Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Jamie Denton as Lyle
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Lisa Cerasoli as Zoe
Marisa Parker as Emily
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Lenny von Dohlan as Mr. Cox
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Catherine Bent as Dr. Goetz
Jeanette Miller as Mrs. Carson
Seconds to live...
Everything seemed to slow down when Jarod realized he was about to die. There was such clarity, little details so sharp they almost hurt. As he ran to the back of the subway car, counting off the seconds, he could smell the engine oil, Miss Parker's perfume, the acrid scent of human bodies tainted with fear. There was a torn spot in the rubber mat that served as flooring for the subway car, and as he glanced at it on his way out, he noticed it looked like a dragon coiling in on itself.
He remembered the Dragon House.
The memories poured through his consciousness with such speed he couldn't grasp them all, just fleeting moments of time too liquid to hold.
His feet hit the tracks in mid-stride. He knew where the closest safe place was. The subway plans were imbedded in his mind, but Miss Parker was already ahead of him. She had seen the door to the maintenance room in the tunnel wall, standing open just a few feet away. She was pushing it wide with Ethan hot on her heels, reaching back for him, clutching at his clothes to haul him inside.
Out of time...
She jerked Ethan behind the door with her, clearing the path for Jarod. He leaped inside, pivoted to get behind the door and shoved it closed with his shoulder as the wall of heat followed him inside. A ball of flame belched out behind that invisible barrier, bringing the violent thrust of the blast with it. The steel door buckled and threw him back. He heard several of his bones snap -- radius, humerus, a few ribs -- and bounced hard off the concrete wall behind the door.
Fire raged into the room like a great dragon, whipping its head around in search of prey, but the corner and the door shielded the trio from the greater part of the blast and the beast withdrew. The residual heat seared their lungs, blistered their skin, but the fire didn't touch them.
They held their breath for as long as they could to keep from doing further damage to their lungs, until the immediate danger was over. Once the explosion had reached its farthest limits and began to contract, the heat wave followed and returned to its source, the subway car now engulfed in flames. Soon enough it would burn itself out and the authorities would send investigative teams down into the tunnel to determine exactly what had happened. They couldn't be there when that happened. They had to get out quickly and attract as little attention as possible. Jarod was sure The Centre would have people up there, too, watching for Ethan... or for him.
He staggered away from the door so the others could step out into the room.
Ethan reached for his brother. "You're hurt," he said above the noise of the flames in the tunnel outside. "That wasn't supposed to happen."
His hand settled on Jarod’s arm. A wordless cry escaped, though Jarod tried to stop it, and he dodged away from Ethan’s clumsy attempt at comfort. "Don't," Jarod barked. "I'll be okay." Then the Pretender turned and faced the woman stepping out of the corner.
Her eyes were hot and full of anger. At Jarod, as if he were the cause of all this. He wondered if, in the end, maybe he was.
"That is, if Miss Parker lets me get help."
Ethan turned to her, innocent and trusting as a child. "Please,” he said in a quiet, halting voice. “We have to help him."
Miss Parker's eyes moved to Ethan’s face. They softened and filled with pain. She saw her younger brother there before her, one she didn't even know she had until a few hours earlier.
Jarod knew he reminded her of what Ethan was, what would happen if she didn't act. She had a choice to make, and he was sure he could force her into the right one. "You can't take Ethan to the Centre. What are you going to do?"
"I'll find a safe place," she shot back, glaring at Jarod again. "Someplace where they'll never think to look." Her voice softened as she spoke, the hard edge of anger dulled with affection as she eased closer to Ethan. "Someplace where there are good people who can help him. People who won't hurt him anymore."
“There is no such place,” the Pretender reminded her. "Unless you plan to stay with him so you can uproot him at a moment's notice. Or leave him with me."
“You know I can't do that. But I do know one place we can take him while I think. Can you walk?”
Jarod straightened up, letting his right arm dangle. He could feel the bone ends grating against each other as he moved, but he had experienced worse pain than that. He led the way, walking as fast as he could manage, toward the door in the back of the room that opened into a stairwell which would lead them upward, to the street and freedom.
Their faces were reddened from the heat, and there were traces of soot on Jarod’s face to match what was on his hands. But they were alive. They were still breathing. Maybe it was a good day after all.
* * * * * * * * *
Major Charles drove in silence, turning the problem over and over in his mind. During the hastily made plans to rescue Zoe from the clutches of Cox and Lyle, there had been no chance to discuss what came next. “Get her away from there as quickly as you can” was the only directive Jarod had time to give. The Major was proud of that accomplishment, but now he needed a plan.
Attempts to contact his son had been futile. Jarod wasn’t answering his cell phone, and that was a worry in itself. The deadline for the explosion had come and gone, with no word on its outcome. At least the radio, which he checked periodically, had no breaking news of a hotel in DC being destroyed. Charles desperately hoped that meant that both of his sons had gotten away.
At any rate, he couldn't take Zoe back to her home. Cox and Lyle had found her there, and would no doubt be watching for her return. The boy, whom he had named Jordan, was safe for the moment in his wilderness haven, but he would need to get back to him soon. In the meantime, Emily would be expecting him at the convent, so he headed for St. Catherine's while he considered options to make sure his son's girlfriend was safe.
Zoe slept on the seat beside him. She was a pretty girl, if a bit lightweight in the brains department. But she made Jarod happy, and that counted for a great deal in his book. He owed it to his son to take care of her until he could get them back together.
A lock of red hair had fallen across her cheek, and he reached over to smooth it back into the rest of her copper tresses. He smiled, remembering Margaret's lovely hair, and how he missed her.
"Someday," he promised himself quietly.
The young woman suddenly gasped, clutched at her belly and curled up in the seat, her eyes wide open and staring at the floor.
"Are you all right?" he asked, suddenly worried. "Did they do anything to you in that barn? Did they give you anything?"
She groaned and sat up slowly. A weak, apologetic grin slid over her lips for a moment, quickly replaced by a grimace of pain. "No, sir. I just… sort of… didn't exactly tell Jarod the whole truth about my condition. I told him I was in remission, but…"
"...but you’re not," he finished quietly. “Are you?”
"Yeah, well, I thought I'd never see Jarod again, and when he appeared at my door last week I just decided…" She whimpered a little, blinked back tears. Her arms tightened around her middle. "I just wanted to be with him a little longer. One last fling."
His heart sank. "I'm sorry, Zoe. I'll get you to a hospital, and call your family."
She nodded. "Yeah, I guess that would be a good idea."
He glanced at the map he'd been using, and decided the nearest town with a hospital was probably half an hour away.
"When those men kidnapped me, I didn't get to bring my medication," she said softly. "I've been off it for a while now, and I guess it's catching up to me."
Charles pressed harder on the gas pedal, increasing their speed well past the posted limit. He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, dialed a number and waited. Jarod still wasn't answering, so he called the church and left a message for both him and Emily with the sisters. His daughter was doing well, they said, and was eager to see him again. He spoke with her briefly and hung up, returning his attention to Zoe.
"Please tell Jarod to hurry," she asked tearfully. "I'm sorry I lied to him. But he didn't need to know how sick I am. He'd have wanted to put me back in the hospital and worry over me, instead of enjoying what time we had left. I don't want to die in a place like that. I want to go under the sky, in a beautiful place, with people I love around me."
He glanced at her with a brave smile, and squeezed her knee supportively. "I'll make sure he gets to you as quickly as he can."
"Thanks," she breathed. "And thanks for rescuing me." She relaxed as the pain eased, and closed her eyes again to try for more sleep.
* * * * * * * * *
Blue Cove, Delaware
Lyle sat in the leather chair, examining the stump of his left thumb. His glove lay on his thigh, baring the grotesque amputation to the other man across the desk from him. When he had finished his careful perusal, he slipped the glove back on and raised his eyes to his father's stern face as he finished reading the latest report on Project Mirage.
"Raines gets a black mark for this bungle," Parker observed gruffly. "That's good news for us, but now another piece of Centre property is running around loose. We can't have that."
"I've got people on it," Lyle assured him. "And at least we don't have to worry about Raines making any more deals with the Triumvirate."
Parker gave him a warning glare, and closed the folder on the report. "I should have known that snake would steal Mirage from me to get in the Triumvirate's good graces. And now that the boy's missing --"
"He was probably killed in the blast," Lyle cut in.
The older man shook his head. "Not if Jarod showed up, and we have every reason to believe he did." Parker's gaze chilled. "The way you screwed up with his girlfriend was deplorable. You can't ever underestimate Jarod or Major Charles. My daughter certainly doesn't."
Lyle flashed a confident grin. "Which reminds me, where is my sister these days? We haven't heard from her lately. Might she have turned coat and decided to run with the wild boys?"
Parker snorted. "We'll take care of that loose end
later, but for the moment, I want you to find Ethan. He's your project until
you get him back here to me. Understood?"
Lyle sighed and stood up. "Of course. How hard can it be to find a paranoid schizophrenic who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality? What do you need him for, anyway?"
The elder man just smiled. "Raines was going to use him to try to impress the Triumvirate, but that's not going to happen now. I've got a clear shot with little Gabriel, and if I can present Ethan as well, then I'll have the Chairman's post in no time." His blue eyes crinkled at the corners with pure pleasure. "Ethan might be a wash for his current project, but I've got others I can put him on. See that you locate him quickly, and bring him back for a visit to the Renewal Wing. We've got some rebuilding to do."
He paused, and frowned at his son. "You don't have a problem with Ethan being your half brother, do you?"
Lyle swung out of the chair and headed for the door. "I'm a Parker, aren't I?" he said with a deadly smile. "That lunatic fell out of a whole other tree, as far as I'm concerned. But it was an interesting experiment in genetics, I'll give you that."
He whistled as he strolled toward the door, adjusting his left glove as he walked away.
* * * * * * * * *
Broots was used to working overtime. Miss Parker liked to keep him hopping, and as long as someone he trusted was caring for Debbie, she usually got her way. This time, though, he was under no directive; this time, he was at his post because he was worried about his boss. She left the Centre hours before, saying she was going to find Ethan and telling a garbled story about subway trains and a planned bombing. Since then, only silence.
Sydney appeared in the doorway, looking as tired and drawn as Broots felt. "Any word from Miss Parker?"
"No, and I'm really starting to freak out here." He indicated his computer screen. "I've been watching the news outlets, especially in the DC area. There's this story about a possible car bombing, and a fire in an abandoned subway maintenance tunnel." He watched as Sydney frowned. "That doesn't sound very good, does it?"
"I would certainly feel better if she had called in by now," the psychiatrist admitted. "I think perhaps it's time for one of us to call her."
"Syd, I can't. She made me promise not to."
“I made no such agreement with her,” Sydney shot back, and reached for his cell phone. After dialing the number and letting it ring half a dozen times, he jerked the phone away from his ear in response to her angrier-than-usual snarl. “Miss Parker, are you all right?”
He frowned. After only a few seconds, he folded the phone closed and slipped it back into his pocket with a sigh. “She seems to be rather in a hurry, but apparently well enough. She promised to call back later--with the emphasis on later.”
Broots sagged with relief. “She’s okay. That’s the important thing.” His brow furrowed. “Did she say anything about Jarod or Ethan?”
Sydney shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. But I have to believe that if she knew either of them were…dead…she would have said something."
"So then it's back to waiting." Broots dropped his forehead down onto the desk, idly wondering if microsleep was all it was cracked up to be, and whether it could help him now.
"You look exhausted, Broots," Sydney chided. "We've probably gotten whatever information we can for tonight. Why don't you go home and get some rest, come back fresh in the morning?"
He raised his head. "What are you going to do?"
"Leave the light on," Sydney told him as he turned to leave. "Just in case."
The driver of the taxi she hailed looked at them strangely, but accepted Miss Parker’s terse instructions and took them back to Beacon Square, where her car was waiting. She helped Ethan into the back before climbing into the driver’s seat, with Jarod half-reclining in the passenger seat beside her as they headed away from DC.
Jarod's face had a gray tinge to it; his eyes were half-closed, lips pressed firmly together. Obviously, his injuries were more serious than he wanted to admit. A surge of empathy washed over her, but she quickly tamped it down. This was no time to go soft. She started the car and pulled out into an open space in traffic.
“Is it bad?” she finally asked. The drive gave her an excuse not to look at him.
He shifted position slightly, and grimaced. “I’ve endured worse.” The words at the Centre hung in the air, but neither spoke them aloud. "How's our passenger?"
Miss Parker glanced over her shoulder, and saw her newly-discovered brother sprawled across the back seat. "Out like a light."
"Trying to make sense of the voices probably exhausted him. Raines spent years teaching him to fight his own nature."
She looked at Jarod out of the corner of her eye, then returned to watching the road. "Did you mean what you said? He actually hears my...our…mother's voice?"
"Among others. They're all part of his inner sense. But Catherine's is the strongest--or it would be, if Raines hadn't interfered."
"That SOB ruined a lot of lives," she declared hotly. "He killed my mother, and almost coerced my brother into blowing up half of DC. I'm glad he's dead."
Jarod raised his eyebrows, but didn't ask how she knew. Instead, he corrected her. "It's unlikely that bomb destroyed a single building, let alone half the city."
"What are you talking about?” She spared him an uncertain glance.
He turned his head so that he could look directly at her. "If Ethan had used enough explosive to carry out Raines' plan, it would have wiped us off the map--maintenance room or not. He must have scaled the device down when he built it."
"Why would he do that?"
Jarod sighed. "Ethan had just lost the only parents he'd ever known. He was confused, and tired of fighting the voices. That's why he didn't get off the train when he had the chance. It's why he put the bomb on the undercarriage, and destroyed the control system. He wasn't afraid someone would stop him…he was afraid he would stop himself."
She looked horrified. “You mean, he was trying to kill himself?”
Jarod turned his gaze toward the road ahead of them, his expression melting into cold steel. “He wanted to make the voices stop. He wanted the pain to stop, and no one else would help him. Raines’ mission gave him the door he needed to a quiet place.”
“Oh my God.” Her voice was a mere whisper. She glanced in the rearview mirror, but couldn’t see more than Ethan’s shoulder without turning around. And she didn’t have to be beaten over the head with the argument to realize that Jarod was exactly right. Ethan had been trying to silence the voices that tormented him, the only way he knew how… by taking his own life. No one else had been meant to go with him. That was why he had chosen such a protected, isolated place -- so no one else would be hurt when the bomb went off.
That insight changed everything. She didn’t just need to keep Ethan from the clutches of the Centre… she needed to find a place where he could be kept from harming himself, where those who looked after him would understand how fragile his mind was, and could help him find and maintain some stability. That made the outlook even more grim than it had been, and the possibilities of a safe haven dwindled down almost to nothing.
* * * * * * * * *
Sisters of Mercy Hospital
“Need anything, honey?”
Zoe opened her eyes and gave her grandmother a smile. “Yeah. How about some ice chips?” She adjusted the position of the bed, raising herself to a more upright posture. Her grandmother bent over to give her a kiss on the forehead, and left on her mission.
The young woman sighed, a frown pulling at her mouth. She grimaced and turned away from the door as a nurse came in to check on her.
“How are we doing?”
Zoe pushed herself to a sitting position. “You’re probably a hell of a lot better than I am,” she snapped, and then smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“You need something for pain?” the nurse asked sympathetically as she fastened a blood pressure cuff around Zoe’s arm.
“Mmmm.” The redhead stared up at the ceiling listlessly.
“You really should try to eat something,” Major Charles advised as he entered the room, stuffing his cell phone back into his pocket. “Still no answer on Jarod’s phone.”
“You don’t think he’s…” She couldn’t finish the thought, and sighed back into the pillow. “He’s got to be all right. He’s got to be.”
The man’s lined face was grave, but there was a bright gleam in his eyes. “We tend to land on our feet,” he told the young woman. “And it’s too soon to worry about him just yet. You rest for now, Zoe. Unless you’d like to try a little of that broth. I’ll get it for you if you want some.”
She shook her head, and offered him a fragile smile. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
He came toward the bed and leaned over her, his forearms on the railing. “You haven’t eaten much of anything in the last 24 hours. Don’t give up just yet. Please?”
The nurse finished up and stripped the Velcro cuff off her arm. “I’ll be right back. I’m sure the doctor has signed the orders for your morphine pump by now.” She patted Zoe’s shoulder and hurried away.
“I’m just tired, Major. Maybe after I’ve had a little sleep.”
“Would you like something from the cafeteria? A pizza shop in town, maybe? I’d be happy to make a special delivery. Anything you want, just tell me.” He smiled and lightly grasped her hand as it lay on her belly. Her skin was cool to touch.
A playful grin stole across her mouth. “You know what I’d like? A Blizzard. With Heath bar crumbled into the vanilla ice cream and just a little chocolate syrup on top.”
His face brightened. “I don’t know if they have Dairy Queens in this part of the country or not, but I’ll do my best to bring you the next best thing if they don’t. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve laid hands on one.” He bent down to kiss her forehead, as her grandmother returned with a pitcher of ice chips and a styrofoam cup.
“Thanks,” she told him, and then turned weary eyes on her grandmother. She waved goodbye to the man as he headed for the door, looking back over his shoulder at her one more time. She sighed after he had gone. “He’s a very nice man, Gramma. Just like his son.”
“Have you heard from Jarod yet?” Her grandmother scooped up a spoonful of ice chips and slipped them gently into Zoe’s mouth.
The redhead crunched happily for a moment. “That’s good. No more.” She tried to take a deep breath, and winced, rolling toward her right side to take some pressure off her left and ease the pain. But there was no relief from it, no matter how she lay. “No. I’m starting to get worried about him. He should have called by now.”
The older woman fussed with her granddaughter’s pillows and blankets, until Zoe gently shooed her away. “That’s enough, Gramma. I’m fine.”
Just then, two nurses came in with a tall IV pole onto which a small machine had been fastened. The women were smiling. “Look what we’ve got for you!” one of them crowed. “Now you’ll be able to manage your pain with regular doses of morphine. This’ll make you a lot more comfortable.”
Zoe’s grandmother exhaled with relief. “Finally! Thank you, ladies. This is great.”
The nurses hooked up the system, transferred Zoe’s IV bag onto the new pole and gave her the plunger that controlled dosing. “Just push this button when you need medication. If you call for doses too soon, the machine will lock you out so you don’t overdose. Otherwise, you’ll have medicine whenever you need it.”
Zoe depressed the plunger as soon as it was functioning. Seconds later, she felt the warmth travel into her arm through the IV connection into her vein. She thanked the nurses and they left. Drowsiness settled heavily on her as the medication took effect, and in seconds she was out.
* * * * * * * * *
Somewhere in Maryland
Miss Parker chose a small, non-descript motel with parking right at the door. She registered alone, paying for the room in cash and keeping the others out of sight. The less the desk clerk knew, the less he would be able to repeat if he were questioned later.
Ethan woke briefly when she helped him out of the car, supporting him with one arm while she unlocked the door with her free hand. He seemed groggy and disoriented, not at all like the hyper-alert young man on the subway train. Moments later, he was stretched out on one of the two double beds and on his way back to sleep. Jarod sat beside him, tense and perspiring with obvious pain.
"Thank you," the Pretender said quietly.
"For what?" she snapped. Her anger seemed to turn on at the sound of his voice. They had been civil to each other in the car, but everyone was tired, drained to the point of exhaustion, yet there was much more to do. His very presence irritated her, when she wanted nothing more than to rest. It was always that way between them.
"For not turning me in. You could have gained a lot by bringing me back."
"Don't count your chickens just yet, Jarod," she threatened, and shot a frigid glance at him.
He grimaced and adjusted his position to support his injured arm. A soft groan slipped out, and he glanced at Ethan. "What are you planning to do with him?"
"Save him, rat boy," she growled. "Though I'm sure you've got plans of your own, don't you?" A little more gently, a little uncertainly, she added, "So what did you have in mind?"
"I want to work with him," he assured her. "Help him find himself."
"He doesn't need another Dr. Frankenstein messing with his head. He just needs--" Her voice softened, and she glanced at her prone brother. "He just needs some peace."
Ethan stirred slightly, and shifted his position. He mumbled a little, whimpered, and slipped deeper into sleep.
"I want to help him find that, just as much as you do," Jarod agreed. "He's my brother, too."
"Yeah, and look what happened to your other brother," she seethed. "You carried his heart off in a cooler."
For a moment, he said nothing. Anger simmered, and then he rasped, "Thanks to your brother murdering him."
Slowly, her head turned toward him. Her eyes were icy green, and pierced him to the core. "I wasn’t responsible for that."
"Just as you're not responsible for what the Centre did to Kyle... or to me?" he challenged.
"It always comes back to that, doesn't it? 'Poor Jarod, look what they've done to him.' What about the things you've done, the people you've hurt along the way? Don't they count?"
Jarod's muscles tensed, preparing to react to the sting of her words, but the movement reminded him how injured he was, and he forced himself to relax again. He bit back the savage retort that had been on the tip of his tongue, and decided to take another tack.
"If you'd just back off for a while, I'm sure I could help Ethan," he offered kindly. "I know some of what he's gone through, and I can extrapolate the rest." He sighed. "And perhaps I could even help you develop your own inner sense, if you want."
Her fingers tightened into fists until her knuckles showed white. She crossed her arms over her chest, her openness of a moment ago now vanished. "I'm not turning you in, Jarod. What more do you want from me?"
"The same thing you want," he promised. "To help Ethan."
"I'm not letting you dissect his brain," she shot back with a sideways glance at him. "So you can just get that idea out of your head right now. And I’m not letting you run off with him into the sunset, either. That would be like painting a big red target on his back. Besides, he’s in no shape to be constantly uprooted. He needs some stability."
Jarod pretended to look at her Ferragamo pumps. "Where are you going to do?"
"For the moment, I'm going to find an all-night drugstore and pick up some plaster and gauze to get you patched up; then you can talk me through it. Will I need anything else?"
He gave her a list, knowing she would remember every word.
Parker's eyes shifted up to the top of his head. "Have you ever pretended to be a barber?"
"I guess you haven't looked in a mirror since we left the tunnel," she replied nonchalantly. "You're going to have to give up the big hair and go back to the Caesar for a while."
Jarod frowned, lifted his left hand and touched the top of his once carefully coifed head. The hair on top was slightly crispy, and felt much shorter than when he had combed it that morning. He sighed. "I won't be able to do it one-handed. Dare I trust you with a sharp object near my head?"
She glared at him, and didn't answer.
Half an hour later, she returned with the first aid supplies he had requested. Jarod had managed to get his shirt off and sat waiting for her. His bones protruded at odd angles inside his skin, the ends moving visibly as he adjusted position. "I'm ready," he advised her.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
"Simple fractures," Jarod replied. "Nothing we can't handle."
Parker pulled out a bottle of whisky from the bag of supplies and poured a tall glass. Then she poured a second, smaller glass and handed it to Jarod. "Pain killer," she suggested.
"No thanks," he returned casually. “I’d rather keep my wits about me.”
She downed a large mouthful of the whiskey, then sat on the mattress beside him and waited for instructions.
"You'll have to feel for the bone ends, get them aligned properly, and then wrap them to the splints before we plaster them up," he told her. "We should probably start with the ribs first. That'll be the easiest."
"Well, let's get started," she said with a sigh. After laying out all the implements on the gray flowered bedspread beside him, she took the first roll of gauze and began to wrap it around his damaged torso.
Jarod sucked in a breath and took a large draught of the whisky, grimacing as it burned all the way down his e
Lyle watched his secretary slink out of his office, her curvaceous figure enhanced by the satin brocade dress she had poured herself into that morning. Ordinarily, he loved looking at her, imagining, fantasizing all the stimulating things he might do with her… but today he turned angry eyes from the closing door to the papers she had laid on his desk.
The reports of the previous day's bombing in DC were disheartening. No bodies had been found at the site, and no indications that anyone had died there, which was disappointing. That would have tied up Ethan's disappearance neatly enough, but now he would have to continue searching for his errant little brother. None of his people had turned up anything in the area surrounding the explosion, not even sufficient eyewitness accounts to indicate a mumbling psycho might have been in the neighborhood.
He began to wonder if his sister might have managed to locate him and get him out of harm's way before the bomb went off. Or if she had run into Jarod wearing his usual white hat, and decided to work with him for a while instead. Sympathy for her new brother would be in her profile, and if Jarod was somehow controlling Ethan now, she might have had to go along for the ride until she could pry Ethan away from big brother.
"I don't know what she thinks she'll do with him," he mused aloud to the empty room, "but if she's turned coat…"
Best to yank on the weakest link in the chain.
He rose from his chair, smoothed a hand over his carefully coifed hair, and strolled out of his office in search of her favorite henchman. If anyone knew what had become of her, it would be Broots or Sydney. The psychiatrist could wait for his grilling, since he'd be tougher to rattle. Lyle headed for the Tech Room, slowing his pace until his footsteps were silent as he approached the desk he wanted.
"Good morning, Mr. Broots," he boomed. It was satisfying to watch the tech practically jump out of his seat.
"G-good morning, Mr. Lyle." Broots seemed to know what was coming, and tried to look busy, burying his head in some printouts that were scattered across his desk.
"I'm looking for my sister. You wouldn't happen to know where she is, would you?"
"I, uh--" Broots swallowed hard. "I think she hah… had a lead on Jarod."
Lyle leaned closer, until his face was directly in front of the other man's. "You think?"
Broots cowered into his chair. "We didn't exactly have much time to talk before she left."
Lyle's nose was only inches away from the technician's. "She never goes to check on leads without dragging you and Sydney along. Why not this time? What was she hiding? Where was she headed?"
"I don't know!" Broots' body slipped so far down into the chair that he slid off, landing in a heap in the knee well beneath his desk. He pushed the chair back and climbed slowly up into it again, rubbing the back of his head where it had bumped against the chair cushion. The pain of his indignity and hard landing blunted his fear slightly, making his added response seem calmer. "She hasn't called in yet."
Lyle glowered. "But you'll let me know when she does, won't you, Mr. Broots?"
With a guilty glance, the tech nodded. "Sure thing, Mr. Lyle."
Broots resumed his seat, head down, pretending to search his papers for something, and Lyle swung out into the hallway, stomping toward the elevator. He knew his sister was up to something, but had only his intuition to confirm that. Heading for the nearest elevator, he caught the doors just as they were closing, pushed them open again and strode inside.
Cox smiled at him as the doors slid closed, shutting the two of them off from the rest of the Centre for a few moments.
"Having a bad day?" Cox asked with a distinct note of pleasantry.
"Like I could have a good one after Jarod's latest intervention," Lyle snapped. "I know he's got his fingers into this Ethan situation, and my sister's in the middle of it, too. I just can't prove it." He sighed. "Jarod's more trouble than he's worth. Ever since he escaped, my life has been a living hell, and it's all his fault. He stole the Gemini Project, stays just out of our reach…" He rubbed at his belly. "If I don't watch it, this Pretender is going to give me an ulcer."
Cox smiled. It was a little smile, soft and subtle, contrasting with the hard glint in his pale gray eyes.
Lyle's head swung around to face the other man, and frowned. "You're awfully smug, considering all the losses our team has had recently."
The doctor laughed softly, and clasped his hands in front of him. The doors parted, and Lyle stepped out, gesturing to Cox to follow with his gloved left hand.
"And I'm betting Jarod knows where that head case he calls a brother is. Probably hiding him somewhere."
"Jarod has a particular weakness, does he not?" Cox fell into step beside Lyle as they headed down the corridor toward Lyle's office.
"You mean Zoe? My father has already made clear what he thinks of that little fiasco." Lyle could feel the sting of those scathing remarks even now, a day later.
"That was unfortunate, but only a temporary setback." Cox quickened his pace and stepped in front of Lyle to open the office door for him.
Lyle shook his head. "We've lost everybody at this point, Cox."
"Zoe isn't like Jarod," the doctor reminded his boss. "She has roots. That's how we found her in the first place, and we can do it again." The door closed silently in Lyle's wake. "I suggest we backtrack to the house where her grandmother lives, and see what we can find there. I'm sure there will be a clue to where the Major might have taken her, and if not, there will be family we can…ask politely for assistance." He smiled broadly in expectation.
Lyle fell heavily into his chair and tugged on his glove to adjust the fit. "You really think wasting time finding that bimbo is going to help?"
Cox exhaled softly, a dreamy look in his eyes. "She's the key to your Pretender's heart, Mr. Lyle. Once he knows we have her a second time, he'll come running. Especially if we give him…incentive to hurry."
"Like, if he can watch her screaming." Lyle was nodding, understanding the other man's suggestion completely. "If Jarod's got Ethan, he'll certainly trade Zoe for his brother. Which will make my father a happy man." He smiled and cocked his head. "And the look on his face will give me a little personal satisfaction." He raised his left hand and let his eyes rest on the space where his thumb used to be. "Small price to pay for a little payback, don't you think, doctor?"
Cox's eyes gleamed in agreement. "Shall we go?"
Lyle reached for the phone and ordered his secretary to make the necessary arrangements for a car.
* * * * * * * * *
The sound of running water woke Jarod from his troubled sleep. Still sitting upright in a chair in the corner where he had placed himself to wait for the plaster to dry, he opened his eyes to check the room. Ethan lay on one bed, still wearing his rumpled clothes, the nondescript bedspread pulled over him. The younger man was still blissfully asleep.
Miss Parker, then, would be the source of the shower noises. The second bed was turned down, the impression of a body on the sheet and pillow still obvious. She had risen recently, and would no doubt be hustling them all out the door soon. Jarod checked the plaster, pleased that it had set and would give his bones the support they needed to heal properly. With his left hand he probed the bandages wrapped tightly around his ribs to hold them in place. Taking a deep breath would be painful for a while, so he probably wouldn't be able to run very far, if that became necessary.
Slowly, carefully, he reached for his shirt that he had left on the foot of Ethan's bed the previous night. He managed to slip into it with his left arm, but the right sleeve would need to be split before he'd be able to get it fully on and buttoned. Miss Parker might help with that. He looked around for the scissors she had used to cut the gauze, and spied the remains of his cellular phone in the trash can. He had found it crushed to pieces in his jacket pocket when she was out at the drug store, and seeing it again reminded him that he needed to call his father. Major Charles would be worried about him, wondering what had happened, but he couldn't use the motel phone and dial direct--that would put his father's safety on the line. He couldn't call the convent where Emily was staying and leave a message there for the same reason.
For a moment he toyed with the idea of borrowing Miss Parker's cell phone, but that would be even worse. Someone was bound to check her phone records soon, since she hadn't checked in either, and that brief call from Sydney as they were leaving the scene of the bombing was sure to make him and Broots even more nervous than they already were. Contacting his family and Zoe would just have to wait until he was in the clear.
The bathroom door opened, and Miss Parker emerged, combing her hair into place. Her makeup was perfect, and Jarod assumed she had picked up the necessary items while she was at the drugstore getting his first aid supplies. While the toiletries wouldn't have been her usual expensive brands, they were utilitarian enough to preserve her high grooming standards and get her through until she could return home.
"Good. You're awake," she mused, with a glance at the bed, where Ethan still slept. She kept her voice low and came to stand close to Jarod so he could hear her well enough. "I'll be taking Ethan with me as soon as he wakes up. You're on your own, so hope for a good head start."
She crossed her arms over her chest, defying him to countermand her order.
"They'll find him wherever you take him," Jarod reminded her.
"I'll figure something out," she assured him stiffly. "Maybe Sydney can help. He knows people."
"And The Centre knows everyone he knows. They'll be checking up on everyone both of you know, anyone you trust. It's what they do."
She hung her head and sighed, her hands tightening their grip on her arms. "I know. I couldn't sleep last night, thinking, wracking my brain to try to come up with some place where he'd be safe." She turned and gazed longingly at the younger man's innocent face, shadowed with beard stubble, lax with peaceful sleep. "I couldn't think of anything at all, any place I wouldn't look myself. So what now? I can't just let you take him, Jarod. He can't live the way you do."
"I know. And by now they've figured out that there were no bodies at the bomb site. They're looking for him. And for you. For all of us."
There was such despair in her eyes when she turned them on him again. "So what do we do? We have to save him."
Jarod smiled bitterly and looked at his brother, stirring slightly now in response to their soft voices. "I think I may know someone who can help. But it'll take a little time."
"How much do you need?"
"Just a few hours, I hope. If she'll listen." He inclined his head. "There's a diner next door where you can get something to eat. If you'll let me borrow your car--"
"I want to go with you." Both of them turned at the sound to find Ethan awake, and speaking to Jarod. "She says I'm supposed to go with you," he added. He sat up slowly on the bed, letting the covers fall away. Bleary eyes found the man and woman standing beside the other bed.
Jarod attempted a shrug, sucked in a pained breath and winced. He groaned softly, reminded of his injuries. "I can't abandon Ethan right now, even for a short time, Miss Parker. I made a connection with him, and I can't risk breaking it just yet. You'll have to let me take him and trust me with him."
"Then I'm riding shotgun, till I know he's in safe hands."
With a sigh, Jarod added, "Aside from Mr. Raines -- whom, you assured me earlier, is dead -- mine is the only familiar face Ethan knows. He trusts me. You know I won't hurt him."
"Not dead," said Ethan. He rubbed his face wearily, and sighed. More quietly, almost in a whisper, he repeated the phrase.
Parker sat down on the bed beside her brother, and stroked his shoulder comfortingly. "I know you don't want to think about that right now, Ethan," she told him gently, "but I saw it happen. He won't hurt you anymore, I promise."
She rose and sauntered closer to Jarod. He looked at her speculatively. "You wouldn't have been the one to hasten his departure, by any chance?"
Parker's voice dropped so that only he could hear her. "Unfortunately, I lost my place in that interminably long line of people who wanted him dead."
"Not dead," Ethan insisted. He scooted off the bed and headed for the bathroom, shuffling sleepily into the room and closing the door after himself.
Jarod's eyes moved from the door back to Parker's hard gaze. "He may need to believe that for a while yet. Raines was his anchor. His voice is the one Ethan has been trained to listen to, and if it's suddenly gone, that could have dramatic repercussions on his psychological stability."
"Fine. I won't argue about it," she snapped. "Meanwhile, someone's going to be on my trail fairly soon. We need to get the hell out of here before the cavalry comes."
"I may know someone who can help, if you're willing to trust me. I want what's best for Ethan, a place where he can start to heal and learn to trust his inner sense again. We need to get him someplace fast, and he's not strong enough to be on his own. Will you trust me on this?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Fifteen minutes later, they were pulling out of the drive-through window of a fast-food place offering breakfast fare, then pulling out into traffic heading east into the heart of Maryland. Towson was less than an hour away, and Miss Parker had to admit she would never have thought of that particular place; at least, not right away.
But she had already promised Jarod that if she didn't approve of his plan, she would do things her way instead. Ethan's welfare was her only concern at the moment, and when that was fixed, she could turn her attention to other things.
Jarod knew that, too. And she was certain he had something prepared for that eventuality as well. If he didn't, then it would be his own fault if he found himself on the way back to The Centre.
* * * * * * * * *
Bright sunshine streaming in her window wakened Emily peacefully. She sat up in bed, gingerly testing her battered body and finding the pain tolerable now. She was healing well, feeling better every day, but she was worried about her father and her brother. She should have heard something from at least one of them by now.
The last time she had spoken to her father, he told her he was taking Jarod's girlfriend to the hospital. He had wanted her to pass that message on to her brother, but Jarod hadn't called in yet. Since then, neither had her father. Zoe was sick, he had said, but Emily was not to worry. It was something routine that Zoe had been expecting; he just needed to see that Jarod got there as quickly as possible.
She had the feeling he was trying to protect her from something unpleasant, which only made her worry more. For the first time since arriving at the convent, she helped herself to the bathroom, taking it slow and easy, and was just getting back into bed when Sister Mary came in with a breakfast tray for her.
"What's this?" Sister Mary asked with a smile. "Out of bed already?"
"And back, all by myself," Emily bragged happily. "Have you heard anything more from Daddy, or from Jarod, Sister?"
The nun tucked her back under the covers and set the tray on her lap. "Not yet, but I'm sure they're both just fine, dear. God is watching over them both." She chuckled. "Especially that brother of yours. He has a special place in God's heart, for all the good he's done for other people."
Emily sighed. "I hope you're right, Sister."
She glanced at the food on her tray. It looked wonderful, and smelled delicious, but she just wasn't hungry. She wanted answers, and there were none to be had at the moment.
"Eat," the sister urged gently. "You'll need your strength when they come back for you."
Emily picked up a croissant and diligently took a bite.
But she didn't taste anything. It had been hours, and she was certain something was dreadfully wrong. As she chewed, she began to play through all the possibilities, and none of them made her feel the slightest twinge of relief.
* * * * * * * * *
Cox strolled through the farmhouse, his pale eyes taking in the simple, tasteless décor. He had been there before, inquiring of the family who lived there, gotten his information and gone. But now the house was empty, and he had no clue where to look for the matriarch or her granddaughter.
He heard the door open, and glanced at the young man standing on the porch.
“Anything?” Lyle asked.
“Not yet.” Cox finished his tour of the living room and wandered into the bedrooms, one by one. “This would be Zoe’s room,” he mused aloud, taking note of the sexy clothes in the open closet. He rummaged through the skinny little sundresses, the thin shirts that would show off her figure so well, and turned toward the vanity table to search for more clues. Surely there was something that would tell him where she and her family were.
When he saw the prescription bottles, he smiled and picked one up, then another and another. His black-gloved fingers would leave no prints, but after perusing the labels on those bottles, he had more than enough information to find her, wherever she might go. Setting the last bottle back down exactly as he had found it, he turned and started out of the room.
On the nightstand was a photograph of the lovely redhead with a favorite pet. Cox took it, frame and all, and went to meet his partner at the door. He carefully locked it and closed it behind him, then strolled down the steps to the hard-packed dirt driveway where they had left their car, with Lyle in tow.
“What did you find?”
“It seems poor Zoe is dying,” Cox answered cheerily. “Once we’ve located her we can either watch and wait for Jarod to rush to her side...or, we can use her to cripple him and run him to ground.” He turned with a chillingly bright smile when they reached the car. “Which would you prefer?”
“What do you mean by ‘crippling’ Jarod?”
Cox sighed, opened his door and got in, waiting to respond until Lyle had taken his seat on the passenger side of the car. “What I mean is… Zoe is the first person to whom Jarod has returned to re-establish a relationship once he’s cut himself off from it. That’s significant in itself. What he gets from the little bimbo I don’t understand, since it’s not in his nature to indulge in gratuitous sex. But there is some esoteric quality in her that draws him, and I’d wager there are some strong emotions attached to her as well. If Zoe dies…” He started the engine and put the car into reverse to back out of the driveway.
“Then Jarod will suffer,” Lyle finished for him. He smiled. “Yes. I think we’ll do that.”
“Jarod will suffer even more if Zoe dies alone,” Cox added as he turned the car onto the blacktop road leading away from the house. He changed gears and met Lyle’s eyes briefly. “The guilt will eat away at him, and at some point along the way, he’ll stumble and fall.”
“And I’ll be there to catch him, after he's suffered for a while.” Lyle nodded. “I like this plan. So where is she?”
Cox eased the car forward, keeping his eyes on the road. “I don’t know yet, but she won’t be hard to find.” He handed over the framed photo. “Take that out, would you?”
Moments later, the brass frame flew out the car window, crashed to the pavement and shattered the glass as it went tumbling off the side of the road. The broken frame landed in a patch of tall grass, where no one would see it from the road.
It was a fitting celebration for the baby’s first birthday. Mr. Parker wore a new suit, specially handmade in Rome for the occasion, and walked proudly beside the nurse assigned to care for his heir. His eyes swept the room as he entered it, remembering all too well how things had gone the last time he entered the Triumvirate chamber in full session.
Brigitte was pregnant then, her belly still flat. Her body had tried to reject the pregnancy, and Dr. Cox had prescribed the hormone shots that helped her keep the baby, but made her emotions a wreck. That was a dangerous time for them both, with so much in flux. Parker had stated his case eloquently, but Mutumbo was in charge then, and his plan had fallen on deaf ears. He had made outrageous promises, given a history of the red file projects and then the status of the blue files, and talked of the future of the coming yellow files.
No one would listen, without the proof before them. With the baby’s birth he had another chance to prove himself against the rumor and politics that had sent him and Brigitte on the run. And now that Mutumbo was gone, there was a prominent spot on the council for the right person. When he presented the child to them, he had won a spot on the American panel of the Council of Nine who made up the Triumvirate. He had succeeded against Raines, who was also competing for a seat on the panel, and now that Raines was conveniently out of the picture, he could have a free hand in redesigning how things at The Centre were done.
He saw the Americans first, the other man and woman who, along with him, made up the three officers from Delaware, Washington DC and New York. At the far end of the semi-circular dais were the South African representatives, with a new face where Mutumbo once sat. And at the center were the originators of the new regime, the Germans. They would be gone soon, victims of age, and would be replaced by younger representatives whose ideas were not as clear as those of their elders.
But Parker’s vision burned clear and bright in his soul, embodied by the baby gazing around the room with his soulful dark eyes. Gabriel would already feel how important this day was, though he wouldn’t understand its magnitude. The child would know only that he was the focus of all their attention, and be eager to please. That was how children were, and The Centre used that instinct well.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Parker began, his gruff voice smoothed with a note of pride, “may I present to you the youngest of the Yellow Files children. He is the herald of a new age of humanity, and I have named him Gabriel.”
The nurse walked the baby slowly down the inside curve of the dais to give each member a good look while Mr. Parker took his place on the council. He did not sit in his plush chair, but remained standing, watching until the woman finished her tour of the members and sat the baby down on the floor some distance away. Men and women in lab coats gathered behind them, each of them holding a variety of objects.
One young woman came forward on a signal from Mr. Parker, and dumped a box of colored blocks, each in complicated geometric designs, onto the floor in front of the baby. From the box she withdrew a board with holes cut out of it, into which the blocks would fit. The scientist stepped behind the baby to keep from blocking the view, and spoke softly to the child, encouraging him to begin placing the blocks into the holes.
Gabriel complied as the scientist withdrew a stopwatch from her pocket and timed the exercise.
Mr. Parker began his dialogue on the child. “Esteemed colleagues, our research is progressing rapidly. Gabriel is a prime example of this. His level of development far exceeds that of other children his age. As you can see, his motor skills are excellent…”
The child finished assembly of the puzzle quickly, and beamed a smile at his trainer. The scientist gave the baby a gentle pat on the back as a reward, then scooped up all the toys and returned to her place in the lineup. Another came forward, a gray haired woman with a stack of large cards on which single words were printed. She knelt down beside the baby and showed the top card first to the council members, and then to Gabriel.
“Dog,” said Gabriel clearly.
The council murmured its approval.
“Not bad for a one year old, wouldn’t you say?” Parker’s chin lifted as he gazed proudly down at the baby.
“Ap-poe,” Gabriel read when the card apple was held up for him.
“His oral dexterity is still developing, but he’ll get there. There are no pictures, no secret signals, no memorization of word patterns going on here. Gabriel is actually reading at the age of one year.”
The words continued, some more difficult, and except for garbled pronunciation the baby never missed. When he finished, the woman gave him a hug and a smile, and returned to the line. Gabriel turned around and started to crawl toward them.
The nurse picked him up and sat him back where he was before, facing the Triumvirate.
Parker nodded toward another man, young and handsome, who stepped forward eagerly.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Dr. Everson,” Parker began.
Everson smiled and gave a slight bow toward the council, then turned and picked up Gabriel. He spoke softly to the baby for a few moments, gaining the child’s full attention. Gabriel made an unhappy face and shook his head, holding his chubby arms tightly against his body.
“No,” said Gabriel. “Don’t want to.”
The scientist cajoled, teased and tickled the baby until he relaxed and smiled again. He gave the child a kiss on the cheek and patted him affectionately. And then Everson strolled close to the table on the South African end and looked each member in the eye.
“Gabriel,” Everson said softly, smiling, “I want you to tell me which one of these people isn’t supposed to be here today. Someone is lying about who he or she is. Which one is it?” He began to walk down the inner curve of the dais, watching the baby’s face rather than the faces of the council members, while Gabriel chewed on one of his hands.
At the chair of the first German representative, Gabriel pointed with a finger covered in his own saliva. “Her,” he announced clearly.
The woman stood up. And then she smiled. She reached up and removed a gray-streaked wig, and began to peel off a latex face that wasn’t her own. Beneath the mask and wig, another woman appeared. She laughed softly. “I must confess, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she announced. “This baby is incredible! I don’t know how he did that, but he’s a genius. I guess that’s why he’s in this think-tank environment, though, right?”
She stepped back from the council seat, took her wig and mask and passed the real councilwoman entering the chamber on her way out.
The Triumvirate broke out into applause. Gabriel was delighted, and slapped his tiny hands together with the rest of them, oblivious to the fact that he was the inspiration for all the noise. Dr. Everson walked him back to his nurse and handed him over to her.
Parker’s chest swelled with pride. “As you all know, each of you was asked to provide an actor for your place at the council meeting, and it was decided at the last minute which of you would be selected to be replaced. Neither my staff, nor I, nor Gabriel have been instructed in advance which of you would be the one substituted. The child has natural empathic abilities, as well as his father’s intelligence.” He beamed at the baby. “We have indications that he has also inherited the desired gifts from his mother’s side of the family. That’s a little more difficult to demonstrate at a dog-and-pony show like this, but my scientists assure me that Gabriel’s abilities are developing with astounding speed. His mother’s contribution should prove an invaluable addition to his other skills.”
The councilwoman took her seat and turned toward the American officers. “Mr. Parker, how are the other children coming? When will we see the results of those experiments?”
“Soon,” Parker promised with a chilling smile. “There are several that were not viable, for one reason or another, and none have shown the exceptional talents of my Gabriel, here, though we should have some good candidates for a number of our research programs. But for the moment, I think we need to be looking toward the appointment of our next chairman, after the demise of Mr. Mutumbo. Shall we begin the discussions on that point of business? We need someone to steer this ship, if we’re going to reach the stars.”
He took his seat, aware that every eye in the room was trained on him. With a flick of his hand he sent the bevy of scientists away, along with the nurse and his prize. Brigitte’s sacrifice had been a worthy one, and he was grateful for that. She knew the bloodlines of the child she had agreed to carry, and she wanted the power that went with being his wife. He hadn’t expected her to be so sentimental about him - after all, it was a business arrangement first and foremost. It had been fun, of course. Brigitte had been an exciting, dangerous woman, and he liked that type. That she fell in love with him was an added bonus, because it kept her from backing out when she found out later in the pregnancy what would happen to her. And that had been very, very good for him.
The German councilwoman nailed him with her cool, blue-eyed gaze. “Mr. Parker, can you tell us where Mr. Raines’ presentation is? I understood that his project would be considered even in light of his… absence.”
With a sigh, Parker rose and turned weary eyes on the woman who had addressed him. “Ethan is missing, Frau Berkstresser,” he stated clearly. “Raines’ programming was faulty, and until we can determine whether or not Ethan was killed in the blast, I’m afraid that entire project is in question. Ethan’s contributions are minimal at best, anyway. He has never been a reliable subject, too erratic and unable to focus properly.” He straightened in his chair, a tiny smile playing about his lips. “But we have more than enough potential in Gabriel, as I’m sure you’re aware. Perhaps we should move on, until Mr. Raines can demonstrate good reasons why Ethan should still be considered a worthwhile subject.”
Parker turned his eyes to the new member in Mutumbo’s chair, and gave him a nod. The man rose and solemnly made his speech. At the end of his stirring oratory, he nominated Parker for Chairman of the Triumvirate.
All according to the plan.
The American nodded and accepted, keeping his expression carefully neutral.
Inside, he was dancing and shouting at the top of his lungs. It would be several weeks before the votes were cast and counted, giving each of the nominees time to campaign and prepare. That would be time enough to get his operatives up to top speed in the plan already in motion.
If only he could keep Jarod busy with his daughter, things would fall neatly into place. And neither of them would ever know what had secured his move to the top of the food chain. Only a handful of people had access to that information, and he had them all securely under his thumb, carefully watched 24-7.
The world was becoming a more beautiful place every day, bending meekly to his will without complaint, just like his angel. Like both of his angels. And everything he touched turned to gold.
He felt like a god.
* * * * * * * * *
Major Charles stared out the window at the bright morning light.
Still no word from Jarod. He was getting worried, and he knew Zoe could tell. They didn’t know each other very well, but the girl was perceptive, even through the haze of the potent medication flowing into her veins through the intravenous hookup to the morphine pump.
The hospital had just moved her into a private room, which he paid for himself. Her family had gone down to breakfast at his insistence, so he could have a little time alone with his son’s girlfriend.
He had spoken with Sister Mary at the convent and heard that Emily was steadily improving. But time was ticking away, and he needed to leave. He needed to see to his daughter, and make sure that, as soon as she was able, he got her out of there before she was discovered.
With a sigh, he turned away from the window.
“Still can’t get ahold of him?” Zoe asked, her speech slowed by the drugs.
Charles turned with a sad smile. “No. But don’t worry. I’m sure he’s fine.”
She smiled indulgently back at him. “Yeah. I can see how much you believe that,” she teased. “So what have you been thinking about so hard over there? You look like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders.”
He shrugged, straightened and came over to the bed, leaning his forearms on the rails pulled up along the side of the mattress. She looked fragile now, her complexion gone pale, dark circles under her pretty brown eyes. But her bright spirit struggled valiantly onward. She was a fighter, and he hoped she would beat the terrible disease ravaging her body.
“I have to leave soon, Zoe,” he confessed reluctantly. “My daughter was injured not long ago, and I need to go to her.” He stroked her hair fondly. “I don’t want to leave you until Jarod gets back, but you’ve got your family with you now. You’ll be all right.”
Zoe patted his hand. “Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she assured him.
“As soon as I can contact Jarod, I’ll send him straight here. I promise.”
“I know you will.” Her eyes revealed how frightened she was, though her lips were still curved into a soft grin. “You’re sure he’s okay?”
Charles chuckled. “We tend to land on our feet, like cats,” he teased. “Jarod’s smart. He’s wary. He’ll be just fine, I swear.” But in his heart, his conviction crumbled into deadly uncertainty. Jarod could already be dead, and he might never know what happened to his son.
He bent down and kissed her cheek. “Jarod will be back by your side before you know it, dear. But for now, get some rest. Okay?”
She nodded, apparently bolstered by his pep talk.
The door opened, and Zoe’s grandmother came into the room, carrying two cartons of yogurt and a glass of orange juice she had bought at the cafeteria downstairs.
“Any word from your son?” she asked hopefully.
Charles shook his head. “Not yet, but I’ll keep trying. I know he’ll get back to me soon.” He squeezed Zoe’s hand and gave her a reassuring glance. “I’ll call as soon as I know something.”
He turned his attention back to the older woman. “I have to go now, Mrs. Carson. I know you’ll take good care of Zoe for us.”
Mrs. Carson’s expression softened with sincere affection as her gaze drifted to the young woman in the bed. “Of course we will.”
“I wish I could stay.”
“But it’s time for you to go. I understand. And thank you, Major. Thank you for everything.”
“My pleasure. Zoe means a great deal to my son, and therefore to me as well.”
Mrs. Carson sat the yogurt and juice on the nightstand by Zoe’s bed, gave her granddaughter a kiss and nodded toward the food and drink. Then she turned back to the major. “Let me walk you to the elevator. I’ll give you my phone number so we can keep in touch.”
Charles offered her his arm like a proper gentleman, and let her escort him out of the room.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod's insistence on using secondary roads to reach Towson, rather than Interstate 95, was beginning to grate on Miss Parker. She knew he did it to avoid detection, make it difficult for any potential pursuit; but the continued need to take the long way around was wearing thin.
While she drove, Jarod sat in the back seat with Ethan, trying to "work with him," as he called it. As far as she could tell, it mostly consisted of platitudes and new age-speak. "Trust in the Force, young Jedi," she murmured sarcastically.
Ethan suddenly screamed in pain, and clutched the sides of his head. "No, no, no!"
Miss Parker threw a quick look over her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"We need to stop," Jarod shouted back. "Pull over!"
She pulled out of traffic and onto the side of the road as quickly as safety would allow. Jarod opened the back door and got out, pulling Ethan with him. Miss Parker shut off the ignition, grabbed the keys, and ran around the car to join them.
Ethan's legs buckled and he went down on his knees. Jarod joined him, speaking softly. "It's okay, Ethan. I know you were conditioned to listen to Raines. I know he's telling you not to do this. Just let his voice flow through you, and concentrate on the others."
Ethan looked up at his siblings, and his dark eyes were filled with pain. "It never stops! I hear one thing, then I hear another. I don't know who to believe anymore…."
"Yes, you do. Listen to your mother's voice, Ethan, the way you did on the train, and back at the motel. She will always tell you the truth." Jarod paused, then added, "What is she telling you now?"
For a moment, Ethan's expression went blank, his eyes fixed on an inner landscape only he could see. Not knowing what to do to help him, Miss Parker found herself stroking his face, pushing the hair back off his forehead. It was the sort of thing her mother had done for her, and maternal or not, it felt right.
Eventually, Ethan took a deep breath that seemed to calm him. "She says... I should trust you." He looked at Jarod. "You know the song. You're the only one who ever sang it back to me."
Parker frowned slightly. "What song?"
Jarod smiled. "A nursery rhyme, Miss Parker. A tiny piece of childhood we both managed to hang onto." He offered his good hand and Ethan grasped it, managing to pull himself to a standing position.
For a moment, Ethan’s gaze locked with Jarod’s, and then he just seemed to wilt. He leaned heavily against the bigger man, his head on Jarod’s shoulder, and Jarod wrapped his arm around Ethan fondly.
“I know you’re tired, Ethan,” the Pretender said quietly. “You want to rest. You want to find a quiet place. And I promise you, I’ll help you find it.” His left hand reached up and stroked the back of the other man’s head, the way a parent comforts a frightened child. He hummed the song, and Ethan struggled to stand on his own.
Miss Parker moved close as Jarod stepped back, allowing her to help Ethan back to the car.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” the Pretender warned gently. “But we’ll get you through it. We’ll help you sort out the noise and make it bearable. But we can’t do it alone. You have to try. And you have to trust us.” Ethan nodded. “We’re taking you to someone who can help you every day, for as long as it takes, to learn to deal with the voices. Would you like that?”
Ethan stiffened, turned on his heel and stared at Jarod with distrust flaring in his eyes. “You said you would do it!” he accused. “She said to trust you!”
Jarod nodded, keeping his expression neutral. “And I trust Dr. Goetz. She’s a nice lady. She’s very good at helping people, and she’ll be able to spend every moment of every day with you, if you want. Would you like that? Someone just for you? Someone who can help you with the voices?”
The younger man’s brief flare of anger faded quickly into relief and resignation. “Yes. I -- I want that.”
Miss Parker hugged him to emphasize Jarod’s words of encouragement. “We won’t let anything bad happen to you, Ethan,” she promised. "We’re going to help you get better.”
Tears gathered in his eyes as he regarded her, his face screwing up to cry, and then suddenly relaxing. A single tear rolled down his cheek, and his eyes roamed over her face. “Are you my sister?”
She smiled then, glad that he had acknowledged her at last. “Yes, I am.”
Ethan turned to Jarod. “My brother?”
The Pretender nodded.
“Family,” Ethan pronounced. “My family.”
With a sigh, he eased back into the car, collapsing onto the rear seat wearily. Once they were back on the road, he moved to a sitting position, buckled his seat belt, and looked out the window at the scenery flowing by.
“Let’s try again,” Jarod suggested, making eye contact as he turned in his seat to look behind him.
The corners of Ethan’s mouth softened, and he almost smiled.
* * * * * * * * *
Dressed in a stolen lab coat, his own stethoscope draped around his neck, Cox looked like the medical professional he was. He knocked on the closed door, and pushed it open when no one answered. He had confirmed from the name tag outside that this was the right room, and as he stepped inside, listening for the sounds of voices or activity, he saw the redhead sleeping in the hospital bed. Quietly, so he wouldn’t wake the girl, he checked to make sure she was alone in the room.
From his pocket he withdrew a syringe, already loaded with a lethal dose of potassium nitrate. He stood beside the bed, removed the plastic guard and pushed the needle into the IV port. Slowly, expertly, he pushed the plunger and sent the deadly poison into her system. It wouldn’t take long.
And then, for his own satisfaction, he jiggled her arm to try to waken her.
Zoe’s eyes opened, and looked into his. She started to inhale, so she could scream. And then her heart stopped beating, her entire body shutting off as if a light switch had been pulled. Her last breath rattled out of her lungs as all the muscles relaxed, and her head lolled sideways on the pillow. Her eyes stared blankly at the bed.
From the pocket of his lab coat, he withdrew a tiny origami figure of an angel with broken wings, and left it standing on top of the morphine pump. Onysius, the bent-winged god of retribution. There was a price to pay for crossing him.
Cox smiled, dropped the syringe into the sharps disposal unit on the wall by the door, and left as unobtrusively as he had entered. Only this time, he was smiling. There was much satisfaction in revenge, and he was certain Jarod would recognize the calling card he had left behind for him to find. That would be worth waiting for, and he was only sorry he couldn't stick around to see the Pretender's face when he found it.