HIS OWN KIND of NOBILITY

by Lindariel

Written for the 2021 BATB Conzine

With special thanks to my editors
JoAnn Baca, Laura Goist, and Carole W
for their advice and encouragement

“Here ya go, Mr. K,” Sister John the Baptist shouted over the clatter of pots and pans and the swoosh-and-grind of the professional-grade dishwasher, as she plopped down a huge bus-tub filled to the brim with dirty plates, coffee cups, and flatware. “I believe that’s the last of ‘em.”

The late dinner shift at the St. Francis Cathedral’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen had been especially brisk, the colder October weather enticing more of the Lower East Side’s homeless and needy to the Cathedral’s well-known and much appreciated program.

“Aw now, don’t jinx us, Sister J.B.,” whined the tall, bearded, dark-haired man, countering his tone with a wink and a dimpled grin. “You said that last Friday about this time, and then that bus from the Rescue Mission brought in at least another twenty people.”

The imposing woman rounded on him smartly, “And it was our blessing and privilege to serve our brothers and sisters in need, was it not, Mr. K?”

“Yes, ma’am, it was,” he grunted, shifting the heavy tub over to load the next rack of plates for the pre-wash sprayer. “But it was a privilege that kept us here until nearly midnight. That’s mighty hard on a working man with a seven AM shift!”

The nun’s lips twitched ever so slightly as she struggled not to smile at the sometimes exasperating rogue, who had morphed into one of her very best volunteers over the past two months. Sister John the Baptist ran the Cathedral’s soup kitchen program like her drill sergeant father had strictly but lovingly run his family, and she was not about to give this grown-up scamp the slightest fodder for his good-natured insubordination.

“I’ve no doubt of that, Mr. K,” she retorted haughtily, “but you’ll sleep all the better for having done the Lord’s work. Now get busy! We’ve still got to wipe down the tables, break them down, and stack the chairs. Father Patrick has a Vestry meeting in the hall tomorrow morning before the lunch rush.”

“As you wish, Sister J.B.,” the irrepressible man replied with a twinkle and that oh-so-charming smile, their running game of pointed barbs versus teasing come-backs now a well-established routine.

The nun shook her head at him, primly responding, “You know, I have seen that movie, Mr. K.”

Then she bustled quickly from the room before she gave anyone the impression he was her favorite by chuckling at his slack-jawed response. But of course, he was. Oh yes, she’d had a good feeling about Mr. K the moment she spotted him walking home from his work at the docks and pausing across the street as he noticed the many hungry children in the straggling line of folks waiting for the soup kitchen to open. It wasn’t unusual for people to stop and stare, clucking in sympathy before racing on with their busy lives. But this man’s pale blue eyes had widened, not with sympathy or horror, but as though he’d suddenly been struck breathless by a painful, long-buried memory, his mouth going slightly slack before tightening and swallowing against any expression of sentiment.

“Well, young man,” she’d called out, startling him out of his reverie. “If you’ve an hour or two to spare, I could certainly use the help! What do ya say?”

“I . . . uh . . .”

“That’s the spirit!” she’d trumpeted, crossing the street to grasp his arm and give him no chance to think of an excuse. “Come on in! I’ve just the job for a big, strong fella like you!”

She’d started him out in the pantry, hauling out the boxes of canned and packaged goods earmarked for the late dinner shift, and then sent him out into the dining hall to bus tables, restock the serving area with clean trays, plates, and flatware, and refill the giant coffee urns. Just as she’d suspected, he’d proven to be a competent, hard worker whose one to two spare hours somehow turned into more than six without complaint. More importantly, he’d also demonstrated considerable people skills, handling the soup kitchen’s varied clientele with respect, patience, and understanding for most, and a firm, commanding presence when dealing with the occasional troublemaker. No doubt about it, Mr. K could be counted on in a pinch.

“Gotcha, Mr. K,” Sister J.B. chortled as she hustled out to wipe up tables and direct other volunteers to start stacking chairs. “As you wish, indeed!”

***

The wind had really picked up by the time Mr. K finished his volunteer shift, but the cold air felt great after hours of washing dishes in a sweltering hot kitchen, and he relished it for his long walk home. He’d just turned the corner, heading toward his Dad’s old apartment close to the docks, when some kid barreled out of an alley and knocked him flat to the ground.

“Sorry, Mister!” the kid’s changing voice boom/squeaked. “Those guys saw me, and they’ve got guns! We gotta get outta here!”

The kid dragged the spluttering Mr. K to his feet and pulled him further down the street, around the next corner into another alley, and then shoved him through a break in the wall behind a set of dumpsters and into a basement crawl space. Slapping a hand over Mr. K’s mouth, the gutsy but terrified kid motioned for him to stay silent and then crept over to peek through the break in the wall to see if they’d been followed. Light from the streetlamp down the corner filtered through the break, illuminating what appeared to be a twelve-year-old boy, probably a street urchin like the kids Mr. K frequently saw in lines at the soup kitchen. But this one was wearing clean but unusually constructed, patched up clothing. Suddenly, the kid ducked down, and Mr. K could hear the thud of running footsteps as at least two men rounded the corner into the alley.

“You sure they went down here, Janko?” growled one voice.

“I think so, unless they crossed the street instead,” answered another.

“I saw the kid, but what’s this guy you’re talking about?” asked a third.

“Not sure, but the kid grabbed him, and they took off together. Big guy. Dressed like a dock worker,” replied the second.

“Damn it!” growled the first. “You saw some kid, then some guy, and then you lost ‘em. Now, we gotta move the trucks, and mine has a flat!”

“Shut up! We’re in this fix because of your damn truck,” the third snapped. “Look, let’s just cram all the girls into the one truck and get to the warehouse. Then we can go back for the rest of the girls in the other shipping container. Forget your truck, forget the kid, forget the guy. Let’s move it, or the boss’ll have our heads.”

Three sets of footsteps hurried off, and then the kid inched his head through the break in the wall and sank back with a sigh before crawling back over to Mr. K.

“I don’t know what to do, Mister,” the kid whispered. “They’ve got a bunch of women tied up in the back of those trucks. Some of ‘em are just girls, and they’re all real scared. I saw ‘em when those guys were getting tools to fix the flat. I was gonna sneak off and get the cops when that one guy spotted me. Can you help?”

Mr. K sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking. “Look, would you be able to describe the trucks and the men to the police?” he asked. “Color, license numbers?”

“Yep,” the kid replied. “Got both license numbers, and I know where they parked to fix the flat. The trucks are plain dark blue, but I saw the words ‘Coleman Industries’ on the inside. And I saw all four guys. One of ‘em must have stayed with the trucks.”

“OK, that’s good,” Mr. K whispered. “Look, the nearest police precinct is just four blocks north of here. That’s our best bet. Let’s cut down through the next alley and go a few blocks out of our way, so we can approach from the opposite direction and avoid running into those lowlifes. By the way, what’s your name, kid?”

“Ummm ….”

“Look, it’s OK. I’m not gonna turn you into child services or anything, if you’re living on the streets,” Mr. K said. “I volunteer at the St. Francis soup kitchen. I know how hard life can be.”

“My name doesn’t matter!”

“How about this,” Mr. K urged. “What if I tell them you’re my nephew? That way, the police won’t worry about you being out on the streets unsupervised. But to do that, I need to call you something, and you can call me Uncle Stan. Whattaya think?”

The kid put one finger under Mr. K’s chin and looked him over carefully, staring right into his eyes for a good, solid minute. “Who runs the St. Francis soup kitchen?” he asked.

Mr. K smiled. This kid’s a sharp one. “Well, that would be the indomitable Sister John the Baptist,” he replied, grinning from ear-to-ear. “And if she wasn’t already spoken for, she’d be my girl!”

“Ha!” the kid chortled softly. “She’s much too old for you, but she’s a really nice lady.” He paused, giving Mr. K another thorough inspection. “OK, Uncle Stan. You can call me Kipper.”

***

“No. Noooooooo,” Catherine groaned, as the jangling of her bedside phone jarred her from a sound sleep. She blinked blearily at her alarm clock. One thirteen AM? Who could possibly be calling me now?

She waited for the answering machine to pick up, but as soon as she heard, “Cathy, it’s Joe. Sorry to call so late, but it’s an emergency,” she grabbed the receiver and answered.

“This had better be good, Joe. I’m operating on about an hour of sleep, and you know you don’t want me cranky.”

“Sorry, Radcliffe,” Joe responded. “But we’ve got a major case that just blew up. Human trafficking! Can you believe it? A truckload of women and another shipping container full of them, multiple nationalities. We’re calling in at least five translators, maybe more. The cops executed a raid based on a tip from two witnesses and have arrested four transport guys, plus another five at the Coleman Industries warehouse. We’ve got a good case, but I need you to get down to the 1st Precinct. Our only witnesses are some kid and his uncle, and they’re both asking for you. Won’t talk to anyone else. The only names they’ll give are Kipper and Stan.”

Kipper!!

“Tell them I’m on my way. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Catherine barked, hanging up the phone and heading straight to the closet and the bathroom to throw herself together.

On her way to the garage, Catherine took a quick detour into her basement storage closet, moving aside the boxes, and ducking quickly down the ladder into the sub-basement. She was halfway to the first pipe junction to send a message when Vincent rounded the corner at a dead run and went straight to her.

“Catherine!” he cried, catching her up into his arms. “I felt your fear and worry and came as quickly as I could. What’s wrong?”

“I’m not completely sure yet, but I had to let you know about Kipper right away,” she said, returning his hug and kissing him quickly on the cheek.

“Kipper!” Vincent exclaimed. “We’ve been looking for him! Father sent him Above earlier this evening to take medicine to a sick Helper, but he never returned. Do you know where he is?”

“He’s at the 1st police precinct on Elizabeth Street,” she replied. “Apparently he’s a witness to a human trafficking case. Some man named Stan is with him. I don’t know who that could be. Maybe a Helper? But they’re both asking for me and won’t talk to anyone else. I have to go now. Please tell Father I’ll do everything I can to protect Kipper, but this is a huge case. We’re talking dozens of women, kidnapped from God only knows where and forced into shipping containers. The police have made a number of arrests. Hopefully, one of these guys will talk, and Kipper won’t have to testify. I’ll do my best.”

Vincent sighed and pulled her close in his arms. “I know you will. Be safe, Catherine! And hold Joe to his promise – no investigations! I’ll message Father and then head down to the Tunnel entrance closest to the 1st Precinct, just in case you need me.”

“I’ll be careful, and don’t you do anything rash either,” she replied, kissing him again before backing away. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.”

***

The desk sergeant spotted Catherine as soon as she entered the 1st Precinct lobby. “Miss Chandler!” he called, waving her over.

“Hi, Sergeant Balfour,” Catherine responded. “Please tell me they don’t have my witnesses in an interrogation room.”

“No, Ma’am,” Sergeant Balfour replied, handing her the case file with an indulgent smile. “We made them comfortable in the third floor conference room and brought them both a late-night snack. That’s one brave kid, and he sure can eat!”

“Well, a healthy appetite is a good sign. Maybe he’ll be willing to open up to me now that his tummy’s full. Thanks!” said Catherine, as she accepted the file from Sergeant Balfour and turned away, nearly bumping into a thin man in a black suit approaching the reception desk.

“Oh, excuse me!” she apologized with a quick smile.

The man nodded pleasantly, “No problem, Miss.”He watched her appreciatively as she hurried across the lobby to catch an open elevator before the doors closed.

“Pretty lady,” the man commented to the desk sergeant.

“Yes, she is,” replied Sergeant Balfour. “How can I help you?”

“Yeah, any chance you could break a dollar for me?” the man asked. “I need to call my sister about bailing out her drunk husband. Again.”

After receiving his quarters, the man crossed to the lobby’s public phone kiosk, dialed quickly and murmured into the receiver as soon as the call was answered. “Yeah boss, a lady DA just arrived. A Miss Chandler. Desk sergeant told her the witnesses were in an upstairs conference room … Yeah … Yeah … I’ll take care of it.”

***

After tapping on the conference room door, Catherine gently opened it and peeked in, only to gasp and rush inside, closing the door swiftly. Mr. K looked up and placed a finger over his lips, pointing to an exhausted Kipper softly snoring on the conference room couch. He escorted Catherine over to some chairs on the far side of the room so they could talk and still let the weary boy continue sleeping.

“I take it you know this young man? I was shocked to hear him demand to speak with his lawyerCatherine Chandler, but I stayed mum and just went along with him,” murmured Mr. K. “How are you, Cathy?”

“I’m fine, Uncle Stan,” Catherine whispered a bit testily. “Or, should I say Elliott Burch?”

“Easy, Cathy,” Mr. K replied. “The police haven’t recognized me yet, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m only here because the kid knocked me down trying to get away from some really nasty armed crooks and dragged me with him to safety. Kipper’s a good kid. Plucky. Reminds me of a kid named Stosh a long time ago. You might remember that name.”

Catherine sighed. “OK, Elliott. But why are you still here, if you didn’t see anything?”

“Actually, I’d prefer if you’d call me by my original name, Stanislaw Kaczmarek. Or for the time being, just plain Stan. Please, Cathy. It’s a long story, but I’m trying to leave Elliott Burch behind, at least until I figure some things out,” he responded, and Catherine nodded her agreement.

Mr. K quickly explained the situation, what Kipper had witnessed, and how they got away from the goons chasing them.

“I agreed to help Kipper get the police to take him seriously and offered to pose as his Uncle Stan so they wouldn’t call child services. He seemed worried about that. Is he OK? Does he have family?” Mr. K asked.

Catherine sighed again. “I know Kipper through some of the charity work I do, and yes, he does have a home and a family, although not a traditional one, so you don’t need to worry about his welfare.” She gestured to the remains of their late-night snack. “Despite appearances, Kipper is well fed. He’s just got a typical pre-teen boy’s appetite. I once saw him demolish all but two slices of a large Vitelli’s gourmet pizza in less than 10 minutes. I was lucky I got any. And it was my pizza!”

Mr. K laughed softly, “I’m glad to hear it! I like the kid very much. He’s street smart with a cool head on his shoulders, and he’s very observant. He could have a really great future ahead of him with the right help.”

Then he sobered. “Listen Cathy, is there any way you could keep Kipper out of this mess? It was really brave of him to come forward, but this sounds like a huge human trafficking ring. The guys they caught are all low level. I’m sure they don’t have the ringleader, and there are bound to be others involved. Coleman Industries does import/export, and word on the docks is they have their fingers in some shady stuff – drug and weapons smuggling, stolen artifacts. But human trafficking? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s no way of knowing how deeply the company itself might be involved or how far-reaching this trafficking network might be. I’d hate for Kipper to have to testify at trial and maybe get targeted by any crooks who slip through the net.”

“Thanks … Stan,” Catherine replied. “That’s definitely my goal here. We have nine guys so far, all caught in the act, so they’re toast, and they know it. Hopefully, somebody will break under interrogation, and we can round up the rest of this network. We’ll also have further testimony from the women recovered from the operation. The police want your complete names just for the sake of their paperwork. Well, that’s tough! They’ll just have to be satisfied with Kipper and Stan. Let me see if I can get you both safely home soon.”

***

An hour later after speaking with Marcus Bell, the detective in charge of the case, a weary Catherine consulted Joe Maxwell by phone at the desk sergeant’s station.

“Look Joe, I haven’t been able to get anything from either of these witnesses beyond the initial statements that set this whole operation in motion,” she explained. “They’ve had a terrifying experience, they’ve been really brave by coming forward, and the police caught these guys in the act. If you agree, Detective Bell is willing to classify them as an anonymous tip. Can’t we just let them go home? … Well, if you’re concerned for their safety, can’t we at least put them up at a safe house? They’re both exhausted, and so am I, in case you’ve forgotten! … OK … OK, thanks. I’ll wait for Greg Hughes to get here.”

Catherine thanked the desk sergeant and went back upstairs to give Mr. K and Kipper the news. She didn’t notice the man in the black suit fold his newspaper and slip out the door.

***

When Catherine rejoined Mr. K and Kipper in the conference room, Kipper was still fast asleep, but Mr. K was peering out the window at the street below. He motioned for her to join him in the shadows by the window.

“Cathy, did you park your Mercedes in front of the precinct?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” she replied. “They have two parking slots reserved for the DA’s office. Why?”

“I thought so. We may have a problem,” Mr. K answered, pointing down at her car. “See the guy in the black suit? If I’m not mistaken, he’s carrying a concealed weapon in a mid-back holster. He came out of the building just a few minutes before you got back up here and spoke to those two guys over there. They’re also packing, and one of them put something in the front wheel well of your car. Too small for a bomb, so it’s probably a tracking device. They’ve positioned themselves to cover the front entrance and specifically your car. And look, now Black Suit is coming back into the building.”

“Oh, no.He was in the lobby when I spoke with the desk sergeant. That’s just great,” Catherine sighed. “Let me see if I can get Greg Hughes on the phone and have him pull up out back.”

“Greg Hughes?” Mr. K asked.

“Yeah, he’s going to help me escort you and Kipper to a safe house,” Catherine answered. “Joe’s worried about your safety until we can get the rest of this crew rounded up. Looks like his worry wasn’t misplaced.”

“Oh, no. No!” Mr. K groaned. “Greg knows me as Elliott Burch, remember? I really don’t want to drag that name into this case, especially since I don’t know if I want Elliott Burch to even exist anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Catherine asked, and then they both froze as they heard the familiar ding-ding announcing the arrival of the elevator.

Catherine quickly tip-toed over to the conference room door and softly turned the lock, while Mr. K woke Kipper, hand-over-mouth, whispering, “Quiet. We have to get out of here.”

Catherine motioned them both to join her over at the conference room’s entrance to the hall bathroom, and they all slipped inside, Catherine locking this door as well. She pointed down the room to the main entrance for the bathroom leading into a side hallway. Just as they crept out the door, they could hear someone around the corner attempting to open the main conference room door, followed by a bang and crash as the door was forced open.

Catherine took off down the carpeted hallway to the stairwell entrance, Mr. K and Kipper right behind her. She wrenched open the door, let them through, and then grabbed a mop from the wheeled custodian bucket that had been left in an alcove off the stairwell. Mr. K helped her jam the mop through the door handles, temporarily blocking off the entrance.

Kipper was already halfway down the first flight of stairs when the two adults joined him. Catherine caught up with him and whispered, “Vincent is waiting at the Elizabeth Street Tunnel entrance. Once we’re outside, you’ve got to get us there.”

“On it,” the boy replied, racing ahead down the next flight of stairs, just as their pursuer began banging at the third floor stairwell door. Once they reached the first floor, Catherine started toward the exit, but Kipper grabbed her and panted, “No! Basement!”

Off they hurried down the basement steps and out into a long service corridor running the length of the building. Kipper darted all the way down the corridor, ignoring the main freight entrance up to the street midway down the hall in favor of a smaller staff entrance at the end.

“Wait!” Mr. K hissed, when Kipper reached to open the door. “Let me go first to see if we’re OK.” He cracked open the door and peered out, looking up and down the block, then motioned for Kipper and Catherine to follow him out.

Kipper whispered in Catherine’s ear, “Two blocks South, then take a right around the corner.”

Mr. K raised an eyebrow at Catherine as she pulled a gun from her purse and then motioned for Kipper to take the lead, but he nonetheless gallantly brought up the rear, keeping an eye out for pursuit. They were halfway down the second block when a man shouted, “There they are!” and two shots rang out, one blowing out a nearby window and the other whizzing by Mr. K’s head.

“Go!” yelled Catherine, as she dropped behind a garbage can, firing two shots at the nearest gunman, forcing him to take cover, and another two shots at the gunman behind him – Mr. Black Suit, who also took cover. Then, she raced off after Mr. K and Kipper, who were already out of sight around the next corner. She stopped just before the corner to finish emptying her gun at their pursuers, hitting the first in the leg and Black Suit in the chest.

She rounded the corner to see Vincent’s welcome cloaked-and-hooded shape urging her into the alley, down a service ramp, and into the freight garage under the building. There, Kipper was holding open a set of sliding storage shelves with Mr. K standing just behind, waving for them to hurry inside. As soon as Vincent took hold of the shelves, Kipper pushed Mr. K further down an alcove and through the opening to a round rolling steel door with Catherine on their heels. She paused as Vincent slid the storage shelves back into place, closed the inner door, and engaged the hidden latch. Then they both stepped through the rolling door entrance and closed it with a rumble and a click of the lock.

“Vincent!” Catherine sighed, throwing her arms around his neck.

“Thank God you’re all right,” Vincent murmured into her hair. But he immediately stepped back, whispering regretfully, “We can’t linger here. I don’t think your pursuers could find their way in. But just in case, we need to be long gone.”

“This way,” said Kipper, pulling on Mr. K’s sleeve. “You can meet Vincent later. We’ve gotta get moving.”

***

Greg Hughes arrived at the 1st Precinct to complete bedlam. Two ambulances blocked the lane in front of the building with cops and crime scene techs swarming all over the block.

Spotting Detective Bell beside one of the ambulances, cuffing a man in a black suit to the gurney and directing his partner to accompany the prisoner to the hospital, Greg hurried over and called out, “Hey, Marcus! What the hell happened here?”

“We’re still piecing things together,” replied Detective Bell, pointing over to another prisoner being loaded into an ambulance. “But it looks like these two guys came here to snuff out your witnesses and made the mistake of underestimating ADA Chandler. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her at the range, but that lady can shoot!”

“Chandler!” Greg shouted. “Please tell me she’s OK! Joe Maxwell will have my head if she’s been hurt. And the witnesses too! Where are they?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Detective Bell replied, scratching his head. “They’ve vanished into thin air. Come this way. I’ll show you.”

The two detectives skirted around the ambulances and walked to the back of the building, turning South.

“See that broken window?” asked Detective Bell. “Looks like Miss Chandler and your witnesses were fleeing down the block when someone shot at them and missed. We know it had to be them, because we found the conference room and bathroom doors broken down, both locked from the inside, and a busted mop handle in the stairwell door. There’s no blood trace there or here, except the spots where we found our two wounded perps. Like I said, your Miss Chandler’s a crack shot. The perps haven’t had much to say at all, but Chandler and her witnesses are in the wind. Maybe they caught a cab. Maybe there were other bad guys waiting back here with a car. Whatever happened, at least at this site, none of the witnesses or Miss Chandler were wounded.”

“Oh man!” Greg groaned. “Well, Catherine Chandler has pulled off vanishing acts in the past, and I certainly wouldn’t count her out even now. But Joe is gonna go ballistic until we either hear from her or find her. Damn! Where’s the closest phone so I can go take my lumps?”

***

Catherine and her group had been walking for about an hour through the maze of tunnels, some manmade with electric lights along the walls, others natural and dark except for the lantern Vincent had given Kipper to help light Mr. K’s way. She could tell Kipper was purposefully taking an aimless path away from the populated section of the Tunnels, so she quietly filled Vincent in on everything that had happened at the precinct and how ‘Stan’ had helped Kipper out with the police.

As they approached a bend in the tunnel, Vincent called ahead, “Kipper, let’s stop at that alcove just around the corner and rest for a bit.”

The boy nodded, “You got it, Vincent.”

Soon, they were settled inside the cozy space, and Vincent had Kipper place the lantern in the center of the space to provide some ambient light. He pulled a large water bottle out of his cloak and handed it to Catherine to share with the group. He’d kept his cloak and hood pulled close around him, and even now, he sat well away from Mr. K’s curious glances, his gloved hands buried in the folds of his cloak.

“Before we go any further, Stan, I know you have questions, but we need a promise from you,” said Catherine. “You must promise never to utter a word about this place. Many good, innocent people, like Kipper and Vincent, depend upon this place for their safety. I have taken refuge here for my own safety many times. Please, promise us you will help keep this important secret. This really is a matter of life and death. I’m not kidding.”

“You know, Cathy, we’ve walked through underground passages like this before, back when we escaped from the Gorronistas,” said Mr. K. “You asked for my silence then. I’ve never said a word, and I never will. You can count on me. Don’t you know that by now?”

Vincent’s head came up with a jerk, and Kipper interjected, “Wait a minute. You two know each other? You’ve been to the Tunnels before with Catherine?”

“Elliott Burch,” Vincent gasped in shock. “You’re Elliott Burch.”

“WHAT?!” Kipper yelled. “No! You can’t be Elliott Burch! You lied to me!”

“My name is Stanislaw Kaczmarek,” Mr. K responded, defensively. “My friends on the docks call me Stan. I did not lie to you, Kipper.”

 “Let’s all calm down, please,” urged Catherine.

“No, NO!” Kipper groaned. “This can’t be happening. I was starting to like you! I thought you looked familiar, and now I know it’s because I’ve seen your pictures in the paper. Your stupid giant building nearly destroyed my home here in the Tunnels. The only home I have! I thought you were my friend, but now I hate you! I HATE YOU!”

“Kipper, please, listen to me!” Catherine begged, rising to her knees to catch and hug the struggling boy. “Elliott had no way of knowing anyone lived in the Tunnels. Listen! Those men who captured Mouse at his construction site? He made them let Mouse go. And he’s also the reason Vincent and Father are alive today. Who do you think gave me the special tools and explosives Mouse needed to rescue them from that cave-in? It was Elliott, and he did it no questions asked, because he was my friend, and he knew I was scared and had nowhere else to turn.”

Kipper finally wrenched himself free from Catherine’s arms. “NO!” he shouted, tears running down his face. “I can’t believe he’s still your friend! And I can’t stay here with him!” And he took off down the tunnel.

“Oh God! What a mess!” Mr. K moaned, burying his face in his hands. Then his head shot up, concern written all over his face. “Shouldn’t we go after him? Will he be all right on his own?”

Catherine slumped back down against the alcove wall. “Kipper knows his way around the Tunnels probably better than anyone, except Vincent and Mouse. If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. He’ll find his way home safely without us. But right now, he’s not ready to listen to anyone. Tunnel folk are extremely careful about who they trust. Their lives depend upon secrecy.”

Mr. K dropped his head back in his hands and groaned. “Why is it that, even with the best of intentions, I can never do anything right when it comes to you, Cathy?”

Vincent sighed heavily. “I must apologize for speaking without thinking and unwittingly revealing your identity, Mr. Burch. But, perhaps in the long run, it is best that Kipper learned of this now rather than later, when the betrayal would seem even bigger,” he murmured. “Kipper has quite a temper, but it blows out almost as quickly as it heats up. Give him some time. I suspect you’ll need to stay with us for a few days until it’s safe once again for you and Catherine to return Above. During that time, let Kipper get to know you again. All of you. That is, if you think Kipper’s friendship is worth the effort.”

“Of course it is!” Mr. K angrily retorted, staring at the mysterious cloaked figure sitting just outside the lantern light. “I like Kipper! He’s a great kid! Sharp. A bit of a smart-aleck. Impressive appetite. But brave and resourceful. I’d be lucky to have his friendship!”

Mr. K leaned back against the alcove wall, his anger and offense dissipating, shaking his head. “Kipper also has his priorities in the right order. My God! By the time the police cleared the truck and the shipping container, there must have been more than fifty women and girls just packed in there in squalid conditions. He saved those women pretty much by himself. And he saved me too! Those goons were ready to shoot anyone who saw them or might have seen them.”

Mr. K paused, running his hands through his hair, and giving the shadowy figure a considering glance. Then he reached out his hand, saying, “And by the way, the name’s Stan Kaczmarek, not Elliott Burch. Thanks for getting us out of a tight spot, and thanks for taking me in.”

Vincent looked at Mr. K’s hand, stretched out as an olive branch, and then turned to Catherine. “What do you think, My Love?”

Catherine looked over at Mr. K, who sat back and mouthed to her, My Love?, his eyebrows practically disappearing into his scruffy bangs. Then she took Vincent’s gloved hand in hers and said, “I believe Stan can be trusted to keep this secret as well, but the decision has to be yours, My Own, because the danger is all yours.”

She turned to Mr. K and proudly declared, “Vincent is the man I love more than life itself. He saved my life over three years ago, when I had been left for dead in Central Park, and he has saved me many times since then. He helped me find my strength and my courage and a new sense of purpose, when I was certain I had none. If you are unkind to this man, you are unkind to me. If you harm this man, you harm me. And if you betray this man, you betray me. If you value my friendship, as I believe you do, then you must help me protect Vincent at all costs by keeping his secret. Have I made myself clear?”

Mr. K sighed, perplexed and saddened. “Cathy, I learned the last time we were in these tunnels that it was impossible for you to love me because there was someone else. I’ve always wondered who it could be. I thought, maybe Joe Maxwell. He’s certainly crazy about you! But you’re too principled to date your boss.”

Then he turned to the dark, cloaked figure. “Vincent, if you saved her life, then I owe you my respect, and my everlasting gratitude, and my silence. Even if Cathy can’t be mine – and oh, do I wish she could be – I still have to be grateful she came into my life, because she changed me. I don’t even want to think about what I might have become, how low I might have gone to satisfy my ambitions, if losing Catherine Chandler hadn’t finally slapped some sense into me. Besides, how bad could your secret possibly be? Are you on the run from the cops? Or the mob? The CIA? Believe me, I know what that’s like!”

Catherine just continued to stare at Mr. K silently.

“OK,” Mr. K laughed uneasily. “I see this is a serious matter. All right. I give you my solemn word, on my life. No, wait. That’s not good enough. On the life and sacred memory of my beloved mother, who died way too young and somehow took joy away with her. I promise. Your secret, whatever it is, will be safe with me.”

Vincent nodded and slowly stood up, his head just barely grazing the roof of the alcove. He stepped closer to the lantern, removed his gloves, and reached up to pull back his hood.

Mr. K gasped, slack-jawed and frozen in astonishment. Or was it fear?

Then Vincent knelt and reached out his hand. “I am Vincent Wells. I don’t know how I came to be like this. I only know that I was born, and I survived. A kind woman found me as a newborn babe freezing in the snow behind the trash bins outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. She brought me to the Tunnels and placed me in the care of a gifted doctor, the leader of our community, and he became my Father. This is the only home I’ve ever known. The only place where I can live safely hidden from a world too frightened to accept my differences. If you expose me, the best I can hope is that they will just kill me. Or worse, cage me in a laboratory or a carnival sideshow, where I will wish I was dead. So you see, my life is now in your hands. The choice is yours.”

“Not just your life, Vincent,” said Catherine, kneeling beside him and draping her arm around his back and laying her head on his shoulder. “My life, too.”

Then she turned to Mr. K. “Stan, if you betray Vincent, he will flee deep into these Tunnels, and I will go with him. Or follow him, since I know he’ll try to leave without me. And you’ll never see me again. Never! You say you love me, then understand this. Engrave it on your heart. Vincent is my life. Whatever you do to him, you do to me.”

Mr. K blinked, swallowed heavily against his suddenly dry mouth, and then reached out cautiously to grasp Vincent’s hand. “Oh my God,” he whispered, looking closely at Vincent’s hand and then up into his leonine face. “This is real. You’re REAL!”

“Yes,” Vincent replied, shaking Mr. K’s hand and offering him the water bottle. “Against all odds, I do exist.”

As Mr. K gulped down some water, Vincent stood and gathered up the lantern.

“We have about another hour’s walk to reach the main community,” Vincent stated, motioning for Mr. K to keep the water bottle. “We need to introduce you to our community leaders and arrange sleeping quarters for you, after I endure another lecture from Father about bringing a stranger Below without approval. And I’m sure Catherine will want to get a message to Joe Maxwell before he ‘blows a gasket.’ Isn’t that what you called it the last time you disappeared on him, My Love?”

Catherine giggled as she stood. “Yep, that’s putting it mildly. And you know I’ll help you wrangle Father.”

“Come on, Stan,” she added, pulling a still dazed Mr. K to his feet and linking arms with both men. “We’ll talk more as we walk. Vincent can tell you how this community came to be, and we’ll pass by some absolutely spectacular places on the way. They may live in a hole in the ground, as someone once put it, but they’ve found some truly ingenious ways to solve problems and live well. As an architect and builder, you’ll be amazed.”

As they left the alcove and turned down the tunnel toward home, Catherine looked from side to side at both of these men who loved her, each in their own way, walking stiffly and silently, and then she laughed. “You know what? Suddenly, I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I have the Tin Man on my left and the Cowardly Lion on my right, but the Scarecrow ran away, and heaven only knows what’s become of Toto!”

Vincent and Mr. K looked at each other over Catherine’s head and then sheepishly burst out laughing.

“That’s more like it,” she announced, smugly.

***

“What do you mean, ‘they got away,’” Bertram Coleman III, hissed into his phone at his private club. “Nobody vanishes into thin air! I paid you three perfectly good money to make sure those witnesses never live to testify in court! … WHAT?! … Which hospital? … All right, look, your shift’s coming up at the docks. Get there, and pretend nothing’s happened. You’re just as surprised as everybody else about what went down last night. And keep your eyes and ears open. The lawyer I sent says Janko thinks one of the witnesses might be a dock worker. Let me know if anyone comes up missing at work. You got it? … See that you do!”

He slammed the phone down and then winced a bit when his guest snapped, “I told you those idiots weren’t up to the job. If you want something like this done right, you bring in the professionals.”

“And I told you we should never have started trafficking in women!” Coleman growled back. “We were doing fine with smuggling drugs, weapons, even antiquities. If they get pinched, at least the goods can’t talk!”

“You were the one who gambled away the Coleman pension fund, Bertie,” retorted the guest. “You came running to ME, remember? Whining about what will happen if Daddy finds out. I told you the only way to make that kind of money fast was to partner up with the syndicate and help them ship in girls. This is on YOU!”

“Well, what are we going to do now, Pope?” Bertie groaned. “I’ve got two guys in the hospital shot by some lady DA, nine more in holding cells at the 1st Precinct, the warehouse is crawling with cops, and two witnesses and this DA are in the wind.”

“YOU are going to do nothing, you incompetent little weasel,” snorted Pope. “It’s time for the big boys to clean up your little mess. Just cross your fingers MY boss doesn’t decide to take you out as well. Now, clean yourself up and report to your office in Daddy’s executive suite on time, unless you want him to start wondering if you’re mixed up in this warehouse mess.”

***

After about thirty minutes of walking, Catherine’s ears perked up to the slight clanging sounds on the pipes. She raised an eyebrow at Vincent, and he responded, “Just an all’s well report from one of the sentries. We haven’t been spotted yet.”

“What?” Mr. K asked. “Is this the pipe communication you talked about?”

“Yes,” Vincent replied. “It’s a modified version of Morse code, developed by one of our earliest founding members and refined over time by our first Pipe Master, Pascal Senior, and now by his son.”

They stopped for a moment to listen to the occasional spurts of clanging messages with Vincent translating.

“This is just incredible,” Stan marveled. “When will we encounter the first of your sentries?”

“We won’t,” Vincent replied. “I’m announcing us right now.”

He picked up a rock from the side of their path and walked over to a large pipe, tapping out his message. After receiving a response, Vincent announced, “Kipper hasn’t been seen yet, so I suspect he’s hiding somewhere, sulking. Father will be roused and waiting for us in the library.”

“Library?” Mr. K gawped. “You have a library down here?”

“Oh Stan,” Catherine laughed. “You will not believe what this community has managed to create.” Then she yawned. “Oh my gosh, I’m so tired. What time is it getting to be?”

“Nearly five AM,” Vincent responded, curling a somewhat possessive arm around Catherine’s waist.

“How could you possibly know that?” challenged Mr. K.

“Well, this time, from the sentry report,” Vincent replied, a bit testily. “But, it’s part of my nature to have an inward sense of the time. I can also see our path forward even in the dark, and I heard the clanging of the pipes about twenty minutes before you did.”

“All right, gentlemen, before we start … measuring … things,” Catherine broke in. “Let’s get back to the home Tunnels so I can at least have some coffee! Otherwise, you’re going to get cranky Cathy here in just a few minutes.”

Vincent looked over at Mr. K and advised, “That’s our first and only warning. We’d better go!”

And the two men once again linked arms with Catherine and continued on their way.

***

Kipper was indeed sulking, kicking a medium-sized rock up and down the length of an empty underground play area Mouse had constructed earlier that year. Catherine’s words kept repeating over and over in his mind, and he vacillated between anger at her for defending Elliott Burch, guilt when he remembered how the man had helped save Vincent and Father, disgust with himself for liking “Uncle Stan” in the first place, and confusion when he remembered all the second chances he’d been given over the years. Does that mean even Elliott Burch gets a second chance, too?

Then his head jerked up as the pipes rang with Vincent’s message. They’re bringing that man HERE? To meet with FATHER? And he flew out of the playground toward the library, determined to make sure Father knew exactly who he’d be meeting.

***

They were nearing the home Tunnels, when Vincent paused, listening to the pipes. Then he sighed, “Father has summoned the Council. I have a feeling Kipper’s behind this.”

“Well,” Catherine replied. “Forewarned is forearmed. At least, William will be there, which means coffee!”

They picked up their pace and soon rounded the corner leading into Father’s library. Father and Mary were already seated at the Council table, with Kipper pacing sullenly at the back of the room. Just as they reached the short flight of steps down into the main chamber, William came bustling through the back entrance bearing an enormous tray with a large cozied teapot, a thermal coffee carafe, baskets of muffins and scones, and all the necessary condiments. Mary had already assembled tea cups, mugs, plates, and flatware from Father’s cupboard.

“Bill!” Mr. K called out, just as William placed the tray on the table.

William looked up, surprised, and replied, “Mr. K! What are you doing here?”

“Wait a minute!” shouted Kipper. “You mean you know Elliott Burch, too?”

“Now Kipper,” said William. “This man isn’t Elliott Burch. He’s a volunteer at the St. Francis shelter. Mr. K is one of my best helpers in the soup kitchen there.”

“Oh my God,” groaned Mr. K. “It just keeps getting worse. All right, let’s just get it all out in the open, right here, once and for all!”

Mr. K drew himself up, squared his shoulders, and turned to Father. “Hello, sir. I was born Stanislaw Kaczmarek, hence Mr. K at the soup kitchen, since we’re supposed to use only first names or nicknames there with our clients. My Dad was a New York City sanitation worker, and my Mom, bless her memory, took in laundry and picked up odd jobs as a maid. We were dirt poor, and I wanted so much more. So, I worked and studied and saved and clawed and scratched my way into a full college scholarship. But once I was there, it became abundantly clear that someone with my name and background was never going to get anywhere. So I changed my name to Elliott Burch, and that name, plus my talent and ambition, got me every material thing I ever wanted, and lost me everything that really mattered.”

Mr. K looked over at Catherine, sadly. “I lost Cathy because I was so obsessed with my ambitions and my dream project that I couldn’t see what it was doing to me, what kind of compromises and underhanded activities I was accepting to get the job done. And if I’m honest, she was never really mine, because she’d already given her heart to another man.”

He looked at Vincent and nodded, the exchange heavy with this acknowledgment of Vincent’s humanity.

Mr. K returned his attention to Father, “When I tried to do something good for the people of Santo Irisado, mercenaries called Gorronistas murdered my estranged father before I ever had a chance to try yet again to make things right with him. That was rock bottom. I got that mess cleared up with the CIA, finished my project on the island, put my corporate holdings in escrow, and decided to go back to the beginning and try to figure out where I went wrong. So, I became Stan Kaczmarek again, went back to living in the ratty apartment I grew up in, and took a job on the docks. Walking home one evening past St. Francis Cathedral, Sister John the Baptist spotted me, hauled me down into the storeroom, and put me to work helping the people of my Dad’s community. It was the first time in a long time that something finally felt right. That was two months ago.”

He looked over at Kipper. “Then tonight, as I was walking home after a long day at work and a long shift at the soup kitchen, this kid comes charging out of an alley, knocks me off my feet, and then hauls me into a basement crawl space because he’s being chased by a bunch of goons with guns. And instead of hightailing it home after we escaped their notice, this kid, who reminds me so much of my younger self, this brave kid wants to help the women those goons had kidnapped. Now, how could I not help that kid?”

Then Mr. K stretched out his arms to take in the vast expanse of the library. “So, here I am, in this unbelievable place, with this extraordinary community that somehow I almost unknowingly destroyed. And I’m completely at your mercy … because I need your help.”

Father blinked and looked back and forth between Vincent and Catherine, more than a bit nonplused. “Well, that’s quite a lot to take in, Mr. … Kaczmarek, was it? We don’t yet have the full Council assembled to consider this decision, but I believe it’s abundantly clear that we must offer you sanctuary here. From what Kipper has told me, you two and Catherine are in grave danger, at least until the police can get to the bottom of this dreadful business.”

Before Mr. K could respond, Catherine stepped forward to hug the Tunnel patriarch. “Thank you, Father. I knew you would understand.”

Then she looked around the room and continued, “I know you all have a lot of questions, but there are some urgent matters that must be dealt with right away. First, I must have COFFEE!”

William boomed with laughter as he quickly prepared a cup for her. “Just the way you like it, Madam Assistant District Attorney,” he responded, handing her the cup with an elaborate bow.

Catherine took one enormous gulp, sighed deeply, then proceeded to chug the rest of the cup and hold it out wordlessly for more. As a chuckling William prepared a second cup, she turned to Father, saying, “I need to get a call in to Joe Maxwell right away before he has a stroke. Do you think Henry and Lin Pei would let me use the phone in their basement?”

Mr. K interjected, “I need to make a call as well. I’m expected for a seven AM shift at the docks, and if I don’t call in sick to my foreman, it’s going to raise questions we don’t want explored. This crew, whoever they are, must have contacts at the docks, since they’re bringing these women into port in shipping containers. Anybody not reporting in for work is going to come under suspicion.”

Catherine sipped her second cup of coffee a bit more slowly, as she pondered Mr. K’s problem, and then answered, “Why don’t you give me your foreman’s name and number, and let me make that call instead? I’ll pretend to be your girlfriend and … ummm … I’ll tell him you spent the night at my apartment. Oh! And you got sick during our date last night. You have a terrible fever Why, I might even have to take you to the emergency room! There, that’ll explain why you wouldn’t be recovering at your apartment, in case someone comes to check on you.”

Just then, Pascal came bustling in from the Pipe Chamber to join the Council meeting, and Father called him over, quickly scribbling a note. “Pascal, would you please get this message off to the Peis, letting them know to expect Catherine in about twenty minutes?”

Vincent walked over to shake Mr. K’s hand. “I’m going to walk Catherine over to the sub-basement under Lin and Henry’s restaurant in Chinatown. While we’re gone, you can speak further with Father and the Council, and Mary will get you settled in a guest chamber. You’ve had a hard day, and I know you must be tired.”

Mr. K laughed, “I’m beyond tired. I feel like I’ve fallen down the Rabbit Hole, except I wound up in Narnia instead of Wonderland.”

“Oh! You know your children’s literature quite well, Mr. Kaczmarek!” Mary interjected, taking Mr. K’s arm and leading him over to the plate she’d prepared for him at the Council table. “You’ll fit in here just fine.”

“Stan,” Mr. K replied, gently patting Mary’s hand and giving her a charming smile. “Please, call me Stan.”

Vincent accepted a wrapped up muffin and scone from William for Catherine to munch on as they walked to the Peis’ sub-basement. Father and William settled in at the table with Mary and Mr. K, waiting for Pascal and Rebecca to arrive for their meeting. No one seemed to notice Kipper perched on an ottoman over in the corner, watching and listening, his face solemn and confused.

***

Rita Escobar tapped on Joe Maxwell’s office door before sticking her head carefully inside. The boss was in a tizzy over this human trafficking case and Cathy Chandler’s disappearance with their witnesses, and his office showed it. Papers and files were strewn out over every surface along with multiple coffee cups, the remains of a late-night sandwich, and Joe’s wadded up jacket and tie. He was slumped in his chair, working his “worry band” until it snapped, joining countless others on his desk top, and talking at the top of his lungs on the phone.

“I don’t care what you have to do, Greg,” he shouted. “Just find them!” And he slammed the receiver back on its cradle so hard it bounced off onto the floor. “Damn it!” Joe yelled, kicking his desk.

Rita quickly intervened, closing the door, picking up the much maligned phone receiver, and placing it gently back into position. “Joe,” she said softly, as though calming a bull ready to charge. “I have Catherine Chandler on line two for you.”

“Cathy?” Joe asked and then pounced on the phone receiver, quickly pressing the button for his second line. “Radcliffe, where the hell are you? Are you all right? Are the witnesses OK?”

“We’re fine, Joe,” Catherine replied, soothingly. “Calm down. I’m sorry I couldn’t call sooner, but it took us a while to get to a safe place and find a phone.”

“All right,” Joe answered, slumping back into his chair. “OK, where are you? I’ll send Greg Hughes to get you to a safe house.”

“No, don’t do that!” Catherine quickly interjected. “Listen, you know I have my resources. I think we’re safer if no one knows where we are. Even you. Joe, we were attacked in a police precinct. Someone has eyes where they shouldn’t. Who’s with you right now? Who knows about this call?”

Joe looked up at Rita and asked, “Who knows Cathy called in?”

“Nobody,” Rita replied. “I took the call myself and came straight here.”

“OK, Cathy,” Joe answered. “It’s just me and Rita, and you know she’s the one who answered your call.”

“Good, let’s keep it that way,” Catherine replied. “You can tell Greg, but have him keep quiet and pretend to keep looking for us.”

“OK,” Joe responded. “We can do that.”

“Good,” Catherine said. “Now listen closely, because I’ve got some more information for you. Our witness Stan is a dock worker. His girlfriend Estelle, which would be me, called him in sick with a fever and a bad case of food poisoning, so that’s covered. He was worried that anyone who didn’t show up for work might come under suspicion, because this gang surely has contacts at the docks.”

“That was sharp of him,” Joe commented, motioning to Rita for a notepad and a pen.

“Yes, it was. Now listen, this is important,” Catherine added. “Stan also told me the scuttlebutt at the dock is that Coleman Industries has its fingers in some bad stuff – drug and weapons smuggling, stolen artifacts. Now it looks like someone associated with the company has branched out into human trafficking. You need to find a way to quietly look into Coleman Industries. I know their CEO, Bertram Coleman the second. My Dad represented the company before he passed away. Mr. Coleman is a fine man, and I can’t imagine he would have anything to do with this. But his son, Bertie the third, is a spoiled-rotten piece of work. He’s been in and out of rehab for cocaine, according to society gossip, plus he gambles. If Bertie needs money, I wouldn’t put it past him to get involved with some shady characters and use the company for cover.”

“OK, Radcliffe, that’s a great lead,” Joe replied, scribbling notes onto a legal pad and handing it to Rita. “I’ll get Edie right on the research and have Rita pull any files we have on Coleman Industries. Anything else I can do? Do you need anything? Is that kid gonna be OK?”

“We’re just fine, Joe, thanks,” Catherine answered. “We’re safe, and we have everything we need. I’ll find ways to stay in touch. And if you need to reach me, just do like last time. Fold a vague note inside a twenty dollar bill, and drop it off with that street corner saxophone player you like so much. His name’s Harvey, by the way, and he appreciates your patronage. I’ll call you as soon as I can after I get your note. The one thing you can do for me is promise not to have this phone call, or any other call from me, traced. You might inadvertently put innocent people in danger just because they helped us. Please!”

“You got it, Cath,” Joe promised. “This call never happened. We heard about Coleman Industries from the tip line. We’re still worried sick about you.” He looked up at Rita, who nodded her agreement.

“Stay safe, Joe,” Catherine replied. “These guys are dangerous. The hitman in the black suit used a silencer. So tell Greg and Detective Bell to be extra careful. Bye!”

***

Down in the holding cells at the 1st Precinct, a guard with snow-white hair began distributing breakfast to the various inmates around seven AM. Shortly after he left, nine of the prisoners began choking and gasping for air, soon falling to the floor of their cells, foaming at the mouth and convulsing. By the time the real guards responded, all nine prisoners were dead. Poisoned.

Detective Bell was summoned, and he immediately jumped on the phone to Joe Maxwell.

“DDA Maxwell, we’ve got a big problem,” Detective Bell reported. “Someone poisoned all nine of the perps from the trafficking case … Nope, they were dead before we could get to ‘em. The other inmates describe a white-haired guy who doesn’t match the description of any of our guards here. That’s who brought them breakfast. I’m checking the security feed to see if we’ve got video of him. You’d better call the hospital and have those other prisoners moved right away. Someone may be after them as well.”

***

In the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital, an orderly with snow-white hair and a clipboard nodded politely to the police officer guarding the door to hospital cell 17 and said, “I just need to do the eight AM vitals check.”

The guard stood and opened the door for the orderly with a smile, closing it behind him. Once inside, the orderly drew his silenced weapon from behind the clipboard and walked over to the hospital gurney, firing two shots into the patient’s head.

Suddenly, the bathroom and room doors flew open, and Greg Hughes and the guard shouted for the fake orderly to drop his weapon. Instead, he aimed for the guard blocking the doorway, and Greg Hughes fired three shots into the hitman’s chest. The guard at the door unfortunately took a round to the shoulder. Medical staff converged on the guard and the hitman, carrying the wounded guard off for treatment and quickly determining that the hitman was dead.

Greg radioed Joe, “Our hitman’s dead. Let’s put it out that he successfully killed two prisoners before being taken out by police. Our perps are safely stashed in the surgical ward, but we’ll get them off to a private hospital right away.”

***

“Here we are, Stan,” said Mary, as she guided Mr. K into his guest chamber and lit the oil lamp on the side table. “It’s modest, but comfortable, and you should find everything you might need in the cupboard or over on the desk. I’m going to see if I can fetch you something comfortable to sleep in, and I’ll figure out some clean clothes for you to wear by the time you wake up. Now, if you need anything, just tap the code we taught you on the pipe just outside your room, and someone will come to assist you. There’s drinking water in this carafe and water for washing in the basin if you want to freshen up a bit, and I already showed you the lavatory just down the hallway.”

Mr. K gave Mary another of his winning smiles and kissed her hand gallantly. “You’ve been so kind, Mary. I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable here.”

“Well, you are a charmer, aren’t you?” said Mary. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”

Mr. K sighed after she left and sat down on the bed, ruffling his hair and then passing his hand appreciatively over the soft patchwork quilt, remembering the one his mother had made for him to take to college.

“Mary made that, ya know,” said Kipper from the doorway.

Mr. K looked up, taken aback by Kipper’s presence, and then shook his head. “No, I didn’t,” he replied. “She didn’t say so, but I’m not really surprised. Mary is a very kind and capable and loving woman. Quilts like these are made with love in every stitch.”

“Yes,” Kipper answered softly. “Mary’s made a quilt for every kid down here. She’s always making something, when she isn’t helping Father in the hospital room, or looking after the babies in the nursery.”

Mr. K nodded, and the two just looked at each other, warily.

Kipper finally broke the silence. “Is what you said to the Council true? Did you really grow up poor?”

“Yes, I meant every word I said,” Mr. K replied. “I’ve done some stupid things, Kipper. Made some really big mistakes. I was so busy being Elliott Burch that I wasn’t there when my Mom got sick and died of cancer. My Dad never forgave me for that. And now, I can’t make it up to him, to them, because they’re both gone. But I’m trying to do better. I’m really trying, Kipper, and I need friends to help me find a new way to live. Will you help me? Do you think you can find a way to be my friend again?”

Kipper gave Mr. K another one of those long assessing looks, and Mr. K trembled a bit, feeling as though the boy was somehow looking right into his soul.

“Just one question,” Kipper responded. “You say you love Catherine. Does that mean you’re gonna cause problems for Vincent? ‘Cause he loves her all the way from the top of his head to the end of his toes. And anyone who makes trouble for Vincent is no friend of mine.”

Mr. K chuffed softly and sighed. “No, Kipper,” he answered. “I wouldn’t dream of causing problems for Vincent and Catherine. I’ve promised to keep his secret, and Cathy has been excruciatingly clear about how much she loves him. I know a lost cause when I see one. I just hope they’ll be my friends. I really need friends right now. The right kind of friends.”

Kipper stepped into the chamber, right up to the bed, and once again tipped Mr. K’s chin so he could look right into his eyes. Mr. K looked back and didn’t even dare breathe.

“OK, Uncle Stan,” said Kipper, just a bit saucily. “I’ll give you a second chance. After all, I’ve been given at least seven second chances down here, and I’m only twelve!”

“Oh, thank God!” sighed Mr. K, putting out his hand. “Shall we shake on it, like men do?”

“Sure,” Kipper replied, giving Mr. K’s hand three big shakes. “And I’ll be listening for your code on the pipes, if you get lost or need directions. My chamber isn’t far from here. I share with Geoffrey, Eric, and Zach.”

“Wow,” said Mr. K. “Just how many kids are living down here?”

But Kipper never got a chance to respond, because suddenly the pipes started jangling with an emergency alert.

“What’s that?” Mr. K asked, as Kipper rushed toward the chamber entrance.

“That’s a major alert,” Kipper replied. “All hands on deck. Probably a broken water pipe. I gotta go report to my team!”

“Wait!” Mr. K called. “I’ll come with you. I can help!”

“You sure?” Kipper asked. “It’s cold, wet, messy, muddy work, and it can get dangerous.”

“I’m coming,” Mr. K replied firmly. “The least I can do is help out somehow.”

“Be glad you’re wearing work boots!” Kipper answered. “I’ll introduce you to Cullen, my team captain. Come on!”

***

Vincent and Catherine were on their way back to the main Hub when the emergency alert sounded on the pipes.

“That sounds like a broken pipe!” shouted Catherine, as they began running to answer the call.

“Yes,” replied Vincent. “Down on the third level, near William’s root cellars. You remember where to report to your team?”

“Yeah, I’m heading to the kitchen to help William prepare food for the work crews,” Catherine answered as they reached the parting of their ways. She grabbed Vincent for a quick hug and a kiss. “Be careful, My Own. Bring everyone back safely.”

“I will, My Love,” he replied and hurried off to meet his team.

***

By the time Mr. K, Kipper, and the rest of Cullen’s sandbag crew reached the flood site, Kanin and Vincent were hard at work with Mouse and the plumbing crew to repair the burst pipe. A support column had rotted and collapsed, putting undue pressure on a pipe joint and causing it to break open under the strain. Mr. K paused for a moment to catch his breath and stared in wonder as Vincent raised an enormous timber on his back to help move the broken pipe back up into its proper position for welding.

My God! It would take three of the strongest men on one of my crews to lift that timber!

While Kanin and Mouse worked furiously to weld the broken pipe back together, Mr. K helped pass sandbags to the rest of Cullen’s crew to divert the pooling water away from William’s root cellars. Once the repair weld was complete, Kanin and Mouse welded a metal sleeve around the break to provide additional stability for the repair weld.

When the last weld was complete, two men from Kanin’s crew were at last freed up to help Vincent support the heavy timber, while Kanin and Mouse used four by fours to build up a new permanent support column for the pipe. By then, the flood waters had receded sufficiently to pour a concrete piling for the new support column, anchored with rebar pounded into the bedrock.

Finally, Vincent and his two helpers could at last remove the temporary support timber. As they were lowering it, the timber slipped a bit in one man’s grasp, and Vincent growled sharply as the timber unexpectedly twisted in his hands.

Mr. K’s head snapped in Vincent’s direction. I’ve heard that growl before. Oh my God! Vincent must have taken out those Gorronistas at the docks! He saved our lives!

Kanin immediately moved to Vincent’s side to help lower the timber to the ground. “Vincent,” he shouted, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” Vincent replied, shaking his right hand and wincing a bit. “I just jammed two of my fingers, that’s all.”

Kanin patted Vincent on the shoulder and began directing the clean-up operation with Cullen’s help, so Vincent could rest his hand. Soon, the emergency was completely resolved, but it had taken several hours, and everyone was weary, wet, and cold.

“Well done everybody!” Kanin shouted, and they all began shaking hands and congratulating each other on their efforts. It was only then that Vincent spotted a muddy, soaked Mr. K and walked over to clasp his shoulder.

“Thank you, Stan, for coming to help us with this pipe emergency,” Vincent said. “You can’t have had any sleep. You must be completely exhausted now.”

“I’m just glad I’ve had several months of working at the docks to get me in shape,” Mr. K responded with a laugh. “Otherwise, I’d have given out before even half of these sandbags were in place.”

“Uncle Stan worked really hard, Vincent,” Kipper piped up.

“I’m sure he did,” Vincent replied. “Uncle Stan has been a very good friend to us today.”

“Yeah,” Kipper answered. “I guess everyone deserves a second chance, when they own up to their mistakes.”

“As you well know,” Vincent laughed, fondly ruffling the boy’s soggy hair.

“Who’s ready for hot soup, roast beef sandwiches, and hot tea?” called a familiar voice, as Catherine, Rebecca, Sarah, and several other ladies arrived with a hearty lunch for the hard-working repair crews.

They all cheered and migrated up to the ladies, who had set up folding tables to serve the food on higher, dry ground, and lined up to receive their well-earned lunch. When Mr. K reached Catherine, who was ladling out mugs of hot soup, she looked up in surprise and said, “Stan, what on earth are you doing here?”

Before he could answer, Kipper declared, “Uncle Stan helped out with the sandbag crew.”

“He sure did,” added Cullen. “And we were mighty glad to have him, too.”

“Well, Stan,” Catherine replied, handing him a mug of soup. “I can see you’ve taken the Tunnel Philosophy to heart. Give help when it is needed, and receive help when it is offered.”

Mr. K smiled, “I think that’s a pretty good philosophy to live by. Maybe even a step on the right path?”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Vincent, accepting his own mug of soup.

As they walked away from the line to find a spot to sit and eat their lunch, Mr. K could be heard saying, “Vincent, remind me to talk with Kanin and Dr. Wells about how I can help get better tools and building supplies down here. You know, by making these repairs before the problem becomes obvious up Top, your community is saving the City millions in infrastructure costs without them even knowing it.”

Catherine just smiled.

***

Bertie Coleman stared at the Noon news on his office television in disbelief. All his men were dead! Even Sims, his last remaining guy on the docks, was the victim of an early morning forklift accident!

And SNOW! Pope’s boss had sent Snow after them, and now even he was dead, shot by the police after he killed the two guys at Bellevue!

I’m next, he thought, feeling the panic building inside him. Gabriel will send someone after me next, I just know it! I’m getting out of here. Forget Dad and his money! I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the DA and begging for Witness Protection!

Leaving the television on, Bertie crept over to his closet and slipped out of his expensive Italian suit and shoes and the Hermès tie, leaving on his dress shirt, but unbuttoning the first few buttons to make it look more casual. He quickly put on his “slumming” jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, a pair of running shoes from his gym bag, and a Yankees souvenir baseball cap.

I know Pope’s paid off my secretary to keep tabs on me, but she doesn’t know about my escape route from Dad, he thought, as he took his phone off the cradle and dialed into one of those phone sex lines.

“Hi!” he answered when the booking agent picked up. “This is account 22146. I’d like to listen to Charlene for an hour … Yeah, no talking from me, just listening to her talk while she gets off. You can bill my usual card number.”

That will keep Susan off my back for a while, he thought. She knows not to bother me if I’m on the phone.

Then, he put the phone receiver down on his desk, turned down the volume on the television a bit, and walked over to his bookshelves, pulling the hidden latch, and slipping into the secret passages he’d discovered years ago on the building’s blueprints. Who knew those useless architecture classes would save my life? Ten minutes later, he cautiously emerged from the basement staff entrance and quickly flagged down a cab.

“Take me to the DA’s office,” he said to the cabbie. “And there’s an extra twenty if you step on it!”

***

Just after two PM, Jonathan Pope, Esq., received a most unsettling phone call.

“Where’s Bertie Coleman?” his boss hissed into the phone.

Pope re-checked his alerts from the Coleman Building.

“He should be in his office, Mr. Klein,” Pope replied. “I have his secretary, the main reception desk, and the garage attendant on payroll to inform me if he so much as burps.”

“Well, I sent a guy to take care of him,” Pope’s boss responded angrily, his voice rising. “And he’s not THERE!”

Pope gripped the edge of his desk, but replied calmly, “Well then, he’s bound to be at the strip club, or his private club, or back at his apartment snorting cocaine. Don’t worry, sir. I’ll find him.”

“You do that, Pope,” snarled his boss. “And then you let me know. I want that little punk dead before nightfall. Got it?”

“No problem, Mr. Klein,” answered Pope, who then hung up the phone, grabbed his go bag, and took a cab straight to the airport, hoping to catch the first available private chartered plane heading out of the country.

Before getting on his flight to Brunei, Pope called his boss from the airport.

“Bertie’s at his apartment with some hooker and both of them are strung out on coke,” he lied. “He shouldn’t be a problem.” Then Pope hung up the phone and boarded the plane.

***

After finishing their lunch, the weary work crews packed up their tools and headed back to the main Hub. They left behind a sentry, who’d been assigned to keep an eye on the new repair.

At the Hub, Cullen and Kipper waited for Mr. K to collect the pajamas, robe, and slippers Mary had left for him, and then they took him off to the bathing pools for a long hot bath before he collapsed into his bed to enjoy some much overdue sleep.

Vincent briefly reported to Father, and then he and Catherine went to his chamber.

“Go on to your bathing pool, My Own,” said Catherine once they arrived. “I’ll bring you a sleep shirt, pajama pants, and your robe and slippers. You’re still sopping wet.”

“That is an understatement,” Vincent commented wryly, as he closed the enormous double doors to his chamber. “I’m plotting out a pathway to the bathing chamber that will best keep me from dripping all over the carpets.”

Catherine looked up from the cupboard with a pursed smile. “You might as well just leave those boots by the door. They need a good scraping, followed by a thorough cleaning and an oil treatment.”

Vincent looked down at his feet with a sigh. “You’re not wrong there.”

He bent down to untie his boots, but then sighed in frustration. “Catherine, I need your help here. I’ve jammed the knuckles on two fingers of my right hand, and I just can’t manage these bootlaces. If you don’t untie them, I may just rip them apart.”

“Well, don’t do that,” she replied, dropping an armload of clothing on Vincent’s bed and crossing to take his hand gently in hers and examine his injured fingers. “That does look painful. Should Father take a look at them?”

“No, no,” Vincent replied. “I’m sure nothing’s broken. This is a pretty common work injury. I’ll just need to wrap them up after my bath, and take it easy on that hand for a while.”

“If you’re sure,” Catherine replied, looking right into Vincent’s eyes. “No prevaricating, Mister.”

Vincent laughed, “I’m sure. I deal with these minor work injuries myself all the time, otherwise Father would be constantly fussing over me. I just need your help with these blasted laces.”

“OK,” Catherine responded, kneeling at his feet to examine his mud-encrusted boots. He’s asking for my help! Down girl, keep it light and easy. Don’t spook him. “Hmmm … I understand why you knot the laces after tying them, but it does make for quite a snarl once you add mud and silt and God knows what else.”

After successfully removing the first boot and sock, Catherine looked up with a victorious grin and then patted the door next to them before tackling the next boot. “Have I ever told you just how much I love these doors, Vincent?” she commented softly as she concentrated on his snarled laces.

Hmmm … several times, if I’m not mistaken, My Love, replied the darker voice of Vincent’s second nature, as he recalled just how enthusiastically he’d been kissed when she first saw them several months ago. “I enjoyed finding and restoring them, but I confess to needing help with such a big project.

Catherine giggled, “Let me guess. Kanin, of course, because you needed to set them into natural stone walls, and I see masonry work around the curved edges at the top. I bet Mouse and Jamie helped you haul them out of storage. And you must have used Cullen’s woodshop for the restoration. I see his hand in those beautiful carvings. It was sweet of him to match the carvings on our mantel clock.”

“The carvings are actually original, and that’s why I was so thrilled to find them. But they were quite encrusted with dust and grime, and someone had actually PAINTED that beautiful wood!” Vincent groused. “What were they THINKING? It took lots of time and patience and care to strip all of that back, and then the original carvings needed to be repaired and restored. That was indeed Cullen’s painstaking work; the repairs needed a master’s hand. But the stripping, cleaning, refinishing, staining, and polishing all fell to me. Otherwise, you have guessed rightly, My Love.

“Aha!” Catherine crowed triumphantly as the last knot finally gave way under her persistent coaxing, and she helped Vincent slip off the second wet, muddy boot and peel off another soppy sock.

“Oh,” he sighed. “That feels so much better already.”

“Come on,” Catherine crooned as she pecked his cheek and then crossed to retrieve his sleepwear from the bed. “Let’s get you into that nice hot bathing pool.”

Vincent studied her for a moment and suddenly blurted, “Why don’t you join me?” What did I just say?

Catherine gaped at him for a moment and then responded, “Pardon me for zoning out there. I think I’m so tired I’m experiencing auditory hallucinations. Did you just ask me to … bathe … with you?”

Yes, My Catherine,” came the rumbled reply of Vincent’s Otherness. You started this. You can’t back out now, or she’ll be so disappointed. He paused, and his eyes lightened back up, skittering about the room, not sure where to look. “We’re both so tired, My Love. I’m only suggesting that we take some comfort in each other’s presence after a terrifying night and an exhausting day. I don’t want to be without you, even for a few moments, right now.”

“All right,” she agreed readily. Never argue with a good thing, Cathy! “Let me get my sleep clothes too.”

Catherine walked calmly over to the wardrobe and fished out a nightgown, robe, and slippers. Take it easy, Cathy. This is a big step. Don’t rush him!

***

Vincent followed after Catherine, picking a careful path around the carpets, and joined her in the short tunnel down to the bathing pool he shared only with Father. Catherine placed their sleep clothes on a side table and dropped the heavy canvas tarp across the tunnel up to Father’s Chambers. She turned to see Vincent slumped on a stone bench, fumbling with the ties to his vest.

“OK,” Catherine whispered as she gently stilled his frustrated hands. “Let’s agree to give those injured fingers a break, and let me help you.”

She retrieved a wash basin, filling it with hot water from the bathing pool, and placed it on the bench beside Vincent. “Here you go. Just let your hands soak for a bit. That will loosen up the mud and make cleaning them less painful. Wow, you’ve even got dirt embedded under your nails.”

While Vincent’s hands were soaking, Catherine made quick, matter-of-fact work of the laces on his vest and unbuttoned the flannel shirt underneath as well, pulling all of his wet shirttails out of his heavy denim trousers. The long-sleeved thermal Henley beneath the flannel shirt would just have to wait. And I’m not touching his trousers. He’d probably leap clear up to the ceiling!

Then, she puttered about the bathing chamber, gathering up a stack of towels and washcloths, selecting toiletries from the baskets in the cupboard, including her own that she kept Below, and placing them within convenient reach on a tray at the edge of the pool just above the sunken benches. Finally, she retrieved a soft nail brush and returned to Vincent’s side.

“How are your hands feeling now?” Catherine asked gently.

“Better, thank you, My Love,” Vincent replied, trying to scoop the worst of the goo out of his nails.

“Wait, let me do that,” Catherine responded, displaying the nail brush. “I have something a bit gentler and much more effective.”

Vincent gave her a long, searching look, and Catherine pleaded, “Let me tend to you, My Own. All these years, out of respect for your privacy, you’ve been left to fend for yourself after such hard, backbreaking work. It doesn’t have to be this way anymore. Not when I’m here to look after you. Please, let me show my love for you in this simple way.”

You know I can deny you nothing, now,Vincent whispered in that deep, tantalizing voice, hesitant with a new kind of vulnerability.

“Oh, Sweetheart,” Catherine crooned. “I’m not trying to rush you into anything. I’m thrilled you want to share a bath with me. I know that’s a big step for you to take, and I love you for it. So much. I’m only asking to take care of you when you’re injured and hurting from hard work. That’s all.”

“I trust you, Catherine, of course,” Vincent quickly assured her, surrendering his hands to her care. “I guess I’m just accustomed to being cared for this way only when I’m severely injured or ill, and I’m rarely sick.”

“Well, not anymore,” Catherine replied firmly, as she set to work gently brushing the grit and grime off his furred hands and out from under his nails. “When I’m here, I want the privilege of tending to you. I remember how much my Mom loved to pamper Dad when he came home from a long day at the office, and particularly if he had to spend a long time on his feet in court. She’d set up a footbath for him and massage his shoulders and neck while his feet soaked, and then she’d massage his poor, tired feet.”

“Your parents had a beautiful relationship,” Vincent commented, drying his hands on the hand towel Catherine offered him.

“Yes, they did,” she responded, thinking carefully about her next steps. Keep it light, Cathy. Keep it light. “Soooo … what will be most comfortable for you for bathing? You might as well just get into the pool with your clothes on and let the churn of the water get rid of most of the grime. We could put a plastic hamper next to the pool for them. Whoever has laundry duty will bless you for that.”

“That’s not a bad idea. I could stand by the outlet, so the rest of the pool doesn’t get murky,” Vincent responded, putting her words into action and placing a white plastic laundry basket over by the pool. “But what about you Catherine? Your clothes aren’t grimy like mine.”

She smiled at him. “I’ll do whatever you wish. I thought I could just slip out of my clothes and get into the pool while you’re dealing with the muck. What do you think?”

Vincent sighed and nodded his head in agreement, murmuring, “You must find my endless caution tiresome.”

“No, Vincent,” Catherine replied gently. “Not at all. We are something that has never been. Isn’t that what you said? Only you can understand what’s going on inside you, and it would be so unfair of me to dismiss your concerns. My part in this relationship is to love you and trust you and accept each gift as it comes to me for the wonder that it is. I can see you beginning to trust yourself more and more, gradually leaving behind old doubts and assumptions. Those are precious gifts. I see you learning and even starting to welcome the side of your nature that you kept locked away for so long, or only released under the direst of circumstances. That is an extraordinary gift. I believe one day soon you’re going to feel free and comfortable just being yourself. And then, we will learn together what it means to love each other and express that love in our own time and our own way.”

My Catherine,Vincent’s darker voice murmured. “You constantly amaze me.

Time to lighten the mood back up, she thought.

“Well, My Own,” Catherine replied. “To be completely honest, right now, I’m getting to the point where coffee will no longer sustain me without some sleep. Let’s get you into the pool and feeling much better, OK? And I promise to continue amazing you.”

Vincent laughed out loud at that and lowered himself into the far end of the pool by the outlet, sinking down completely into the churning water to start getting the worst of the muck out of his hair. Once he was occupied, Catherine took a deep breath and did exactly as she had proposed, quickly removing her clothes and dropping them into another hamper, then taking the steps down into the opposite end of the pool and settling on one of the benches, chin-deep in the water. She leaned her head back onto a folded towel, closed her eyes, and allowed the hot water to leech away the tensions and fears of the past two days. In the background, she could hear the soggy splats of Vincent’s clothes as they gradually landed piece-by-piece into the white plastic laundry basket. Vest, flannel shirt, Henley, trousers … then silence.

The next sound she heard was a deep sigh almost right beside her, and she slowly turned her head and opened her eyes to behold a glorious sight. There he was, seated on the bench next to hers, the water lapping about his bare shoulders, his golden head, darkened by the water, relaxed back onto a folded towel, like hers.

Keep it light, Cathy. Keep it light.

“As lovely as this water is, it’s going to make me drop off to sleep right away if I stay like this too long,” she noted. “I know your arms must be sore and your fingers hurt. Would you like for me to wash your hair for you?”

I hope I hope I hope …

Silence.

That would be … a loving and caring thing for you to do, My Catherine,Vincent rumbled cautiously at last.

“OK,” she replied, tamping down her exhilaration and locking it deep inside. “Why don’t you re-wet your hair, and then sit sideways at the edge of the bench with your back to me. I’ll just get the shampoo.”

Vincent complied, sinking down under the water and then emerging with his back to her, the water lapping about his waist until he settled sitting upright at the edge of his bench with the water now chest deep. Catherine stood behind him at the other end of the short bench and began the luxurious task of massaging the shampoo into Vincent’s thick mane of long hair. She discovered to her delight that his back hairline actually dipped down the back of his neck and into a pointed V between his shoulder blades. She took her time gently kneading into his scalp and neck, her eyes surreptitiously taking in the magnificence of his broad shoulders, wide chest, powerful arms, and mighty back. She paused briefly when a rhythmic rumbling sound began vibrating up from Vincent’s chest, but she immediately returned to her attentive massage, determined not to draw attention to the delightful sound unless he said something about it.

“All right,” she whispered. “You can rinse now, and then I’ll put some detangling conditioner on your hair.”

The rumbling stopped. “Some what?” Vincent asked.

“A conditioner,” Catherine replied. “It helps smooth out tangles and makes your hair softer and much easier to comb. Has no one ever tried a conditioner on your hair? Not even Mary when you were little?”

“No,” Vincent answered. “Something like that would be a luxury down here. It isn’t flowery smelling, is it?”

“No, not at all,” Catherine laughed. “It comes in a variety of scents. This one is sandalwood, just like the shampoo. If it works as well as I think it will, I’m going to buy two cases to bring Below. One just for you, and one for the ladies to share. Now, rinse, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Vincent teased before sinking down under the water again.

Applying the conditioner and kneading it into Vincent’s hair and scalp brought back the lovely rumbling sound, which Catherine again quietly relished without comment. Once he’d thoroughly rinsed out the conditioner, Catherine began the somewhat daunting task of combing out all of Vincent’s long, thick hair. But the conditioner proved to be up to the task, and ten minutes later, his hair lay smooth, wet, and shining against his neck and shoulders, Vincent’s rumbling purr a compelling testimony to his pleasure and contentment with her ministrations.

“There you go, My Own,” Catherine whispered as she sank back down onto her bench, water back up under her chin. “All done. Why don’t you lean back again and just relax and let the hot water do its work on your sore muscles. I’ll get myself dry and dressed, and go start a pot of hot tea for us.”

But Catherine, shouldn’t I also tend to you?” Vincent asked. “You’ve had no sleep for two days. You’ve had to fight for your life and the lives of others. I should be caring for you, too.

“I am tired,” Catherine responded. “But I don’t have sore muscles and jammed fingers from heavy labor like you. And you will tend to me later by holding me in your arms and helping me feel safe enough to fall asleep. You’ve been tending to me all the time we’ve known each other. Didn’t you realize that? Now, you’re letting me have that privilege in return.”

Vincent just stared at her in wonder.

“See,” she quipped. “Told you I’d keep amazing you.” They both laughed. “Now, relax for a while.”

As Vincent closed his eyes and laid his head back against the towel and Catherine turned to leave the pool, she heard him murmur softly, his voice trembling, “May I watch you?”

She turned back to see him still reclining in the water, head back, his eyes shut. Always the gentleman, she thought. “Vincent,” she called softly.

He turned his head and opened his eyes, and she slowly stood up in front of the bench, the water gradually revealing her shoulders, her collar bones, her breasts. She gazed at him lovingly as his eyes feasted upon her for a few moments. Then she whispered, “Whatever you wish, My Own.”

“Beautiful,” he whispered back. “You are so beautiful, My Catherine.

She kept smiling at him, her heart in her eyes, as she backed slowly toward the steps leading out of the pool, then turned gracefully and slowly ascended the stairs, each step revealing her waist, her buttocks, her thighs, her calves. She walked calmly over to the table with their towels and clothes and began to gently dry herself.

Be calm. Be normal. This is not a performance. This is a gift. My gift to him, and his, to me.

She occasionally allowed her eyes to pass briefly over him, but always returned her focus to what she was doing, unwilling to break his rapt attention or bring any coyness into this profound moment of intimate sharing. She made no attempt to hide or cover herself, dropping the wet towel into the hamper before retrieving her nightgown, slipping it matter-of-factly over her head, stepping into her moccasin-style slippers, and donning her soft Tunnel robe.

She walked quietly to the edge of the pool and knelt by his side, smoothing his bangs out of his wondering eyes. She kissed him lightly. Butterfly kisses on his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek, and a more lingering one on his lips.

“Rest for a while longer,” she whispered. “I’ll make some tea.” And his eyes never left her slight figure as she crossed the bathing chamber and vanished up the short tunnel to his room.

***

He drifted calmly in still midnight blue waters, the dark sky overhead rimmed by the burgeoning glow of the rising sun … What did they call this place?Oh yeah, The Mirror Pool. … NiceI could stay here forever

The dark reflective waters slowly gave way to a wide lake fed by gigantic, silent waterfalls, gilded in stark shafts of morning sunlight … Beautiful, but odd … Shouldn’t there be thundering sound?HmmmmStillVery nicePeacefulI like this place

He floated on, past fleeting images of a primitive working foundry … a chandlery … That made him chuckle … That name follows me everywhere, doesn’t it? … a woodworking shop … Cullen works here … a large make-shift kitchen … BillCan’t believe Bill lives hereWho would have thought?… a dining room that could accommodate probably about a hundred people … just astonishing … How could all this have existed right under my nose all this time? … the hospital chamber … They need more supplies and better equipmentI could help with that, couldn’t I? … and then that incongruous library just stuffed full of books and maps and papers strewn about on every surface … Dr. Wells needs a secretary, he chuckled … and everywhere he looked, there were people dressed in pieced-together clothes, like Kipper’s … curious, but cautiously friendly faces, even welcoming ones, like Mary … And why not? I’m being introduced to them by their Crown Prince

And then, there was Vincent with his arm around Cathy’s waist … No, not Cathy Here, she is Catherine Vincent’s Catherine … And that look in her eyes … If you are unkindIf you harmIf you betrayWhatever you do to him, you do to me … The man with the impossible face … those clear blue eyes … assessing mechallenging me … and yet vulnerable … My life is in your hands

And Kipper’s voice … Anyone who makes trouble for Vincent is no friend of mine … Kipper … OK, Uncle Stan, I’ll give you a second chance … Manna from Heaven …

I should hate himthat impossible man who holds her heartI ought to hate his very existenceBut I can’tI just can’tAnd it really isn’t even for HerIt’s the right thing to do … the right thing … to do …

Gradually, he became aware of the clanging and tapping on the pipes and his growling stomach. He opened his eyes, and then drew back in shock at the sight of four pre-teen boys gathered at the side of his bed, staring quietly and intently at him. He relaxed a bit when he recognized one as Kipper.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” Kipper chirped with a saucy grin. “Uncle Stan, I’d like you to meet my roommates, Zach, Eric, and Geoffrey.”

The smallest boy, Eric, pushed his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses back up his nose and added, “We came to take you to dinner, so you’d better get dressed.”

“Yeah,” Geoffrey chimed in. “You don’t want to be late for William’s good cooking.”

Mr. K chuckled, “Well, thanks guys. But right now, I don’t think I have anything else to wear except these pajamas and a robe and slippers. My muddy clothes all got sent to the laundry.”

Zach grinned, “That’s the other reason we’re here. Mary sent us to give you these.”

The four boys held out various patched-up articles of clothing, some thick knitted socks, and a pair of moccasin-like ankle boots.

“Oh my,” Mr. K replied, as he held up a patched chambray work shirt. A little too big, but it would fit. Then a heavy cowl-neck sweater made from a somewhat dizzying array of different yarns. Also a little big, but it would be very warm. Some patched denim overalls that looked to be about right for his height, and a set of men’s thermal underwear. All very practical, very clean, and very much appreciated.

They do the best with what they have, and they share whatever they can.

“Thank you, fellas,” Mr. K murmured, sincerely. “These are just terrific. While I get dressed, would you please go thank Mary for finding these wonderful things for me?”

“You guys go ahead and give Mary Uncle Stan’s message,” Kipper directed. “I’ll stay here and bring him to the dining hall when he’s ready.”

The three boys instantly dashed for the doorway, jockeying for first place and throwing back various versions of “Bye Uncle Stan! See ya later!”

Kipper shook his head. “I’m sorry if we woke you up before you were ready. But William has a strict schedule, especially for dinners, because he needs to leave on time to go help with the late dinner shift at the soup kitchen. Sister J.B. really depends on him.”

“Oh, don’t I know it!” Mr. K responded, gathering up his borrowed clothes and crossing behind a folded screen to get dressed. “Bill, well, your William, is just an amazing cook. I have no idea how he looks at the mish-mash of stuff in the pantry and figures out how to make incredible meals out of all those donations.”

“William used to be an Army cook back in Viet Nam,” Kipper explained. “You should talk with him, though, because it’s his story to tell, not mine.”

“I’ll do that,” Mr. K replied, all decked out in his Tunnel gear and crossing to the bed to put on his borrowed socks and moccasin boots. “I imagine everyone living down here has a story.” He looked up at Kipper. “I hope sometime you’ll share yours with me.”

“Aw,” Kipper grunted, waving his hand nonchalantly. “It’s not anything you won’t hear from some of the other kids. My Dad was a mean drunk. And when he got drunk, which was pretty much all the time, he liked to beat up my Mom … Me, too, if he could catch me …”

The boy cleared his throat. “Sometimes it was bad enough she had to go to the hospital. A broken arm. That sort of thing … He’d be all sorry, and then get mad all over again when he got the medical bills. Then, one day …”

Kipper turned away, fiddling with a loose thread on the quilt. “One day, he beat her so bad, she never came home … She died in the ambulance on the way to the ER.”

The boy paused, struggling not to cry.

“Kipper,” said Mr. K, reaching out to console the boy, but Kipper quickly shook him off, stepped away from the bed and from any comfort, and interrupted him, brusquely.

“The cops arrested him, and I got put in a foster home that wasn’t really any better than livin’ with Dad. So I ran away,” the boy continued, clearing his throat again and rubbing a runny nose with his jacket sleeve.

“I’d been livin’ on the streets for a few weeks when I found the St. Francis soup kitchen and Sister J.B. and William – Bill.” Kipper’s face broke into a fond smile. “They were really nice, and the food was so good! So I kept comin’ back.”

The boy stepped just a bit closer to the bed. “One night, I offered to help William clean up the kitchen, and he started talking about a special place where kids could be safe and taken care of and even loved. I thought he was just joshin’ me, and I said so. So the next night, he brought Zach with him, and Zach told me everything except for where this wonderful place was. I said I’d think about it.”

Kipper sighed, leaning against the bed and fidgeting with the loose thread again. “Then, the next night, I just barely escaped getting beat all to hell by some street toughs. William patched me up and asked again if I’d like to go see this safe place where he lived, and, well, here I am.”

“Wow,” said Mr. K quietly, not sure what to say to this kid who was so determined not to break down in front of him.

“It’s OK,” Kipper replied hoarsely, wiping his nose yet again on his sleeve. “I had it bad, but I came out of it OK. I have a really great home here with people who care about me and love me. You don’t have to feel sorry for me. You really don’t.”

“Is it OK for me to admire how brave and resourceful you are?” Mr. K asked gently.

Kipper gave Mr. K yet another one of those unnervingly discerning looks and then smiled softly, “Yeah, that would be OK.”

He cleared his throat again and grabbed Mr. K’s hand. “Come on, Uncle Stan! We don’t wanna be late for dinner!”

***

Catherine slowly woke to the gentle brush of the softest kisses raining upon her forehead, nose, and cheeks, and she burrowed even deeper under the covers and into the safe haven of Vincent’s embrace and the soothing rumble that rose from his chest. How does he do that?

The rumble was interrupted by a wheezy chuckle, as Vincent tucked two fingers under her chin and lifted her face up for a nuzzling kiss to her lips. “It’s time for Sleeping Beauty to awaken, My Love,” he murmured against her lips. “William just put out the first call for dinner, and your grumbly stomach tells me you must be hungry. I could bring you a tray if you’re too tired for the dining hall.”

“Mmmmm,” Catherine sighed, returning a playful kiss that landed on Vincent’s nose. “I’m still tired, but I don’t think it would be fair to let Stan brave a dining hall full of inquisitive Tunnel folk all by himself.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Vincent replied, reaching for Catherine’s robe at the end of the big bed and handing it to her. “He seems to have made quite a few friends already among the work crews. Father has officially offered him sanctuary, and Mary has certainly taken a shine to him. That will go a long way with everyone else.”

“And Kipper,” Catherine reminded him. “I saw him sitting right beside Stan during lunch, making introductions and talking about how often the Tunnel community has to marshal their resources to deal with failing pipes and flooding during the Spring rains.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Vincent agreed, drawing a reluctant Catherine up from the bed and shooing her over to the wardrobe to get dressed. “Kipper has a real eye for problem solving. He could be a project manager, or an urban planner, or maybe even an engineer, if he wanted.”

Catherine laughed, “Well, he’ll have to develop more of an affinity for math if he wants to be an engineer. Jamie, on the other hand, could probably get into any engineering program in the country.”

She handed Vincent a selection of clothing for him to wear that evening to dinner – a faded blue pin-striped collared shirt, the deep blue cashmere sweater she’d bought for him because it complimented his beautiful eyes, dark navy corduroy trousers, socks, and his black knee-high boots.

Vincent accepted the stack of clothing with a nod and a raised eyebrow. “Am I dressing to impress?” he asked coyly.

“No!” Catherine blurted, blushing, then relented. “Well, not so much to impress as to show another side of you. Stan has seen you in fight-or-flight mode and emergency-work-crew mode and mud-from-head-to-toe mode. I want him to see the teacher. The scholar.”

Vincent tilted his head to the side, considering. “A man he might be able to trust to treat the woman he loved and lost gently and with intelligence and consideration.” He sighed, “Catherine, I don’t think clothes are going to do that.”

“No, you’re right,” Catherine agreed. “But clothing can set the mood and create a positive atmosphere. Trust me. I have to do this all the time with my job.” She shook her head. “This is such a difficult and uncomfortable situation for all three of us. Is it unfair of me to hope that maybe we might find a way to all become friends?”

“I think you have every reason to hope,” Vincent replied, crossing over toward the bathing chamber to give Catherine privacy to change her clothes. Their moments together in the bathing chamber had passed, and he had much to consider before taking another step on their path toward Love. Dressing together just seemed too … much, right now.

“Stan has already made his own hesitant overtures in that direction,” he continued. “But it is no small thing to love and lose you Catherine, and he is a proud man. Perhaps you’re right. I should establish a positive atmosphere in which Stan can get to know me better.”

“And you know I love to see you in blue,” Catherine teased.

As you wish, My Catherine,” Vincent purred, giving her an elaborate bow and an almost seductive smile. “As you wish.

***

The dining hall was already bustling when Kipper and Mr. K arrived and took their places in the serving line. William spotted them as they drew closer to the serving table and called out, “Mr. K! Welcome! Oh, I’m sorry. I should call you Stan, shouldn’t I?”

“No, no, that’s OK, Bill,” Mr. K replied. “I think, for the sake of simplicity, you and I should stick with Mr. K and Bill. That way, we won’t get confused when we’re working at the soup kitchen.”

“All right then,” William agreed, sticking out one of his huge paws and shaking Mr. K’s hand. “Mr. K it is. Now what will you have this evening? I’ve made barbeque spare ribs just like my Daddy taught me when I was a boy living in Mobile, Alabama. Or, we have baked chicken a la King, if you don’t care for the spicy stuff, or eggplant lasagna if you’re a vegetarian.”

“Wow, Bill!” Mr. K laughed, pointing to the chicken entree. “I was telling Kipper earlier. I just don’t know how you do it! And it’s even more of a marvel that you can accomplish this down here! How on earth do you get the supplies?”

William chuckled, “We have wonderful, generous Helpers. But we also have created some pretty ingenious resources of our own over the years. We have contacts Above who have donated sections of their gardens for our use. We have access to professional kitchens, like the one at St. Francis Cathedral, to do some large scale canning and preserving in the Spring and Fall. And then, of course, there’s Catherine.”

“Cathy?” Mr. K asked. “I was under the impression Cathy could burn boiled water.”

William burst out laughing as he plated up Kipper’s spareribs with slaw and French fries. “Well, I will acknowledge that Catherine doesn’t have a particular talent for cooking,” he agreed. “But she oversees a charitable trust that really helps out with providing fresh meat and produce through our Helpers who are butchers and green grocers. She’s a very generous lady and a true friend.”

Mr. K smiled as he topped off his plate with two dinner rolls and a congealed salad. “Well, that doesn’t surprise me at all,” he replied. “Thanks, Bill. This looks marvelous.”

“My pleasure,” William answered as he worked on filling up Eric’s plate with the vegetable lasagna. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Say, listen Bill, could you do me a favor?” Mr. K asked. “You’re cooking late dinner at the soup kitchen tonight, right?”

“That’s right,” William replied.

“Would you let Sister J.B. know I’m unavailable for a while? Maybe invent a family emergency or something like that?” Mr. K asked. “I don’t want her worrying when I don’t show up for the late dinner shift.”

“That won’t be a problem,” William replied. “Sister J.B. grew up here in the Tunnels after her father died. She’s the one who sponsored me when I had a hard time re-entering civilian life after my service in Viet Nam. Don’t you worry. I can tell her exactly what’s going on, and she won’t breathe a word.”

Mr. K just stood there with his mouth open for a moment. Then, Kipper pushed his chin up with one finger and said, “You’re catchin’ flies, Uncle Stan. Let’s go find a place to sit.”

Just as Kipper and Mr. K were heading for an empty table in the corner, Father called out from the head table. “Mr. Kaczmarek, ah, Stan, won’t you please join us?”

Kipper whispered to Stan, “We’d better do as he says. Just be ready for a lot of talk about books and Shakespeare and Dickens.”

Mr. K smiled and responded, “I think I can handle it.”

“Yeah,” Kipper rejoined. “But I probably can’t.”

“Well, do you like the Mets?” Mr. K asked.

“Sure!” Kipper gushed. “Gosh, I love baseball! And so does Father! He knows all the stats.”

“Well then, let’s just get him talking about the Mets, shall we?” Mr. K proposed slyly.

“You got it, Uncle Stan!” Kipper agreed.

***

Vincent and Catherine joined the head table, only to discover Father, Mr. K, and Kipper engrossed in a lively conversation about the Mets’ prospects for the next season, who had the best batting average, and what kinds of trades they should be making to improve the team.

Vincent leaned over to whisper in Catherine’s ear. “They found Father’s weak spot.”

“I see,” she whispered back.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Mary called out. “Here’s Vincent and Catherine at last. Could we please talk about something besides baseball?”

“Well, I don’t know, Mary,” Catherine replied. “Joe Maxwell is a huge Mets fan. It’s really too bad he isn’t here to join in.”

“Please, please, I beg of you,” Mary implored. “I can’t listen to another baseball statistic tonight. I just can’t!”

Stan laughed and addressed Father, “I think we should table our discussion about trades for another time, sir, in deference to the ladies present.”

“Oh very well,” Father groused good-naturedly. “It’s only fair, I suppose. But baseball is such a wonderful way to encourage children to become interested in mathematics.”

“Well, how about this,” Stan answered. “Next season, I’ll buy a Skybox with enough seats to take all interested children and some adult chaperones, including you of course, Dr. Wells, to every Mets home game. In order to attend these games, each child will need to show good progress in their math studies, so they can fully appreciate the beauty of the sport. How does that sound?”

Father looked completely flabbergasted, and Kipper let out an ebullient whoop of joy.

Vincent laughed, “That sounds like a marvelous and exceptionally generous proposition, Stan. Thank you very much. I’ll be sure to add some appropriate literature assignments about baseball to our curriculum. ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Becoming Babe Ruth, and The Louisville Slugger come to mind. I’m sure there are others in our library.”

“You’re a teacher,” Stan commented neutrally, at last taking in Vincent’s change in attire.

“Yes,” Vincent replied. “Father and I trade off teaching English grammar, writing, and literature courses for all of our children and young people. I also share in teaching history, philosophy, science, and mathematics. And I help Elizabeth with her art and drawing classes.”

“Vincent is what we called a polymath back in my day,” Mary noted fondly. “His capacity to absorb and apply what he reads and learns is just astonishing.”

“A Renaissance Man,” Stan noted with some admiration.

“Yes!” Mary replied. “That’s it exactly.”

“Much like yourself,” Vincent added with his own admiration. “You came from nothing to become an accomplished architect and developer, art collector, civic leader, a significant patron of museums and symphonies and ballet ensembles and theatres and universities. A Renaissance Man.”

“I just need to figure out what to do with it,” Mr. K sighed. “Right now, I’m stuck. I don’t want to go back to the way I was, but I don’t want to just work on the docks forever. I have more to offer than that.”

“You’ve been through a traumatic loss, Stan,” Father noted. “You’ve acknowledged a need to change your life and taken the first steps to do so. That’s an extraordinary thing. You just need to find something you truly believe in, something that speaks to your heart rather than your ambition or your bank account.”

“I agree with Father,” Catherine added. “Stan, I know you. If you wanted to go to the Moon, you could do it.”

Mr. K laughed at that. “Well, probably not the Moon,” he joked, and then sobered. “Thank you. All of you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I do have one more observation to make, if you will humor me just a bit,” Father stated. “I was curious about your name. I have a bit of a penchant for names and their meanings, and I wondered if the name Stanislaw Kaczmarek had a special meaning in Polish. And it does. Stanislaw means …”

“Steadfast,” Mr. K broke in, smiling sadly. “My mother chose that name. She said she wanted me to be strong and steady and hardworking.”

“Yes indeed,” replied Father. “And those qualities helped you to persevere in difficult circumstances. Now your surname Kaczmarek is even more interesting.” He paused. “It means innkeeper. An exceptionally appropriate name for an architect and builder of hotels and resorts, don’t you think?”

“Huh,” said Mr. K. “I never knew that.”

“Now, bear with me,” Father continued in full professorial mode. “Here’s what I find fascinating. I also looked into the meaning of the name Elliott Burch, the name you chose when you felt your birth name was holding you back.”

“I never considered the meaning of that name,” Mr. K admitted. “I just chose something I thought sounded elegant and refined and accomplished. And not Polish.”

“And it served you well to a point,” Father replied. “But I don’t think the meaning of the name suits you personally at all. Elliott is a Hebrew name meaning ‘My God is the Lord.’ Now, I might be mistaken, but you don’t strike me as being a particularly religious man.”

Mr. K laughed. “My mother was a devout Catholic, and I have great respect for the institution and for people who genuinely live their faith, like Sister J.B. But you’re right. I’m not what you would call pious, and I’m not a regular church-goer.”

“There, you see? Now Burch takes us even further afield from your personality,” Father added. “It’s either English for the birch tree or German for town. So you see, the name you chose doesn’t suit you nearly as well as the name you were given at birth, the name you’ve now chosen to reclaim. I find that utterly fascinating, don’t you? Your impulse to return to your roots has brought you back to this singularly appropriate name.”

“Wow,” replied Mr. K, after a moment of contemplation. “And all this time, I’ve been masquerading as either My-God-is-the-Lord Tree or My-God-is-the-Lord Town, when I could have been the Steadfast Innkeeper.”

“Well, not anymore,” said Kipper, poking Mr. K with an elbow. “Right, Uncle Stan?”

“That’s right,” Mr. K replied with a grin, ruffling the kid’s hair. “Mr. Steadfast Innkeeper’s gonna to take you and your friends to see the Mets!”

Kipper batted away his hands, giggling. “OK, OK! Enough with the hair already,” he groused, picking up his empty plate and Mr. K’s. “I’m gonna go get in line for some dessert. William made sweet potato pie!”

“Save some for me!” Mr. K called as the boy sauntered off calling back a saucy, “You got it!”

The adults all laughed, knowing William would bring slices of pie over to their table once the eager children had been served.

“Cathy, I have a favor to ask,” Mr. K confided. “Could you spare a few moments for me, in private?”

“I’ll help clear the table,” Vincent offered. “Catherine, perhaps you and Stan could go talk in the library? It will be a while before William serves dessert to the adults.”

“Thanks, Vincent,” Catherine replied, squeezing his hand affectionately, then turning to Father. “If you’ll excuse us for a short while?”

“Certainly, my dear,” Father replied. “Mary and I need to go over our plans for tomorrow anyway.”

Before they left the room, Mr. K turned at the Tunnel entrance and watched Vincent avidly listening to several of the children all recounting their day to him at the same time as he cleared dishes from the head table.

I should hate him … but I just can’t.

***

“Vincent gets along well with the children,” Mr. K observed casually, as he walked with Catherine toward the library.

“Oh, they absolutely adore him,” Catherine responded. “You’d be very hard pressed to find anyone Below who doesn’t love and respect him.”

“Present company included,” Mr. K added neutrally, as they entered the library, choosing comfortable chairs by a side table.

“Present company especially,” Catherine replied firmly. “What’s this about, Stan?”

“I do need your advice – legal advice – on several matters,” Mr. K assured her. “But I have one personal question to ask, if I may.”

“All right,” Catherine responded. “I’ll answer it, if I can. But you must know I won’t betray any confidences.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. K agreed. “I completely understand. I just … I want to know … Ugh! I hardly know where to begin, Cathy!”

“Just ask your question, Stan,” she replied, evenly and coolly.

“Look, I know you love Vincent, that’s very clear to me, and he loves you. Any man would be a fool not to,” Mr. K declared. “I just need to know if you’ve considered how much your love for him might have been colored by the traumatic circumstances under which you met. Vincent saved your life after you’d been horribly injured. How much of your love might be hero worship? Not to mention he’s utterly impossible and completely remarkable! Like an Egyptian God walking straight out of a myth! And he’s unbelievably strong. I watched him lift a timber all by himself that would take three strong men to lift. I know full well he could squash me like a bug! And yet, he’s also supremely intelligent and treats everyone here with such patience and consideration. Let’s face it – you’re in love with a Superhero. Have you fully considered all the ramifications of loving someone as … impossible … as Vincent?”

Catherine smiled and shook her head. “I knew this question was coming.” She paused for a moment. “I have loved Vincent for more than three years now. Not from the moment we first met. No. I was certainly grateful to him, and when I first saw him after I removed my bandages, he frightened me, just for a moment, until I heard his voice and knew it was the gentle man who had saved me and cared for me. And I was immediately ashamed for being frightened by his differences. If you look at him – really look at him – you can’t help but see how completely beautiful he is. But no, this isn’t hero worship, or a fascination with his unusual beauty, or fangirling over his strength.”

She paused again. “How can I explain this best? Are you familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre?” she asked.

“Sure,” Mr. K responded. “Let me guess. Is he your Mr. Rochester?”

“No, that’s not what I’m getting at,” she laughed gently. “Do you recall the passage when Rochester declares his love to Jane and talks about how he believes they are connected by an invisible cord, and that if she leaves him and goes to Ireland, he fears the cord will break …”

I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly,” Mr. K quoted. “Yes. That was a particularly inspired piece of writing.”

“You’ve already remarked on the more obvious of Vincent’s extraordinary qualities,” Catherine continued. “But there are other exceptional abilities you can’t see. Vincent is a gifted and powerful empath. He can sense the feelings of people around him with an impressive degree of specificity. But with me, it’s different. Somehow, he can sense my feelings over great distances, strongly enough that he can pinpoint my location and come to me if I’m in danger. That’s how he’s been able to save my life on a number of occasions since I joined the DA’s office. He could even sense my feelings when I flew to Los Angeles for a case. He’s that powerful. And sometimes, if he’s been badly injured or is in danger, I can sense him. Not nearly as powerfully as he can sense me, but enough to know he needs help. When I came to you for special tools and explosives to rescue Vincent and Father from a cave-in, I knew something was very wrong before anyone Below even thought to tell me. We don’t just love each other. We are … bonded in a very real and profound way. Like Rochester’s invisible cord. Can you begin to understand that?”

“Oh my God, Cathy!” Mr. K interjected. “Don’t you feel … spied upon? Invaded? Constrained?”

“No, not at all,” she assured him. “Vincent can’t read my thoughts. Believe me, that has been a bone of contention between us, when he makes preemptive assumptions and decisions without consulting me based on my feelings, which don’t actually match what I’m thinking or intending.”

“Oh, and I certainly know how much you dislike men making your decisions for you,” Mr. K replied.

“Yes, indeed,” Catherine agreed. “Look, I appreciate your concern for me. You haven’t said it, but I know you must also be concerned about my physical wellbeing and safety. Vincent is phenomenally strong and fast, and I’m sure you’ve noticed his teeth and his nails.”

“Well … yes,” Mr. K reluctantly admitted. “I didn’t know how to bring them up without risking insult.”

“Hmmm … they are devastating weapons, and I have seen them in action defending me and defending his home and the people he loves,” Catherine responded frankly. “I’ve also seen the aftermath of what being forced to injure and even kill does to him. It is profoundly traumatic and painful for him. Needing to use his more fearsome gifts makes Vincent feel like he’s less than human. It’s an inaccurate self-image he’s had to battle all his life.”

“I can’t begin to imagine that kind of pain,” Mr. K said softly.

“That self-image also left Vincent convinced for a very long time that he could never have someone to love him,” Catherine added. “I’ve loved Vincent for over three years now, and for most of that time, he has kept me at arm’s length, loved me from afar, and resisted the idea of us as a couple because he fears himself. No matter how completely gentle and loving he is with children, babies, all of his family Below, and especially with me, that nagging doubt is always just in the background. Vincent and I – we’re something that has never been. Those are his words. We have to find our own path forward with courage and with care, and we’re only now starting to take baby steps toward the fulfillment of our relationship, even though we’ve loved each other so completely for so long. Can you understand that?”

“And you aren’t afraid of him?” Mr. K murmured. “He isn’t somehow controlling you?”

“Not for a moment, and not in the least. Vincent could never harm me. Our Bond wouldn’t let him. He just hasn’t quite been able to fully accept that yet,” Catherine replied firmly, then continued in a lighter vein. “The only permissible fear in this relationship is Vincent’s when I haven’t had my morning coffee. And really, that applies to everyone! Even Joe knows not to come between me and the coffee pot.”

Mr. K laughed heartily at that. “All right, my mind is a good bit more at ease,” he replied. “Please understand, Cathy. I love you too much not to worry about you and at least ask these stupid, invasive questions. Can you forgive me?”

“I think so,” Catherine replied. “Do you think you can find a way to accept Vincent and be our friend? We’d like that.”

“I’d like that as well, Cathy,” Mr. K answered. “And I do admire Vincent very much. I want to get to know him better.”

“I would welcome the opportunity,” Vincent said, as he entered the library bearing a tray with dessert and tea for two. “Pardon the intrusion, but if I didn’t bring you this, there’d be no dessert left for you at all.”

“Well, we can’t have that!” Catherine declared, clearing a few books from the tabletop.

“Thanks, Vincent,” said Mr. K. “Please, pull up a chair and join us. I could use your advice as well as Cathy’s.”

Vincent looked to Catherine, and she pointed to his Council chair. “It’s OK,” she urged. “Come sit with us. Have you already had your dessert? I wouldn’t want you to miss out.”

Vincent dragged up his chair, as Mr. K dived into his slice of sweet potato pie, humming with pleasure.

“I’ve had two pieces of pie at William’s insistence,” Vincent replied. “Bringing in your dessert rescued me from having a third piece foisted upon me.”

“Oh, this is so good,” Mr. K sighed. “Bill is a genius.”

“Hmmph,” replied Catherine, as she eagerly sampled her pie. “Your Bill is determined to fatten me up.”

“Nonsense,” Vincent retorted. “He’s simply trying to counteract your disturbing tendency to live on coffee, no lunch, and leftover Chinese take-out for dinner.”

“Hey,” Catherine reposted, pointing at Vincent with her fork. “I resemble that remark!”

“Ahem, well, far be it for me to get in the middle of … whatever this is,” Mr. K joked. “But I would like to pick your brains about a few issues. Kipper, for instance.”

“I think Kipper has decided to adopt you, Uncle Stan,” Vincent remarked.

“Well, the feeling is very mutual,” Mr. K responded. “He called you his lawyer at the police precinct, Cathy. Are you formally representing him on some matter?”

“No, I’m not,” Catherine answered. “All the Tunnel people and Helpers know to ask for me by name if they have problems with the police or need legal advice. Most have my business card. The children in particular know to ask for me if they get picked up by the police for suspected truancy, vagrancy, petty crimes, or other misunderstandings when they’re Above to play in the park or run errands.”

“That’s why Mouse asked for you when my security guards grabbed him at the construction site,” Mr. K commented, and Catherine nodded her head while enjoying another bite of pie. “OK, here’s my question concerning Kipper. He’s told me about what happened with his family and how he came to live Below. Legally, I guess he’s officially a runaway from the foster care system, right?”

“That’s correct,” said Catherine.

“And that’s why Kipper was so anxious about going to the police or giving me his name,” Mr. K reasoned. “Would there be some way for me to be appointed as Kipper’s legal guardian? If he would agree to it, of course. Kipper has so much promise, and I’d like to help him find his way, especially if he wants a life Above someday.”

“That’s incredibly generous of you, Stan, particularly since you’re still figuring out what you want to do with your own life,” Catherine replied. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m just asking questions right now, Cathy,” Mr. K answered. “Part of figuring things out is asking these kinds of questions. Is it possible, if Kipper is willing?”

“The short answer is yes,” Catherine said. “You may run into issues with being a single man, but those can be pretty easily overcome. There’s certainly no question about you having the resources to be an effective legal guardian. If Kipper agrees, there really shouldn’t be any serious obstacles to making this happen, and I’d be happy to help you find a good family law attorney and to serve as a character witness.”

“OK … OK, that’s good to know,” Mr. K replied thoughtfully.

“You have good instincts when it comes to dealing with Kipper, whether you realize it or not,” Vincent added. “Your plan for linking attendance at Mets games to progress in the children’s math studies is a perfect incentive for Kipper to take his studies more seriously. Kipper is an extremely bright boy, but he’s a bit behind the others because his home life made school attendance very erratic. As a defense, he’s adopted an ‘I’m too cool for school’ attitude that precludes him from applying himself as he should. Quite inadvertently, you’ve given him a reason and an excuse for school to suddenly be cool and worthwhile again. And I’m extremely grateful to you for that.”

“Huh. Well, you’re very welcome,” Mr. K responded. “I’d like to help out the entire community in other ways as well. I already mentioned talking with Kanin and Dr. Wells about tools and building supplies. You could also use better equipment in the hospital chamber, and I have contacts with medical suppliers. I’m sure there’s even more that someone with my resources can do without impinging upon your community’s commitment to self-sufficiency.”

“I’m glad you understand that,” Vincent replied. “Our life Below is a rather delicate balance. This is hardly a Utopia. We’re human beings with all the faults and frailties that come with the human condition. For instance, we discovered a lost shipwreck down in the lower tunnels that had a considerable cache of antique gold coins, gems, and other valuable artifacts. Arguments over what was to be done with such an extraordinary treasure nearly tore our community apart. We wound up routing it through Sister J.B. to her former convent, the Little Sisters of the Poor, to be used for charitable purposes Above.”

“I heard about that!” Mr. K marveled. “The artifacts were displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.”

“That’s right,” Vincent noted. “Catherine helped the convent to find a reputable dealer for the gold coins and gems. Those funds are still being used to support their ministry to the homeless here in New York City, as well as their international mission work in Africa and South America.”

“Wow,” Mr. K commented. “Well, I will certainly present my ideas for helping the community to Dr. Wells and the Council for their consideration and approval. I think what you’ve accomplished here is just extraordinary. There’s part of me that could probably live here forever with such good, kind people in this fantastic place, but I know my temperament is just too restless. I’m New York City born and bred, and I know my life, whatever form it takes, is Above.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be part of us,” Vincent responded. “Catherine lives Above, and she is very much one of us. You are welcome here, Stan. Anytime. You’re our friend. Come visit us regularly, and share in our celebrations, our work, and any projects that interest you. And you want to become a Helper. We would welcome that as well, gladly and most gratefully.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Mr. K replied, sincerely. “I have one final legal question for you Cathy, which may become many more questions over the next few days. Would it be possible to transform my corporate holdings into a nonprofit foundation?”

“Whew!” Catherine reacted. “That’s a big question. Again, the short answer is yes. It’s a very involved process, and you’ll want to consult experts in nonprofit law as well as corporate law to help guide you. My late father’s firm, Chandler and Coolidge, has excellent attorneys in both fields, but there are many others out there. The biggest issue will be your Board of Directors. When you announce your intention to migrate from for-profit to nonprofit status, some are going to simply jump ship. Of the ones that remain, you’ll need to make some careful value judgments about their motives and their abilities to help you move forward in the nonprofit sector. Then, you’ll need to bring on new board members with expertise in fields that will be helpful to your mission. Do you know what you want to accomplish with a nonprofit foundation?”

“Not yet, but I have some ideas percolating in my brain,” Mr. K answered. “I want to do something that will engage my skills as an architect and developer to help homeless and low-income people here in New York City. I think I want to reinvent the concept of low-income housing in some way that brings the people we want to help directly into the creative process, so the resulting buildings and programs really and truly serve their needs. I don’t want to just construct more high-rise slums or nasty tenements. I grew up in one of those, and I know how grinding and hopeless it can be. I want to create buildings that house communities of people receiving help and then giving help when they are able. I want to bring the Tunnel Philosophy up Above and create places where it can thrive.”

“I think that’s an extraordinary, even revolutionary, concept, Stan,” said Vincent. “It sounds like a project that would become a meaningful life’s work for you and an incredible legacy for the City.”

“If that’s what you want to do, Stan, I can already think of two people who would make excellent Board members or consultants or even staff members,” said Catherine.

“And who might they be?” asked Mr. K.

Catherine smiled. “Sister John the Baptist and … Luz Corrales.”

Mr. K stared at Catherine in consternation and then laughed. “You know what? After Luz spends a good couple of days reading me the riot act, you’re probably right. She’d be a terrific Board member.”

Mr. K sighed and leaned back in his chair, finishing off his cup of tea. “Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m completely wiped out,” he declared. “A four-hour nap doesn’t quite make up for getting no sleep at all last night after a long, hard day, a frankly terrifying night, and then emergency sandbag duty. I think I’ll turn in early. That is, if I can find my guest chamber.”

Vincent laughed. “I left Kipper playing a cut-throat game of checkers with his buddies in the dining room. I’m sure he’d be happy to guide Uncle Stan back to his quarters.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Mr. K said as he rose and crossed to the library exit. “Good night to you both, and thanks. I have a lot to think about.”

***

Late that evening, Joe Maxwell and detectives Hughes and Bell emerged from the DA’s heavily guarded conference room to go over their notes together.

“I don’t even know where to start!” Joe exclaimed, as the two detectives followed him down to his private office and he waved for Rita Escobar to join them. “This Coleman sleazebag is a messed up little freak, but if his story holds, and it certainly lines up with what we’ve heard from those two perps in the hospital, we’re gonna need to bring in the FBI, probably even Interpol, and definitely federal marshals from Witness Protection.”

“The main thing I see, Boss, is that we’ve got to move on this Gabriel Klein character right away and his lawyer Jonathan Pope,” Greg Hughes replied. “Klein sounds like the main honcho and a really vicious, powerful crime boss moving his way up the ranks into an international syndicate.”

Detective Bell added, “Coleman says the dead hitman, Snow, is Klein’s brother. If Coleman is right about this house out on Long Island where he first met Klein, we’ve got to hit it now and hit it hard, or Klein will just disappear to some place without a U.S. extradition agreement. He’s got a helipad, a private jet, and seemingly infinite resources.”

“All right,” Joe declared. “I’m calling the FBI right now, coordinating with the Long Island DA, and waking up Judge Harrison for the warrants. Rita, wherever Klein’s jet is hangared, I want you to shut down access to it. Also, put out an APB for Klein and Pope to all airports, train stations, bus terminals, you name it, in case they give us the slip.”

Rita rushed out to get started on her assignments, and Joe turned to the two detectives. “I want you guys to start pulling together a tactical team – only guys we know and really trust. We’ve got to keep a tight lid on this. No leaks! As soon as we have the warrants, we’re hitting that house before dawn.”

***

“What do you mean he’s not at his house or his office,” Gabriel Klein hissed into the phone. “Track Pope down, NOW, and either drag him back here to explain himself or bring me his head in a garbage bag!”

The immaculately dressed, gaunt man rose from his desk and strode over to the bank of windows looking out over the gardens of his Long Island estate. It was past midnight, but he could just make out the movement of one of his guards pacing the perimeter of the estate.

“Where would you go, Pope, you conniving traitor?” Klein muttered. Then he crossed back to his desk and pushed the intercom button.

“Yes, sir,” his valet answered.

“Get my private investigator on the phone, and pack my bags for two weeks,” Klein ordered. “Then wake up both of my pilots, and tell Hansen I’m taking the chopper to the airstrip as soon as it gets light.”

***

At breakfast the next morning, Vincent and Catherine were pleased to see Kipper in the serving line once again with his Uncle Stan in tow. The boy could be heard exuberantly extolling the virtues of William’s pancakes, as he piled his plate with a stack of at least seven pancakes to accompany his scrambled eggs, four slices of bacon, and a bowl of oatmeal.

Mr. K looked at the sky-high piled plate in consternation. “Where on earth do you put it all?” he asked, scanning the boy’s slender frame.

William’s boisterous laugh boomed across the dining room. “I can tell it’s been a while since you were a pre-teen boy, Mr. K,” he joked. “Kipper’s not alone. All of those boys eat like there’s no tomorrow, but then they run around like puppies and burn it all off. And he does clean his plate every time, so I can’t complain.”

Kipper blushed. “But it’s all so goooooood!” he whined.

“I’m glad you think so,” William replied. “Now, go get some butter and syrup for those pancakes and a tall glass of milk. What can I get for you, Mr. K?”

“After such a glowing review, I believe I must try the pancakes and some eggs, please,” Mr. K responded, as he selected a small fruit salad to go with his breakfast. “I hope Sister J.B. wasn’t too worried about me last night.”

“Well, you can find out for yourself,” William replied, as he pointed over to the head table.

Seated in animated conversation with Father and Mary was none other than Sister John the Baptist, enjoying some breakfast with them and engaging with other Tunnel residents as they dropped by the table to say hello.

“Let me guess,” said Kipper, as he took in the scene. “We’re sitting at the head table again, aren’t we?”

“It worked out pretty well for you last time, didn’t it?” replied Mr. K, striding over to stand in an open spot opposite Father and Sister J.B. with a polite, “May we join you?”

Catherine whispered to Vincent as they moved up the serving line and made their selections, “That looks like it’s going to be an interesting reunion.”

“Oh, most definitely,” he agreed. “Shall we go sit with them?”

“You bet!” she answered, hurrying ahead and calling out, “Good morning, Father!”

“Catherine, my dear!” Father responded, as she pecked him on the cheek and took a seat next to Mary. “You’re looking radiant this morning. I take it you’ve already had your coffee?”

“Yes, indeed,” Catherine replied. “A certain someone brought me a cup before I’d even opened my eyes this morning.”

“Self-preservation, I assure you,” Vincent quipped, as he took at seat beside Catherine.

“Hey!” Catherine mock-pouted.

“She resembles that remark!” quipped Kipper, and the entire group seated at the table laughed.

“It’s lovely to see you this morning, Sister John,” said Vincent, once they’d all calmed down.

“After I heard from Bill about all the ruckus with Kipper and Mr. K and Catherine, I just had to come down and lay eyes on them for myself,” Sister J.B. responded. “What a terrible experience! And you, Kipper. Such a courageous lad to stand up for those poor women! And you too, Mr. K, for helping him. And Miss Catherine, trouble just seems to follow you everywhere. Or, perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it. Trouble finds you, because you’re always helping people in desperate situations. How are you all feeling after this adventure, my dears?”

“I’m OK,” Kipper reported, just a little too quickly.

“Kipper …” said Sister J.B., looking at him firmly, but kindly.

The boy dropped his head and fiddled with his fork, tapping it on the table. “It’s no big deal,” he answered, huffily.

“Hey, Kipper,” Mr. K urged softly, turning his body to partially block the attention coming Kipper’s way from the rest of the table. He took the boy’s fluttering hands in his own. “Buddy, what’s wrong? You can tell me, you know. I was there.”

Kipper looked up into Mr. K’s face and then ducked his head, whispering, “I’m not so brave after all. I’m … I’m having nightmares. Like a little baby.”

“Oh hey, hey, that’s completely understandable,” Mr. K responded quietly, tipping Kipper’s chin up to look at him. “I’m having nightmares, too, and I’m a grown man.”

“Reeeeaaaallllly?” Kipper asked, looking right up into Mr. K’s eyes.

“Yes, really,” Mr. K replied firmly. “I’ve been through a few things, you know. I’ve been threatened by mobsters, hunted by mercenaries, even hounded by the CIA. But having bullets whizzing by my head? It takes a while to get over that.”

“It’s not so bad, except at night,” Kipper admitted, ducking his head down again. “All the shadows in our chamber start to look like those guys comin’ after us. And when I finally go to sleep, I dream that we’re running and running, and I hear that window break and a gun shot. And when I look back, you’re not with me. You’re lyin’ on the ground, and there’s blood all around you.”

And then the boy burst into tears and threw his arms around Mr. K’s neck. Mr. K hugged Kipper back and pulled the weeping boy into his lap, looking over at Catherine for some kind of guidance.

Library, she silently mouthed to him.

So Mr. K lifted Kipper into his arms and carried him out of the dining hall, down the Tunnel, and into the library, settling onto the couch with the sobbing child beside him, still wrapped in his arms. He rocked the two of them back and forth ever so slightly, rubbing Kipper’s back and just letting the boy cry it all out.

When the tears subsided into hitching breaths, Mr. K murmured softly, “It’s OK, Buddy. You’ve been keeping all this locked up inside, and it was bound to come out. Talking about our nightmares usually helps to make them not so powerful. This is a good thing.”

“But I’m crying like a stu-stupid little baby,” Kipper complained, frightfully embarrassed.

“Hey, tears are never stupid, Kipper,” Mr. K replied. “We need them to help us let out the pain and the fear and the sadness and even the anger we’re feeling. You know, people who force themselves not to cry and to ignore all these feelings often become hard and mean and cruel. I don’t want that for you, Buddy.”

“I just want these nightmares to go away,” Kipper sighed. “I don’t like being afraid of my own chamber.”

“I hear you,” Mr. K responded, thinking for a moment. “What about this? Sometimes changing your surroundings can help. I’m having nightmares too. What if we put a cot in my chamber, and you try spending a night or two in my room? The change in location might just do the trick, and if you do have a nightmare, or if I have a nightmare, we’ll both be right there, and we can talk about it. We can even leave the lamp on all night to keep the shadows at bay. Does that make sense?”

Kipper wiped his face and nose on his sleeves.

I’ve got to introduce this kid to handkerchiefs, Mr. K sighed inwardly.

Then Kipper looked up at Mr. K, studying him for a moment. “OK, Uncle Stan,” he replied. “We can try that.”

***

Back in the dining room, Sister J.B. looked apologetically at Father and said, “Oh dear. I should have saved my questions for a more private space.”

“You couldn’t have known, Sister John,” Vincent replied. “None of us were aware of Kipper’s nightmares, although it only makes sense in retrospect. It was a terrifying experience for all of us.”

“I’m glad to see Mr. K taking an interest in Kipper,” Sister J.B. noted. “He’s such a nice man – a bit of a rascal – but also very lonely, I believe.”

“Stan says Kipper reminds him very much of himself as a boy,” Catherine added. “I’m happy to see them getting along so well. Kipper could use a good friend Above, and Stan is in a position to help him out a great deal.”

Just then, Mouse puffed up to the table, bouncing and out of breath. “Message,” he panted. “For Catherine. From Harvey.” He handed her a folded piece of yellow paper, obviously torn from a legal pad.

“This must be from Joe,” Catherine said, quickly unfolding the paper and reading the brief message out loud. “R, Big doings. Mopping things up. Stay put. Stay safe. More later. – J.”

She thought for a moment and then asked, “Mouse, would you run to Glen Turner’s newsstand and bring back copies of all the major morning papers, please? He’ll know what I want. And please ask him to send down all the major afternoon papers later on as well. I’ll give you plenty of money for the papers and also a hot dog with all the fixings from Mauricio’s hot dog stand.”

“OK good! OK fine!” Mouse answered, hopping from foot to foot. “Something important happening? Take Jamie, too?”

“Yes, Mouse,” Catherine answered. “Something big is happening with this case. And please, do take Jamie along. I’ll give you enough money for TWO hot dogs! Come on!”

***

Early that morning, the FBI and two NYPD ESU teams descended on Gabriel Klein’s estate in Long Island. His perimeter guards were quietly taken out, and just as the wily gangster emerged from his house to walk over to his waiting helicopter, the teams swept in to storm the house and the helipad. Klein made a run for it and managed to reach the helicopter, but as it was taking off, a stray bullet struck the gas tank, and the chopper blew up before it even cleared the helipad. There were no survivors.

At the same time, in a coordinated strike, other police teams burst into the home and office of Jonathan Pope. He was nowhere to be found. A search of flight plans filed at La Guardia, JFK, and Newark airports uncovered a Mr. J. Pope listed as a last-minute passenger on a private charter flight to Brunei. Interpol was informed. The search for Mr. Pope was underway.

***

At the Al Afiah Hotel in Brunei, Jonathan Pope relaxed happily by the pool, sipping his favorite cocktail. He had enough money stashed away in his Swiss bank accounts to live comfortably in seclusion for the rest of his life. Forget Gabriel Klein and his wild plans to take over the international syndicate. That bastard was getting crazier and more paranoid and unpredictable by the day. It was only a matter of time before he killed himself, or killed everyone around him, or both. Well, not Jonathan Pope. Oh no. He knew when to cut and run.

He smiled over at the lovely bartender and waggled his empty cocktail glass her way. Now, she was a stunner. Wonder how much money it would take to get her in my bed tonight? Hmmm?

The bartender leaned over playfully, displaying her ample cleavage, to caress Pope’s face and neck as she handed him another martini. By the time he felt the needle in his neck, it was already too late.

The bartender walked casually back to the bar, left the unconsumed martini on the counter, and departed the hotel in her Jaguar. No one noticed the man slumped in his lounger, or if they did, they just assumed he was asleep.

Gabriel will be pleased, the lovely assassin thought as she drove away.

Little did she know she was never going to get the second half of her fee.

***

Sister John the Baptist carefully poked her head around the library entrance to check on how things were going with Kipper and Mr. K. She was glad to see that Kipper had calmed down and the two were quietly talking together on the couch.

Sister J.B. smiled to herself. I knew that scallywag had a heart of gold, bless him! Bless them both, Father Almighty, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

She cleared her throat and stepped into the room. “Pardon me,” she said. “But I thought I’d just check in on you two fellas and offer my apologies. Kipper, I’m so sorry to have brought up a frightening subject in such a public place. I should have waited until we could visit in private. Can you forgive an old nun, who should have known better?”

Kipper ran over to Sister J.B. and threw his arms around her waist. “It’s OK,” he murmured, snuggling further into her warm embrace. “I know you were just worried about me, about all of us. You didn’t know I was having nightmares.”

“Please, Sister J.B.,” said Mr. K, gallantly rising and gesturing to the couch. “Come join us. There’s plenty of room on the couch for three. Kipper and I have been talking about nightmares and ways we can try to work through them and hopefully banish them.”

Sister J.B. happily took Kipper’s hand and let him lead her over to the big, squashy couch. “Oh my,” she said when she sat down. “Well, this certainly is a comfy sofa, but I may need help digging myself out of it!” And they all laughed.

“You know,” she added. “I have a thought or two about nightmares myself. Psychologists and neurologists have lots of theories about what dreams and nightmares actually are and why we have them. Current opinion seems to be that dreams and nightmares are our brain’s way of taking apart what we have experienced or what we might be feeling, the good and the bad, and putting them back together in different ways to try and understand them. Sometimes our dreams are helpful, and things fall into new patterns that make us feel better and more capable. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all, and we wake up wondering where on earth that strange dream came from! Unfortunately, sometimes they take scary images and frightening thoughts and just make them bigger and more terrible. Even then, sometimes nightmares have something to tell us. I think your nightmare might be telling you how much you care about Mr. K.”

Mr. K’s jaw dropped open, and then he swallowed back the lump in his throat.

“Huh! I never thought about it that way,” replied Kipper. “I just knew it made me feel scared and upset. I guess that’s what Uncle Stan means when he says talking about our nightmares can take away their power.”

“Well, your Uncle Stan is a very wise and kind man,” Sister J.B. responded, and then reassumed her prim persona to help distract Mr. K from his sudden emotion. “Although he is still a rascal and far too saucy for his own good!”

“Hey!” pouted Mr. K.

“He resembles that remark!” joked Kipper. And they all laughed again.

“Kipper and I have an experiment to propose to Dr. Wells,” Mr. K said, once they’d all calmed down. “We’re going to ask if we can put a cot in my chamber and see if a change in scenery might help Kipper with his nightmares. Plus, I’ll be right there to talk with him if he wakes up afraid and out of sorts.”

“That sounds like a fine plan to me,” Father declared from the tunnel entrance, as Catherine helped him negotiate the short flight of stairs. “We can certainly spare a cot from the hospital chamber or the nursery.”

“I know exactly which cot will be best,” said Mary, following them down the steps on Vincent’s arm. “We want that large cot we keep in the nursery for Vincent when he takes an overnight shift with the little ones. It will be more comfortable for Kipper, and comfort helps promote a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll carry it down to your chamber, Stan,” Vincent added. “And I’ll ask Sarah to bring you some fresh linens from the laundry.”

“And I have an extra quilt in my cupboard,” Mary volunteered. “A different place, different bedcovers, and different company just might tell those nightmares to get lost!”

“A slumber party!” Catherine beamed.

“Awww, that’s for girls,” whined Kipper.

“Well, excuse me, Mr. He-Man, Woman-Hater!” Catherine retorted. “A sleep-over, then, or a campout! How about that?”

“That’s better!” Kipper replied, snootily, and then leaned over to Mr. K, whispering, “What’s a He-Man Woman-Hater?”

Mr. K laughed heartily, “Cathy’s just joshin’ you. It’s from an old black-and-white television series called The Little Rascals. The boys had a not-so-secret clubhouse they called ‘The He-Man Woman-Haters Club – No Girls Allowed, and We Mean It.’ I’d almost forgotten about that series! I loved it when I was a kid.”

“So did I,” Catherine giggled. “I loved all the crazy soapbox cars they built with the wheels that waggled all over the place and sometimes fell off.”

“Oh yeah!” Mr. K laughed. “Those things were great! Come to think of it, all the stuff the rascals built from just a bunch of junk is probably what inspired my interest in building things.”

“Stan, would you be willing to talk about your work with the children in my middle-school math class this morning?” Vincent asked. “I’m sure they’d like to hear about what inspired you as a boy, and how math is such an important part of the work you do.”

“Oh yes, please do!” Father enthused. “We always like to incorporate real life examples of how the skills the children are mastering can be applied in our daily lives both Below and Above.”

“I’ll introduce you to the kids you don’t know yet,” Kipper offered. “It would be cool to hear about your job and how you design and build all those tall buildings.”

Mr. K looked around at the expectant faces in the room, and then hesitantly nodded his head in agreement. “Well, if you’re sure, I’d be happy to give it a try,” he replied. “I’ve never taught a class before.”

“Think of it more as a conversation or even a board meeting,” said Catherine. “You’re very accustomed to talking with people about your work. These kids are a good bit younger, but it’s really not that different. I was more than a little nervous the first time I spoke to Father’s high school-level civics class. But I quickly learned that schooling down here is much more informal than it is Above. It’s more about guiding these children to apply their natural curiosity to the topic at hand. And they’ll help you – believe me! They’ll have lots of questions to help shape the conversation, and before you know it, your class time will be over, and you’ll be itching to speak with another class! I’m completely hooked!”

“Catherine is a wonderful teacher and story-teller,” said Vincent. “Stan, just listening to you and watching you interact with Kipper and his buddies tells me that you’ll do well as a guest speaker, and you’ll relax and enjoy it.”

“And I would like to know more about this business of being an architect and builder, Mr. I-Just-Work-on-the-Docks,” Sister J.B. commented primly. “I always knew there was more than met the eye with you, Mr. K. You are entirely too polished and urbane to be a dockworker.”

Mr. K sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m sure it is,” the nun replied. “And one that will wait for another time. I must be getting back to the shelter to supervise lunch preparations. But I will be expecting a conversation with you, young man, don’t you forget it!”

“Of course, Sister J.B.,” Mr. K responded with a twinkle and a charming grin. “As you wish.”

“Oh, go on with you, you sweet-talking rogue!” Sister J.B. rejoined as she worked her way out of the couch with his assistance.

“Father, Mary, Kipper, always lovely to see you,” the nun said, exchanging hugs with them, and then rounding on Vincent and Catherine. “And you two lovebirds. Hmmmm. I expect an invitation to your wedding sometime soon.”

Catherine blushed and began explaining, “Sister John, we …”

“We would be very happy to have you come to our wedding, Sister John,” Vincent interjected. “But, please allow us to decide to become engaged first.”

Sister J.B. laughed heartily. “Oh my, Vincent,” she added. “Don’t you realize that’s a foregone conclusion, son?” And she kissed him soundly on both cheeks. “Bless you. Bless you both.”

And with that proclamation, the plucky nun gave them a nod and a jaunty wave as she left the room.

***

By mid-day, Joe gathered together the lead FBI agent, the NYPD ESU tactical specialist, and detectives Hughes and Bell for an after-action conference.

“We’ve finished a complete sweep of the estate,” Tactical Specialist Sgt. Flynn O’Carroll reported. “We’ve rounded up twelve guards, two security technicians, and five household staff. According to Mr. Klein’s valet, everyone on staff is accounted for. We caught ‘em by surprise.”

Greg Hughes added, “I just got a call from Sergeant Anderson at Klein’s airstrip. We have his pilots, as well as their proposed flight plan. Klein was heading to Greece and from there to Brunei. He was going after Pope.”

FBI Special Agent Emily Prentiss hung up the phone and stated, “That was Interpol. Jonathan Pope’s body has been located at the Al Afiah Hotel in Brunei. Someone poisoned him with an injection of botulinum toxin. No fingerprints, no leads, all the hallmarks of a professional hit.”

“Well, doesn’t that just put a pretty, neat bow on this case,” Joe groused. “I don’t trust pretty, neat bows, but when criminals decide to take each other out, it does make our jobs a bit easier.” He sighed, “Now comes the worst part.”

“Dealing with the families?” asked Detective Bell.

“No,” Joe replied. “The paperwork!”

***

When Mouse arrived at lunchtime with the morning papers, everyone gathered around the Council table while Catherine scanned the headlines for news about their case.

“Oh, my gosh,” she said. “According to this report, the nine men arrested in the raid on Coleman Industries were somehow poisoned in their jail cells early this morning. They’re all dead. Plus, the two men I shot were killed by a hitman who attacked them at Bellevue. He’s dead too, shot by the police.”

“Is that it?” Mr. K asked. “Is this nightmare finally over?”

“Based on Joe’s note, I don’t think so,” Catherine replied. “He said something about mopping up. He must have gotten a lead on the crime boss behind this whole disgusting enterprise, and he wants us to stay hidden until he’s sure they’ve arrested everyone involved.”

“We should listen to Mr. Maxwell and Catherine,” Father urged. “I know you must want to return to your life Above, Stan. But please, do stay with us until Mr. Maxwell sends word to Catherine that it’s safe for you to go Topside.”

“Yeah, don’t go, Uncle Stan,” Kipper pleaded. “We haven’t had a chance to try our experiment yet.”

“Hey, Buddy, I’m not at all anxious to leave,” replied Mr. K. “I’d really like to spend more time here exploring this incredible place and getting to know your friends and community members. I’ve only had the nickel tour so far, and I want to see everything! So I’m in no rush to find out just how bad my apartment stinks from the trash in my kitchen waste can. It would just be a relief to know we’re no longer in danger.”

“Oh, don’t remind me!” Catherine groaned. “There’s the remains of a chicken Caesar salad in mine! Maybe there will be updates in the afternoon papers or even a follow-up note from Joe. These things take time, and Joe’s turned into a real mother hen when it comes to me. He won’t give the all clear until he’s sure.”

“See?” Mr. K said to Kipper. “I’m not going anywhere for at least a few days. And even when I do go, I’ll be back for regular visits. Don’t you worry.”

“And I can always see you at the soup kitchen,” Kipper said. “I sometimes come up to help William out.”

“That’s right,” Mr. K responded. “No matter what I do, I’ll still be reporting to the St. Francis soup kitchen at least three times per week for the late dinner shift. Now listen to me carefully, Buddy. I’m going to be making some changes in where I live and maybe even where I work. It’ll take a while, probably at least a month. But I’ll be sure to let you know my home and office addresses, both now and after I move, so you can come see me anytime. I mean it. You’ll have a building pass and everything. I don’t want to stop being your Uncle Stan, if you’ll have me.”

Kipper gave him another thorough, assessing gaze.

That kid is a human lie detector, I just know it! Uncanny!

Then the boy positively beamed, “I’d like that Uncle Stan. I really would.”

***

Six months later, the print press and television news were on fire with reports about the dissolution of Burch Development Corporation and the formation of the Mathilde Kaczmarek Innovations in Housing Foundation. Society gossip columnists had a feeding frenzy over the revelation that Elliott Burch had actually been born Stanislaw Kaczmarek, and he’d named his foundation after his late mother – who had been a laundress and a maid!

The snobs had their noses in a twist for a while, but none of them wanted to be left out of the fundraising events for the new foundation, which were the talk of the town. After all, the foundation’s powerful Board of Directors featured movers and shakers from the financial and development fields, as well as noted philanthropists and social influencers like attorneys Catherine Chandler and Joseph Maxwell, representatives from faith-based charitable organizations, like Sister John the Baptist from the St. Francis Cathedral Homeless Shelter, and housing activists, like Luz Corrales from the Fairness in Housing Coalition.

And at each event, wearing matching suits and ties, Stan Kaczmarek proudly introduced his nephew and ward – Christopher “Kipper” Moskowitz.

THE END

“Once, I thought I could never understand this man.
Now, sometimes I understand him all too well.

He has his own kind of nobility.”

– spoken by Vincent in the closing scene of
Season 2, Episode 18, “A Kingdom by the Sea”

HIS OWN KIND OF NOBILITY

by Lindariel

 

Written for the 2021 BATB Conzine

With special thanks to my editors
JoAnn Baca, Laura Goist, and Carole W
for their advice and encouragement

“Here ya go, Mr. K,” Sister John the Baptist shouted over the clatter of pots and pans and the swoosh-and-grind of the professional-grade dishwasher, as she plopped down a huge bus-tub filled to the brim with dirty plates, coffee cups, and flatware. “I believe that’s the last of ‘em.”

The late dinner shift at the St. Francis Cathedral’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen had been especially brisk, the colder October weather enticing more of the Lower East Side’s homeless and needy to the Cathedral’s well-known and much appreciated program.

“Aw now, don’t jinx us, Sister J.B.,” whined the tall, bearded, dark-haired man, countering his tone with a wink and a dimpled grin. “You said that last Friday about this time, and then that bus from the Rescue Mission brought in at least another twenty people.”

The imposing woman rounded on him smartly, “And it was our blessing and privilege to serve our brothers and sisters in need, was it not, Mr. K?”

“Yes, ma’am, it was,” he grunted, shifting the heavy tub over to load the next rack of plates for the pre-wash sprayer. “But it was a privilege that kept us here until nearly midnight. That’s mighty hard on a working man with a seven AM shift!”

The nun’s lips twitched ever so slightly as she struggled not to smile at the sometimes exasperating rogue, who had morphed into one of her very best volunteers over the past two months. Sister John the Baptist ran the Cathedral’s soup kitchen program like her drill sergeant father had strictly but lovingly run his family, and she was not about to give this grown-up scamp the slightest fodder for his good-natured insubordination.

“I’ve no doubt of that, Mr. K,” she retorted haughtily, “but you’ll sleep all the better for having done the Lord’s work. Now get busy! We’ve still got to wipe down the tables, break them down, and stack the chairs. Father Patrick has a Vestry meeting in the hall tomorrow morning before the lunch rush.”

“As you wish, Sister J.B.,” the irrepressible man replied with a twinkle and that oh-so-charming smile, their running game of pointed barbs versus teasing come-backs now a well-established routine.

The nun shook her head at him, primly responding, “You know, I have seen that movie, Mr. K.”

Then she bustled quickly from the room before she gave anyone the impression he was her favorite by chuckling at his slack-jawed response. But of course, he was. Oh yes, she’d had a good feeling about Mr. K the moment she spotted him walking home from his work at the docks and pausing across the street as he noticed the many hungry children in the straggling line of folks waiting for the soup kitchen to open. It wasn’t unusual for people to stop and stare, clucking in sympathy before racing on with their busy lives. But this man’s pale blue eyes had widened, not with sympathy or horror, but as though he’d suddenly been struck breathless by a painful, long-buried memory, his mouth going slightly slack before tightening and swallowing against any expression of sentiment.

“Well, young man,” she’d called out, startling him out of his reverie. “If you’ve an hour or two to spare, I could certainly use the help! What do ya say?”

“I . . . uh . . .”

“That’s the spirit!” she’d trumpeted, crossing the street to grasp his arm and give him no chance to think of an excuse. “Come on in! I’ve just the job for a big, strong fella like you!”

She’d started him out in the pantry, hauling out the boxes of canned and packaged goods earmarked for the late dinner shift, and then sent him out into the dining hall to bus tables, restock the serving area with clean trays, plates, and flatware, and refill the giant coffee urns. Just as she’d suspected, he’d proven to be a competent, hard worker whose one to two spare hours somehow turned into more than six without complaint. More importantly, he’d also demonstrated considerable people skills, handling the soup kitchen’s varied clientele with respect, patience, and understanding for most, and a firm, commanding presence when dealing with the occasional troublemaker. No doubt about it, Mr. K could be counted on in a pinch.

“Gotcha, Mr. K,” Sister J.B. chortled as she hustled out to wipe up tables and direct other volunteers to start stacking chairs. “As you wish, indeed!”

***

The wind had really picked up by the time Mr. K finished his volunteer shift, but the cold air felt great after hours of washing dishes in a sweltering hot kitchen, and he relished it for his long walk home. He’d just turned the corner, heading toward his Dad’s old apartment close to the docks, when some kid barreled out of an alley and knocked him flat to the ground.

“Sorry, Mister!” the kid’s changing voice boom/squeaked. “Those guys saw me, and they’ve got guns! We gotta get outta here!”

The kid dragged the spluttering Mr. K to his feet and pulled him further down the street, around the next corner into another alley, and then shoved him through a break in the wall behind a set of dumpsters and into a basement crawl space. Slapping a hand over Mr. K’s mouth, the gutsy but terrified kid motioned for him to stay silent and then crept over to peek through the break in the wall to see if they’d been followed. Light from the streetlamp down the corner filtered through the break, illuminating what appeared to be a twelve-year-old boy, probably a street urchin like the kids Mr. K frequently saw in lines at the soup kitchen. But this one was wearing clean but unusually constructed, patched up clothing. Suddenly, the kid ducked down, and Mr. K could hear the thud of running footsteps as at least two men rounded the corner into the alley.

“You sure they went down here, Janko?” growled one voice.

“I think so, unless they crossed the street instead,” answered another.

“I saw the kid, but what’s this guy you’re talking about?” asked a third.

“Not sure, but the kid grabbed him, and they took off together. Big guy. Dressed like a dock worker,” replied the second.

“Damn it!” growled the first. “You saw some kid, then some guy, and then you lost ‘em. Now, we gotta move the trucks, and mine has a flat!”

“Shut up! We’re in this fix because of your damn truck,” the third snapped. “Look, let’s just cram all the girls into the one truck and get to the warehouse. Then we can go back for the rest of the girls in the other shipping container. Forget your truck, forget the kid, forget the guy. Let’s move it, or the boss’ll have our heads.”

Three sets of footsteps hurried off, and then the kid inched his head through the break in the wall and sank back with a sigh before crawling back over to Mr. K.

“I don’t know what to do, Mister,” the kid whispered. “They’ve got a bunch of women tied up in the back of those trucks. Some of ‘em are just girls, and they’re all real scared. I saw ‘em when those guys were getting tools to fix the flat. I was gonna sneak off and get the cops when that one guy spotted me. Can you help?”

Mr. K sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking. “Look, would you be able to describe the trucks and the men to the police?” he asked. “Color, license numbers?”

“Yep,” the kid replied. “Got both license numbers, and I know where they parked to fix the flat. The trucks are plain dark blue, but I saw the words ‘Coleman Industries’ on the inside. And I saw all four guys. One of ‘em must have stayed with the trucks.”

“OK, that’s good,” Mr. K whispered. “Look, the nearest police precinct is just four blocks north of here. That’s our best bet. Let’s cut down through the next alley and go a few blocks out of our way, so we can approach from the opposite direction and avoid running into those lowlifes. By the way, what’s your name, kid?”

“Ummm ….”

“Look, it’s OK. I’m not gonna turn you into child services or anything, if you’re living on the streets,” Mr. K said. “I volunteer at the St. Francis soup kitchen. I know how hard life can be.”

“My name doesn’t matter!”

“How about this,” Mr. K urged. “What if I tell them you’re my nephew? That way, the police won’t worry about you being out on the streets unsupervised. But to do that, I need to call you something, and you can call me Uncle Stan. Whattaya think?”

The kid put one finger under Mr. K’s chin and looked him over carefully, staring right into his eyes for a good, solid minute. “Who runs the St. Francis soup kitchen?” he asked.

Mr. K smiled. This kid’s a sharp one. “Well, that would be the indomitable Sister John the Baptist,” he replied, grinning from ear-to-ear. “And if she wasn’t already spoken for, she’d be my girl!”

“Ha!” the kid chortled softly. “She’s much too old for you, but she’s a really nice lady.” He paused, giving Mr. K another thorough inspection. “OK, Uncle Stan. You can call me Kipper.”

***

“No. Noooooooo,” Catherine groaned, as the jangling of her bedside phone jarred her from a sound sleep. She blinked blearily at her alarm clock. One thirteen AM? Who could possibly be calling me now?

She waited for the answering machine to pick up, but as soon as she heard, “Cathy, it’s Joe. Sorry to call so late, but it’s an emergency,” she grabbed the receiver and answered.

“This had better be good, Joe. I’m operating on about an hour of sleep, and you know you don’t want me cranky.”

“Sorry, Radcliffe,” Joe responded. “But we’ve got a major case that just blew up. Human trafficking! Can you believe it? A truckload of women and another shipping container full of them, multiple nationalities. We’re calling in at least five translators, maybe more. The cops executed a raid based on a tip from two witnesses and have arrested four transport guys, plus another five at the Coleman Industries warehouse. We’ve got a good case, but I need you to get down to the 1st Precinct. Our only witnesses are some kid and his uncle, and they’re both asking for you. Won’t talk to anyone else. The only names they’ll give are Kipper and Stan.”

Kipper!!

“Tell them I’m on my way. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Catherine barked, hanging up the phone and heading straight to the closet and the bathroom to throw herself together.

On her way to the garage, Catherine took a quick detour into her basement storage closet, moving aside the boxes, and ducking quickly down the ladder into the sub-basement. She was halfway to the first pipe junction to send a message when Vincent rounded the corner at a dead run and went straight to her.

“Catherine!” he cried, catching her up into his arms. “I felt your fear and worry and came as quickly as I could. What’s wrong?”

“I’m not completely sure yet, but I had to let you know about Kipper right away,” she said, returning his hug and kissing him quickly on the cheek.

“Kipper!” Vincent exclaimed. “We’ve been looking for him! Father sent him Above earlier this evening to take medicine to a sick Helper, but he never returned. Do you know where he is?”

“He’s at the 1st police precinct on Elizabeth Street,” she replied. “Apparently he’s a witness to a human trafficking case. Some man named Stan is with him. I don’t know who that could be. Maybe a Helper? But they’re both asking for me and won’t talk to anyone else. I have to go now. Please tell Father I’ll do everything I can to protect Kipper, but this is a huge case. We’re talking dozens of women, kidnapped from God only knows where and forced into shipping containers. The police have made a number of arrests. Hopefully, one of these guys will talk, and Kipper won’t have to testify. I’ll do my best.”

Vincent sighed and pulled her close in his arms. “I know you will. Be safe, Catherine! And hold Joe to his promise – no investigations! I’ll message Father and then head down to the Tunnel entrance closest to the 1st Precinct, just in case you need me.”

“I’ll be careful, and don’t you do anything rash either,” she replied, kissing him again before backing away. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.”

***

The desk sergeant spotted Catherine as soon as she entered the 1st Precinct lobby. “Miss Chandler!” he called, waving her over.

“Hi, Sergeant Balfour,” Catherine responded. “Please tell me they don’t have my witnesses in an interrogation room.”

“No, Ma’am,” Sergeant Balfour replied, handing her the case file with an indulgent smile. “We made them comfortable in the third floor conference room and brought them both a late-night snack. That’s one brave kid, and he sure can eat!”

“Well, a healthy appetite is a good sign. Maybe he’ll be willing to open up to me now that his tummy’s full. Thanks!” said Catherine, as she accepted the file from Sergeant Balfour and turned away, nearly bumping into a thin man in a black suit approaching the reception desk.

“Oh, excuse me!” she apologized with a quick smile.

The man nodded pleasantly, “No problem, Miss.”He watched her appreciatively as she hurried across the lobby to catch an open elevator before the doors closed.

“Pretty lady,” the man commented to the desk sergeant.

“Yes, she is,” replied Sergeant Balfour. “How can I help you?”

“Yeah, any chance you could break a dollar for me?” the man asked. “I need to call my sister about bailing out her drunk husband. Again.”

After receiving his quarters, the man crossed to the lobby’s public phone kiosk, dialed quickly and murmured into the receiver as soon as the call was answered. “Yeah boss, a lady DA just arrived. A Miss Chandler. Desk sergeant told her the witnesses were in an upstairs conference room … Yeah … Yeah … I’ll take care of it.”

***

After tapping on the conference room door, Catherine gently opened it and peeked in, only to gasp and rush inside, closing the door swiftly. Mr. K looked up and placed a finger over his lips, pointing to an exhausted Kipper softly snoring on the conference room couch. He escorted Catherine over to some chairs on the far side of the room so they could talk and still let the weary boy continue sleeping.

“I take it you know this young man? I was shocked to hear him demand to speak with his lawyerCatherine Chandler, but I stayed mum and just went along with him,” murmured Mr. K. “How are you, Cathy?”

“I’m fine, Uncle Stan,” Catherine whispered a bit testily. “Or, should I say Elliott Burch?”

“Easy, Cathy,” Mr. K replied. “The police haven’t recognized me yet, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m only here because the kid knocked me down trying to get away from some really nasty armed crooks and dragged me with him to safety. Kipper’s a good kid. Plucky. Reminds me of a kid named Stosh a long time ago. You might remember that name.”

Catherine sighed. “OK, Elliott. But why are you still here, if you didn’t see anything?”

“Actually, I’d prefer if you’d call me by my original name, Stanislaw Kaczmarek. Or for the time being, just plain Stan. Please, Cathy. It’s a long story, but I’m trying to leave Elliott Burch behind, at least until I figure some things out,” he responded, and Catherine nodded her agreement.

Mr. K quickly explained the situation, what Kipper had witnessed, and how they got away from the goons chasing them.

“I agreed to help Kipper get the police to take him seriously and offered to pose as his Uncle Stan so they wouldn’t call child services. He seemed worried about that. Is he OK? Does he have family?” Mr. K asked.

Catherine sighed again. “I know Kipper through some of the charity work I do, and yes, he does have a home and a family, although not a traditional one, so you don’t need to worry about his welfare.” She gestured to the remains of their late-night snack. “Despite appearances, Kipper is well fed. He’s just got a typical pre-teen boy’s appetite. I once saw him demolish all but two slices of a large Vitelli’s gourmet pizza in less than 10 minutes. I was lucky I got any. And it was my pizza!”

Mr. K laughed softly, “I’m glad to hear it! I like the kid very much. He’s street smart with a cool head on his shoulders, and he’s very observant. He could have a really great future ahead of him with the right help.”

Then he sobered. “Listen Cathy, is there any way you could keep Kipper out of this mess? It was really brave of him to come forward, but this sounds like a huge human trafficking ring. The guys they caught are all low level. I’m sure they don’t have the ringleader, and there are bound to be others involved. Coleman Industries does import/export, and word on the docks is they have their fingers in some shady stuff – drug and weapons smuggling, stolen artifacts. But human trafficking? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s no way of knowing how deeply the company itself might be involved or how far-reaching this trafficking network might be. I’d hate for Kipper to have to testify at trial and maybe get targeted by any crooks who slip through the net.”

“Thanks … Stan,” Catherine replied. “That’s definitely my goal here. We have nine guys so far, all caught in the act, so they’re toast, and they know it. Hopefully, somebody will break under interrogation, and we can round up the rest of this network. We’ll also have further testimony from the women recovered from the operation. The police want your complete names just for the sake of their paperwork. Well, that’s tough! They’ll just have to be satisfied with Kipper and Stan. Let me see if I can get you both safely home soon.”

***

An hour later after speaking with Marcus Bell, the detective in charge of the case, a weary Catherine consulted Joe Maxwell by phone at the desk sergeant’s station.

“Look Joe, I haven’t been able to get anything from either of these witnesses beyond the initial statements that set this whole operation in motion,” she explained. “They’ve had a terrifying experience, they’ve been really brave by coming forward, and the police caught these guys in the act. If you agree, Detective Bell is willing to classify them as an anonymous tip. Can’t we just let them go home? … Well, if you’re concerned for their safety, can’t we at least put them up at a safe house? They’re both exhausted, and so am I, in case you’ve forgotten! … OK … OK, thanks. I’ll wait for Greg Hughes to get here.”

Catherine thanked the desk sergeant and went back upstairs to give Mr. K and Kipper the news. She didn’t notice the man in the black suit fold his newspaper and slip out the door.

***

When Catherine rejoined Mr. K and Kipper in the conference room, Kipper was still fast asleep, but Mr. K was peering out the window at the street below. He motioned for her to join him in the shadows by the window.

“Cathy, did you park your Mercedes in front of the precinct?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” she replied. “They have two parking slots reserved for the DA’s office. Why?”

“I thought so. We may have a problem,” Mr. K answered, pointing down at her car. “See the guy in the black suit? If I’m not mistaken, he’s carrying a concealed weapon in a mid-back holster. He came out of the building just a few minutes before you got back up here and spoke to those two guys over there. They’re also packing, and one of them put something in the front wheel well of your car. Too small for a bomb, so it’s probably a tracking device. They’ve positioned themselves to cover the front entrance and specifically your car. And look, now Black Suit is coming back into the building.”

“Oh, no.He was in the lobby when I spoke with the desk sergeant. That’s just great,” Catherine sighed. “Let me see if I can get Greg Hughes on the phone and have him pull up out back.”

“Greg Hughes?” Mr. K asked.

“Yeah, he’s going to help me escort you and Kipper to a safe house,” Catherine answered. “Joe’s worried about your safety until we can get the rest of this crew rounded up. Looks like his worry wasn’t misplaced.”

“Oh, no. No!” Mr. K groaned. “Greg knows me as Elliott Burch, remember? I really don’t want to drag that name into this case, especially since I don’t know if I want Elliott Burch to even exist anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Catherine asked, and then they both froze as they heard the familiar ding-ding announcing the arrival of the elevator.

Catherine quickly tip-toed over to the conference room door and softly turned the lock, while Mr. K woke Kipper, hand-over-mouth, whispering, “Quiet. We have to get out of here.”

Catherine motioned them both to join her over at the conference room’s entrance to the hall bathroom, and they all slipped inside, Catherine locking this door as well. She pointed down the room to the main entrance for the bathroom leading into a side hallway. Just as they crept out the door, they could hear someone around the corner attempting to open the main conference room door, followed by a bang and crash as the door was forced open.

Catherine took off down the carpeted hallway to the stairwell entrance, Mr. K and Kipper right behind her. She wrenched open the door, let them through, and then grabbed a mop from the wheeled custodian bucket that had been left in an alcove off the stairwell. Mr. K helped her jam the mop through the door handles, temporarily blocking off the entrance.

Kipper was already halfway down the first flight of stairs when the two adults joined him. Catherine caught up with him and whispered, “Vincent is waiting at the Elizabeth Street Tunnel entrance. Once we’re outside, you’ve got to get us there.”

“On it,” the boy replied, racing ahead down the next flight of stairs, just as their pursuer began banging at the third floor stairwell door. Once they reached the first floor, Catherine started toward the exit, but Kipper grabbed her and panted, “No! Basement!”

Off they hurried down the basement steps and out into a long service corridor running the length of the building. Kipper darted all the way down the corridor, ignoring the main freight entrance up to the street midway down the hall in favor of a smaller staff entrance at the end.

“Wait!” Mr. K hissed, when Kipper reached to open the door. “Let me go first to see if we’re OK.” He cracked open the door and peered out, looking up and down the block, then motioned for Kipper and Catherine to follow him out.

Kipper whispered in Catherine’s ear, “Two blocks South, then take a right around the corner.”

Mr. K raised an eyebrow at Catherine as she pulled a gun from her purse and then motioned for Kipper to take the lead, but he nonetheless gallantly brought up the rear, keeping an eye out for pursuit. They were halfway down the second block when a man shouted, “There they are!” and two shots rang out, one blowing out a nearby window and the other whizzing by Mr. K’s head.

“Go!” yelled Catherine, as she dropped behind a garbage can, firing two shots at the nearest gunman, forcing him to take cover, and another two shots at the gunman behind him – Mr. Black Suit, who also took cover. Then, she raced off after Mr. K and Kipper, who were already out of sight around the next corner. She stopped just before the corner to finish emptying her gun at their pursuers, hitting the first in the leg and Black Suit in the chest.

She rounded the corner to see Vincent’s welcome cloaked-and-hooded shape urging her into the alley, down a service ramp, and into the freight garage under the building. There, Kipper was holding open a set of sliding storage shelves with Mr. K standing just behind, waving for them to hurry inside. As soon as Vincent took hold of the shelves, Kipper pushed Mr. K further down an alcove and through the opening to a round rolling steel door with Catherine on their heels. She paused as Vincent slid the storage shelves back into place, closed the inner door, and engaged the hidden latch. Then they both stepped through the rolling door entrance and closed it with a rumble and a click of the lock.

“Vincent!” Catherine sighed, throwing her arms around his neck.

“Thank God you’re all right,” Vincent murmured into her hair. But he immediately stepped back, whispering regretfully, “We can’t linger here. I don’t think your pursuers could find their way in. But just in case, we need to be long gone.”

“This way,” said Kipper, pulling on Mr. K’s sleeve. “You can meet Vincent later. We’ve gotta get moving.”

***

Greg Hughes arrived at the 1st Precinct to complete bedlam. Two ambulances blocked the lane in front of the building with cops and crime scene techs swarming all over the block.

Spotting Detective Bell beside one of the ambulances, cuffing a man in a black suit to the gurney and directing his partner to accompany the prisoner to the hospital, Greg hurried over and called out, “Hey, Marcus! What the hell happened here?”

“We’re still piecing things together,” replied Detective Bell, pointing over to another prisoner being loaded into an ambulance. “But it looks like these two guys came here to snuff out your witnesses and made the mistake of underestimating ADA Chandler. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her at the range, but that lady can shoot!”

“Chandler!” Greg shouted. “Please tell me she’s OK! Joe Maxwell will have my head if she’s been hurt. And the witnesses too! Where are they?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Detective Bell replied, scratching his head. “They’ve vanished into thin air. Come this way. I’ll show you.”

The two detectives skirted around the ambulances and walked to the back of the building, turning South.

“See that broken window?” asked Detective Bell. “Looks like Miss Chandler and your witnesses were fleeing down the block when someone shot at them and missed. We know it had to be them, because we found the conference room and bathroom doors broken down, both locked from the inside, and a busted mop handle in the stairwell door. There’s no blood trace there or here, except the spots where we found our two wounded perps. Like I said, your Miss Chandler’s a crack shot. The perps haven’t had much to say at all, but Chandler and her witnesses are in the wind. Maybe they caught a cab. Maybe there were other bad guys waiting back here with a car. Whatever happened, at least at this site, none of the witnesses or Miss Chandler were wounded.”

“Oh man!” Greg groaned. “Well, Catherine Chandler has pulled off vanishing acts in the past, and I certainly wouldn’t count her out even now. But Joe is gonna go ballistic until we either hear from her or find her. Damn! Where’s the closest phone so I can go take my lumps?”

***

Catherine and her group had been walking for about an hour through the maze of tunnels, some manmade with electric lights along the walls, others natural and dark except for the lantern Vincent had given Kipper to help light Mr. K’s way. She could tell Kipper was purposefully taking an aimless path away from the populated section of the Tunnels, so she quietly filled Vincent in on everything that had happened at the precinct and how ‘Stan’ had helped Kipper out with the police.

As they approached a bend in the tunnel, Vincent called ahead, “Kipper, let’s stop at that alcove just around the corner and rest for a bit.”

The boy nodded, “You got it, Vincent.”

Soon, they were settled inside the cozy space, and Vincent had Kipper place the lantern in the center of the space to provide some ambient light. He pulled a large water bottle out of his cloak and handed it to Catherine to share with the group. He’d kept his cloak and hood pulled close around him, and even now, he sat well away from Mr. K’s curious glances, his gloved hands buried in the folds of his cloak.

“Before we go any further, Stan, I know you have questions, but we need a promise from you,” said Catherine. “You must promise never to utter a word about this place. Many good, innocent people, like Kipper and Vincent, depend upon this place for their safety. I have taken refuge here for my own safety many times. Please, promise us you will help keep this important secret. This really is a matter of life and death. I’m not kidding.”

“You know, Cathy, we’ve walked through underground passages like this before, back when we escaped from the Gorronistas,” said Mr. K. “You asked for my silence then. I’ve never said a word, and I never will. You can count on me. Don’t you know that by now?”

Vincent’s head came up with a jerk, and Kipper interjected, “Wait a minute. You two know each other? You’ve been to the Tunnels before with Catherine?”

“Elliott Burch,” Vincent gasped in shock. “You’re Elliott Burch.”

“WHAT?!” Kipper yelled. “No! You can’t be Elliott Burch! You lied to me!”

“My name is Stanislaw Kaczmarek,” Mr. K responded, defensively. “My friends on the docks call me Stan. I did not lie to you, Kipper.”

 “Let’s all calm down, please,” urged Catherine.

“No, NO!” Kipper groaned. “This can’t be happening. I was starting to like you! I thought you looked familiar, and now I know it’s because I’ve seen your pictures in the paper. Your stupid giant building nearly destroyed my home here in the Tunnels. The only home I have! I thought you were my friend, but now I hate you! I HATE YOU!”

“Kipper, please, listen to me!” Catherine begged, rising to her knees to catch and hug the struggling boy. “Elliott had no way of knowing anyone lived in the Tunnels. Listen! Those men who captured Mouse at his construction site? He made them let Mouse go. And he’s also the reason Vincent and Father are alive today. Who do you think gave me the special tools and explosives Mouse needed to rescue them from that cave-in? It was Elliott, and he did it no questions asked, because he was my friend, and he knew I was scared and had nowhere else to turn.”

Kipper finally wrenched himself free from Catherine’s arms. “NO!” he shouted, tears running down his face. “I can’t believe he’s still your friend! And I can’t stay here with him!” And he took off down the tunnel.

“Oh God! What a mess!” Mr. K moaned, burying his face in his hands. Then his head shot up, concern written all over his face. “Shouldn’t we go after him? Will he be all right on his own?”

Catherine slumped back down against the alcove wall. “Kipper knows his way around the Tunnels probably better than anyone, except Vincent and Mouse. If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. He’ll find his way home safely without us. But right now, he’s not ready to listen to anyone. Tunnel folk are extremely careful about who they trust. Their lives depend upon secrecy.”

Mr. K dropped his head back in his hands and groaned. “Why is it that, even with the best of intentions, I can never do anything right when it comes to you, Cathy?”

Vincent sighed heavily. “I must apologize for speaking without thinking and unwittingly revealing your identity, Mr. Burch. But, perhaps in the long run, it is best that Kipper learned of this now rather than later, when the betrayal would seem even bigger,” he murmured. “Kipper has quite a temper, but it blows out almost as quickly as it heats up. Give him some time. I suspect you’ll need to stay with us for a few days until it’s safe once again for you and Catherine to return Above. During that time, let Kipper get to know you again. All of you. That is, if you think Kipper’s friendship is worth the effort.”

“Of course it is!” Mr. K angrily retorted, staring at the mysterious cloaked figure sitting just outside the lantern light. “I like Kipper! He’s a great kid! Sharp. A bit of a smart-aleck. Impressive appetite. But brave and resourceful. I’d be lucky to have his friendship!”

Mr. K leaned back against the alcove wall, his anger and offense dissipating, shaking his head. “Kipper also has his priorities in the right order. My God! By the time the police cleared the truck and the shipping container, there must have been more than fifty women and girls just packed in there in squalid conditions. He saved those women pretty much by himself. And he saved me too! Those goons were ready to shoot anyone who saw them or might have seen them.”

Mr. K paused, running his hands through his hair, and giving the shadowy figure a considering glance. Then he reached out his hand, saying, “And by the way, the name’s Stan Kaczmarek, not Elliott Burch. Thanks for getting us out of a tight spot, and thanks for taking me in.”

Vincent looked at Mr. K’s hand, stretched out as an olive branch, and then turned to Catherine. “What do you think, My Love?”

Catherine looked over at Mr. K, who sat back and mouthed to her, My Love?, his eyebrows practically disappearing into his scruffy bangs. Then she took Vincent’s gloved hand in hers and said, “I believe Stan can be trusted to keep this secret as well, but the decision has to be yours, My Own, because the danger is all yours.”

She turned to Mr. K and proudly declared, “Vincent is the man I love more than life itself. He saved my life over three years ago, when I had been left for dead in Central Park, and he has saved me many times since then. He helped me find my strength and my courage and a new sense of purpose, when I was certain I had none. If you are unkind to this man, you are unkind to me. If you harm this man, you harm me. And if you betray this man, you betray me. If you value my friendship, as I believe you do, then you must help me protect Vincent at all costs by keeping his secret. Have I made myself clear?”

Mr. K sighed, perplexed and saddened. “Cathy, I learned the last time we were in these tunnels that it was impossible for you to love me because there was someone else. I’ve always wondered who it could be. I thought, maybe Joe Maxwell. He’s certainly crazy about you! But you’re too principled to date your boss.”

Then he turned to the dark, cloaked figure. “Vincent, if you saved her life, then I owe you my respect, and my everlasting gratitude, and my silence. Even if Cathy can’t be mine – and oh, do I wish she could be – I still have to be grateful she came into my life, because she changed me. I don’t even want to think about what I might have become, how low I might have gone to satisfy my ambitions, if losing Catherine Chandler hadn’t finally slapped some sense into me. Besides, how bad could your secret possibly be? Are you on the run from the cops? Or the mob? The CIA? Believe me, I know what that’s like!”

Catherine just continued to stare at Mr. K silently.

“OK,” Mr. K laughed uneasily. “I see this is a serious matter. All right. I give you my solemn word, on my life. No, wait. That’s not good enough. On the life and sacred memory of my beloved mother, who died way too young and somehow took joy away with her. I promise. Your secret, whatever it is, will be safe with me.”

Vincent nodded and slowly stood up, his head just barely grazing the roof of the alcove. He stepped closer to the lantern, removed his gloves, and reached up to pull back his hood.

Mr. K gasped, slack-jawed and frozen in astonishment. Or was it fear?

Then Vincent knelt and reached out his hand. “I am Vincent Wells. I don’t know how I came to be like this. I only know that I was born, and I survived. A kind woman found me as a newborn babe freezing in the snow behind the trash bins outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. She brought me to the Tunnels and placed me in the care of a gifted doctor, the leader of our community, and he became my Father. This is the only home I’ve ever known. The only place where I can live safely hidden from a world too frightened to accept my differences. If you expose me, the best I can hope is that they will just kill me. Or worse, cage me in a laboratory or a carnival sideshow, where I will wish I was dead. So you see, my life is now in your hands. The choice is yours.”

“Not just your life, Vincent,” said Catherine, kneeling beside him and draping her arm around his back and laying her head on his shoulder. “My life, too.”

Then she turned to Mr. K. “Stan, if you betray Vincent, he will flee deep into these Tunnels, and I will go with him. Or follow him, since I know he’ll try to leave without me. And you’ll never see me again. Never! You say you love me, then understand this. Engrave it on your heart. Vincent is my life. Whatever you do to him, you do to me.”

Mr. K blinked, swallowed heavily against his suddenly dry mouth, and then reached out cautiously to grasp Vincent’s hand. “Oh my God,” he whispered, looking closely at Vincent’s hand and then up into his leonine face. “This is real. You’re REAL!”

“Yes,” Vincent replied, shaking Mr. K’s hand and offering him the water bottle. “Against all odds, I do exist.”

As Mr. K gulped down some water, Vincent stood and gathered up the lantern.

“We have about another hour’s walk to reach the main community,” Vincent stated, motioning for Mr. K to keep the water bottle. “We need to introduce you to our community leaders and arrange sleeping quarters for you, after I endure another lecture from Father about bringing a stranger Below without approval. And I’m sure Catherine will want to get a message to Joe Maxwell before he ‘blows a gasket.’ Isn’t that what you called it the last time you disappeared on him, My Love?”

Catherine giggled as she stood. “Yep, that’s putting it mildly. And you know I’ll help you wrangle Father.”

“Come on, Stan,” she added, pulling a still dazed Mr. K to his feet and linking arms with both men. “We’ll talk more as we walk. Vincent can tell you how this community came to be, and we’ll pass by some absolutely spectacular places on the way. They may live in a hole in the ground, as someone once put it, but they’ve found some truly ingenious ways to solve problems and live well. As an architect and builder, you’ll be amazed.”

As they left the alcove and turned down the tunnel toward home, Catherine looked from side to side at both of these men who loved her, each in their own way, walking stiffly and silently, and then she laughed. “You know what? Suddenly, I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I have the Tin Man on my left and the Cowardly Lion on my right, but the Scarecrow ran away, and heaven only knows what’s become of Toto!”

Vincent and Mr. K looked at each other over Catherine’s head and then sheepishly burst out laughing.

“That’s more like it,” she announced, smugly.

***

“What do you mean, ‘they got away,’” Bertram Coleman III, hissed into his phone at his private club. “Nobody vanishes into thin air! I paid you three perfectly good money to make sure those witnesses never live to testify in court! … WHAT?! … Which hospital? … All right, look, your shift’s coming up at the docks. Get there, and pretend nothing’s happened. You’re just as surprised as everybody else about what went down last night. And keep your eyes and ears open. The lawyer I sent says Janko thinks one of the witnesses might be a dock worker. Let me know if anyone comes up missing at work. You got it? … See that you do!”

He slammed the phone down and then winced a bit when his guest snapped, “I told you those idiots weren’t up to the job. If you want something like this done right, you bring in the professionals.”

“And I told you we should never have started trafficking in women!” Coleman growled back. “We were doing fine with smuggling drugs, weapons, even antiquities. If they get pinched, at least the goods can’t talk!”

“You were the one who gambled away the Coleman pension fund, Bertie,” retorted the guest. “You came running to ME, remember? Whining about what will happen if Daddy finds out. I told you the only way to make that kind of money fast was to partner up with the syndicate and help them ship in girls. This is on YOU!”

“Well, what are we going to do now, Pope?” Bertie groaned. “I’ve got two guys in the hospital shot by some lady DA, nine more in holding cells at the 1st Precinct, the warehouse is crawling with cops, and two witnesses and this DA are in the wind.”

“YOU are going to do nothing, you incompetent little weasel,” snorted Pope. “It’s time for the big boys to clean up your little mess. Just cross your fingers MY boss doesn’t decide to take you out as well. Now, clean yourself up and report to your office in Daddy’s executive suite on time, unless you want him to start wondering if you’re mixed up in this warehouse mess.”

***

After about thirty minutes of walking, Catherine’s ears perked up to the slight clanging sounds on the pipes. She raised an eyebrow at Vincent, and he responded, “Just an all’s well report from one of the sentries. We haven’t been spotted yet.”

“What?” Mr. K asked. “Is this the pipe communication you talked about?”

“Yes,” Vincent replied. “It’s a modified version of Morse code, developed by one of our earliest founding members and refined over time by our first Pipe Master, Pascal Senior, and now by his son.”

They stopped for a moment to listen to the occasional spurts of clanging messages with Vincent translating.

“This is just incredible,” Stan marveled. “When will we encounter the first of your sentries?”

“We won’t,” Vincent replied. “I’m announcing us right now.”

He picked up a rock from the side of their path and walked over to a large pipe, tapping out his message. After receiving a response, Vincent announced, “Kipper hasn’t been seen yet, so I suspect he’s hiding somewhere, sulking. Father will be roused and waiting for us in the library.”

“Library?” Mr. K gawped. “You have a library down here?”

“Oh Stan,” Catherine laughed. “You will not believe what this community has managed to create.” Then she yawned. “Oh my gosh, I’m so tired. What time is it getting to be?”

“Nearly five AM,” Vincent responded, curling a somewhat possessive arm around Catherine’s waist.

“How could you possibly know that?” challenged Mr. K.

“Well, this time, from the sentry report,” Vincent replied, a bit testily. “But, it’s part of my nature to have an inward sense of the time. I can also see our path forward even in the dark, and I heard the clanging of the pipes about twenty minutes before you did.”

“All right, gentlemen, before we start … measuring … things,” Catherine broke in. “Let’s get back to the home Tunnels so I can at least have some coffee! Otherwise, you’re going to get cranky Cathy here in just a few minutes.”

Vincent looked over at Mr. K and advised, “That’s our first and only warning. We’d better go!”

And the two men once again linked arms with Catherine and continued on their way.

***

Kipper was indeed sulking, kicking a medium-sized rock up and down the length of an empty underground play area Mouse had constructed earlier that year. Catherine’s words kept repeating over and over in his mind, and he vacillated between anger at her for defending Elliott Burch, guilt when he remembered how the man had helped save Vincent and Father, disgust with himself for liking “Uncle Stan” in the first place, and confusion when he remembered all the second chances he’d been given over the years. Does that mean even Elliott Burch gets a second chance, too?

Then his head jerked up as the pipes rang with Vincent’s message. They’re bringing that man HERE? To meet with FATHER? And he flew out of the playground toward the library, determined to make sure Father knew exactly who he’d be meeting.

***

They were nearing the home Tunnels, when Vincent paused, listening to the pipes. Then he sighed, “Father has summoned the Council. I have a feeling Kipper’s behind this.”

“Well,” Catherine replied. “Forewarned is forearmed. At least, William will be there, which means coffee!”

They picked up their pace and soon rounded the corner leading into Father’s library. Father and Mary were already seated at the Council table, with Kipper pacing sullenly at the back of the room. Just as they reached the short flight of steps down into the main chamber, William came bustling through the back entrance bearing an enormous tray with a large cozied teapot, a thermal coffee carafe, baskets of muffins and scones, and all the necessary condiments. Mary had already assembled tea cups, mugs, plates, and flatware from Father’s cupboard.

“Bill!” Mr. K called out, just as William placed the tray on the table.

William looked up, surprised, and replied, “Mr. K! What are you doing here?”

“Wait a minute!” shouted Kipper. “You mean you know Elliott Burch, too?”

“Now Kipper,” said William. “This man isn’t Elliott Burch. He’s a volunteer at the St. Francis shelter. Mr. K is one of my best helpers in the soup kitchen there.”

“Oh my God,” groaned Mr. K. “It just keeps getting worse. All right, let’s just get it all out in the open, right here, once and for all!”

Mr. K drew himself up, squared his shoulders, and turned to Father. “Hello, sir. I was born Stanislaw Kaczmarek, hence Mr. K at the soup kitchen, since we’re supposed to use only first names or nicknames there with our clients. My Dad was a New York City sanitation worker, and my Mom, bless her memory, took in laundry and picked up odd jobs as a maid. We were dirt poor, and I wanted so much more. So, I worked and studied and saved and clawed and scratched my way into a full college scholarship. But once I was there, it became abundantly clear that someone with my name and background was never going to get anywhere. So I changed my name to Elliott Burch, and that name, plus my talent and ambition, got me every material thing I ever wanted, and lost me everything that really mattered.”

Mr. K looked over at Catherine, sadly. “I lost Cathy because I was so obsessed with my ambitions and my dream project that I couldn’t see what it was doing to me, what kind of compromises and underhanded activities I was accepting to get the job done. And if I’m honest, she was never really mine, because she’d already given her heart to another man.”

He looked at Vincent and nodded, the exchange heavy with this acknowledgment of Vincent’s humanity.

Mr. K returned his attention to Father, “When I tried to do something good for the people of Santo Irisado, mercenaries called Gorronistas murdered my estranged father before I ever had a chance to try yet again to make things right with him. That was rock bottom. I got that mess cleared up with the CIA, finished my project on the island, put my corporate holdings in escrow, and decided to go back to the beginning and try to figure out where I went wrong. So, I became Stan Kaczmarek again, went back to living in the ratty apartment I grew up in, and took a job on the docks. Walking home one evening past St. Francis Cathedral, Sister John the Baptist spotted me, hauled me down into the storeroom, and put me to work helping the people of my Dad’s community. It was the first time in a long time that something finally felt right. That was two months ago.”

He looked over at Kipper. “Then tonight, as I was walking home after a long day at work and a long shift at the soup kitchen, this kid comes charging out of an alley, knocks me off my feet, and then hauls me into a basement crawl space because he’s being chased by a bunch of goons with guns. And instead of hightailing it home after we escaped their notice, this kid, who reminds me so much of my younger self, this brave kid wants to help the women those goons had kidnapped. Now, how could I not help that kid?”

Then Mr. K stretched out his arms to take in the vast expanse of the library. “So, here I am, in this unbelievable place, with this extraordinary community that somehow I almost unknowingly destroyed. And I’m completely at your mercy … because I need your help.”

Father blinked and looked back and forth between Vincent and Catherine, more than a bit nonplused. “Well, that’s quite a lot to take in, Mr. … Kaczmarek, was it? We don’t yet have the full Council assembled to consider this decision, but I believe it’s abundantly clear that we must offer you sanctuary here. From what Kipper has told me, you two and Catherine are in grave danger, at least until the police can get to the bottom of this dreadful business.”

Before Mr. K could respond, Catherine stepped forward to hug the Tunnel patriarch. “Thank you, Father. I knew you would understand.”

Then she looked around the room and continued, “I know you all have a lot of questions, but there are some urgent matters that must be dealt with right away. First, I must have COFFEE!”

William boomed with laughter as he quickly prepared a cup for her. “Just the way you like it, Madam Assistant District Attorney,” he responded, handing her the cup with an elaborate bow.

Catherine took one enormous gulp, sighed deeply, then proceeded to chug the rest of the cup and hold it out wordlessly for more. As a chuckling William prepared a second cup, she turned to Father, saying, “I need to get a call in to Joe Maxwell right away before he has a stroke. Do you think Henry and Lin Pei would let me use the phone in their basement?”

Mr. K interjected, “I need to make a call as well. I’m expected for a seven AM shift at the docks, and if I don’t call in sick to my foreman, it’s going to raise questions we don’t want explored. This crew, whoever they are, must have contacts at the docks, since they’re bringing these women into port in shipping containers. Anybody not reporting in for work is going to come under suspicion.”

Catherine sipped her second cup of coffee a bit more slowly, as she pondered Mr. K’s problem, and then answered, “Why don’t you give me your foreman’s name and number, and let me make that call instead? I’ll pretend to be your girlfriend and … ummm … I’ll tell him you spent the night at my apartment. Oh! And you got sick during our date last night. You have a terrible fever Why, I might even have to take you to the emergency room! There, that’ll explain why you wouldn’t be recovering at your apartment, in case someone comes to check on you.”

Just then, Pascal came bustling in from the Pipe Chamber to join the Council meeting, and Father called him over, quickly scribbling a note. “Pascal, would you please get this message off to the Peis, letting them know to expect Catherine in about twenty minutes?”

Vincent walked over to shake Mr. K’s hand. “I’m going to walk Catherine over to the sub-basement under Lin and Henry’s restaurant in Chinatown. While we’re gone, you can speak further with Father and the Council, and Mary will get you settled in a guest chamber. You’ve had a hard day, and I know you must be tired.”

Mr. K laughed, “I’m beyond tired. I feel like I’ve fallen down the Rabbit Hole, except I wound up in Narnia instead of Wonderland.”

“Oh! You know your children’s literature quite well, Mr. Kaczmarek!” Mary interjected, taking Mr. K’s arm and leading him over to the plate she’d prepared for him at the Council table. “You’ll fit in here just fine.”

“Stan,” Mr. K replied, gently patting Mary’s hand and giving her a charming smile. “Please, call me Stan.”

Vincent accepted a wrapped up muffin and scone from William for Catherine to munch on as they walked to the Peis’ sub-basement. Father and William settled in at the table with Mary and Mr. K, waiting for Pascal and Rebecca to arrive for their meeting. No one seemed to notice Kipper perched on an ottoman over in the corner, watching and listening, his face solemn and confused.

***

Rita Escobar tapped on Joe Maxwell’s office door before sticking her head carefully inside. The boss was in a tizzy over this human trafficking case and Cathy Chandler’s disappearance with their witnesses, and his office showed it. Papers and files were strewn out over every surface along with multiple coffee cups, the remains of a late-night sandwich, and Joe’s wadded up jacket and tie. He was slumped in his chair, working his “worry band” until it snapped, joining countless others on his desk top, and talking at the top of his lungs on the phone.

“I don’t care what you have to do, Greg,” he shouted. “Just find them!” And he slammed the receiver back on its cradle so hard it bounced off onto the floor. “Damn it!” Joe yelled, kicking his desk.

Rita quickly intervened, closing the door, picking up the much maligned phone receiver, and placing it gently back into position. “Joe,” she said softly, as though calming a bull ready to charge. “I have Catherine Chandler on line two for you.”

“Cathy?” Joe asked and then pounced on the phone receiver, quickly pressing the button for his second line. “Radcliffe, where the hell are you? Are you all right? Are the witnesses OK?”

“We’re fine, Joe,” Catherine replied, soothingly. “Calm down. I’m sorry I couldn’t call sooner, but it took us a while to get to a safe place and find a phone.”

“All right,” Joe answered, slumping back into his chair. “OK, where are you? I’ll send Greg Hughes to get you to a safe house.”

“No, don’t do that!” Catherine quickly interjected. “Listen, you know I have my resources. I think we’re safer if no one knows where we are. Even you. Joe, we were attacked in a police precinct. Someone has eyes where they shouldn’t. Who’s with you right now? Who knows about this call?”

Joe looked up at Rita and asked, “Who knows Cathy called in?”

“Nobody,” Rita replied. “I took the call myself and came straight here.”

“OK, Cathy,” Joe answered. “It’s just me and Rita, and you know she’s the one who answered your call.”

“Good, let’s keep it that way,” Catherine replied. “You can tell Greg, but have him keep quiet and pretend to keep looking for us.”

“OK,” Joe responded. “We can do that.”

“Good,” Catherine said. “Now listen closely, because I’ve got some more information for you. Our witness Stan is a dock worker. His girlfriend Estelle, which would be me, called him in sick with a fever and a bad case of food poisoning, so that’s covered. He was worried that anyone who didn’t show up for work might come under suspicion, because this gang surely has contacts at the docks.”

“That was sharp of him,” Joe commented, motioning to Rita for a notepad and a pen.

“Yes, it was. Now listen, this is important,” Catherine added. “Stan also told me the scuttlebutt at the dock is that Coleman Industries has its fingers in some bad stuff – drug and weapons smuggling, stolen artifacts. Now it looks like someone associated with the company has branched out into human trafficking. You need to find a way to quietly look into Coleman Industries. I know their CEO, Bertram Coleman the second. My Dad represented the company before he passed away. Mr. Coleman is a fine man, and I can’t imagine he would have anything to do with this. But his son, Bertie the third, is a spoiled-rotten piece of work. He’s been in and out of rehab for cocaine, according to society gossip, plus he gambles. If Bertie needs money, I wouldn’t put it past him to get involved with some shady characters and use the company for cover.”

“OK, Radcliffe, that’s a great lead,” Joe replied, scribbling notes onto a legal pad and handing it to Rita. “I’ll get Edie right on the research and have Rita pull any files we have on Coleman Industries. Anything else I can do? Do you need anything? Is that kid gonna be OK?”

“We’re just fine, Joe, thanks,” Catherine answered. “We’re safe, and we have everything we need. I’ll find ways to stay in touch. And if you need to reach me, just do like last time. Fold a vague note inside a twenty dollar bill, and drop it off with that street corner saxophone player you like so much. His name’s Harvey, by the way, and he appreciates your patronage. I’ll call you as soon as I can after I get your note. The one thing you can do for me is promise not to have this phone call, or any other call from me, traced. You might inadvertently put innocent people in danger just because they helped us. Please!”

“You got it, Cath,” Joe promised. “This call never happened. We heard about Coleman Industries from the tip line. We’re still worried sick about you.” He looked up at Rita, who nodded her agreement.

“Stay safe, Joe,” Catherine replied. “These guys are dangerous. The hitman in the black suit used a silencer. So tell Greg and Detective Bell to be extra careful. Bye!”

***

Down in the holding cells at the 1st Precinct, a guard with snow-white hair began distributing breakfast to the various inmates around seven AM. Shortly after he left, nine of the prisoners began choking and gasping for air, soon falling to the floor of their cells, foaming at the mouth and convulsing. By the time the real guards responded, all nine prisoners were dead. Poisoned.

Detective Bell was summoned, and he immediately jumped on the phone to Joe Maxwell.

“DDA Maxwell, we’ve got a big problem,” Detective Bell reported. “Someone poisoned all nine of the perps from the trafficking case … Nope, they were dead before we could get to ‘em. The other inmates describe a white-haired guy who doesn’t match the description of any of our guards here. That’s who brought them breakfast. I’m checking the security feed to see if we’ve got video of him. You’d better call the hospital and have those other prisoners moved right away. Someone may be after them as well.”

***

In the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital, an orderly with snow-white hair and a clipboard nodded politely to the police officer guarding the door to hospital cell 17 and said, “I just need to do the eight AM vitals check.”

The guard stood and opened the door for the orderly with a smile, closing it behind him. Once inside, the orderly drew his silenced weapon from behind the clipboard and walked over to the hospital gurney, firing two shots into the patient’s head.

Suddenly, the bathroom and room doors flew open, and Greg Hughes and the guard shouted for the fake orderly to drop his weapon. Instead, he aimed for the guard blocking the doorway, and Greg Hughes fired three shots into the hitman’s chest. The guard at the door unfortunately took a round to the shoulder. Medical staff converged on the guard and the hitman, carrying the wounded guard off for treatment and quickly determining that the hitman was dead.

Greg radioed Joe, “Our hitman’s dead. Let’s put it out that he successfully killed two prisoners before being taken out by police. Our perps are safely stashed in the surgical ward, but we’ll get them off to a private hospital right away.”

***

“Here we are, Stan,” said Mary, as she guided Mr. K into his guest chamber and lit the oil lamp on the side table. “It’s modest, but comfortable, and you should find everything you might need in the cupboard or over on the desk. I’m going to see if I can fetch you something comfortable to sleep in, and I’ll figure out some clean clothes for you to wear by the time you wake up. Now, if you need anything, just tap the code we taught you on the pipe just outside your room, and someone will come to assist you. There’s drinking water in this carafe and water for washing in the basin if you want to freshen up a bit, and I already showed you the lavatory just down the hallway.”

Mr. K gave Mary another of his winning smiles and kissed her hand gallantly. “You’ve been so kind, Mary. I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable here.”

“Well, you are a charmer, aren’t you?” said Mary. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”

Mr. K sighed after she left and sat down on the bed, ruffling his hair and then passing his hand appreciatively over the soft patchwork quilt, remembering the one his mother had made for him to take to college.

“Mary made that, ya know,” said Kipper from the doorway.

Mr. K looked up, taken aback by Kipper’s presence, and then shook his head. “No, I didn’t,” he replied. “She didn’t say so, but I’m not really surprised. Mary is a very kind and capable and loving woman. Quilts like these are made with love in every stitch.”

“Yes,” Kipper answered softly. “Mary’s made a quilt for every kid down here. She’s always making something, when she isn’t helping Father in the hospital room, or looking after the babies in the nursery.”

Mr. K nodded, and the two just looked at each other, warily.

Kipper finally broke the silence. “Is what you said to the Council true? Did you really grow up poor?”

“Yes, I meant every word I said,” Mr. K replied. “I’ve done some stupid things, Kipper. Made some really big mistakes. I was so busy being Elliott Burch that I wasn’t there when my Mom got sick and died of cancer. My Dad never forgave me for that. And now, I can’t make it up to him, to them, because they’re both gone. But I’m trying to do better. I’m really trying, Kipper, and I need friends to help me find a new way to live. Will you help me? Do you think you can find a way to be my friend again?”

Kipper gave Mr. K another one of those long assessing looks, and Mr. K trembled a bit, feeling as though the boy was somehow looking right into his soul.

“Just one question,” Kipper responded. “You say you love Catherine. Does that mean you’re gonna cause problems for Vincent? ‘Cause he loves her all the way from the top of his head to the end of his toes. And anyone who makes trouble for Vincent is no friend of mine.”

Mr. K chuffed softly and sighed. “No, Kipper,” he answered. “I wouldn’t dream of causing problems for Vincent and Catherine. I’ve promised to keep his secret, and Cathy has been excruciatingly clear about how much she loves him. I know a lost cause when I see one. I just hope they’ll be my friends. I really need friends right now. The right kind of friends.”

Kipper stepped into the chamber, right up to the bed, and once again tipped Mr. K’s chin so he could look right into his eyes. Mr. K looked back and didn’t even dare breathe.

“OK, Uncle Stan,” said Kipper, just a bit saucily. “I’ll give you a second chance. After all, I’ve been given at least seven second chances down here, and I’m only twelve!”

“Oh, thank God!” sighed Mr. K, putting out his hand. “Shall we shake on it, like men do?”

“Sure,” Kipper replied, giving Mr. K’s hand three big shakes. “And I’ll be listening for your code on the pipes, if you get lost or need directions. My chamber isn’t far from here. I share with Geoffrey, Eric, and Zach.”

“Wow,” said Mr. K. “Just how many kids are living down here?”

But Kipper never got a chance to respond, because suddenly the pipes started jangling with an emergency alert.

“What’s that?” Mr. K asked, as Kipper rushed toward the chamber entrance.

“That’s a major alert,” Kipper replied. “All hands on deck. Probably a broken water pipe. I gotta go report to my team!”

“Wait!” Mr. K called. “I’ll come with you. I can help!”

“You sure?” Kipper asked. “It’s cold, wet, messy, muddy work, and it can get dangerous.”

“I’m coming,” Mr. K replied firmly. “The least I can do is help out somehow.”

“Be glad you’re wearing work boots!” Kipper answered. “I’ll introduce you to Cullen, my team captain. Come on!”

***

Vincent and Catherine were on their way back to the main Hub when the emergency alert sounded on the pipes.

“That sounds like a broken pipe!” shouted Catherine, as they began running to answer the call.

“Yes,” replied Vincent. “Down on the third level, near William’s root cellars. You remember where to report to your team?”

“Yeah, I’m heading to the kitchen to help William prepare food for the work crews,” Catherine answered as they reached the parting of their ways. She grabbed Vincent for a quick hug and a kiss. “Be careful, My Own. Bring everyone back safely.”

“I will, My Love,” he replied and hurried off to meet his team.

***

By the time Mr. K, Kipper, and the rest of Cullen’s sandbag crew reached the flood site, Kanin and Vincent were hard at work with Mouse and the plumbing crew to repair the burst pipe. A support column had rotted and collapsed, putting undue pressure on a pipe joint and causing it to break open under the strain. Mr. K paused for a moment to catch his breath and stared in wonder as Vincent raised an enormous timber on his back to help move the broken pipe back up into its proper position for welding.

My God! It would take three of the strongest men on one of my crews to lift that timber!

While Kanin and Mouse worked furiously to weld the broken pipe back together, Mr. K helped pass sandbags to the rest of Cullen’s crew to divert the pooling water away from William’s root cellars. Once the repair weld was complete, Kanin and Mouse welded a metal sleeve around the break to provide additional stability for the repair weld.

When the last weld was complete, two men from Kanin’s crew were at last freed up to help Vincent support the heavy timber, while Kanin and Mouse used four by fours to build up a new permanent support column for the pipe. By then, the flood waters had receded sufficiently to pour a concrete piling for the new support column, anchored with rebar pounded into the bedrock.

Finally, Vincent and his two helpers could at last remove the temporary support timber. As they were lowering it, the timber slipped a bit in one man’s grasp, and Vincent growled sharply as the timber unexpectedly twisted in his hands.

Mr. K’s head snapped in Vincent’s direction. I’ve heard that growl before. Oh my God! Vincent must have taken out those Gorronistas at the docks! He saved our lives!

Kanin immediately moved to Vincent’s side to help lower the timber to the ground. “Vincent,” he shouted, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” Vincent replied, shaking his right hand and wincing a bit. “I just jammed two of my fingers, that’s all.”

Kanin patted Vincent on the shoulder and began directing the clean-up operation with Cullen’s help, so Vincent could rest his hand. Soon, the emergency was completely resolved, but it had taken several hours, and everyone was weary, wet, and cold.

“Well done everybody!” Kanin shouted, and they all began shaking hands and congratulating each other on their efforts. It was only then that Vincent spotted a muddy, soaked Mr. K and walked over to clasp his shoulder.

“Thank you, Stan, for coming to help us with this pipe emergency,” Vincent said. “You can’t have had any sleep. You must be completely exhausted now.”

“I’m just glad I’ve had several months of working at the docks to get me in shape,” Mr. K responded with a laugh. “Otherwise, I’d have given out before even half of these sandbags were in place.”

“Uncle Stan worked really hard, Vincent,” Kipper piped up.

“I’m sure he did,” Vincent replied. “Uncle Stan has been a very good friend to us today.”

“Yeah,” Kipper answered. “I guess everyone deserves a second chance, when they own up to their mistakes.”

“As you well know,” Vincent laughed, fondly ruffling the boy’s soggy hair.

“Who’s ready for hot soup, roast beef sandwiches, and hot tea?” called a familiar voice, as Catherine, Rebecca, Sarah, and several other ladies arrived with a hearty lunch for the hard-working repair crews.

They all cheered and migrated up to the ladies, who had set up folding tables to serve the food on higher, dry ground, and lined up to receive their well-earned lunch. When Mr. K reached Catherine, who was ladling out mugs of hot soup, she looked up in surprise and said, “Stan, what on earth are you doing here?”

Before he could answer, Kipper declared, “Uncle Stan helped out with the sandbag crew.”

“He sure did,” added Cullen. “And we were mighty glad to have him, too.”

“Well, Stan,” Catherine replied, handing him a mug of soup. “I can see you’ve taken the Tunnel Philosophy to heart. Give help when it is needed, and receive help when it is offered.”

Mr. K smiled, “I think that’s a pretty good philosophy to live by. Maybe even a step on the right path?”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Vincent, accepting his own mug of soup.

As they walked away from the line to find a spot to sit and eat their lunch, Mr. K could be heard saying, “Vincent, remind me to talk with Kanin and Dr. Wells about how I can help get better tools and building supplies down here. You know, by making these repairs before the problem becomes obvious up Top, your community is saving the City millions in infrastructure costs without them even knowing it.”

Catherine just smiled.

***

Bertie Coleman stared at the Noon news on his office television in disbelief. All his men were dead! Even Sims, his last remaining guy on the docks, was the victim of an early morning forklift accident!

And SNOW! Pope’s boss had sent Snow after them, and now even he was dead, shot by the police after he killed the two guys at Bellevue!

I’m next, he thought, feeling the panic building inside him. Gabriel will send someone after me next, I just know it! I’m getting out of here. Forget Dad and his money! I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the DA and begging for Witness Protection!

Leaving the television on, Bertie crept over to his closet and slipped out of his expensive Italian suit and shoes and the Hermès tie, leaving on his dress shirt, but unbuttoning the first few buttons to make it look more casual. He quickly put on his “slumming” jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, a pair of running shoes from his gym bag, and a Yankees souvenir baseball cap.

I know Pope’s paid off my secretary to keep tabs on me, but she doesn’t know about my escape route from Dad, he thought, as he took his phone off the cradle and dialed into one of those phone sex lines.

“Hi!” he answered when the booking agent picked up. “This is account 22146. I’d like to listen to Charlene for an hour … Yeah, no talking from me, just listening to her talk while she gets off. You can bill my usual card number.”

That will keep Susan off my back for a while, he thought. She knows not to bother me if I’m on the phone.

Then, he put the phone receiver down on his desk, turned down the volume on the television a bit, and walked over to his bookshelves, pulling the hidden latch, and slipping into the secret passages he’d discovered years ago on the building’s blueprints. Who knew those useless architecture classes would save my life? Ten minutes later, he cautiously emerged from the basement staff entrance and quickly flagged down a cab.

“Take me to the DA’s office,” he said to the cabbie. “And there’s an extra twenty if you step on it!”

***

Just after two PM, Jonathan Pope, Esq., received a most unsettling phone call.

“Where’s Bertie Coleman?” his boss hissed into the phone.

Pope re-checked his alerts from the Coleman Building.

“He should be in his office, Mr. Klein,” Pope replied. “I have his secretary, the main reception desk, and the garage attendant on payroll to inform me if he so much as burps.”

“Well, I sent a guy to take care of him,” Pope’s boss responded angrily, his voice rising. “And he’s not THERE!”

Pope gripped the edge of his desk, but replied calmly, “Well then, he’s bound to be at the strip club, or his private club, or back at his apartment snorting cocaine. Don’t worry, sir. I’ll find him.”

“You do that, Pope,” snarled his boss. “And then you let me know. I want that little punk dead before nightfall. Got it?”

“No problem, Mr. Klein,” answered Pope, who then hung up the phone, grabbed his go bag, and took a cab straight to the airport, hoping to catch the first available private chartered plane heading out of the country.

Before getting on his flight to Brunei, Pope called his boss from the airport.

“Bertie’s at his apartment with some hooker and both of them are strung out on coke,” he lied. “He shouldn’t be a problem.” Then Pope hung up the phone and boarded the plane.

***

After finishing their lunch, the weary work crews packed up their tools and headed back to the main Hub. They left behind a sentry, who’d been assigned to keep an eye on the new repair.

At the Hub, Cullen and Kipper waited for Mr. K to collect the pajamas, robe, and slippers Mary had left for him, and then they took him off to the bathing pools for a long hot bath before he collapsed into his bed to enjoy some much overdue sleep.

Vincent briefly reported to Father, and then he and Catherine went to his chamber.

“Go on to your bathing pool, My Own,” said Catherine once they arrived. “I’ll bring you a sleep shirt, pajama pants, and your robe and slippers. You’re still sopping wet.”

“That is an understatement,” Vincent commented wryly, as he closed the enormous double doors to his chamber. “I’m plotting out a pathway to the bathing chamber that will best keep me from dripping all over the carpets.”

Catherine looked up from the cupboard with a pursed smile. “You might as well just leave those boots by the door. They need a good scraping, followed by a thorough cleaning and an oil treatment.”

Vincent looked down at his feet with a sigh. “You’re not wrong there.”

He bent down to untie his boots, but then sighed in frustration. “Catherine, I need your help here. I’ve jammed the knuckles on two fingers of my right hand, and I just can’t manage these bootlaces. If you don’t untie them, I may just rip them apart.”

“Well, don’t do that,” she replied, dropping an armload of clothing on Vincent’s bed and crossing to take his hand gently in hers and examine his injured fingers. “That does look painful. Should Father take a look at them?”

“No, no,” Vincent replied. “I’m sure nothing’s broken. This is a pretty common work injury. I’ll just need to wrap them up after my bath, and take it easy on that hand for a while.”

“If you’re sure,” Catherine replied, looking right into Vincent’s eyes. “No prevaricating, Mister.”

Vincent laughed, “I’m sure. I deal with these minor work injuries myself all the time, otherwise Father would be constantly fussing over me. I just need your help with these blasted laces.”

“OK,” Catherine responded, kneeling at his feet to examine his mud-encrusted boots. He’s asking for my help! Down girl, keep it light and easy. Don’t spook him. “Hmmm … I understand why you knot the laces after tying them, but it does make for quite a snarl once you add mud and silt and God knows what else.”

After successfully removing the first boot and sock, Catherine looked up with a victorious grin and then patted the door next to them before tackling the next boot. “Have I ever told you just how much I love these doors, Vincent?” she commented softly as she concentrated on his snarled laces.

Hmmm … several times, if I’m not mistaken, My Love, replied the darker voice of Vincent’s second nature, as he recalled just how enthusiastically he’d been kissed when she first saw them several months ago. “I enjoyed finding and restoring them, but I confess to needing help with such a big project.

Catherine giggled, “Let me guess. Kanin, of course, because you needed to set them into natural stone walls, and I see masonry work around the curved edges at the top. I bet Mouse and Jamie helped you haul them out of storage. And you must have used Cullen’s woodshop for the restoration. I see his hand in those beautiful carvings. It was sweet of him to match the carvings on our mantel clock.”

“The carvings are actually original, and that’s why I was so thrilled to find them. But they were quite encrusted with dust and grime, and someone had actually PAINTED that beautiful wood!” Vincent groused. “What were they THINKING? It took lots of time and patience and care to strip all of that back, and then the original carvings needed to be repaired and restored. That was indeed Cullen’s painstaking work; the repairs needed a master’s hand. But the stripping, cleaning, refinishing, staining, and polishing all fell to me. Otherwise, you have guessed rightly, My Love.

“Aha!” Catherine crowed triumphantly as the last knot finally gave way under her persistent coaxing, and she helped Vincent slip off the second wet, muddy boot and peel off another soppy sock.

“Oh,” he sighed. “That feels so much better already.”

“Come on,” Catherine crooned as she pecked his cheek and then crossed to retrieve his sleepwear from the bed. “Let’s get you into that nice hot bathing pool.”

Vincent studied her for a moment and suddenly blurted, “Why don’t you join me?” What did I just say?

Catherine gaped at him for a moment and then responded, “Pardon me for zoning out there. I think I’m so tired I’m experiencing auditory hallucinations. Did you just ask me to … bathe … with you?”

Yes, My Catherine,” came the rumbled reply of Vincent’s Otherness. You started this. You can’t back out now, or she’ll be so disappointed. He paused, and his eyes lightened back up, skittering about the room, not sure where to look. “We’re both so tired, My Love. I’m only suggesting that we take some comfort in each other’s presence after a terrifying night and an exhausting day. I don’t want to be without you, even for a few moments, right now.”

“All right,” she agreed readily. Never argue with a good thing, Cathy! “Let me get my sleep clothes too.”

Catherine walked calmly over to the wardrobe and fished out a nightgown, robe, and slippers. Take it easy, Cathy. This is a big step. Don’t rush him!

***

Vincent followed after Catherine, picking a careful path around the carpets, and joined her in the short tunnel down to the bathing pool he shared only with Father. Catherine placed their sleep clothes on a side table and dropped the heavy canvas tarp across the tunnel up to Father’s Chambers. She turned to see Vincent slumped on a stone bench, fumbling with the ties to his vest.

“OK,” Catherine whispered as she gently stilled his frustrated hands. “Let’s agree to give those injured fingers a break, and let me help you.”

She retrieved a wash basin, filling it with hot water from the bathing pool, and placed it on the bench beside Vincent. “Here you go. Just let your hands soak for a bit. That will loosen up the mud and make cleaning them less painful. Wow, you’ve even got dirt embedded under your nails.”

While Vincent’s hands were soaking, Catherine made quick, matter-of-fact work of the laces on his vest and unbuttoned the flannel shirt underneath as well, pulling all of his wet shirttails out of his heavy denim trousers. The long-sleeved thermal Henley beneath the flannel shirt would just have to wait. And I’m not touching his trousers. He’d probably leap clear up to the ceiling!

Then, she puttered about the bathing chamber, gathering up a stack of towels and washcloths, selecting toiletries from the baskets in the cupboard, including her own that she kept Below, and placing them within convenient reach on a tray at the edge of the pool just above the sunken benches. Finally, she retrieved a soft nail brush and returned to Vincent’s side.

“How are your hands feeling now?” Catherine asked gently.

“Better, thank you, My Love,” Vincent replied, trying to scoop the worst of the goo out of his nails.

“Wait, let me do that,” Catherine responded, displaying the nail brush. “I have something a bit gentler and much more effective.”

Vincent gave her a long, searching look, and Catherine pleaded, “Let me tend to you, My Own. All these years, out of respect for your privacy, you’ve been left to fend for yourself after such hard, backbreaking work. It doesn’t have to be this way anymore. Not when I’m here to look after you. Please, let me show my love for you in this simple way.”

You know I can deny you nothing, now,Vincent whispered in that deep, tantalizing voice, hesitant with a new kind of vulnerability.

“Oh, Sweetheart,” Catherine crooned. “I’m not trying to rush you into anything. I’m thrilled you want to share a bath with me. I know that’s a big step for you to take, and I love you for it. So much. I’m only asking to take care of you when you’re injured and hurting from hard work. That’s all.”

“I trust you, Catherine, of course,” Vincent quickly assured her, surrendering his hands to her care. “I guess I’m just accustomed to being cared for this way only when I’m severely injured or ill, and I’m rarely sick.”

“Well, not anymore,” Catherine replied firmly, as she set to work gently brushing the grit and grime off his furred hands and out from under his nails. “When I’m here, I want the privilege of tending to you. I remember how much my Mom loved to pamper Dad when he came home from a long day at the office, and particularly if he had to spend a long time on his feet in court. She’d set up a footbath for him and massage his shoulders and neck while his feet soaked, and then she’d massage his poor, tired feet.”

“Your parents had a beautiful relationship,” Vincent commented, drying his hands on the hand towel Catherine offered him.

“Yes, they did,” she responded, thinking carefully about her next steps. Keep it light, Cathy. Keep it light. “Soooo … what will be most comfortable for you for bathing? You might as well just get into the pool with your clothes on and let the churn of the water get rid of most of the grime. We could put a plastic hamper next to the pool for them. Whoever has laundry duty will bless you for that.”

“That’s not a bad idea. I could stand by the outlet, so the rest of the pool doesn’t get murky,” Vincent responded, putting her words into action and placing a white plastic laundry basket over by the pool. “But what about you Catherine? Your clothes aren’t grimy like mine.”

She smiled at him. “I’ll do whatever you wish. I thought I could just slip out of my clothes and get into the pool while you’re dealing with the muck. What do you think?”

Vincent sighed and nodded his head in agreement, murmuring, “You must find my endless caution tiresome.”

“No, Vincent,” Catherine replied gently. “Not at all. We are something that has never been. Isn’t that what you said? Only you can understand what’s going on inside you, and it would be so unfair of me to dismiss your concerns. My part in this relationship is to love you and trust you and accept each gift as it comes to me for the wonder that it is. I can see you beginning to trust yourself more and more, gradually leaving behind old doubts and assumptions. Those are precious gifts. I see you learning and even starting to welcome the side of your nature that you kept locked away for so long, or only released under the direst of circumstances. That is an extraordinary gift. I believe one day soon you’re going to feel free and comfortable just being yourself. And then, we will learn together what it means to love each other and express that love in our own time and our own way.”

My Catherine,Vincent’s darker voice murmured. “You constantly amaze me.

Time to lighten the mood back up, she thought.

“Well, My Own,” Catherine replied. “To be completely honest, right now, I’m getting to the point where coffee will no longer sustain me without some sleep. Let’s get you into the pool and feeling much better, OK? And I promise to continue amazing you.”

Vincent laughed out loud at that and lowered himself into the far end of the pool by the outlet, sinking down completely into the churning water to start getting the worst of the muck out of his hair. Once he was occupied, Catherine took a deep breath and did exactly as she had proposed, quickly removing her clothes and dropping them into another hamper, then taking the steps down into the opposite end of the pool and settling on one of the benches, chin-deep in the water. She leaned her head back onto a folded towel, closed her eyes, and allowed the hot water to leech away the tensions and fears of the past two days. In the background, she could hear the soggy splats of Vincent’s clothes as they gradually landed piece-by-piece into the white plastic laundry basket. Vest, flannel shirt, Henley, trousers … then silence.

The next sound she heard was a deep sigh almost right beside her, and she slowly turned her head and opened her eyes to behold a glorious sight. There he was, seated on the bench next to hers, the water lapping about his bare shoulders, his golden head, darkened by the water, relaxed back onto a folded towel, like hers.

Keep it light, Cathy. Keep it light.

“As lovely as this water is, it’s going to make me drop off to sleep right away if I stay like this too long,” she noted. “I know your arms must be sore and your fingers hurt. Would you like for me to wash your hair for you?”

I hope I hope I hope …

Silence.

That would be … a loving and caring thing for you to do, My Catherine,Vincent rumbled cautiously at last.

“OK,” she replied, tamping down her exhilaration and locking it deep inside. “Why don’t you re-wet your hair, and then sit sideways at the edge of the bench with your back to me. I’ll just get the shampoo.”

Vincent complied, sinking down under the water and then emerging with his back to her, the water lapping about his waist until he settled sitting upright at the edge of his bench with the water now chest deep. Catherine stood behind him at the other end of the short bench and began the luxurious task of massaging the shampoo into Vincent’s thick mane of long hair. She discovered to her delight that his back hairline actually dipped down the back of his neck and into a pointed V between his shoulder blades. She took her time gently kneading into his scalp and neck, her eyes surreptitiously taking in the magnificence of his broad shoulders, wide chest, powerful arms, and mighty back. She paused briefly when a rhythmic rumbling sound began vibrating up from Vincent’s chest, but she immediately returned to her attentive massage, determined not to draw attention to the delightful sound unless he said something about it.

“All right,” she whispered. “You can rinse now, and then I’ll put some detangling conditioner on your hair.”

The rumbling stopped. “Some what?” Vincent asked.

“A conditioner,” Catherine replied. “It helps smooth out tangles and makes your hair softer and much easier to comb. Has no one ever tried a conditioner on your hair? Not even Mary when you were little?”

“No,” Vincent answered. “Something like that would be a luxury down here. It isn’t flowery smelling, is it?”

“No, not at all,” Catherine laughed. “It comes in a variety of scents. This one is sandalwood, just like the shampoo. If it works as well as I think it will, I’m going to buy two cases to bring Below. One just for you, and one for the ladies to share. Now, rinse, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Vincent teased before sinking down under the water again.

Applying the conditioner and kneading it into Vincent’s hair and scalp brought back the lovely rumbling sound, which Catherine again quietly relished without comment. Once he’d thoroughly rinsed out the conditioner, Catherine began the somewhat daunting task of combing out all of Vincent’s long, thick hair. But the conditioner proved to be up to the task, and ten minutes later, his hair lay smooth, wet, and shining against his neck and shoulders, Vincent’s rumbling purr a compelling testimony to his pleasure and contentment with her ministrations.

“There you go, My Own,” Catherine whispered as she sank back down onto her bench, water back up under her chin. “All done. Why don’t you lean back again and just relax and let the hot water do its work on your sore muscles. I’ll get myself dry and dressed, and go start a pot of hot tea for us.”

But Catherine, shouldn’t I also tend to you?” Vincent asked. “You’ve had no sleep for two days. You’ve had to fight for your life and the lives of others. I should be caring for you, too.

“I am tired,” Catherine responded. “But I don’t have sore muscles and jammed fingers from heavy labor like you. And you will tend to me later by holding me in your arms and helping me feel safe enough to fall asleep. You’ve been tending to me all the time we’ve known each other. Didn’t you realize that? Now, you’re letting me have that privilege in return.”

Vincent just stared at her in wonder.

“See,” she quipped. “Told you I’d keep amazing you.” They both laughed. “Now, relax for a while.”

As Vincent closed his eyes and laid his head back against the towel and Catherine turned to leave the pool, she heard him murmur softly, his voice trembling, “May I watch you?”

She turned back to see him still reclining in the water, head back, his eyes shut. Always the gentleman, she thought. “Vincent,” she called softly.

He turned his head and opened his eyes, and she slowly stood up in front of the bench, the water gradually revealing her shoulders, her collar bones, her breasts. She gazed at him lovingly as his eyes feasted upon her for a few moments. Then she whispered, “Whatever you wish, My Own.”

“Beautiful,” he whispered back. “You are so beautiful, My Catherine.

She kept smiling at him, her heart in her eyes, as she backed slowly toward the steps leading out of the pool, then turned gracefully and slowly ascended the stairs, each step revealing her waist, her buttocks, her thighs, her calves. She walked calmly over to the table with their towels and clothes and began to gently dry herself.

Be calm. Be normal. This is not a performance. This is a gift. My gift to him, and his, to me.

She occasionally allowed her eyes to pass briefly over him, but always returned her focus to what she was doing, unwilling to break his rapt attention or bring any coyness into this profound moment of intimate sharing. She made no attempt to hide or cover herself, dropping the wet towel into the hamper before retrieving her nightgown, slipping it matter-of-factly over her head, stepping into her moccasin-style slippers, and donning her soft Tunnel robe.

She walked quietly to the edge of the pool and knelt by his side, smoothing his bangs out of his wondering eyes. She kissed him lightly. Butterfly kisses on his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek, and a more lingering one on his lips.

“Rest for a while longer,” she whispered. “I’ll make some tea.” And his eyes never left her slight figure as she crossed the bathing chamber and vanished up the short tunnel to his room.

***

He drifted calmly in still midnight blue waters, the dark sky overhead rimmed by the burgeoning glow of the rising sun … What did they call this place?Oh yeah, The Mirror Pool. … NiceI could stay here forever

The dark reflective waters slowly gave way to a wide lake fed by gigantic, silent waterfalls, gilded in stark shafts of morning sunlight … Beautiful, but odd … Shouldn’t there be thundering sound?HmmmmStillVery nicePeacefulI like this place

He floated on, past fleeting images of a primitive working foundry … a chandlery … That made him chuckle … That name follows me everywhere, doesn’t it? … a woodworking shop … Cullen works here … a large make-shift kitchen … BillCan’t believe Bill lives hereWho would have thought?… a dining room that could accommodate probably about a hundred people … just astonishing … How could all this have existed right under my nose all this time? … the hospital chamber … They need more supplies and better equipmentI could help with that, couldn’t I? … and then that incongruous library just stuffed full of books and maps and papers strewn about on every surface … Dr. Wells needs a secretary, he chuckled … and everywhere he looked, there were people dressed in pieced-together clothes, like Kipper’s … curious, but cautiously friendly faces, even welcoming ones, like Mary … And why not? I’m being introduced to them by their Crown Prince

And then, there was Vincent with his arm around Cathy’s waist … No, not Cathy Here, she is Catherine Vincent’s Catherine … And that look in her eyes … If you are unkindIf you harmIf you betrayWhatever you do to him, you do to me … The man with the impossible face … those clear blue eyes … assessing mechallenging me … and yet vulnerable … My life is in your hands

And Kipper’s voice … Anyone who makes trouble for Vincent is no friend of mine … Kipper … OK, Uncle Stan, I’ll give you a second chance … Manna from Heaven …

I should hate himthat impossible man who holds her heartI ought to hate his very existenceBut I can’tI just can’tAnd it really isn’t even for HerIt’s the right thing to do … the right thing … to do …

Gradually, he became aware of the clanging and tapping on the pipes and his growling stomach. He opened his eyes, and then drew back in shock at the sight of four pre-teen boys gathered at the side of his bed, staring quietly and intently at him. He relaxed a bit when he recognized one as Kipper.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” Kipper chirped with a saucy grin. “Uncle Stan, I’d like you to meet my roommates, Zach, Eric, and Geoffrey.”

The smallest boy, Eric, pushed his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses back up his nose and added, “We came to take you to dinner, so you’d better get dressed.”

“Yeah,” Geoffrey chimed in. “You don’t want to be late for William’s good cooking.”

Mr. K chuckled, “Well, thanks guys. But right now, I don’t think I have anything else to wear except these pajamas and a robe and slippers. My muddy clothes all got sent to the laundry.”

Zach grinned, “That’s the other reason we’re here. Mary sent us to give you these.”

The four boys held out various patched-up articles of clothing, some thick knitted socks, and a pair of moccasin-like ankle boots.

“Oh my,” Mr. K replied, as he held up a patched chambray work shirt. A little too big, but it would fit. Then a heavy cowl-neck sweater made from a somewhat dizzying array of different yarns. Also a little big, but it would be very warm. Some patched denim overalls that looked to be about right for his height, and a set of men’s thermal underwear. All very practical, very clean, and very much appreciated.

They do the best with what they have, and they share whatever they can.

“Thank you, fellas,” Mr. K murmured, sincerely. “These are just terrific. While I get dressed, would you please go thank Mary for finding these wonderful things for me?”

“You guys go ahead and give Mary Uncle Stan’s message,” Kipper directed. “I’ll stay here and bring him to the dining hall when he’s ready.”

The three boys instantly dashed for the doorway, jockeying for first place and throwing back various versions of “Bye Uncle Stan! See ya later!”

Kipper shook his head. “I’m sorry if we woke you up before you were ready. But William has a strict schedule, especially for dinners, because he needs to leave on time to go help with the late dinner shift at the soup kitchen. Sister J.B. really depends on him.”

“Oh, don’t I know it!” Mr. K responded, gathering up his borrowed clothes and crossing behind a folded screen to get dressed. “Bill, well, your William, is just an amazing cook. I have no idea how he looks at the mish-mash of stuff in the pantry and figures out how to make incredible meals out of all those donations.”

“William used to be an Army cook back in Viet Nam,” Kipper explained. “You should talk with him, though, because it’s his story to tell, not mine.”

“I’ll do that,” Mr. K replied, all decked out in his Tunnel gear and crossing to the bed to put on his borrowed socks and moccasin boots. “I imagine everyone living down here has a story.” He looked up at Kipper. “I hope sometime you’ll share yours with me.”

“Aw,” Kipper grunted, waving his hand nonchalantly. “It’s not anything you won’t hear from some of the other kids. My Dad was a mean drunk. And when he got drunk, which was pretty much all the time, he liked to beat up my Mom … Me, too, if he could catch me …”

The boy cleared his throat. “Sometimes it was bad enough she had to go to the hospital. A broken arm. That sort of thing … He’d be all sorry, and then get mad all over again when he got the medical bills. Then, one day …”

Kipper turned away, fiddling with a loose thread on the quilt. “One day, he beat her so bad, she never came home … She died in the ambulance on the way to the ER.”

The boy paused, struggling not to cry.

“Kipper,” said Mr. K, reaching out to console the boy, but Kipper quickly shook him off, stepped away from the bed and from any comfort, and interrupted him, brusquely.

“The cops arrested him, and I got put in a foster home that wasn’t really any better than livin’ with Dad. So I ran away,” the boy continued, clearing his throat again and rubbing a runny nose with his jacket sleeve.

“I’d been livin’ on the streets for a few weeks when I found the St. Francis soup kitchen and Sister J.B. and William – Bill.” Kipper’s face broke into a fond smile. “They were really nice, and the food was so good! So I kept comin’ back.”

The boy stepped just a bit closer to the bed. “One night, I offered to help William clean up the kitchen, and he started talking about a special place where kids could be safe and taken care of and even loved. I thought he was just joshin’ me, and I said so. So the next night, he brought Zach with him, and Zach told me everything except for where this wonderful place was. I said I’d think about it.”

Kipper sighed, leaning against the bed and fidgeting with the loose thread again. “Then, the next night, I just barely escaped getting beat all to hell by some street toughs. William patched me up and asked again if I’d like to go see this safe place where he lived, and, well, here I am.”

“Wow,” said Mr. K quietly, not sure what to say to this kid who was so determined not to break down in front of him.

“It’s OK,” Kipper replied hoarsely, wiping his nose yet again on his sleeve. “I had it bad, but I came out of it OK. I have a really great home here with people who care about me and love me. You don’t have to feel sorry for me. You really don’t.”

“Is it OK for me to admire how brave and resourceful you are?” Mr. K asked gently.

Kipper gave Mr. K yet another one of those unnervingly discerning looks and then smiled softly, “Yeah, that would be OK.”

He cleared his throat again and grabbed Mr. K’s hand. “Come on, Uncle Stan! We don’t wanna be late for dinner!”

***

Catherine slowly woke to the gentle brush of the softest kisses raining upon her forehead, nose, and cheeks, and she burrowed even deeper under the covers and into the safe haven of Vincent’s embrace and the soothing rumble that rose from his chest. How does he do that?

The rumble was interrupted by a wheezy chuckle, as Vincent tucked two fingers under her chin and lifted her face up for a nuzzling kiss to her lips. “It’s time for Sleeping Beauty to awaken, My Love,” he murmured against her lips. “William just put out the first call for dinner, and your grumbly stomach tells me you must be hungry. I could bring you a tray if you’re too tired for the dining hall.”

“Mmmmm,” Catherine sighed, returning a playful kiss that landed on Vincent’s nose. “I’m still tired, but I don’t think it would be fair to let Stan brave a dining hall full of inquisitive Tunnel folk all by himself.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Vincent replied, reaching for Catherine’s robe at the end of the big bed and handing it to her. “He seems to have made quite a few friends already among the work crews. Father has officially offered him sanctuary, and Mary has certainly taken a shine to him. That will go a long way with everyone else.”

“And Kipper,” Catherine reminded him. “I saw him sitting right beside Stan during lunch, making introductions and talking about how often the Tunnel community has to marshal their resources to deal with failing pipes and flooding during the Spring rains.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Vincent agreed, drawing a reluctant Catherine up from the bed and shooing her over to the wardrobe to get dressed. “Kipper has a real eye for problem solving. He could be a project manager, or an urban planner, or maybe even an engineer, if he wanted.”

Catherine laughed, “Well, he’ll have to develop more of an affinity for math if he wants to be an engineer. Jamie, on the other hand, could probably get into any engineering program in the country.”

She handed Vincent a selection of clothing for him to wear that evening to dinner – a faded blue pin-striped collared shirt, the deep blue cashmere sweater she’d bought for him because it complimented his beautiful eyes, dark navy corduroy trousers, socks, and his black knee-high boots.

Vincent accepted the stack of clothing with a nod and a raised eyebrow. “Am I dressing to impress?” he asked coyly.

“No!” Catherine blurted, blushing, then relented. “Well, not so much to impress as to show another side of you. Stan has seen you in fight-or-flight mode and emergency-work-crew mode and mud-from-head-to-toe mode. I want him to see the teacher. The scholar.”

Vincent tilted his head to the side, considering. “A man he might be able to trust to treat the woman he loved and lost gently and with intelligence and consideration.” He sighed, “Catherine, I don’t think clothes are going to do that.”

“No, you’re right,” Catherine agreed. “But clothing can set the mood and create a positive atmosphere. Trust me. I have to do this all the time with my job.” She shook her head. “This is such a difficult and uncomfortable situation for all three of us. Is it unfair of me to hope that maybe we might find a way to all become friends?”

“I think you have every reason to hope,” Vincent replied, crossing over toward the bathing chamber to give Catherine privacy to change her clothes. Their moments together in the bathing chamber had passed, and he had much to consider before taking another step on their path toward Love. Dressing together just seemed too … much, right now.

“Stan has already made his own hesitant overtures in that direction,” he continued. “But it is no small thing to love and lose you Catherine, and he is a proud man. Perhaps you’re right. I should establish a positive atmosphere in which Stan can get to know me better.”

“And you know I love to see you in blue,” Catherine teased.

As you wish, My Catherine,” Vincent purred, giving her an elaborate bow and an almost seductive smile. “As you wish.

***

The dining hall was already bustling when Kipper and Mr. K arrived and took their places in the serving line. William spotted them as they drew closer to the serving table and called out, “Mr. K! Welcome! Oh, I’m sorry. I should call you Stan, shouldn’t I?”

“No, no, that’s OK, Bill,” Mr. K replied. “I think, for the sake of simplicity, you and I should stick with Mr. K and Bill. That way, we won’t get confused when we’re working at the soup kitchen.”

“All right then,” William agreed, sticking out one of his huge paws and shaking Mr. K’s hand. “Mr. K it is. Now what will you have this evening? I’ve made barbeque spare ribs just like my Daddy taught me when I was a boy living in Mobile, Alabama. Or, we have baked chicken a la King, if you don’t care for the spicy stuff, or eggplant lasagna if you’re a vegetarian.”

“Wow, Bill!” Mr. K laughed, pointing to the chicken entree. “I was telling Kipper earlier. I just don’t know how you do it! And it’s even more of a marvel that you can accomplish this down here! How on earth do you get the supplies?”

William chuckled, “We have wonderful, generous Helpers. But we also have created some pretty ingenious resources of our own over the years. We have contacts Above who have donated sections of their gardens for our use. We have access to professional kitchens, like the one at St. Francis Cathedral, to do some large scale canning and preserving in the Spring and Fall. And then, of course, there’s Catherine.”

“Cathy?” Mr. K asked. “I was under the impression Cathy could burn boiled water.”

William burst out laughing as he plated up Kipper’s spareribs with slaw and French fries. “Well, I will acknowledge that Catherine doesn’t have a particular talent for cooking,” he agreed. “But she oversees a charitable trust that really helps out with providing fresh meat and produce through our Helpers who are butchers and green grocers. She’s a very generous lady and a true friend.”

Mr. K smiled as he topped off his plate with two dinner rolls and a congealed salad. “Well, that doesn’t surprise me at all,” he replied. “Thanks, Bill. This looks marvelous.”

“My pleasure,” William answered as he worked on filling up Eric’s plate with the vegetable lasagna. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Say, listen Bill, could you do me a favor?” Mr. K asked. “You’re cooking late dinner at the soup kitchen tonight, right?”

“That’s right,” William replied.

“Would you let Sister J.B. know I’m unavailable for a while? Maybe invent a family emergency or something like that?” Mr. K asked. “I don’t want her worrying when I don’t show up for the late dinner shift.”

“That won’t be a problem,” William replied. “Sister J.B. grew up here in the Tunnels after her father died. She’s the one who sponsored me when I had a hard time re-entering civilian life after my service in Viet Nam. Don’t you worry. I can tell her exactly what’s going on, and she won’t breathe a word.”

Mr. K just stood there with his mouth open for a moment. Then, Kipper pushed his chin up with one finger and said, “You’re catchin’ flies, Uncle Stan. Let’s go find a place to sit.”

Just as Kipper and Mr. K were heading for an empty table in the corner, Father called out from the head table. “Mr. Kaczmarek, ah, Stan, won’t you please join us?”

Kipper whispered to Stan, “We’d better do as he says. Just be ready for a lot of talk about books and Shakespeare and Dickens.”

Mr. K smiled and responded, “I think I can handle it.”

“Yeah,” Kipper rejoined. “But I probably can’t.”

“Well, do you like the Mets?” Mr. K asked.

“Sure!” Kipper gushed. “Gosh, I love baseball! And so does Father! He knows all the stats.”

“Well then, let’s just get him talking about the Mets, shall we?” Mr. K proposed slyly.

“You got it, Uncle Stan!” Kipper agreed.

***

Vincent and Catherine joined the head table, only to discover Father, Mr. K, and Kipper engrossed in a lively conversation about the Mets’ prospects for the next season, who had the best batting average, and what kinds of trades they should be making to improve the team.

Vincent leaned over to whisper in Catherine’s ear. “They found Father’s weak spot.”

“I see,” she whispered back.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Mary called out. “Here’s Vincent and Catherine at last. Could we please talk about something besides baseball?”

“Well, I don’t know, Mary,” Catherine replied. “Joe Maxwell is a huge Mets fan. It’s really too bad he isn’t here to join in.”

“Please, please, I beg of you,” Mary implored. “I can’t listen to another baseball statistic tonight. I just can’t!”

Stan laughed and addressed Father, “I think we should table our discussion about trades for another time, sir, in deference to the ladies present.”

“Oh very well,” Father groused good-naturedly. “It’s only fair, I suppose. But baseball is such a wonderful way to encourage children to become interested in mathematics.”

“Well, how about this,” Stan answered. “Next season, I’ll buy a Skybox with enough seats to take all interested children and some adult chaperones, including you of course, Dr. Wells, to every Mets home game. In order to attend these games, each child will need to show good progress in their math studies, so they can fully appreciate the beauty of the sport. How does that sound?”

Father looked completely flabbergasted, and Kipper let out an ebullient whoop of joy.

Vincent laughed, “That sounds like a marvelous and exceptionally generous proposition, Stan. Thank you very much. I’ll be sure to add some appropriate literature assignments about baseball to our curriculum. ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Becoming Babe Ruth, and The Louisville Slugger come to mind. I’m sure there are others in our library.”

“You’re a teacher,” Stan commented neutrally, at last taking in Vincent’s change in attire.

“Yes,” Vincent replied. “Father and I trade off teaching English grammar, writing, and literature courses for all of our children and young people. I also share in teaching history, philosophy, science, and mathematics. And I help Elizabeth with her art and drawing classes.”

“Vincent is what we called a polymath back in my day,” Mary noted fondly. “His capacity to absorb and apply what he reads and learns is just astonishing.”

“A Renaissance Man,” Stan noted with some admiration.

“Yes!” Mary replied. “That’s it exactly.”

“Much like yourself,” Vincent added with his own admiration. “You came from nothing to become an accomplished architect and developer, art collector, civic leader, a significant patron of museums and symphonies and ballet ensembles and theatres and universities. A Renaissance Man.”

“I just need to figure out what to do with it,” Mr. K sighed. “Right now, I’m stuck. I don’t want to go back to the way I was, but I don’t want to just work on the docks forever. I have more to offer than that.”

“You’ve been through a traumatic loss, Stan,” Father noted. “You’ve acknowledged a need to change your life and taken the first steps to do so. That’s an extraordinary thing. You just need to find something you truly believe in, something that speaks to your heart rather than your ambition or your bank account.”

“I agree with Father,” Catherine added. “Stan, I know you. If you wanted to go to the Moon, you could do it.”

Mr. K laughed at that. “Well, probably not the Moon,” he joked, and then sobered. “Thank you. All of you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I do have one more observation to make, if you will humor me just a bit,” Father stated. “I was curious about your name. I have a bit of a penchant for names and their meanings, and I wondered if the name Stanislaw Kaczmarek had a special meaning in Polish. And it does. Stanislaw means …”

“Steadfast,” Mr. K broke in, smiling sadly. “My mother chose that name. She said she wanted me to be strong and steady and hardworking.”

“Yes indeed,” replied Father. “And those qualities helped you to persevere in difficult circumstances. Now your surname Kaczmarek is even more interesting.” He paused. “It means innkeeper. An exceptionally appropriate name for an architect and builder of hotels and resorts, don’t you think?”

“Huh,” said Mr. K. “I never knew that.”

“Now, bear with me,” Father continued in full professorial mode. “Here’s what I find fascinating. I also looked into the meaning of the name Elliott Burch, the name you chose when you felt your birth name was holding you back.”

“I never considered the meaning of that name,” Mr. K admitted. “I just chose something I thought sounded elegant and refined and accomplished. And not Polish.”

“And it served you well to a point,” Father replied. “But I don’t think the meaning of the name suits you personally at all. Elliott is a Hebrew name meaning ‘My God is the Lord.’ Now, I might be mistaken, but you don’t strike me as being a particularly religious man.”

Mr. K laughed. “My mother was a devout Catholic, and I have great respect for the institution and for people who genuinely live their faith, like Sister J.B. But you’re right. I’m not what you would call pious, and I’m not a regular church-goer.”

“There, you see? Now Burch takes us even further afield from your personality,” Father added. “It’s either English for the birch tree or German for town. So you see, the name you chose doesn’t suit you nearly as well as the name you were given at birth, the name you’ve now chosen to reclaim. I find that utterly fascinating, don’t you? Your impulse to return to your roots has brought you back to this singularly appropriate name.”

“Wow,” replied Mr. K, after a moment of contemplation. “And all this time, I’ve been masquerading as either My-God-is-the-Lord Tree or My-God-is-the-Lord Town, when I could have been the Steadfast Innkeeper.”

“Well, not anymore,” said Kipper, poking Mr. K with an elbow. “Right, Uncle Stan?”

“That’s right,” Mr. K replied with a grin, ruffling the kid’s hair. “Mr. Steadfast Innkeeper’s gonna to take you and your friends to see the Mets!”

Kipper batted away his hands, giggling. “OK, OK! Enough with the hair already,” he groused, picking up his empty plate and Mr. K’s. “I’m gonna go get in line for some dessert. William made sweet potato pie!”

“Save some for me!” Mr. K called as the boy sauntered off calling back a saucy, “You got it!”

The adults all laughed, knowing William would bring slices of pie over to their table once the eager children had been served.

“Cathy, I have a favor to ask,” Mr. K confided. “Could you spare a few moments for me, in private?”

“I’ll help clear the table,” Vincent offered. “Catherine, perhaps you and Stan could go talk in the library? It will be a while before William serves dessert to the adults.”

“Thanks, Vincent,” Catherine replied, squeezing his hand affectionately, then turning to Father. “If you’ll excuse us for a short while?”

“Certainly, my dear,” Father replied. “Mary and I need to go over our plans for tomorrow anyway.”

Before they left the room, Mr. K turned at the Tunnel entrance and watched Vincent avidly listening to several of the children all recounting their day to him at the same time as he cleared dishes from the head table.

I should hate him … but I just can’t.

***

“Vincent gets along well with the children,” Mr. K observed casually, as he walked with Catherine toward the library.

“Oh, they absolutely adore him,” Catherine responded. “You’d be very hard pressed to find anyone Below who doesn’t love and respect him.”

“Present company included,” Mr. K added neutrally, as they entered the library, choosing comfortable chairs by a side table.

“Present company especially,” Catherine replied firmly. “What’s this about, Stan?”

“I do need your advice – legal advice – on several matters,” Mr. K assured her. “But I have one personal question to ask, if I may.”

“All right,” Catherine responded. “I’ll answer it, if I can. But you must know I won’t betray any confidences.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. K agreed. “I completely understand. I just … I want to know … Ugh! I hardly know where to begin, Cathy!”

“Just ask your question, Stan,” she replied, evenly and coolly.

“Look, I know you love Vincent, that’s very clear to me, and he loves you. Any man would be a fool not to,” Mr. K declared. “I just need to know if you’ve considered how much your love for him might have been colored by the traumatic circumstances under which you met. Vincent saved your life after you’d been horribly injured. How much of your love might be hero worship? Not to mention he’s utterly impossible and completely remarkable! Like an Egyptian God walking straight out of a myth! And he’s unbelievably strong. I watched him lift a timber all by himself that would take three strong men to lift. I know full well he could squash me like a bug! And yet, he’s also supremely intelligent and treats everyone here with such patience and consideration. Let’s face it – you’re in love with a Superhero. Have you fully considered all the ramifications of loving someone as … impossible … as Vincent?”

Catherine smiled and shook her head. “I knew this question was coming.” She paused for a moment. “I have loved Vincent for more than three years now. Not from the moment we first met. No. I was certainly grateful to him, and when I first saw him after I removed my bandages, he frightened me, just for a moment, until I heard his voice and knew it was the gentle man who had saved me and cared for me. And I was immediately ashamed for being frightened by his differences. If you look at him – really look at him – you can’t help but see how completely beautiful he is. But no, this isn’t hero worship, or a fascination with his unusual beauty, or fangirling over his strength.”

She paused again. “How can I explain this best? Are you familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre?” she asked.

“Sure,” Mr. K responded. “Let me guess. Is he your Mr. Rochester?”

“No, that’s not what I’m getting at,” she laughed gently. “Do you recall the passage when Rochester declares his love to Jane and talks about how he believes they are connected by an invisible cord, and that if she leaves him and goes to Ireland, he fears the cord will break …”

I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly,” Mr. K quoted. “Yes. That was a particularly inspired piece of writing.”

“You’ve already remarked on the more obvious of Vincent’s extraordinary qualities,” Catherine continued. “But there are other exceptional abilities you can’t see. Vincent is a gifted and powerful empath. He can sense the feelings of people around him with an impressive degree of specificity. But with me, it’s different. Somehow, he can sense my feelings over great distances, strongly enough that he can pinpoint my location and come to me if I’m in danger. That’s how he’s been able to save my life on a number of occasions since I joined the DA’s office. He could even sense my feelings when I flew to Los Angeles for a case. He’s that powerful. And sometimes, if he’s been badly injured or is in danger, I can sense him. Not nearly as powerfully as he can sense me, but enough to know he needs help. When I came to you for special tools and explosives to rescue Vincent and Father from a cave-in, I knew something was very wrong before anyone Below even thought to tell me. We don’t just love each other. We are … bonded in a very real and profound way. Like Rochester’s invisible cord. Can you begin to understand that?”

“Oh my God, Cathy!” Mr. K interjected. “Don’t you feel … spied upon? Invaded? Constrained?”

“No, not at all,” she assured him. “Vincent can’t read my thoughts. Believe me, that has been a bone of contention between us, when he makes preemptive assumptions and decisions without consulting me based on my feelings, which don’t actually match what I’m thinking or intending.”

“Oh, and I certainly know how much you dislike men making your decisions for you,” Mr. K replied.

“Yes, indeed,” Catherine agreed. “Look, I appreciate your concern for me. You haven’t said it, but I know you must also be concerned about my physical wellbeing and safety. Vincent is phenomenally strong and fast, and I’m sure you’ve noticed his teeth and his nails.”

“Well … yes,” Mr. K reluctantly admitted. “I didn’t know how to bring them up without risking insult.”

“Hmmm … they are devastating weapons, and I have seen them in action defending me and defending his home and the people he loves,” Catherine responded frankly. “I’ve also seen the aftermath of what being forced to injure and even kill does to him. It is profoundly traumatic and painful for him. Needing to use his more fearsome gifts makes Vincent feel like he’s less than human. It’s an inaccurate self-image he’s had to battle all his life.”

“I can’t begin to imagine that kind of pain,” Mr. K said softly.

“That self-image also left Vincent convinced for a very long time that he could never have someone to love him,” Catherine added. “I’ve loved Vincent for over three years now, and for most of that time, he has kept me at arm’s length, loved me from afar, and resisted the idea of us as a couple because he fears himself. No matter how completely gentle and loving he is with children, babies, all of his family Below, and especially with me, that nagging doubt is always just in the background. Vincent and I – we’re something that has never been. Those are his words. We have to find our own path forward with courage and with care, and we’re only now starting to take baby steps toward the fulfillment of our relationship, even though we’ve loved each other so completely for so long. Can you understand that?”

“And you aren’t afraid of him?” Mr. K murmured. “He isn’t somehow controlling you?”

“Not for a moment, and not in the least. Vincent could never harm me. Our Bond wouldn’t let him. He just hasn’t quite been able to fully accept that yet,” Catherine replied firmly, then continued in a lighter vein. “The only permissible fear in this relationship is Vincent’s when I haven’t had my morning coffee. And really, that applies to everyone! Even Joe knows not to come between me and the coffee pot.”

Mr. K laughed heartily at that. “All right, my mind is a good bit more at ease,” he replied. “Please understand, Cathy. I love you too much not to worry about you and at least ask these stupid, invasive questions. Can you forgive me?”

“I think so,” Catherine replied. “Do you think you can find a way to accept Vincent and be our friend? We’d like that.”

“I’d like that as well, Cathy,” Mr. K answered. “And I do admire Vincent very much. I want to get to know him better.”

“I would welcome the opportunity,” Vincent said, as he entered the library bearing a tray with dessert and tea for two. “Pardon the intrusion, but if I didn’t bring you this, there’d be no dessert left for you at all.”

“Well, we can’t have that!” Catherine declared, clearing a few books from the tabletop.

“Thanks, Vincent,” said Mr. K. “Please, pull up a chair and join us. I could use your advice as well as Cathy’s.”

Vincent looked to Catherine, and she pointed to his Council chair. “It’s OK,” she urged. “Come sit with us. Have you already had your dessert? I wouldn’t want you to miss out.”

Vincent dragged up his chair, as Mr. K dived into his slice of sweet potato pie, humming with pleasure.

“I’ve had two pieces of pie at William’s insistence,” Vincent replied. “Bringing in your dessert rescued me from having a third piece foisted upon me.”

“Oh, this is so good,” Mr. K sighed. “Bill is a genius.”

“Hmmph,” replied Catherine, as she eagerly sampled her pie. “Your Bill is determined to fatten me up.”

“Nonsense,” Vincent retorted. “He’s simply trying to counteract your disturbing tendency to live on coffee, no lunch, and leftover Chinese take-out for dinner.”

“Hey,” Catherine reposted, pointing at Vincent with her fork. “I resemble that remark!”

“Ahem, well, far be it for me to get in the middle of … whatever this is,” Mr. K joked. “But I would like to pick your brains about a few issues. Kipper, for instance.”

“I think Kipper has decided to adopt you, Uncle Stan,” Vincent remarked.

“Well, the feeling is very mutual,” Mr. K responded. “He called you his lawyer at the police precinct, Cathy. Are you formally representing him on some matter?”

“No, I’m not,” Catherine answered. “All the Tunnel people and Helpers know to ask for me by name if they have problems with the police or need legal advice. Most have my business card. The children in particular know to ask for me if they get picked up by the police for suspected truancy, vagrancy, petty crimes, or other misunderstandings when they’re Above to play in the park or run errands.”

“That’s why Mouse asked for you when my security guards grabbed him at the construction site,” Mr. K commented, and Catherine nodded her head while enjoying another bite of pie. “OK, here’s my question concerning Kipper. He’s told me about what happened with his family and how he came to live Below. Legally, I guess he’s officially a runaway from the foster care system, right?”

“That’s correct,” said Catherine.

“And that’s why Kipper was so anxious about going to the police or giving me his name,” Mr. K reasoned. “Would there be some way for me to be appointed as Kipper’s legal guardian? If he would agree to it, of course. Kipper has so much promise, and I’d like to help him find his way, especially if he wants a life Above someday.”

“That’s incredibly generous of you, Stan, particularly since you’re still figuring out what you want to do with your own life,” Catherine replied. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m just asking questions right now, Cathy,” Mr. K answered. “Part of figuring things out is asking these kinds of questions. Is it possible, if Kipper is willing?”

“The short answer is yes,” Catherine said. “You may run into issues with being a single man, but those can be pretty easily overcome. There’s certainly no question about you having the resources to be an effective legal guardian. If Kipper agrees, there really shouldn’t be any serious obstacles to making this happen, and I’d be happy to help you find a good family law attorney and to serve as a character witness.”

“OK … OK, that’s good to know,” Mr. K replied thoughtfully.

“You have good instincts when it comes to dealing with Kipper, whether you realize it or not,” Vincent added. “Your plan for linking attendance at Mets games to progress in the children’s math studies is a perfect incentive for Kipper to take his studies more seriously. Kipper is an extremely bright boy, but he’s a bit behind the others because his home life made school attendance very erratic. As a defense, he’s adopted an ‘I’m too cool for school’ attitude that precludes him from applying himself as he should. Quite inadvertently, you’ve given him a reason and an excuse for school to suddenly be cool and worthwhile again. And I’m extremely grateful to you for that.”

“Huh. Well, you’re very welcome,” Mr. K responded. “I’d like to help out the entire community in other ways as well. I already mentioned talking with Kanin and Dr. Wells about tools and building supplies. You could also use better equipment in the hospital chamber, and I have contacts with medical suppliers. I’m sure there’s even more that someone with my resources can do without impinging upon your community’s commitment to self-sufficiency.”

“I’m glad you understand that,” Vincent replied. “Our life Below is a rather delicate balance. This is hardly a Utopia. We’re human beings with all the faults and frailties that come with the human condition. For instance, we discovered a lost shipwreck down in the lower tunnels that had a considerable cache of antique gold coins, gems, and other valuable artifacts. Arguments over what was to be done with such an extraordinary treasure nearly tore our community apart. We wound up routing it through Sister J.B. to her former convent, the Little Sisters of the Poor, to be used for charitable purposes Above.”

“I heard about that!” Mr. K marveled. “The artifacts were displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.”

“That’s right,” Vincent noted. “Catherine helped the convent to find a reputable dealer for the gold coins and gems. Those funds are still being used to support their ministry to the homeless here in New York City, as well as their international mission work in Africa and South America.”

“Wow,” Mr. K commented. “Well, I will certainly present my ideas for helping the community to Dr. Wells and the Council for their consideration and approval. I think what you’ve accomplished here is just extraordinary. There’s part of me that could probably live here forever with such good, kind people in this fantastic place, but I know my temperament is just too restless. I’m New York City born and bred, and I know my life, whatever form it takes, is Above.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be part of us,” Vincent responded. “Catherine lives Above, and she is very much one of us. You are welcome here, Stan. Anytime. You’re our friend. Come visit us regularly, and share in our celebrations, our work, and any projects that interest you. And you want to become a Helper. We would welcome that as well, gladly and most gratefully.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Mr. K replied, sincerely. “I have one final legal question for you Cathy, which may become many more questions over the next few days. Would it be possible to transform my corporate holdings into a nonprofit foundation?”

“Whew!” Catherine reacted. “That’s a big question. Again, the short answer is yes. It’s a very involved process, and you’ll want to consult experts in nonprofit law as well as corporate law to help guide you. My late father’s firm, Chandler and Coolidge, has excellent attorneys in both fields, but there are many others out there. The biggest issue will be your Board of Directors. When you announce your intention to migrate from for-profit to nonprofit status, some are going to simply jump ship. Of the ones that remain, you’ll need to make some careful value judgments about their motives and their abilities to help you move forward in the nonprofit sector. Then, you’ll need to bring on new board members with expertise in fields that will be helpful to your mission. Do you know what you want to accomplish with a nonprofit foundation?”

“Not yet, but I have some ideas percolating in my brain,” Mr. K answered. “I want to do something that will engage my skills as an architect and developer to help homeless and low-income people here in New York City. I think I want to reinvent the concept of low-income housing in some way that brings the people we want to help directly into the creative process, so the resulting buildings and programs really and truly serve their needs. I don’t want to just construct more high-rise slums or nasty tenements. I grew up in one of those, and I know how grinding and hopeless it can be. I want to create buildings that house communities of people receiving help and then giving help when they are able. I want to bring the Tunnel Philosophy up Above and create places where it can thrive.”

“I think that’s an extraordinary, even revolutionary, concept, Stan,” said Vincent. “It sounds like a project that would become a meaningful life’s work for you and an incredible legacy for the City.”

“If that’s what you want to do, Stan, I can already think of two people who would make excellent Board members or consultants or even staff members,” said Catherine.

“And who might they be?” asked Mr. K.

Catherine smiled. “Sister John the Baptist and … Luz Corrales.”

Mr. K stared at Catherine in consternation and then laughed. “You know what? After Luz spends a good couple of days reading me the riot act, you’re probably right. She’d be a terrific Board member.”

Mr. K sighed and leaned back in his chair, finishing off his cup of tea. “Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m completely wiped out,” he declared. “A four-hour nap doesn’t quite make up for getting no sleep at all last night after a long, hard day, a frankly terrifying night, and then emergency sandbag duty. I think I’ll turn in early. That is, if I can find my guest chamber.”

Vincent laughed. “I left Kipper playing a cut-throat game of checkers with his buddies in the dining room. I’m sure he’d be happy to guide Uncle Stan back to his quarters.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Mr. K said as he rose and crossed to the library exit. “Good night to you both, and thanks. I have a lot to think about.”

***

Late that evening, Joe Maxwell and detectives Hughes and Bell emerged from the DA’s heavily guarded conference room to go over their notes together.

“I don’t even know where to start!” Joe exclaimed, as the two detectives followed him down to his private office and he waved for Rita Escobar to join them. “This Coleman sleazebag is a messed up little freak, but if his story holds, and it certainly lines up with what we’ve heard from those two perps in the hospital, we’re gonna need to bring in the FBI, probably even Interpol, and definitely federal marshals from Witness Protection.”

“The main thing I see, Boss, is that we’ve got to move on this Gabriel Klein character right away and his lawyer Jonathan Pope,” Greg Hughes replied. “Klein sounds like the main honcho and a really vicious, powerful crime boss moving his way up the ranks into an international syndicate.”

Detective Bell added, “Coleman says the dead hitman, Snow, is Klein’s brother. If Coleman is right about this house out on Long Island where he first met Klein, we’ve got to hit it now and hit it hard, or Klein will just disappear to some place without a U.S. extradition agreement. He’s got a helipad, a private jet, and seemingly infinite resources.”

“All right,” Joe declared. “I’m calling the FBI right now, coordinating with the Long Island DA, and waking up Judge Harrison for the warrants. Rita, wherever Klein’s jet is hangared, I want you to shut down access to it. Also, put out an APB for Klein and Pope to all airports, train stations, bus terminals, you name it, in case they give us the slip.”

Rita rushed out to get started on her assignments, and Joe turned to the two detectives. “I want you guys to start pulling together a tactical team – only guys we know and really trust. We’ve got to keep a tight lid on this. No leaks! As soon as we have the warrants, we’re hitting that house before dawn.”

***

“What do you mean he’s not at his house or his office,” Gabriel Klein hissed into the phone. “Track Pope down, NOW, and either drag him back here to explain himself or bring me his head in a garbage bag!”

The immaculately dressed, gaunt man rose from his desk and strode over to the bank of windows looking out over the gardens of his Long Island estate. It was past midnight, but he could just make out the movement of one of his guards pacing the perimeter of the estate.

“Where would you go, Pope, you conniving traitor?” Klein muttered. Then he crossed back to his desk and pushed the intercom button.

“Yes, sir,” his valet answered.

“Get my private investigator on the phone, and pack my bags for two weeks,” Klein ordered. “Then wake up both of my pilots, and tell Hansen I’m taking the chopper to the airstrip as soon as it gets light.”

***

At breakfast the next morning, Vincent and Catherine were pleased to see Kipper in the serving line once again with his Uncle Stan in tow. The boy could be heard exuberantly extolling the virtues of William’s pancakes, as he piled his plate with a stack of at least seven pancakes to accompany his scrambled eggs, four slices of bacon, and a bowl of oatmeal.

Mr. K looked at the sky-high piled plate in consternation. “Where on earth do you put it all?” he asked, scanning the boy’s slender frame.

William’s boisterous laugh boomed across the dining room. “I can tell it’s been a while since you were a pre-teen boy, Mr. K,” he joked. “Kipper’s not alone. All of those boys eat like there’s no tomorrow, but then they run around like puppies and burn it all off. And he does clean his plate every time, so I can’t complain.”

Kipper blushed. “But it’s all so goooooood!” he whined.

“I’m glad you think so,” William replied. “Now, go get some butter and syrup for those pancakes and a tall glass of milk. What can I get for you, Mr. K?”

“After such a glowing review, I believe I must try the pancakes and some eggs, please,” Mr. K responded, as he selected a small fruit salad to go with his breakfast. “I hope Sister J.B. wasn’t too worried about me last night.”

“Well, you can find out for yourself,” William replied, as he pointed over to the head table.

Seated in animated conversation with Father and Mary was none other than Sister John the Baptist, enjoying some breakfast with them and engaging with other Tunnel residents as they dropped by the table to say hello.

“Let me guess,” said Kipper, as he took in the scene. “We’re sitting at the head table again, aren’t we?”

“It worked out pretty well for you last time, didn’t it?” replied Mr. K, striding over to stand in an open spot opposite Father and Sister J.B. with a polite, “May we join you?”

Catherine whispered to Vincent as they moved up the serving line and made their selections, “That looks like it’s going to be an interesting reunion.”

“Oh, most definitely,” he agreed. “Shall we go sit with them?”

“You bet!” she answered, hurrying ahead and calling out, “Good morning, Father!”

“Catherine, my dear!” Father responded, as she pecked him on the cheek and took a seat next to Mary. “You’re looking radiant this morning. I take it you’ve already had your coffee?”

“Yes, indeed,” Catherine replied. “A certain someone brought me a cup before I’d even opened my eyes this morning.”

“Self-preservation, I assure you,” Vincent quipped, as he took at seat beside Catherine.

“Hey!” Catherine mock-pouted.

“She resembles that remark!” quipped Kipper, and the entire group seated at the table laughed.

“It’s lovely to see you this morning, Sister John,” said Vincent, once they’d all calmed down.

“After I heard from Bill about all the ruckus with Kipper and Mr. K and Catherine, I just had to come down and lay eyes on them for myself,” Sister J.B. responded. “What a terrible experience! And you, Kipper. Such a courageous lad to stand up for those poor women! And you too, Mr. K, for helping him. And Miss Catherine, trouble just seems to follow you everywhere. Or, perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it. Trouble finds you, because you’re always helping people in desperate situations. How are you all feeling after this adventure, my dears?”

“I’m OK,” Kipper reported, just a little too quickly.

“Kipper …” said Sister J.B., looking at him firmly, but kindly.

The boy dropped his head and fiddled with his fork, tapping it on the table. “It’s no big deal,” he answered, huffily.

“Hey, Kipper,” Mr. K urged softly, turning his body to partially block the attention coming Kipper’s way from the rest of the table. He took the boy’s fluttering hands in his own. “Buddy, what’s wrong? You can tell me, you know. I was there.”

Kipper looked up into Mr. K’s face and then ducked his head, whispering, “I’m not so brave after all. I’m … I’m having nightmares. Like a little baby.”

“Oh hey, hey, that’s completely understandable,” Mr. K responded quietly, tipping Kipper’s chin up to look at him. “I’m having nightmares, too, and I’m a grown man.”

“Reeeeaaaallllly?” Kipper asked, looking right up into Mr. K’s eyes.

“Yes, really,” Mr. K replied firmly. “I’ve been through a few things, you know. I’ve been threatened by mobsters, hunted by mercenaries, even hounded by the CIA. But having bullets whizzing by my head? It takes a while to get over that.”

“It’s not so bad, except at night,” Kipper admitted, ducking his head down again. “All the shadows in our chamber start to look like those guys comin’ after us. And when I finally go to sleep, I dream that we’re running and running, and I hear that window break and a gun shot. And when I look back, you’re not with me. You’re lyin’ on the ground, and there’s blood all around you.”

And then the boy burst into tears and threw his arms around Mr. K’s neck. Mr. K hugged Kipper back and pulled the weeping boy into his lap, looking over at Catherine for some kind of guidance.

Library, she silently mouthed to him.

So Mr. K lifted Kipper into his arms and carried him out of the dining hall, down the Tunnel, and into the library, settling onto the couch with the sobbing child beside him, still wrapped in his arms. He rocked the two of them back and forth ever so slightly, rubbing Kipper’s back and just letting the boy cry it all out.

When the tears subsided into hitching breaths, Mr. K murmured softly, “It’s OK, Buddy. You’ve been keeping all this locked up inside, and it was bound to come out. Talking about our nightmares usually helps to make them not so powerful. This is a good thing.”

“But I’m crying like a stu-stupid little baby,” Kipper complained, frightfully embarrassed.

“Hey, tears are never stupid, Kipper,” Mr. K replied. “We need them to help us let out the pain and the fear and the sadness and even the anger we’re feeling. You know, people who force themselves not to cry and to ignore all these feelings often become hard and mean and cruel. I don’t want that for you, Buddy.”

“I just want these nightmares to go away,” Kipper sighed. “I don’t like being afraid of my own chamber.”

“I hear you,” Mr. K responded, thinking for a moment. “What about this? Sometimes changing your surroundings can help. I’m having nightmares too. What if we put a cot in my chamber, and you try spending a night or two in my room? The change in location might just do the trick, and if you do have a nightmare, or if I have a nightmare, we’ll both be right there, and we can talk about it. We can even leave the lamp on all night to keep the shadows at bay. Does that make sense?”

Kipper wiped his face and nose on his sleeves.

I’ve got to introduce this kid to handkerchiefs, Mr. K sighed inwardly.

Then Kipper looked up at Mr. K, studying him for a moment. “OK, Uncle Stan,” he replied. “We can try that.”

***

Back in the dining room, Sister J.B. looked apologetically at Father and said, “Oh dear. I should have saved my questions for a more private space.”

“You couldn’t have known, Sister John,” Vincent replied. “None of us were aware of Kipper’s nightmares, although it only makes sense in retrospect. It was a terrifying experience for all of us.”

“I’m glad to see Mr. K taking an interest in Kipper,” Sister J.B. noted. “He’s such a nice man – a bit of a rascal – but also very lonely, I believe.”

“Stan says Kipper reminds him very much of himself as a boy,” Catherine added. “I’m happy to see them getting along so well. Kipper could use a good friend Above, and Stan is in a position to help him out a great deal.”

Just then, Mouse puffed up to the table, bouncing and out of breath. “Message,” he panted. “For Catherine. From Harvey.” He handed her a folded piece of yellow paper, obviously torn from a legal pad.

“This must be from Joe,” Catherine said, quickly unfolding the paper and reading the brief message out loud. “R, Big doings. Mopping things up. Stay put. Stay safe. More later. – J.”

She thought for a moment and then asked, “Mouse, would you run to Glen Turner’s newsstand and bring back copies of all the major morning papers, please? He’ll know what I want. And please ask him to send down all the major afternoon papers later on as well. I’ll give you plenty of money for the papers and also a hot dog with all the fixings from Mauricio’s hot dog stand.”

“OK good! OK fine!” Mouse answered, hopping from foot to foot. “Something important happening? Take Jamie, too?”

“Yes, Mouse,” Catherine answered. “Something big is happening with this case. And please, do take Jamie along. I’ll give you enough money for TWO hot dogs! Come on!”

***

Early that morning, the FBI and two NYPD ESU teams descended on Gabriel Klein’s estate in Long Island. His perimeter guards were quietly taken out, and just as the wily gangster emerged from his house to walk over to his waiting helicopter, the teams swept in to storm the house and the helipad. Klein made a run for it and managed to reach the helicopter, but as it was taking off, a stray bullet struck the gas tank, and the chopper blew up before it even cleared the helipad. There were no survivors.

At the same time, in a coordinated strike, other police teams burst into the home and office of Jonathan Pope. He was nowhere to be found. A search of flight plans filed at La Guardia, JFK, and Newark airports uncovered a Mr. J. Pope listed as a last-minute passenger on a private charter flight to Brunei. Interpol was informed. The search for Mr. Pope was underway.

***

At the Al Afiah Hotel in Brunei, Jonathan Pope relaxed happily by the pool, sipping his favorite cocktail. He had enough money stashed away in his Swiss bank accounts to live comfortably in seclusion for the rest of his life. Forget Gabriel Klein and his wild plans to take over the international syndicate. That bastard was getting crazier and more paranoid and unpredictable by the day. It was only a matter of time before he killed himself, or killed everyone around him, or both. Well, not Jonathan Pope. Oh no. He knew when to cut and run.

He smiled over at the lovely bartender and waggled his empty cocktail glass her way. Now, she was a stunner. Wonder how much money it would take to get her in my bed tonight? Hmmm?

The bartender leaned over playfully, displaying her ample cleavage, to caress Pope’s face and neck as she handed him another martini. By the time he felt the needle in his neck, it was already too late.

The bartender walked casually back to the bar, left the unconsumed martini on the counter, and departed the hotel in her Jaguar. No one noticed the man slumped in his lounger, or if they did, they just assumed he was asleep.

Gabriel will be pleased, the lovely assassin thought as she drove away.

Little did she know she was never going to get the second half of her fee.

***

Sister John the Baptist carefully poked her head around the library entrance to check on how things were going with Kipper and Mr. K. She was glad to see that Kipper had calmed down and the two were quietly talking together on the couch.

Sister J.B. smiled to herself. I knew that scallywag had a heart of gold, bless him! Bless them both, Father Almighty, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

She cleared her throat and stepped into the room. “Pardon me,” she said. “But I thought I’d just check in on you two fellas and offer my apologies. Kipper, I’m so sorry to have brought up a frightening subject in such a public place. I should have waited until we could visit in private. Can you forgive an old nun, who should have known better?”

Kipper ran over to Sister J.B. and threw his arms around her waist. “It’s OK,” he murmured, snuggling further into her warm embrace. “I know you were just worried about me, about all of us. You didn’t know I was having nightmares.”

“Please, Sister J.B.,” said Mr. K, gallantly rising and gesturing to the couch. “Come join us. There’s plenty of room on the couch for three. Kipper and I have been talking about nightmares and ways we can try to work through them and hopefully banish them.”

Sister J.B. happily took Kipper’s hand and let him lead her over to the big, squashy couch. “Oh my,” she said when she sat down. “Well, this certainly is a comfy sofa, but I may need help digging myself out of it!” And they all laughed.

“You know,” she added. “I have a thought or two about nightmares myself. Psychologists and neurologists have lots of theories about what dreams and nightmares actually are and why we have them. Current opinion seems to be that dreams and nightmares are our brain’s way of taking apart what we have experienced or what we might be feeling, the good and the bad, and putting them back together in different ways to try and understand them. Sometimes our dreams are helpful, and things fall into new patterns that make us feel better and more capable. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all, and we wake up wondering where on earth that strange dream came from! Unfortunately, sometimes they take scary images and frightening thoughts and just make them bigger and more terrible. Even then, sometimes nightmares have something to tell us. I think your nightmare might be telling you how much you care about Mr. K.”

Mr. K’s jaw dropped open, and then he swallowed back the lump in his throat.

“Huh! I never thought about it that way,” replied Kipper. “I just knew it made me feel scared and upset. I guess that’s what Uncle Stan means when he says talking about our nightmares can take away their power.”

“Well, your Uncle Stan is a very wise and kind man,” Sister J.B. responded, and then reassumed her prim persona to help distract Mr. K from his sudden emotion. “Although he is still a rascal and far too saucy for his own good!”

“Hey!” pouted Mr. K.

“He resembles that remark!” joked Kipper. And they all laughed again.

“Kipper and I have an experiment to propose to Dr. Wells,” Mr. K said, once they’d all calmed down. “We’re going to ask if we can put a cot in my chamber and see if a change in scenery might help Kipper with his nightmares. Plus, I’ll be right there to talk with him if he wakes up afraid and out of sorts.”

“That sounds like a fine plan to me,” Father declared from the tunnel entrance, as Catherine helped him negotiate the short flight of stairs. “We can certainly spare a cot from the hospital chamber or the nursery.”

“I know exactly which cot will be best,” said Mary, following them down the steps on Vincent’s arm. “We want that large cot we keep in the nursery for Vincent when he takes an overnight shift with the little ones. It will be more comfortable for Kipper, and comfort helps promote a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll carry it down to your chamber, Stan,” Vincent added. “And I’ll ask Sarah to bring you some fresh linens from the laundry.”

“And I have an extra quilt in my cupboard,” Mary volunteered. “A different place, different bedcovers, and different company just might tell those nightmares to get lost!”

“A slumber party!” Catherine beamed.

“Awww, that’s for girls,” whined Kipper.

“Well, excuse me, Mr. He-Man, Woman-Hater!” Catherine retorted. “A sleep-over, then, or a campout! How about that?”

“That’s better!” Kipper replied, snootily, and then leaned over to Mr. K, whispering, “What’s a He-Man Woman-Hater?”

Mr. K laughed heartily, “Cathy’s just joshin’ you. It’s from an old black-and-white television series called The Little Rascals. The boys had a not-so-secret clubhouse they called ‘The He-Man Woman-Haters Club – No Girls Allowed, and We Mean It.’ I’d almost forgotten about that series! I loved it when I was a kid.”

“So did I,” Catherine giggled. “I loved all the crazy soapbox cars they built with the wheels that waggled all over the place and sometimes fell off.”

“Oh yeah!” Mr. K laughed. “Those things were great! Come to think of it, all the stuff the rascals built from just a bunch of junk is probably what inspired my interest in building things.”

“Stan, would you be willing to talk about your work with the children in my middle-school math class this morning?” Vincent asked. “I’m sure they’d like to hear about what inspired you as a boy, and how math is such an important part of the work you do.”

“Oh yes, please do!” Father enthused. “We always like to incorporate real life examples of how the skills the children are mastering can be applied in our daily lives both Below and Above.”

“I’ll introduce you to the kids you don’t know yet,” Kipper offered. “It would be cool to hear about your job and how you design and build all those tall buildings.”

Mr. K looked around at the expectant faces in the room, and then hesitantly nodded his head in agreement. “Well, if you’re sure, I’d be happy to give it a try,” he replied. “I’ve never taught a class before.”

“Think of it more as a conversation or even a board meeting,” said Catherine. “You’re very accustomed to talking with people about your work. These kids are a good bit younger, but it’s really not that different. I was more than a little nervous the first time I spoke to Father’s high school-level civics class. But I quickly learned that schooling down here is much more informal than it is Above. It’s more about guiding these children to apply their natural curiosity to the topic at hand. And they’ll help you – believe me! They’ll have lots of questions to help shape the conversation, and before you know it, your class time will be over, and you’ll be itching to speak with another class! I’m completely hooked!”

“Catherine is a wonderful teacher and story-teller,” said Vincent. “Stan, just listening to you and watching you interact with Kipper and his buddies tells me that you’ll do well as a guest speaker, and you’ll relax and enjoy it.”

“And I would like to know more about this business of being an architect and builder, Mr. I-Just-Work-on-the-Docks,” Sister J.B. commented primly. “I always knew there was more than met the eye with you, Mr. K. You are entirely too polished and urbane to be a dockworker.”

Mr. K sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m sure it is,” the nun replied. “And one that will wait for another time. I must be getting back to the shelter to supervise lunch preparations. But I will be expecting a conversation with you, young man, don’t you forget it!”

“Of course, Sister J.B.,” Mr. K responded with a twinkle and a charming grin. “As you wish.”

“Oh, go on with you, you sweet-talking rogue!” Sister J.B. rejoined as she worked her way out of the couch with his assistance.

“Father, Mary, Kipper, always lovely to see you,” the nun said, exchanging hugs with them, and then rounding on Vincent and Catherine. “And you two lovebirds. Hmmmm. I expect an invitation to your wedding sometime soon.”

Catherine blushed and began explaining, “Sister John, we …”

“We would be very happy to have you come to our wedding, Sister John,” Vincent interjected. “But, please allow us to decide to become engaged first.”

Sister J.B. laughed heartily. “Oh my, Vincent,” she added. “Don’t you realize that’s a foregone conclusion, son?” And she kissed him soundly on both cheeks. “Bless you. Bless you both.”

And with that proclamation, the plucky nun gave them a nod and a jaunty wave as she left the room.

***

By mid-day, Joe gathered together the lead FBI agent, the NYPD ESU tactical specialist, and detectives Hughes and Bell for an after-action conference.

“We’ve finished a complete sweep of the estate,” Tactical Specialist Sgt. Flynn O’Carroll reported. “We’ve rounded up twelve guards, two security technicians, and five household staff. According to Mr. Klein’s valet, everyone on staff is accounted for. We caught ‘em by surprise.”

Greg Hughes added, “I just got a call from Sergeant Anderson at Klein’s airstrip. We have his pilots, as well as their proposed flight plan. Klein was heading to Greece and from there to Brunei. He was going after Pope.”

FBI Special Agent Emily Prentiss hung up the phone and stated, “That was Interpol. Jonathan Pope’s body has been located at the Al Afiah Hotel in Brunei. Someone poisoned him with an injection of botulinum toxin. No fingerprints, no leads, all the hallmarks of a professional hit.”

“Well, doesn’t that just put a pretty, neat bow on this case,” Joe groused. “I don’t trust pretty, neat bows, but when criminals decide to take each other out, it does make our jobs a bit easier.” He sighed, “Now comes the worst part.”

“Dealing with the families?” asked Detective Bell.

“No,” Joe replied. “The paperwork!”

***

When Mouse arrived at lunchtime with the morning papers, everyone gathered around the Council table while Catherine scanned the headlines for news about their case.

“Oh, my gosh,” she said. “According to this report, the nine men arrested in the raid on Coleman Industries were somehow poisoned in their jail cells early this morning. They’re all dead. Plus, the two men I shot were killed by a hitman who attacked them at Bellevue. He’s dead too, shot by the police.”

“Is that it?” Mr. K asked. “Is this nightmare finally over?”

“Based on Joe’s note, I don’t think so,” Catherine replied. “He said something about mopping up. He must have gotten a lead on the crime boss behind this whole disgusting enterprise, and he wants us to stay hidden until he’s sure they’ve arrested everyone involved.”

“We should listen to Mr. Maxwell and Catherine,” Father urged. “I know you must want to return to your life Above, Stan. But please, do stay with us until Mr. Maxwell sends word to Catherine that it’s safe for you to go Topside.”

“Yeah, don’t go, Uncle Stan,” Kipper pleaded. “We haven’t had a chance to try our experiment yet.”

“Hey, Buddy, I’m not at all anxious to leave,” replied Mr. K. “I’d really like to spend more time here exploring this incredible place and getting to know your friends and community members. I’ve only had the nickel tour so far, and I want to see everything! So I’m in no rush to find out just how bad my apartment stinks from the trash in my kitchen waste can. It would just be a relief to know we’re no longer in danger.”

“Oh, don’t remind me!” Catherine groaned. “There’s the remains of a chicken Caesar salad in mine! Maybe there will be updates in the afternoon papers or even a follow-up note from Joe. These things take time, and Joe’s turned into a real mother hen when it comes to me. He won’t give the all clear until he’s sure.”

“See?” Mr. K said to Kipper. “I’m not going anywhere for at least a few days. And even when I do go, I’ll be back for regular visits. Don’t you worry.”

“And I can always see you at the soup kitchen,” Kipper said. “I sometimes come up to help William out.”

“That’s right,” Mr. K responded. “No matter what I do, I’ll still be reporting to the St. Francis soup kitchen at least three times per week for the late dinner shift. Now listen to me carefully, Buddy. I’m going to be making some changes in where I live and maybe even where I work. It’ll take a while, probably at least a month. But I’ll be sure to let you know my home and office addresses, both now and after I move, so you can come see me anytime. I mean it. You’ll have a building pass and everything. I don’t want to stop being your Uncle Stan, if you’ll have me.”

Kipper gave him another thorough, assessing gaze.

That kid is a human lie detector, I just know it! Uncanny!

Then the boy positively beamed, “I’d like that Uncle Stan. I really would.”

***

Six months later, the print press and television news were on fire with reports about the dissolution of Burch Development Corporation and the formation of the Mathilde Kaczmarek Innovations in Housing Foundation. Society gossip columnists had a feeding frenzy over the revelation that Elliott Burch had actually been born Stanislaw Kaczmarek, and he’d named his foundation after his late mother – who had been a laundress and a maid!

The snobs had their noses in a twist for a while, but none of them wanted to be left out of the fundraising events for the new foundation, which were the talk of the town. After all, the foundation’s powerful Board of Directors featured movers and shakers from the financial and development fields, as well as noted philanthropists and social influencers like attorneys Catherine Chandler and Joseph Maxwell, representatives from faith-based charitable organizations, like Sister John the Baptist from the St. Francis Cathedral Homeless Shelter, and housing activists, like Luz Corrales from the Fairness in Housing Coalition.

And at each event, wearing matching suits and ties, Stan Kaczmarek proudly introduced his nephew and ward – Christopher “Kipper” Moskowitz.

THE END

“Once, I thought I could never understand this man.
Now, sometimes I understand him all too well.

He has his own kind of nobility.”

– spoken by Vincent in the closing scene of
Season 2, Episode 18, “A Kingdom by the Sea”

3 Comments

  1. Has anyone spotted some names for characters I’ve created that seem somehow familiar to you? Hmmm? Well, yes, I did “borrow” some names from characters in favorite TV shows, namely:

    Detective Marcus Bell is a character from the television show Elementary.
    FBI Special Agent Emily Prentiss is a character from the television show Criminal Minds.

    And Tactical Specialist Sgt. Flynn O’Carroll is lovingly borrowed, with the gracious permission of the one and only Carole Whitehead, from her marvelous ongoing series of BATB tales. We got a kick out of the idea that my BATB AU and hers might occasionally “touch” from time to time. This is the first of those times. Who knows? There may be more …

    Reply
  2. I wasn’t sure if I had read this before since there are no dates on the main page. I did find the dates in the comments. This story was great. Catherine lives!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Karla! This story is my “magnum opus” so far — the longest one I’ve written. I always liked the character Elliott Burch, especially as he was so skillfully brought to life by the great Edward Albert, Jr. I was so disappointed with the way TPTB decided to kill him off and always wanted to create a better and much more fitting storyline for him. Elliott deserves happiness, just not with Catherine. So this is my attempt to write a combination “She’s Not Dead” AND “He’s Not Dead Either” story.

      If you read Walking Unfamiliar Ground, Songbirds of North America, and A Second Harvest, you’ll find that Elliott/Stan’s story continues. I’m actually in the midst of writing another story in this AU — The Ache for Home — but I’m stuck on page 27 with a good bit still to go. Hopefully, I’ll finish it up for the July 2024 BATB con.

      HUGS,

      Karen/Lindariel

      Reply

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