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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 15


  “For every small thing I’ve learned about you,” I said, “I’m sure there are a thousand things of greater importance.”

  “You are a hopeless romantic.”

  “For instance, do you play the piano?”

  “I play and I compose.”

  “Will you play something for me?”

  “After dinner. Music is a better brandy than it is an aperitif.”

  Her cell phone rang, and she fished it from a jacket pocket.

  The ring tone was a bar or two of lovely music, but somehow I knew that the call was bad news.

  40

  SIX YEARS EARLIER, IN ANOTHER NIGHT OF HEAVY snow …

  The windows of the performing-arts center and the museum were blind dark, and to the south the towers of St. Saturnius thrust high into a night that had become as Gothic as their finials, crockets, spires, and belfries.

  Kneeling beside my father, I looked into his ruined face, that I might always remember how cruel had been his martyrdom and what he had endured to save me. One of his eyes was lost beneath a pool of blood, the socket like a cup and, in that light, the blood as dark as cabernet.

  I half expected cathedral bells to ring out across the city in memoriam, a carillon of joyous bells that said Someone is free at last, and simultaneously a monody of heavy bells, iron bells, as solemn as those rung for heroes and for statesmen, bells that said He is gone who was much loved. But the night was empty of all bells. There were no bells for such as us, no funerals, no crowd of mourners around our graves.

  The distraught policemen might return at any moment. Although in part motivated by regret, they were likely to repeat with me the violence visited upon my father.

  After rolling up the ski mask that he had taken off and putting it in a pocket of my coat, I slipped the scarf from his neck. I wound that length of wool around his head, covering his face, and secured it with the hood, which I tied beneath his chin, cinching up his sagging, broken jaw.

  Snow fell so heavily now through the windless night that, from this midpoint of the block, I couldn’t see past either corner. The strike by workers in the Street and Sanitation Department had led to the deserted avenues that enticed us aboveground for a night of play, and now the same strike all but ensured that, here atop the most treacherous slopes in the metropolis, hours past midnight, no one would happen upon me in the next few minutes.

  Cathedral Hill was the highest point in the city, which meant the drains were the smallest, because no higher culverts existed to feed them. I could not bring Father’s body at once down into our world below the street, for there was no entrance here to a tunnel large enough to accommodate us.

  I had only two options, but I didn’t like the first. I could drag or carry the body through one of the long, steep streets that led down from this high plateau, block after block, until I reached a largely horizontal neighborhood that would offer entrances to storm drains through which I could travel upright. Even in this feathery downpour, with visibility diminished, the longer that I stayed aboveground, the more likely that I would be seen either by the returning policemen or others. Besides, I could not carry Father that far, not in snow halfway to my knees, and I was loath to drag him, as a hunter might drag a deer carcass from the woods.

  My second option was St. Saturnius. In the full block occupied by the cathedral complex, there were associated buildings, including not just the archbishop’s residence and the offices of the diocese, but also a monastery with chapter house, refectory, and a cloister surrounding a garden. There was a secret passage off the great hill, but to access it, I had to get Father into St. Saturnius.

  Already in those days, and in fact years earlier, churches were locked tight after vespers or any lay activity that might be the last meeting of the day. Previously, they had been open around the clock, and any troubled soul was free to enter and sit or kneel alone. But for a few decades, an unsecured church door in the night had been an invitation to vandalism and to desecration of the altar; such was the modern world.

  The various entrances to the cathedral complex were unlocked at daybreak, and I knew of a place where I might remain concealed from anyone on the street until I could gain access. I was twenty and very strong, but my resources were tested as I got the body across my shoulders and carried it toward St. Saturnius.

  To take my father to his final resting place, soon after first light, I would have to carry him into the realm of the dead, and then down into deeper places.

  41

  THE VOTIVE ON THE PIANO HAD A THICK CLEAR-GLASS base and a ruby-red bowl the size of a teacup. In the high-gloss black finish of the Steinway, a halo of reddish light darker than blood surrounded the glass, shimmering in the lacquered ebony, as if it were a faint fire burning underwater.

  My sense that the call might be bad news must have been matched by Gwyneth’s intuition, because she set her cell phone on speaker mode before she said, “Hello,” so that I could be witness to whatever conversation might ensue.

  During the chase in the library the previous night, I’d heard Ryan Telford shout only a few words at her. Although I didn’t recognize his voice, I knew that he was the caller because of what he said.

  “I was led to believe that you were in a sanatorium following your father’s untimely passing, some ultra-expensive asylum, hiding under the bed and sucking your thumb, mute and beyond curing.”

  In the nearly dark room, I stood by the keyboard, and she stood at the heel of the piano, which was a safe though not great distance, but the light of the cell-phone screen was insufficient to reveal her expression.

  She said nothing, and after a moment, Telford said, “You’re a neurotic little mouse. Afraid of people, geeked up in Goth, scurrying from one little-mouse nest to another, but delicious in your way.”

  “Murderer,” she said calmly.

  “What a twisted imagination you have, little mouse. You probably also imagine that more than one of your sad little nests have been visited by a pest-control expert, and that all eight will soon be.”

  Again, Gwyneth chose silence.

  Telford said, “My current business model requires a partner. Did you know? He’s as disappointed in the recent turn of events as I am. Too bad you don’t have a partner, little mouse. It grieves me that you’re alone in this cruel world.”

  “I’m not alone,” she said.

  “Ah, yes, your guardian. But he’s not reliable anymore.”

  “He didn’t give you this number or those addresses.”

  “No, he didn’t. He wouldn’t. But he’s on a leash, you know, and more than he realizes. If he ever slips loose, well, then I would have to meet with him and explain the leash laws. Now that I know you’re not in a sanatorium and never have been, we should have a date. I’m very attracted to you, mousie.”

  “I am not alone,” she repeated, and in the near dark, I thought but could not be certain that she was looking toward me.

  “How brave you are. An orphan, hopelessly neurotic, isolated by your own neurosis, inexperienced. And yet so brave. Brave little mouse, do you ever fantasize about being filled by two men at once? Real men, I mean, not like your precious guardian.”

  She terminated the call without further comment.

  I expected the phone to ring at once, but it did not.

  Her wineglass glimmered with candlelight as she raised it to her lips.

  I said, “What are we going to do?”

  “Have dinner.”

  “But if he finds this place—”

  “He won’t. I’ll make dinner, we’ll eat dinner, and then I’ll play the piano for you. I might even have a second glass of pinot grigio.”

  The kitchen was too small to accommodate two cooks when one of them could not be touched and the other must hide his face.

  I returned to the wall of windows and looked down into the street. The snow lay deep enough that tires carving through it no longer exposed the bare black pavement in their wake. The man with the German shepherd was most li
kely home by now.

  Across the street, the three Clears were gone from the roofs on which they had stood. I wondered if they had crossed to this building. I considered sliding open a window, leaning out, and looking up for their telltale glow.

  Befitting a tower meant to keep safe a priceless treasure, the windows didn’t open. When I rapped my knuckles lightly on a pane, the glass sounded unusually thick. I wondered if it might be bulletproof.

  42

  FATHER DEAD ONLY MINUTES, THE HAUNTED CITY shrouded in pale cascades, and no safe way to convey a corpse off the hill and through the city other than perhaps by the secret route accessible only through the great church …

  The imposing Gothic facade of St. Saturnius faced onto Cathedral Avenue, and the north flank lay along East Halberg Street.

  As bent as a troll and with an apelike gait, the necessity of urgent action keeping despair at bay, I carried the body of my father across my shoulders, turning left onto East Halberg.

  Contiguous with the church, a high stone wall encircled three sides of the square-block property. Entrances at strategic points allowed access to the various buildings that were integrated with the wall along its perimeter. All of those ingresses featured arched openings, and above each a statuary figure stood solemn sentinel, inset in the wall. Surmounting the particular archway to which I carried my father’s body stood Saint John the Divine, whose expression of awe was that of a man who saw worlds beyond East Halberg Street.

  The wall was so wide that within its uppermost eight feet ran a corridor that connected all the buildings along its perimeter. Here at the base, a seven-foot-deep vestibule lay beyond the archway, illuminated by a single bulb, and at the end of it stood a plain teak-plank door, which would be locked until just before daybreak.

  As gently as possible, I lowered Father to the floor of the vestibule and arranged him sitting up with his back to a wall, hands gloved, face wrapped in a scarf. His clothes might have been stuffed with old tattered garments and threadbare towels and socks full of holes, and he a ragman from a children’s story in which he had been becharmed and had come alive and had known great adventures, until he stepped out of fiction into this world, whereupon the magic went out of him.

  Sewn into the lining of his raincoat were long pockets in which he kept the gate key that allowed us to enter the library and other buildings from below and the combination hook/prybar with which we could manipulate a manhole cover with ease. These things were mine now, and they were precious to me not merely because they made it easier to move around the city but also, and most of all, because they had belonged to him.

  In the center of the vestibule ceiling, a wire cage protected a light bulb. Although it was vandalism, though I regretted the damage, in the interest of survival, I worked at the wire with the prybar until I made an opening wide enough to thrust it through and shatter the bulb. Most of the broken glass remained within the cage, but a few tiny fragments sifted through the sudden darkness, thinner than eggshells, crunching underfoot as I returned to the archway and stood just inside it, gazing out at the street.

  I had never known such stillness in the city. Stripped of wind, the unseen sky quietly shed insulation, as if trillions of cold dead stars, severely shrunken in their dying, descended now and brought with them the perfect silence of interstellar space. The eerie hush raised a dread in my heart that I couldn’t name. East Halberg was a wide, white, timeless sward, and I could almost believe that before me lay a vision of a distant era when the city still stood, but when its streets and plazas and parks were drifted over with the finely powdered bones of its former inhabitants.

  If the two cops paid another visit to the block of Cathedral Avenue where Father had sacrificed himself, they did not get there by East Halberg, nor did they use a siren.

  I returned to Father and sat beside him. The last dark hours of the night were cold, but the bitter air didn’t sting as much as the grief that I could not unwind and pay out, that like a woven vine of thorns cinched my heart. Self-control was essential, and I tried to think of nothing, but into the nothing came the marionette and the music box and the way the little mountain house had looked when the shotgun roared within, which wasn’t good, not good at all.

  Moments in advance of the earliest blush of light, the monks daily proceeded from their monastery through the large cloister that surrounded a formal garden, unlocking the north and south doors in the great wall, at the same time that other priests turned on the cathedral lights and opened the street doors for another day.

  I stiffened when I heard the clack of the lock bolt disengaged, and prepared to identify myself as a humble homeless man, head low, beside my sleeping friend. Fortunately, the door was unlocked, but the monk with the key did not linger in the cold to see if anyone had camped out, which I suppose happened from time to time.

  Even we of the hidden, who have every reason—but no inclination—to be cynical, tend to believe that we are to a degree safer when unexpectedly encountering a member of the clergy than when coming face-to-face with anyone else. We are wise, however, not to expect universal mercy from the devout. All these years later, I vividly remembered the white-clapboard blue-trimmed church by the river, where one of the faithful, perhaps a deacon, had gone after me with a baseball bat—and the minister who had broken Father’s fingers.

  After a minute or so, when I felt that all of the confreres would have proceeded into the church, I opened the door inward. Beyond the nearer length of the cloister immediately before me, glimpsed between the columns that encircled it, lay the garden. In the first pale light, the evergreen hedges draped in snow looked like sheet-covered furniture in a house closed for the season.

  I leaned through the doorway and confirmed that the cloister was deserted. Because the vestibule offered insufficient space for me to maneuver Father onto my shoulders, I dragged him across the threshold into the cloister, closed the door, and lifted him, and went to the right along the covered walk.

  The only entrance to the cathedral I dared use was the north porch, which offered four doors. I hunched farther forward to keep the ungainly weight balanced on my back while I let go of the body with one hand to open the door to my left.

  From inside came chanting as sweet as song. The monks were observing matins, the first of seven hours in the Divine Office.

  With the hope that they would be too involved with their prayers to notice me, I entered the north transept. During the night, I had scraped the caked snow off my boots; now I left only wet footprints on the marble floor.

  Since first seeing them on a secret visit, I have always admired the fan vaults in the transept ceiling, sixty feet overhead, but burdened as I was and afraid of being noticed, I didn’t even try to look up that high.

  The cathedral was large, the transept long. When I strained to raise my head a little way, I saw no one in the crossing, where the shorter transepts met the longer nave. Whether they were gathered in the choir or elsewhere, I didn’t know.

  The body across my back seemed heavier by the moment. My calf muscles began to burn.

  Immediately to my left, this side of the baptismal, beyond a columned archway lay a chamber that served a great spiral staircase with limestone treads six or seven feet wide, leading only down. Between two bronze stanchions hung a thick red-velvet rope, blocking entrance to the stairs, and when I managed to push aside one of the stanchions, it scraped loudly against the floor.

  The chanting did not cease, and like some medieval body snatcher returning with remorse what he had taken earlier, I carried my dead father down the stairs to the crypt deep under the church, which would provide covert passage off Cathedral Hill and into the lower reaches of the city. At the foot of the stairs, under a carved-limestone tympanum featuring Christ the Redeemer, an ornate bronze gate blocked the way, but it was not locked.

  At the moment, the crypt was lighted only by several torchères crowned with gas flames that burned 24/7 to attest to the eternal nature of the souls of those
interred here. The space was divided into sections separated from one another only by arcades of columns, and overhead were groin vaults painted with murals. Here the bishops and the cardinals and perhaps some of the most worthy parishioners from the generations of the city were laid to rest.

  The floors of the various chambers, all open to one another, had been constructed with subtle integrated slopes, which Father had pointed out to me when long ago we had entered along the route by which I would now leave with him. I passed among columns, accompanied by cowled figures in flaring black cassocks that were really shadows flung about by the leaping gas flames, enhanced by my imagination. I quickly came to the corner toward which the floors would direct the water if the crypt was ever flooded.

  After putting Father down, I used the gate key and then hooked the large cover off the drain, leaving a few inches overhanging. Now and then a partial passage of a psalm sung down from the church, but I knew the monks couldn’t hear me.

  A vertical shaft, four feet in diameter, dropped sixty feet to a drain line large enough for a man to pass through easily in a stoop. These were among the earliest drains in the system, made of brick and mortar but still enduring.

  The shaft featured embedded iron rungs for those who needed to service it, but a few of them were loose, and caution was required to avoid losing one’s grip or footing. The hole was not wide enough for me to sling the body from my back and go down with it. Anyway, I had no way to sling it.

  I had one option, grim as it was, and I hesitated only briefly before sliding Father feet-first into the hole. I turned away but did not cover my ears, because I felt that I should bear witness to every detail of his journey from point of death to his final rest.

  The friction whistle of raincoat fabric against brick rose as he fell. He impacted with the larger drain far below and spilled into it, but the slope was too minimal for him to travel farther.