The Summer 2023 CABB Challenge
NEW VOICES FROM ABOVE AND BELOW
like a circle
by JoAnn Baca
A family is like a circle.
The connection never ends.
~ Nicole M. O’Neil
Vincent’s hackles rose and he slowed his steps. Someone was on the secluded park bench he had to pass to return to the Central Park tunnel entrance. Not lying on it sleeping, as a person down on his luck might. No, the person was alert and upright, despite the lateness of the hour and the dangers inherent in being alone in this concealed place.
His footfalls had been nearly noiseless from long habit when Above. So he was stunned when the person on the bench whispered, “I know you’re there behind me.”
Vincent sniffed the air and gazed around him in a complete circle, alert for any others possibly hiding in the area. The trauma of having been captured by the university scientists was still with him, so that he was doubly careful of his surroundings and leery of any changes in routine around the park entrance. A black cat crossed the path in front of him on silent paws, but nothing else moved or breathed except the man on the bench.
In a murmur pitched for the other’s ears alone, Vincent said, “My apologies. I thought I’d be alone here. I’m leaving now.”
“Please, stay. Talk to me?”
The plaintive tone of the man’s voice spoke of a deep loneliness that reached Vincent’s heart and held him from retreat. Still, natural wariness made him pull the hood of his cape over his head, and he held it tightly so that only his eyes were visible. “I…I cannot join you,” he said apologetically. “It’s…not wise. I’m sorry.”
Strangely, the person on the bench did not turn to him. Rather, he lifted one arm and waved something in the air for Vincent to see. A cane. A white one.
The man on the bench was blind.
Vincent considered him. It was unusual, even in a city like New York, for a blind person to be out alone in the middle of the night in a place so far from any help should they find themselves in trouble. He wanted to be sure the man understood the situation he was in. “Are you aware of how far from the road you are? From other people, even the few who stay in the park all night?”
“I am, yes. It’s all right. I don’t mind if you don’t,” came the cheeky reply.
Satisfied that there was no reason not to spend a few minutes talking with the harmless stranger, Vincent emerged from the brush behind the bench and came forward. As he did so, the man scooted over to one end of the bench, clearly expecting Vincent to sit beside him.
“It’s safe enough here, don’t worry.” The man patted the bench beside him. “Come sit. Tell me your name. I’m Vincent.” He held out a hand in the general direction of Vincent, apparently wanting to shake hands.
With only the slightest of hesitations, Vincent sat, although he ignored the proffered hand. “We have the same first name,” he informed the stranger.
“Really? How odd! My last name is Wells. Yours?”
Vincent’s eyebrows rose at the information. The night had become very strange indeed. Prudence dictated that he not reveal all, so he merely said, “I just go by Vincent.”
“I see. Well then, why not call me Wells, so it doesn’t sound odd to hear yourself say your own name?”
“That’s fine,” Vincent replied, amused. “May I ask what brings you to this place at such an hour, Mr. Wells?”
“Ah. Therein hangs a tale,” Wells responded. “I come here often, but usually during the day. It’s secluded here, yet not too. I sometimes hear children come and go, and often others. The children – some of them – even talk to me at times, since they recognize me as a bench regular.”
Vincent made a mental note to ask the children about this man. Aloud he said, “You said you usually come during the day. So…why come here tonight?”
“I confess…it was to meet you.”
The dangers inherent in such a statement – betraying knowledge of him specifically and that he could be found on this path – stunned Vincent into momentary immobility.
The other Vincent Wells…if that was truly his name…reached out as if to grasp Vincent’s forearm. Vincent flinched away. It was the second time the man had tried to touch him, and Vincent grew even warier.
“I mean you no harm, I promise. Hear me out.”
Suspicion darkened Vincent’s features; his pulse pounded in his ears, and every fiber of his being vibrated with the urge to flee. He nearly obeyed that instinct until he heard the man’s next words.
“Thank you for staying even though you feel it might be unwise to.” He set his cane upright on the ground between his legs and leaned on it with folded hands. Sighing, Wells admitted, “I nearly fell asleep and missed you. You have stayed out much later than usual. It must be close to 2 a.m.”
“How do you know so much about me?” Vincent’s concern over-rode his panic, as he focused on calculating the cost in time and inconvenience to shutter the park entrance for the foreseeable future, if a blind man could determine so much on his own.
“I have known you for a long time.”
Had this man been part of the community Below when he was a child? As Vincent gazed at him in the darkness, the slightest prickle of recognition tickled his mind, but trying to grasp it more firmly only led to it slipping away entirely.
Wells imparted a bit more information. “I wasn’t always blind, you know.”
“How would I know that?” Vincent’s curiosity was piqued, hoping that any clue the stranger would give him could help him as he tried to find that slippery tendril of recognition that was eluding him.
“That is a story for another time.”
Vincent realized this man wasn’t revealing much about himself. And despite his desire to know more, a part of him wondered if this was a delaying tactic meant to keep him engaged here until…something else, or someone else, arrived.
He would not let himself be drawn in further.
Without another word, Vincent rose and slipped away. Wells called his name twice, urgently, but Vincent refused to go back to the bench. In leaving, he took a different path than the one that had brought him near the bench, one which led him far afield from the entrance to his world. Instead, he returned to Catherine’s building and got back to the Home Tunnels through that route, hoping his unexpected actions would throw off anyone watching for him in the park.
Whoever the blind man was, unraveling the mystery of his knowledge was not worth capture, nor revealing more about the park entrance.
* * *
Vincent finished telling the Council of his strange encounter at a hastily convened early morning meeting. It was held in the kitchen chamber, in deference to William’s need to get breakfast started for the community.
Shock and fear filled the faces of the Council members.
“I haven’t been here as long as the rest of you. Does this man sound like someone from the past?” Jamie, the newest Council member, asked.
“No,” Mary and Father said in unison. “Trust me,” Father added, “someone named Vincent Wells would have earned a place in our memories!”
“But if he gave a false name…” Mary shrugged. “A white male in his 60s… Over the decades, there have been dozens who have come and gone, many of whom might fit that description now. Some have been lost to us and the Helpers; not everyone wants to stay in touch.”
“We’ll have to close up the park entrance,” William said, “and give the kids a talking-to about chatting with strangers, even friendly-seeming ones. Who knows what this guy might have picked up from things they let slip without meaning to.”
Reluctantly, the others nodded. “It will mean finding a longer, less convenient way for the children to get Above to play in the sunshine,” Mary mused.
“Maybe one of us should go Above today to see if we can find this guy,” William said. “You know, sit on the bench with a sandwich and pretend to be someone just spending their lunch hour in the park.”
“Yes, that sounds like a good plan.” Father frowned, trying to think of who best to send.
“It should be me,” Mary announced. “Other than Father, I’ve been here longest , so I stand the best chance of identifying him if he has, indeed, lived among us.” When Father looked skeptical, she added, “A woman might be unexpected, if he thinks he’ll be checked on.”
It was agreed, and Mary made preparations to dress as if she still belonged Above.
* * *
He was sitting right where Vincent had told them he would be. A distinguished-looking gentleman dressed in a suit and wearing sunglasses, with a white cane by his side. Gray hair, a long face, an imperious bearing… Mary’s eyes widened in recognition.
She walked over and sat down next to him, making no pretense of randomly selecting the bench or pulling out her lunch.
“How did you find us?” she said, eyes straight ahead, not on him.
The man smiled and turned to look at her. He no longer pretended he was blind, an old ruse that lured people into a swift comfort level a sighted stranger could not. “It wasn’t as hard as you might think,” he said, smirking. “You look…old, my dear.”
Ignoring the taunt, Mary said, “What will it take to get rid of you, Luke?”
Shifting on the bench, the man inclined his head toward her. “I’m not after my brother, my dear, of that you can rest easy. John can rot for all I care.” He plucked away a fallen leaf that had landed on his slacks. “I am here representing Matthew and Mark, as well. I convinced them a quiet approach was best. I only want what’s ours.”
“You met Vincent last night. You can’t imagine he could be taken anywhere he didn’t wish to go.” She said this with all the bluster she could marshal, secretly terrified that what the Pater brothers wanted, they could probably get.
“Someone much less skilled than we are tried, and succeeded. We nearly had our hands on him soon after. There was a young scientist at the university we were in negotiations with…until he met a bad end.” He shrugged. “We can wreak havoc, if it comes to it. Who do you think helped brother John get into the drug business?” He snorted wryly. “Then the turncoat kept the profits and cut us out entirely. Betrayal of family cannot be tolerated. Not twice. He’s dead to us now.”
She had met John Pater’s brothers once, just before Anna had moved into the Tunnels with John, in part to get away from their malign influence, or so Anna thought. Later, Anna had come to suspect that John had engaged in some double-dealing with his brothers. That the double-dealing had involved the baby Vincent was Anna’s dark suspicion – for Anna had confessed to Mary that she had suspected John of being involved in the child’s creation, perhaps with his brothers’ active engagement. Disappearing from the face of the Earth had been preferable to whatever consequences John would have faced from his brothers, Anna had believed.
Anna had known the kind of men they were, that they would not stop trying until they had John at their mercy. Mary suspected the same would hold true with Vincent. For years, living Below seemed to have been the perfect cover, stymying their attempts to find John or Vincent. Perhaps learning about the “beast” captured in Central Park had given the Paters the clue they needed that the baby had, in fact, grown to adulthood…and enough information to renew their search.
Only…now they didn’t want Paracelsus. They wanted Vincent. Only Vincent.
Mary’s mind skittered through the limited options. Pleading with them to leave Vincent alone would do no good. There was nothing of value Below with which to bribe them into dropping their quest. If the Paters entered the Tunnels to try to capture Vincent, even should they not succeed, the resulting destruction and casualties would be unbearable, not to mention the likelihood of exposure of the community Below.
The choice was stark and obvious. Turning Vincent over to them was the only option.
She despaired, then shoved the emotion aside in the next instant. She was unaccustomed to deceit, and revolted by the kind of betrayal the Paters expected in return for leaving the Tunnels be. But…they had left her with only one choice. An awful one. One she could never be forgiven for.
Mary’s natural tendency to kindness and openness would serve her ill in this situation, she knew. She had to dig deep, had to find a stiff spine and a steely determination in order to accomplish what she must. She took a deep breath as she made the only decision possible.
She drilled Luke Pater with a look. “You promise you’ll hurt no one Below if I help you? You must promise. They are kind people with no part in this other than a welcoming, loving nature.”
Luke shrugged. “If you can deliver Vincent into our hands, we wouldn’t have any reason to bother your friends down there. They can rot along with John.”
She nodded, satisfied that he spoke the truth. She knew enough about the Paters to understand that they were single-minded. If they got what they wanted, they didn’t believe in collateral damage. “All right. I’ll help you.”
The smile Luke gave her matched Paracelsus’s for cruelty and triumph. She shuddered but…she knew what she had to do in order to protect the Tunnels.
Together they worked out a plan.
* * *
“Are you sure he can be trusted?” Vincent asked again as, together with Mary, he traveled up to one of the lesser-used entrance points to the Tunnels.
“What other choice do I…do we have?” she asked. “He has questions about Paracelsus that only you can answer. He doesn’t want to speak with Father, feeling he would lie to protect John.” She had to follow the plan precisely. Any reluctance on Vincent’s part to come with her had to be nipped in the bud.
The sub-basement apartment she led him to was in a long-abandoned building, the perfect spot for an abduction…or for scientific research. Yet Luke insisted this was where he was living. “Below the radar, surely you understand,” was how he’d put it. She could feel Vincent’s unease at being in such a remote location, but she couldn’t allow him to dissuade her.
Her heart quailed at what she was about to do. It went against everything she believed in, even her life’s work. She had loved and protected the being beside her his whole life, made promises to Anna… Mary lifted her shoulders and set her mind to the betrayal at hand.
It had to be done. To protect her world and the people she loved.
* * *
She lifted her hand to knock on the solid steel door, but it opened before she could follow through.
“Come in, my dears,” murmured Luke, no longer hiding the fact that he was sighted from either of them.
Once they had stepped inside, Mary saw that behind the door there was a table where two other men sat. Then she realized why it was Luke they had sent to meet Vincent. Luke bore only a passing resemblance to his brother John, but Matthew and Mark looked enough like Paracelsus that Vincent would have identified their blood line even in the dark.
They each had a glass before them. Drinking wine in celebration of victories was a family tradition. When John Pater was still a member of the Tunnel community, Mary had shared in the occasional bottle with him, Anna, and the others.
He had poisoned Anna that way.
Vincent froze at the sight of the men. He made a move to back away but Luke had slammed and barred the steel door as soon as Vincent and Mary had stepped inside. Luke had a cattle prod in his hand, and Vincent was on the ground twitching in a split second, the prod sending current to his spine long past the time when he was incapacitated.
The others jumped up and bound Vincent with steel cable, wrapping it around and around him until he was cocooned. His growls were futile as he lay immobilized on the cold floor.
Mary closed her eyes to the sight. She couldn’t bear it. But she would do anything to protect her family Below.
“Come, Mary, my sweet.” Luke guided her gently to the table. Matthew and Mark joined them once they had finished trussing up Vincent.
“It’s fitting that you share in our celebration. After all, if not for you, there would be none, so please, join us in a glass of wine.”
Mary was aware that they meant to poison her.
It was only what she deserved. So she would go along with their fiction of camaraderie. What else could she do, trapped in here with Vincent?
Sighing, she nodded, and reluctantly she took the offered chair. “I suppose you know I can never return to the Tunnels,” she said.
They all smiled. “We know. But we have gold enough for you here,” Luke indicated a fat bag that clinked when he patted it, “to make your betrayal a bit more…palatable.”
The men all laughed at his word choice. She merely nodded in resignation. The day a Pater willingly gave up gold was…well, that day had not yet come. If she had any doubts as to her intended fate, it was sealed now.
Fate, she thought, in words she shocked herself with even while accepting the truth of them, is a bitch.
“Let me,” she offered, and she gathered the glasses – hers did not match the others, she noted – and shakily poured generous portions of wine for each of them, accidentally dipping the lace of her sleeve in the brothers’ glasses as she did so. “My apologies, I’m so clumsy,” she said, and accepted their nods of forgiveness.
“To the Paters!” cried Matthew, as the brothers all clinked glasses.
Mary slowly raised her glass to her lips but did not sip. She noted the concerned looks that passed between the brothers. She set her glass on the table as a coughing fit overcame her. They watched as she covered her mouth until the coughing spasm passed. She smiled. “Sorry.” She picked up the glass again and, to encourage her, the Paters all took deep drinks of their wine.
Again she lifted her glass to her lips but hardly touched the liquid, allowing it only to barely wash against her tightly closed lips. She wiped her mouth with her handkerchief immediately. “Delicious,” she pronounced the wine.
The men all smiled, ignoring the struggling, growling sounds of the firmly bound Vincent lying just feet away.
As Mark reached for the wine bottle to refill his glass, his fingers slipped down just short of it. Frowning, he tried to raise his arm again but found it difficult.
Matthew, laughing, made to push Mark’s arm away so he could do the honors…but he couldn’t stretch his hand as far as his brother’s arm.
Luke, alarmed, started to rise, but only made it a few inches from his seat before his legs gave out and he fell back into his chair.
Mary watched them as they made increasingly feeble attempts to move. She poured her own glass of wine onto the floor.
“You can thank John for giving me the idea. I used the same poison he put in Anna’s wine.” At the stunned expression on Luke’s face, she added, “Did you think I couldn’t figure out what you’d try to do?”
She summoned all her rage and contempt for what the Paters had tried to get her to do…and what she’d had to do to avoid betraying Vincent. “I hope you found the wine…palatable,” she snarled.
Without waiting to watch their death throes, Mary went to work on Vincent’s chains, slowly unbinding him. She was shaking now, a delayed reaction from the effort to stay focused, from the fear that she might fail…and because she had committed murder, against every principle she held dear. Every principle but one: family first.
Vincent was shaking his head, still trying to get his eyes to focus, astounded at what he had heard and seen. The Mary he knew…was she really capable of such words and deeds? The shock was almost as great in its own way as the cattle prod had been.
“Come, my boy.” She urged him to stand. “Although this place is isolated, it’s best that no one find us near it.” She helped him lift the bar that held the steel door closed tight.
“Let’s go home.”