Necessary Evil

 

home / season six / episode eleven / act III

   

Berlin, Germany

The bus was full, the bad weather tempting everybody into its warmth, but Jarod still managed to find a seat. As the vehicle lurched into the traffic, he looked up at the paper a person sitting in the place opposite him was reading.

Sharfrichter

The word screamed out at him from the headline of the paper and the translation took just a few seconds in his mind. Executioner. He had no doubt that this was the same series of killings that had been outlined in the paper he still had in his carryall. Clearly they had crossed the Channel, and he decided that, in addition to the chase he was being led on, that would form a major part of his investigation. As the bus pulled up at a stop, the man folded up the paper. Seeing Jarod's eye on it, he offered the object.

"Want it?"

"Thanks," the American responded, taking the newspaper with a smile. Nodding curtly, the German got off the bus. Jarod waited only a moment before following him, turning the other way and heading in the direction that the woman had given him.

He stood outside the building and looked at it for a moment, before heading inside out of the driving rain. He shook the water out of his hair and off his hands before going over to the row of mailboxes that stood on the wall next to the large staircase. Pulling out the envelope, he looked down at the name and then started reading over the stickers attached to each small door, searching for the one that matched. Finally he found it and slid the thin envelope inside before his eye was caught by that underneath.

Jarod Ritter.

He drew in his breath sharply and looked around. Was it the one meant for him? If so, that wasn't something he found particularly amusing. Forcing up the flap, he snagged a white item between two fingers and managed to maneuver it through the narrow gap. Looking down at the writing, he saw that it was the same as that on the note.

Just a chance to get out of the rain. Or maybe something more?

Jarod looked around sharply for a second time before opening the envelope and taking out the key it contained. A small slip of paper announced that it was for room number 106, and he peered into the mailbox again, checking that it was empty, before turning and going up the stairs.

Easing open the door of the room, Jarod found himself staring at a chair, a table and a bed. Putting his bag on the floor, he cautiously opened the cupboard, only to find it empty. On one shelf lay another piece of paper and, picking it up, Jarod walked over and sat down into the chair.

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To fetch the pretender some bread.
The cupboard was bare
But behind you - food's there!
And so the pretender got fed.

Unable to help laughing, he turned to see a shelf inset into the wall, on which sat a plate with two slices of bread, a small jar and a knife. Getting up, he went over and carried them back to the table, sitting down again.

"You know," he commented to the empty room. "I expected another clue of some sort by this time."

Standing, he began to carefully examine the room, looking under the table before turning the chair over and even lifting up the mattress. Still finding nothing, he shut the blinds and looked at both sides of the material, finally sitting down again with a defeated sigh. For several minutes, he stared at the objects on the table in front of him before opening the jar. Dipping a hesitant finger into the contents, his face broke into a smile at the chocolate-hazelnut taste, and Jarod eagerly picked up the knife. It was with a sense of satisfaction that he felt the handle to be loose.

"Now we're getting somewhere," he muttered to himself.

Easing out the blade, he grasped the rolled piece of paper tucked away inside and put it down flat on the table, smoothing the sheet. Eyeing the black and white squares, he laughed, turning to look around the room and applauding loudly.

"Kudos. Very good indeed. Did you set the whole thing up or was it just luck? But I don't see the clues. A crossword isn't really a lot of use without them. Still, while I'm waiting for them to appear, I may as well enjoy the dinner that you were nice enough to provide."

After checking the hollow handle for anything more, Jarod reassembled the knife and then picked up the first piece of bread. The sight of a white square made him drop the brown square onto the table and he seized the paper, unfolding it to reveal the clues of the crossword puzzle.

"All right." He looked around again. "Supposing I didn't bring a pen…"

His eye was caught by the knife and he slid the two pieces apart again, staring at the pen on the other end of the blade. With a gentle pull, the two parts separated and, after spreading the brown substance, he started to eat his meager dinner as he read the clues. Three were highlighted and these drew his attention first.

One Across: When he delivered it, the whole support came crashing down. (4)

Twenty-Nine Across: Even stuffed down, the insulation wasn't sufficient to keep their house warm so they buried their heads instead. (9)

Fourteen Down: The doctor took it upon himself to prescribe some new steps. (8)

He stared thoughtfully out of the window as he ate the last bite, pushing the knife and plate aside. It was apparent that the answers to these would lead him to his next destination and, as he glanced at his watch, he wondered where it would be. Somewhere in this city, he assumed, or he wouldn't have been led here in the first place.

Having completed the cryptic crossword that the woman on the plane had given him, Jarod had worked out that the best way to solve them was to find the word or words that didn't fit. His eye was caught by the word in fourteen down. Of what significance was the term 'prescribe?' Doctors prescribed things and…nodding, he counted out the letters. A-P-O-T-H-E-K-E. The German word for a pharmacist. So it probably meant that he would find the next clue near there. Great. How many of those were there in a city the size of this one?

Rolling his eyes, Jarod looked at the others. Stuffed down. This appeared to be a major part of that clue. But down didn't have to be just a direction, did it? It could mean the substance - feather and down, like the contents with which the pillows he had slept on in London were stuffed. Feathers. Birds. Birds slept with their heads under their wings.

"Again very clever," he told the room. "So is there an aviary - a Vogelhaus - near the Apotheke?"

He looked at the last highlighted clue. Here 'support' seemed slightly out of place and he stared at the word thoughtfully. But what did delivery have to do with it? And delivery of what? What was delivered? The mail, of course. His head shot up. Mail. Post. A method of support: a post. And the German word for Post Office was 'Post'.

"So I'm looking for a post office, a chemist and an aviary near each other? That's where the next thing will be?"

Looking at the crossword again, he saw that eight squares were gray instead of white and he guessed that these must have special significance. Solving all the clues took him about twenty minutes and then he wrote out the letters.

K-R-A-N-Z-L-E-R

Obviously this would be a place or thing of significance, near or at which he was going to find the other items required, and Jarod picked up his laptop, plugging into the telephone connection in the room and accessing the Internet. 'Kranzler' was the name of a café located near the main station and, packing away his things, Jarod pulled on his jacket.

* * * * * * * * *

Mr. Sun's apartment, SL-1

He watched the DSA in the privacy of his personal quarters. The cold around his heart became heat, setting his soul on fire. He watched the baby's delivery, saw Catherine's joy at the birth of her son, and felt the bullet slamming into her, as if it had struck him as well. He reeled with pain, unable to move for a few minutes to shut off the machine.

He couldn't breathe. Weakly, he staggered to his feet, stumbling to the bathroom to vomit into the toilet. He leaned against the cool porcelain for a long time before he could manage to rise and rinse out his mouth. He splashed water on his face, washing away the tears that had dried there.

"Under orders," he wheezed.

He dressed in the requisite suit that marked him as a Centre officer, accented with his own personal style. He wore T-shirts and colorful vests underneath that set him apart from the corporate clones who peopled the offices upstairs, and slipped on his favorite soft-soled deck shoes.

Renewal Wing had only minimal staff at that time of night, and he passed no one in the halls. He was careful about the security cameras, making sure he cut through rooms to avoid appearing on any of them. It didn't take him long to find the right bed.

Machines were connected to the body, keeping the cadaverous old man alive. Empty eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, blinking in slow, rhythmic sweeps. A breeze blew in the room, keeping the air fresh and clean, making the curtains billow all around them.

It was eerily peaceful.

"You lied to me, you son of a bitch," said Mr. Sun bitterly. "You don't deserve this. It's far too gentle a passing."

There was no vengeance to be had there. The need for tears stung his eyes and he turned away, tasting bitter disappointment on his tongue. All those years, and he had been blissfully ignorant, filled with hope that one day Catherine would return. Now he knew the truth, had seen it with his own eyes.

He returned in defeat to his apartment, dressed in flannel pajamas and sat down on the sofa with his guitar. Fingers strumming a familiar melody, he began to sing a soft, sad song.

Can't take your memory.
No, you can't take your memory…

That was all he had left of Catherine Parker. That, and her mission. He had that to comfort himself with as well.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS

"Broots, I want you to gather up those DSAs we talked about, boxed into something that will both protect and hide them from casual discovery, and ship them to this address." Miss Parker held out a slip of paper to him. "And don't put it in the post here. I want you to drive into Dover and send it from the main post office there."

He looked at the name and address. "Who's Michael Steinberg?"

She looked a little lost for a moment, then sad. "Someone my mother used to know."

The tech leaned closer across her desk. "Why would you want to send info on the Seraphim caregivers to someone connected to your mother? You're not going to-"

She glared at him. "Just do it, Broots." When he recoiled slightly, she leaned forward and whispered, "This is going to Jarod. This address is just a checkpoint along the way."

"Oh. Okay." But he was still confused. "Why would you want to send this stuff to Jarod? We're not supposed to be helping him… are we?"

"No. But he can help us." She sighed wearily. "And while you're at it, gather up everything you can lay hands on regarding Yuri and Project Shiva and put it in there, too. The Chairman's getting a little twitchy about that thorn in his side not being pulled yet."

Broots felt a little shiver of revulsion. His instincts had been right on, and suddenly he was glad he had made those copies. Maybe Jarod could do something about the guy. Somebody sure needed to. "I'll get right on it. And I've narrowed down the potential places where Project Thor could be stationed here. Add that to the new faces I picked up from the reception cameras, and I'm making progress."

"It's certainly taken long enough."

"This is a big place, Miss Parker," he assured her. "And even with all the security measures we have in place, there are those who have power enough to smuggle people in and hide 'em."

"And who would have done that, Broots?" Her gaze was frosty.

He cleared his throat. All clues pointed in the same direction. "Lyle. Valentine's memo to him gave us the starting place. Everything else points directly to him. Everything I've found, that is. Valentine seems to have covered their tracks pretty well."

She nodded. "Show Sam the surveillance tapes from the group's entry last month. Have him go door to door if he has to, but find Project Thor. Take care of those disks first, though."

"Yes, ma'am."

He left her office quickly. An idea was already brewing for disguising the disks, and he wanted to check out whether or not it would work. He had borrowed his daughter's MP3 player, which used disks the same size as the DSAs, though not quite as thick. If he could mask over the back side of a thinner disk with downloaded music, he could ship them with a player, stored in imprinted jewel cases, and no one checking the package would be any the wiser.

Late in the day, he had the package ready to go, with Miss Parker's approval. He picked up Debbie after school and drove into the city, dropped off his package as instructed, and took her out to dinner and a movie before starting the long drive back home. He felt good about this mission. The Seraphim information was secondary to what the Pretender would discover about Yuri, and Broots felt certain that Jarod would catch the guy. Rumors were starting to be discussed in hushed terms in SIS, and he was afraid that, if Jarod didn't get Yuri soon, Miss Parker would be put on his trail to the exclusion of all else.

And that, Broots knew, would be her death sentence.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Delius strolled out of Cox's office and into the hallway, heading for the elevator that would take him back to the suite of rooms on SL-9 that had been allocated for his use during his time in Blue Cove. A smile curled the corners of his lips as he gazed around the elevator car, his eyes arriving at a small, round hole in the corner, and he raised an eyebrow.

"April 13, 1970," he mused aloud. "Almost thirty-two years and they still haven't fixed it. I'd hate to try getting a light-bulb replaced in any sort of hurry."

The doors slid open and Delius looked up at the numbers above the door, noticing that he was still a number of levels from the required one, before eyeing the man who had entered.

"It's been a long time, Valentine," he commented, watching the man take a position on the other side of the car, as far away from the head of the German sector as possible without pressing himself against the wall.

"Quite," Valentine muttered somewhat awkwardly. "What are you doing here?"

"Rather uncivil," Delius scolded. "But, for your information, I just got a promotion." He grinned. "I'll be around here quite a bit, from now on. The two of you will have to become good little boys again, instead of the very bad pair that I've been hearing about since my arrival."

"Thanks to whose teaching?" Valentine snapped, keeping his eyes averted. "You reap the reward of the fruit sowed by your own hand."

"Were you taking lessons from that convert, Raines, before his brain was scrambled?" Delius mocked. "I never pictured you as the religious type, Valentine. Or at least," he corrected himself, "not that religion. You always did follow the Devil with a vengeance."

"Why not make our lives easier and go to him yourself?" the other man muttered. "As quickly as possible."

"You've forgotten yourself, Valentine," Delius thundered, slamming one hand against the emergency brake button and bringing the car to a sudden halt. "I suggest you remember just who I am, and the part I play in your life, or I might arrange for Parker to get you both transferred to Berlin so that I can resume the training personally."

"You have no say…"

Delius stepped closer to the other man, shoving him against the wall of the elevator and pressing the fingers of one hand against Valentine's throat. The sweeper made no move to defend himself, wide eyes fixed on the face that was on a level with his, as Delius moved nearer, his words hissing out from between clenched teeth.

"If you want a reminder, Valentine, all you have to do is ask. It won't take much for me to get you back to the stage you were when you left for the Pretoriat, trembling as soon as you heard my footsteps. The two of you are quite welcome at any stage to pay me a little visit at Die Fakultät, and until then, we'll see each other any time that I'm in town for a Triumvirate meeting. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," Valentine gasped, as the hand was removed from the pressure point against his neck, and Delius restarted the elevator, exiting it at his floor only seconds later. The sweeper sagged back against the wall of the car, regaining his breath and staring blankly at the floor. The doors began to slide closed and, out of his peripheral vision, Valentine could see Delius glance over his shoulder, nodding in satisfaction at the sweeper's bowed posture.

As soon as the doors were completely shut, however, Valentine straightened immediately. Putting out a hand, he, too, pressed the button that brought the car to a sudden halt. He gingerly touched his neck with long, delicate fingers to ensure that nothing had been damaged, swallowing to clear the saliva that had accumulated in his mouth. Once he knew himself to be okay, he started up the elevator again and, unable to suppress a quiet chuckle that caused a twinge of pain in his bruised throat, began to whistle softly as he watched the car rising to his destination.

* * * * * * * * *

Tegel Airport, Berlin

"I'll miss you," he said softly.

Emily smiled and draped her arms around his neck. "I'll miss you, too, Paul. But I guess we'll see each other back in the States eventually."

"Sure we will. I won't be in Johannesburg long, I'm sure." He leaned down to kiss her, enjoying the feel of her against him. With a sigh of regret, he let her go. "Be careful, Em."

"You, too." She gazed at him wistfully and waved as he walked toward the plane.

Once in his seat, he shut her out of his mind, opened up his laptop and pulled up the personnel file he had stolen on Mr. Tshwane. He would know everything about the man before he landed, and in another few hours he'd know exactly how to dispatch the man. It would be a challenge, since Tshwane was not only physically powerful, he was smarter than the average sweeper. But that would only make it more fun.

Yuri packed the laptop away as the plane taxied toward the runway. He closed his eyes and pictured it all, running the simulations one after the other in his mind until he could see exactly how it should be done. He practiced it in his mind until he knew exactly how each movement would feel. There would be injuries of his own to deal with, but none of them would be serious.

He could live with a few bruises, as long as his target didn't.

Yuri turned to the woman in the next seat and struck up a conversation to pass the time while the simulation ran in the back of his mind, smoothing out rough edges and keeping him excited about what was to come.

* * * * * * * * *

Outside the Kranzler Cafe
Berlin, Germany

Jarod looked from left to right, his eye caught by the yellow light that reflected on the wet road, hurrying in that direction. Stopping in front of the post office, he was able to see the chemist next door and then looked around.

"A Vogelhouse? If there is one, then where is it?"

"The Vogelhouse?" A woman pushing a stroller stopped in front of him. "There's one on the other side of this building. If you go around the corner," she pointed to the right, "you'll see the entrance. But it's probably a little late to see the birds now." She looked up into the dark night sky and then down into the sleeping face of the little boy in the stroller.

"I'm supposed to get something from there," he told her with a grateful smile.

"Then maybe next time it'd be a good idea to know where it is before you arrange the collection point," she told him laughingly before hurrying away.

Jarod watched her go before raising his collar to keep the rain off and going in the direction she'd indicated. Walking past several stores, a series of blue lights set in the ground caught his eye and he hurried over, finding himself in a tunnel. For several minutes, he stood, eyeing his surroundings before venturing out into a large space, walled in on all sides by massive glass buildings that rose into the sky above his head. Hearing footsteps approaching, he slipped down a walkway between two of them and found himself facing two big cages, barely visible in the light thrown by the signs of the chemist and post office.

"Prodigy."

The word was all but inaudible and he glanced around sharply, replying in similarly muted tones.

"Who are you?"

"A friend. Turn to the left. Walk forward ten paces."

Otherwise not moving, he turned his head, visually examining the shadows. "Why should I trust you? Who are you?"

"Please, Jarod, do as I say," a soft, female voice begged. "If you don't, they'll catch you, and your father and Jordan would find it a lot more difficult to get you out of here than they did when you were at the Centre."

"So where am I?"

"Right now you're standing in the path of the third security team, which will be here in less than one minute. The security team belongs to Die Fakultät, a member of the Triumvirate. Unless you want to find yourself down in one of their sublevels, I'd suggest that you do as I said and let me explain when you have."

Looking instinctively over one shoulder, Jarod could see several dark shapes approaching and he turned, hurrying towards the shadows. Reaching them, he looked back to see a group of three men march directly over the place he had been standing. Jarod could see light reflecting off the guns they carried and he turned back to find a shadow beside him.

"You see?"

He eyed her silently, struggling to make out her features in the darkness, with little success. "You still haven't told me who you are. Are you the person sending me all the clues?"

"Not all of them. I'm just taking advantage of what's offered by that situation." The figure cast a glance in the direction of the departing guards. "But I had to get in contact with at least one of you."

"One of us?" He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Were you intending to take down the Centre on your own?" The feminine tone became mocking. "It'll take more than that and even more than just you and Miss Parker. I just wanted you to know that, if you need help, I'm one of the people who will be willing to give it to you. This is a start."

Jarod could see the square of paper that she was holding out. "What is it?"

"A list. The names of those - and only those - you can trust. Give that to the right people at the right time and it will increase your chances of success."

"And who are you?"

"I'm one of them." She sighed. "Not by choice, any more than you were."

"So why are you still here?"

"I can't leave. They've got too much of a hold over me…" She trailed off. "But I had to let you know that you aren't going to be alone."

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't." Her voice was calm. "But one day you'll find that you can. Until then, for the sake of our shared experience, I'll ask you to keep that list. Believe me, it will be useful one day."

Jarod's fingers closed automatically around the piece of paper that was being pushed into his hands and he looked down at it as he spoke.

"What did we ever…?"

Raising his head again, he found that the shadows were empty and he was alone, with only a small box at his feet and the paper in his hand to suggest that anyone had ever been there at all.

* * * * * * * * *

Tower Guest Suite
The Centre

Kruger read the transcript of the latest report and frowned. The Seraphim project was doing well, even in the face of the disastrous escape of their prized Pretender. Unless reports were being faked - which was certainly a possibility - things were still progressing nicely. Research on an alternate delivery source for Aurora had been assigned to Berlin, and the dosage calculations for the children assigned to the Pretoriat's staff of resident geniuses. It would take months to determine the safety factors, but once done, it would move the project ahead. That would work in Kruger's favor.

He sighed, and closed the folder. It wasn't enough. Delaware had stripped away his grab for power, ripped it right out of his hands, when Mutumbo died. He was making inroads into their stability, but it was slow going and he was not a patient man. He took it personally when Parker took control. Kruger had earned the Chairmanship many times over, and only subterfuge on the part of his rival had taken the top spot away from him. Kruger had seen to it that Mutumbo's replacement needed a replacement shortly afterward, but the damage had already been done. Voorhees was weak and would follow whatever orders Kruger gave him, but his bleeding heart sympathies could mean trouble down the line.

The search for another ally in the Pretoriat was underway, and as soon as he found someone strong and capable enough, he would install them in Voorhees' place. Kruger was even considering looking into personnel in the other branches for someone suitable, someone of like mind who wasn't squeamish about how agendas were completed. There were a few promising people there in Delaware and in Berlin, and all he needed was to spend some time with those candidates to feel them out and see how hungry they were. They needed to have ambition and patience, but loyalty was an imperative. Such people were difficult to find, even more difficult to lure away, but he had done it before and knew how to handle it.

He opened an electronic folder on his computer, and started researching potential Triumvirate members who had yet to move up the food chain. Being in Delaware had an advantage, in that he could start interviews right away and plant the seeds for future bounty while he was there. In short order he had a handful of candidates, and promised himself to visit them as soon as he could work it into his schedule.

The doors to his office opened, and Voorhees strode in without knocking. His face was pale but expressionless. He set his laptop on Kruger's desk, turned the screen to face his boss, and took a seat in the guest chair.

Kruger saw the picture on the screen. "What the hell is this, Voorhees?" he asked impatiently, leaning closer to take in the scene. A woman's body sat in a chair, telephone balanced on her shoulder, her face covered by a hood.

"It's Frau Berkstresser," Voorhees explained, his body stiff with tension. "She's wearing a hood, just like the ones we use to keep the kidnapped subjects from seeing where they're going when we take them. You should remember. You used to be a cleaner yourself. Look at the next picture."

Minimizing the first one, he studied the second. It showed another hood, just like the one Berkstresser had worn, except that the second one was lying on a table and red seeped from the cloth.

"This one is bloody." Kruger observed. "Did someone botch a retrieval?"

Voorhees shook his head and indicated another photo was waiting. "No, sir. This was taken off Mr. Tshwane this morning, after a security team was sent to his apartment when he didn't show up for work." He sighed raggedly. "Tshwane was quite dead, and that hood had been placed over his head."

"What does it mean?" Kruger pulled up the next photo, apparently of Tshwane's body on an autopsy table.

"I don't know." Voorhees clasped his hands on his lap and met his boss's eyes. "Tshwane was a physically powerful man, sir. Only someone of greater skill or strength could have done that to him."

"Who do you think is responsible?" Kruger's mind was already racing toward potential enemies.

Voorhees shrugged. "I've assigned two pretenders to work on it. The apartment's been cleaned thoroughly, and all contents brought to the Pretoriat for examination. We'll have an answer soon." He stood up. "I thought you'd want to know. He was one of your personal favorites."

Kruger nodded. "Yes. He will be missed. You'll see that the body is cremated once our investigators are finished with it."

"As always." Voorhees walked purposefully toward the door and left.

But Kruger couldn't take his eyes off the photos. He could almost smell the blood, and he began to imagine the terrible fight that Tshwane must have put up to save his life. Whoever had killed him must have been powerful indeed, or in great numbers. Such a conspiracy could only have been enjoined by the other stations, and Delaware was first on the list.

He turned back to his perusal of personnel files, keeping that flame burning in the back of his mind. He would research for a new board member, as well as information on who might have been responsible for this heinous act of treason against the Pretoriat. And as soon as the identity of Tshwane's killers was known, Kruger would issue orders for them to die in exactly the same way as their victim. He didn't have any emotional attachments to his underlings, but taking a swipe at one of them was the same as taking action against him personally.

Kruger wouldn't allow that. Whoever had killed Tshwane would pay with their lives, and whoever had given the order for his death would soon follow. That was how power was maintained - by fear and absolute control. Kruger was good at that, and now he had a chance to whet those skills again.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS

Broots yawned as he sat down at his desk and opened up his email. He tried not to work on Saturdays, and Debbie had been unhappy that he had gone in on this particular one. She wanted to go shopping for a dress for her first boy-girl dance, coming up the next month. He didn't want to think about that, about her being old enough to be interested in boys. Work would provide him with distraction enough to put off the shopping date, and so he had left her home alone for the few hours it would take him to get his loose ends tied up for the weekend, and get back home. Yard work and home chores would fill up the rest of their time, and he wouldn't have to face the music for another whole week, if he was lucky.

There was a post waiting from Miss Parker that he opened up immediately.

"Before you do anything else today, go by the gun range for more target practice, then take a run at Hogan's Alley. I'll be by later to check on your progress, and I want to see some."

He sighed. Never comfortable around guns in the first place, he was just starting to be a decent shot after all the months of training she'd given him. He had whined about the Alley when she mentioned it, and she had been merciful. Apparently, however, her patience and mercy were at an end.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he got up without further protest and headed for the elevator.

The shooting range was located inside one of the farthest outbuildings, bordering on one of the biotracts. He checked out a pistol and ear protectors, moved into one of the stalls and proceeded to load the weapon with the ammunition the range manager had left there for him. His fingers no longer shook when he loaded the hateful thing - he could slide the bullets into the clip without dropping them, snap the clip into the chamber, aim and fire off a round without blinking, but it still bothered him to have a gun in his hand, to know what he was doing, what he was preparing to do.

And after he had finished plugging holes into the black human-shaped silhouette of the target, he returned to the range manager for instructions on entering the Alley.

"You're the first one of the day," the uniformed manager announced with a grin. "We've got a full schedule, what with your boss's increased accuracy requirements. Miss Parker's a smart lady."

Broots nodded. "Yeah. Security's finally getting tight around this place." He walked with the manager down a long corridor to another doorway. They stepped inside a small foyer, and the manager handed a fresh pistol to the tech, along with another pair of ear protectors.

"Pistol's already loaded, Mr. Broots." He pointed toward another door at the end of the small room. "You go through that door, and it'll close behind you. I'll be monitoring your progress via the video cameras mounted up behind where you'll be shooting, so we don't have to worry about your taking out a camera." He grinned knowingly. "Nervous shooters tended to do that. Cost us a lot of equipment till your Miss Parker solved the problem and had them moved."

"What if-" Broots was looking for anything to delay going through that door. Suddenly there were a million questions on the tip of his tongue. "What if I get stuck in there? Who'll get me out?"

The manager shook his head, still smiling broadly. "The only way out is to go all the way through. This front door locks after you, but the one at the end is always open, so you'll have a way out." He clapped the tech on the shoulder. "You'll be fine, Mr. Broots, I promise."

With a little shove, the manager propelled him toward the door. Dread prickling his skin, sweat beading on his upper lip and forehead, Broots opened it and walked through. Then he sighed. There was a short corridor on the other side with blank walls, so nothing was going to pop out at him from there. He had a moment, and positioned the gun to fire as he had been taught, braced with both hands.

"Just walk through it this time, get familiar with everything," he murmured out loud. "Don't even take a shot." Feeling better with this strategy, he moved forward, muzzle pointed at the ceiling and ready, just in case.

Cautiously, he skulked to the end of the corridor and turned left into what looked like a living room with bad lighting. A cardboard cat popped up onto the back of the sofa, appearing so quickly he shot a round into the ceiling.

"Sorry, kitty," he apologized, and moved on through the room toward the only other obvious door. From room to room he went, gun braced, flinching as the other cutouts jumped, slid or dropped into view, studying which ones appeared to be sinister targets and which benign. By the time he was halfway through he was hardly moving anymore as they appeared, and decided to take a shot at the next bad guy that came into view.

His shot went wide. Aiming for the legs was hard, especially when the targets were in motion, and with his novice skills, he just couldn't hit to wound as he wanted. But there was no way he could point at a face or body that looked human and pull the trigger. Miss Parker would understand that.

"Must be getting close to the end," he mused aloud, taking into consideration the number of rooms he'd been through compared to the distance of that long corridor the range manager had shown him. He started to relax, glad it was almost over. He'd apologize to Miss Parker later, maybe ask her to go through with him sometime, or at least discuss his difficulties and see if there wasn't some other way for him to pass this part of the qualifications she had set up for SIS personnel.

The last room was mostly dark when he entered, and he wondered briefly if the bulbs needed replacing. He'd have to mention that to the manager, and walked diagonally across the room, feeling his way forward with his left hand, searching for the door. But the moment he stood in the center of the room, the lights came up, nearly blinding him.

It looked like his living room at home.

Something cold curled up inside him, and squeezed his guts.

"This is not funny," he said aloud, hoping the range manager would hear. He'd give the man a piece of his mind as soon as he got out of there. Dropping his right arm to his side, he started toward the door that led into his kitchen at home, and would probably take him out of the Alley.

The muffled sound of a high-pitched scream barely registered through his ear protectors. He whirled toward the noise, ready for another surprise. Flashing into the doorway behind him was a cutout that looked exactly like his daughter, her mouth opened in a silent scream, her arms up and clutching at a man's forearm drawn tightly around her neck. Broots' eyes widened as he remembered the man's face.

Without thinking, he raised his pistol and fired two shots.

Then he fell to his knees and vomited, tears streaming down his face.

"Just a cutout," he whispered raggedly, refusing to look up at it again. "It's not real." Leaving his pistol on the floor, he scrambled toward the door, out into the corridor and ran all the way to his car. He ignored traffic signs and lights, speeding all the way home, heart pounding, sweat soaking into his clothes, until he pulled screeching into his driveway, threw the car into park and ran into the house through the back door.

Debbie was calmly chatting on the phone with one of her girlfriends and waved him away irritably. He ran like a madman throughout the house, checking to make sure there was no one else there, before stopping by the bathroom to splash some water on his face and making an attempt to calm down. It wasn't easy. He was horrified beyond cognitive thought.

He paced in the downstairs bathroom long enough to listen to how normal Debbie sounded on the phone, how normal everything was in the house. For her, it was just another Saturday morning, and eventually his pulse began to slow and rational thought returned.

The experience had been aimed at him, not at her.

"How could she do that to me?" he murmured. Racing for his bedroom, he pulled off his sweat-soaked shirts and grabbed the phone. Dialing in Miss Parker's number from memory, he listened for her to answer and repeated his question.

"How could I do what?" she snapped.

"The Alley. You sent me there this morning. Did you rig it up special to make a point?" He was angry now, as enraged as he had ever been in his life.

"When was I supposed to have sent you to the Alley? I know you're not ready for that."

The calm in her voice startled him. Would she lie about it? He didn't think she had ever lied to him before.

"You didn't… send me an email this morning, telling me to go through Hogan's Alley before I started work today?"

For a moment, there was silence.

"Looks like someone's cloned my email address, Broots. I'd like you to go in and check on that for me, see if we can figure out who sent that to you. But it wasn't me."

He heaved a great sigh of relief. "Thank you, Miss Parker. But I can't come in today. I-I need to take Debbie shopping."

"Oh? And that's more important than a security breach?"

He loved the way sarcasm just dripped off her words sometimes. He grinned. "Yeah, it is. Kind of a father-daughter bonding experience I don't want to miss." He rubbed his free hand over his bald pate. "Miss Parker, could you go to the gun range and take a look at the last room in the Alley? I'd really like you to see what was waiting for me there. I think you'll understand when you see it."

"I'll call you back."

He went downstairs to shut off the car, then announced the shopping trip to Debbie. It took her nearly an hour to get ready, and just as they were preparing to go out the door, his cell phone rang. He shut himself in his bedroom to take the call, out of his daughter's earshot, when he heard Miss Parker's voice on the line.

"Did you see it?" he asked quietly, hoping whoever the culprit was wouldn't have gone in behind him and changed things.

Her voice was soft, filled with sympathy. "Yes, I saw it. Are you all right? Is Debbie?"

"She's fine," he assured her. "I'll never be the same, but Debbie's okay. She doesn't know, and I don't want her to."

"Keep it that way. And Broots, I want you to start teaching Debbie at home. Some of the self-defense things I've been showing you, just in case. That'll be a nice father-daughter bonding kind of thing, too, I suspect."

He nodded, pleased that she knew Debbie so well. "Yeah. I think she'll like it, too. Good idea, Miss Parker."

There was a moment of silence on the phone. "Broots, I…" She sighed. "I reviewed the films the range manager took of your trip through the Alley, and I wanted you to know that…"

The image of the cutout flashed into his mind again. Damon, holding his daughter, just as Damon had held him, with a gun pointed to his head. Jarod had killed Damon then because there had been no other choice. But what had Broots done himself? He couldn't remember.

"Miss Parker, did I… did I… I don't know what happened."

She let go an explosive breath. "You hit your mark, Broots. Twice, right on the money. You kept Debbie safe."

His eyes filled with tears, and he almost dropped the phone. He didn't want to see the cutout for himself. He didn't ever want to lay eyes on it again.

"Thanks, Miss Parker. I needed to know."

"Broots, when the time comes, if it ever does, I do want you at my back."

His throat closed up. Tears streaked down his cheeks, and he nodded into the phone as if she could hear. She understood, and now, so did he.

Whoever had engineered that little test would be found out. If they wanted to see him break, to see him turn into a blubbering idiot, they must have been disappointed. At least, he hoped they would be.

He hung up without another word, washed his face and composed himself before he headed downstairs to his beautiful little girl.

On to Act IV

 
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