Beauty and the Beast ~ Book 1

The Winds of Change

by Tee Hoagland

PART 1:

Once Upon a Time in the City of New York

CHAPTER 7 ~ RESTORED

 

Vincent waited in the tunnel outside his chamber while Catherine changed into her own clothes. When she joined him there, he handed her a small parcel wrapped in paper.

“The tea you liked. To take home with you.”

“Thank you, Vincent.” Catherine tucked the package into her coat pocket. When he turned to lead the way out, she grasped his arm until he looked at her again, then she smiled softly. “Thank you for everything.”

He returned her smile, replying, “It was my pleasure.”

* * *

As Vincent led Catherine through the tunnels, she shared her concerns about going back: her fear of the reactions of others, her conviction that nothing would be the same, her doubt whether she wanted it to be. Vincent encouraged her, shared his confidence in her wisdom and strength, advised her to trust her intuition.

Vincent also shared aspects of life below; how they managed with help from some above, powered certain things with hydroelectricity linked to waterfalls, which also aided their water supply and sewer system. He told her, too, of some of those that lived below: those who grew up there, or joined them disillusioned by the world above, families looking for a fresh start, and children who lost those who would have cared for them or were abandoned by those who should have. They passed several of these as they walked along: a small family, parents and two children; a woman sorting fabric squares for a quilt; another woman operating an old-fashioned, foot-powered sewing machine; others occupied with various projects or journeying themselves.

At one point, they traversed a section of tunnel with a passage consisting of two huge, cement pipes, separated by a gap. Vincent jumped easily from one pipe to the other.

“Wait,” Catherine called, resting her hand on the tunnel wall for stability.

Vincent turned back, stretching his hand toward her, saying, “You can do it. Give me your hand.”

Catherine reached out to him, grasping his hand. Carefully leaning out, she balanced on the edge of the gap, then leapt over to him.

Vincent maneuvered Catherine ahead of him to ease assisting her on the narrow path.

They passed through a wide hall, with high walls and three levels of tunnels. Walkways along each side accessed various tunnel entries, and bridges spanned the hall on the second and third levels. They traversed the path of the third level, noticing two men working together on a bridge of the second level.

They climbed up a deep, wide shaft via a circular stairway lining the walls. A metal guardrail, painted red, protected the inside of the stairs from the hole that fell through the middle of the shaft.

Throughout their journey, Catherine noted the exposed pipes lining the walls and shaft and heard the tapping of messages sent on those pipes.

Eventually, they entered a section of tunnel with brick walls. Vincent stopped at a threshold into a small room off the tunnel. A square of light shone down from the ceiling of the room just in front of the back wall.

Vincent turned to Catherine, paused a moment to restrain his inner self that wailed in protest, then quietly said, “This is where you go out.”

Catherine looked around, confused, then asked, “Where are we?”

Vincent gazed into the small room, answering, “The basement of your apartment building.” He faced her again, watching amazement – and hope – fill Catherine’s eyes.

“We are?” she asked, smiling.

Vincent smiled, huffing half a laugh at her wonder, then turned, leaning his back against the wall. All mirth dissipated and a frown settled on his lips as he faced the prospect of losing her. He wanted to say how much she had come to mean to him, ask if he could see her again, hold her in his arms one last time; he dared not.

Catherine’s good humor evaporated as Vincent turned away from her. She valued his friendship, his encouragement, his presence. She did not want to lose him, but feared she would.

She took a step toward the basement threshold, then stopped, turning back to him.

“Vincent… your secret is safe with me. I would never betray your trust.”

“I know.” He kept his gaze on the ground, then turned his face toward her, adding, “I knew that from the beginning… when you trusted me.” He looked away, his head hung low.

She reached out, putting her hand on his chest in comfort. Then she stepped close, her free hand rising to his shoulder. She leaned into him, her head on his shoulder between her hands, and closed her eyes. She wanted to stretch her arms around him, give him a proper hug goodbye, but did not think he would let her.

Vincent felt joy at her touch mingle with despair at her loss. His breath escaped in harsh huffs as he slowly leaned his head against the wall, then tipped it toward her, brought his arm around her back, and resisted the urge to pull her close with both arms and hold her tight.

Catherine smiled briefly as his arm wrapped around her, then raised her head to smile up at him, asking “What can I say to you?” She stayed pressed against his side, until voices sounded from the floor above. She turned toward the threshold as a shadow passed through the light in the basement.

Vincent pulled away from the opening and Catherine, pressing against the wall to not be seen. When she leaned toward the basement, he left, heading back into the tunnels.

Catherine felt him go, turned to where he had been, then to where they came from, and saw his retreating form.

“Vincent?” she called after him, hoping he would stop, come back to her, at least bid her farewell.

Vincent heard her call, but did not stop, did not trust that if he went back he would be able to let her go.

Catherine watched Vincent duck into the tunnel opening. She huffed a sad sigh, frowning at his loss and stifling the tears that tried to come. She pulled the hood of her coat over her head, snugging the sides around herself, then slowly crossed the basement to the ladder that would give her access to her apartment building.

Cautiously making her way to her apartment, careful to avoid contact with anyone, she finally entered her residence, locking the door behind her. She took a moment to wonder why her apartment had never felt like home, and why it felt even less so now. Then she called her father.

“Daddy?” Catherine fought tears when he answered his phone.

“Catherine?! Is that you? Where are you?”

“At my apartment, Daddy. Can you come?”

“I’m on my way, Sweetheart.”

* * *

When her father knocked on her door thirty minutes after their call ended, Catherine opened it right away and buried her face against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and maneuvered them into her apartment, then pushed the door closed with his foot.

“Catherine, are you all right? What happened to you? Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick!”

She pulled back and looked up at him. He gasped when he saw her face.

“Oh, Honey, what happened?”

“The night of the party, I had a disagreement with Tom and left early. I was abducted by three men. They did this,” she pointed to her face, “because they mistook me for someone else. They also broke a few of my ribs. They dumped me in the park. I don’t remember anything after that.” Catherine thought about the tunnels and the people there; Mary, Father, Vincent. Vincent’s soothing voice. Vincent’s gentle touch. Vincent’s safe, strong arms. Her chin quivered as fresh tears fell. “Just a kind voice that said I was safe. Then, not long before I called you, I found myself… here.”

“Catherine,” Charles slid his arm around her shoulders, “you’ve been gone for ten days. You don’t remember anything else?”

Catherine remembered Vincent; his bright blue eyes staring into hers, displaying his confidence in her; his soft hair; his arm around her as she leaned into him; his hand holding hers.

“No,” Catherine told her father.

“Come on. Let’s get you to the hospital. We’ll get you checked out.”

Catherine listened to her father use her phone to call a police detective, Lieutenant Herman, and tell him that she was safe, and they were headed to the hospital. When they arrived, she shrank into the leather upholstery of her father’s town car, trying to avoid the swarm of reporters crowding the car.

“This must be the other reason they call it the press,” she murmured to her father.

Grasping her hand, Charles replied, “Come on. Let’s just get inside.” Then his driver opened the door, and he climbed out, holding his hand out to her.

She took his hand and stepped out, pulling her coat’s shawl collar close to her face and trying to ignore the flashing cameras and incoherent jumble of questions bombarding her, as well as the longing for the hand holding hers to be Vincent’s.

After quickly settling into a room, she allowed the police to take her statement and picture for evidence. She was less tolerant of the doctors examining her in all the usual and unpleasant ways. She thanked the hospital psychiatrist for stopping by and offering his services. And she thanked her father for posting his driver outside her door to prevent the reporters from circling like vultures.

“You need to stay overnight, Ms. Chandler,” her doctor informed her. “We want to keep an eye on you since you’re experiencing memory loss. Plus, it will make it easier to do the surgery for your scars first thing in the morning. For now, just try to get some rest.”

After the doctor left, the driver stepped in and said, “Mr. Chandler, Tom Gunther is here asking to see Ms. Chandler.”

“He can come in,” Catherine said.

A moment after the driver left, Catherine watched Tom step in, then watched him grimace and blanch as he took in her injuries.

Attempting to mask his distaste with a bland look, Tom said, “Cathy, I’m so glad you’re home safe. What’s the prognosis on your injuries?”

“Corrective surgery is tomorrow,” she answered.

He smiled and replied, “Well, I suppose it’s good to get these things taken care of sooner rather than later. I’m sure you need your rest, so I won’t stay, but I wanted to come see you for a moment. I have a meeting I need to get to, so I have to go.” He stepped toward her, leaned in a moment, then pulled back and grasped her hand. “We’ll talk soon.”

Catherine wondered if she would see him again before her scars were healed.

A few minutes after Tom left, the driver stepped in again and said, “Ms. Chandler, there’s a Jenny Aronson –”

“Send her in!” Catherine exclaimed, trying to sit up in her bed.

Jenny entered at a jog, went straight to Catherine, sat by her on the bed, and slid her arms around her.

“Oh, Cathy, I was so worried! And yet, somehow, I knew you were safe. I’m so glad I was right and you’re home again.”

Catherine felt her best friend’s tears on her cheek as they hugged.

“Here, these are for you.” Jenny pulled back and showed Catherine a box of her favorite chocolates, then set it on the bedside table. “So, tell me what happened.”

“It was a case of mistaken identity,” Catherine began. She told Jenny about the attack, but when she said she did not remember what happened after, Jenny stared at her intently for a moment, then nodded once.

As they talked through the afternoon, various hospital volunteers stopped in, delivering flowers from Catherine’s friends and coworkers. Jenny stayed until a nurse told her she had to leave because visiting hours were over. However, they permitted Catherine’s father to stay with her through the night.

That night as she slept, Catherine dreamt of Vincent.

* * *

“Dad, why don’t you go on into work,” Catherine said as two nurses prepped her for surgery. Since she already wore a hospital gown, one nurse tucked her hair and ears under the elastic edging of a one-size-fits-all plastic cap. The other nurse inserted an intravenous port in the back of her left hand and connected it to a tube extending from a bag that hung above her shoulder. Before the nurses came, the surgeon, Dr. Sanderly, had visited and used a special pen to mark the areas on her face requiring repair.

“Are you sure, Sweetheart?” Charles asked. “I don’t mind waiting.”

“I’m sure. There’s no point in you hanging out at the hospital for several hours while I’m under anesthesia.”

“All right. I’ll stop by after work.”

Minutes after her father left, an orderly entered her room and wheeled her into surgery. As she waited for the general anesthesia, she heard the doctors and nurses talking.

“What’s her pressure?”

“120 over 80, Doctor.”

“How’s that I.V. running?”

“Fine.”

“Is the bougie connected?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Shall we begin?”

The anesthesiologist inserted a syringe needle into her I.V. port and depressed the plunger.

“Now,” he told Catherine, “I want you to start counting from ten backwards.”

“Ten…” said Catherine. “Nine… eight… seven… six…”

Catherine found herself in a nightmare, standing in the hall outside her father’s office. Her father opened the door, greeting her overly brightly.

“Catherine!” Dressed in his usual business suit, his eyes were wide, and he wore a big smile. “We’re all guessing where you went. Was it Jamaica? Nassau? Huh?” He said nothing about the cuts on her face as he tapped his wristwatch, continuing in a singsong tone, “I have to run. I’m in a board meeting.”

Catherine, unable to speak, reached for him, waving her hands to stop him. He looked down at her dress, the one she wore during her attack, and saw it ripped and dirty, but did not look distressed about it.

“Buy yourself a new dress.” He reached into his jacket pocket and handed Catherine a thick stack of cash bound with a rubber band. “That enough?” He pulled another stack from his inner jacket pocket, saying, “Here. Take some more.” He slapped the money into the hand she stretched toward him in search of comfort, then waved and said, “See you later!” He turned away, went into his office, and shut the door.

Catherine turned, heading down the hall, panicked, and unsure what to do with the cash, finally hiding it behind her back. She heard the echoes of telephones ringing and people whispering loudly, questioning her disappearance. Indiscernible people down the hall tried to appear as though they were not looking and pointing at her.

Richard approached her from behind, falling in step with her, and calling out, “Cathy! You have a nice vacation?” Noting the cuts on her face, he tried unsuccessfully to not react. “You look, um… you look wonderful.”

Catherine avoided his eyes, holding onto the torn shoulder of her dress to keep it from falling off.

“We missed you!” simpered Arlene, passing in the hall.

“Well, Miss Chandler,” Barbara declared, glaring as Catherine walked by her, “now you’ve done it.”

Through it all, the discordant whispers grew louder and more abundant.

Catherine turned, looking back at Barbara, but found herself alone in a dark alley, a van with bright headlights bearing down on her. She started running, but the alley never ended, while the van only closed in. Then she saw the van’s sliding door seal her inside. She fell, landing on the floor of the reception hall amidst Tom’s party, surrounded by a crowd of people standing over her, pointing and laughing. She looked through the crowd, seeing Tom with a cocktail in one hand and his other arm around an unknown woman.

“I feel sorry for her,” Tom said disingenuously, “but what can I do?” He looked at his female companion and continued, “I mean, life goes on. She was an interesting girl. I thought she showed a great deal of promise, but she just turned out to be… a big… loser.” Then he and the other woman joined the crowd in their laughter.

Catherine searched the crowd, filled with shame and near tears with everyone laughing at her. Then she looked up. The wall transformed to the back wall of Vincent’s chamber; the sounds of laughter faded away as she saw him standing in the upper entrance. Vincent gazed at her, nodding his confidence in her strength to overcome this ordeal. She focused on him and smiled.

Wakefulness returned slowly to Catherine. Once again, bandages swathed her head, preventing her from opening her eyes. Someone sat beside her, his or her hand lying gently atop hers.

“Vincent?” Catherine called softly.

“Cathy, it’s Dr. Sanderly,” said the surgeon. “It’s all over.”

“I’m in the hospital?” Then Catherine remembered why bandages covered her eyes again. It was Sanderly sitting beside her, his hand over hers. She wished he were Vincent.

“Yes, and you’re going to be fine. You must’ve been through something terrible, but, uh… whatever it was is behind you. Is there anything you want to tell me, or talk about? Anything I can do, just let me know.” Sanderly reached up and patted her shoulder, then rose from the bed and left.

After Catherine heard the door close behind him, she murmured quietly, “You could read me the last chapter of Great Expectations.”

* * *

Night enveloped the city as Vincent made his way through dark alleys and backways. He discovered after Catherine left that his empathic connection to her remained, now strong enough to let him pinpoint her location in the city. He kept this information to himself, wondering if this odd scenario would fade with time apart. He entered a building, climbed into the service shaft above an elevator, then rode the top of the lift to the highest floor. Making his way to a fire escape, he climbed to the roof, sitting on the edge. He gazed out over the city, wishing he could be with Catherine, yet certain he would never see her again. Tears filled his eyes at that prospect.

 

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