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CURSES

by

Jane Leavell

His palms sweating, the illegal alien stood on a quiet Toronto street, terrified. His legs wouldn't move. Two steps would take him to the door of the antique shop and his possible salvation, but he just couldn't seem to take those two short steps. This was absurd. He'd spent years desperately searching for a cure for adrenalin-enhanced gamma radiation poisoning, his affliction. The only plant he had found to work, though once common in the Southwest, was now extinct. Months of poring through botanical journals and obscure treatises had given him just one lead. Mendoza's Botanica Materia Medica had mentioned the plant in a discussion of traveling herbalists in New Mexico; it had taken every penny he could scrape up to track down the property of the late Karl Jantsch, healer extraordinaire. If this didn't pan out--if his last chance for salvation failed him--

He swallowed hard, and stepped inside CURIOUS GOODS.

Instead of bells jangling, the door's movement bounced a hammer against strung harp strings, melodically announcing his entrance into the small, somewhat dimly lit antique store. Musty with age, it was crammed with antiques shoved together on shelves in a curiously haphazard style, as if the proprietors weren't particularly interested in antiques. Pink slag tumblers, a scrimshaw whale tooth, ink bottles, and mustache cups joined a Tiki god apparently about to make a deposit in a mechanical Uncle Sam bank. A Shirley Temple doll, her curls in disarray, was standing on a cloissone cigarette case decorated with three green dragons. A grandfather clock somewhere was chiming the hour, about fifteen minutes too early. Faded circus posters lined the wall to his right, following a very short flight of steps that led to the actual showroom. Behind the low wooden railing, itself an antique, stood a long table holding an ornate, old-fashioned, gold-painted cash register.

Standing under the skull of a long-horned bull was a young woman absorbed in rearranging a tall Chinese vase stuffed with old-fashioned brooms. Though fifty years younger than anything else in the shop, she looked as costly as any antique, with a cloud of fiery red hair, alabaster skin, and long shapely legs shown to their best advantage by the skimpy black leather dress into which she was glued. As he hesitated at the bottom of the four steps, she gave him a smile as alluring as any a Vogue model might produce.

"Hi. Can I help you?"

"I hope so." He joined her on the show floor. "My name is Bentsen. Davis Bentsen. I'm looking for an apothecary kit."

She cocked her head to one side. "I'm sorry. A what?"

"It's a cherrywood box, carved with angels and demons, made around 1864 for an herbalist. He carried his herbs in it and offered cures in the Western territories during the Civil War."

"Sort of a door-to-door doctor's kit, then."

He dredged up a smile. "Exactly. It belonged to an immigrant, Karl Jantsch. When he died of tuberculosis, it changed hands several times. As far as I can tell, the last owner, Martin Brown, sold it to Mr. Vendredi. Is he in?"

Her lips thinned. "No, I'm afraid not. My Uncle Lewis is...dead. I'm the part-owner of the store, Micki Foster." She hesitated, those bright eyes studying him. "What exactly is your interest in this kit, Mr. Bentsen?"

He cleared his throat. "I'm a scientist, and I have reason to believe it contains a rare plant that's vital tomy experiments."

She graced him with another sweet but impersonal smile. "I'll check our records, if you don't mind waiting."

"No, not at all. I'll, uh, just browse." He drifted toward a floor case, pretending mild interest in beaded clutch purses, but watched her reflection in the glass doors as she began to leaf through what seemed to be a worn, hand-written ledger. Looping the red hair behind her ear, she tilted her head and ran one sculpted nail down two pages, then stopped, frowning. (Something's wrong!) he thought despairingly. (I knew it couldn't be this easy!) Surreptitiously, he wiped his damp forehead on his forearm.

Somewhat distorted by the display case glass, Micki's reflected figure crossed the room. "Jack? Jack, could you come here for a moment?"

She was joined by another figure, reflected as a portly, balding, middle-aged man with a ginger-and-cream goatee. "What is it, Micki?"

She held out the ledger and spoke in a voice deliberately pitched too low to be overheard. Bentsen crouched, touching the glass as if trying to study a rune-inscribed torque, but he could see both dealers shoot him a sudden disquieted glance, as if he were an object being appraised for sale. Jack took the ledger like a man accepting a burden, frowning. Micki grimaced, crossing back to the cash register.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Bentsen. We can't help you."

He straightened. "Can't, or won't?"

She glanced back at the older man for guidance. "There's no apothecary kit anywhere in this shop. I'm sorry."

"But you know where it is," he said flatly. "Why won't you tell me?"

The man came to the railing, still clutching the ledger. "Lewis sold the kit years ago. There's no telling who has it now."

He felt a muscle in his cheek begin to twitch. "Then tell me who bought the kit, and I'll track it down myself."

"I don't think you understand. We have reason to believe the kit you're looking for is...dangerous."

"No, you don't understand!" he cut in, frustrated. "I have to find that kit. It's a matter of life-and-death. There's a plant in that kit that's the only cure for a horrible form of radiation poisoning. Without it, I--my life--I can't--"

There was pity in the older man's eyes, but a stubbornness as great as the rage Davis Bentsen was struggling to tamp down. "What does it profit a man to save his life if he loses his soul?" he asked. It didn't seem to be a rhetorical question to him.

For an instant, CURIOUS GOODS seemed to spin around him, taking on a sickly green hue. He forced his clenched fists to open. (Don't make me angry. For God's sake, don't make me angry. . . .)

The girl said gently, "If it's any comfort to you, Mr. Bentsen, the kit wouldn't help you now. My uncle had a twisted way of ruining everything that ever passed through his hands. I'm quite sure the kit was no exception."

"If it's a question of money, I'll pay." His voice sounded deeper and thicker to his own ears, close to a growl.

"I'll pay anything you ask."

"It isn't a question of money. We simply cannot help you. Think of the kit as lost forever. . .because it is, Mr. Bentsen. I'm sorry."

They knew where the apothecary kit was. It was listed in the ledger that Jack was clutching so possessively. It had to be. For an instant he even contemplated simply snatching it away, but violence wasn't his way. At least, it wasn't the way of life he'd willingly choose. There was nothing Davis Bentsen could do but turn and walk away, before he gave in to the rage that lurked so close to the surface these days.

He wasn't giving up. He was going to find that kit, or die trying.

~~~~~~~~

It was very early in the morning, when the starlight begins to fade but the city is still asleep. There was no one to see the mouse scurry from shadow to shadow, every nerve quivering. It was an unusually large mouse, a very blond and somewhat stocky Mouse who had no business scavenging deserted houses Above, but it was as quiet and as cunning as any night predator.

He slipped through a window that had been left barely cracked open a long time ago, when the last occupant left. Mouse didn't know what had happened. It was a blur of revolving red lights on idling cars, and stern blue-uniformed men, and flashcubes popping everywhere. But Mouse had kept an eye on the house ever since. Father said mustn't steal, but when no one Above wants it, it isn't stealing, right? Days had gone by, but the house was still empty, and other predators were getting curious. Time to get, while the getting was good.

Mouse stood silently in the center of the room, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, even though he could barely control the urge to run, snatch, move. That way wasn't safe. But he was sick of sitting still, doing nothing, while everyone Below was full of anger and fear and sickness. Mouse wanted to hide, the way he used to do when he was very small, but you couldn't hide from trouble the way you could hide from people. Sooner or later, trouble found you, the way the golden-haired cat-man had finally found Mouse cowering in his hidey-hole.

No one here. The room was empty.

With skill born of years of practice, he ransacked the deserted home, stuffing objects into the battered knapsacks Jamie had repaired for him. Some items were useful, like books for Father, and others just shiny Pretties that caught his eye; Mouse didn't care. He took indiscriminately.

Words never came easy, even after all the hours Vincent spent teaching him, but as he worked, Mouse remembered Below, sometimes so vividly that he flinched: little Jacob crying, cradled in his father's massive golden paws. . .Jamie with a sore on her mouth, trying to laugh--"Salvage me some Blistex, Mouse, okay?"--but with That Look, the fear, in her eyes. . .Pascal working overtime on the pipes, even yelling at the little ones as he sent them all on urgent errands, no matter how late it got. . .the sick room full of people, all feverish and noisy and stinking of old sweat. They had mouth sores, too. Like Jamie. . . .

Mouse whimpered. People Below were sick, and getting sicker. Maybe this house would have medicine to help? Even ordinary aspirin was precious to those Below.

(Okay, good. Okay, fine.)

Bounding to the bathroom, Mouse rooted through the cabinets, stuffing everything he found into pockets and hiding places in his sweaters and tunic. Wasn't stealing; even Father would see that.Maybe this would make Father happy. Father was everywhere: checking with Pascal, helping in the sick room, searching the books in his study for a cure. But Mouse saw him today, the lines in his face even deeper than usual, leaning against the stone wall, suddenly very pale. . .and The Fear was in his eyes.

How could Mouse sit still and wait for the sickness to come to him? No. Mouse would scavenge a cure. Better than Blistex. Better than aspirin.

He paused, probing the corner of his mouth with his tongue. It hurt! Alarmed, he leaned very close, trying to make out his reflection in the mirror. He was so worried that he almost dropped the last goodies when he steadied himself with his left hand and felt the wall give.

A hiding place! Delighted, he examined the wall with both hands, prying loose the mildewed blue tiles. They hid a box. Not just any box, no. A beautiful box, bigger than the varnished box Father kept his chess set in, carved all over with beautiful angels that somehow about halfway across transformed themselves into leering demons. Not even Elizabeth could create such clever faces, like optical illusions that changed when you blinked.

Inside, the box was even more fascinating. On the right side was a fluted glass bottle holding a flourescent green powder, coarse but somehow attractive, as if the contents held trapped sunlight. On the left side was a slim tube with a black seal, holding a sluggish black liquid that was thick as clotted blood. In the middle was an ivory-colored mortar and pestle. On the side, calligraphed in elegant black script, were the words "The Sovereign Remedy for All Ills." Some sort of old-time medicine? Maybe Mouse had saved the day after all! Flushed with triumph, he closed the box tightly and clasped it to his chest. . .then cocked his head, eyes widening, nostrils flaring.The front door was opening.

Sweating, he scampered out of the bathroom and took refuge behind a dusty plaid sofa, the closest hiding-place he could think of to the still-open window. Curled up into an inconspicuous ball, he listened hard, trying to make out the noises over the panicked thudding of his own heart.

"--sure no one will be here, Jack?"

"I don't see how they could be. Joseph Pollard was executed for mass-poisoning five years ago, and Louis Pollard is in jail for following in his footsteps. That pretty much wipes out the family."

Mouse risked one peek around the edge of the sofa. Mostly he saw legs, one pair masculine, the other

gorgeously feminine. He twisted his head, following the curves upward, blinking. Very high yellow heels, and crossed straps, and--Both he and the woman twitched when the man stepped on a creaky board. Mouse promptly curled into a ball again. The man chuckled.

"Don't worry, Micki. No one came when I picked the lock, did they? There's no one here but you, me, and perhaps a few ghosts."

(And one Mouse,) he noted silently.

The woman said dryly, "You, of all people, should be afraid of ghosts."

The man cleared his throat. When he spoke again, the laughter was gone from his voice. "What I'm afraid of is not finding that cursed kit. Micki, you check the bedrooms; I'll try the bathroom, eh?"

A pair of flashlights flicked on, the beams very narrow, as if the bulbs had been taped. This wasn't the first time these intruders had scavenged, like Mouse. He closed his eyes to keep his night vision and listened to them walk out of the living room. He was starting to feel much too warm, and then too cold, and the urge to run was overwhelming, but he counted to five, slowly, before creeping out.

It should have been a simple matter to escape, to slip out of the window before the intruders ever knew he was here. Maybe it was the shock of nearly being spotted, but Mouse, uncharacteristically clumsy, stumbled as he slithered through the window. The wooden box banged against the windowsill.

"What was that?"

Oh, eck! Mouse darted into the shadows outside, hoping to hide there, but the front door to the building slammed open, and he could hear the gorgeous woman's heels tapping on the pavement. "Stop! Come back!"

No mouse was stupid enough to run back into the jaws of a cat, and this Mouse wasn't dumb enough to linger. In fact, their shouts excited a new burst of speed from him. Hiding wouldn't work. Had to run, fast. Couldn't go back the way he came. Too open, in the park. Couldn't lead strangers Below. Gasping, Mouse risked one panicked glance over his shoulder. How could the pretty woman run so fast in such high heels? Wasn't right! Wasn't fair!

Even snaking through an alley and over the overflowing dumpster there didn't slow his pursuers. Going inside a building was dangerous. Security guards, people everywhere, no time to find the right exit. Only one choice left.

Mouse had been caught by policemen Above before; Mouse wasn't going to let himself be caught again. Police asked stupid questions. Why would Mouse know who a President was, or care? Couldn't police find out for themselves?

Putting on a last-ditch burst of speed, he scuttled around a pair of arguing winos and down a flight of brightly-marked stairs, so fast he was almost flying by the time he hit the dirty floor. He fumbled with coins, shoving them frantically into the turnstile slots, because Vincent had taught him over and over that jumping the turnstile wasn't safe. No problem; Mouse found lots and lots of coins Above. What else were they good for?

Maybe the chasers would try to jump the turnstile, and get arrested. Mouse didn't linger to see.At this hour of the morning, there weren't many people on the subway platform, but he dashed through them, hoping to mingle. None of them were dressed as handsomely as he, with the long-sleeved grey cotton top under the black corduroy tunic Mary had made him; the dark colors would help him disappear. A fat black woman in a faded housedress glanced at him with glazed disinterest. A bearded young man muttered, "Shee-it, damn D & D assholes." No one else noticed when he plastered his back against the last pillar and waited, sucking in deep breaths. Were there shouts back there, by the stairs?The pillar rattled against his back a few seconds before he heard the grumbles of an approaching subway train.

(Okay, good. Okay, fine.)

Mouse tossed back sweat-clotted hair and jumped down into the darkness below the platform.

~~~~~~~~

As he limped down a damp tunnel lit by candlelight, Father wished bitterly that he were still Dr. Jacob Wells. As Dr. Wells, he would have had access to other medical consultants, to computers and current journals. He could scribble a few prescriptions and have all the medicines he needed. Indeed, all the advantages of the modern high-tech medical world would be available for this emergency. But Dr. Wells had died decades ago, in the McCarthy hearings. Now there was only Father, and Father was nothing more than a very weary man.

The muscles in his right arm spasmed, and he stumbled, almost dropping the cane he was gripping so tightly. Grimacing, he leaned one shoulder against the near wall, feeling the cold seep through his sleeveless coat and the blue turtleneck beneath it. In a way, he welcomed the cold; it helped wake im up a bit. Gods, but he was tired! How many hours had it been since he last saw his own bed? Yet he couldn't stop now. There was so much to do. He had to send a water sample Above to a helper for analysis, in case that was the source of this plague. He had to remind everyone about anti-contamination precautions, and of course that meant young Phoebe's Name Day celebration must be canceled. He'd have to talk to her privately later; she'd be heartbroken. They needed to inventory the medicinal supplies still available, and see if any of Mary's herbs would work where his drugs so far had failed. He'd have to tell Pascal to send the youngsters on a search, to make sure no one was lying ill and forgotten in some distant chamber. He had to-Father sighed and straightened. He had to go to the sickroom and check on his patients, not laze about here enjoying a moment of peace and quiet.

There was a humming in his ears, and he paused, momentarily alarmed, then tugged at his beard, embarrassed, as he realized where he was. He was listening to the singing of treadle sewing machines hard at work, not an encroaching fever. One of the woman glanced up and smiled at him. Father nodded and hastened on. If he didn't bring a stop to this plague quickly, those machines might be sewing shrouds, not shirts.

If only this blasted hip didn't hurt so much. Fuming, he tried to drag the aching leg along a bit faster. With this emergency to deal with, he didn't need the handicap of a habitual limp and a pain level that had chosen this week to escalate dramatically. It had never healed properly after the final violent schism between him and John Pater, his best friend, and the cold and damp Below aggravated it almost unbearably. He couldn't remember a day that had passed without some measure of pain. Clutching his cane still tighter, Father set his shoulders. Others had far worse crosses to bear. He would just have to make do.

What he needed now was a chat with Vincent. Vincent had a way of giving strength to others, of sharing hope and trust with others when they needed it most. But he had sent his foster son out toward the South Pockets, to protect young Jacob from infection. Until he was certain how the illness was being spread, isolation was the best course for infants.

He reached the sickroom and paused, steeling himself to face the sounds and smells within. Half of a physician's job is to instill hope and confidence in his patients; he must show no vestige of uncertainty, weariness, or fear, no matter how nearly overwhelmed he might be. Only when he could force a smile did he step inside, his back erect.

It was more crowded than it had been an hour ago, surely? The chamber was now so tightly crammed with pallets that there was scarcely room to walk between them. The crowding only compounded the unpleasant odor of sickness and fear. Worst of all, however, was the crying, rising above an unceasing pitiful moan of misery. As a doctor, he had learned to shield himself from personal involvement. . .but these were his people. Their pain was his.

Mary had taken his advice and put the less-ill to work tending to those delirious with fever. Good. He nodded to Jamie as she passed by with a bedpan, smiled briefly at Tammas as he bundled up sweat-soaked sheets, and kept moving, his eyes scanning the chamber, checking for changes.

"Father?"

He paused to pat young Eric's cheek fondly, masking his real intent, which was to check the lad's temperature. He didn't need a thermometer to feel the heat pouring from the child. "You're doing fine, Eric. We'll have to shake you out of that bed and make room for someone who's truly ill!"

Eric dredged up an answering smile, but his eyes were glazed. Father moved on. Eric had only recently shown symptoms; William was the first to succumb to this plague. He was hoping the man's fever had finally broken. God knew they could use some encouraging news.

It was a relief to see that Debra was still working. Her years as an R.N. in military field hospitals were perfect training for dealing with this sort of emergency, and he had always valued her efficiency and knowledge. Like everyone else Below, Debra was looking worn and pale, but she seemed to have her half of the chamber under control.

Seeing him, the brown-haired woman rose from a child's side and hurried toward him, stepping over Lin in her haste. Henry, clutching his wife's hand, glared up at her, but Debra never noticed. "Father, please-it's my daughter. Dicena."

When he glanced her way, the chubby bi-racial tot grinned and waved, as if being in this noisy sickroom was great fun. From here, she looked fine, except for the crusty scab on her lower lip.

"Has she a fever?"

"No, not yet, but I've seen the others. It just keeps getting worse. If Dicena-Father, she's all I've got."

"I know. I know." He patted her shoulder gently, at a loss for words. "We're doing all that we can, Debra. Try not to worry."

"But--"

"I must check the worst cases first. You know that. Perhaps we'll learn from their condition how to best deal with your Dicena."

She just stood there, her brown eyes tearful and accusing, like a child who had expected her father to make everything all right. What comfort could he offer her? It was hard to think clearly. All he could do was move on.

It was impossible to miss William. He was still in the far corner, his immense belly rising from the floor like Moby Dick surfacing for air. His rusty grey-spattered beard was wet, his breathing too quick. Not a good sign.

As Father swayed to a halt beside the pallet, Mary rose from William's side, looking harried. Her normally-neat bun of blonde hair, usually speared in place with an arsenal of pins, now looked more like a dandelion gone to seed, with strands escaping everywhere. "Father! I told you to get some rest!"

"Nonsense. I'm fine. How are his vital signs, Mary?" Ignoring the protest from his hip, he knelt to check William's pulse. Still racing, dammit.

Her usually-dulcet voice quivered with exasperation. "Not that much worse than yours, I suspect. Father, you look--"

He fumbled with the chart she'd been annotating, scowling as he saw the latest readings. If William's temperature didn't stop spiking, his brain would soon be thoroughly fried. "The aspirin isn't working."

William gasped for air, groaning, as if it was hard work. Mary glanced down at him, wearily. "I tried that herbal mix that worked so well with little Cathy's flu, but it didn't seem to help."

"Did you prepare the ice bath?"

"Yes, of course, but he's so heavy that I'm not sure how we'll get him into it. And if Susanna needs it, and Chloris--"

"We only need to slow things down. Peter has had ample time to analyze the blood samples and mucus cultures we sent. In another few hours, I'm sure he'll arrive with the proper medications, and we'll have this all under control."

William's huge frame quivered. His eyes popped open, bloodshot, staring wildly. Unexpectedly, one arm swung out, sending Father's cane flying. Mary grabbed at Father's elbow, but William was rising from the pallet. "No!" Fiercely, he hurled Father back into the stone wall. "Get away from me, Pater!"

His hip was screaming in protest, and his head was already throbbing. Father could only lie sprawled there, blinking, as William punched at imaginary enemies. Mary tried to pin him down, but he threw her off as though she were an attacking butterfly. One arm cradled his belly protectively, where he had been stabbed at Winterfest. "Not again!" He screeched the words, the tendons in his neck standing out with the strain. "Get away from me!"

Colin and Henry together tackled him. With Mary pushing at his knees, they managed to wrestle him back onto the pallet. Jamie bent over Father, her face beaded with sweat, and tried to help him up, but neither one of them seemed to be strong enough.

"Get ice, Debra, quickly! William, no, Paracelsus is gone. It's all right. Hush." Mary kept crooning to him until the big man quieted, and Colin cautiously released him, stooping to help Father up.

In the middle of the uproar, Mouse came flying in, so excited he was even more incoherent than usual."Father, here! Mouse has it!"

"I'm fine, Jamie." He waved her away and fussed with his steel-rimmed reading glasses. They must be smudged; everything seemed so blurry. "We'd best get him into the bath, before he starts convulsing."

Mouse tugged impatiently on his coat. "Look! Mouse found it!"

"It looks very nice, Mouse," Father agreed, watching the others struggle with the delirious man. The touch of an ice-filled rag on his face seemed to soothe him even more than Mary's words. Perhaps--

"Not listening to Mouse! Look. Mouse can help."

"Not now, Mouse!" For heaven's sake, what was the boy ranting about now? No doubt he'd invented some sort of catapult to toss poor William across the chamber and into the tub. Irritated, Father glanced over his shoulder, then took a second, closer look at the round, flushed face and sighed. Another victim. "Mouse, I think you'd better stay here. Why don't you help Jamie with the little ones?"

"See?" Mouse brandished some sort of wooden box. "Mouse found it. Says it heals everything. See?"

Odd. Had something happened to the lights? The chamber seemed suddenly dim and close. Mouse's surprised face was rapidly receding, as if being swooped away down a long train tunnel.He barely had time for a clinical diagnosis of incipient unconsciousness before his knees completely gave way.

~~~~~~~~

Sitting on a ripped seat in yet another subway car, Micki Foster struggled to suppress a yawn. It had been a long night, and an even longer morning, and Jack still hadn't explained why they kept getting on and off the subway. "Playing a hunch" wasn't much of an explanation, anyway.

At the moment, he seemed to be fascinated by the busker at the end of their car. Micki tried to focus on him, but couldn't see what was so intriguing about him. He was an elderly man in a top hat and tail-coat that tried to be glamorous but had seen better days many decades ago. The flowing black cravat against the ruffled white shirt did add a touch of motheaten elegance, she had to give him that. Jack had always been completely taken with anything that smacked of the occult-from Satanic bibles to prestidigitation-but between a sleepless night, and worry over what danger the cursed apothecary kit might bring them, Micki wasn't in the mood to enjoy an amateur performance on a dirty, noisy subway car.

What awful curse could Uncle Lewis have put on an apothecary kit? Maybe it would turn its victim into a modern Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Without Johnny along to provide the muscle, could they fight off someone granted demonic strength?

Micki glanced uneasily at her partner, who was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands, enthralled by the way three thin green, blue, and white silks appeared and disappeared as the magician gestured. Jack Marshak had a habit of getting hurt: slashed by a werewolf, cut on the neck with a samurai sword, nearly burned to death by both Druids and the Ku Klux Klan, hit on the head countless times, stabbed in the chest with a cursed scalpel-you name it and it had probably happened to Jack, in just the three short years she had known him. With his arms raised, his battered khaki jacket sleeves were pulled back, showing how his right wrist was encircled by a puffy scar left by a barbed-wire garrote. With Jack's brand of luck, they were liable to be mugged on this subway before they even got on the kit's trail!

At the end of their car, the white-haired magician held up a fan of cards, making sure everyone got a good look, then clapped his hands. A few people gasped and murmured as the cards vanished; the rest went on reading the morning papers. Next to Micki, a scruffy kid in a Crips jacket muttered an obscenity.

Perhaps this curse wouldn't be quite so dangerous to them. They didn't always get into trouble retrieving antiques. Instead of creating monsters, it might create a love potion, giving you any lover you wanted in exchange for a sacrifice. Or it could put someone under your power, rather like a powdered hypnosis spell. Or maybe it--

The vanished cards reappeared, sliding ribbon-wise from the busker's gaping mouth, to a smattering of applause. With a sweeping bow, the magician doffed his top hat, plucked an invisible coin from the air, and lightly tossed it. A few people tossed coins of their own after it. The skinhead beside Micki threw what looked like a chewed-up wad of gum.

Jack leaned forward even more and flicked a ten dollar bill into the top hat. For a moment, the old man just gaped at it, his eyes popping, then he looked up into his benefactor's face. "Jack? Jack Marshak, you sly fox, what are you doing here of all places? How long has it been?"

"Ten years or more, and I still don't have Leipzig's Coin-From-Hand-to-Hand down pat."

"It's all in the wrists, my friend." Smugly, the magician donned his loaded top hat. The coins and bills seemed to have vanished; at least, none trickled down around his ears.

Jack turned to Micki. "Micki Foster, meet The Great Sebastian. If he hadn't wasted most of his life in a mundane job, instead of working magic, he'd have given David Copperfield a run for his money. Sebastian, this is my partner. We run an antique store."

"Our lives seem to run in reverse. For my part, I would never have believed the madcap adventurer would give it all up for a mundane job." The magician delicately kissed the back of Micki's extended hand, then stroked his white mustache; he probably was wishing for the good old days of mustache wax and debonair mustache-twirling. "But with a partner so alluring as this angelic creature, no doubt you find the workday far from mundane."

The train screeched to an abrupt halt, rocking them all in place. Jack glanced at the opening doors. "We're here on business. Can we talk somewhere a bit less crowded?"

"Let us repair to a nearby house of culinary delights," the magician cried grandly, and led them onto the platform.

A `house of culinary delights' wasn't exactly the way she would've described the shabby delicatessen, but Micki had to admit that her ham-and-cheese omelet, though cheap, was plentiful and delicious. She concentrated on the hot food, while Jack took the lead, and she only hoped he knew what he was doing.

"You see, for the past three years, we've been tracking down items Micki's uncle sold from the shop, CURIOUS GOODS. You remember Lewis Vendredi, Sebastian-he wanted that set of cards that used to belong to the great Houdin."

"My favorite deck." Beaming, he produced a pack of thin, flexible cards with a yellowing ivory finish, and cut them one-handed. "As I remember, Vendredi was something of a poor loser."

"You could say that." Jack took a last sip of his coffee. "Anyway, CURIOUS GOODS does turn a profit-barely-but we spend it all on the search." He cleared his throat as he set the cup down. "I feel guilty, actually. I sold him a lot of those items over the years."

"What's to feel guilty about?" With a flourish, The Great Sebastian turned the cards into a colorful flickering waterfall. "Did you perchance overcharge him? No more than the boor deserved, if you ask me."

Jack grimaced. "No, you don't understand. Everything that Lewis sold was cursed."

Micki pushed her plate back, the last mouthful of omelet turning to ashes in her mouth. If only she had never heard of her literally damned uncle, never inherited the misery he'd spread all over the world-

The magician laughed and concentrated on shuffling his cards, which seemed to change colors as they passed through his hands. "I'm a good magician, Jack, even if I did get a late start, and I've studied the work of all the greats in the field. I know for a fact that it's all skill, fraud, and showmanship. Don't try to kid a kidder."

Micki said earnestly, "It's the truth. No, really. I can't tell you how many people I've seen die since I inherited that awful shop. Perfectly innocent everyday trinkets-dolls, pens, a make-up kit, a movie camera-bring evil into innocent lives."

The deck of cards dematerialized and was replaced by a book of matches labeled BURCH TOWER. Methodically, The Great Sebastian ripped the matches in half and tucked them in his breast pocket, tossing the empty cover onto his plate of eggs, bacon, and bagel. "My dear child, you sound like the promo for a particularly bad horror movie series."

She felt herself flushing. "It's true! We've devoted our lives to tracking down every item Uncle Lewis ever sold."

He flipped the matchbook open again. All the torn matches seemed to have grown back. Ripping out one, he lit a cigarette. "You'll pardon me if I remain skeptical."

"Back in the late Fifties, when we were young men, I was skeptical when you invited me to join you in Paradise. Remember?" As he was sucking in a lungful of smoke, The Great Sebastian choked and seemed to swallow the lit cigarette. Jack cocked one eyebrow. "You do remember, don't you? I went to India instead, but I donated most of my savings to you before I left, to help keep it going, because it sounded like such a good idea. Is it all starting to come back to you now?"

The cigarette slid back through his lips, still lit. Micki watched in fascination. How did he do that without burning himself? He took another deep puff, which seemed to steady him. "What has that to do with your cursed antiques?"

"Micki and I traced a cursed apothecary kit to New York, to the home of a pair of mass-murderers. But before we could find it, someone else snatched it and ran." Apparently uninterested, the magician tossed a matchstick into the air and caught it upright on his thumb. "He was a stocky blond teenager in the oddest assortment of rags and sweaters that I've ever seen outside of medieval fairs." The match toppled into the congealing egg yolk. Sebastian's hand was shaking. "We chased him into the subway, and lost him."

"So?" Despite an attempt at nonchalance, the old man was obviously unnerved. In fact, when he absentmindedly pocketed the silverware, Micki clearly saw it sliding under his coat. "The city is full of thieves, Jack, as you well know."

"So, years ago, I turned down your self-described `paradise' because life up here was too exciting, too full of intriguing mysteries I wanted to solve. But Paradise was intriguing, too." Jack's eyes narrowed while his grin broadened; he resembled nothing so much as a greying fox stalking a mouse. "I wasn't totally honest with you, I'm afraid. After I gave you my money, Sebastian, I didn't leave for the airport. Not right away." The Great Sebastian shot him one terrified glance, then looked back at the cutlery now dancing jerkily in his hands. Jack's voice gentled. "I know about the tunnels. I followed you into the subway, and beyond."

The silverware clattered onto the counter. "Jack, I--this is--"

"A shock?" Jack prompted.

"Yes. Exactly."

"Sebastian, I don't mean to blackmail you. Believe me, I don't want to expose this commune of yours. But we have to retrieve that kit."

Micki chimed in, "It's dangerous. Deadly, in fact."

"It's like a nuclear bomb in the midst of your paradise, ready to explode at any moment."

"All right! Enough, already." Sebastian put up both hands in surrender, and a fork slid out. "The one you're looking for is probably one of us, I'll grant you that. But I'm not about to risk the safety of the Tunnels and everything we've worked for for so long." He met Jack's gaze squarely. "In all the years I've known you, Jack, your word was your bond. I never knew you to break it. I must have your word that the Tunnels will stay a secret, and no one will be hurt."

Jack's eyes didn't waver. "You have my word."

"No offense, but what about the lovely young lady here? Will you vouch for her, too?"

"I trust Micki with my life, and my soul."

The magician sighed. "All this mumbo-jumbo curse talk--you're as bad as Narcissa. Are you sure some of your 'occult' experiments haven't warped your brain just a little?"

Micki bristled. "Jack's as sane as I am!"

"That's what I was afraid of. Of all the subway cars in all the cities in the world, why did you have to come to mine?" The Great Sebastian walked a coin over his knuckles and slapped it onto the counter. "Come with me. You're about to meet a mouse. . . ."

~~~~~~~~

Mouse sat crosslegged on the floor of the sickroom, clutching his wooden box to his chest, his lower lip thrust out. After walking around him for what felt like the hundredth time, Debra Schwann was torn between kicking him and begging him one more time to move. Wiping her face on her forearm, she decided to try reasoning with him, always an iffy proposition with their resident eccentric.

"Mouse, you're sick. You should be in bed. If you won't go to bed, at least go help with the others."

"Mouse has help right here. No one will listen."

She didn't really pay attention. Did Dicena's forehead feel warm? How could she spend all her time nursing these others, when her baby needed her?

"You're not listening to Mouse either," he said morosely. He might be odd, but he was certainly alert.

"Box has new medicine. Old medicine doesn't work. Why won't you try Mouse's box?"

At least Dicena was finally sleeping. Christ, it would feel good to sleep. Tenderly, she ran one finger down her baby's plump brown cheek. How could she do it, slumber so peacefully in this noisy chamber jammed with people? (I couldn't do it. My head is pounding like a howitzer. It's like being back in Nicaraqua, under fire, with no sleep, running out of supplies, never knowing if you're safe.) She heard Henry demanding that she tend to Lin, but the voice seemed to come from a great distance. Ignoring him, she scooped Dicena into her arms. (My baby comes first!)

"Debra? Debra!" That was Mary, sounding half-crazed. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. "We've got Father bedded down in his own room, but I don't want to leave him there alone. Can you stay with him, please?"

Resentment exploded in her like solar flares. "Can't you see Dicena's sick? Haven't I done enough already?"

It lit a fuse in Mary, too. "You're not the only one who's exhausted, and you're not the only one with loved ones in pain! How do you think I feel, seeing Jacob push himself beyond human endurance?"

Mouse cringed back against the wall, his eyes very wide. The baby woke with a jerk and began howling. Feeling tears trickle down her own cheeks, Debra hugged her tight. "Hush, Di. Hush. Everything'll be okay."

Mary scrubbed her face with the heels of both hands. "I'm sorry, Debbie. We're all so overworked, so tired. I know that's no excuse, but. . . .Listen. You can take Dicena with you. Watching the two of them should be easier than nursing half the sickroom, surely. And Pascal has sent for Vincent; he'll be along soon to relieve you, and you can get some rest."

A wail arose from Mouse that drowned out Dicena's fitful sobs. "Knew it! Knew it! Father's dying!"

Mary gaped down at him, her expression completely astounded. "What? Don't be silly, Mouse. He's not dying."

"Is!" the boy insisted. "Father fell down; Mouse saw. Now you sent for Vincent, because Father--"

"Oh, for--Mouse, Father's ill, yes, just like you. It's hit him harder because he wore himself out taking care of everyone else, but Dr. Alcott is on his way. The worst is over."

Dicena had cried herself out and draped herself on her mother's shoulders, arms limply dangling down Debra's back. Mouse looked from one woman to the other, seeming unable to put together the words he wanted to say. After a moment, Mary patted him on the shoulder.

"I have to get someone to take Debra's place. Just try to rest now," she suggested, and moved on.

Debra hesitated, still resentful, but she had to agree with the older woman's reasoning. It would be such a relief to be in Father's quiet chambers, away from this dying. She could concentrate on saving Di. She reached for her stethoscope. What else would she need? Damn. It was hard to think.

Wild-eyed, Mouse threw himself at her legs, wrapping around her knees as Dicena clung to her neck. "Take the box, Dicena! Please?"

"What?"

"Can save Father. Magic. Mouse knows! Nothing else works; maybe box will, okay?"

She tried to pry his fingers loose without letting go of her daughter, but it was impossible. "Lord, Mouse, you're burning up. Did you take the aspirin I gave you? Get some water to drink, or you'll get dehydrated."

"Okay, good. Okay, fine. Mouse drinks water, you try box."

"Fine! Whatever you want. Now let go of my dress."

A look of cunning crept into the fever-maddened blue eyes. "Promise?"

She snapped, "All right, I promise! Are you happy now?"

"Yes," he said, childishly pleased, oblivious to her sarcasm. "Here."

She grabbed the carved box that he held up like a Communion wafer at consecration, and hurried away, before Mary could change her mind and make her stay there.

It really was a blessed relief to step into the hallway, where there were no voices begging for help she couldn't give, just the distant familiar echoes of dripping water, clattering subways, and Pascal's skilled drumbeats on the pipes. Debra held Dicena tight, feeling her shiver. "You'll be all right, honey. Mama won't let anything happen to you."

They'd come Below as a last resort, seeking shelter when her life Above became a hopeless mess: her daddy kicking her out, calling her a whore; Dicena's daddy walking out on them; the bills piling up; her feelings of inadequacy and stupidity each time another patient died on her. (There had to be something I could've done, it's not fair, not another life on my conscience--!)

She choked off a sob. She had crept down here like a mouse retreating into its hole, wanting only to be left alone. Now even this hiding place was falling apart around her. Disaster seemed to trail behind her like a persistent unwanted lover.

Dicena's plump hand patted her neck comfortingly. "It's okay, Mommy."

What had happened to her little hyperactive chatterbox? She hadn't said but those three words in the last three hours. "Almost there, Di." Dicena laid her head back down on Debra's shoulder.

She entered the familiar vestibule, with its scarred stone caryatids and crumbling pillars, and walked down the shoft flight of iron-railed steps to the main chamber of Father's rooms. Father's quarters could never be mistaken for anything else, except maybe a bookstore: only he had books stacked everywhere, piles of hardbacks and paperbacks intermingled in eclectic groupings, stacked on every piece of furniture and towering in ziggurauts that threatened to topple and crush her as she passed. This was where she had come on her first day Below, waiting for Father to pass judgment on whether she could stay or must go back on the streets Above.

The room was too dark. She dropped Mouse's box and fumbled with the green-and-white Tiffany lamp. A soft warm glow lit up the room. It was almost the only warmth here; she was starting to shiver like poor Dicena.

Father was in his king-sized bed, propped up with feather pillows, half-buried under quilts and comforters. Tenderly, she nestled Dicena at the foot of the bed and covered her with the soft burgundy sweater someone had absently left draped on the back of a chair. Then her training took over.

His pulse was too rapid, but the heartbeat itself was strong, and his lungs only somewhat congested. The typical mouth sores were small, but present. His temp was elevated, alarmingly so, even given this disease's rapid onset. Asleep, he looked less intimidating, perhaps because the shrewd grey-blue eyes that could pin you in place like a cop's spotlight were closed. No one could lie to Father when he turned that analytical gaze on you. Her daddy's eyes were brown, almost the same shade as his skin, but just as penetrating. Made you feel like you were a criminal living in the same house with a cop, always being watched, being looked down on.

Dicena had dropped into an exhausted sleep again, her thumb stuck firmly in her mouth. Poor baby hadn't done that since they came to the Tunnels, where it was safe. Where they could belong.

Paradoxically, even though just an instant ago she had been staggering with weariness, now Debra felt as cranked as though she'd been up three straight days doing speed; she simply couldn't sit still. Restlessly, she threaded a path through the piles of books, picking up brass antique medical and navigational equipment and setting it all back down without really seeing it. Someone had put Father's battered old medical bag on the Victorian Gothic sideboard, she noted. Hmph. Hadn't done any of them much good, now, had it?

Father stirred fretfully, trying to throw off the heavy quilts. Strange to see him so weak. Folks said Vincent was the heart of the Tunnels, and it was so, but Father was the brain, the guiding spirit that made everything work out right. He was just like her daddy there, always confident, always sure there was one right way and he was the one to pick it.

Dicena whimpered in her sleep. Debra scooped her up, and was startled. The fever seemed to be eating her up, melting the flush from her bones. How could she sit here and watch some mystery disease kill her baby? Mary pinned all her hopes on that Dr. Alcott, but Debra knew damn well how fallible the medical profession really was. What if he had no cure for this? What if he had a cure, but came too late for Dicena? A human life was such a fragile thing.

(Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best.)

It was almost as if there was someone else inside her mind, speaking to her. Debra felt her eyes drift toward Mouse's prized box. Well, what could it hurt just to look? Gently, she eased Dicena back into the bed and bent to pick up the box.

The angels and demons meant nothing special to her; she'd left religion behind when she left her daddy's house. Inside, though, was a different story. "The Sovereign Remedy for All Ills," huh? Mighty big claim to make. Debra lifted out the black bottle, shook it, held it up to the light. Whatever the black sluggish fluid was remained impenetrable. The cork that sealed it was embossed with a grinning skull-and-crossbones. Shuddering, she put it down. The other bottle, though, looked somehow more promising. Cradled in her hands, the faintly flourescent green powder seemed to warm her.

Well, it wasn't so unlikely when you got down to it, was it? We got aspirin from the ancient herbal remedies that called for willow bark. Penicillin was nothing but bread mold. Suppose Mouse,-as incredible as it might seem,-was right. She could be holding their salvation right here in her own two hands...and she couldn't use it. What if it did more harm than good?

The voice was back again. (This box was owned by a healer. At worst, it'd be harmless. At best. . . .)

She set the fluted bottle back down, angry again. Father? Huh. What kind of father was he? He promised her shelter, and now her child was dying. Fathers were supposed to love you, to sacrifice for you, to put you above everything else, not abandon you. Not curse you and throw you aside like a used Kleenex.

(It's your duty to heal, and the Tunnels need him. How can you turn your back on him, the way your daddy did to you?)

Debra shook her head, as if the voice inside was a horsefly that she could scare away. Dimly she knew she was getting all mixed up. None of that made any sense, not really. And yet. . . .

(He'd want you to test the cure on him. If he was awake, he'd insist on it.)

Tentatively, she touched his forehead. Even hotter than Dicena's. "You'll get dehydrated. I'll make you some nice hot tea. That spicy herbal one you like so much."

Tea was a diuretic. It was the last thing a fever patient needed. Yet somehow she found herself preparing it, letting it brew in that antique silver teapot the little ones were always polishing for him.

When she reached for the fluted bottle, the cork seemed to leap off in her hand.


`Davis Bentsen' was desperately tired. Oh, he'd pulled plenty of all-nighters in his intern days, but that was in the heat of discovery, when he was young and full of enthusiasm for the way he was going to change the world. He was much older now, far more cynical, and he had no energy left for scientific advancement; it took every bit of strength he had just to keep moving.

He'd been on the run for many years now. Forget medicine. Forget science. His chief skill now was being unobtrusive, colorless, fading in with the people around him. It wasn't surprising that neither Micki Foster nor Jack Marshak noticed him. He never tried to get close enough to hear their conversations, just kept them in sight and concentrated on not blinking. He was positive they couldn't have spotted him, a nondescript man sitting at the rear of the next subway car or standing on the corner outside the diner. Since he knew where they would eventually end up, he could afford to stay well back. Even if he lost them, he could go back to CURIOUS GOODS and intercept them there. But he didn't want to wait one minute longer than necessary to finally be set free.

When the door to the diner opened, he bent to tie his shoe, only glancing up when he heard them walk past him. Another subway ride? Digging out his last subway token, he drifted along in their wake.

At least this car was less crowded. Slouched in a seat at the front of the car, where he could see Micki Foster's flaming hair through the intercepting doors, he found himself lulled to sleep by the rocking of the subway.

He was transformed, a creature less than human, and more. There was danger here. A threat, huge and thickly muscled, like him, and roaring a challenge. Rage clotted in his veins. Temples throbbing, he raised his fists, and prepared to kill....

Thank God the train squealed to a stop and jerked him out of the nightmare. Davis wiped his damp forehead on his arm and squinted into the next car. Were they getting up?

"Excuse me." Since he hadn't rocketed into the aisle like everyone else, now he had to struggle against the passengers streaming into the car as well as those pouring out. "I'm sorry. Please--" Ignoring the glares and muttered curses that passed for a typical New Yorker greeting, he made it to the platform with seconds to spare.

Before his heartbeat had a chance to shift into double-time, he spotted them at the far end. Strangely, they seemed in no hurry to leave. They just lingered there, looking grim. Davis plastered himself against a pillar and waited. The last passengers hurried up the stairs, with a final `shit' echoing behind them. The subway whooshed out of the station. He counted to ten, then sneaked a quick look. The two antiquarians were following the shabby magician through a maintenance door.

Did they, after all, realize they were being spied on? He hesitated, then moved toward the door. If they were hiding in there, he'd just have to confront them, demand to be told where Jantsch's apothecary kit was, make them see reason. But when he opened the door stenciled EMPLOYEES ONLY, no one was there.

Perplexed, he wandered down the maintenance tunnel until he could just make out the hollow voices ahead. They led him to a place of wonder.

From obvious repair tunnels for the subway line, they went down, the tunnels becoming darker and danker, descending a spiral of metal stairs that led to low vaults of brickwork or wet stone. As they went deeper, the rumble of passing subway trains grew thinner, overlaid by clanking on the myriad pipe--electrical? water? sewage?--that were tangled overhead. The clanking sounded systematic somehow; not rhythmic like a drumbeat in music, yet purposeful. Some sort of code, perhaps? Despite himself, Davis felt a quickening of the old scientific curiosity.

It was a good thing he wasn't claustrophobic. As they went still deeper, the lighting vanished. Far ahead, the magician materialized a fireball; when his eyes adjusted from the sudden flare in the Stygian darkness, the fireball had shrunk to a more decorous torch, and Davis kept his gaze on that light as he walked, careful to hover just before the point where the light shrank to nonexistence. It was like following a firefly. Whatever he did, he mustn't get lost. There seemed to be a veritable maze of intersecting tunnels hidden here, miles below the surface of New York City.

They rounded a few turns, and the blackness was relieved by a bizarre variety of objects carefully nestled into wall niches: candles, oil lamps, kerosene lanterns. The odors of damp, smoke, candlewax, and kerosene all mixed with the clouds of steam puffing from the overhead pipes. Davis's pace slowed. He was now truly alarmed. What he saw was proof of an established community, not a one-time secret meeting.

His years of living on the run, always evading the unending pursuit, had given him the finely-honed survival instincts of a wild animal. It was only this that saved him from being spotted by a sentry lurking in one of the side-tunnels. Davis crouche--anything below the usual line-of-sight had a better chance of being overlooked--and stared in disbelief. What he saw was a stripling, presumably male, dressed like an extra in a Robin Hood movie, probably in a winter scene: boots, dark leggings, a long-sleeved brown thermal shirt, a forest-green tunic of wool, and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. The youth was leaning against a wooden staff. Davis blinked, then crept across the mouth of the tunnel, holding his breath until he was safely past. Further on, he barely evaded another sentry, this one resembling an unshaven Broadway wino swathed in layers of rags, instead of a Robin Hood reject.

The anthropological implications were staggering. If a community had been established here, long enough to develop a means of communication and its own strange sense of fashion--Davis shook his head. Dammit, he had no time for this! He couldn't let his only lead to the apothecary kit vanish

.

He speeded up to a near-run, trying to close the distance between them. This really was a matter of life-and-death. Rage was the trigger to his illness, the sort of uncontrollable homicidal rage that a newborn infant feels but thankfully cannot act on. Unfortunately, the world above was all-too-full of stress and terrors that could start the anger building up inside him: congenitally rude people, massive traffic jams, muggers, riots, wars. Why, he couldn't even let himself indulge in a simple opinion, get into a political debate, for fear he'd get too personally involved in an argument and start to get angry. He needed that plant. He had suffered long enough. Nothing was going to stop him now, when he was so close!

(Someone's coming.)

Panting, he flattened himself against a mold-streaked stone wall, praying it would be just another sentry. One hasty glance sent a chill of horror up his spine. It was no sentry. It was exactly the sort of monster that would fit in these labyrinthine tunnels, something out of a creature-feature. The Beast That Walked Like a Man. The Lion-Man of Mongo.

The magician and the two antique dealers hadn't yet realized their peril. The magician was facing the other way, pointing down another tunnel. If he warned them, they'd run, and he'd lose them in this maze. If he did nothing, the cat-monster would kill them. Either way, he lost his last hope for a cure.

Of course, there could be no question what he'd do. There were human lives at stake. Davis Bentsen snatched up a loose rock and hurled it at the cloaked man-animal. "Get back! Get out of here!" he shouted.

The creature reached up to its golden face and felt the blood already matting its leonine mane. Snarling, it bounded toward him, revealing a mouthful of fangs. He was confronting an enormous lion on two legs, and he was no Gunther Gebel-Williams.

Micki Foster screamed. Her partner enfolded her in his arms, trying to back away. Incredibly, the magician grabbed his elbow, stopping him. Was he crazy? Couldn't he see the danger?

The growling beast was running right toward him.

Adrenaline washed his body, making him shake. His heartbeat felt like the backbeat in a Chipmunk record. Davis tried to turn and run, but he felt like he was moving in slow motion, and then his right ankle twisted under him, pitching him onto the tunnel floor.

Everything turned green.

Massive muscles expanded all over his once-lean frame, as he bent double, gasping with the agony of being reborn within seconds. His shirt was shredded by the sudden growth and flaked off his body like dandruff, as his shoes exploded outward. Unable to scream, he gaped blindly at the dirt floor, feeling his face thicken and change shape. Then his mind shut down entirely.

~~~~~~~~

The teacup was finally empty.

After the first few pungent drops passed his lips, Father had muttered and turned his head, trying to evade it, but one thing Debra Schwann knew well was how to make an obstinate patient take his medicine. "It's for your own good," she had coaxed him, as she eased it down his throat.

And she was right. He was breathing easier, and the hectic flush was fading from his face. Pulse, temperature, blood pressure--they all improved drastically. . .while in the same bed, her daughter was horribly worse.

Father's eyes fluttered. "Mary?"

"No. It's Debra." She studied his face, keeping her own carefully expressionless. "How are you feeling?"

He blinked. "Surprisingly well, actually." He paused, seeming to take stock of himself and his surroundings, then focused on her. "Has Dr. Alcott finally arrived, then?"

"No. Lie still. Get your strength back." It worked! Mouse's absurd little box of unknown herbs really did cure all ills. She could save Dicena!

But the teapot was empty. With trembling hands, she fumbled with the fluted bottle. The cork seemed to be stuck. No matter how hard she twisted and tugged, it wouldn't budge. Finally, frustrated beyond endurance, she pounded the bottle on Father's mahogany desk.

The glass wouldn't break.

Almost sobbing, she snatched up a brass mermaid and tried to crush the bottle, without success. When she stopped to suck in a ragged breath, an eerie verdant glow from the box caught the corner of her eye. Debra's head rose. The ornate writing on the mortar and pestle had changed. It now read `THEE MUST BE CRUEL TO BE KIND,' with the black script haloed in green. Slowly, biting her lip, she reached for the carved box. The skull-and-crossbones grinning from the seal on the black liquid glowed the same uncanny green.

"Debra?" Father's voice sounded stronger. "Debra, Dicena is very ill. I think we'd better hook up an I.V. to combat the dehydration."

She half-turned, and saw him cradling her daughter in his arms. Di didn't move. Debra turned back, picked up the bottle with the sooty black liquid, and pressed it to her heart. It was hard to tell which felt more cold.

"It's. . .it's time for your medicine," she told Father, in a voice she didn't recognize.

A sudden uproar in the Long Hallway outside distracted them both. To Debra, the ungodly racket sounded like a Saturday double-feature of the worst Godzilla and King Kong movies, but Father was more upset. "Vincent!" Despite his alarm, he laid Dicena gently down against his pillows. "Something's wrong."

"But--your medicine--"

Her words were buried under assorted bawls, bellows, and roars; now it sounded like ten minutes past feeding time at the zoo. Father grabbed his silver-headed cane and levered himself to his feet. Debra hesitated, then kissed Dicena's cracked, unresponsive lips; swept up the box; and followed him into the hallway.

~~~~~~~~

The Hulk slowly unfolded to its full gigantic size, raised twin jade fists, and bellowed wordless defiance to the world. In turn, the lion man halted in the middle of the tunnel, blocking the path to the three puny humans, and roared. Lion-man was threatening humans. Lion-man was threatening HULK! Bad, bad, bad kitty!

He swung out his left arm in a sideways swipe that should've hurled the creature partway through the wall, but somehow it evaded him. Hulk scowled. No kitty would make fun of Hulk. Hulk spank! Clenching his fist in a fury, he switched to a powerhouse right, a punch every bit as deadly as the bite of a jackhammer on concrete. It should have killed the cat-thing. Instead, it splintered the stone wall.

Then the roaring creature pounced, jabbing its claws into Hulk's belly and ripping upward. Both of them paused for an instant, staring down at the four parallel scratches that marred the Hulk's lovely green skin, one of them even oozing a single chartreuse drop of blood.

(Kitty hurt Hulk!)

Infuriated, the Hulk grabbed the lion-man in both tree-trunk arms and squeezed, hard. Screeching, writhing, and kicking at Hulk's belly with its booted hind feet, it bit long fangs into Hulk's left arm. That hurt worse. Hulk stopped squeezing and tried to shake the cat-thing loose, waving his arm wildly.

"Vincent? Vincent, no!"

More puny little humans were in the tunnel; a man and a woman. The man limped forward, close enough for Hulk to thump his head flat like balloon, but Hulk was too busy trying to pry lion beast off.

"Vincent," the man said sternly, "let that creature go."

Let Hulk go? No! Hulk was winning! Scowling, the Hulk proved it by flexing the muscles in both arms, flicking the cat-thing aside.

Another human joined the first. Out of nowhere, a shiny black stick appeared in his outstretched arm, and he thumped Hulk in the nose with it, hard.

The Hulk squatted, letting a howl of mingled rage and indignation erupt from his bowels in a basso complaint. Then, with a last backward glare, Hulk thudded down back down the tunnel, pausing every now and then to batter a wall in sheer frustration. No more puny humans attacked him, but he smelled them everywhere. Like mice in the walls. Hulk thought about tearing down the walls to get at the mice, but thinking made Hulk's head hurt.

After awhile, he came to a pool, big and cold and pretty. Hulk sank down on his haunches beside the pool, studying his reflection. He stuck one paw into the water and made the reflection dissolve into a million raindrops. Finally he yawned, unable to remember what had called him out. Time to go to sleep, and let David Banner come out to play.

~~~~~~~~

Jack Marshak was having a wonderful time.

Wanderlust had always run in his family. His own father, a sailor, had died at sea. Not limiting himself to either sea or land, Jack explored the frontiers of the mind, starting with his childhood interest in stage magic. When Dad came home between voyages, the Amazing Marshak would do a command performance, turning silk handkerchiefs into doves--when the doves were in a cooperative mood, that is. Then Dad started bringing home souvenirs, Tiki gods or shaman rattles, and stories about exotic ceremonies in far-off lands, and the Amazing Marshak started imitating psychics, instead.

In his more-than-full lifetime, he'd climbed mountains in Tibet, visited Stonehenge and Easter Island, dabbled in voudon and witchcraft, battled black magicians and actual demons. But he had never sat beneath the streets of New York City in what should've been abandoned subway tunnels, having a civilized conversation with a beast that acted like a man, and a man who turned into a beast. It was fascinating. A pool-complete with its own waterfall-under the city? Unbelievable! His only problem was deciding what question to begin with.

It was Micki who handled that one. No sooner had the stocky patriarch who called himself 'Father' settled them all in his chambers than she fixed Davis Bentsen with a glare. "Why did you follow us here?"

Despite his tattered pants, the half-naked man drew himself erect with dignity. "I told you. I must have that kit."

"Why?"

Jack cut in, "Because he thinks the kit has a plant that will stop him turning into that--that hulking beast."

The man turned to him with pathetic hope. "Then you understand. You'll help me."

"I can't. You don't understand. Lewis Vendredi made a pact with the Devil; everything he sold had a catch to it. You only get your wish at the cost of someone else's life." Leaving him to digest that, Jack turned back to the tawny lion-man. "Is that what happened to you?"

The beast-like muzzle wasn't well-equipped for smiles, but Vincent was clearly amused. "Though I have at times cursed my lot in life, I doubt that a curse made me this way. That's a fairy-tale explanation."

"Then you've never been. . .er. . .?"

"Normal? No. I was like this when I was found, as an infant, near St. Vincent's Hospital." He had a mellifluous baritone more suited to a poet than a beast. "Excuse me. I'm still confused. Pascal said you were taken ill, Father, but you look quite well."

"Better than I've felt in years, actually. Even my hip doesn't hurt." He stroked his short beard of rusted steel, and his grim face quirked in a smile when he noticed Jack was doing the same thing. The smile was short-lived. "Vincent, I was definitely ill. Yet now. . . ."

"The apothecary kit," Micki said. When the honey-maned lion looked up, she nodded firmly. "Someone's used the kit to cure him."

Vincent glanced at his `father,' then back at her, frowning. "What makes you think this kit is here, in our Tunnels?"

"Uncle Lewis sold it to a Joseph Pollard. We tracked him here, but when we went to his house to search for it, we scared away someone who'd already found it."

Jack interjected, "A small, stocky, blond teenager who ran into the subway with it and disappeared."

Simultaneously, Father, Vincent, and the Great Sebastian chorused, "Mouse." It had an air of resigned certainty to it.

Still trying to get matters straight, Jack turned back to Bentsen, who looked more wan and miserable than ever. He was beginning to shiver. "Then you followed us into the tunnels. But what went wrong?"

"I saw...Vincent?" The massive lion-man nodded. "Vincent. I'm sorry, but I honestly thought he was going to attack you. I saw my chance for a cure disappearing, and I. . .lost my temper." He sighed, shoulders slumping. "You see, I was a scientist, researching the cause for the superhuman strength many people display under intense stress, and I tested a machine prematurely. Now the hormones and chemicals released by strong anger make me into the Hulk. The monster you saw." He swallowed, staring at the floor. "I have no control over the Hulk or what he does."

It seemed to Jack that more than ordinary sympathy filled Vincent's azure, very human eyes. "Many people have to do daily battle with a dark side to their nature. It is nothing to be ashamed of, so long as you don't give up the battle." He shucked his blue woolen cloak and swirled it over the man's shoulders. "You're not alone."

Bentsen looked up. "Other people don't have the Hulk's strength, or his rage. We learn to control our anger, to channel it into other activities like sports, as we pass through childhood. The Hulk never learned anything." His eyes were haunted. "I never know if this time I'll wake up to find the Hulk has killed someone--I've killed someone--without even knowing it was happening, or why."

Jack tugged at his beard. The scientist's tragedy wasn't tied to Lewis's curse, so there was no way he could help the man. He leaned forward, almost overturning the battered Queen Anne chair he'd been given. "People, I'm afraid we're missing something here. The kit has apparently been used to heal, er, Father."

Catching his drift, Micki bit her lip. "And there's always a price to be paid. Usually an innocent life."

"I'll take you to the Mousehole."

"No." Father held up one hand. "I last saw him in the sickroom. He has the disease." The crisp British voice was ironic. "I believe it's time Mouse and I have another of our little talks about 'taking' from Above."

~~~~~~~~

When she followed Father into the tunnel, Debra barely noticed the monstrous green giant battling Vincent. At any other moment, she would have been terrified of the colossus, but now it was unimportant. She stood behind Father, numb, clutching the wooden box in stiff fingers.

(My baby is dying.)

Everything and everyone else paled to insignificance next to that awful certainty. She had no one: no father, no lover, just one sweet toddler who was never going to beam up at her again, never giggle "Love ya!" and hug her tight. Unless. . . .

(It's medicine. It's good for you.)

The image of that green-highlighted skull-and-crossbones burned behind her eyes, but she instantly suppressed it. Time was running out. If she didn't act quickly....A shudder ran through her entire body, and she tasted vomit. (I won't let anything happen to my baby.)

Something must have happened while she stood there in a daze; now the immense green monster was loping down the Long Hallway, still emitting occasional muffled bellows. Sebastian and two strangers tentatively followed it. In the middle of the Long Hallway, Father was still calming Vincent, standing with one arm around Vincent's cloaked shoulders, kindly but firmly scolding him.

Stiffening her spine, Debra turned and walked the other way, to the sickroom. She had no real destination in mind, at least not consciously. All her efforts were concentrated on a desperate attempt to find hope, some clear path out of this nightmare. If Dicena died, she had nothing. But what if, to save her daughter, she had to offer someone else's life? The cost was so damned high!

(A mother who truly loves her child will make any sacrifice to save it.)

How long had she been walking blindly through the tunnels? Wrapped around the edges of the carved box, her fingers ached as if the circulation was being cut off. What was the use? If she didn't so something, quickly, Dicena would die. Debra glanced down at the box squeezed so tightly against her chest, and a carved demon's face seemed to leer at her.

(Any risk is worth taking, if it saves a baby's life. Mouse's box works miracles. The green powder cured Father. The black liquid is probably some sort of cure, too.)

No. She knew that wasn't true, but she wasn't going to think about it. Now she moved briskly, purposefully, almost running, and she worked hard at keeping her mind blank. (Don't think about the medicine. Don't think about anything. Dicena's life is all that matters.)

No one even noticed when she stepped into the sickroom chamber. Most of the able-bodied people were clustered around a stack of boxes, dividing something up. Was that Dr. Alcott's curly grey hair and thin figure, bending over the ice bath?

(It doesn't matter. Only Dicena matters.)

Moving mechanically, she walked down the only open path left, until she nearly stumbled over a pallet. Mouse was curled up under a ragged plaid blanket, asleep.

When they first came Below, the little tinkerer had built Dicena an automatic cradle-rocker that nearly dumped her onto the floor; then, in apology, he'd made her a rag doll that could be wound up to kick its arms and legs like a baby. It was still her favorite toy.

(He loves Dicena, too. He'd do anything for her. Anything.)

"Mouse," she said softly.

He rolled over, and grinned happily when he recognized her. "Debra! Is Father better? Did the box work?"

"Yes. He's much better. The box works just fine."

She felt almost as if she was standing outside her body, watching it move but not actually a part of it. Like Mouse's rag-doll robot. Carefully, she opened the carved box and took out the tube of black liquid. Mouse rubbed his eyes and sat up, cocking his head, watching her ease the seal from the bottle. When she poured it into a teaspoon, it oozed out thickly, in a slimy black rope. Mouse made a face. "You have to take your medicine now. It's good for you."

"No." He edged away from the spoon, back against the wall, and tried a feeble smile. "Mouse feels lots better now."

"Don't you want to get cured, like Father? Open wide, now. Just one quick swallow, and it'll all be over--"

A wordless roar of fury from the doorway made her twitch convulsively, spilling the liquid on the stone floor beside Mouse. It writhed there like a living creature, hissing and spitting, making the boy shrink back and curl his feet up underneath his body.

Vincent was fast, but in her despair, Debra was faster. He reached her in two swift strides, and wrenched the tube from her hand, but not before she got it to her lips. She smiled at him, a weary and somehow sweet smile, as she swallowed.

"Save my baby," she whispered. "Don't let my Dicena--"

The words died in a surprised moan. Her body went rigid, and the moan became a rattle deep in her throat. As Vincent gently eased her body to the floor, Debra's body convulsed. Her head snapped backward, as if trying to reach her heels, and then, abruptly, she was still.

~~~~~~~~

None of it made any sense.

Sitting in the tattered tapestry armchair that dominated his study, Father was a man torn by conflicting desires. As the patriarch of the Tunnels, he had to confront these strangers and make sense of this tragedy, yet as the resident physician he wanted only to be in the sickroom with Peter. For the safety of all who lived Below, he had to go on sitting here.

He had done what he could for little Dicena, pumping fluids into the fever-wasted body. Now he could only cradle the child on his lap and sigh. "I find it difficult to believe in gloves that absorb diseases to pass on to other victims, and television sets that swallow people whole."

"I find it difficult to believe there's a cloaked cat-man living in abandoned subway tunnels under New York City," Marshak shot back.

He shifted uneasily in his chair. What a relief it was to feel no pain when he moved! "You have me there, I'm afraid."

The beautiful girl who'd accompanied Marshak was perched on the curving granite pulpit steps that led to the balcony, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. She pointed out, "It shouldn't be that hard to accept. The box healed you, didn't it? Then that woman's death fulfilled the curse. Now the box will heal again."

Her partner sat bolt upright in the Queen Anne chair that Cullen had refinished as a present. "I don't think that's a good idea, Micki. Think how many people we've seen destroy themselves-sometimes with the best of motives-by giving in to that sort of temptation."

Father gazed somberly around the study. They were a widely divided group, both physically and emotionally. Sebastian seemed to have completely withdrawn himself from the conversation. In fact, he was on the balcony, absently making coins march across his knuckles. Vincent had seated himself on the edge of the desk, examining the open box and its two dissimilar bottles. He'd claimed there was a green glow around the mouth of the poisoned tube when he took it from Debra, but it was a dead black now, as far as Father could see. As Vincent turned the fluted bottle over in his clawed hands, the scientist-cum-monster sat a few feet away, staring at the hands and the bottle they held as if mesmerized.

He'd let his attention wander. Heatedly, the girl was making some point. "--wrong when you were healed by the same scalpel that cut your heart up?"

"Now, Micki--"

"Was it wrong to use that cursed coin to bring me back to life after it killed me? Are you saying our being alive isn't a good thing?" Marshak held up both hands in surrender, looking abashed. Micki stood up, decisively. "Then our only real decision has to be who will be healed, before we lock this box up in the vault with Uncle Lewis's other 'toys'."

Father turned to his foster son. "The green powder didn't just cure my illness, Vincent, it healed everything about me. My hip doesn't even twinge. I feel positively young. If your. . .shape. . .is some sort of mutation or deformity, perhaps it will cure you, make you like everyone else."

Vincent shook back tawny curls. "And if this is my normal form--if I'm some sort of alien, as Sebastian is always whispering--" From the balcony came a startled oath, and the clatter of coins hitting the wrought-iron railing. "--then the potion will have been wasted."

Instantly, Bentsen was on his feet, quivering with emotion. "I'm the one who tracked down that box. I've lost over ten years of my life! Years of being hunted, of being terrified of myself and what I might do. That box contains the only thing on this earth with even a chance to cure me! You can't deny me that cure!"

Vincent said gently, "You must control your anger, Mr. Bentsen. If that really is your name."

Should he even speak? Father caressed Dicena's face, trying to decide. It hardly seemed fair, after he had unwittingly taken advantage of the herb's healing power. If it hadn't been used to cure him--if Debra had instead given it to Dicena--Debra would not now be dead. Somewhat diffidently, he pointed out, "Mouse is the one who actually found the box and brought it here, and he's very ill now."

Micki walked down the last of the pulpit steps. "From what he's told us, some of the people here are dying. That potion could save a human life."

"There's plenty of powder in the bottle," Bentsen pointed out desperately. "Couldn't we share it?"

Marshak shook his head. "The curse never works that way. For each cure, it demands a life. And it escalates. The next cure might cost two lives, or three, or more. Whatever that powder might have been before doesn't matter; now it's one of Lewis's nasty bits of bait."

Vincent rose, still clutching the fluted bottle, staring down at the scientist until he looked away.

It seemed to Father that this was a room full of curses: Bentsen cursed with his maddened alter-ego; Micki Foster with her foul inheritance; Marshak with guilt over providing Vendredi with antiques; his own son with his inhuman form and instincts. There wasn't enough magic in all the world to heal so many curses, so many miseries.

"Debra gave her life so that this could heal her child." Moving too quickly for anyone to stop him, Vincent strode to Father's side, and shook a few grains of the coarse green powder into Dicena's mouth. "I believe we should fulfill her last wish."

"No! You can't do that!" Bentsen cried.

Father stroked Dicena's throat. She swallowed.

"I already have," Vincent said firmly. He moved to the scientist's side and put one arm around his shoulders. "You know her innocent life is more important than the discomfort that you and I both have learned to live with. You were an adult; you brought your sorrow on yourself through the choices you made. This baby never had a choice."

Bentsen closed his eyes. His misery was so overwhelming that Father had to look away, feeling his own eyes mist over.

Clearing his throat, Marshak rose and closed the apothecary box on its two demonic bottles. "We'll lock this up in our vault, where it can't hurt anyone again. But I do have a lot of contacts in occult fields, Mr. Bentsen. I promise you I'll do everything I can to find a way to lift the curse, so you can use your cure."

"It will never happen," the younger man murmured wearily, raising his eyes with an effort. "Will it?"

Micki crossed the room to stand on the other side of him, adding her touch to Vincent's. "Maybe not. But it won't hurt for you to check in with us every now and then, just in case."

Her older partner turned to Father. "We have to get this home as quickly as possible, but then. . .well, I'd like to come back, if I may. Just for a visit."

Alarm washed away his pity for the drooping scientist. What could he say? How could he protect the Tunnels and his people? "Mr. Marshak, secrecy is our only hope for survival. If you--"

Sebastian stepped around the desk with his usual air of having teleported into position. "I can vouch for Jack's honor, Jacob. He'd never betray us." He flashed a fleeting mischievous grin. "Think of him as a Helper. After all, it was his bank account that paid for our original ventilation system."

"But we--yes, Mary?"

She leaned against the doorway like a wilted rose, but her eyes were alive. "You were right, Father. Peter brought a serum, and it works. William's fever has broken!"

He hesitated, torn. Vincent, who always knew what was in his heart, glanced at him. "They'll need you in the sickroom, Father. Sebastian and I will see to our visitors. You have no need to worry."

Dicena was feather-light in his arms, but cured, as he had been. She clung to him sleepily as he rose. "Get some rest, Mary. God knows you've earned it. Dicena, how would you like to sleep with Michelle tonight, yes? You do like her, don't you, and it will be great fun for you both. . . ."

Mary yawned, then, with a fond smile directed at Father's back as he walked briskly down the Long Hallway, she turned the other way.

Jack found it hard to keep from treading on Vincent's heels as they followed him to another chamber. Everywhere he looked he saw something else that fascinated him. In the next chamber, an elderly woman was patiently demonstrating a sewing machine to a teenager. Wasn't that one of the early Singers? Surely it would command a pretty penny at CURIOUS GOODS. Neither woman seemed at all taken aback by Vincent, though Jack still found his size and overpowering cat-ness daunting. He was more used to fighting demonic creatures whose evil tendencies matched their bizarre appearance than to a beast with tender concern for freezing guests.

When Bentsen was properly outfitted, and provided with a few extra shirts for the road, Vincent teased a smile from the white-haired seamstress and led them back into the tunnels. He seemed to know the labyrinth by instinct, only bothering with a lamp when the others began to stumble in the dusk. Once he paused to tap a rapid-fire cadence on one of the many overhead pipes.

"That's your communication system?"

The shaggy head nodded. "Pascal and his father invented it. It's almost impossible to drag Pascal from his pipes, and in emergencies like this, we're especially grateful. He'll spread the word that we have a cure for the plague and that you're guests, not intruders." He paused at the foot of the towering spiral staircase. "That's what Father was trying to tell you. We've been. . .invaded. . .before, and always at the cost of many lives."

Jack said calmly, "I think it's safe to say we know how to keep a secret."

Bentsen dredged up a humorless smile. "I'll need you to keep my secret, too. I'm supposed to be dead, but there's an investigative reporter--a very good one, unfortunately--hot on my trail. I don't see any way he can track me here, but he might find CURIOUS GOODS."

"Good! Antique dealers love newspaper coverage, right, Micki? By the time we're through hounding him for free publicity, he'll be afraid to even set foot in Canada, for fear we'll find him."

Vincent peered up the stairway. "Sebastian will sneak you back into the subway station. I seldom go above."

Micki turned to him sadly. Jack suspected she was rather taken with the romantic fairy-tale figure he cut. "Then you never see the sunlight? The leaves turning color in fall? Snowflakes falling?"

"I see reflections of them in the stories others tell. For me, that has to be enough." He was matter-of-fact, as though he had long since come to grips with the life he had to lead. The sapphire eyes settled thoughtfully on Bentsen. "Mr. Bentsen, perhaps you should stay here. Our world is usually a peaceful one; we can't offer you the healing you seek, but we can give you a respite. A shelter."

Grimly, the scientist shouldered his bag. "No. If I stopped now, I'd give up. Up there, there are labs and computers and other scientists. I've lost too much of my life already. I have to make my own cure now."

"If you change your mind," Sebastian offered cheerfully, "you'll find me entertaining the hoi pollloi on any subway you care to name, sooner or later."

Bentsen was already ascending the stairs, turning his back on the Tunnels. The others followed more slowly, with Jack lingering for a last look at the leonine face so far below, until Micki prodded him in the back to speed him up.

It felt strange to leave the subterranean world for the florescent lighting of the subway platform. This world was no more real than the one they had just left; in the windowless cavernous room, Jack couldn't tell if it was day or night. All he knew for certain was that he was exhausted. Maybe this whole affair had been an hallucination, brought on by lack of sleep...? No. Maybe not.

The Great Sebastian clapped him on the shoulder. "It was good to see you again, Jack. When you come back, we'll swap tall tales, eh?"

"Some a little taller than others," he agreed.

There were three disinterested people at the other end of the platform, waiting for a train. Sebastian, delicately plucking silks from each sleeve, strolled toward them, looking eager. Bentsen glanced toward the stairs, but Micki touched his elbow.

"Vincent can never walk out of this subway. Yet he hasn't given up hope, has he?"

After a moment, he managed a small smile. "Point taken. All right. I didn't get the cure I hoped for. . .but maybe I learned a thing or two about patience, and endurance, and hope."

"I hope it's enough," she said softly.

He nodded, then turned and slowly walked away.


Oh, Father, please take me back to Jane's Fan Fiction and tell me more stories!
Micki, Jack says we must check the main page for cursed objects, links, guestbooks, and a way to write to the author!

As long as this isn't Friday the 13th, it's safe to write to the author and provide some feedback.

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.