Best In Show
by Lynette Combs


The old man looked up, distractedly, from his seat on the stone bench. It was a secluded corner, and from the slight rise it occupied, he'd been gazing off across the moonlit park. "Oh, hello, Vincent... Catherine."

"Matthew, are you all right?" asked Vincent.

"Yes," Catherine said, "we were worried. We didn't see you down in your usual spot."

The homeless man didn't answer. Instead he simply looked out over the parkland again. Vincent and Catherine exchanged puzzled glances before Vincent turned to study Matthew more closely.

Several days' stubble silvered the man's lean cheek; he looked both grimy and gaunt. This in itself was unusual. Unique among his kind, Matthew always made the effort to keep himself clean, and clean- shaven, often making use of public restrooms to accomplish this. During such interludes his constant companion, Lucy, would be assigned the task of guarding his shopping-cartful of belongings, which had to remain outside.

Vincent looked down and saw the little terrier-mix in her usual place at her master's feet. She yawned up at him, stretching, her wiry moustache and eyebrows quivering. A glance toward the far end of the bench told her their shopping-cart remained unmolested; and, appearing satisfied, she curled up again, a fuzzy whitish shape in the gloom.

Vincent felt the warmth of Catherine's hand on his arm. He nodded, and stepped around the end of the bench to sit down on the chill stone.

The old man gave him a sidelong look. "Persistent, aren't you?"

"Yes," Vincent said simply, without a trace of a smile. "You've been a Helper for a long time, Matthew. We have a right to be concerned about you."

"What's wrong?" Catherine seated herself on the cold stone arm next to Vincent, leaning lightly on his broad shoulder. "You can tell us."

Matthew looked down at his hands. "Been a bad week," he said at last, grudgingly.

"In what way?" Vincent pressed him.

Still not looking at them, the old man jerked his chin toward the sound of distant traffic. "There's a new cop on the beat," he said. "Did you know that?"

Vincent shook his head.

"Well, there is. Keeps moving me off my usual spot. My spot. 'Move along, move along,' he tells everybody. Where to, I'd like to know? -- Oh, he's not a bad fellow," he was quick to assure them, as though loathe to speak badly of anyone, even a stranger. "Just green. Keeps trying to get me into a shelter, or a work program, or whatever." He turned to them with an injured expression. "I worked a lot of years, you know? I don't want to work any more."

They nodded. They did know. Vincent had told Catherine that Matthew had spent decades as a tax accountant before tiring of it all one day and simply walking away, to begin the life he led now. Unlike so many of the other homeless he wasn't schizophrenic, or alcoholic, or even very bitter. He was only tired of the complications that had taken over his life; and enormously appreciative of the simplicity he'd found in the vicinity of the park. And over the past several years, his alertness had been useful to the tunnel-world on more than one occasion.

Catherine was playing absently with long auburn strands of Vincent's hair. "Is there something else, Matthew?" she asked; and saw him hesitate.

"Well..." He shrugged, shifting uncomfortably on the cold seat. At his feet, the little dog readjusted her position so that she could look up into his face while he talked. "You remember, I told you about the lady who runs the boarding-house? The one who gets my city checks for me?"

"Down on the east side," Vincent nodded.

The old man leaned around him a little to look at Catherine. "You have to have an address," he explained, "or they have noplace to mail them."

"I know," she smiled, encouragingly.

"Well, I do a little work around the place, now and then, in return. But this spring she started keeping them. Just one out of every three or so, it was. For 'compensation,' she said. I didn't say anything... didn't really mind. You know me, I don't need much. But then it was one check out of two. She's kept the last two. I think she's going to keep them all; she had her son run me off the place, when I went to ask." He shook his head. "She knows I'm not going to make trouble. What am I going to do, hire a lawyer?"

"You have nothing?" Catherine asked, carefully concealing the sense of outrage she knew Vincent shared.

"It wasn't so bad before," Matthew said, "but now, I'm down to nothing."

"You should have said something," Vincent murmured. "Have you eaten today?"

Not looking at them, shamefaced, the man shook his head. "The beginning of the week, I busted my specs, too. The last pair. I can't afford to have them fixed; now I can't even read." Buying books second- hand for a dime or quarter at local shops, then trading them in for others, he'd told them once, was the only form of recreation he enjoyed, or could afford.

"But there's something more," Vincent guessed. "What is it?"

Matthew looked down at his hands with an air of surrender. "Guess I needed somebody to talk to," he said.

"What is it, Matthew?" Catherine asked.

"I saw my daughter this week... Doris. You remember. I told you, she lives over in Jersey, works in Manhattan."

They nodded. They knew his daughter had been grown, and his wife deceased when he began his "new life."

"She stops by, every couple of months... looks for me until she finds me. Brings me a shirt, or a coat, or a little money, and yells at me about the way I live." He lifted his head. "She hates the way I live. It makes her ashamed. She always wears sunglasses when she comes to call -- like she's afraid someone will recognize her. Who's she going to see down here? I ask you. She told her husband and kids I'm dead, you know."

"I didn't know." Vincent shook his head.

"It's true. I didn't mind... It was good just to have her in my life, even that little bit. But now she's moving. To D.C."

"Oh, why?" Catherine asked him. At her tone she saw Lucy sit up worriedly. She would have leaned down to reassure the little dog, except the animal lingered just out of reach; and Catherine didn't want to do anything that would interrupt Matthew's stream of information.

"Her husband got a new job down there," he went on. "But she said it mad, like it was my fault. Like she was ashamed to be anywhere near New York any more and was moving away, just because of me."

Vincent said, "You know that wasn't the reason for her anger."

"No," Catherine agreed, thinking privately that the woman might have many reasons for her anger.

"I know," Matthew said, "but it was the intent. As though she wanted to hurt me, and she did. Went away mad, too, and refused to give me her new address."

"Do you know when she's leaving?"

"Not until next week sometime," he shrugged, "for all the good that does me. And then..."

"There's more?" Catherine asked, aghast.

"Only one more thing." His chin sank onto his chest. "The most important thing, in a way. It's Lucy."

"Lucy?" Vincent frowned, surprised. What could have happened to Lucy, who was curled up safely at their feet?

"I was crossing Ninety-first this morning." Matthew's voice sank almost to a whisper. "Some punk kid tried to kick the cart over. Lucy chased him to the curb, but on her way back somebody ran the light... ran her down, and kept on going." He looked up. Moonlight glinted on the tears that filled his eyes but did not fall. "That new cop, he wouldn't even let me have her body. What was I going to do with it, he wanted to know, with no home to go to. I couldn't tell him, I wanted to bury her here in the park."

The night grew very still. Vincent looked down at that spot near the man's feet... and found that there was nothing, no one, sitting there now; no trace of the little dog who for years had been the old man's only close friend, protector, and constant companion. Vincent felt Catherine's hand, which had been resting warmly on his shoulder, drawing up into a startled fist. Without looking at her, he reached out unobtrusively to touch her denimed knee. "Matthew," he said gently, and his soft voice was roughened with emotion. "Matthew, you mustn't lose heart."

The old man was still looking at him. "What is there left for me, Vincent? Tell me, what?"

"You have friends," Vincent told him. "Above, and Below."

Catherine, recovering, said, "That's right. Let us help."

Matthew looked out over the park again, his throat working. After a moment he said, "What can you do?"

"I can stop them sending your checks to that woman, for starters," she said, thinking that this would be a fine case for her office's new fraud investigator to cut his teeth on. And to Vincent: "Do you have another Helper whose address he can use?"

He nodded. "Eli, or Mischa and Anna, or any of the others -- they'd be happy to help, I'm certain. And we know a doctor," he said, thinking of Peter Alcott, "who can fix your glasses, or have them fixed."

"And your daughter," Catherine said thoughtfully. "I can go and talk with her. That is, if you don't object."

"Not at home," Matthew said quickly. "I told you, she's told her family -- "

"No," she assured him. "At her office. Can you tell me whereit is?"

He nodded, his expression chagrined once more. "She... she isn't a very pleasant person sometimes, Catherine. She's bitter, and I suppose she has good reason, but... she can make a rotten first impression. In fact, I can almost guarantee it, if you're going to talk about me."

"I'll be careful," she promised, trying to smile. "But I can give her your new 'address' -- Eli's, or wherever -- and she can write you there, if she likes." Her voice softened. "That will be up to her, of course."

"I... I understand. When she cools down..."

"She won't have burned all her bridges," Catherine nodded.

"And as for tonight..." Vincent reached up to clasp the man's thin and ragged shoulder. "I think you ought to come Below."

"Below?" The old man blinked at him, startled. "But I can't come Below."

"Why not?" Catherine asked him.

"Well, I... I've never been Below. I'm not one of you."

"You don't know that," Vincent pointed out. "It could be that you are."

Matthew looked at him uncertainly. "I don't know if I could live underground the way you do."

"You don't need to decide anything tonight," Catherine assured him.

"But we can at least feed you, and see that you have a comfortable place to rest," Vincent continued. With his large, furred hand he patted the bench, as though offering an unneeded reminder of the hardness of the ornamental stone. "Come. The world may seem brighter, in the morning."

The old man cocked his head. "What about this 'Father' you and the boys keep telling me about? What's he going to say about this?"

"He knows about you, of course; he knows all of our Helpers by name, whether he's met them or not. As for the invitation..." Vincent tilted his head too, smiling slightly; moonlight glittered briefly on the tips of his sharp teeth. "Do you play chess?"

"Chess?" The old man was plainly startled. "Well... a little. I haven't played for years, though."

Vincent nodded. "Perfect."

"You're in," Catherine said drily.

"I -- I don't know about this." Matthew turned away again, pain in his voice and in the set of his shoulders. "Why are you doing this? Why would you want to help me?"

Vincent's voice was soft and sure, all trace of laughter vanished. "Why wouldn't we?"

"And Matthew," Catherine said, "haven't you always helped, whenever you could? How could we do less?"

"You've kept the Secret," Vincent went on, "ever since you discovered us by accident, that summer. You kept silent, when you might have told."

Matthew humphed, almost humorously. "After all, who would've believed me? They would have thought I was one of those 'other guys' -- " (which was his term for the demented homeless, who wandered about talking to themselves) " -- and locked me up for sure." He turned back to look at them apologetically. "Oh, look, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be bitter. It's just been -- well, a bad week, like I say. Everything coming all at once. And... and Lucy." His head drooped. "I don't know if I'm going to be able to get over Lucy. I sure miss her."

"Matthew." Vincent squeezed the old man's shoulder. "I don't think Lucy will ever really leave you... do you?"

Matthew looked up, surprised. "I've sort of been feeling that. I don't know whether it makes it better or worse, but... I keep feeling like, if I look down quick, at just the right angle, or something, I'll see her there like she always was. You know?"

Catherine felt tears prickling her eyes. "I know."

" -- But I thought it was a little nuts. You don't think so?"

"No," Vincent said firmly. "I don't think so. And I... I don't believe that love, as an energy, as a force, ever really dies out of our world. It may only change form... and leave us simply less able to perceive it."

"Maybe I'll work toward believing that, then." The old man cleared his throat. "Thank you, Vincent, Catherine."

"Will you come Below, then?" Vincent asked. "At least for tonight?"

Matthew waved a hand toward the nearby shopping-cart, loaded with bags and parcels. The corner of his mouth quirked, ruefully. "Think you can get that down there?"

"Perhaps not the cart itself," Vincent smiled, studying the small and inadequate wheels of the thing, and thinking that Mouse could do wonders with it. "For the rest... we can certainly call for reinforcements."

"Well then." He nodded. "I guess I could meet you down near the entrance, in about an hour." He gave an expressive little shrug. "I just want to sit here for a little while longer... and think about Lucy."

"We understand," Catherine said as Vincent rose. He took her hand, and she came to her feet beside him. "We'll see you in an hour, then."

Walking slowly away by his side, she waited until they were well out of earshot. Then -- "You saw her too?" she whispered.

"Yes," Vincent said, his head lowered thoughtfully. "I saw her too." "And she vanished, in the flicker of an eye," she went on, incredulously. "I only looked away for a split-second, and she was gone -- "

" -- When he told us; the moment we 'knew' that she had died," Vincent murmured. "Yes."

"You believed what you told him," she said, "about love never really dying?"

They walked on for a moment; and then Vincent paused and turned, so that they both faced back along the way they'd come. Even in the dimness they could still see Matthew sitting there, his chin in his hands. At his feet a small white form stirred, and sat up to gaze devotedly up into his face. Vincent said, "Love, in its truest form, never dies." He looked down into her face; and saw, as she turned her eyes to his, the wonder there. "Do you believe that?"

"Yes," she said, and came gently and inevitably into his arms. "I think you know I do."


About the Author: (from Peg McNabb's B&B Fan Directory)

Lynette Combs

Talents: Writer, Artist, Poet, Editor
Tenure: 1989
Interests: Classics; G-X, art, photos, videos, stationary. (Letterzines have been too angry and bitter, and too dominated by third season.)
Occupation: Graphic Artist (computer) for newspaper; freelancer.
Favorite Episodes: Brothers, Bluebird Sings, Masques, God Bless the Child, --It depends on what day of the week it is...
Favorite Moment: Last moment in " Fair and Perfect Knight" on the balcony when Vincent pulls Catherine towards him. Subtle but incredibly erotic!
Favorite character (after V&C, of course!): Father, because of the growth his character displayed, and his change of attitude toward Catherine, during the two seasons. (I confess, I'm also influenced by the fact that in "real life," Roy Dotrice is a true gentleman, artist and someone worthy of admiration.)
Comment: This show has "opened the world" for me. I never took myself, or my artwork and writing, seriously until Vincent & Catherine told me I had the courage to do that. This was an amazing catalyst toward helping me to really LIVE the rest of my life.