Innocence 16

  For perhaps a minute, I stood shuddering, forcing back my tears and steeling myself for the descent.

  From elsewhere in the crypt, I heard footsteps on stone and then voices echoing along the groin vaults.


  AS OUR STRANGE COURTSHIP REQUIRED, IF IT WAS A courtship, the dining area was barely lighted: three candles in blue-glass cups on a sideboard, six others at more distance in the open kitchen, none upon the table at which we ate. I had taken off my ski mask but not my jacket, and I ate with my hood still up.

  A simple glass chandelier hung by a chain above us, left dark in consideration of me, but its chrome arms were faintly traced by fluttery reflections of the blue candlelight, and the small glass bowls containing its light bulbs took the blue glow and made rings of it around their rims. Our wineglasses and the flatware likewise glimmered, and on the wall behind the sideboard, soft blue light quivered as the flames danced.

  She had prepared crab cakes with a slaw of peppers and cabbage, and tiny potatoes sautéed first and then roasted in the oven. All of it was delicious, and I couldn’t tell what had been frozen and what was fresh.

  I asked, “Who might be the partner that Telford mentioned?”

  “I have no way of knowing. He lies as easily as he breathes, so there might not be any partner.”

  “I think there is one.”

  After a silence, Gwyneth said, “So do I.”

  “What did he mean—your guardian is on a leash?”

  “We’re going to meet him later. Then you’ll know.”

  “You said even he doesn’t know about this place.”

  “He doesn’t. We’re going out again to meet him.”

  “Is that safe?”

  “Not entirely. But it’s necessary.”

  I liked the pinot grigio. I’d never tasted it before. I liked the shadow of her at the farther end of the table, too, her hands like the graceful hands of a mermaid in a pale-blue dream.

  “He sounds entirely wicked,” I said.

  She laughed softly. “I won’t disagree.”

  “Five years ago, when he …”

  When I hesitated, she completed my question for me. “When he tried to rape me?”

  “You were only thirteen. You said you lived secluded on the top floor of your father’s house then.”

  “Do you have a worst night of your life, Addison?”

  I thought of Father shot and bludgeoned on Cathedral Hill. “Yes. I have a worst night.”

  “Me too. I was living alone on the fourth floor of my father’s house when Telford came after me, but Daddy was murdered minutes before, in the kitchen.”

  I said, “I didn’t realize both in the same night.”

  A sharp knocking came from overhead, three pairs of quick but not heavy raps, like a percussionist in an orchestra striking a hollow wood block with a small wooden hammer.

  I’ve never known the Clears to make a sound, but looking up at the ceiling, I said, “Someone on the roof?”

  “There’s an attic. But it’s nothing. Probably just a water line.”

  The sound came again: rap-rap, rap-rap, rap-rap. She said, “Probably just air in the water pipes.”

  Rap-rap, rap-rap, rap-rap.

  “Always six raps in pairs? How can that be?”

  “It’s not always the same. Sometimes a rap or two, sometimes a long stutter of them. Nothing to worry about. Just air in the pipes. How are the crab cakes?”

  In the gloom, her face was no more revealed to me than mine was visible to her.

  “Delicious. You’re quite a cook.”

  “I’m quite a reheater.”

  I picked up my wineglass, hesitated, waiting for another spate of knocking, which did not come.

  After a sip of wine, I said, “Gwyneth?”


  “I’m so happy to be here.”

  “I’m happy, too,” she said. “My life has always been so limited. But it doesn’t feel limited right now.”


  SIX YEARS EARLIER, IN THE CRYPT OF THE CATHEDRAL, standing by the open drain, in the farthest corner from the entrance, I dared not move because the slightest sound would resonate along the curves of the groin vaults and announce my presence with a choir of echoes.

  The four chambers were open to one another, delineated only by the colonnades. Although sound traveled well, getting a clear line of sight to any point would be difficult. I was reminded of the pine barrens through which I’d made my way as a boy, before coming to the church by the river. Those trees, with their lowest limbs high above my head and no underbrush competing with them, were so plentiful that I’d had no long views, and I had none here, especially by the lambent light of the torchères and through the pooling shadows.

  I could have gone into the shaft, but when they came to see the cause of the noise, the manhole cover would be lying beside the hole. They would know someone other than a city worker came and went by this route, and I would never be able to return here, where sometimes in the deep of night I found a certain peace.

  Whoever they might be, there were two of them. If the tone of their conversation was not conspiratorial, it was at least that of men with opinions that they evidently kept secret between them.

  “The announcement won’t be for five days, but the word has been received. It’s been decided.”

  “Please tell me it’s not Wallache.”

  “But it is.”

  “They’ve all gone mad.”

  “Say nothing to anyone or I’m toast. This is übersecret.”

  “But they must know—he must know—Wallache’s history?”

  “They seem to believe Wallache’s version of it.”

  “He’s been lucky not to be exposed like the others.”

  “Perhaps it’s more than luck.”

  “You know my feelings in that regard.”

  “And yet it’s known. It’s known.”

  “It’s not known widely.”

  “We have two duties now. One to Wallache, which we should fulfill only to the minimum possible, and one to what is right.”

  “There are others who feel as we do. Many others.”

  “Yes, but that’s cold comfort when such a decision has been made and you know there’s a long darkness coming down.”

  As suddenly as they had arrived, they departed.

  I couldn’t make much sense of what they had said, and at the time I didn’t have any interest in puzzling through the meaning of it. With Father dead, the seams of my life were split, and I didn’t believe that I could sew them up again. My entire life was a secret, and the small secrets of others seemed to be none of my business.

  Alone, I went into the hole, from the crypt to what lay far beneath it, as if I were of the dead yet tasked with my own burial. Holding fast to a rung with my left hand, I secured myself to another with the six-inch tether that I had long ago stitched securely to the belt of my raincoat. That short safety line ended in a large snap link that I inspected often enough to entrust my life to it. Feet on a lower rung, tethered at the waist, I had both hands free to use the prybar/hook to snare the overhanging drain lid and muscle it into place, though with considerable noise.

  After releasing the tether, I descended in darkness so thick that I breathed it in with the cool air. Although it was nothing but imagination, I felt that the inhaled darkness was not expelled with the exhaled breath.

  I knew the number of rungs from top to base of the sixty-foot shaft, and I counted them as I went down to where Father lay tumbled and broken. When I drew near the bottom, I stopped, took a flashlight from a coat pocket, and searched below. At my back, the last four feet on the farther side of the shaft formed an open arch to the larger drain, providing a four-by-four curved opening, through which the momentum of the falling body had carried it feet-first. He had turned on his side, and only the hooded, scarf-wrapped head remained within the vertical shaft.

  At the bottom, I knelt, pushed him all the way out into the larger drain,
and crawled after him. I struggled to focus on what needed to be done, the physical work, while striving not to dwell too much upon the nature of this package that I needed to convey across a great length of the city.

  I had to leave him there for a while in the dark, and hope that no rats found him in my absence. Fewer rats scurried the storm drains than you might think, because those tunnels contained little to feed upon and because, in a Hamelin cleansing, the rushing walls of water from every major rain drowned them, washed them out into the river.

  I troll-walked through the tributary drain, where the once-smooth water-struck brick was now pitted and eroded, set in a common bond with headers every sixth course. The next drain, larger in diameter, had been crafted of random-rubble stone with uniform mortar joints; though newer than the brick section, it appeared ancient.

  When I came to a modern concrete culvert in which I could stand erect, I ran. A milky trickle of water eased along the center of the floor, glistering like melted fat in the flashlight beam that jostled through the dark. I needed to change tunnels a few times, but in twenty-five minutes, I came to the louvered steel panel that opened to the corridor leading to our windowless rooms.

  This warren of passageways beneath the city was not a catacomb in which we of the hidden could be interred in wall niches to work our way to bones. We had to be consigned to water, to the riverbed where we would become significant silt that might nourish all things for which the river served as home.

  After my arrival at the age of eight, my father realized the necessity of assembling a burial kit to be used by whoever of us survived the other. Fortunately, I had lived to be strong enough for the task, as daunting now as it was urgent.

  The gear was piled in a corner of our book room. A canvas tarp found in a Dumpster had been sprayed on one side with a silicon lubricant supplied on request by the one friend who had given Father a key to St. Sebastian’s food bank. Father sewed eyelets into two ends of the tarp and strung draw cords through them. He folded it with the untreated surface and the cords on the inside. There were, as well, two buckets containing nails and bolts and washers and rusted iron fittings of various kinds and the heads of a couple of hammers and all manner of small things, heavy for their size, that we had found on our night rambles and had collected over the years to serve as sufficient weight to sink a body and keep it sunk.

  I carried the buckets out of our secret rooms and put them on the elevated service walkway outside the louvered panel. With the folded tarp, I set out at a run to the tributary drain in which I had left the body.

  We don’t know what those of the aboveground world would do to our cadavers. But considering the violence that most of them visit upon us on sight, we assume they might commit abominations beyond our imagining. We stand and die with courage when cornered, but we do not—must never—let them take our dignity in death.

  My gold Rolex marked an hour and ten minutes since I had left Father. He lay as before, unattended by rats, in a stillness that the surface world will never know, not even in this hushed day of windless snow.

  I spread the tarp across the drain floor, the lubricant-treated side against the bricks. When I rolled him into the tarp, he jiggled in his clothes, like a mass of odds and ends, shattered and torn not just by bullets and truncheons but also by the long drop through the shaft.

  The ends were not difficult to cinch and tie securely, because Father had done good work in the construction of his shroud. The draw cords at one end were longer than those at the other, and fitted with a two-grip wooden handle that he had carved himself.

  The silicon-based lubricant, which formed a slick but seemingly dry sheath on the canvas, came with a guarantee that it was durable and would withstand much friction without wear, though surely the manufacturer had never conceived the use to which I put it. Both arms behind me, with a two-hand grip on the handle, I lurched forward in a crouch. The treated canvas slid well enough across the bricks and then over the stone, but more easily on the concrete. I drew him toward his final rest as if I were a father pulling a young son on a sled, but with the roles reversed as I would rather they were not.

  I took forty-five minutes to arrive at the two buckets of metal objects. Later, my arms, shoulders, and back would ache as if I had drawn a wagonload of goods; for the moment, duty and grief together were morphine. I untied the knotted draw cords and opened the tarp just enough to fill it with the first bucket and half of the second. Father and I had calculated the poundage that might sink the package, not at once, but several yards from shore. Anchorage added to the canvas roll, I secured both ends and set out with it once more, this time traveling little more than a quarter of a mile.

  The seven biggest tunnels, the terminal drains in the system, ended at different points along the river. Most of them disgorged their torrents into large catch basins, and not until the water in those storage tanks reached a certain height did it pour over the top onto a stepped spillway and into the river. This delay ensured that all trash heavier than papers and feathers would settle to the bottom of the catch basin rather than be washed into the river.

  I brought Father to the open end of one of those enormous drains. The concrete catch basin before us might have been fifty to sixty feet on a side and thirty feet deep. Having been cleaned out since the most recent rain, it was dry now and empty but for snow.

  To facilitate maintenance, a wide pierced-steel footbridge led from the nearer wall of the basin to the farther. A blanket of snow covered it, pierced in the same pattern as the steel, like a doily. Crossing would be treacherous, but there were safety railings. Besides, I had no choice but to cross it.

  Initially I hesitated, wondering if I should wait until night. But darkfall lay long hours away. Besides, the Street and Sanitation Department workers, who dealt with the catch basins, were on strike, with little chance of anyone being in the vicinity, especially in this weather.

  The sky shed itself as heavily as it had on Cathedral Hill, such blinding crystalline thickets that I couldn’t see the farther shore, as if snow meant for decades were released today because the world did not have decades left until its end. The river remained ice-free this early in winter, and every boat upon it was a working vessel, not a single pleasure craft among the lot, cruising through gauzy white curtains that half obscured them. I doubted that the crewmen would have the time or the curiosity to wonder about me, if they noticed me at all.

  Dragging the shroud across the footbridge, I fell twice, once into the railing, once hard to my knees. At the farther end lay the spillway, a series of steep six-inch-wide steps, as broad as the catch basin itself, leading down to the water’s edge.

  From this closer vantage point, the river traffic appeared no less obscure than it had been from the greater distance, every vessel brightened by running lights as they would be at night or in fog.

  I tried to negotiate the spillway steps while controlling the shroud, for I was pained by the thought of Father’s remains making an undignified plunge. Only a third of the way down, however, the package got away from me, slid across the corrugated slope, and slipped into the river with the faintest splash.

  My legs began to quiver, as if they would fail me, and I sat on the spillway. I said my good-byes and prayers in a voice that trembled not because of the cold.

  Even near its engineered banks, the river offered almost a fathom, and the bed rapidly fell off to accommodate deep-drawing vessels. The tied ends of the tarp were not watertight, and I hoped that it floated out far enough to go unnoticed after it sank.

  The shroud washed somewhat farther from shore than I anticipated before it disappeared beneath the waves. The added metal was meant less to sink the package than to keep it down when the body began to decompose and, producing gases, sought the surface, as Father had sought it and dreamed of possessing it all of his sequestered life.

  In days to come, in the most fierce of storms, the water would swell and race, and his remains would be shifted by the stronger-than-usual c
urrents, moved farther downstream. At some point, too, the ever-shifting silt of the bottom might deposit layer upon layer atop him, until it buried him under the river, as in life he lived under the city that enchanted him.

  Through the stillness, snow fell not in skeins but in infinitely layered arabesques, filigree in motion, ornamenting the icy air, of an especially intense white in the dove-gray light of the morning, laying boas on the limbs of leafless trees, ermine collars on the tops of walls, a grace of softness in a hard world. You might have thought it would fall forever, endlessly beautifying all it touched, except for the reminder of the river. When the snowflakes met the undulant water, they ceased to exist.

  Everything and everyone we treasured in this world comes to an end. I loved the world not for itself but for the marvelous gift that it was, and my only hope against eventual despair was to love something larger than the world, larger even than a near-infinite sparkling universe full of worlds.

  I remained on the spillway, recalling many special moments with Father, until the cold finally bit through my ski mask and my layered clothing. When I got to my feet, a cape of snow fell away from me, as if I were a statue that suddenly came to life.

  From there I returned to my windowless rooms, now mine and mine alone. For the subsequent six years, I secretly moved through the city, diminished by solitude, until one night in the central library, I saw a running girl dressed all in black but no less graceful than snow in motion.


  THE TABLE CLEARED, GWYNETH AND I SAT WITH what remained of our second glasses of wine, and although the rapping in the attic arose briefly twice again, she made no further reference to it as she told me about the night that her father died. She knew how the murder had played out, because Ryan Telford had relished telling her in vivid detail.

  Her father’s long-standing policy regarding Christmas was to give the household staff paid leave from December 22 through the New Year celebration. Almost a decade earlier, he had cashed out of his real-estate investments and had built an unlikely but successful second career working from home. Although his friends, none of whom Gwyneth could endure meeting, thought his new line of work must give him ample time for leisure, he was busier than ever. Come the holiday season, he preferred to be alone, to treat it as a time of peace, just he and Gwyneth, so that she might have not just the fourth floor, but the entire fine residence to roam without fear of encountering a house manager or maid or cook.