at the screen, his stomach plummeting as he read the words
"No," the Pretender breathed. He pulled out his cellular phone and dialed the number his father had given him. Almost instantly, he heard the older man on the other end
"Yes, it's me."
"Thank God... He's only been gone a few hours..."
The two men discussed details, and then Jarod packed up his meager belongings and left his lair before properly starting his latest Pretend. Minutes later, he was driving through the night toward the nearest airport. After that, he would be on a commercial flight bound for Denver. He would hire a car and drive to Boulder, where Major Charles had been living with Jarod's young clone
He recalled guiltily that he had danced around that word, never actually telling the boy what he was. He had explained it in subtle terms instead, knowing the boy would make the necessary leap to comprehension. Jarod remembered his frustration at not being allowed to see his own reflection, once upon a time in the Centre, how desperately he needed to know what he looked like. Jordan would have felt similar anxiety at not knowing who or what he was. They should have told him. They should have explained, but there hadn't been time
No, that wasn't quite true. Jarod had wanted to spare the boy those awful words and the rip in his soul they would bring. But Jordan was a smart boy. Some part of him would have known by the words Jarod had used the night they had spent together, following his rescue from Donoterase. He had figured it out himself, and simply wanted someone to say it, to be honest with him... and no one had
More than half the day would be gone before Jarod could meet with his father, but he was already starting on the hunt. By the time he reached Colorado, he would have some ideas where to look, and phone them in. And even if the major was successful in locating Jarod's younger self, the Pretender was still going to join them. It was time they all had a talk, and straightened out a few things. There would be hard questions, some that he couldn't answer, but they needed to be asked, and Jordan needed to be looking into his eyes when he asked them
* * * * * * * * *
Grace Valley, Colorado
Jordan was a dark shape against the white landscape, walking along the road with his head down, dusted with snow. It was beautiful stuff, but it was cold, and he had been out in it far too long. He lifted his head and glanced around at the buildings lining the narrow strip of road
The trucker who had dropped him off at the outskirts had warned him that nothing might be open but the bar, and he was too young to go in there, but Jordan had insisted that Grace Valley was far enough. He thanked the man, hitched up his coat collar and began the trek into town. It was a good enough place to get lost, without too many people. He wasn't used to so many others around him, and would need time to adjust to that part of being out in the world. He had found in his travels with the major that vast numbers of people in big cities made him nervous, and he preferred small towns instead
He headed straight for the bar
The place was dimly lit, mostly from neon beer signs on the walls. When he had stepped inside, he noticed that all eyes turned immediately on him. The middle-aged woman behind the counter spoke up before he took another step
"Sorry, son. You can't come in here. You're underage."
He nodded. "I know. But it's cold out, and I just wanted some hot cocoa. This looks like the only place open."
The woman grinned. "Well, yeah. Normally we roll up the sidewalks at six o'clock, cause nobody stops here after that," she admitted
The teenager frowned. "How do you roll up sidewalks? Aren't they made of concrete?"
The barkeep and most of the patrons laughed. She came out from behind the bar and met him at the door. Pointing out into the snow to a lovely Victorian style house at the end of the block, she told him, "You head on over there. That's Betsy's Bed and Breakfast. They don't usually offer food and drinks to anybody but those staying in the rooms, but this is off season since we're not close to ski country. Any cash coming in the door will be welcome, and I'll call to make sure Betsy knows you're on the way."
He smiled at her. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, son. I just don't wanna lose my liquor license by serving a minor, and since the sheriff is sitting at the bar yonder, I can't take the risk. You go on over to Betsy's. She makes a mean apple pie, too."
"I'll be sure to avoid it, then," he told her soberly
She laughed again, patted his shoulder and sent him on his way
Betsy was standing on the wrap-around porch of the powder blue and white trimmed Victorian when he arrived.
He stamped his feet and dusted the snow off his head and shoulders before following her into the house. "Thanks for opening up for me."
"Not a problem, honey," she assured him. "I've only got two other guests at the moment, and we were just sitting down to dinner. Want to join us?"
Jordan smiled. "Thanks, that would be great."
"You traveling alone, son?" Betsy asked as she took his coat and backpack hung them on a hook near the door.
"I'm meeting my dad here next week," he lied. "I was supposed to be here earlier, but got held up." He sniffed, exhaling warm air into his hands to warm his mouth and nose. His lips felt frozen, and it was hard to enunciate clearly like that. "I'd be happy to pay for lodging till then, if you've got an extra room." He dug a wad of cash out of his trouser pocket to show her
Betsy smiled. "Sure thing, son. Dining room's that way. Have a seat at the table and I'll set you a place." She pointed to a large room to their left
Jordan watched her leave for the kitchen, surveyed the interior of the house from the foyer, hypothesizing general layout. He was planning already, and this seemed like as good a place to start as any. His mission was unclear, but it was forming in glimpses. And when he could see what he needed to do, he would not hesitate. And he didn't care if anyone got in his way
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker stared at the computer screen until the letters blurred, but nothing made any sense. This was all she had on the Blue Files -- Looking Glass, Chimera, Mirage, Gemini, Nemesis... code names for projects. She had been able to decipher some, but not others. It was frustrating, and she needed a break
She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. Taking a deep breath, she let her thoughts settle, willing the swirling confusion to stop, to be silent, and let her rest. Then her eyes popped open and she shut down the program, stormed out of her office and into Sydney's, full of purpose and fire
"Where was my mother's office?" she demanded
"Good morning, Miss Parker," he addressed her calmly, with a slight smile. "How are you today?"
"Just answer me." She tapped her foot impatiently, her arms crossed over her chest, defying him with a look to try her patience
"Why do you want to know?"
His voice was always so calming, so relaxing. But today it didn't affect her one way or another. She narrowed her eyes at him
"Mr. Raines moved into it after... the elevator incident. I'd have thought you would remember that."
She made no further conversation, but pivoted on her stiletto heel and strode out of his office again.
The office was still under guard, though she couldn't figure why. Pasting a false smile on her face, she pretended to be friendly with the new sweeper on duty. She hadn't seen him before, but recognized the type -- low on brains, big on muscle
There was no way he was going to let her in. Her reputation had preceded her, and even though she had made him question the rumors he'd heard and think she was interested in him, orders were orders and she wasn't Mr. Raines. That problem, however, could easily be resolved
She headed straight for Renewal, and shortly afterward wheeled Dr. Billy and his pet oxygen tank right past the guard and into Raines' Inner Sanctum. She parked him behind the desk and started going through the drawers
"Make yourself comfortable, Raines," she growled. "I don't know what I'm looking for, but you can be damned sure I'll find it."
Only nothing caught her interest.
The file cabinets were next. She wasn't sure exactly what she was looking for at first, but then she remembered his reference to her mother's lost DSA. He had said he hadn't found it, but Raines wouldn't be the first Centre employee to lie to another, so she looked through every reference she thought might connect her to it. And then, she started searching the office itself, checking for hidden panels or niches where a DSA might be secreted
Still nothing of interest, aside from a single yellow file folder marked Fountain. Whatever had been inside it was gone now and she shrugged it off, pacing the floor to try to think what to do next
Standing in the middle of the room, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and willed her mind to stillness once more
The door burst open, and Willie charged inside, his face set, eyes narrowed as they met hers. "What the hell do you think you're doing in here, Miss Parker?"
She didn't bother with a smile. Willie knew her well enough to detect any smoke screens she might try to throw up. "My job," she ground out between clenched teeth. "If I'm going to catch Jarod, I need to be able to look anywhere, anytime, into any records I think might help me get one step ahead of him. As long as I'm isolated from important information, I'll always be a step behind. Capiche?"
"That's your problem, Miss Parker," Willie snapped. "Now, get out of Mr. Raines' office, and don't even think about coming back... or I'll have to report you to your father. I understand you're not one of his favorite people right now."
She lifted her chin in defiance. "Fine. And you can take Mr. Potato Head back to the compost pile. Or just leave him there, for all I care. Maybe he'll put down roots. Be sure you water him twice a week." Striding confidently out of the room, she did not look back or offer even the tiniest smile to the sweeper whose job she had placed in jeopardy. It was his own fault, after all, letting a woman flatter and lie her way past him. She had no regrets. People decided their own destinies based on the paths they chose.
Returning to her office, she sat down at her desk and tried once again to grasp the fleeting image that had come to her just as Willie had interrupted, but it was gone
All she knew for certain was that the thing she was looking for wasn't in Raines' office.
It was something. She was making progress, and her mother's gift was growing. Eventually, she was certain she would be able to tap into it whenever she needed, and make it work for her. And when that day came, no one would ever be able to lie to her again
She could feel it all the way down to her toes
* * * * * * * * *
Willie sat down across from the desk and contemplated Raines in his seat of power
"You look good, back where you belong," he observed quietly.
Raines said nothing, didn't move or even blink to acknowledge that he had heard
"I do have something to report, though," Willie told him with a soft smile. "Fountain has made progress. They're starting clinical trials now, and I thought you might like me to include you on the list."
Raines didn't move
"Aren't you excited?" asked the sweeper. "I should think this would make your day, seeing this particular project move forward. Especially at this rate. We didn't expect it to be so far along for another few years, but the Triumvirate has given the go-ahead on their pet project."
Still no response
Willie leaned across the desk, dropping his voice to a tense whisper. "This could be even bigger than Gabriel, if it works like they wanted it to. Even the Chairman himself is on the list of recipients."
For a moment, the older man did not stir. Then he blinked. He smiled. And he raised his head. "Put me on the list, Willie," he rasped. "If it's good enough for the Chairman, it's good enough for me."
Willie's fist punched the air excitedly as he sat back in his chair. "Time to shake the pillars of Heaven!" he crowed, and rubbed his palms together with glee
Raines nodded, then let his face go slack. "But it's not time for me to be all the way back, just yet." His head drooped, and he relaxed into the posture he had abandoned a moment before. Willie rose and moved behind the desk, grasped the handles on the wheelchair back, and piloted his boss back to Renewal as he whistled a happy tune
* * * * * * * * *
Cox pulled into the driveway and parked the SUV. The drive west had been exciting - he had two ice chests full of road kill to enjoy after dark. But first, he had to check into a room for the night. This little hole-in-the-wall village was just a stop along the way to Gunnison, where he had just rented a remote cabin for a week's stay to clear his mind.
At first it had been fun, the surprises that Jarod had sent to him. He tolerated the others pawing over his gifts, studying them and dissecting the psychological implications of what each one meant. The video had kept them busy for weeks, allowing him to enjoy the other things in the game they played with each other.
He still hadn't figured out how Jarod had managed to completely fill his office with Pez dispensers, so that as soon as he opened the door, an avalanche of gaily colored plastic swept him backward. He hadn't been able to stop smiling for days afterward. Then there was the crate of live snakes that arrived just a few weeks later. That hadn't been difficult to understand, since each of the species in the crate was among the most deadly on the planet. The meaning behind that was clear, and none of the psychologists spent a great deal of time with those beauties
Cox, however, found excellent uses for all of them
But then the packages had taken an ugly turn, becoming more personal in the following weeks. Jarod had been doing his homework, it seemed, prying into Cox's personal life, and lifting images from his past that should have been left alone. With each package that came, Cox made sure he got them before any other prying eyes discovered their contents. Those that came to his home he never reported. He wanted it that way.
This game was between him and Jarod. But the last one had turned a corner with Cox. It was beautifully sculpted, incredibly real-looking. The mounting board was hand polished, elegantly stained. The sculpture itself was skillfully crafted of modeling clay, painted with great talent, so that it looked exactly like Cox himself, glass eyes and all. And the engraved brass plate beneath it simply read, "Soon."
The mounted head had appeared on the pillow next to him in the middle of the night
Cox understood. Jarod wasn't playing a game of cat and mouse. He was planning a campaign with a specific end in mind, and it wasn't just tease and titillate. Jarod had illustrated how easily he could touch Cox, at any time, any place
The last tap on the shoulder had been the most subtle, the most thought-provoking. He had been about to brush his teeth before bed one night, and upon squeezing the tube, a tiny ball wrapped in aluminum foil had oozed out onto his toothbrush. Curiosity had made him pick at the ball and, carefully unrolling it, he discovered a message from the errant Pretender. It was dated, and described a particularly toxic, fast acting poison that was odorless, tasteless and colorless
Reading between the lines, Cox got the message. The ball had been in the tube for more than two weeks before he discovered it. Had it been the poison instead, Cox would have died in his bed, slowly suffocating from the effects of the chemical in his system, unable to call for help
At first, he tried to reason with himself that Jarod wasn't the sort of person to commit cold-blooded murder. But then he began doing more in-depth research into the Pretender's background, just to find out how far he might go, if pushed. The answers were not as reassuring as he had initially believed, and now Cox was beginning to feel a nagging doubt that he had chosen an inappropriate path in killing Zoe
The Centre offered him some protection, but he couldn't live there. He needed his freedom to pursue his personal fetishes. But now, with Jarod breathing down his neck, he found himself curtailing such things for fear of meeting up with the other man in some dark, isolated place.
Cox didn't like being nervous. It cramped his style. What he needed was another way to strike back, to up the ante, and make Jarod understand that the stakes were too high for him to want to continue with his campaign of terror. But until he discovered the proper bargaining chip, he wanted to disappear for a while, take some time off and head out to the great unknown, hence his drive west.
Every twist and turn of his trip had been capricious. He had no destination in mind when he left Delaware, traveling south, then west, then north again into Colorado. The area began to look familiar, and he had just called to rent a cabin where he had stayed once before, pleased to find it available. In the off-season, he could stay just about anywhere he wanted, and the little Victorian place looked like a good enough spot to spend the night. Snow was coming down thickly, and he was tired. He looked forward to a hot meal, a warm bed, and an early start in the morning, weather permitting
But what he didn't expect was the face at the dinner table, the familiar youth whose image he had seen in black and white so often that he recognized every nuance, every glance, every gesture
He smiled, and introduced himself with pleasure
* * * * * * * * *
People were so easy to fool.
Jordan had no trouble coming up with explanations to answer their questions, and they always believed him. It was almost fun, inventing things to tell them. He studied each person when he had the time, and gauged his response to what he thought would be most palatable to them
But Dr. Cox wasn't as easy to read as most people. He made Jordan uneasy, the way he seemed to look right through him. The man seemed friendly enough, a little on the reserved side, but there was something in his eyes that sang to Jordan, and the silent music made his hair stand on end. Had the weather been better, he would have left during the night, but as it was, he needed the shelter. Come morning, he would be gone as soon as the sun was up, breakfast or no
After all, he had plenty of money now
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod put on the radio to break the silence in his car as he drove. He was tired, but he couldn't afford to stop. He was close now, and would be arriving any minute to the meeting place he had set up with his father
"...In other news," the commentator blared, "Computer hackers are at it again. Yesterday, a routine analysis at a Fortune 500 company revealed that one percent of the company's cash assets had been transferred to a dummy account in Colorado. The news spurred several other companies to do a hasty check into their accounting systems, and they, too, had been electronically mugged by the clever thief. The programmer was traced to a Boulder mall hosting an AT&T DSL demonstration station, but when authorities went to investigate, they discovered that the mall's security cameras had been turned off. The identity of the thief or thieves remains unknown at this time, and the assets, once transferred into the phantom Boulder account, also seem to have vanished, although no transaction records exist either for the establishment of the account or the dispensation of the cash. Estimated totals of the robbery are running between five and six million dollars..."
"They'll never find that money," Jarod told himself, and changed to a music station instead, turning his mind to where the boy might have gone from the lodge where he had been staying with Maj. Charles. He had been at it for hours, trying to choose which direction he would have gone... but he simply couldn't imagine walking away from his father by choice. He knew Jordan was too smart to fall for any kind of lure, and was sure the major had taught the boy about such things. But Jordan was still innocent, trained to comply with the wishes of controlling adults. There was a possibility, however slim, that Jordan could have been taken by someone who didn't have his best interests at heart
Jarod was afraid for him. He could be anywhere. He could be alive or dead. Jarod had to get to the starting point and talk to his father, find out what had been on Jordan's mind when he decided to take off
The boy couldn't be traveling alone. He would need transportation, though his thumb could get him that. Hitchhiking was a risky way of getting around, especially for one so young. And Jordan would need money--
"No!" he breathed, remembering the radio report.
The lodge where Maj. Charles had been staying with the boy was located in Boulder, and so was the mall where the robbery program had been written
Jordan would easily be able to figure out how to take care of himself. And after having been raised under Raines' guidance, his moral compass might not be as strong as the one Sydney had helped to instill in Jarod. The boy might well have had no problems of conscience to deal with in taking such a seemingly small amount of money from those bloated organizations, thinking they might never miss it, and save for the timing of a regular accounting sweep, they might not have discovered the theft for weeks
The boy was leaving a trail for him after all. But with almost unlimited funds at his disposal, he could certainly be anywhere. Jarod wouldn't have time to visit with his father after all. He drove straight to the mall and started his search there, looking for traces of where the stolen money had been moved, that the government's top computer experts might take days to uncover. Jordan didn't have that much time. Jarod had to find him, and wherever the money was, Jordan wouldn't be far behind
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod stood outside the mall at closing time, pulling his coat closer around his neck, part of his mind enjoying the beautiful white blanket covering the world and the fat, fluffy flakes gliding past his gaze. The other part was dissecting the information he had gained from the DSL station, and now he was looking around for some sign that would help him figure out Jordan's next move. Across from the vast parking lot lay a highway, and on the other side of the highway was a truck stop. That rang a bell, and Jarod headed for his car
Truckers often picked up hitchhikers for company on their long hauls, and a teenage runaway would be able to find a ride there easily with a sad enough story. Jordan was sure to have told one that would get him a ride anywhere. But where would he want to go?
The Pretender sat at the bar and ordered a cup of coffee to warm himself, and began his interviews of the wait staff. Fifteen minutes later, he knew that the boy had been picked up by a regular visitor to the café, who trucked a route from Colorado to Texas and back every week. Turning south, Jarod watched the miles go by, imagining the boy's conversation with a lonesome trucker, listening for the moment when Jordan would decide he had gone far enough
He flipped open his cellular phone to call his father and ask the questions he still needed to have answered, in order to find his young clone
How he hated that word! How it infuriated him that the Centre had duplicated him. And how he loved the boy they had made from him
Sydney had been right in referring to Jordan as Jarod's son, when he reunited them briefly with Major Charles so long ago. The way he felt about Jordan was certainly what he imagined a father would feel toward his son. But Jordan was his twin, identical physically in every way to the original. He had no right to think of the boy as his own. Jordan belonged to Maj. Charles, giving his father a second chance to raise him
He couldn't be with them now, not while the Centre dogged his trail every step of the way. Perhaps, when he could stop running and rejoin them, he might move into that role. But for now, it was best for him to stay out of the picture, and let his father be Jordan's father as well
"Hi, Dad. It's me," he said warmly into the telephone, his eyes on the road, recently plowed free of snow as it wound through the mountains.
"What's the word son?" Maj. Charles sounded weary, concern etching his tone.
"I'm on way south, toward New Mexico. It seems Jordan was picked up by a trucker on a route back to Texas. I don't know much more, but the minute I do, you'll know."
"Thanks, son. I'm so sorry, Jarod. Make sure he's all right, because I have to tell him that, too."
Jarod scanned the highway signs, opting to stay on the road he was already traveling. "He'll be fine, Dad. I promise." Hoping he could keep that promise, he sighed quietly. "Can you tell me anything you haven't already, something that might give me a clue to where he's headed?" Listening to his father's answer, he stared out his windshield at the beginnings of rush hour traffic in the city, wishing for the time to go faster.
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