Beauty and the Beast Forever - Dancing in the Shadows

Chapter 2

Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . beep . . .

High-pitched and insistent, the sound pulled at her, lifting her up and out of a deep, dreamless sleep. In a distant part of her mind, she recognized the sharp smell of antiseptic, the warm, bland odors of institutional food, and something else, something unpleasant but as yet unidentifiable. She tried to swallow. Her mouth and throat felt dry and scratchy, as though desert sands and scorpions had taken up residence while she'd slept.

Beep . . . beep . . .

It was beginning to annoy her, and she thought she should reach over and hit the snooze button, but she hadn’t the strength. Why? Why was she so weak? And where was she?

Did she even want to know?

Fear washed over her, but she fought it down. She mustn’t panic, mustn't draw attention to herself. Wherever she was, whatever was going on, her best hope lay in gathering her resources, in learning as much as she could before anybody realized she was awake. So she lay quietly, and listened. And breathed. And learned.

She was in a hospital. She recognized the sounds—the steady beep of a heart monitor, the hushed professional voices, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes. But which hospital? And how had she gotten here? The last thing she remembered was the rooftop . . .

And then the memories flooded back. Pain. Loss. An all too brief glimpse of Vincent's face as he caught her in his arms. And death shall have no dominion.

Oh, God. Her baby.

She had to find him, had to protect him, had to . . . She struggled, forcing her arms to obey her commands, commanding her eyes to open. She had to go, had to . . .

"Hey, now. Easy." Joe’s voice. Joe’s hands pushing her gently back down into the pillows. "Welcome back, Radcliffe."

"Joe." Sound snagged on the dry places in her throat as the room around her swam into focus. Joe leaned over her, his hands on her shoulders, the smile on his face belied by the worry in his eyes.

"In the flesh."

"Where—?"

"Metropolitan Hospital." He straightened her covers, pulling them back up to her shoulders. "It was touch and go there for a while. Doc wasn't sure you’d make it." He turned to pour her a glass of water. "I guess somebody up there thinks you still have a few bad guys to chase."

"How long?"

"Long enough." He held up a plastic cup. "Thirsty?"

She nodded, sipping gratefully when he brought the straw to her lips. Cool water washed away the sand and the scorpions. "Joe—"

"Let's see. Today's Saturday." He glanced at his watch. "And it's just past seven. Cleaning lady found you Thursday morning, so that's . . . something like fifty-eight hours. Geez, Radcliffe. That's some nap."

He was trying to make her smile, but all she could think about was Vincent. "Found me where?"

"Your place."

"Home?"

"Yup. Looks like somebody brought you there." He tilted his head and raised a curious eyebrow. "How do you suppose they did that?"

"What?"

"Nobody saw you come in. Seventeen floors, Radcliffe. And nobody saw a thing. Wouldn’t you say that’s a little odd?"

She blinked slowly, but her thoughts were clearing now, and her mind raced with questions. How had she gotten home? Had Vincent carried her all that way? And why home? Why not here or Below?

When she didn’t answer, Joe shook his head, worry in his eyes. "Somebody wanted you dead, Cathy. They wanted it real bad. Doc tells me you had a lethal dose of morphine in your system when they brought you in. Hell, they're still trying to figure out why you're alive."

They wouldn't believe her if she told them, she thought. "Joe, I’m sorry. I don’t . . . I can’t remember."

The door opened then, and a doctor swept in. He had dark hair behind a receding hairline, and an old stethoscope that dangled from the collar of a wrinkled lab coat. Beneath the coat, he wore a dark turtleneck and khaki pants. "Ah," he said with a bright smile. "You're awake."

Joe turned. "Only just," he said.

"Right then. Let’s have a look, shall we?" He wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Cathy's arm and pumped it up, holding her wrist gently with one hand and eyeing his watch. Then, nodding, apparently satisfied, he jotted some notes in her chart and flipped it closed. "You gave us quite a scare, young lady."

"So I’ve heard," she said, her eyes still on Joe. "Do you know . . . have they found the people who—"

Joe shook his head. "We were kind of hoping you could help with that."

An image drifted through her mind. John Moreno. He’d been there when they’d taken her. The elevator doors had opened, and he'd looked at her with such cold eyes. Then he’d turned his back, and walked away. He hadn't said a word. John Moreno, a man she'd respected, had turned her over to the people who'd stolen her child and tried to kill her. Why? And what would he do when he found out she was alive?

"Joe, who knows I’m here?"

He gave her an odd look. "The cleaning service, the hospital staff, me—"

She interrupted. Impatient. Afraid. "Does Moreno know?"

"Of course he does. He sends his best wishes by the way."

Fear coursed through her as the words tumbled over and over in her mind. Moreno knows. Moreno knows. MorenoMorenoMoreno . . . She’d been here for three days already. Three days during which he could easily have arranged her death. What was he waiting for? And how much longer did she have before somebody came along to finish the job?

"I have to get out of here." She swung her legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the thin hospital gown that was her only protection against the cool hospital air. But the sudden movement sent a wave of dizziness through her and she paused, gasping, fighting down nausea.

"Now wait just a minute." In an instant, the doctor's hands were on her shoulders, and he eased her back down against the pillows. "You aren’t going anywhere." Slipping an arm behind her knees, he swung her legs back up onto the bed. "It’ll be at least another couple of days before you’re anywhere near ready to get out of this bed."

No. Not days. If Moreno knew she was still alive, she might not even have a couple of hours.

"Joe, I have to get out of here. You have to help me get out of here."

There was an edge of panic in her voice, and Joe glanced uneasily at the doctor.

"Take it easy, Radcliffe." His voice was calm, but his eyes were worried. "You’re safe here. I got a couple of guards posted at the door. Nobody’s going to hurt you."

Desperation pulsed in her blood and made her voice hoarse. "Joe, you don’t understand."

The doctor looked from her to Joe and back again. "Mr. Maxwell, would you mind giving us a minute alone?"

Joe nodded. "Sure thing." He touched her shoulder in a move that was probably meant to be reassuring but which only served to heighten her unease. "I’ll be right outside the door if you need me."

She tried to swallow her fear, tried to look grateful even as she searched for a means of escape. "Thanks, Joe."

He stepped outside, and the doctor waited for the door to close before turning back to her. "So what did you do with the baby?" he asked, and the bluntness of the question made her gasp.

"My baby?"

"You're in a hospital, Miss Chandler. We're pretty good at figuring these things out." His gaze was sympathetic. He closed her chart and set it aside. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed, eying her earnestly. "I haven’t said anything to your friend out there, but I need to know what happened. If there’s a child at risk—"

"But I don’t . . . know what happened."

He shook his head. "You don’t really expect me to believe that, do you?"

"No, I mean . . . I had a baby." Vincent’s baby. The miracle of it made her breath hitch in her throat. But now there was an empty place in her soul where her child had been. She looked away from the doctor’s probing gaze. "I don’t know where he is now."

"Miss Chandler, I know this isn't easy." His pager went off, and with an irritated grimace he pulled it off his belt, glanced at it, and then dropped it in his pocket. "Look. I can understand that you might not want your friends and coworkers knowing what happened to you while you were . . . away. But abandoning a baby, even under such dreadful circumstances—"

Anger stiffened her spine at the implication. "I would never abandon my baby."

He watched her, his gaze speculative. "You don't seem like the type of woman to throw a baby in a dumpster." He shook his head. "No, I'm thinking you left it somewhere. Somewhere you thought it would be safe. So I'm going to take a risk and give you a few hours to think about this before I tell the police." He glanced at his watch. It had a plain leather band and a dark face. Analog, she noticed. Not digital. "I’ll be back in the morning. Maybe you’ll remember what happened by then."

He crossed to the door, pausing to look back at her with his hand on the knob. "Please try very hard to remember, Miss Chandler, because I'm afraid things could get difficult for you if you don't."

But all she could think about was getting out of there. Getting Below. Getting to Vincent.

Joe came back in. "Everything okay?" he asked.

"Fine, Joe. But I’m a little tired. I think I’d like to sleep now."

"Oh. Of course." He hooked his thumb toward the door. "I'll just head back to the office. I've got some work to catch up on, anyway."

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Joe."

"No problem."

He left, and she dropped her head back against the pillows. She was tired. So tired. And she ached. But she didn’t mind the lingering proof of the child she’d so recently carried. She made a silent promise to him, wherever he was, that she would find him. No matter what it took, no matter the risk or the danger, she would find him. She rested her hand on her stomach, remembering the butterfly feel of her child’s first movements inside her womb.

 

*********************

 

It was raining, a cold, relentless rain that made John Moreno pull up his collar and duck his head as he hurried toward the phone booth. It seemed fitting, somehow, that the news he had to deliver should be accompanied by such grim weather. He fumbled in his pocket for a quarter. It took two tries to get it into the slot, and once he almost changed his mind entirely. He punched in the digits from memory, then turned and stared out at the rain while he waited.

The phone was answered on the first ring, but there was only silence on the other end.

He swallowed hard. "Hello? It’s John. John Moreno."

"You were instructed never to call here."

He hated that the voice on the other end of the line could make him feel like he was five years old, hated that he’d walked into this mess with his eyes wide open. "I thought you might want to hear this."

"So talk."

"Catherine Chandler is alive."

There was a long silence. "Where?"

"Metropolitan Hospital." He knew he should’ve stopped there, but his mouth kept going. "They found her in her apartment. Two days ago."

"Then why didn’t you call two days ago?" The voice was dangerously devoid of emotion.

"They didn’t think she would make it. I thought I should wait until I knew for sure."

Another long silence.

"Room number?"

He gave the information, and the line went dead. He was left standing in the darkness with the rain beating down on the glass walls around him while he wondered when exactly he’d given his soul to the devil.

 

********************

 

Despite her best intentions, Catherine dozed. When she awoke, the lights had been dimmed and it was dark outside her window. She couldn't see the clock, but she sensed that it was very late. She eased her legs over the side of the bed and stood up, holding on for a moment to get her balance. Her head felt heavy, as if it were filled with thick mud that muffled her thoughts.

The hospital gown was thin, and open at the back, so she pulled a blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders. She moved to the door and eased it open. Two uniformed police officers bracketed the door. One, big and bulky, nearly overwhelmed the folding metal chair he sat in. The other was skinny, with a shock of unruly dark hair.

They looked up when her door opened. "Miss Chandler. Is everything okay?"

"Fine," she said. "I just wanted to stretch my legs."

The men exchanged a glance. "We’re supposed to keep an eye on you."

Cathy drew herself up, asserting as much authority as she could in the flimsy gown. "Surely a short walk around the floor isn’t a problem. It isn’t as if I’m going to run away." She indicated the gown, drawing on what the cops likely understood of her from the society pages. "Do you really think I’d want to be seen in public in this thing?"

The bulky cop, whose brass nametag read ‘Connor,’ grinned. "No, I guess not. Still—" He gestured at his companion. "Lou will come along, just to keep an eye on things."

Catherine sighed. "If you insist."

Connor nodded. "I’d feel better, ma’am. Mr. Maxwell would have my head if anything happened to you."

Inwardly, Catherine flinched. She hated that what she was about to do would probably cost this man his job, but she had to get away before it was too late.

"All right." She nodded and stepped away, not waiting for her escort.

The hallways were quiet, with only the occasional nurse moving about on silent, rubber-soled shoes. Catherine moved slowly, leaning on the hand rail for balance, sustaining the impression that she was still weak, still incapable of sudden movement. She’d made it halfway down the corridor when a door at the other end of the hall opened. A stairwell. A lighted exit sign over the door cast a red glow over a black leather jacket, hardened, craggy features, and gloved hands. Gloves. Nobody in New York wore gloves during the muggy summer months. This was it. She had run out of time.

She didn’t have a hope of making it to the stairs. It would have to be the elevator. Where was it? She glanced around, her eyes skipping over numbered doors and past the nurses’ station. There. To the left. But could she make it?

At the end of the hall, the leather-clad man froze when he saw her. Did he recognize her as his target? She wasn't going to wait to find out. Then, as though in answer to some unspoken prayer, the elevator doors opened. A doctor stepped out, his head bent over a patient chart, oblivious to the tense scene in the hallway.

Catherine glanced behind her. The lanky cop was there, leaning casually against the wall, his eyes on the doctor. He either hadn’t seen the other man or didn’t consider him a threat. At any moment, the elevator doors would close and her chance would be gone. She took a deep breath, sucking in oxygen and trying to clear her head. Then she pushed off the wall and ran.

There was a shout behind her and the doctor’s head snapped up. He was looking in her direction. She sprinted toward him. He reached out a hand. "Hey!"

She shoved him aside and dashed into the elevator just as the doors started to close. Behind her, there was a sharp explosion, and something slammed her into the back wall. She felt a starburst of pain. Ignoring it, she spun around to punch the bottom button on the panel.

The doors closed on a cacophony of sound: shouts, running feet, some kind of alarm. Catherine bent over, trying to catch her breath. She felt dizzy again. Light-headed. And as she struggled to calm her racing heart she saw blood dripping down her arm. She shifted the blanket, trying to put pressure on the wound, but there was no time. The elevator was dropping fast.

Was there access to the tunnels from Metro?

Breathing hard, she stared at the floor indicator and tried to remember the maps.

 

 

********************

 

The terrible, aching loneliness had become a part of Vincent now, filling his heart and pushing all other feelings aside so that he moved through time in a kind of numbed stupor, acting more out of habit than out of any conscious thought. He had discovered that there was a measure of peace to be found in hard labor, and so he spent hour after hour deep below the community tunnels, shattering granite and limestone alike with a ferocity that kept even his closest friends at bay.

But the nights were excruciating. Exhausted by his labors, but plagued by nightmares, he passed the hours sitting at the table in his chamber with a book of poetry in his hands. He would stare dry-eyed at the words, hearing her voice in his mind and feeling anew the pain of her loss.

So it was tonight. While the community slept, Vincent read—a single candle his only source of light. Like most of his books, this one was well-worn, with tattered corners and thin, delicate pages. And as he read Wordsworth's familiar words, he pictured her sitting beside him, her hair shining in the candlelight.

But how could I forget thee?

Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour?

Closing the book with a snap, he dropped it on the table and tilted his head back against the chair. He sank into the silence without fighting it, unable to find the energy even to seek the companionship of her memory.

It was there, in the quiet, empty corners of his soul, that he first sensed . . . something.

For a moment it confused him, this conviction that he wasn't quite alone. He didn't understand it. Then he thought it might be his son, that maybe he was sensing again the faint echoes of an infant's pulse. Only that wasn't right either, though he couldn't say why. He just knew. Somehow, he knew.

He kept his eyes closed and searched, first within himself, and then in ever-widening circles. The tunnels, then the park, and then further still, into the sleepy nooks and crannies of the city Above.

There. Still distant, but growing stronger with each passing moment. A feeling of . . . fear. Why?

And then suddenly he knew.

Stunned, he jerked upright, and for an instant the shock of his discovery immobilized him. How was it possible? He'd seen her die!

And then he was on his feet and reaching for his cloak.

His sudden departure created a breeze, and on the table, the candle guttered and went out.

 

********************

The elevator stopped with a jarring thud and the doors slid open on a deserted corridor. Doors lined the hallway on both sides. Catherine stepped out, turned, and looked up at the floor indicator. The numbers were dropping fast. Somebody was coming after her.

She ran. A corridor opened up on her left and she dodged into it. Then another one, this time on the right, and she almost missed it, twisting at the last moment and narrowly avoiding crashing into the wall. She risked a quick glance over her shoulder. Nothing yet, but she heard the sound of running footsteps. Whoever it was wasn't trying to be stealthy. Heavy thuds echoed along the passageways.

She swerved right again when she saw a door with faded black letters. "Mechanical." Grabbing the knob, she turned, pushed . . . and blew out a breath when it gave way with a faint protesting squeal of un-oiled hinges.

Inside she found a maze of pipes and clanging machinery. Steam rose around her, gluing her gown to her legs, but she ignored it, concentrating on keeping her footing on the slippery floor.

There was a shout and then a crash. Her pursuer was closing in. Her breath was loud in her ears. Her chest ached. Blood dripped down her arm, its flow hastened by the rush of adrenalin. The edges of her vision dimmed as thick fog closed in on her from all sides.

Help me, Vincent! Please! Help me!

And then she remembered.

He wouldn't come. He couldn't come—because he didn't know she needed him.

Despair settled over her and she stumbled. It had come to this, then. Her fight to get back to him, to survive, would end here, on an unforgiving concrete floor in a dank, steam-filled basement, at the merciless hands of a stranger.

With a choked sob, she gave in to the creeping darkness and the grasping tendrils of oblivion.

And then the wall behind her shattered. She heard a familiar roar, and knew that somehow, through some miracle of time and space, he had found her.

He rushed past her, and she felt the brush of his cloak and the stir of the wind in his wake. There was a scream of pain, and another roar, and she wanted to call out to him, to tell him that she was all right, and that she loved him . . .

. . . but it was already too late. Her body gave in, gave up, and folded in on itself as the darkness finally claimed her.

                                                                                                                                          Chapter 3                                    

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