Bright Spirit Descending
by Nan Dibble
The task force review meeting was convened downtown under police auspices. Besides Cathy and Joe, the group gathered around the briefing room's table was presided over by Captain George Farell--black, in his fifties, wearing reading glasses he didn't like, with a no-nonsense, direct manner.
Farell was saying, "About last night, you people have a lot to be proud of. The commissioner asked me to send his congratulations to all of you.” Looking down the long table, he added, "Especially to Miss Chandler.”
As Cathy tried to combine in one smile embarrassment at being singled out and pleased modesty, Farell continued, "Now, the suspect, one Tyler Buckman, is a major distributor, and both the commissioner and I feel that in conjunction with this new surveillance, he'll help send us all home on this one.” Farell looked to Joe Maxwell for comment.
"Well, on our end,” Joe said, "Buckman took his lawyer's advice and accepted immunity. Miss Chandler conducted the first round of interrogation this morning.”
Farell asked, "Well--anything interesting?”
"Beyond the fact that he's not too fond of me,” Cathy responded wryly, getting some knowing grimaces and chuckles from the others, "Buckman was pretty cooperative. We have this composite…” From a manila envelope, she pulled and held up a mounted police sketch showing the face of a scowling, saturnine man, at least middle-aged, balding, with a goatee. Passing the sketch down the line, Cathy continued, "…so we at least have some idea of what he looks like.”
Jimmy Morero, she noticed, let the sketch pass without a glance. Shirtsleeves crookedly rolled up under a sleeveless drab pullover crossed by the harness of his shoulder holster, slouched sullenly with folded arms, he couldn't have made his displeasure any clearer if he'd been holding up a sign. Cathy wondered what the problem was there.
Handing on the sketch, Solnik asked, "General circulation?”
"I don't think so,” Joe decided. "We might scare the creep into permanent hiding.”
At the head of the table, Farell nodded. "I agree. And, since my opinion is the only one that matters,” he added with a ponderous jocularity as the sketch reached him, "I don't want this picture leaving this room.” Setting aside the drawing, he said to Cathy, "All right--what else you got?”
"Frankly,” Cathy responded, "he wasn't able to tell us much. No names, no contacts, no numbers. Buckman was always reached by messenger on the day before.”
It hadn't been a pleasant interview. Buckman had been torn between trying to impress on Cathy how important he was and, contrarily, characterizing himself as a simple businessman victimized by really powerful, vicious people--criminals…and his own clientele. If you didn't give people what they wanted, Buckman had whined, they'd simply go elsewhere, so what was a businessman to do?
Face to face, by daylight, in the stark, bare interrogation room, Cathy had found nothing to be afraid of in the man…and also very little to pity. According to Buckman, everything was somebody else's fault. His getting arrested, in particular, was her fault. There'd been some name-calling, before his lawyer had finally put a stop to it.
People who refused to take any responsibility for their own lives, who claimed the status of victim whenever things didn't go their way, filled Catherine with distaste and a vague, despairing anger. She'd been a victim once; and she was determined to do whatever was necessary never to be one again.
Continuing now, thoughtfully, she added, "One thing did strike me, though: the supplier always insisted on being paid with gold coins.”
Claude commented, "Sounds like a major nut job.”
Jimmy's glowering silence had finally caught Farell's attention. Looking straight at him, Farell challenged, "Is there anything you'd care to add, Detective Morero?”
After a second's pause just this side of insolence, Jimmy responded flatly, "No, sir.”
Heavily sarcastic, Farell said, "You know, Detective, if what we're trying to do here doesn't somehow hold your interest, please feel free to leave.”
The two men traded stares. Then Jimmy pushed out of his chair and walked out. Cathy looked at Joe, then around the table, for some explanation. Getting none, and having made her report, she excused herself with an exchange of glances and pursued Jimmy out into the squad room.
Reaching where he stood, angry and clenched, by a file cabinet, she asked, "Hey, what just happened in there?”
"I really don't know, Chandler.” He abruptly lunged off among the desks, with Cathy at his heels. "But it seems to me everyone's too busy slapping each other on the back to admit we screwed up.”
As the main slap-ee, Catherine was taken aback, but felt that Jimmy's ire wasn't directed at her personally. So she refused to get defensive. "Jimmy, what is eating you? Buckman gave us some very solid information--”
"Buckman,” Jimmy interrupted, his tone making the man's name a rude epithet, "we could've busted any time in the last two months.” Reaching a cluttered desk with his nameplate, Jimmy dumped himself into the chair. Then, like somebody spelling out the obvious for someone whose intellect he suspected would be challenged by the task of getting shoes on the proper feet, he stated, "We were supposed to nail the supplier while he was there.”
Again, Catherine refused to take personally the implication that her fear, and her courage, of last night had been a waste of everybody's time. What Jimmy said was true: that had been the plan, if it'd gone ideally. But as a lawyer, and with the DA's office, Cathy had already learned there was generally a meaningful difference between the ideal and the possible, and people generally had to settle for the possible. It was that or surrender to bitterness, give up and do nothing at all.
"I know.” The admission visibly mollified Jimmy's anger. On the strength of that truce, Cathy settled slowly into the straight-back side chair, adding bluntly, "That doesn't alter the fact that you just acted like a jerk in front of Captain Farell.”
"I'm just real frustrated, Chandler, that's all.”
Cathy held his eyes. "Well, you're not the only one.”
Jimmy accepted that too. Shrugging his head and chuckling, he conceded good-naturedly, "When you're right, you're right.”
Which meant this was as close to an apology as Cathy was going to get from him. Well, she could live with that. She hadn't been grandstanding last night in hopes of getting her head patted by the real cops today. Though it had felt good to know she'd earned the respect of the people who took risks for a living, routinely put themselves on the line to protect others and enforce the law, that wasn't why she'd done it. And unlike Jimmy, she didn't figure to spend her life undercover, dancing the line of duplicity in constant, intense, unremarkable peril from moment to moment. If she'd done her part well, as a one-time amateur, that was all that was important. So finally the praise, or any apology from Jimmy for withholding it, really didn't matter.
She said, simply, "Good.”
She and Jimmy regarded each other with a settling, comfortable warmth. He was a big, rough-featured guy about her own age--handsome in his own way, when he wasn't trying to look tough or glowering at his superiors. If he had a quick temper and wasn't too comfortable with authority, she suspected it was just because he was out on his own, depending on his own wary chutzpa with backup hours and miles away, so much of the time. Pretending to be somebody else--wearing a mask. A spy on enemy ground. So when he was being himself, no mask, just another hardheaded cop, he went to the other extreme and burst out with his first reaction, however tactless, just because it was the truth of how he felt. Catherine understood and sympathized with that reaction: that was how, under all the layers of deception, you kept yourself from forgetting who you really were.
If you had to explode, you just tried to keep from doing it, too often, in the faces of the people who were safe to blow up at because they really cared about you. She knew she wasn't always as careful as she ought to be about that, with Vincent….
Mouth quirking into an unexpectedly charming smile, Jimmy remarked lazily, "You know, Chandler--you're OK.”
Smiling back, Cathy reached across the desk to tilt a framed portrait photo of a beautiful dark-skinned girl…tactfully and almost casually deflecting the warmth she felt between herself and Jimmy.
And he was quick: he caught it. All of it. And his smile broadened, accepting the fading of possibilities between them. "Her name is Carmen,” he offered. "She's my fiancee.”
"She's lovely,” Cathy commented sincerely.
"She is, isn't she?” Jimmy agreed, just as sincerely, chuckling. "Best collar I ever made.”
They were interrupted by a skinny, bushy-haired young guy in a flapping lab coat, holding out a file folder. Greeting the man, Jimmy said, "Hey, Doctor Zeke. Say hi to Chandler. Easy--she's with the DA.”
Obediently saying hi, the tech bobbed Cathy a shy little nod, then pushed the folder at Jimmy, clearly more comfortable with men, and facts. While Jimmy scanned through the papers inside, Zeke explained, "It's the analysis that you asked for. It was as unadulterated a sample of the drug as we've seen. Definitely organic. Some kind of a fungal hybrid or psilocybin derivative.”
Looking up from the folder, Jimmy commented, "I want to know why it glows in the dark.”
"It's bacterial. The kind that occurs in caves or ocean depths--where there's no light.”
The word caves made Cathy tighten up inside, then deliberately relax, hoping her reaction hadn't shown. From that instant, she began to harbor a very unpleasant suspicion. She didn't want to wait a minute longer than she had to in confirming or dismissing it.
Answering Catherine's summons, Vincent met her at the park threshold at dusk. Behind her, light from the culvert was fading. Outlined against the glow, the ribbing of her pink sweater showed distinct textures, looking rougher than he assumed it was to the touch. Her grey jacket, a muted tweed, was one she'd worn last week--recently dry cleaned, by the lingering chemical scent. With no occasion other than meeting him, she was plainly dressed this evening, having changed for the hike across the park after returning from work. She wore no earrings or other jewelry. And no perfume: besides the jacket and its leather buttons, the only smell was Catherine.
Last night, in that gracefully draped white dress, she'd been an ethereal vision that shone too brightly for him to regard steadily. It wasn't merely that Catherine had the resources and the taste to wear well made, expensive clothing--it was the impact of her presence: dazzling, disorienting, like being caught unexpectedly by one of the stray sunbeams that sometimes penetrated Below. Like a sunbeam, that vision changed everything and left a burning afterimage. He had merely to shut his eyes and it was there--shining, haunting, and powerful--suspended even in his dreams and forming the substance of those dreams. He doubted, waking or sleeping, he'd ever be free of it.
Though he couldn't have truthfully said he preferred her present attire, it had the advantage of being less distracting, less intimidating. He could look at her without his pulse banging like an engine gone mad and retain some objectivity, almost pretend he was talking to someone like Mary or Rebecca. And the disproportion between her and rough tunnel walls, the dirt, his company, was less marked, less poignant. She seemed less a bright angel descending to vile earth, more the workaday Catherine, at home in towers whose summits did not, after all, touch the sky. Meeting her became two friends talking, rather than being visited, across infinite distances, by grace.
There was, he noticed, a smudge of ink on her right index finger.
He stood outside the shut gate, attending seriously to her misgivings:
"I was certain that what was going on in that club was strictly another variety of my world's ugliness,” Catherine said slowly. "But now, I'm afraid I might have been wrong. There may be a connection, after all. Is it possible…. Could any of your helpers be…involved, somehow?”
As she raised her eyes anxiously, hoping he'd be able to dismiss the possibility, Vincent tried to review all the current helpers and evaluate their reliability. Though he knew Catherine had a tendency to idealize life Below and those who lived there, she only visited, for special occasions, when everyone was on his best behavior. Except during the cave-in in which he and Father had been trapped, Catherine seldom saw the contentiousness, frayed tempers, and alliances--romantic and otherwise--forming and fading that constituted daily life in any small, isolated community. Vincent knew perfectly well that they weren't a collection of philosophers or holy hermits. Although he always trusted his friends' hearts and good intentions, their execution often left quite a lot to be desired.
And the helpers were the same--ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. No better or worse than the average run of people one might encounter anywhere. Except for their status as helpers, generally not at all remarkable, set apart from their topside neighbors only by the unique secret they shared, the knowledge that beyond the obvious and the everyday, another world--slower, more thoughtful, but certainly far from ideal--lay in candlelight.
Some tired of the burden of assisting the tunnel community and dropped out of contact…some for a while, some forever. Other people of good will and generosity were eventually found to replace them and the interdependency continued between the societies Above and Below. And so, by lurches and haphazardly, his world continued to survive….
Aloud, Vincent reflected, "We trust so few with our secret. They are all friends, helpers…. Each knows the responsibility he bears.”
"I'm not accusing them,” Catherine assured him hastily. "Or any of your people.”
"I know you're not.”
"But our lab has identified certain mineral properties of the plant…that suggest it's being grown underground,” Catherine explained, trusting him to work out the implications for himself, as she had. She frowned. "And this supplier…. He's like a shadow--”
"…that grows over your city,” Vincent finished for her.
Her silence was tacit agreement. At stake, Vincent realized, were not only legalities but her good opinion of the world Below…and, indirectly, of him. Catherine commented worriedly, "We've linked the drug to forty-nine deaths, so far. And three times that number have been institutionalized.”
Although Vincent, a doctor's son, was generally neutral on the subject of drugs of all sorts--most, beneficial under appropriate circumstances; all harmful if misused--he had no such reservations about the slavery that went by the name of addiction. Still less would he condone anything whose fruits were death and madness on such a scale.
This was evil. It must be stopped.
He held out his hand. "You say you've brought a sample of the plant…?”
"Yes.” Fishing in her purse, Catherine pulled out a small plastic bag perhaps a quarter filled with a shining powder. Accepting it, Vincent closed his hand into a fist around it, the gesture a promise to pursue this matter.
"Thank you,” Catherine said warmly, turning to leave.
He touched her sleeve, saying her name, halting her. When she looked around inquiringly, Vincent had to think again how best to put what he'd been considering. "Since that night when I found you in the park,” he began, "I've felt in you, time and again, a need to confront your fear…” He shook his head slightly and lowered his gaze, to avoid in any way confronting her. "…as you did, last night.”
She continued to gaze at him, puzzled. "Why are you telling me this?”
"I don't want…what happened to you to cause you to take…unnecessary risks.”
"Vincent, they needed my help,” Catherine responded, as if that were all the answer needed, the only valid consideration.
He shook his head again, his own misgivings unreconciled. "You survived once--”
"And it's because I survived then that I'm doing this now,” Catherine said earnestly. "So that others are spared. I'm not doing this for me, Vincent. I don't take that kind of risk casually, not when it means endangering myself and you.”
Vincent sighed. Courtesy dictated he abandon such an uncomfortable topic. Yet he felt that to do so would be no kindness but rather, a form of cowardice. Pleasantness, civility, were not the sole, or the highest, measure of concern.
Slowly, uncomfortably, he said, "There can be, in danger, a certain fascination. An intensity….” Looking aside abruptly, he debated within himself about speaking of what he'd felt in her last night--the fear, yes, and the tension…but also an excitement he knew only too well. Perhaps that was what he should say, the most acceptable way to cast the matter: "Some risks must be taken. They're unavoidable, if one is to live fully and with honor. But nevertheless in all risk…there is a pull. Toward…a kind of recklessness. I have known that pull, Catherine…. One can supply oneself with all manner of good reasons…but danger can itself become a danger if one ceases to stand apart from it, resist it. As long as there is a choice, one must choose….”
He'd never spoken to her about such things. About the violence, and what release there could be in violence. About why one must wait until absolutely no other alternative remained and then barricade oneself in the doing of it, so that one was never merely striking out for one's own satisfaction but to stop threat, like a surgeon: dispassionately cutting out the wrong as economically and quickly as possible.
On the face of it, the comparison seemed absurd: Catherine, a small, slight, and gentle woman, unaccustomed even to harsh words, as contrasted with himself--massive, strong, clawed, fitted to battle by capability, nature, and…experience. Yet he'd felt it in her last night--the correspondence, the echo of what he'd spent his life trying to control.
By confessing, he hoped that, admitting it in him, she'd be able to acknowledge it within herself.
But he felt no recognition in her. Only a rising indignation…that, when she spoke, was not on her own behalf but his: "You're not like that, Vincent. You do what you must, because this community depends on you. Because I depend on you. But it's always a last resort--certainly nothing you ever seek out….”
Her reaction proved to him only that one must not speak of such things. One could only live with them and try to understand--the ugly, the inadmissable desires that hid in the shadows, within. What one kept chained, and released only when the external danger exceeded the fierce darkness inside.
Wishing to think well of him, seeing only what was admirable and fit to be seen, Catherine did not acknowledge such things.
Vincent let his hand fall from her sleeve. "I shall ask Father. About the drug,” he said, and they parted.
Knowing that Father, when engaged with medical matters, was much less tolerant of interruption than at other times, Vincent settled unobtrusively at the large, octagonal table in Father's study. He pretended to be occupied with a new translation of Homer a helper had brought, while Father tested tiny amounts of the powder with various reagents, scribbled notes on the results, then prepared a slide.
"Vincent, will you please bring my microscope. And I suppose I'll need a stronger light.”
Vincent took care of those chores, unearthing the microscope case under a precarious stack of books and positioning an electric light tapped into city power, then silently retreated to the table again. Father was busy adjusting the slide and the microscope's reflective mirror, then set aside his glasses and fiddled with the focus wheel while peering through the twin eyepieces. Father still wasn't ready to talk: muttering to oneself did not constitute conversation.
"A helper?” Father burst out suddenly, a few minutes later. "It's preposterous. No one we know would traffic even in traditional drugs….” A long pause while Father moved the slide slightly under the clips; then: "--much less invent one!”
Vincent said nothing. It seemed safe, now, to lay aside the book and watch, since all Father's attention was concentrated on his research.
That had once been Father's profession, Vincent had recently discovered. Until that revelation, Vincent had known nothing of Father's past life…not even his name: Jacob Wells. From childhood on, he'd liked to watch Father work--so serious, so intent on penetrating the secret of some hurtful mystery of disease. Now there was, for Vincent, a fresh dimension and curiosity in observing Father, knowing he was seeing the resurfacing habits of the passionate, idealistic physician that young Jacob Wells had apparently been; visualizing that young man similarly hunched over a microscope at the Chittenden Institute--jotting notes, absently pushing irritated hands through hair that would have been dark then, not greying, and muttering to himself, oblivious to all else….
"Adulterated, naturally,” was Father's next intelligible remark, as though the dishonesty of the drugs' preparer was a separate indignity. "Probably lactose, the usual…. Here's a good one--yes, a spore, definitely.”
When Father lifted his head, evidently expecting a comment, Vincent remarked, "The police tentatively identified it as a fungal hybrid.”
"Mycotoxin,” Father remarked, reapplying himself to the eyepieces. "Hallucinogen, probably, but not the flesh of a mushroom, I see no…. Clearly the spores are the psychoactive agent…. Did Catherine give any details of the symptoms?”
That clearly called for comment. "Surviving victims have reported intense euphoria. Some suffered delusional states in which they endangered themselves or others. The subjective experience would seem to be expansive, energizing…rather than contemplative, as I understand some mushroom-induced trances are said to be.”
"Energizing,” Father repeated, straightening in his chair. "Aggressive?”
"In some cases. It would seem to…unlock whatever impulses, whatever feelings, are most deeply rooted and denied expression. Some victims, upon recovery, have apparently fallen into profound despair and been judged in need of being…restrained. Shut away.” Vincent's recital trailed off because he could imagine so vividly how horrible that would be. The most terrible thing he could imagine was to lose oneself and suffer such restraint….
"Well, the phosphorescence is certainly unusual,” Father declared briskly. "Though don't I recall your once mentioning a deep passage you'd found where the walls glowed? To the south, wasn't it? Under the harbor….”
"Yes, Father,” said Vincent, suddenly attentive as he felt from Father a jolt of unease. Now it was Father's eyes that had gone grim and distant.
"What else did Catherine tell you?”
Though he had the sense Father was now only making conversation while pursuing a separate line of thought, Vincent replied obediently, "That this man, in exchange for the plant, will accept only gold.”
Another jolt--stronger. Father's mouth went tight, and he made a great business of locating his glasses and putting them back on.
Concerned, leaning forward in his chair, Vincent asked, "What is it, Father?” Getting no response, Vincent went on, "Even if you only suspect, you must share what you know. The drug is powerful--it inspires violence. There is a moral imperative.”
Curtly, Father rejoined, "Yes, I am aware of the implications, Vincent,” in the testy tone of one who didn't appreciate being lectured on moral issues by his son.
"Well then, why do you hesitate?”
"Because,” Father began angrily, then flashed an apologetic glance that admitted Vincent was not the apt target for that anger. Sighing, Father said, "Because I hope I'm mistaken.”
By now, Vincent was alarmed as well: did Father believe someone within the community was implicated? "Who can it be, Father?”
After a moment's pause, Father replied with a controlled casualness, "A man. No one you know.” He smiled briefly, as though he'd guessed Vincent's thought and offered reassurance the criminal was, after all, safely a stranger. "We banished him from this place before you were born. It was our first real test of government….” Father frowned, and Vincent guessed that tantalizing hint was all Father intended to reveal. But Father surprised him by forcing out, against obvious reluctance, "His name…was John Pater. But he called himself by another name: Paracelsus.”
Father nodded. "Yes--John's model: philosopher, scientist, magician…And John was all of those things.” His expression and voice were warm, affectionate, admiring; but there was still a distance in his eyes. Perhaps, Vincent thought, only the distance of memory. Father added, "A large part of what we created here, we owe to him.”
Vincent always found it disquieting when layers, and meanings, opened up in people and places he'd thought safely known and familiar. And yet, as always, he wanted to face the strangeness, wanted to understand. Quietly, he prompted, "What happened?”
"What happened,” Father repeated, wryly wistful, as though it were still a mystery to him--a sad mystery. "I don't know.” Having reflected a moment, he went on, "I think, perhaps, in trying to seek knowledge, he began to desire power.”
"And so you exiled him.”
"He wouldn't go, at first. Finally, he was forcibly taken beyond the perimeter.”
"And now? Do you know where he is now?”
Father's sober eyes met Vincent's. Finally, guardedly, he nodded.
"Where, Father?” When Father's only answer was to reach to turn off the lamp, then to begin tidying up his testing equipment, Vincent asked a different question: "You say he was with you from the beginning.”
Father paused in his makework activities. "In many ways, John was the beginning.”
"Then how is it possible I've never heard anyone speak of him? Why is he not recorded even on Elizabeth's walls? If he was that much a part of our history, and if his actions forced the community to the extremity of exiling him, I can't imagine how--”
Gruffly, Father admitted, "He wasn't merely exiled, Vincent. We…ceased to know him.”
Folding his hands, Vincent nodded slowly: it'd had to be that.
According to the custom Below, minor infractions of the rules were talked out, argued out, until an apology was forth
coming or an agreement reached to prevent future instances. For more serious matters, the mildest penalty was silencing: refusing to speak to the one involved for a specified period of time to demonstrate to them how their actions necessarily excluded them from the community. The other penalties had a similar point, emphasizing ostracism and collective disapproval rather than withholding privileges or imposing punishments.
In common practice, the severest penalty was exile: excluding the individual from their midst altogether. But beyond that was a worse penalty yet--formally Not Knowing someone. Then, they hadn't merely been forced to leave but were thereafter regarded, by the whole community, as though they'd never existed. A different and absolute silence.
Though Father never spoke of Devin, that was personal choice: he found the memory of Vincent's vanished foster brother too painful. But between themselves or to Vincent, others didn't hesitate to mention Devin when something reminded them. It wasn't a formal forgetting. That ultimate sanction had been imposed only once, in Vincent's memory--to an incorrigibly wild, bullying teenager named Mitch Denton.
Now Vincent understood Father's initial reluctance to break some thirty years of sanctioned silence to speak the man's name--John Pater.
Vincent helped Father put the equipment away, then, at Father's suggestion, made tea--always a calming and ceremonious business. When Father had settled, with his mug, at his desk, Vincent pulled a chair nearer and let the silence continue for a little time, until Father looked up with a raised eyebrow that wryly acknowledged he was being "handled” and judged Vincent's tactful solicitude a bit overdone…and perhaps overobvious, considering how well they knew one another's maneuverings.
"Well?” Father prompted.
Vincent bent his head, sipping tea. "Who was he, Father? What drove you apart?”
Father considered, then responded, "It began over the issue of helpers….”