weak as we may seem. A few heat-crazed topsiders are hardly enough to close down shop, Cullen! We can protect our home and our own if the need arises. Just let one of them try to get down here!"
"William, there you go again," Mary interrupted quietly, "looking to violence to solve everything. Those people up there are scared to death! Just think of what our Helpers must be facing now! We should be considering how we can offer them assistance. If things are that bad, they must be living a nightmare!"
"Excuse me," William interjected with enough emphasis for all to
know that he'd taken offense at Mary's rebuke. "To set the record
straight, I'm as concerned as anyone here about the safety of our
Helpers, but my first obligation is right here, Below! How are we
going to help others when we can't help ourselves? Diplomacy's fine
around this table, but Above it's a different game. If they're gonna
use force, we'd better be prepared to meet it with some force of our
"Just one minute," Jamie's voice broke in, deliberately cutting William off in mid-sentence. "Is your idea of preparing a defense based on using Vincent to protect our entire community? 'Cause if it is, you can toss that out right now. Vincent isn't a one-man army, William. We're all in this together."
"Of course I'm not suggesting that Vincent is our only source of defense, but we'd all be lying not to admit that he's a big part of it," William stammered, as Jamie's remark reminded them all of a time when William had, in fact, suggested that Vincent was their secret weapon to unleash.
It was overwhelming relief that had permeated the Great Hall when Vincent stepped forward to confront the intruders and rid their world of the violent Outsiders. Likewise, everyone remembered the aftermath of that bloody confrontation. All of the Outsiders, with the exception of a child, had been killed. Vincent was wounded from a gunshot wound inflicted by that lone child; and in the midst of so much death wrought by his hands, he was overwhelmed with despair and self-loathing. It was then, in shame and guilt, that the Council acknowledged that they had given no thought to Vincent's well-being. In their fear they had seen him only as their first and only line of assault, defense and protection.
William was a good man at heart, but he still found it difficult at times to comprehend how someone as seemingly invincible as Vincent shouldn't be used to protect them all. Hastily, now, he added, "The defense of our home is a responsibility we all share, but we need to formulate a plan of action if we're not to use Vincent. That's all I'm suggesting. Conditions as Cullen described just can't be ignored."
"So exactly what do you suggest?" Jamie asked.
To this, William had no reply, but from the far end of the table, Rebecca reached over to gently touch Mary's hand, and smiled at the older woman. "I'd like to suggest that we keep Mary's comments in mind regarding our Helpers. I'd certainly be willing to share what I have with any Above who may need to seek sanctuary here. And yes, I realize that we barely have enough for our own growing family, but we should be able to at least help those who may need to come Below for protection. It shouldn't be that many, since most of our Helpers have businesses and jobs Above that they can't just pick up and leave. But I do believe that we should make the offer of sanctuary; especially to the elderly and those most vulnerable to the heat."
"It seems we always have so little to offer our Helpers in their hour of need and look at how much they've done for us time and time again," Mary added.
Pascal's calm voice entered the discussion. "Mary, we can only offer what we have. That is what really counts, and I agree with Rebecca. We can offer our sanctuary to those Helpers who most need it. They've already shown their loyalty in keeping our secret, so they wouldn't constitute a security problem."
"OK everyone....of course we'll be here for our Helpers regardless of whether there's a crisis Above or not---that's a given," Jamie added impatiently. "The point we seem not to want to address is what remains to be done about the threat of discovery or the violence coming Below?"
"Jamie, you can't really be siding with William's viewpoint!" Mary said with obvious shock.
"Mary, remember, I do sentry duty. I saw what happened when that man, Snow, came into our tunnels, and we all saw the aftermath of the Outsiders. All I'm saying is that William has a point. Certainly, we can offer sanctuary to our Helpers. We've had Helpers staying with us before. The real problem we've got to tackle is how do we get ourselves prepared for the worse! And if that's siding with William, then yeah, I guess I am. All I know is that I'm determined that we don't get caught again unprepared to defend ourselves with no other recourse than to hide behind Vincent!"
Although Jamie was definitely moving pushing the Council in the right direction, Cullen got the impression that her words were still falling on deaf ears. Despite the fact that she was assigned to tunnel security, she remained one of the youngest members of the Council. Her voice needed the backing of a more experienced member to carry the weight this problem needed, not to mention that the Council wasn't inclined to choose an aggressive stand as the best solution to their problem. And yet, Cullen knew first-hand the desperation Above. He had seen the hopelessness and the fear, and most of all, the rage. There had to be a way to make the others understand as well. With barely contained frustration, he looked around the table at each member in turn, seeking out the older members for a glimmer of support. When no one met his gaze, Cullen decided to give it one more try. Rising to his feet, he raised his voice to be heard by everyone in the chamber.
"As Jamie just said, offering our help to our Helpers and others who we trust is all well and good, but what good will that do if we don't protect ourselves? The threat to our way of life is just beyond the thresholds of the outer tunnels; and don't kid yourselves: it's a very real threat. We need, at the very least, to develop a plan of defense should our perimeter be broken by desperate people who aren't nearly as peace loving as we are!"
Cullen knew his voice had risen in agitation, and he was very nearly trembling with the effort to shake his point into the Council when Rebecca spoke up.
"It's been difficult Above before, Cullen, and I just can't see how this is so much more different than the other times." Turning to look at Father, she continued. "We already have defensive measures in place that have stood us well. Does this situation warrant even more preparation for violence? Surely once things cool off things will go back to normal. And in the meantime, I say that we wait it out."
From the moment that Rebecca began to speak, Cullen realized that his words had fallen on deaf ears. It was hopeless. They'd never understand the magnitude of the danger on his words alone, and with that realization, the energy seemed to drain from him. Slowly taking his seat, he responded to Rebecca's words, but not once did his eyes leave Father.
"Waiting it out is hardly a practical solution, Rebecca, unless we've also devised a plan of defense against the possibility of being discovered while we hide out down here. We are at risk here Ð and the difference is that people are "looking" for an escape from the heat and madness up there. No one can guarantee that those who find their way into our tunnels will be kind-hearted and loving, and we can't just bury our heads in the sand and hope that no one will stumble down here. Can't anyone see that? Father?"
Father felt compelled to respond to Cullen, and so clearing his
voice, he took back the floor. "Cullen, we've heard your words, truly
we have. However, exactly what would greater defensive measures
entail? Should we now arm the sentries with guns? Do we set up false
passageways that lead to sheer drops? Do we barricade themselves in?
How much would be enough so that we could breathe easy?"
Father's words were like a heavy blanket covering everything that had gone on before and silence once again filled the room as each member considered the problem.
What kind of defensive measures could they take and to what extent? If they were to separate themselves from the world Above, exactly how far would they need to limit their contact to consider themselves safe Below?...and for how long? Then there were the day to day operations of their community to be considered: the regular pick-up of foods and medicines, the exchange of news and information, the purchase of tools and materials, all essential parts of their survival.
In a sudden flurry of rising from his place near the bottom of the library stairs, Mouse stood and interjected. "No good! We can't cut ourselves off. What happens to the pick-ups? We still need food, medicines, and we still need to go Above to find things; things we need!"
With a tolerant smile, Father now responded, "For your sake, Mouse, that's the best reason I've heard for barricading ourselves down here."
The attempt to lighten the mood had its desired effect as Mary and Jamie shared knowing glances and William and Pascal laughed outright. Turning several shades of red, Mouse glared at the two men and muttered, "Mouse doesn't take other people's things anymore, only stuff that they throw away!"
Father noticed the stiffness as Mouse resumed his seat, and immediately thought better of his hasty words. They had eased the tension, but at Mouse's expense. Raising his hand to get everyone's attention, he looked at Mouse. "Mouse, please pardon my words. They were truly said in jest, and you are correct, limiting our contact Above would have far-reaching consequences. And yet, the safety of our homes and families must remain of utmost concern over inconvenience or comfort. So it would seem we are all in agreement with offering sanctuary to any of our Helpers who need it at this time."
As Father paused, he noticed that both Mary and Rachel were nodding in apparent approval, as was the rest of the Council. Taking a deep breath, he continued. "However, I feel it only prudent that we consider Cullen's recommendation and address the issue of our defense. Before you object, let me say that being prepared to defend our home does not automatically mean we must use violence to solve whatever problems occur. I, like the rest of you, am weary of violence, Above and Below. Still, it remains our responsibility as a Council to consider every conceivable possibility and have a contingency in place. As much as I'm inclined to diminish the severity of the problems Above for the sake of my own peace of mind, it still remains that Cullen has brought us news of a growing danger that we cannot ignore.
As Father scanned the faces before him for a reaction to his words, he spotted a familiar form standing in the shadows of the staircase. As still as a statue, Vincent now stood next to Mouse. When had he arrived? Father wondered, and why was he so obviously reluctant to join in the discussion?
Father took note of his son's rigid stand, and knew at once that Vincent was ill at ease with what had been discussed. Still, his voice would have to be heard. Vincent, more than any other on the Council, was familiar with the dark side of the world outside their safe place. Allowed only the freedom of the night, his had been a lifetime of nocturnal observations. He had witnessed the wide spectrum of topsider violence, and Father was aware that to his son's regret, on occasion he had been a participant in it. Father knew Vincent's words would offer little room for disagreement. He would be heard, and as always, his logic would be sound. Regardless of what they felt otherwise, Vincent was the Protector of their world, the one who had proven his willingness to die more than once to keep alive the dream of their society. Thus, no matter what his reasons were for remaining aloof, Father knew the issues raised were simply too important for him to abstain. Thus, Father nodded over to the area where his son stood.
"Vincent, we're glad you were able to join us," he said in a tone that echoed a faint reproach. "Please, come and tell us your feelings on this matter."
As heads turned toward the staircase, Vincent stepped forward and came to stand by Father's side. That he addressed the Council beside Father definitely indicated to all where his sentiments lay. Yet, as he began to speak, his deep, resonating voice was steady with the reason Father knew Vincent would bring to the discussion. Within the quiet chamber, Vincent's low voice held the slightest hint of his lisp, a signal to Father that Vincent felt deeply about the problem. Yet, Vincent was not one to mince the truth to please any of them, especially when it came to the safety of their home. His words would be true. Thus, leaning back in his chair, Father fixed his focus totally on Vincent.
"I have heard many of your comments today, but I am of the opinion with Cullen, William, and Jamie that there is more at risk than we may realize. Under the austere heat that parches Above and has brought out the worse in so many, we must remember that others exist who know of these tunnels. There are those who live by a code of violence or who are governed by their addiction to drugs or alcohol. These persons often find no sanctuary in either of our societies, Above or Below, but they are aware of the tunnels and may seek them now for sanctuary."
Vincent now paused, and the struggle within him was obvious. For one so committed to peace, Vincent knew he must now tell the Council words of war. A part of him grieved for the horrors that he had perceived in their current situation. It appeared, though, that only he would be able to make them see. And thus he continued, his voice filling the chamber with a somber sadness, but totally resolute in his determination that the Council realize the true extent of the crisis.
"The balance we maintain with Above, the balance we maintain with others who live here among us; the safeguards we have established to insure our safety and our secrecy. . .these all are threatened by what is happening Above. In the past there has been no need for those outside our world or on its fringes to look in our direction. Yet, I feel that the odds are great that under the very nature of this crisis, this will change as more desperate people seek refuge from the heat Above. The frequently used drainage entrances within our upper levels empty into the Park. These are the most accessible openings to our world, and even the sentries cannot guarantee safety from all intruders."
Pausing to look around the room, Vincent turned compassionate eyes on Rebecca as he continued. "This time is different from the others. We hold within the dark coolness of our world the very relief that those who know of these tunnels will seek if this heat wave continues to parch the world above."
And even before Rebecca looked away with troubled eyes, Vincent had turned his focus upon Mary. "The most eminent danger I foresee is less to our structures here deep Below where none but those most familiar with our world can safely traverse its networks. The danger lurking so close at hand is to our children, Mary. They are the least able to defend themselves and yet the most likely to innocently stumble upon the human predators from Above who may find their way past the upper levels of the tunnels."
No one was really surprised at the audible gasp that escaped from Mary, and yet everyone was amazed at their own failure to notice the obvious omission of the children from the previous discussions. Understanding the impact of his words on the others, Vincent paused to let their meaning sink in. But then, ruthlessly, he continued to paint the picture of their plight.
"As it was for many of us who grew up here as children, the Park is the playground for our young ones who, with or without our permission, are able to escape unnoticed and go Above. Cullen's observations have confirmed that the violence in the Park continues to escalate. It has little motivation, and even less reason. It matters not who it is directed at, and it doesn't care whether it is adult or child. It is a madness which can be ignited too inconsequentially for us to ignore. So I'll tell you of my fears, and they lie with the children. The children of our world must be protected at any cost."
Turning away from Mary, Vincent now looked at Cullen. "Cullen was born and raised in the world Above. He spent much of his adulthood in that land. So I find it difficult to understand why we would question so strongly the reality of his observations. None of us welcome the message he brings. I have no more desire for our safe place to be violated than any of you, and I have sworn to never again be the reason for violence to touch our world Below. But this is my home; the home where I raise my son. And you are my family. As much as many of you have decried William's words, the facts are inexplicable. I do protect this world. For all that you have done in nurturing me, sheltering me, and loving me, I see it not as an imposition, but as an honor to defend our home with my life. As you all know, this is also a part of who and what I am. For me, there is no other way."
With that, Vincent walked back to the stairs, where he stood beside Mouse. Suddenly, it was no longer a question to the Council of whether anything needed to be done for their defense and protection: it was only a matter of what. Ideas were tossed around, but ultimately, they found themselves coming back to the one decision they most hated to enforce. For the sake of the children, however, a consensus was finally reached. It was agreed that until the heat-induced madness had passed, contact with the world Above would be limited to all but the most necessary trips topside. Furthermore, without exception, the children were expressly forbidden to venture outside the inner perimeters of their world. All tunnel entrances to the heart of their community would be changed with sentries doubled. And finally, for the first time in the history of their community, each adult would be armed. Those with self-defense and firearm experience would be enlisted to teach the others so that no one would be left completely defenseless.
Father visibly winced as he put into words, and thus into law, the final decision reached by the Council. As he finished, the silence of the chamber was oppressive, and he found himself compelled to seek out the countenance of his son. Staring across the room, father and son locked eyes. In the somber expression of his son, Father saw the pain Vincent felt at the measures his words had brought into being. Both of them knew the monumental task ahead for them to preserve the secrecy and safety of their world. The virtual severing of their ties to life Above, no matter how temporary, would test the very tenet of their beliefs and challenge the commitment of every man, woman, and child among them.
It had long been accepted by all that it was Vincent's fate to be excluded from much of life Above. However, the option to remain or venture topside had always been there for the others. Now Father was forced to question if they could truly survive such a separation of their world from Above and still live the ideals that were the cornerstone of their community. Would the strain of cutting the umbilical cord drive them to the near barbaric conditions that prevailed before their community was established? Fear clutched at Father's heart as he thought that they may have opened themselves to a kind of madness that was only different from the insanity Above in its source.
Realizing that the other members had picked up on his misgivings, Father quickly collected himself and searched for the right words to reassure the solemn faces gathered before him. It was obvious that Vincent and he were not the only ones to realize the full impact of their decision today. Heaven help us, he thought wearily. No matter how he tried, Father found that he could not get around the lump in his throat. There was simply nothing he could say to make the situation more bearable, and so he stopped trying and somberly adjourned the meeting.
Silently, the Council vacated the chamber, and after a short while, Father looked up to discover only Vincent remained. Carefully folding his glasses and laying them aside on the table, Father steeped his fingers and said, "My God, Vincent, what are we going to do?....."
Vincent looked steadily at Father, waiting for him to admit what they both knew in their hearts.
Walking to the table, Vincent leaned toward Father They had been through too much in building and maintaining their world to dance around the fact of Vincent's role as protector when danger stood just outside their boundaries. He would have Father confident, knowing that he was ready and completely accepting of whatever needed to be done to keep them safe.
"Yes, Father. We will close our doors tightly, giving sanctuary to those we are certain will keep our secret, and we will stand watch over our world until this time is past, until the violence no longer threatens our family. And if all we do is not enough, and the madness comes beyond our perimeters and threaten the heart of our community, then you will let me go."
Father made as if he would interrupt, but Vincent now stood and turned to leave the chamber. He had no wish to hear platitudes to soften what he and Father already knew: that he would defend his world to the death, and willingly kill any who threatened his family and friends.
Before he could reach the threshold that would send him into the tunnels, Father's voice called out, "Vincent, how can I allow you to be used this way again as a weapon for our protection?"
With something akin to a smile, Vincent now turned and looked at Father fondly. This was perhaps the first time that Father seemed to understand, really comprehend, the price of the protection afforded by Vincent. It was thanks enough to him that Father finally understood that each time their world came under threat, Vincent relinquished control, giving full reign to that part of himself that was a warrior and reveled in the hunt, gloried in the kill.
"There is nothing for you to allow, Father. The choice is mine. It always has been. But this time, there is more. The danger is real. I feel it even now surrounding us. And I feel it in here," and Vincent touched his chest. "It's like knowing a battle is imminent, and your blood begins to sing, your muscles tighten with anticipation of the kill."
Vincent chose not to acknowledge the look Father now bestowed upon
him. He knew his words of battle and death bothered Father greatly,
and he would never have admitted to anyone else that a part of him
relished the coming confrontation. But since Catherine's death and
the birth of Jacob, he had been forced to face much about himself.
His need to protect his family had no tidy boundaries of propriety.
It was a ruthless compulsion to crush any who should threaten the
safety and welfare of those he loved. It was that simple and that
deadly. It was a part of him, a part of what made him the man, the
being that he was.
Father, I will not reject my role in the defense of our home nor will I reject that part of me that allows me to keep safe all I hold dear. If I must kill, then so be it. I will not hide from that truth either.
"But what it does to you, Vincent . . ." Father whispered.
"Perhaps not as much as you supposed. I believe I often did it to myself in my rejection of that other part of me. I am, Father, what I am; and it is good, sometimes, to remember that even darkness has a purpose. I choose to use my darkness so that the light of our world will continue to shine. There is no disgrace in that. So please Father, do not worry. We will prevail."
Or I will die trying....Vincent thought as he headed out of the chamber and into the darkness beyond.
Josiah carefully packed each item in the cardboard box, layering the bottom of the box with hardy vegetables, such as carrots, onions, and cucumbers, and then the fruit and soft vegies. He was especially careful not to bruise the tomatoes and grapes. Finally, he set on top two loaves of freshly baked bread which had been thickly sliced and wrapped securely. It wasn't a big delivery, but he knew it would be welcomed by Mrs. Carmichael in the seniors assisted living home on 116th Avenue. The grocery store's modest sprinkler system which kept their produce fresh, as well as the walk-in freezer and refrigerator, had finally "died" earlier in the day. For Honig's Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, the loss of their refrigeration was the final blow to the small family-owned grocery whose trademark was fresh produce. Faced with the worse heat wave New York had ever experienced, Honig's had been one of the few remaining neighborhood businesses in the area; and now they, too, had fallen victim to a natural phenomenon that none had seen coming.
If truth be known, there was a certain irony in it all. For more than forty years, James Honig, the store's owner, had struggled to keep the doors of his family owned grocery open. In a stroke of brilliance, his father had purchased the small corner lot on Manhattan Island in the 1920s, never knowing at the time that his dream of a family business would one day stand on what was valued as prime real estate now worth over a hundred times more than the store itself. Though tempted to sell on more than one occasion, James Honig had always made more than enough money from the store. So, for reasons far above the understanding of those who wanted his property, he had spent his life fighting to keep his store and all that it represented: the hopes and dreams of his Jewish emigrant parents and the embodiment of the American dream in his lifetime.
Over the years he had protected his dream from dirty politics (proving that one could fight City Hall and win); attempts at hostile takeovers by corporate financiers; threats and the violent strong-arm tactics of developers; and even one incident of arson. Yet, in the end, it was the weather that had finally succeeded where all the others had failed. That, and the fact that the constant battle for survival had taken its toll on James Honig's health. The elderly storekeeper had lived in the neighborhood all of his life. He had run the store, after his father's death, since the early 1950s, and nothing short of a natural disaster would have ever made him stop. However, he had lost both his sons to the Vietnam War, and plagued by two minor strokes and pressure from his married daughters, it was, in fact, a natural disaster that had convinced him that the time had finally come. He had decided that he would be shutting his doors for good at the end of the day. He'd defied the odds and stayed on his own terms. It was time, now, for him to leave on his own terms.
Josiah took a minute to catch his breath and looked up toward the short hallway that separated the store room from the small grocery beyond. Mr. Honig stood outlined before the door, his wire-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose as he pulled out a worn handkerchief from beneath the white apron that he wore and paused to wipe his brow. He looked up suddenly, now noticing Josiah's sad stare. With understandable nostalgia, the young man and his boss looked at each other in silent communication. Then Josiah turned away from the hallway and began to pack a second box.
The two men made somewhat of an odd pair. Josiah was tall, a robust man whose physique would look more at home on a construction site than in a small store room packing vegetables. James Honig, was smaller and shorter, but he held himself with a dignity that had commanded the respect of city officials, businessmen, and even the neighborhood gangs and bullies. He was an aging Jewish store owner who, with pit bull determination and tenacity, had made a difference in the lives of many. Oddly enough, he didn't regret the store's closing, since it would give him the time he now craved to be with his grandchildren and perhaps pass on to them the same stubborn determination. And now that he had heard from Father and knew that Josiah had been accepted Below, to be with friends who would see after his strong, but gentle, store clerk, the last of his worries had fled.
"Are you almost finished?" Mr. Honig asked mildly.
His voice held obvious affection for the young man, and Josiah nodded to his boss and mentor. Walking over to his store clerk, the older man quickly looked over his work and nodded his head in approval. The familiar tinkle of a bell rippled pleasantly through to the back room. Mr. Honig waved for Josiah to continue packing. Today, his final day as store owner, he had waited on each and every customer personally. As he stepped from the hallway back into his store, he noticed something amiss, and walking around the counter, spotted the problem immediately. Someone had pulled down the shade that covered the front door's glass window. Kids, he thought with a rueful shake of his head. Even today, of all days, they had to play their pranks.
Easily he made his way over to the door and stooped to yank the cord that would pull the shade back up. It was only then that he noticed the shadow to his right, but before he could stand, his vision suddenly blurred as excruciating pain shot through his back....no, not his back, his entire middle felt like it was on fire. It couldn't be a heart attack, some dim part of his mind told him, but even as the thought appeared, his eyes gravitated down to where the bloody gleam of a wicked knife protruded through the front of his chest. Ahhh.... he thought, not a heart attack after all, but a knife through it. In what seemed to him an eternity, gravity and impending death finally forced him to the floor in a crumpled heap. He couldn't speak, could barely breathe. Each gasp to draw in air ripped at his chest, each push to expel triggered reflexes in his throat, filling his lungs with fluid and gagging him on the salty, metallic taste of his own blood. With dimming awareness, he knew he was dying. He could feel the cold floor beneath him, but it was a bitter coldness that seeped into him, drawing away his heat and his life.
He didn't wonder at what had happened or bemoan the injustice of it: he had been prepared for death throughout his life. No, in those final moments, all he could think was that finally he would see his Sarah again, and though he was sad to disappoint his daughters, he knew they would understand. It was his time: time for him, time for his store. His store . . . even in death, we are linked, he thought. In the end, he was in his store, and to James Honig, that was a good thing. With one more agonized breath, his chest spasmed in a final rattle that was barely audible in the silence, and he died thinking of his store, the hint of a smile frozen on his face.
Standing quietly in the shadows, waiting for the old man to die, John Spirko wondered what he had found to make him smile in the face of death. Crazy, he thought a moment later as he reached across the body to click the lock on the door and flip over the sign in the single display window, announcing to the unsuspecting world beyond that the store was closed. He now looked back to where the old man had first emerged. John Spirko, the killer, was still hunting. James Honig had not been the objective, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was his clerk, the one called Josiah, that John had come to kill.
For the past week John had watched the store, the old man, and the store clerk. He liked the fact that Josiah was a man of few words, and he was also close to John in height and build. The man seemed perfect for John Spirko's needs. The store owner and Josiah were well known to the world Below as Helpers, and he doubted he'd find another as easy to impersonate as the quiet, big man. It was his personality, however, that John still had reservations about. Tamara had told him that the man was slow, and that's all John needed to hear to reject him. Even he didn't think he could pull off impersonating a retard. But then Tamara had clarified the situation: he wasn't a complete idiot, just slow enough to make him harmless; slow enough to make him welcome in Vincent's tunnel community. It was that final incentive that had convinced John that Josiah was the man he needed, or rather, Josiah's head.
'Bring me the face . . .' Tamara's voice echoed in his mind. The old bitch had one strange hobby, but she was damn good at what she did, and this was his best chance to infiltrate the world Below. Accepted into the heart of Vincent's world, he could carry out his plan of revenge on that freak of nature who had killed his brother. With the advantage of Josiah's face as his disguise, he would now have the means to not only destroy Vincent, but those who had harbored him. As for the monster's child . . .he would take him. The kid was only two, young enough to forget his life underground, and it was only fair: a life for a life. Bernie's life for the lion man's kid. That was justice.
'Bring me the face . . .'
And with a grim smile, John Spirko moved toward the back room with
the deadly grace of a predator to do just that.