CAT'S PARLOR

by ardavenport


- - - Part 1

In a tunnel under the busy streets of New York City a cat/man-like creature advanced purposefully toward his goal. Something shuffled in the tunnel ahead. Vincent paused. The noise he'd heard was unfamiliar. It had sounded large enough to be a man, but he did not recognize the footsteps. It moved again, this time unlike a foot fall entirely. Wary, Vincent continued stalking the intruder.

This person had sheltered in an unlit portion of the tunnels ahead through which Vincent needed to pass to reach the entry to Catherine's apartment building. Vincent peered carefully into the darkness. The gloom scarcely hindered his night vision, but still he saw nothing. The intruder moved again and Vincent snarled audibly. Quick and making a sinister scurrying sound, the intruder did not sound like a man at all.

The movement stopped. Vincent's instincts told him that he, himself, might be the prey.

'Should I not attempt to speak with it?' he asked himself. But bitter experience had taught him that not all men would hear words. And he was not really sure it was a man. His instincts told him that this invader must be driven away.

He continued forward, slowly. His eyes probed the colorless shadows and saw all the details that the average human eye would be blind to, but nothing seemed out of place. He looked behind him, but nothing was there as well. Listening for the tiniest noise, he heard distant tapping, messages being passed through the underground pipes. Even more distant city sounds filtered from above through the layers of concrete and dirt. He was acutely aware of any sound he made, the sound of his boots on the cement and his cape brushing the ground, the sound of his own breathing and of his clothes stretching as his chest expanded and exhaled. He heard nothing else. Sniffing the air, he smelled only cool dust and mildew. The intruder moved again; Vincent growled openly and bared his teeth.

He approached an intersection of three tunnels; one was clear, but the corridor of the other turned left and he could not see into it. Vincent crept closer, hugging the wall. He crouched and sprang forward.

There was nothing there. Then he realized his mistake. He jumped away from the turn and looked above him. Light reflected from his fangs.

He briefly saw the man-shape above him before two powerful blows struck him in the head. Clawing at it as he fell, he heard a man's yelp of pain and the sound of fabric tearing. He landed on his feet and rolled away. Then, in a very human fashion, he ran, slightly limping, off down the tunnel from which he had come.

Crouched on his hands and knees, Vincent heard the other leave but could not rise. The pain was great enough to make him feel nauseous. His opponent surely had strength that rivaled his own, he realized. He crawled to the wall and sat down with his back to it. Letting his head fall back, he breathed deeply to clear it. After a few minutes he felt less ill, but the pounding in his head remained. He looked around. His peripheral vision was fuzzy.

Rising slowly, Vincent staggered toward the tunnel ahead of him and away from the one his enemy had retreated down. He was very close to the entrance to Catherine's apartment, closer even than the nearest pipes with which he could signal for help. If she shared his pain, and he knew she did, she would come.


==oo==oo==oo==oo==


"...I really appreciate you staying so late for this," Joe continued.

"That's OK, sir. We're happy to work late," David, the wimpy accountant in the back seat, answered. Joe hadn't been addressing him but acknowledged him anyway. He double parked in front of Catherine Chandler's apartment building.

"Hey, Radcliffe, you don't look so good." She was pale and breathless.

"I'm fine," she almost whispered without looking at him. She opened the door and got out. Joe leaned over across the vacated seat.

"You sure you're alright?" He was tempted to go after her. A moment ago she had been perfectly well.

"I'm fine, really. You'd better take David home, now." She closed the door, still without looking him in the eye, and ran between the parked cars to the door.

"Uh, 33rd Street, sir," David said.

"Yeah, yeah, I got it, Chishek. I'm not a taxi driver." Reluctantly, he drove on.


==oo==oo==oo==oo==


Catherine found Vincent just inside the entrance to the tunnels. She could not see his injuries in the darkness, but he was conscious and lucid.

"I've got to get Father." She started to rise, but he stopped her.

"No. I was attacked in the tunnels. It's too dangerous."

"Attacked? What was it? Did you see it?"

"I don't know. It wasn't anything I could name, not quite a man. It struck me down when it could have killed, but I don't know why."

"Then I'm taking you upstairs." She helped him to rise.

"I'll be seen," he told her.

"We'll just have to make the best of it." She helped him through the entrance. Then she pulled his cloak up over his head and his sleeves as far down over his claws as they would go. With his arm over her shoulder they made it to the service elevator without meeting anybody. Since it was so late there was a good chance that they could make it all the way to her apartment without being seen.

Once on her floor, they were forced to dodge a few people before getting to her door. She unlocked it and they disappeared inside.

Down below the streets of New York, a lone figure in a blue and red superhero's costume nursed his wounds. He had some shallow, but painful scratches on his lower abdomen and a couple excruciating ones that had grazed his groin.

Spiderman looked up again and listened for the were-cat. But there was still no pursuit. He knew that one of his punches could knock out a horse. Two could KO an elephant. But this thing had only been stunned. And it had still managed to inflict it's share of damage. So, he had taken the better part of valor and gotten his rear end out of there. When he was sure he wasn't being followed, he stopped and checked the damage. That thing's claws were sharp; not only had it slashed the front of his costume, coming within millimeters of making him a soprano, they had also sliced through the elastic of his athletic supporter. He was in a very desperate position, indeed.

There was still his original problem to deal with. He was hopelessly lost in these tunnels. Regretting that he had ever chosen to follow up on that tenuous story about people living underground in Manhattan, he checked his camera and was relieved to find it OK. He wistfully thought about swinging free among the skyscrapers above. Only a few hours ago, he had been up there, before his skimpy information had led to the discovery of this maze and before his overconfidence had gotten him lost. His spider sense did not seem to endow him with a good sense of direction. Now he was tired, hurt, lost and he didn't even have any pictures to show for it. He doubted that even J. J. Jameson would believe a were-cat story, let alone pay for any shots of it. The Daily Bugle was as yellow a rag as they came, but even J. J. had his standards.

The bleeding had stopped and a makeshift bandage of webbing would keep the cuts covered, but now he faced a difficult decision. He didn't know what that lion-creature was, but it had appeared to know where it was going, which was more than he could say for himself. If he followed, he might find his way out of the endless tunnels.

"Or I might get cut to pieces," he told himself. But Spiderman knew that he could wander around for hours without a good lead, so there really was only one choice.

He stood up. His tights fell down.

Sadly, he looked down at the pieces of his former jock-strap. His web bandage covered his assets, but webbing was a little bit too transparent for comfort. He discarded the useless undergarment and pulled his tights up. Knotting the ragged edges at the waist, he tied it to a loop of webbing around his neck before he cautiously proceeded down the tunnel to the intersection where he had confronted the were-cat.

It was gone. It had proceeded on, apparently using the wall for support for that was where its tracks were in the thin layer of dust along the walls.

Spiderman followed warily. Minutes later he came to a broken wall. Beyond that a light shone from above.


==oo==oo==oo==oo==


Catherine returned to the bedroom with an ice pack and more ice in a plastic bag wrapped in a towel. She went to the bed and placed the pack on the lump on Vincent's head and the towel on the bruise next to his left eye. He winced but did not protest. She then went to the bathroom and returned with some cotton balls and a small bottle of antiseptic. Brushing long strands of his red-gold hair aside, she dabbed at a tiny, red cut near his right temple just under the ice pack. He winced again.

"How do you feel?" she asked, holding the cotton to his head.

"Better," he answered, eyes closed.

She removed the cotton; the cut seemed to have stopped bleeding. She continued to watch him without speaking. His breathing was even and deep and there didn't appear to be any sign of shock from his injury. But in spite of the ice the left side of his face was swollen and purple. The lump on his head was enormous and she had no more first aid to offer. Catherine wanted to question him about the attack but his silence and her empathy with him told her how badly he was feeling, so she said nothing. She rose. He opened his eyes.

"Stay."

She immediately sat back down on the bed next to him and took his hand.

"I'm here," she answered.

"You want to go for help," he told her.

"You're hurt. Father sh-."

"No. It's too dangerous."

"You said it could have killed you, but it didn't. Maybe it was only frightened. And I wouldn't have to go very far into the tunnel to send a message."

"He shook his head slowly, dislodging the ice pack. "You can't be sure. It's too dangerous for you alone. After I've rested, I can return. Please stay," he pleaded softly.

It was a request Catherine could not openly refuse. She replaced the ice pack and stroked the hair back from his right temple, letting her hand linger in a caress.

"Rest then," she told him. They gazed at each other for a moment before he closed his eyes. She continued to gaze down at him and soon his body relaxed in sleep. His hand was limp and warm in hers. Large, with dangerous claws, soft fur and rough palms, it was as familiar to her heart as it was to her touch. Catherine waited a few more moments before gently putting his hand down and rising from the bed.

She took his cloak, folded it and put it on a chair. Then she got an extra blanket from the closet. She briefly thought about removing his boots, but didn't want to risk waking him. She covered him and left the room, closing the door behind her. Then, still wearing the silk blouse, navy suit jacket, skirt and heels from work she quietly left the apartment to go down to the tunnels and call for help.


- - - End Part 1