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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Detected

Winterfest Online 2017

Chief of Detectives John Herman descended the stairway, deep in his own thoughts. He shook his head as he surveyed the damage in the foyer and the bodies strewn about on the steps and the floor. A paper sack of grocery staples – a loaf of bread, some cheese, deli meats, and a bottle of wine better than any he’d have been able to afford on his salary – lay at the bottom of the stairs, trampled underfoot by the many crime scene personnel who’d been traipsing through this brownstone these last several hours.

Just as well they’re renovating this place, he thought as he rotated his view around the foyer. They’d have to strip these floorboards anyway, and there’d be no saving the wallpaper here. At least that paneling by the hall bench isn’t damaged. Fine craftsmanship. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

A smear of something – more blood? or just mud? – spanned the shattered doorframe at the end of the hall. Every panel of that door had been decimated; little more than splinters remained. By contrast, the frosted glass transom window above it was pristine. Funny how weird things like that happen at crime scenes.

“So, you got any ideas?” Chad Russell asked him. Russell wasn’t a bad detective; in fact, he’d been pretty good once. That was a long time ago though. He’d changed over the last couple of years, and Herman suspected the guy had developed a problem playing the ponies. He didn’t like it, but he had to protect his brother in blue.

Herman could feel the junior detective’s eyes on him, smell his breath; he’d eaten something like garlic bread for lunch. It turned his stomach almost as much as the scene in this brownstone.

“No.  Looks like they were mauled…by a lion...”  No. That’s just crazy. It can’t possibly be…

He brushed past Russell and strode through the carnage toward the basement door. A pair of young cops went down with him; they were so anxious to get his attention, to do something right, to contribute in some big way and impress their boss. Herman could practically see the waves of ambition radiating off them as they got to the bottom of the rickety cellar steps.  The gaping hole in the wall was just as it had been described to him; man-sized and with a slew of bricks littering the basement floor almost all the way to the hot water heater.

What the Hell?!

Without a word, Herman took the flashlight from the younger of the two young officers and stepped in front of them both. These two knew who the alpha male was here, and they backed up to let him look first. He shone the light through the hole, sweeping it first one way and then the other down the passageway.

“Some pretty strange things going on in this city...”

The walls and ceiling were rough-hewn stone and brick, and the floor was dry and dusty here. Hmmmm. No prints in the dirt here. Nothing to show that anyone walked this way at all lately.

“And, I hear, there are even stranger things going on underneath it.” That was obvious enough. He stepped back from the tunnel and frowned. “I don’t know what happened here, but I’m going to find out.”

“Let’s go, Lieutenant,” the eager young patrolman said. “What are we waiting for?”

Herman pivoted on the rookie. “What do you mean, what are we waiting for? You think I’ve got a miner’s helmet and spelunking equipment in my trunk? Oh, yeah, I never leave home without ‘em. God. Rookies!”

He gave the young man a rude shove, angling him toward the steps to go back up. “We aren’t going in there without proper backup. And a lot of it. Man, don’t they teach you young twits anything at the Academy anymore?”

He marched the rookie and his barely older partner back up and toward the front door. He opened it and stood at the top of the steps, jerking a thumb at the last crime scene photographer who was packing up his equipment. Rank has its privileges, he thought as he watched them all run down to the sidewalk like hares in front of hounds.

“Go. Get back to the station and get all the equipment they use for search and rescue: lights, spare batteries, rope – a couple hundred feet at least – and make sure everyone is wearing heavy boots and warm clothes. It’s gonna be cold down there. I’ll keep this place locked up tighter than a drum. I don’t want anyone screwing anything up, so I’m going to guard this crime scene myself. Get out of here now, the lot of you.”

He re-entered the brownstone and scowled at them through the sidelight of the door while he locked it, making a shooing motion with his chin. They ducked beneath the yellow police tape tied across the bottom of the stairs. The banished pair conferred with the cops in the squad car at the curb only a moment, but then the officer on the passenger side of the car scowled and pointed a thumb at the door.

Herman knew they could all see him from there, and was pretty sure they’d be able to read his glower with no trouble at all; they couldn’t know he was secretly enjoying pushing them around a little. This was how it had been decades ago when he was a rookie, and why should it be any different now, anyway? Worked well enough back then, and it still does. You gotta learn the ropes, kids…

People on the sidewalk passed by, glancing up the steps. They were curious to be sure, but only in that oh-some-other-crime-in-New-York-City kind of way. After a few minutes, most of them moved on about their business. Those few that did seem inclined to linger were efficiently chased off by the police in the squad car, and Herman turned back to the scene in the hall.

“I am definitely getting down to the bottom of this.”

***

Catherine had been welcomed into the circle as her first Winterfest drew to a close. No longer outside the circle – neither figuratively nor literally – her heart was as light and radiant as the colorful candles glowing all around her.

The younger children had been shepherded off to their dormitories a while ago, yawning and rubbing their eyes even as they all protested that they were, “not even the least littlest bit sleepy.” She’d had to hide her smile behind a hand to stop from laughing out loud.

There were still a handful of couples, both Helpers and Tunnel folks, swaying to a wordless ballad plucked on a guitar.  Father and Sebastien were loitering over another game of chess, though from the wink he gave her, she was in no doubt that the magician was about to pull a win out of thin air any move now.

Despite the disruption of Paracelsus, the evening had ended on a positive note. After their closing circle, many people had gathered around the largest of the tables and each shared a memory of Lou: the clever way he’d invented to deliver notes from Above, how cash would mysteriously turn up after his visits whenever the Tunnels needed food, a joke he’d told a hundred times as if it were new every telling, and the time he’d shaved a client griping about the state of the city for half an hour, only to find out at the end that he’d been shaving the mayor of New York. The loss of Lou was a deep one, a wound not soon to heal. But the community he’d helped to build and the people there – those he loved and who loved him in return – would keep his spirit alive always.

Catherine looked over when Father grumbled something about castling. Sebastien literally rubbed his hands together with glee and this time she let herself laugh.

Vincent was helping to move some of the heavier furnishings back along the side of the Great Hall. She couldn’t help but notice how broad his shoulders looked under that butter-soft leather vest, the way the folds of his ruffled shirtsleeves stretched taut over his forearms when he lifted a long wooden bench onto a table.

He must have sensed her watching him, because he set the bench down and turned, his gaze finding hers unerringly. He smiled. His smiles were so rare and so precious that she cherished each one, storing it away in a vault of her heart labeled Vincent.

She smiled back, knowing that he knew how happy she was, and loving that he could treasure that knowledge like she treasured his smiles.

While he finished up there, Catherine made herself useful picking up the last few plates and cups in the hall. There was time to kill, after all; she had no intention of leaving here until she’d had a few minutes alone in it with Vincent.

Tonight she would out-stubborn every party-goer until they could celebrate together – alone.

Turning toward the now empty refreshment tables, she saw an older man with pale gray hair surveying the party, or what remained of it. He looked faintly familiar to her, but she couldn’t place him. She studied his face, gaunt and drawn as if he were sickly, but with a definite tan that didn’t come from a New York City winter. He leaned against the tunnel wall, his breath strained as if he were frail from a recent exertion. He was scanning the Great Hall, clearly looking for someone or something.

He panned the room and as he turned toward her, he stopped, his gaze arrested as he met her eyes. He stared at her as intently as she’d been staring at him. Then his eyes flew open in recognition, and so did hers.

She knew who he was.

He stepped backward into the darkness of the tunnel shadows, vanishing from her sight. She turned to call for Vincent, but he must have already sensed her flare of alarm; even now he was at her side. Before she could breathe, his large, warm, reassuring hand cupped her elbow.

“Catherine,” he asked, “what’s the matter? I felt…”

“Police! Get out, Vincent! Before he sees you!”  She pushed his chest with both hands as she looked back over her shoulder toward the archway where she’d seen him, but the man wasn’t there now.

“Police? Down here?” He looked in the direction of her gaze, and she felt a tensing of his muscles beneath her hands.

“Go, Vincent.  Hurry. I’ll deal with him. I know him. Go, Vincent, now!”

“Herm!” Father’s bellow made them both turn. They saw the gray-haired man now standing at the tunnel with a younger woman in her 30’s, the resemblance unmistakably marking her as his daughter. “Marla! We thought you wouldn’t make it this year.”

“Dad and I wouldn’t miss a Winterfest after all these years, Father. You should have known better than that. Our flight was just delayed.”

The man turned his gaze finally from Catherine and reached out to shake Father’s hand. “You thought a little thing like retirement and a thousand-odd miles were going to keep us away?”

Catherine looked up at Vincent and was graced with yet another of his grins; they seemed to be her Winterfest gift, each of them wrapped up in his unique golden glow.

“Catherine,” Vincent began, “allow me to introduce you to John Herman and his daughter, Marla. Though, I gather you’ve already met Detective Herman.”

“Not Detective, Vincent. Just Herm. That’s me from now on, Ms. Chandler. Just Herm. I’m not a detective anymore. I retired last year and moved down to Fort Myers to be closer to Marla. But maybe you remember that? Didn’t you and Joe Maxwell stop by my retirement party for a slice of cake?”

“Of course I remember. You were on the force for what? Thirty years? But I had no idea that you
she gestured to Herm, then repeated the motion to Vincent and Father, “that you— know each other?”

“That was my doing,” Marla said. “I ran away once when I was a kid, and I stumbled into the Tunnels. They helped me get my head on straight again, and then I went back Above. I started helping out whenever I could, and then, well…”

She looked up mischievously at her father.

“Marla came to me one night telling me how a friend of hers, some kid named Devin, was caught trespassing in the park, and would I help him, since he’d helped her… Well, you can imagine the rest of the story.”

“Herm and Marla have been Helpers ever since, Catherine.”

“I covered up the tracks of this fellow,” he pointed to Vincent, “many a time, I can tell you.”

“You have?” Catherine asked.

Herm nodded. “Including not looking all that hard for what exactly happened in a certain brownstone a few years back…”

“Of course,” Vincent said, “by the time Herm and the rest got there, we’d long since removed the footprints and false walls were already in place. We created an exit into the basement of an abandoned restaurant a few doors down, so that when the police followed the tunnel, it led them up and out the other building.”

“There was never any reason for the police working under me to think that whoever’d been there hadn’t escaped through the other exit. Trails can go cold so quickly, you know,” Herm shrugged. “But before then, we did do our very best to find you while you were missing, Ms. Chandler.”

“Catherine,” she corrected just as Herm had a minute before. He responded with a nod of comprehension.

“I swear we did look for you. I promised your father I would, and I did. I had no idea then to suspect that you might be down here. Why would I? And once you turned up, you swore to us all that you remembered nothing, months went by, no other evidence surfaced, and eventually it became a cold case.

“It wasn’t ‘til months later when I started getting wind of some interesting goings-on in connection with you; they all seemed to have some unusual – but familiar –” he looked pointedly at Vincent, “things in common… ”

Father sighed in that pained way he managed so expertly.

“It took me a while to get Below here and talk with Father – and it took not a little bit of arm-twisting,” Herm tilted his head with a wink, “but eventually I beat it out of him.”

“But we worked together on half a dozen cases,” Catherine marveled. “And you never said a thing to me.”

“Well, that’s the rule, isn’t it? Helpers only need to know about each other on a need-to-know basis. I never thought you needed to know. I hope you won’t hold that against me, Ms.
— I mean, Catherine.”

“Of course not, Herm,” she mimicked his slight emphasis of the name.

“Well,” Father interjected, “William’s already moved all the food and drink back up to the kitchens. You both must come get something to eat after your long trip. There’s plenty left and we’ve got so much to get caught up on.”

“Nice to meet you, Catherine,” Marla said.

“Perhaps we can visit some tomorrow?” Herm asked.

“Absolutely. I’d love that.” Catherine sighed as they left. “Proverbial small world, isn’t it, Vincent?”

“Yes, very small. And suddenly…” He paused, looking around the Great Hall. “Very quiet as well.”  

The dancers and guitarist were gone.

The candles were mostly dark.

They were alone.

“Can you hear it, Vincent?... The music… You can hear it, if you try.”