Voir Dire

by Scrappy LeMonte

~~//~~

 

“Marco!” yelled Kipper.  He was standing in chest-deep water in a pool near the falls.  

 

“Polo!” yelled Geoffrey, Samantha, Eric, Zach and a half dozen other Tunnel children.  Lena and Olivia were wading nearby with Cathy and Luke on their hips.  Father, Mary, Peter Alcott and William were soaking in the hot springs, a stone’s throw away.  Most of the men were diving.

 

“Marco!” yelled Kipper again, confused by the echoes and the laughter.  He was laughing, himself.  His arms were outstretched, and he was swinging them, searching for another player. 

 

Vincent swam swiftly, silently under the water toward Kipper.  He approached from behind and positioned his shoulders under the boy’s hips and behind his knees.  All in one motion, he grasped Kipper’s wrists to balance him and stood up, lifting the boy to sitting on his shoulders, high above the water.  Kipper was screaming, but his pitch intensified as Vincent jumped up and fell backward into the water, taking the boy along.  They separated under water, and then broke the surface.  Kipper shoveled water into Vincent’s face and yelled, “You’re it!”

 

Vincent stood and closed his eyes.  “Marco!” he called, and the children went wild teasing him with calls of ‘Polo!’ while swimming toward then away from him, circling close then paddling away.

 

He sensed Catherine’s approach, and knew that she stood on the bank.  “Catherine?” he said, “How can you play?  I know exactly where-”

 

Two water balloons exploded, one against the side of his face, and a second later, one high up on his chest.  He opened his eyes and looked at her, astonished.  She was smirking at him. 

 

Didja know that, big guy?” she answered.

 

Vincent spun and grabbed Kipper’s shoulders.  “You’re it,” he said, and dunked him.  Then he was torpedoing toward the bank where Catherine stood. 

 

She tried to make a break for it, but slipped.  That fast, Vincent was on the bank, and had her in his arms.  He turned her back to his chest, and wrapped his arms around her, pinning her there.  He walked her to the coldest part of the pool, where the icy stream water entered.

 

Catherine didn’t waste the energy trying to resist, but merely braced herself.  It did no good; when they plunged in, the icy water took her breath away.  When they surfaced, she was gasping.

 

The community, watching, laughed and returned to their activities.  She snuggled close to him, desperate for warmth.  He held her fast.

 

“Dear God, Vincent, it’s freezing!  Let me out!” she yelled at him, but he looked away and shook his head.

 

“Are you kidding me?”

 

He smiled, and chuckled.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“This is a very modest one-piece,” she hissed at him.  Her swimsuit was a deep green, one-shoulder style, and very modestly cut.

 

He raised his shoulders.  “It doesn’t matter what you wear or don’t wear, whether you wear a burka or whether you’re naked, I still want—” he nuzzled her neck, “I want you.”  He lifted her and kissed her.

 

“Ready to get out?” he whispered.  She kept her eyes closed, and brushed his lips with her own.

 

Every time he kissed her, she felt time stand still.  Existence flattened and thinned, and the universe was merely a gray fog containing nothing but her and him.  “I need a minute…” she whispered into his lips, and nudged his lips apart with her own.

 

Water balloons exploded against their heads, backs, shoulders, arms.  “Get a room!”  screamed the children, and they raced away.  Catherine and Vincent were both shocked out of the mood, and gave chase to the romance destroying marauders.

 

No place in the world could have been more fun for Hide and Seek than the Tunnels.  Vincent and Catherine thought themselves so clever to attempt to track the children from their footprints in the sand, but time after time were startled out of the hunt by an actual child streaking from one cavern to another.  Inevitably, by the time they reached the den, the child was escaping on all fours through small tunneling that connected the cells. 

 

When Rebecca rang the dinner bell--it was William’s day off--Catherine and Vincent stopped in the large cell they were in and called out, “Ollie-ollie-oxen-free!” completely without regret.  The children spilled into the chamber, triumphant, elated to have evaded capture.  Vincent thought something looked odd about Eric and Samantha, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

 

They pulled on thick robes and boots and joined the community in the dining hall with the children shouting their rendition of ‘We Are the Champions’.  Plates of hot dogs and buns, bowls of potato salad and baked beans were set at intervals on the banquet tables, and the adults helped the children with their plates.  Vincent noticed water draining from Samantha’s hair, running in rivulets down the sides of her face.  He glanced, and saw the same rivulets on Eric’s face.

 

“Samantha, Eric, why is your hair still so wet?  Catherine’s is almost dry,” he asked.

 

“Because we tried to swim through one of the tunnels to get to another cavern,” answered Eric.  He bit into a hot dog.

 

“Swim through the tunnel?  What do you mean?” asked Vincent.  Water deep enough for them to swim in, in the tunneling?

 

“The last cavern you were in, Eric and I were in it ahead of you, running away from you,” answered Samantha.  “We went into the tunneling to escape to the next cavern over.  We crawled for a little way, but as the tunneling sloped down, it had filled with water.  We tried to crawl through it, but it kept sloping down, and the water got deeper.”

 

“It filled up the tunnel,” added Eric.

 

“Water filled up which tunnel?” Mouse, interest piqued, joined the conversation.

 

“One of the small tunnels that connects caverns on the level below this one.  It’s two or three feet in diameter.  The children can crawl through easily,” explained Vincent.

 

Samantha nodded.  “We agreed to try to swim, but if we were still underwater after three strokes, we’d turn around.  We had to turn around.”

 

Vincent frowned and looked at Mouse, then Kanin.  “Where’s the water coming from?” he asked.  Mouse shook his head; Kanin shrugged.  He sighed.  “Let’s finish eating, then go try to find out.”

 

Catherine couldn’t suppress a sigh of disappointment.  “Oh, Vincent, can’t it wait until tomorrow?  I wanted to spend the day with you.”

 

He raised an eyebrow.  “Yes, Catherine, why don’t you come along?  Eric, Samantha, you, too.”  Before anyone else began begging to be included in the honor of joining an important mission, he added, “We’ll need help carrying the equipment while we follow the maps.”

 

“Equipment?” echoed Catherine, brow furrowing.

 

“Yes,” answered Vincent, eyes twinkling as he focused on spearing potato salad on his fork.  Now here was some serendipity, teasing Catherine while discouraging more children from clamoring to be included.  “And you know, I have the perfect backpack for you.”

 

“Backpack?”

 

“Let me finish up here, and I’ll get it.  You’ll make an excellent equipment bearer.”

 

“You think?”

 

“Don’t be modest.”

 

“Huh, I wonder what shoes I should wear?  I brought my jeweled sandals and my pumps with the stiletto heels?”

 

“You can borrow my hiking boots, Catherine,” volunteered Jamie, oblivious to her sarcasm.

 

“Thank you,” said Catherine, smiling at her.

 

Later, when they’d finished their lunch, Vincent walked Catherine to their chamber for the backpack.  He leaned down and whispered to her, “Maybe you could wear those stiletto heels for me later?”

 

“That ship sailed, big guy,” she answered tartly.

 

He clasped his hands to his chest and fell back against the rock wall, feigning painful heartbreak.  She laughed and shook her head.  He put an arm behind her back, she put hers around his waist, and they continued down the passageway.

 

 

They returned to the last cavern they’d been in during the Hide and Seek game.  It was warmer on this level, so they shucked their robes.  Holding torches close, they carefully examined the walls; they were very wet and cold; water seemed to be draining down through them.  Vincent sent Samantha into the tunneling she’d tried to swim through earlier, with a torch.

 

“Go slowly; wait until I tell you to advance,” he instructed.  She nodded, and entered.  The entrance was a few feet above the floor of the cavern, and they all squatted and stooped to watch her advance.  The slope of the tunneling wasn’t steep, and from the outside they could see she’d gone about fifty feet before reaching the edge of the water.

 

“Stop there, Samantha,” said Vincent.

 

“Twenty more feet, water over her head,” said Mouse.

 

They gazed in for a moment, trying to understand what was happening.

 

“Better get her out before the smoke from the torch starts bothering her,” said Kanin.

 

“Come out now, Samantha,” said Vincent.

 

“I don’t think the composition of the rock on this level is any different from the rock above,” noted Kanin. 

 

“In other words, what’s happening here will be happening above, eventually,” said Catherine.

 

“I believe it will,” answered Kanin.

 

They hiked on, down to the next level.  It was warmer, and with fewer torches set into the walls, darker.  They also, unfortunately, sensed an increase in the humidity.  They noticed water dripping from the ceiling in places and standing in pools on the floor.  The sand under their feet felt slushy.  They entered a large cavern whose walls were punctured with tunneling. 

 

Vincent looked at Catherine and sighed.  “I hate to ask you, but I can’t ask children.”

 

She nodded.  As she slipped off her boots, he pulled padding from the backpack; he helped her into knee pads and elbow pads.  He pulled a coil of rope out of the backpack, then lifted it off her shoulders.  He looped rope over her shoulder and under the opposite arm, then did the same on the opposite side.  He tied off in a huge knot around her waist.

 

“Are you going to use her to go fly fishing?” quipped Kanin.

 

“I’m not letting her get away from me,” answered Vincent.

 

“How will you get her untied when we’re finished?” asked Mouse.

 

Vincent cocked his head to the side.  “Maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll keep her like this.”

 

“On a string,” said Catherine.  “Why not, Vincent?  You’ve strung me along for two years, maybe you can string me along for another two--”

 

“Oh!  O-o-h-h!  The burn!  The burn!” yelled Eric while Mouse and Kanin laughed.

 

“Oh, no, she burned you bad, Vincent!  She burned you bad!” yelled Samantha, raising the roof.

 

“Nine-one-one!  Nine-one-one!  Emergency!  She burned that boy to the ground,” continued Eric, “to the gr-ou-nd!  To the gr-ow-ow-ow-nd!”  He and Samantha started dancing the running man, the funky chicken, and raising the roof.

 

Oooo-weee, son!  That’s a third degree burn!” yelled Mouse, ducking his head down.

 

Kanin laughed heartily.  “Oh, yeah, she got you, Vincent, she got you good with that one,” he said, wiping his eyes.

 

Vincent held his forehead in his hand; Catherine was smiling sweetly at him.  Looking up, Vincent yelled, “Alright!” in mock anger.  “Be that as it may!”  Directly to Catherine he said, “I’ll deal with your impertinence later!”  Leaning into her face, he said in a deep voice, “Severely, I can assure you!” 

 

She raised her chin, and smiled into his face.

 

He sobered.  “But right now, let’s try this one,” he said, gesturing to an opening three feet above the floor.  “Advance forward slowly; wait for me to tell you to go ahead.  If you need me to pull you out quickly, the code word will be ‘yank’.  If you can’t speak, tap the torch on the wall.  If you don’t answer me immediately, I’ll pull you out quickly.  Ready?”

 

She nodded, took a torch, and climbed into the portal.  She belly-crawled forward, through the same sandy material that was on the ground.  She advanced about thirty feet before she reached the edge of the water. 

 

“Stop, Catherine,” said Vincent.  She waited while the men spoke to each other; she saw them examining the maps, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. 

 

“Catherine—I will make this up to you; do you think you can crawl forward until the water is about a foot deep?”

 

“Yes,” she answered immediately; she was already feeling tension on the rope.  But she hesitated.  She was feeling claustrophobic, edgy, in a hot, humid, close space, not a lot of air……she took a breath to calm down.  She reached out and grabbed the reassuring brass ring of humor.

 

“I gotta say, Vincent,” she entered the water, “I have traveled the world over, been to the most exclusive resorts on the planet,” the water reached the midline of her body; it was cool, but not cold, “but you take me places I never could have dreamed of, and this place, oh, my………”

 

The water was about eight inches deep, and she had to raise herself up as she proceeded.  She could no longer hear the people at the entrance, and there was less light; her fear increased.  “……yeah, this place is April in Paris.”  She started to sing, “April in Paris, Chestnuts in blossom, Holiday tables under the tre-e-e-e-es…”

 

The water was getting a little slimy.  “Ugh,” she said involuntarily.  She resumed singing, “April in Paris, This is a feeling, No one can ever repri-i-i-s-s-s-e!  I never knew the charm of spri-

 

She felt a yank; she knew what was about to happen; she took a breath, raised her feet, and then held her nose.  Then Vincent was yanking on the rope, snapping her backward, knocking her down from her raised position.  She kept her weight braced on the knee and elbow pads, but she was flopping backward, face down, through water up to her ears.  

 

Skin scraped off her chin; she turned her head and was immediately sorry as she felt skin burning off her cheek.  She managed to roll her head onto her shoulder.

 

Suddenly she was at the entrance and Vincent was gripping her hips and lowering her feet to the ground.  He turned her around and inspected her for injury.

 

“You didn’t answer me,” he said, responding to the silent ‘WTF?’ look she gave him.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“I asked you how deep the water was.”

 

“Oh.  It was about eight inches deep when I was about thirty feet in.  It never got any deeper.  I think I got to fifty feet.  The water was getting a little slimy.”

 

“Did it have any odor?” asked Mouse.

 

“No, not at all.”

 

“Then it might be picking up potassium and sodium ions as it flows through the rock,” he speculated.

 

Vincent untied her, and helped her slide the pads off.

 

“Well, down another level?” asked Kanin.

 

“Yes, let’s go down one more level,” answered Vincent, and Mouse nodded his agreement.

 

They trudged on.  As they descended, the air grew even more humid.  Water dripped more regularly from the ceiling, eerie, unnatural rain.

 

“This just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” said Kanin.

 

They smelled smoke.  They saw the glow of a campfire far ahead.  As they neared, they could hear chanting.  At last, they made out the figure of Narcissa, sitting cross-legged before her campfire, chanting and rocking.  She’d erected an aluminum framework, and stretched a tarp across the top to stay dry.

 

As they neared, they saw her cast a handful of detritus, shells, beads, bones, pebbles.  She held her hands over the scattered bits, palms down, then nodded.  Bon apremidi, my friends, I’ve been waiting for you,” she said with her heavy Creole accent.

 

“I’m surprised to see you all the way up here, Narcissa,” said Vincent.

 

Everyt’ing below dis level is underwadah, Vincent.  Da level below dis one, watah knee high.  Below dat, watah waist high.  Everyt’ing is gone, fini.”  They were stunned.  She continued, “Come, help me pack, and let us all go up togedah.”

 

 

 

When they reached the main level, they changed into dry, warm clothing, and joined Father in the library.

 

“Narcissa, welcome,” said Father, hugging her, surprised to see her.  “I can’t remember the last time you were among us.”

 

She sighed.  “It is so good to be here, I am so sorry I bring such bad news.  I mus’ tell you dat four levels below dis one, everyt’ing is underwatah.”  Father’s mouth fell open in astonishment.  “And worse news still:  da watah it is still rising.”

 

Expressions of disbelief, frustration, worry played across his face for several moments; his mouth worked as if to argue.  He moved to a chair and sat down heavily.  “Do we have any idea why this is happening?” he asked.

 

“I can tell you something about these tunnels,” said Kanin.  “Millions of years ago, maybe 400 million years ago, this very chamber was a giant coral reef in an ocean.  Layer after layer of sediment was deposited on top of the coral reef.  The weight eventually built up, created enormous pressure, and changed the sediment into rock.  Our walls are that rock.  Eventually, the ocean dried up, and the land Topside dried out.  Then it rained.  Rainwater is slightly acidic, and as it seeped down into the earth through cracks and crevices, it dissolved the ancient coral reef, which created a cavity in the bedrock—this chamber.  As water continued to drip in, eventually it filled this room.  That’s what’s known as a water table, a pool of water under the ground.  At some point there were drought conditions, the water level dropped, and this chamber was dry.  The rainwater that reached this chamber then fell through fissures and cracks in the floor of this level, and dissolved an ancient coral reef below, which formed a chamber on that level, and so on, and so on.  Some of the other caverns were carved by the water flowing through the rock, carrying away little bits of it, over the course of millions of years.”

 

“To think that these great caverns were formed by one drop of water at a time, over millions of years.  I feel like I’m sitting in the middle of eternity,” said Father.

 

“But why has the water started to collect?  It’s like something is damming it up,” observed Mouse.

 

“Yes,” agreed Kanin.

 

“Well,” said Father, rallying, “let’s try to ascertain what is happening.  Let’s use all the resources we have to investigate, and meet again in, shall we say two days time?  Surely we can start to find some answers by then.  In the meantime, let’s stay calm, and carry on as much as possible with our regular routine.”

 

That night in their chamber, Vincent couldn’t settle down; he paced, troubled.  “There’s no place for me outside these tunnels.  What if we have to leave?  Where could we go?  I feel as if I’ve already been caged, Catherine.  I’m picturing my view of the world through iron bars.”

 

“No, Vincent, how can you say that?  That will never happen,” she answered.  “We have to try to stay calm.  It may be that we have to leave the Tunnels, but you will always be free, and we will always be together.  You have to believe that, my love.”

 

He stopped and regarded her.  “How can you be so unconcerned, Catherine?  This isn’t just a question of moving from one end of the tunnels to the other; it’s not just keeping my existence secret that we have to worry about.  If we have to leave these tunnels, our world, where could we ever go and still be a community, as we are now?  Would that even be possible?”

 

“Vincent, Vincent, slow down!  We don’t even know what’s happening, and you’ve already got us packing up!  It may very well be that we don’t have to leave the Tunnels.  Let’s take this one step at a time.  We don’t know why the water level is rising.  We can start doing research tomorrow.”

 

“Research won’t drain the water.  We have to be realistic, Catherine.  Our days in these tunnels are numbered, and the day we have to leave will be the last day I will know any peace.”

 

“Alright.  If you insist on believing that we’ll have to leave here, then believe that we’ll find a place to live where you’ll be safe.”

 

“Where would that be, Catherine?”

 

“I don’t know, a secret place……”

 

“A secret place?  Where is that?”

 

Her frustration was mounting.  It wasn’t like him to be so demanding and difficult.  She could feel his anxiety.  “Look, it can’t be that only weird religious cults have a monopoly on seclusion.  There are nuns who live in cloistered communities in the United States, you know, and you will never find the homes of the super-rich.  Allow me to suggest to you that you don’t know about secret places because they are just that, secret.  We could buy an island, Vincent.  We could buy a ranch on hundreds of acres of land.  We could-” 

 

“So by the time we’re finished, all of your money is gone?  You’ve spent your entire estate for me?  My world view just changed.  I’m still caged, but the bars aren’t made of iron; the bars of my cage are made of humiliation and obligation, living off your money!” 

 

“Oh, you are being completely unreasonable!  You’re terrified that we’ll have no place to go, and you’re paralyzed with fear that we will!”

 

“How shall we spend our days on our island, Catherine?  Shall I go spear fishing while you pound taro root?  Where will you hang your Columbia Law School Diploma, on the wall of our grass shack?”

 

Her patience snapped.  “Okay, Vincent, fine, you’ve got your heart set on being miserable, so let’s do it, let’s get heartsick!  Let’s don’t stop at melancholy, let’s go all the way to suicidal depression!  Here it is, this will be our plan:  we build a show around you-in Las Vegas!  We’ll have the young women performing as show girls, Sebastian is a magician, Mary can sew the costumes, Father can sell tickets, and I’ll dance burlesque!” 

 

“Thank you!  Thank you, Catherine, for dumping morbidity on top of my agony!”

 

“You’re right!  It’s still too cheerful.  Instead of Las Vegas, we’ll have our show in Branson!  No, it’ll be a road show, you can’t get any more dismal than that!”

 

“Road show, is it?  So you can see yourself leaving the District Attorney’s office, leaving your friends, your entire life-just like that.  Have you thought about that, Catherine?  Moving out of the tunnels to some secret lair would mean moving out of Manhattan.  Because just moving down here wasn’t enough of a disruption of your life; now you’ll be pulling up stakes, and touring with Wells and Company Traveling Circus-over my dead body!”

 

She moaned.  “No, no, not this again!  Just once, just one time in our relationship, could we please, please face a crisis as if we’re on the same team?  When will it ever happen, Vincent, when will we face a problem and ask ‘what will WE do about it,’ instead of you declaring once again,” she put one hand to her chest, stretched out the other, and spoke in a raspy whisper, ‘I can not be the cause of your pain!’”

 

He went cold.  “Do you mock me, Catherine?  Have you lost respect for me completely?”

 

She was immediately contrite.  “Oh, Vincent, no, I’m sorry, please don’t be hurt, I didn’t mean it like that-”

 

He moved toward the doorway.  Please don’t leave!!  Please, Vincent!  Look, you can’t just run-” He was still moving, and her frustration boiled over; she grabbed the edge of his desk and threw it over.  “DON’T LEAVE ME ALONE!” she screamed, arms clamped to her sides, fists clenched.

 

He turned around.  She was crying.

 

“God, it hurts!” she wailed.  “Can’t you feel how much it hurts me when you walk away from me?  Was I hurting when we were talking about leaving Manhattan?  Was I?”

 

“No.”

 

“I could leave Manhattan” she said between sobs, “if I was with you.  That would be something that couples have to do sometimes, move away from home.  What hurt me more, Vincent, when we were talking about me leaving my job and my friends or when you turned your back on me just now?”

 

He sighed.  He strode back to her and embraced her.  “Catherine, I’m sorry, I’m sorry……” 

 

“I can take anything, but I can’t take that,” she whispered.  He kissed her face, her throat.  “You punish me, Vincent, you punish me by walking out on me-“

 

“No, Catherine, I’m not trying to hurt you-“

 

“But you do.  You do-“

 

“Catherine, my love, I don’t walk away to hurt you!  The decisions, the choices we have to make, you and I, the priorities we struggle to set, where and how and how much we sacrifice for our love, for each other, Catherine, sometimes as we debate and discuss and argue, trying to find answers, my feelings become so intense that I can’t endure it; putting distance and time between us is all I can do.  I don’t mean to punish you, my love, my sweet, sweet Catherine, please don’t cry, please—“

 

“Tell me you love me,” she whispered into his lips.

 

“I love you beyond the telling,” he said, pulling her closer, covering her face and neck with kisses.

 

“Tell me you’ll never leave me,” she whispered.

 

“Never, Beloved, never, never-“

 

“Show me.”

 

Far down the passageway in the children’s dorm, Eric raised his head.  “It got quiet all of a sudden.  Do you think they’re okay?”

 

“Should we go check on them?” asked Kipper.

 

Noooooo,” answered Jamie immediately.

 

“They’re fine,” said Brooke quickly.  

 

 

Kanin’s complexion was pale as he began addressing the Council and the gathered audience of Tunnel dwellers.  “As you know, we’ve spent the last few days investigating why the water level on the lower levels has begun rising.  We believe we’ve found the answer.”  He paused.  “They discovered oil in the Upper Bay.  So, the Hyder brothers want to extract it.”

 

“That’s old news,” said Cullen.  “The Hyder brothers have been fighting with the City for the rights for years.”

 

“Well, the fight’s over.  We lost.  The Hyder’s are going to drill, and split the revenues with the City.”

 

“But what would happen if there was a spill?  We’d all be poisoned,’ asked Pascal.

 

“Yes,” agreed Kanin, “oil would seep into the groundwater, which supplies not only our drinking water, but drinking water for the whole city.  If that were to happen, it would kill us all.  So luckily, the forward-thinking engineers at Hyder Oil developed a plan to prevent that.

 

“For quite a long time, they’ve been diving underwater, applying a water-proof sealant to the continental shelf that extends outward from Manhattan, New York, the other affected Border States.  Of course, the ground water is sealed in here with us.”

 

“And the more it rains, the higher the level will go,” said Father.

 

“But I thought it took a long time for rain to filter down to the water table,” said Mary.

 

“It usually does,” answered Kanin.  “But for the last few years, we’ve had record amounts of rain.  And there are also numerous creeks and streams Topside that empty into springs, which in turn feed into our Nameless River.  Nameless River used to empty into the East River, but Hyder Oil managed to seal a good three-fourths of that mouth.”

 

They fell silent.  A cold chill crept up and swallowed them. 

 

“So that’s it, then,” said Father, finally.  “We’ve lost our home.”

 

No one had the heart to speak any encouragement. Father huffed a short sigh.  “Well, what are our options?”  Silence.  “Yes, there is……” he shook his head, “much to consider before we even consider where to go.  The first question is shall we stay together?  Should those who are capable of re-joining the Upper World do so?”

 

“Father, how can you even suggest that we separate?” asked Pascal.  “We are a family, a community.  Our futures are bound up together, just as our past has been spent together.”

 

No one contradicted him; rather, they all murmured agreement.

 

“Well, then,” considered Father, “how do we find a place to go?  Does anyone know where to start?”

 

“Catherine might have some ideas,” volunteered Vincent.  She looked at him.  “No, I’m not teasing,” he gave her a reassuring one armed hug.  “Catherine pointed out to me that there are many communities that live in seclusion in this country.  There are cloistered religious communities.  The very rich live in seclusion.  The Amish live apart.”

 

Again, there was silence.  While Vincent had been obsessed with the idea of leaving the tunnels for days, most of the rest of the community had almost assumed the problem would be solved, if they were even aware of the problem; life would go on as usual.  No one was prepared to face a world of possibilities.

 

“It’s a difficult question, when the world is open before you, what do you want to do?  Do we want to be an agricultural community, do we want to raise livestock, do we want to engage in manufacturing?” added Catherine.

 

“But if we pose the question in terms of what job do we want, we lose focus on how we want to live,” Father objected.

 

“We need to look at this in terms of how we want to live,” echoed Mary.  “That would include the Helpers, too.  They can decide if supporting us is something they want to continue to do.”

 

“In whatever form that would take,” added Cullen.  Again, people nodded, but were silent.

 

Lena stood.  “I want to live with all of you, my family.  I want to live in safety, and love.”  She sat down.  Scott, a young man she’d been spending a lot of time with lately, put his arm around her shoulders.

 

After a moment, Rebecca stood.  “I want to live with all of you.  I want to continue making candles and soaps.” 

 

William stood.  “I want to continue to be your cook,” he declared.

 

Father smiled, and nodded.  “Sometimes a person does something so well that they elevate a craft to an art form; of course you want to continue.  So, where can we go where we can continue to live as a community, where we can each engage in our art, whatever that may be?”

 

“Someplace where resources are abundant,” Catherine said, thinking aloud.  “I remember hearing about the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.  They lived on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.  Fish and game, berries and roots were so plentiful, it left them a lot of time to create great art.”

 

“Alaska?  There’s a lot of fish and game in Alaska and the remote part of Canada,” ventured Mouse.

 

“I think there’s a lot of Maine that’s remote, and there’s fish and game,” Mary guessed.

 

“It’s cold up north,” objected Jamie.  “We couldn’t swim as much as we do now.  How about Mississippi?  I bet there’s fish and game, and a longer growing season, and it’s warm.”

 

“We could live in the swamp,” said Geoffrey, grinning, relishing the idea.

 

“I don’t want to live in a swamp,” said Samantha, eyes big, lower lip trembling.

 

Brooke hugged her and whispered reassurance to her.  Father nodded and said, “Point taken, no one wants to live in what they would consider to be a swamp.  We have to keep everyone in mind.”

 

Silence.

 

“This is a very difficult problem,” said Olivia.

 

“How much time do we have to come to a decision?” asked Vincent.

 

Kanin shook his head and glanced at Mouse.  “Two weeks, if we’re lucky.  I’d like to be out of here in ten days.”  Mouse nodded.

 

There was a gasp of astonishment.  In a few minutes time, they learned that not only did they have to leave their home, but they’d have to be out in a matter of days.

 

“Don’t despair,” said Father.  “We are a family, and we will figure this out.  Let’s say goodnight for now, but meet again, say, the day after tomorrow?  Between now and then, let’s make good use of travel agents, and libraries to find possible locations.  And lean on each other when you feel afraid, and support each other.  Sleep well, everyone, and remember, stay calm-”

 

“-and carry on,” the group intoned with him.  They departed into a haze of uncertainty.

 

 

Catherine had come above to comb through real estate listings.  There were hundreds of farms and ranches for sale, in New York and throughout the country, but nothing seemed right.  Besides, she knew what would happen if she bought a farm, loaded everyone aboard busses, and moved them.  It wouldn’t just be Vincent who would resent being crushed under the weight of obligation, it would be the whole community.  She stood on her balcony, leaning on the railing, marveling at a glorious sunset.  Where would they go, indeed, how? she wondered.  Where could they go where she could enjoy a view as wonderful as hers from her balcony, of Central Park?  How do I want to live? She knew that answer, at least.

 

She re-entered her apartment through the French door in the bedroom.  She sat down on her bed with a legal pad and a pen, and rested her back on her headboard.  She wrote at the top of the page, ‘How Do I Want To Live?’  which she followed immediately by her first item, I want to live openly with Vincent.  Next she wrote, I want to walk in the sunshine with Vincent, I want to work with Vincent, I want to spend time with Vincent.  She had to think for a few minutes before she wrote, I want to swim, I want to hike in the forest, I want to sail, I want to attend theater, opera, and concerts, I want to ride horseback, I want to ski, I want to drink wine and eat cheese, I want dogs and cats, I want to live surrounded by family and friends, I want to raise Vincent’s children……

 

She reviewed her list.  I don’t want much, she thought wryly.

 

She put her list down, and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  She glanced at the newspaper on the counter while she sipped.  The headline blared, ‘New England Aristocracy Loses Everything.’  She read a few paragraphs.  She grabbed the phone and almost broke the dial calling Jenny Aaronson.

 

“Jenny,” she breathed, “have you seen today’s paper?”

 

“I know!  It’s so terrible!”

 

“Have you heard from them?”

 

“No!  Have you?”

 

“No……” she gasped.  “Let me check my machine!  I’ll call you back!”

 

She ran to her answering machine and pushed the play button.  She sat down quickly at the desk, and pulled a small pad of paper and a pen out of the top drawer.  She erased two telemarketers, and then she heard a voice she had not heard in a long time.

 

“Cathy……Cathy, it’s Paula Thomas.”  The woman was having trouble speaking through her sobs.  “Oh, Cathy, Chuckie and I, we,” she broke off, sobbing, “it’s so terrible Cathy, we’ve lost everything!  Everything!  I don’t know if I can even go on!  We’re staying with my sister in the Hamptons, please call me as soon as you can!”

 

She picked up the phone and started to dial; then she froze.  She remembered to breathe, and hung the receiver back in the cradle.  Lost everything, had they?  She reviewed in her mind’s eye, their ‘everything’.  Paula Thomas and her husband, Charles-Chuckie, as they called him-were part of New York high society, old money, no less.  One of Chuckie’s French ancestors had been a sea captain in the seventeenth century, and had grown quite wealthy in mercantile, trading.  He’d retired in what was now Quebec, very near the border with the United States; the Royal Concession granted him thousands of acres of land, upon which he cultivated land for crops, planted a vineyard and orchards, built cottages for his laborers, stables, gardens, and a magnificent manor house.  Each generation had added something fantastic, a pool, a tennis court, a golf course.  Paula and Chuckie had added rock and earth to some of the existing hills, and created scenic hiking trails for warm weather, ski slopes for winter.

 

And they had lost it.  All, per Paula’s message.  With gambling, cocaine, and unbridled spending, per her personal knowledge of the couple.  This was no surprise, it had only been a question of when.  Now, per the paper.  Yes, now, now when it just so happens that I’m in the market for a village……here was a village going up for auction.  This was a gift.  It had to be handled like the precious gift it was.   These things must be done delicately, per the Wicked Witch of the West.

 

She picked up the phone and dialed Paula’s sister’s number.  “Susan, it’s Cathy Chandler,” she murmured into the receiver.  “Yes, I’m so sorry, I just now checked my messages……yes, thank you……Paula?  Oh, Paula,” she put her heart into it, “Paula, I just got your message, I can’t tell you how sorry I am……yes……uh-huh……” Yes, it was just as she suspected……years ago, when they were first married, they’d mortgaged their property for 75 million dollars, US, but the bank had just let them pay the interest and rolled the loan over every year until now.  Now the bank was going through a friendly take-over, they wanted the loan off their books; the interest rate was below market, and Paula and Chuckie couldn’t afford to pay the market rate, the property had fallen into disrepair and wasn’t producing revenue, hadn’t for years.  The fields hadn’t been sown in years, the vineyards hadn’t been tended, there were no horses, the road in was impassable……if they could somehow manage to sell and come out a few million ahead, they could buy a property from her sister and live pretty comfortably.  Delicately, delicately……or you hurt the spell……she sniffled convivially with Paula, choked on a sob, promised she would do everything to help her, and hung up.

 

 

She tapped her pen on her pad, and lost herself in thought.  They’d borrowed 75 million dollars against that property back in 1976, a time when lenders had sent appraisers out to overvalue property by as much as 80%.  Where’s my calculator?  Ah……so 42 million would not be a ridiculous bid, maybe even 37……Paula had said that McIntyre, Morris and McCormick was the lender, that’s what happens when investment bankers get into the real estate business!  They were trying to manipulate the market by inflating prices; I’m sure turnabout is fair play……think I read that in one of my law books……

 

She called McIntyre, Morris, and asked for the Real Estate Department.  “Mark Reynolds,” said a voice.

 

She was surprised.  “Mark Reynolds, class of ’83, Columbia?” she asked.

 

“Yes……”

 

“Cathy Chandler!  How are you?”

 

“Cathy!  I’m good!  And you?”

 

“I’m great!”

 

“Hey, what did you do, left your dad’s and went with the DA?”

 

“I did.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Meh……I don’t know if you heard I got hurt…”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that…”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine now, but it changed me.  I got more serious, I wanted to do something, I don’t know, a little more substantial.”

 

“Well, that’s great.  I think that’s great.  Hey, do you remember Linda Parker?”

 

“I do, sweet girl.”

 

“Well, I married that sweet girl, and we have a four year old daughter and a two year old son, and she is taking a break from practicing law and staying home with them.”

 

“Oh, my!  That’s great!  Does she miss working?”

 

“When she’s had a bad day, she swears she’s going back to work, but most days she’s so happy, I think she’ll be out of the job market for awhile.”

 

“Oh, that’s so great to hear, Mark.  Hey, let me tell you why I called……”

 

“You weren’t looking for me?” he kidded.

 

She laughed.  “No, sorry, but I think you will be happy to hear, I’m calling about Paula and Chuckie Thomas’ property.  Are you handling it?”

 

“Yes, I am.”  He leaned forward.

 

“Well, I’m representing a party who is interested in learning more about the property.”

 

“Terrific.  I can tell you we’re expecting to get 90 million.  The property is several thousand square acres, it includes a manor house, dozens of small cottages and outbuildings, a pool, tennis courts……”

 

“Sounds great.  Let me ask you, Mark, would you describe the property as turn-key ready?”

 

“Well, it might need a little TLC……”

 

“Would you have an estimate?”

 

“Ah, to restore the property to a working farm?  Perhaps in the tens of millions, mmmmmm, maybe twenty million.”

 

“Very good.  Okay.  I will pass along that information.  Anything else you can tell me?”

 

“Actually, we’re still gathering information, but I tell you what, let me get your number, and I’ll call you as soon as I know something.”  She gave him her number, and they said good-bye. 

 

How to put the screws to them to accept a low price?  Hmmm……Paula had known that McIntyre wanted the loan off the books in order to look attractive to Traders’ Bank, who was very interested in acquiring them……the employee stock owners stood to make millions……she started doodling, illustrating her thoughts.  What did huge banks hate?  What did they want to stay away from, more than anything?  Ah, yes……

 

She had to find the listing in her address book; she put her hand on the receiver and took several deep breaths.  She was going swimming in a shark tank, and she had to psyche up.  Delicately, delicately…… She dialed the phone number of a very, very old acquaintance, someone she’d known in high school, Octavia Trabon.  She never pursued a friendship with her, in fact she’d stayed friendly when necessary but as far away as possible, because Octavia was a blabbermouth. 

 

As a girl, she was good and kind, but she could not keep her mouth shut.  Staying true to form, as an adult she’d built up an impressive career as an investigative journalist.  “Hello?” a woman’s voice answered the phone. 

 

“Hello, Nancy?” asked Catherine.

 

“No, no one named Nancy here.  What number did you dial?”

 

“202-555-7403.”

 

“Well, that’s this number, but there’s no one here by that name.”

 

“Oh, my, what have I done?  I was looking right at it in my book……oh, wait……that’s not Nancy, that’s-Octavia?!  Octavia, is that you?!”

 

“Why, yes, this is Octavia Trabon.  Who is this?”

 

“Octavia Trabon!  Why, it’s Cathy Chandler!”

 

“Cathy Chandler!?” 

 

They both screeched.

 

“Oh, Octavia, it’s been too long, too long, forever!”

 

“Oh, Cathy, how have you been?  I’ve heard so much about you from our circle, you were in an accident a few years back?”

 

“Oh, yes, yes, but I’m fine now.  And you, I’ve heard all about your amazing career!”

 

“Oh, yes-”

 

“Ah!  What do you mean, ‘yes’?  A Pulitzer, Octavia?  How wonderful!”

 

“Thank you, Cathy, you were always so sweet……”

 

There was a pause of a fraction of a second, and in that millisecond, the sharks circled each other warily, sizing each other up, suspecting, measuring, judging, laying down cards and drawing up more.

 

“……and kind,” she finished.  You never liked me, Octavia remembered. 

 

She remembers we weren’t friends, but still doesn’t realize that I called her deliberately, Catherine realized.  I need to establish credibility and rapport.  “Oh, no, Octavia, I was so shallow back then, just a spoiled little girl.  You know, that accident I had was a blessing, it showed me how precious life is, and what’s really important.”

 

“Oh, my, Cathy……”

 

“Oh, yes, I’ll never waste another day doing anything I don’t really believe in.”

 

“Really?  Well, you know, I’d heard you’d left your father’s firm, and joined the DA’s office.”

 

“Oh, yes, yes, and the work I do now is so important to so many people--life-changing, in so many cases.”

 

“Really?”

 

Yes, really, Bitch, unlike your Pulitzer Prize winning expose of your ex’s charitable foundation, which was really nothing more than you paying him back for cheating on you!  Let me feed you this big lie I need you to publicize and then get off the phone and not talk to you for another ten years!  “Yes, but of course, what Paula and Chuckie Thomas are doing is really amazing!  Helping so many people!  I hate to let you go, but I was actually trying to call them, I’m supposed to be meeting them this afternoon.”

 

“Really?” Octavia said, ignoring the overture to end the conversation.  “I haven’t heard from them in years!  What are they up to?”

 

“Well, you know they own that property up north?  Well, they’re interested in converting it into something where they would have space for an artists’ retreat, but then also space for homeless people to come and live an agricultural lifestyle.  They’ve really put a lot of thought into it, and they wanted to talk to me about the possibility of setting up some kind of autonomous statehood for them, where they could establish their own socialist type of government.”

 

“I can hardly believe it.”

 

“Oh, yes, you know when they traveled to India, they studied with some of the great yogis, and it totally changed their perspective.”

 

“When was that?”

 

“They went to India for a few months two years ago.  Oh, no!  Look at the time!  Octavia, it has been so great catching up with you!  Let’s get together for lunch next week, shall we?”

 

“Oh, yes!  Cathy, I’d love that!  I’ll check my calendar, and call you back!”  I’ll call you back just as soon as hell freezes!

 

“Oh, do!  It’ll be great to see you!”  She hung up triumphant and said aloud, “Almost as great as sagging breasts, you blow-fly!”  Charged with elation, she started dancing a victory dance; spinning around, she almost fell down seeing Vincent standing behind her.

 

“Who’s a blow-fly?” he asked.  He was standing just inside the balcony doors. 

 

She froze.  What to do?  How much to admit?  How much to deny?  What had he heard?  What could he figure out?   

 

“Don’t do that,” he warned. 

 

“What?”

 

He stepped into the apartment.  “Don’t try to dissemble with me, Catherine.”  He walked slowly toward her.  She took a few steps, backing closer to the wall.  “I felt deceptiveness in you, artifice……guile.”

 

She almost choked on her tongue.  She believed he held some supernatural power over her, even though he denied it.  When he moved slowly, deepened his voice and spoke to her softly, she was powerless to tell him anything but the truth.

 

Honesty at this point could be disastrous; it was just too soon.  I’ll ACT honest!  Hurry, start feeling!  I’m honest, I’m open, innocent and fresh as an open-faced daisy, swaying in a soft breeze on a warm sunny day!  “Why do you seem so suspicious?”  Relax, relax, breath, think, “I don’t have any ‘s’plainin’ to do,” she said, arranging her face into bored unconcern.  “I didn’t know you were there, you surprised me,” facial expressions have to match the words, “I saw an article in the paper about some old friends of mine, I was making calls……”

 

He stood directly in front of her, and cocked his head a bit to the side.  She had her back to the wall.  He raised an eyebrow and waited.  She sighed, and hung her head almost believing herself that she was now confessing the truth.  She looked up at him.  “Okay, Vincent, the truth is, I saw an article in the paper about some old friends of mine that have fallen into dire financial straits.  The size of their estate is enormous, thousands of acres.  It’s really a small village, with dozens of cottages, farmland, orchards……I don’t know how much you heard, but I was making calls to gather information, and then to……okay, I’m going to just say it, I was exploring……the possibility……of…… influencing……market conditions……to……create an environment……that would be favorable to……an artificial decline in the value of the estate.”  She cast her gaze downward as if thoroughly ashamed of herself.

 

He had no idea what the meaning of her words might be, but he did hone in on ‘artificial decline in value’.  I know how to get the truth out of you, woman……  He put his hands on her upper arms, and slowly drew his fingers downward.  “Well, Catherine,” he almost whispered, “……you don’t have to treat me like a child……I realize that in business it’s only practical to establish the best bargaining position you can achieve.”

 

She was a little surprised.  “Well, yes, it would be silly not to get the best deal you could negotiate.”

 

He inched a little closer to her so that their bodies were just touching, and ran the flats of his fingers up and down her arms, pausing at the top to draw tiny circles in her shoulders.  “And I--I’m not even negotiating, I’m really just investigating,” she continued.

 

“Asking a few questions, I understand,” murmured Vincent.  His body heat, his scent, the nearness of his body did wild things to her; her breathing quickened, the pupils of her eyes dilated.  He leaned down and put his cheek close to hers.  He inhaled deeply, breathing in her scent.  He barely brushed against her ear with his cheek, then his lips.

 

“Yes,” she whispered.  “And I’m not dealing with children, these are all very savvy professionals……”

 

“Probably unscrupulous…”  Gently, he pushed her blouse back off one shoulder.  He breathed softly on her neck and shoulder, then brushed his lips softly across the skin there.  Her lips parted, and he felt her nipples harden.

 

“Turn-about is fair play……”

 

They do it all the time.”  He used one hand to lift her hair from her neck, and pecked at her neck with the softest of tiny kisses, while slowly running the fingers of his other hand under her blouse, feather-lightly across her skin, up her side, and around her back; he unfastened her bra.

 

“It wouldn’t……you wouldn’t even……really call it……bashing……” she stammered, panting.   

 

“You’re doing it for us,” he whispered.  While continuing to very gently nuzzle her neck, he let her hair drop and grasped the edge of her blouse with both hands.  He started raising it, dragging the material slowly across her skin; her knees buckled; he raised his knee to catch her, and her thighs straddled his leg; she arched her back.  He pulled the edge of the material back and forth, just a tiny bit, across her nipples.  “It wouldn’t matter if it took your entire estate to buy it, and you were left with nothing……”

 

“No, no, you’re my everything, you’re everything to me……” 

 

“Raise your arms, my love,” he whispered.  She raised her arms above her head, then bent her elbows and let her wrists rest on  her head.  “Catherine,” he whispered her name, “Catherine, Beloved……”

 

 

 

He pushed the material of her blouse a bit higher to expose her nipples, and rubbed his thumbs back and forth across.  She let herself go; he was holding her up.  He drew his lips across her cheek, and brushed her lips with his.  He tasted her upper lip, then her lower; she ground her heat into his thigh, moaning.  Her passion intensified until the arch of her back increased, and she went rigid.  He covered her mouth with his, and his thigh under her heat was suddenly soaked.

 

He waited for her spasms to subside.  He gathered her in his arms, and carried her to her bed.  He sat down with her in his lap, pulled off her tennis shoes, then her jeans; he left her panties on.  He pulled off her blouse and bra.  He lay her down and stretched out on his side alongside her, propping his head up on his fist.  He stroked her all over, her face, her neck, her arms, torso, her legs as far down as he could reach.  She smiled that sweet, easy smile she saved for him, after they made love.

 

“Your turn,” she murmured.  “How do you want me?”

 

“Just like this,” he said.

 

He gazed at her body, adoring, caressing.  Soon she was squirming, hot and moaning, reaching for him, pulling him down to her.

 

“You make me hot by just looking at me,” she murmured.

 

He was still dressed.  She tried to pull off his shirt, but he stilled her hands.  He slid her panties half-way to her knees.  He slid one arm behind her back and pulled her close, and with the same hand grasped the wrist of her far arm.  Again he began to caress her, now including her moist heat.  Her arm closest to him was pinned against him; she tried to speak, but he covered her mouth with his, kissing her slow and deep.

 

With his free hand, he caressed the insides of her thighs.  He rolled into her a bit, pinning down her near leg.  It drove her insane when he teased her this way; she could barely move, she couldn’t even open herself to him because of the constricting panties.  He lowered them a few inches at a time, teasing and exciting her with touches and caresses in between increments.  She could really just squirm against his hard body, and moan as he used the flats of his fingertips to roll and softly pinch her nipples, and trace patterns on her breasts.  He held the flats of his fingers atop her growing nub, not doing much more than riding her undulations.  He ended their kiss, brushed her lips with his, and moaned softly with her.  When she was almost whimpering, he pushed her panties below her knees.  He slid his hand behind her far knee, and raised it.  He put the flat of his thumb to her lips, and let her lick and suck it; then he used it to gently caress her engorged organ until it throbbed.  She was completely under his spell.

 

He released his grip on her.  She laid still, enchanted, lips still parted.  He slid down her length, and ever so gently, parted her nether lips with the flats of his thumbs.  With his warm, soft tongue, he caressed her until she was stiff and long.

 

She was hot and sweet and hard on his tongue; her scent was musky and intoxicating; she was rocking her hips, moaning, and so very wet and swollen.  She was very close, but there was no way he was going to let this end yet; so he backed off, slowing down just a bit, just enough to slow her down.

 

He continued bringing her to the edge, then backing off.  Too soon, he thought when he felt her urgent need.  He ever so gently pulled her swollen organ into the cleft of his upper lip, and caressed it with his tongue.  He regretted having to bring this to an end; she was so wet she was slick, and tasted lovely.  He felt her throbbing into his lips.  With the tip of his tongue he slowly caressed that one special sweet spot that sent her into a screaming frenzy—

 

Suddenly he was dizzy, feeling her climax through their bond; she was screaming and his face and chin were soaked; her wetness was running down his neck. 

 

She was trying to push him away; he refused to stop.  She always wanted to quit before she was really finished.  Well, not this time, he decided for her. 

 

When her spasms had subsided, he pulled away.  He wiped his mouth and face with his forearm, and slid up her length to take her in his arms.  She was jelly.  She put her arms around his neck, and sucked on his tongue as he pumped it in her mouth.

 

He held her close and let her rest; she fell asleep.  Something was poking him in the back.  He looked, and picked up her pad.  He read her list.

 

After twenty minutes, she woke up, still naked in his arms.  He was looking at her, blue eyes warm and sparkling with love.  “Found your list,” he murmured, and held it up for her to see.  “Found your notes,” he said, and held up the smaller pad with her illustrations, and the newspaper.  “They tell quite a story.  Your friends are landed gentry, and they stand on the precarious brink of losing their estate.  You want to buy it for us.  You want to drive down the price of the estate to the point where you can afford it, so you called your old acquaintance,” here he held up her doodle of a monstrous hag, “that you can count on to start a rumor that will not only drive off potential buyers, but also make the bank want to unload that property as fast as they can, even if it’s at a loss.”

 

“I’m hoping for a huge loss.”

 

“You want this because you want to walk in the sunshine with me, live openly with me, work with me, spend time with me, do a few things on your own……and then have my children.  I had been thinking that our private island was a sacrifice for you, financial hara-kiri.  But it’s not, not at all.  This is no sacrifice, this is what you want.”  He paused.  “This is you, going after what you want with everything you’ve got.  I don’t know if I’m worth it, Catherine.”

 

“You’re my everything, Vincent.  Everything.”  She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. 

 

He pulled away from her gently, and slid to the edge of the bed.  He sat up and pulled off his boots.  He unfastened his belt and his jeans.

 

Then he stood, and before her hungry eyes, slowly stripped naked, making a show of it for her.  She sat up and enjoyed watching his graceful movements, then the beauty of his exposed body.  What a wonder he was!  Short, dense, honey and caramel colored fur covered most of his body, but thinned out around his nipples and genitals.  His muscles were heavy, deeply cut and fantastically well-developed. 

 

Stark naked, he kneeled before her, and clasped her hands between his.  Looking deep into her eyes, he kissed her fingertips.

 

He slid into bed next to her, pulling her down against him.  He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her passionately.  Then he pushed her shoulder and hip to roll her over to turn her back to him.

 

She moaned and called on the Diety, “Oh, God, Vincent, no, you’re driving me crazy!”  He wrapped his arm around her waist, stroked her back with his other hand, and nuzzled her neck.  He gradually lowered his stroking, and caressed her full, round bottom.  He raised the hand he held on her waist, and began to cup and caress her breasts. 

 

She was moaning his name over and over.  He loved it.  He loved what he could do to her, for her, how he could make her feel.  He slipped his upper leg between hers, and raised his knee, opening her heat to him. 

 

He grew long and stiff looking at her.  Her pubic hair was glistening and dripping wet with desire.  For him, he realized.  She felt this passion for him, and only him.  He started grinding his manhood against her bottom.  His head fell back at the glorious sensation it created, the tingling, jangling joy that traveled from his center throughout his body to his toes and fingertips. 

 

He moved both hands to her heat, holding her open with one, teasing her engorged organ with the other.  Her undulations stroked his manhood until it was throbbing.  Her moaning became plaintive, and he could wait no longer.

 

He entered her a bit at a time, hard as wood, still teasing her organ with the fingers of one hand.  He moved the other hand up to fondle her breasts and nipples.  Her organ elongated, and hardened; she became slick with passion.  Her orgasm started when he had worked in not much more than the tip of his manhood.  She always erupted with moisture when she achieved her climax.  That, plus her throbbing contractions allowed him to slide his entire length into her.

 

He lost track of time as he stroked her deeply, slowly, lost in her contractions gripping then releasing him.  In this moment, they were no longer two separate people, but only one, completely, totally joined.  Finally, he could hold back no longer, and his passion exploded hot and deep inside her.  He moaned and his whole body shuddered at the strength of his release. 

 

He continued to stroke her until her contractions stopped, and he had softened a bit.  They were floating on a soft, puffy afterglow cloud, weightless, thinking no thoughts, just feeling amazingly happy and wonderful.

 

He withdrew, and she turned in his arms to face him.  They kissed with exquisite tenderness, savoring each other.  After several moments, she whispered, “Gotta pee,” and slipped out of his arms.  He smiled watching her struggling to get her sea legs; her legs were weak after sex, and she staggered on her first several steps to the bathroom.

 

When she was half way back to the bed, he stopped her, “Wait, Catherine, stay there.”  She stopped.  He smiled.  “Turn around for me,” he asked.  She smiled and made a slow turn.  She walked slowly back to bed.  They snuggled, kissed, cuddled.  They spoke soft, loving words to each other, then slipped off to sleep without realizing it. 

 

 

She smelled coffee.  She felt Vincent, getting into bed behind her, sliding one arm around her, using the other to rub her back.  She smiled, and nestled her cheek into his shoulder. 

 

“You have powers……” she murmured, restarting the old debate.

 

“No, I have no powers,” he crooned back to her.

 

“You cast a spell on me-”

 

“No.”

 

“You mesmerize me-”

 

“No.”

 

“Yes, you’re Svengali, and you hypnotize me-”

 

He nipped, licked and kissed the base of her neck, lowered his hand, and caressed her bottom, the backs and insides of her thighs.

 

Mmmmmm……that’s nice……you baffle me, you bewilder and mystify me……” she continued.

 

“If that were true,” he whispered into her ear, “we’d be in the throes right now, my love-”

 

“It is true……but I want my coffee.”

 

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her.  She turned in his arms and gave him a quick kiss on the lips.  She pushed up and sat resting her back on the headboard; Vincent followed.  Bright morning light filled the bedroom.

 

“There you have it, no powers,” he said, and sipped his tea.

 

“You weren’t trying,” she answered.  He shook his head.

 

“So, we go Below this morning,” he said.

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you tell everyone about the estate, and that you hope to buy it.”

 

Her eyes shifted from left to right, back and forth.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “If it doesn’t work out, then I’ve raised their hopes for nothing.  But if it does work out, I don’t want to spring it on them when we only have hours left to get out of the Tunnels.”  She searched for an answer in his sparkling blue eyes.

 

“Tell them that, there’s a good chance it will work out, but it’s not definite.”  His eyes danced then; he set his tea down on the nightstand.  “Tell them it depends on market conditions, that you’ve set wheels in motion and you’re hoping for an artificial decline in valuation, ceteris paribus, de facto, in pari delicto,” he sniggered; she set her coffee down and picked up a pillow, “ad quod damnum,” he continued behind raised arms as he blocked her swinging pillow, “ad idem, veni, vidi, vici,” he turned face down to the mattress and covered his head and neck with his arms as she pummeled him.   

 

“All done, funny guy?” she asked, tossing down her pillow and picking up her coffee.

 

He came up, still smiling.  “Who’s the Svengali, trying to cast spells?  You certainly tried to make your market manipulation disappear behind a cloud of legalese.” 

 

“Be that as it may,” she intoned, holding up her palm to him, “I gotta drive that price down, Vincent.  I just have to.”  She paused for a moment, then shook her head slightly.  “I want this.  And I don’t see how it could be bad for anyone.  Anyone.”  She stared at him for a second, eyes glazed over, thinking.  “I’ll show you.”

 

She hopped out of bed and dove into her closet.  After a minute of digging, she crawled back into bed with a photo album. 

 

“These pictures are from when I visited Paula and Chuckie, mmm, it was five years ago I think.  Here’s the mansion.”  She pointed to a picture of a manor house, two stories high and a football field long.  It dwarfed the huge fountain and the people standing in front.  “I took this when we were maybe two hundred yards away.  The people are the staff, waiting to greet us.”

 

She turned the page.  “These are the cottages.  When they were first built in 1659, they were one-room shacks.  These were built in imitation of the style, stucco, and that is actually thatch on the roof, but most of them have three bedrooms and two bathrooms, large kitchen, full poured concrete basement.  That stone is just decoration.”  As she turned several pages she explained, “They don’t need air conditioning, I think because of all the shade, and in the winter, the heat is from wood-burning stoves.  Here’s the mill where they manufacture the pellets for the stoves.”

 

“They must be milling constantly.”

 

“No, they don’t have to.  I’ll show you—well, I hope I’ll show you—the insulation, you will not believe how much they use, or how well it works.  And the stoves are very efficient.”  She turned more pages.  “Here are the vineyards.”  More pages.  “Here are the fields.”  More pages.  “Here are the barns……cows……chickens……a few goats……some sheep.”  More pages.  “Here are the stables.”  Page after page of magnificent horses.  “Some of these horses were champion show horses.  Here’s the mill for wheat, run by a water-wheel, see?  Here’s the stream.  They made maple syrup in this building.  They sheared the sheep in this building.  They stored the farm equipment in this building, see the gas pump?  Okay, now, I’ve got pictures of the pool,” an Olympic sized pool, with several slides, “and the tennis courts, and here’s one of the golf course.  And of course, I was there before Paula and Chuckie built the hills for skiing.”

 

He was dumb-struck; it wasn’t just magnificent, it was opulent.  The idea that he could one day be living there overwhelmed him.  She looked at him and nodded.  “It’s a lot to take in.  But here’s my idea:  we restore the farm, we live off the crops and sell the excess to market.  But we also make the manor house a resort for the wealthy, we have trail riding and tennis and all, but we also have spa services, massage, facials, all that.  And in October, we rent out the cottages, too, we can live in trailers, and we have hay-rides to see the leaves turning color.”  Eyes glowing with excitement, she looked up at him and whispered, “We can stick it to ‘em, gouge them on the rates, then!”

 

“I’m so proud of you, my little capitalist,” he teased her, but hugged her with one arm.  “How much of this is still there?”

 

She shook her head.  “I guess the buildings are still standing, maybe.  I need to make some calls.  Let me think.  Paula won’t tell me the truth if I ask her………I’ll go through Jenny.  But the tougher question remains, how to approach the Community Below?”

 

“I’ll think about it in the shower.  Call Jenny.  I want this, too.”

 

 

“So why is it that we would not want to live there?” asked Cullen, incredulous.

 

They had gathered in the library, and were passing around Catherine’s photo album, marveling. 

 

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” answered Catherine.  “I worked on that farm the summer I was fifteen.  I know what it takes.  If you move there, you will work like you’ve never worked before in your lives.  You start at sunrise, and you keep going after sunset.  We’ll have to plant enough corn, beans and wheat for market, and grass and hay to feed the livestock through winter.  We’ll have to plant a garden to supply us with enough food to get through the winter.  And you have to preserve the food, canning and freezing.  Hunting and fishing will help, but there’s still the preserving to do.  And we’d be running a resort, too, and the vineyards are a science unto themselves.” 

 

The members of the Community looked at one another, one question in their eyes:  can we do it?

 

Father knew the hearts of the Community.  “But it all depends on driving the price of the estate down, correct?” he asked.

 

“Yes,” answered Catherine, “because after we buy it, we have to buy the material to repair the cottages and the manor house, we have to buy farm equipment, we have to buy livestock and seed, we have to pay agriculture managers to come in and teach us how to do everything, we’ll have to repair the pool, the tennis courts, the trails……”

 

“So you’re assuming it’s all in ruins?” asked Mary.

 

“Well, yes, I know Paula and Chuckie.  I have friends checking discreetly as well, but I’m sure it’s all wrecked.”

 

“So the investment bank, McIntyre, Morris, McCormick must be convinced that artists and socialists are going to bring the loan current, and move in?”   

 

“Yes.  If that were the case, Traders Bank would not be interested in acquiring them.”

 

“Catherine, would it be possible for you to arrange a meeting with a real estate officer at McIntyre for myself, Michael, Cullen, Mouse, Jamie, Lena and Olivia?”

 

She thought.  “Yes, I believe I can.  When would you like it?”

 

“Tomorrow morning, if possible,” he answered.  “And if I may see you after this meeting, Michael, Jamie, Cullen, Lena, Olivia, Mouse, we can discuss our roles.”

 

 

She spent that night in the Tunnels, and came Above mid-morning to check messages, not really expecting any.  The first message, left at 9:30 am, was from Mark Reynolds.  He sounded absolutely panicked. 

 

“Cathy!  Cathy call me back, asap!  I took another look, and by golly, I really think they over-valued that Thomas property we were talking about!  I think there’s some flexibility in what kind of offer they would consider.  Call me!”

 

There was another one at 9:45 am, also from Mark.  “Cathy!  Cathy, are you there?  Hey, I’m going to call the DA’s office and see if you’re there.  This is urgent, call back asap, please!”

 

It was a few minutes before 10:00 am.  The phone rang.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Cathy!  Thank God!  This is Mark!  You weren’t at your office!”

 

“I’m on vacation.  What’s wrong?”

 

“Cathy……I’m calling about the Thomas property.  Cathy, can I trust you?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“We had heard a terrible rumor that some crazy political extremist radicals were interested, and we were trying to look into it.  And then, you will not believe this, these nuts show up in my office!  They were crazy, Cathy!  There was an old guy who was a fruit, pardon my language, one guy was in drag, Cathy!! In drag!  In my office!  Oh, my God……it was awful.  That’s not all.  There were two kooks, a man and a teenage girl, who were yelling about starting a revolution, a revolution for God’s sake, they wanted to know where was the Bastille in Quebec!  I’m still shaking, Cathy!  Then there were these two women who, Cathy, please forgive me for saying this, but dear God, they kissed!  Kissed!  I feel like I want to vomit……and they have money, Cathy!  They have money!  They said they were represented by your dad’s firm!”

 

“Oh, yeah, I remember Dad telling me about them.”

 

He moaned.  “Oh, God, oh, God……this can’t happen, this just can’t happen.  Cathy, tell me about your interested party.”

 

“Well,” she sighed, “let me cut right to the chase.  Money is going to be the issue.  They don’t have anything like 90 million, not even close.”

 

“What have they got?”

 

“Well, Mark, they have some money, but after they buy the place, they have to fix it up.  I haven’t seen the property, I have talked to Paula, but you’ve talked to Paula, so you know whatever she told me is only about 15% accurate.  I’m going to be honest with you, Mark.  They have about 75 million, total.  But they’re going to need, I’m guessing, maybe 45 million to fix it up.  So that’s 30 mill to purchase it.  30 mill, what’s that sound like to you?”

 

She could hear the sound of retching.  A moment later, he mumbled, “I don’t know……”

 

“Mark, I’d say you have to stay focused on the big picture, which is Traders coming in with their purchase.  And what about this, what about if you guys hurry up and do a two for one split?”

 

Silence.  Then, “Can I get back to you?”

 

“I’ve got a meeting with my party in twenty minutes.”

 

“Let me put you on hold.”

 

She set the receiver down, went to the kitchen, made coffee, poured herself a cup, fished a few cookies out of the cabinet, and returned to the desk.  She made herself comfortable, and picked up the receiver.  Hold music still playing.  She finished her coffee and cookies and waited a long time before Mark came back.

 

Below, almost the whole Community was gathered in the Hub to see Mouse’s costume.  It looked like a dress from the 50’s, short sleeved, belted, Buster Brown collar, the edges of tulle petticoats showing, white cotton gloves and high heels.  He made a convincing woman, until he spoke. 

 

“All I said was, ‘can you show me to the ladies’ room’?” he said, deepening his voice.  The room erupted in laughter.

 

“And then I thaid, yeth, where are the men’th fathilitieth?” said Father, lisping and looking around nervously.  His costume was flamboyant, a Nehru jacket, gold chains, tight jeans, sandals.   

 

Olivia fell to necking with Lena.  Lena was dressed very scantily, and had overdone her make-up.  She pushed Olivia away, and said, “No freebies, bitch.  You know my rates.”  She looked around seductively and said, “If anyone else wants a date, we can talk about my” she pushed out her chest and rump, “fee schedule.”  Scott stepped forward quickly, took off his jacket and covered her with it.  She laughed and dropped her hooker persona.  “Sorry,” she murmured. 

 

“You took one for the team,” Scott answered.

 

“That’s all well and good,” yelled Cullen, fists clenched at his side, a very angry man, “but I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

 

“Workers of the world, unite!” yelled Jamie.

 

Olivia’s long hair flowed down over her shoulders, only slightly restrained by her headband.  She wore a flowing maxi length dress, covered by a shawl.  She closed her eyes, stretched out her arms and started swaying, singing Kumbaya.

 

The Community was roaring with laughter.  Suddenly Vincent gasped.

 

“We got it!  We got it!  We’re in!”

 

Above, Catherine hung up the phone, danced around her apartment and screamed, “Wooohoo-hoo!  Whoop!  Whoop!  Whoop!  We got it!  We got it!  We’re in!  We’re in!”