Necessary Evil

by Victoria Rivers
and KB

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney

Guest Stars:
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Richard Marcus as Mr. Raines
Kelsey Mulrooney as Debbie Broots
George Lazenby as Maj. Charles
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Kim Myers as Margaret
Candace Bergen as Eve
David Boreanaz as Yuri
George Clooney as Valentine
Colin Firth as Herr Delius
Rutger Hauer as Mr. Kruger
David McCallum as Mr. Voorhees
Susan Gibney as Kim Walker (Leone)
Don Johnson as Mr. Sun
Katie Fountain as Allegra
Ving Rhames as Daniel Pyne
Marianne Hoppe as Helena Berkstresser
Robert Duncan McNeill as Peter Winston
Jorg Pilawa as Mr. Romei
Sebastian Koch as Herr Meyer
Julie Andrews as Woman on the Plane


Act 1

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Jarod answered the videophone, knowing automatically who it would be. He answered with a smile. "Dad! How are you?"

Major Charles was smiling too. "Just fine, son. We're snowed in and probably will be for another couple of weeks. Weather's bad this time of year. It's a good thing you packed in all these provisions, and Jordan loves the greenhouse."

Jarod nodded. "His botany lessons are going well. How is Ethan doing?"

A broad grin split the older man's face, and he laughed. "I recorded a little something for you. I'm sending you a streaming video."

Jarod waited for the file, chatting amiably about mundane things until he had downloaded it. Putting his father on hold, he played the video. In it, Ethan and Jordan were in their pajamas, having a boisterous pillow fight, laughing and screeching at each other, obviously having a wonderful time. Jarod couldn't help laughing.

"Looks like Ethan's fitting in just fine," he observed.

Charles nodded. "He's quite an interesting young man. It's been a pleasure to get to know him." A dark cloud passed over the major's face. "I only wish I knew how your mother would feel about having him in the family."

"It wasn't as if you had an affair, Dad," Jarod reminded him. "Nobody asked you. But he still belongs to us."

"Yes, he does. He's family, and I've made sure he understands that." Charles shook his head. "But he has his own image of family, the one that Raines gave him. This is going to take some time and adjustment for all of us. "

Jarod smiled. "We're working on that. All of us are. And I know that Mom… when we find her… will accept him, too."

"I hope you're right, son." Glancing over his shoulder, Charles smiled as Jordan came noisily into the room.

"Dad, is that you?" He bent over the major's shoulder to get into the shot, and waved. Charles got up and let the boy sit down in his place.

"Yes, son, it's me," Jarod answered warmly. "How is that tomato pollination project going?"

Jordan made a face. "It's not lesson time, is it? I've got enough to do. I'm hardly getting any sleep with the pace you've set me."

"Your grandfather can adjust your pace, then. Unless you're just staying up with projects of your own." He leaned toward the camera. "I know how your mind works, you know."

Jordan grinned, caught red-handed. "Okay, I'll slow down on the personal projects. But it sure would be nice to get out of here for a while. I miss people. Never thought I would, but I do."

Jarod's smile screwed up into a knowing chuckle. "I think you mean, you miss girls. Maybe one girl in particular. Right?"

He could see the boy's cheeks flushing pink. "You can stop reading my mind now, Dad. That's unfair."

"Come spring, we'll take a vacation to someplace warm and sunny. A camping trip, maybe. We might even invite your special friend for a visit. Would you like that?"

Jordan's face lit up. "That would be the bomb!" he crowed.

"You'd better rein in those hormones before they explode, Jordan," Jarod advised wryly.

Jordan hesitated. "I miss you. Why can't you be here with us?"

The Pretender sighed. "I'm still searching. And I have work to do. I told you about that."

Frowning, the boy sat back in his chair. "Yeah, I know. Gotta save the world."

"No." Jarod shook his head. "I have to make the world safe for you, son. I won't let them do to you what they did to me. I know you understand that, but it's hard for you to accept. You're acquainted with the Centre. You grew up in part of it. You know what they can do. I can't risk-"

The boy held up his hands. "I know, I know. I just miss you. I want to be with you. That's all."

"Soon, son. As soon as I can."

"Is that Jarod?" called a voice from off screen. Ethan ducked into the picture and waved. "Hey, bro. How's it hangin'?"

Jarod shook his head, surprised by all the slang on the other end of the connection. "I'm fine, Ethan. Glad to see you made it there all right."

Jordan let Ethan sit down and offered a brief farewell to his dad before leaving the room.

"Hey, I meant to tell you, I met Emily. We spent Christmas together."

"Really? That's great! She's been… kind of quiet lately. I've been worried about her."

Ethan sobered. "Yeah, she's had a rough time lately." He hesitated. "Something to do with her mom."

That struck a chord, and drew a response from both Charles and Jarod. "Is she all right?"

Ethan shrugged. "She's not in any danger, but Em wouldn't talk about it. I just got… impressions, you know? Nothing clear."

Jarod nodded. He would call Emily and see what he could get out of her, offer to help, and try to find out where Margaret was. Meanwhile, he visited with his family as long as he could, then gave Jordan more lessons to work on, and signed off.

There were things to do and promises to keep, and he was certain he would find his mother eventually.

* * * * * * * * *

Our Lady of Refuge Convent

Snow was falling softly outside. Brown eyes blinked, but did not see the pale landscape, though Margaret's face was bathed in the wan winter light filtering in from the window. Instead, she saw the faces of little children, two boys and a girl, innocent and trusting, filled with laughter as they played around her feet. In the distance, her husband sat watching them, carving another wooden airplane for the children, smiling at them with quiet pride. This was what she wanted, where she was supposed to be. There was no world other than this. The pain she remembered so vaguely was fading quickly away.

She would never go back to that world where children could be ripped away from her. This was a good place, a happy place, with her family together. This was where she wanted to stay, and everything else was just a shadow.

"Time to eat, Margaret."

The voice was a mere whisper, echoing from somewhere far away. She felt the spoon touch her lips and opened instinctively, swallowing without tasting anything. She did not see the nun who fed her; instead, the children sang her little nursery song to her, and she listened with her heart.

Yes, this was a very good place, and Margaret decided she would never leave it.

* * * * * * * * *

Hybrid Biotract #57

Parker strolled along the path, head down, thinking. There was snow on the ground, and she clutched her coat closer as she listened to the silence. Handy in her pocket was a tissue, but the cold air helped her breathe past the last vestiges of sniffles still hanging on. Jarod's cure for her cold helped a great deal, and the runny nose was the only remaining reminder that she was still ill. She had been walking through the grounds a lot lately, trying to sort things out in her mind.

Top of the list was Jarod.

The snow made her remember Barrow. Tears filled her eyes, chilling them. She blinked them away, took a deep breath and shoved her gloved hands deeper into her pockets. Barrow was a fantasy; nothing more. It wasn't real, couldn't ever be real in the world where they lived. Jarod was Centre property, and in the Centre's eyes it was her duty to recover him for them. She had to make them think she was making progress in that endeavour, and it had been far too long since she had anything to show for her work. She had to find something to satisfy them, or get on with Catherine's plan.

Months had passed since she and Jarod had viewed her mother's DSA, and she felt no closer to any sort of resolution. That Jarod was working on an answer, she was sure, but aside from gaining control of SIS, nothing had changed. She wondered how long it would be, and the picture forming in her consciousness was grim.

Jarod hadn't called her in a while. She knew he hadn't abandoned her. She knew what had happened between them had been genuine in his heart. But it couldn't go anywhere, not as long as things were the way they were. She wasn't accustomed to trusting Jarod, and it was a hard habit to break. Morgan wasn't sure she'd ever learn to fully trust him with anything important. And that spelled trouble.

She pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number he had given her.

"We have to talk," she said brusquely. "Do you want to do this over the phone, or in person?"

For a moment there was silence on the other end. "What do you mean, Morgan?"

She sighed. "I can't do this, Jarod. Whatever… happened between us, it can't go anywhere. It's over."

"I can't accept that."

"Open your eyes, Jarod," she snapped. "If we try to see each other, we take a chance on getting caught. If that happens, I'm dead and any hope of carrying out my mother's plan ends forever. I can't take that risk, and neither can you."

His voice was calm, soft, placating. "I know, Morgan. I never intended for us to carry on a secret affair while things are so hostile. What happened Christmas was an investment for the future. Be patient. Things are going to change, and when they do-"

"Right now, I can't believe they will," she retorted. "And if they do, I… I still can't see us doing the whole domestic bliss thing. Not even for Gabriel. I'm sorry, Jarod."

"Give it time. Give us time."

She looked up into the white sky, feeling the whisper of fresh snow falling and melting against her face. "I can't, Jarod. I've got to keep my head in the game. This is tearing me up inside, and I have to stop it. Christmas never happened. What we did… it was just a dream. And tomorrow, or next year, or ten years from now, it'll still be a dream. We can't go back there. Not ever."

"Gabriel needs us."

"He has us. We'll do what's right for him, and both of us know that. But as far as we go… Jarod, I can't. Every time I try to imagine a future with us in it, we're always standing at arm's length from each other with Gabriel in the middle. I can't picture us together." She sighed. "And I trust my inner sense to tell me the truth now. What I see for us is the friendship we had growing up. That's all. It's the only thing that feels real and right between us."

"Don't do this to me," Jarod pleaded in her ear. There was pain in his voice, and it wasn't pretending. "Please, Morgan. We need each other."

She shook her head. Her voice softened. "No, Jarod. We don't. We're independent people. We're survivors. We always land on our feet, and nothing will change that. The only real reason we have to be together is Gabriel."

He took a deep, trembling breath. She heard it, and knew how he was hurting. She had pain of her own to deal with, though she couldn't let him know that. "So what I feel for you doesn't matter."

"What we feel for each other doesn't matter," she whispered, closing her eyes, trying to keep the anguish out of her voice. "It just makes us bleed, and I think it's time to bind up the wounds and move on."

He didn't answer. She waited for a full minute, then cut off the call and tucked the phone back into her coat pocket. Head up, eyes open, she trudged back to the building down the long path.

She did not weep. She couldn't afford melting her makeup and answering the questions that would ensue when she returned to her office. Parker was good at hiding her emotions, and throughout the rest of the day, she would appear as if nothing had happened. But when she got home that night, she promised herself a hot shower and a good cry, when no one else would know.

* * * * * * * * *

Clearview, Minnesota

It took a full two minutes for Jarod to hear the dial tone in his ear, standing as he was, staring up blankly at the gray sky above him as light flakes of snow dusted his skin. He had been pacing the paths of the park outside his latest lair when the call came and, since it had begun, he hadn't moved.

Now, for a moment, he didn't feel like he could.

Slowly he felt his throat beginning to close up as the full impact of what she had decided hit him. He slipped the silent cell phone back into the pocket of his long jacket and wrapped the garment more firmly around him, feeling his hands on either side of his stomach. He tightened his fingers around the harsh material, lowering his face into the lapels of the coat that were raised to protect his neck from the bitter weather, and stared blindly at the ground.

He coughed to remove the feeling that he was about to choke and turned on his heel, walking smartly back to the building and letting himself into his room. It was nearly as cold inside as out, and he left his coat on as he shut the door and trudged over to the bed, sitting down on it, his eyes trained on the floor.

Everything in him was fighting against what she had said, presenting argument after argument as to why it was wrong - why the two of them did belong together. There was a soft voice whispering in the back of his mind that she was right, but he closed his ears to what it was telling him, not wanting to hear it.

They belonged together, and not only for their son. They had shared so much, had so many parts of their lives that fitted together seamlessly: sadness reflected in sadness; their few moments of happiness always together. Their childhoods had, for a long time, been spent together. Why was it that some people were able to have solid, life-long romances with childhood friends and he couldn't?

What was wrong with him?

He wanted to believe in the dream that he had created for them both in Barrow, to believe that it would have turned out properly if things had been different, and he wanted to somehow correct what had happened, all the years of mistrust between them, and make it right.

But she wasn't going to let him.

Independent people, she had told him, and perhaps she was right. Jarod looked around the bare walls of the room that he currently called his, contrasting it with the fantasy hideaway that he had spent all his spare time making for the past few months, and in which many members of his family were currently staying, now secure. Whether he was an independent person or not, one thing was undeniable.

He was lonely.

She could go and spend time with their son whenever she wanted company, easing the pain she might be feeling in the presence of the boy, whereas all he could do was stare at the walls…

Something clenched inside him, appearing to tighten around his heart, as he reached over to his laptop and opened a certain file. The photo took only seconds to appear on the screen and Jarod stared longingly at the small face, remembering the hours that he had spent with that boy and with the other children, the pleasure, real, honest pleasure that his hours with them had produced. He wondered if he ever really would get the chance to be with them before they became part of the machine that was the Centre, pumping out solutions and answers to enrich people who cared nothing for other human beings, only for the profits that lined their pockets.

Right now, he didn't know what hurt more - his abandonment by his childhood friend, or the fact that he had abandoned his son to people who didn't care about him.

Lowering his head, feeling the emotion well up inside, Jarod allowed the first tears to escape from his eyes, quickly followed by others: a warm rain that soaked through the lapels of his coat where they touched his cheeks.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS
Office of Security Specialist, Daniel Pyne

He read through the woman's resume for the third time, mulling over the answers to the questions he had asked her during the interview. "This looks very good, Ms. Walker," he observed casually. "You've got a lot of experience in the field. Not many women bounty hunters, which speaks highly for your skills. Our security specialists have similar skills, but mainly offer protection for our assets and project leaders. Industrial espionage is a big factor, and sometimes we have to get rough keeping what's ours out of competitors' hands. Are you up to that?"

Kim Leone nodded, tucking a strand of her newly auburn hair back behind her ear. "Yes, sir. I take orders real well." She knew from having observed some of the teams at work out in the 'field' that intelligence was not a desired asset, and dumbed down her otherwise perfect grammar accordingly.

Pyne nodded. "We've checked through your references and gotten some good reports on you, but we like to test your skills before we make an offer. Are you prepared for that?"

She shrugged. "Sure. You want me to demonstrate in my street clothes?" She stood up, smoothing down her skirt for emphasis.

His dark eyes stroked her figure up and down before he smiled and said, "We can get you some sweats to change into. If you'll come with me, I'll take you to the gym." He rose and led her down a series of connected corridors to the end of the long main building. Opening the door, he ushered her into the spacious room and pointed toward the women's dressing room. "You'll find sweats in bins marked for size, and there are lockers where you can leave your things while we put you through your paces."

In minutes, she was back in the gym, barefoot and ready for whatever came next.

Pyne stood beside a mat, chatting with an attractive man with dark hair and a ready smile. The other fellow was shadow boxing as they talked, dancing like Muhammad Ali on the padded surface. Gamely, she advanced, sizing up her potential opponent, assuming that the big man in the suit wasn't going to participate. She took no chances, however, and kept him to one side rather than turning her back to him.

"Let's see what you've got, Ms. Walker," Pyne announced. "Go for it, Valentine. Let's see what she can do."

She saw Valentine smile and ready himself for a kick. She dodged backward just enough for his foot to miss her head, grabbed his leg in mid flight and gave him a shove, tipping him over flat onto his back. He rolled to his feet in a squatting position and came back at her with a sweep, but she hopped over his outstretched leg and aimed a kick at his head, catching him on the shoulder instead when he ducked. She backed off long enough for him to stand, and when he swung at her she caught his arm at the wrist, locked out his elbow and forced him to his knees. For a moment she held him there, grunting with pain, and then released him, backing off a step to let him make his next move.

The gleam in his dark eyes told her that he was both surprised and excited by her prowess. He came in fast with a grab for her throat, but she jabbed at his shoulders with her fists and shoved two fingers in a lightning-fast combination deeply into the hollow of his throat, making him choke and stumble backward. He was good, and he was learning to respect her, but she still didn't know just how good he was. He was holding back, and she was announcing in no uncertain terms that she was ready for his best.

He gave her a respectful nod, raised his fists, and dropped his weight, bending his knees slightly to let him move fast. He lashed out at her face with a hard right, but she slapped his hand out of the way just before it made contact and rode the momentum into his jaw with the heel of her hand. He caught himself and came back with another punch, but she rolled her body across his arm and slammed her elbow into his ribs, knocking him clean off the mat.

Pyne applauded. "Very good, Ms. Walker. How about a takedown?"

Valentine was already on it. He came back at her at a dead run. She sidestepped as he grabbed for her, but he adjusted at the last second and took her around the waist, lifting her off her feet and throwing her hard on the mat. For an instant she saw stars, but moved by instinct, feeling for his throat as he held her down with his body.

Her vision cleared quickly, and she saw the look in his eyes, which had been handsome a moment earlier. The predatory gleam was bright, and she recognized it instantly. Her fingers went straight for the hollow of his throat again, digging in until he choked and backed off far enough for her to roll partially out from under him. He grabbed at her again, but she took his arm, wrapped it around his back with all her strength, and climbed on top of him, pressing her knee into the small of his back while she locked his elbow out, giving her control. If he tried to move out of that position, she'd happily break the joint for him.

"Not bad," Pyne observed, arms crossed over his massive chest. "What do you say, Valentine?"

"Yeah," he panted. "But can she shoot?"

Kim glanced up at Pyne for approval, and released her opponent when he smiled. She stepped back quickly as Valentine got slowly to his feet, and gave him a quick half-bow of respect, as she had been taught. But she did not take her eyes off him.

"Would you mind taking her to the shooting range?" Pyne asked the man.

Valentine grinned. "Sure thing. We'll get changed, and I'll walk her over there. I'll bring you back the target with my recommendation."

Pyne nodded and left them alone. Kim eyed Valentine coolly. "Be back in a few," she told him, and moved away toward the dressing rooms, keeping her opponent in her line of sight as she walked. She watched the door as she dressed, making sure he didn't invade that private area, and when she was ready, she stepped back out into the gym and accompanied him to another building at the back of the complex.

He engaged her in small talk about past careers and training, introduced her to the range manager and supervised her target practice. When she had finished decorating her target with a variety of intricate patterns, including a smiley face made of bullet holes, she walked back to the main building and Pyne's office. The Security Specialist asked Valentine to take her on a tour of the buildings, but Kim declined.

"I don't really need to know what you people do here," she said with a disinterested shrug. "That's your business. Just tell me who I take orders from, and we'll be fine. I can learn the layout on the job."

Pyne glanced at Valentine and smiled. He nodded with approval. "I think you'll fit in just fine, Ms. Walker. Sweepers go on a first-name basis around here, so we'll call you Kim. When can you start?"

"Give me a couple days to find a place to live, and I'll be ready to punch in," she told him. "Is that good enough?"

"We have guest quarters where you can stay until you find a place," said Pyne. "Or if you'd rather, you can bunk in one of the dormitories. We have floors below ground for permanent residents. If you're interested, of course."

"That should be fine. I can go back to the hotel and pick up my suitcases, call to have the rest of my things shipped in, and we'll be set. I could start tomorrow, if you want."

Pyne agreed, rose and shook her hand. "Welcome to SIS, Kim." He handed her a plastic bag with several booklets and sheets of paper in it. "This is our new employees packet, with handbooks for behavior, insurance and all that sort of thing, which you can read at your leisure. If you have any questions, Human Resources can answer them for you at extension1720. Valentine, would you show Kim to her new quarters? We'll put her in…" He checked room availability on a handy list. "SL1, Room 231. He can also register your handprint and signature, and take you through the process of getting your identification papers in order. Glad to have you with us."

"Glad to be here," she responded automatically. She rose and followed Valentine to the registration center, where he promised to fetch her after the process was completed. She thanked him for his help, and watched him leave with a sigh of relief.

She would have to watch out for that one. Being a bounty hunter for as many years as she had, Kim had a keen awareness of what sort of man he was. That he was dangerous was certain, but she had a feeling that there was much more to him than just that.

* * * * * * * * *

Berlin, Germany

He stood outside in the snow, his long wool coat wrapped around him, looking in the windows of the big house hidden away in the trees. Houses like this one were rare, constructed of white brick instead of the usual red, its roof covered in black tiles that were dusted with a light covering of the powdery snow that was still falling around him, but the old woman who lived there could afford the inflated price. He could smell the money and power from where he stood, but he had never had the pleasure of meeting her. Yet.

Frau Helena Berkstresser was in the office in the rear of the house, overlooking a snow-blanketed yard. Walking a beat around the house in a regular sweep were burly men who acted as her personal security team, and there were certain to be more inside the house. He was prepared for that. In addition to the body armor he wore was a latex prosthesis that gave him the proper body profile. On his face was more latex and a coating of makeup that gave him the proper skin tone. Even his hair was covered with a matching skullcap. The fake mustache itched, but he'd be ditching it soon enough.

He checked the briefcase chained to his left wrist, circled around the house and approached from the front. After showing his fake identification, he strolled in the front door and was shown to the Frau's office. The woman was seated at her desk, just finishing up a phone call. She seemed to recognize him, and when he showed her the briefcase and attendant chain, she waved her bodyguard into the next room.

He smiled, came toward the desk and set the briefcase on the desktop beside her just as she hung up.

"What do we have here, Herr Pyne?" she demanded brusquely. "What has happened that needs this sort of security?"

He said nothing, knowing that his higher pitched voice would give him away. Instead, he opened the case, took out a sheaf of papers and laid them on the desk in front of her. Then he closed the briefcase, picked it up and stood slightly behind her chair to wait for her signature.

"This is a sanction," she stated as she read the top of the sheet. Scanning down to the body of the text, she saw the name on it, and gasped. It was her last breath.

The long chain on the handcuffs that kept the briefcase attached to Yuri's wrist was suddenly wrapped around her neck, pulled tightly enough to prevent her screaming to call her guards. He hauled her almost out of the chair, watching with satisfaction as he strangled her. When it was done, he let her body slump back into the chair, placed a black hood over her head and began to set the scene. From his pocket he pulled a tape recorder, hit the "play" button and listened to the woman's voice, previously recorded on a phone call. He adjusted the volume, picked up the phone receiver and laid it on her shoulder. Then he turned the chair toward the window, knowing that he would be gone before the sweepers in the yard caught sight of her hooded body in the chair.

He left the sanction order for Helena Berkstresser in plain sight on her desk, refastened the briefcase chain to his wrist and headed out the door. He offered a nod to the sweeper outside the door, held up his free hand in imitation of someone talking on the phone, and held the door open just long enough for the Frau's recorded voice to be heard. He shrugged and headed out the door, trudging across the snow covered lawn to his rented car. Moments later, in the warmth of the car, he chuckled to himself as he drove off down the road, peeling off the latex and skull cap as he drove. By the time he reached the place he had selected to make his change, all that was left on his face was a few errant bits of adhesive. A few minutes later he had effected a complete change of clothing and left no trace of who he had been half an hour earlier.

It was easy, taking the old woman out. Ridiculously easy. And way too much fun.

* * * * * * * * *

Lyle's Office

The young woman came in and sat down across from his desk with an open expression on her face. She was dressed conservatively, and with that innocent look in her eyes and that long blonde hair, she seemed every bit the girl-next-door type that made Lyle ill with disgust. He had her file in front of him, though, and knew that this was just a façade to put people at ease.

"Pleased to meet you at last, Allegra," he told her cheerfully. "You're a hard woman to find."

She shrugged. "I've been working on my assigned projects."

She even sounded like a schoolgirl, syrupy sweet and precious.

"But I must admit, I'm getting a little bored. There's only so many light bulbs I can shine and computers I can whack before it gets old. You know?"

He grinned. "Want something more challenging?" She had been in training since childhood, conditioned as an assassin, though no such exercises had been undertaken to test the effectiveness of her talent. She was classified as an electrokinetic, able to tolerate larger than normal amounts of current into her own body, as well as store up charges of static electricity and discharge them at will. The current she was able to generate was not strong enough to kill, and that had been a failure in Raines' eyes when he shelved Project Thor the year before Faith made cauliflower out of his brain.

But there were other uses for such talents as Allegra's.

Something gleamed in her blue eyes. "What do you have in mind?"

"It's time you started working with people, don't you think? Learn some public relations skills, that sort of thing."

For a moment she looked disappointed. "That's not exactly what I was hoping for."

He couldn't suppress a grin. "You want to be a useful member of society, don't you, Allegra? Find out where you fit into the scheme of things?"

She frowned and gave a small shrug. "I guess so."

"And then, when you're ready, we'll find out exactly what you can do with some more… shall we say, real-world experiments? Just for fun."

Something dark glittered in her eyes as she understood his veiled message. "Yes, sir, Mr. Lyle. I think I'd really enjoy that. When do we start?"

He chuckled, pleased with her eager response. "Let me see what I can do about rounding up some… uh… test subjects. We may have to send out to one of our nearby metropolitan area for a few transients who won't be missed. Should be able to get started right after the weekend. Will that fit into your schedule?"

Allegra smiled brightly and nodded her head. "That should be just fine."

His smile faded somewhat. "You understand, of course, that if we move you here to our main facility, we'll have to keep you under wraps until we're sure how effective you'll be on our team. That will mean some restrictions on your movements, but only temporarily. Can you handle that?"

She cocked her head, considering. "How long?"

"Maybe a month or so. I'd rather conduct the testing here, instead of traveling to the facility on Bear Island." He grinned. "I want to watch you in action, you know."

She smiled seductively at him, and dangled her shoe off the end of her toe as a tease. "Yeah? You like to watch?"

"Oh, yeah," he murmured approvingly. Maybe she was his type after all, even though she wasn't Asian. He'd have to wait on that and see whether she had what he needed.

"Then, yeah. I'll do it."

He stood up and started to reach across the desk to shake on the deal, but thought better of it. She had been a project under Raines, and therefore couldn't be trusted yet, not until he knew more about how she thought and what she wanted. As soon as he could get into her head, he could make her do anything he wanted. All it took was a little patience.

"I think you'll enjoy working for me, Allegra," he promised. "No more kiddie experiments. Under me, you'll get to really find out what you can do. And then, you'll get to do it regularly."

"I look forward to it," she assured him.

He sighed with pleasure as Valentine escorted her out of his office, to her new rooms on SL18. On the record, her suite was officially listed as vacant, but he had brought with him her handler from Bear Island, as well as a small staff who would be responsible for her care so that she was completely dissociated from the system. He could keep that small group under wraps for a month, but longer than that would be a strain. And at the end of that 30 days, he would know whether she would be another tool in his arsenal, or a toy he or Valentine could enjoy in other ways. Raines had plenty of tricks up his vegetating sleeve, and Lyle could exploit them any way he chose.

No one would question additional bodies headed for the incinerator or the cemetery. That sort of thing happened at the Centre every day. And with Valentine on hand to forge any necessary records to cover up the incidents, he was a safe as a baby in the womb.

Lyle turned his attention back to her file, and waited for Valentine to return for new instructions before Lyle left for the weekend. His sweeper would enjoy spending a few days hunting for potential victims of their latest project. That was the sort of thing the man liked best, especially when he could dispose of a few for fun along the way.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Sebastian glanced up from the report as his visitor arrived. The man was tall, with a shoulder-length mane of fair hair and intense green eyes. He was a snappy dresser, always on the leading edge of fashion. He had deep dimples when he smiled, and an affable manner that instantly put people at ease. Charm was his greatest asset.

"Congratulations on your promotion, Mr. Sun," McKenzie said casually. "This was a big move for you."

"I earned it," Sun answered with a blinding grin, bright against his tanned face, and seated himself heavily. "I've put a lot into my work for the Centre over the years. I've brought in the biggest contracts in the last decade, and the powers that be have been grateful. They know enough to reward a good thing, and now that I've got a vested interest in management, they know I'll perform even better."

Sebastian nodded. "And I'll be providing you with a goodly portion of those lucrative contracts."

"As you always have," Sun agreed happily. "What have you got in mind for today?"

"I need some information," Sebastian told him. "Records that need to be removed from Delaware. They can be sent to CGB under the cover of transferring the research, but I want to make sure there's nothing left behind."

"I can do that. Will your people at CGB continue to develop it?"

"Of course. I have to keep your arse covered, if I'm going to continue to hit you up for things I need." Sebastian winked at him, and flashed a quick grin.

"And it'll be buried at CGB once it's completed, so that we can drag it out if I get in trouble."

"As always."

Mr. Sun nodded. "All right, then. Give me the specifics, and I'll get the ball rolling."

Sebastian complied, accepted the DSA Sun had brought him, and shook hands as they completed their business transaction. He would have to tread very carefully with the man from now on, since his promotion complicated their relationship considerably. Having a member of the American Triad in his pocket was a necessary evil, but dangerous for everyone concerned. He didn't want Sun killed. The way the last Corporate Director had died was warning enough, and he didn't want any more blood on his hands than was absolutely necessary.

Not yet, anyway.

* * * * * * * * *

Savoy Hotel, Room number 342
London, England

Emily sat on the bed, her feet tucked under her, newspapers spread out all around her. There was a copy of the London Times to her left, the Berliner Tageszeitung to her right, and the Paris Le Monde right in front of her. She turned a page of each one in order, scanning the headlines for articles pertinent to her investigation. There had been two more murders since she arrived, and she was waiting for a coroner's report to come in on the latest victim before she returned to the scene to do her own forensic examination.

A knock on the door pulled her out of her reverie, and she went to answer it, calling cautiously through the door before opening it. She smiled at the familiar face, and tiptoed up to give her friend a quick kiss on the cheek. "You're late, Paul Jennings," she chided, and stepped back to allow him into the room.

"My plane was delayed," he told her with a chuckle. "Nothing I could do about it, I swear. You know how tight airport security is these days." He pulled her into a brief embrace, spied the newspapers on the bed and strolled over to them. "Still looking into those Executioner murders?"

"Yeah. You know me, once I get my teeth into something, I don't let go till I have all the answers." She sighed, and crawled back onto the bed, sitting cross-legged in front of the papers. "But there's something I'm not seeing here, some connection I'm missing. These people who died, they didn't know each other. And just like the ones in New York, they had hoods on when the bodies were found. Covering the faces is a personal thing, something someone does who cares for the victim, but this just doesn't jive with the rest of the act."

Paul smiled, his brown eyes filled with amusement. "Don't worry, Emily. You'll put it together, if anyone can. But for now, how about getting something to eat? I'm starved."

She grinned up at him. "Look, you've been distracting me since I started this project. And I didn't expect you to follow me across the Atlantic on this story, even though you're a reporter, too. I shouldn't be letting you in on any of this, or you'll scoop me at the last minute."

He held up his hands in protest. "Look, babe, I'm not interested in your story. Serial killings aren't my thing." He chuckled, tickled that he had her so completely fooled. "I like industrial espionage, political scandals, that sort of thing. You can have this witch hunt." He shoved the papers aside and sat down on the bed with her, snuggling his head into her lap so he could look up into her pretty face.

He had to keep her distracted. She was a good investigator, and she was putting the pieces together far more quickly than he had expected. Soon enough, she would begin to see him differently, and as soon as she knew that he was the man she was hunting, she wouldn't be smiling anymore. Not unless he could make her understand.

Yuri pulled her down onto the bed with him, laughing playfully as he wrestled her into a deeper, more sincere kiss that let her know just how much he cared. Emily was special. She was Jarod's sister, which kept her safe from retribution, knowing that she had grown up on the run, a victim of the Centre's evil. But more than that, she was intelligent and kind, and she had touched a place in his heart that he hadn't known was there. He had gotten close to her initially to find a way to contact Prodigy, and while he flirted with her, she had charmed him right back. That was something he hadn't expected, and he wasn't sure just how to handle the relationship developing between them. He was sure it would end badly, but just for once, he wanted to know what it was like to be loved for himself, and to dream of what might have been.


Act II

Corridor 15
The Centre

Sydney's attention was riveted on the folder in his hand. He read the report over again, putting the pieces together and disturbed by the picture painted by the information. It was even more important for him to begin working with the Seraphim, and something like this just might tip the balance in his favor. He would write up a report and submit it to the Chairman, letting the information speak for itself. If the others involved in the project disagreed, he'd be spared the humiliation of being shot down in person.

He strolled up to the elevator and pressed the "down" button, keeping his eyes on the paper until the doors opened. Glancing upward, he stepped inside and froze, recognizing a familiar face standing inside. He couldn't breathe for a moment.

His eyes swept over the security uniform clothing the woman's slender body, the auburn hair pulled back neatly into an efficient bun at the nape of her neck. She eyed him with a gleam of warning, stiffening with alarm. She was the last person he expected to see at the Centre, and having her there meant she had put herself in incredible danger. He dared not give her away.

His palms began to perspire. He closed the folder and held it at his side, moving further into the car and pressing the button for his floor. Valentine stood behind her, so Sydney couldn't say what he wanted to her. He smiled reflexively, and pretended she was unimportant. That was the only way to keep her safe.

"How are you today, Sydney?" Valentine asked from the back of the lift.

"Well, thank you," the Belgian returned. "And yourself?"

"Slightly bruised," the sweeper volunteered cheerfully. "Testing a new security recruit today." He chuckled softly, and patted the woman on the shoulder. "She passed. Kim, this is Sydney. He's one of the shrinks here. Sydney, this is Kim."

Politely, he turned and offered her his hand as if he had never seen her before, and she reciprocated.

Inside, he was frantic. He was furious. How dare she track him down to that place? How dare she put her life in danger by getting a job there? He was going to have to protect her somehow, without revealing her relationship to him, and that was going to require some thought.

Working on his project was useless now. Kim's presence had distracted him so thoroughly that he wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything else, until he knew she was safe. And God help them both if anyone found out who she really was.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

The doors of the elevator slid smoothly open and Mr. Parker waved for the other man to exit slightly ahead of him, rapidly catching up so that the two were walking side by side.

"Not a bad set-up you have here," remarked the man in a strong Oxford accent but with a hint of something that suggested foreignness.

Parker showed his appreciation for the compliment with a wide smile. "Your arrangements in Berlin aren't exactly second-rate either."

"It's better since we moved into the new building," the foreigner admitted. "More space and lots of light."

For a second, the Chairman wondered if there was an implied insult in the remark, but decided, for the time being, to ignore it. This was somebody he wanted on his side, particularly in light of the recent events, and his opinion should be humored. Looking ahead, Parker saw the blond woman standing outside his office, her eye caught by his companion, and the American urged the man forward.

"Mr. Delius, this is one of the members of the American triad. Eve, this is the new director of the German group."

The woman's eyes traveled quickly over the crisply tailored suit, eyeing the man's features and dark, earnest gaze that, at that moment, was coolly examining her. Despite herself, Eve's gaze sank in the direction of the floor, feeling her heart rate increase and her breathing quicken slightly.

"It's nice to make your acquaintance, madam," Delius stated smoothly, shaking the hand that she tentatively offered him.

Parker nodded his satisfaction before turning to see a slender brunette approaching from the other direction.

"I'm glad you got my message, Angel," the Chairman accosted her as soon as she was in earshot, turning to see the expression of his European visitor and hiding a grin.

"You wanted to see me?" Miss Parker queried sharply, her already bad mood heightened by the sight of the woman who had lingered at the entrance to Parker's office.

"As head of SIS," Parker glanced at the German to be sure that the man had picked up on the high position that the woman held. "You'll already be aware of both the presence of the other branches of the Triumvirate and also the tragic death of the director of the German triad. This man has taken over that position."

The German stepped forward. "A pleasure to meet you, madam. Your servant, Mr. Delius." He took the hand that she offered, bending his head over it and brushing the back of her hand with his lips.

Despite herself, Miss Parker was unable to help appreciating the gesture, especially seeing the jealousy that flared in Eve's eyes as the Chairman opened the office door. Delius straightened up, deliberately eyeing the woman from head to toe before once more meeting her gaze steadily.

"Such a charming woman will present us with a detailed plan of the best way to ensure that the assets of all three groups are secure? Surely," the corners of his lips lifted, "there are a number of things that you would prefer to be doing than this…"

Raising an eyebrow suggestively, Delius watched as faint color rose in the woman's face and her grasp on the folder in her hand tightened.

"It's an important job, Mr. Delius."

"Undoubtedly and," his tones became smooth, "I have no doubt that you carry it out superbly."

Parker's lips lifted in an involuntary smirk as he waved a hand towards the interior of his office. "I believe that we need to get things underway."

As the other two entered his office, Delius allowing the woman to precede him and holding a seat for her, the Chairman turned to where Eve continued to stand in the doorway. Brusquely, he took the folder she carried out of her hands and deliberately began to close the door in her face.

"We have business to discuss, Eve. Come back in a few hours and we can talk about this." Giving the folder a flick with a careless finger he firmly shut the door, leaving the woman staring blankly at the smooth surface before she abruptly turned and headed for the elevator.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Mr. Parker took his place at the head of the table, looking down at the faces along either side and finally meeting the gaze of the man who sat at the far end, his face expressionless.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," he stated as soon as the room as quiet. "I'm sure you've all had time to digest the shocking news of our dearly esteemed colleague's death, although I know, for some, it will be impossible to ever get over such a tragedy."

He shook his head in sorrow as a murmuring could be heard from both sides before silence resumed.

"Despite this," the Chairman stated calmly, "it is imperative that we continue along the path that she forged for us during her many years of devotion to the organization. The German sector has been quick to name a replacement in Herr Delius, who has been an eager student of Frau Berkstresser's for many years and will, I am certain, provide as capable leadership as she did."

There was a moment of applause as Delius stood. "Thank you, Mr. Parker. Colleagues," the man began, his eyes traveling quickly over the others seated around the table. "We have much work to do and the time in which we have to do it seems to be reducing every day. Rest assured that the death of our valued friend and guide will in no way hinder the work that we are carrying out at Die Fakultät. Indeed, we have a hope that projects which are yet only in their infancy will blossom into results that will be of significant benefit to the cause in which we all have such a firm belief."

He glanced at several people seated around the table. "However, as I am sure you are all aware, every new player brings with them his or her own team of trained experts and specialists. To that end I have asked that the heads of our Security and Corporate sectors accompany me to this meeting. Herr Romei is in charge of Corporate for Die Fakultät and the equivalent of the SIS section here in America is represented by Mr. Peter Winston."

Parker looked up with a slight start at the name. For some reason it seemed familiar, although the face was unknown to him. He struggled to remember where he had heard it before, and in association with whom, but was unable to do so. His thoughtfulness meant that he missed the slight sneer evident on Delius' face as he looked down at another man who sat further along the table and who had been casting a black glare at the head of his sector since the meeting had begun. Herr Mogge resented his demotion from head of Corporate fiercely, a fact of which Delius was well aware, but the Director cared nothing of the other man's feelings and only had him watched closely to ensure that the man wouldn't try to regain his position, by fair means or foul.

With a small half-bow, Delius resumed his seat, to the applause of other Triumvirate members. Mr. Parker, after waiting a moment to ensure that the man wasn't going to continue, stood again to speak.

"The purpose of this meeting was to review some of our more important projects. I have asked Dr. Cox to give us an overview of the Seraphim, which he will be here to do in twenty minutes, but in the meantime, it would be interesting for us to hear what has been happening in the Pretoriat."

He turned to Mr. Kruger, who sat further down the table, and Parker resumed his seat as the South African Director got to his feet and began to speak.

* * * * * * * * *

England

Jarod stood on the sidewalk and gazed up at the old building. His eyes traveled over the orange brick face, its lower floors lightened with many-paned windows, trimmed in white. His keen eyes picked up on the worn places on its face, as though many hands had lovingly touched it and worn away pieces of it with their affection. He held in his hand the delivery slip he had received only the day before, and glanced once more at the address on the glass above the arched doorway.

221b Baker Street.

The address was the same. He knocked, made his inquiry at the Sherlock Holmes Museum Gift Shop, picked up the package that had been left there for him, and strolled out onto the sidewalk just as a drizzling rain began. He pulled the collar of his coat up to try to ward off the chill, but the cold followed the column of his neck down to his body, freezing him to the bone.

England was dismally cold at that time of year.

Not until he had returned to the warmth of his bed-and-breakfast room and treated himself to a cup of hot lime-flowered tea did he take a good look at the package. It had been sent from Germany, whatever it was. The handwriting was neat, in all caps, to Mr. Jarod Champion. The postal slip he'd received in the mail only the day before had given him time to prepare sufficient ID to collect the package, but there was no trace of a sender's identity.

He knew that it would have been X-rayed before being shipped across the Channel. It yielded beneath his careful touch, fingertips exploring the brown paper envelope before venturing to open it. Unable to divine its contents, he finally pulled at the adhesive seal, lifting it gently open.

Out slid a piece of black cloth.

Gingerly, he picked it up and saw that it was a hood, much like the one the Centre had used on him as a child, except that this one was adult-sized.

"Peek-a-boo," he murmured, turning it this way and that, gazing at the eyehole-less blank fabric face. "I don't see you."

Nothing leaped out right away from the mask, but enough simulations and he'd have some clues. He laid the hood on the foot of his rented bed and bent over the envelope, studying it in turn for more source material. Someone was astute enough to know where he was to have the delivery slip sent to him. That in itself had been enough to get him on a plane bound for England overnight. But who, besides an informed Miss Parker, knew enough about him to be able to second guess such decisions in his life? In all the years he had been away from the Centre, no one had been able to do that but Angelo, and even Angelo had not been able to anticipate him to this degree.

Who, then?

The handwriting was unfamiliar. The address, then, had to be significant. He booted up his laptop and did a search of who had lived there, all the while considering the name "Champion" that had been added as part of the teaser. What he discovered was the almost religious appeal of a fictional character named Sherlock Holmes, who had shared that address on Baker Street. By all accounts, it was the most famous address in the world, one that everyone who had ever heard of the enigmatic Holmes knew well.

He studied the package again, and this time noticed that the back of the envelope had the faint imprint of a shoe sole on it. In a few hours he had the make and size of shoe - one he wore himself - though that was no clear indicator of anything in particular. So he took himself back to Baker Street, this time through the legendary London fog that now rolled about his feet, where he purchased a collection of Holmes stories. As he walked back, he picked up a London Times that he skimmed through until he returned to his room, where he read through all of the Holmes stories with whispers of "Executioner murderer" headlines echoing in his consciousness.

Then he leaned back in his chair, staring at the package and the hood, and sighed, "The game's afoot." He studied the shoe imprint, understanding the unwritten message. But who was the sender? And where did he go from there?

Something was bound to pop up, but at the moment, he didn't have a clue other than the headlines. He felt hollow inside, knowing that his mother wasn't doing well. Add in Morgan Parker's recent rejection, and he felt himself twisting up, sweating and trembling. Aurora whispered softly to him, the memory of it seductive and still powerful, despite his months of living clean.

And on top of all of that, someone was capable enough to track his every movement, and stay a step ahead. That was the greatest danger of all, and he needed to focus on that threat first. Whoever was playing this game with him had the potential to lead him back to the Centre, or lead the Centre to him. He needed to clear his mind and concentrate if he was going to figure out this puzzle. Someone evil was challenging him, and he had to be ready for what lay ahead.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

His presentation complete, Cox returned to his office with a sense of satisfaction. Despite the slow progress of the development of different Aurora delivery systems, the project was going as well as could be expected. Seating himself behind his desk, Cox returned the folder containing the results to a filing cabinet behind his seat, turning back to see a figure in the doorway.

"A fine speech, my friend," the newcomer commented, walking into the room and shutting the door.

"I'm no friend of yours," Cox snarled, rising to his feet. "It was a business deal, that's all. It gives you no right to waltz in here…"

"Oh, I think it does," the German director stated smoothly as he took a seat opposite the man. "You might as well sit down, Cox, before you fall down. That would be rather undignified, don't you think?"

Somewhat unwillingly, Cox resumed his seat, mistrustfully eyeing the man opposite. "What do you want from me, Delius?"

"How very perceptive," the man remarked. "What on earth made you realize that I want something?"

"Eight years of working together will do that," the other man spat, tucking his hands under the desktop, out of sight, so that the man opposite wouldn't see them trembling. "Tell me what it is and get out."

Delius raised an eyebrow, lounging back in the chair. "I'm disappointed," he told the other man. "I expected a much better reaction for the man who made you everything you are today. Look at you." He waved one hand around to indicate the spacious surrounds. "A good office, an excellent job, a chance to work with the best minds that the place produces…"

"And you want that chance too," Cox finished for him. "No deal."

"Oh, really?" Delius raised an eyebrow, leaning forward slightly and pressing the tips of his fingers together as he rested his elbows on his legs. "Are you really in a position to make a refusal like that? After all, if your beloved Chairman knew of some of your plans, life could get rather nasty, couldn't it?"

Cox leaned back in his chair, stiffening, feeling the blood drain from his face. "How much do you know?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Delius chuckled as he got to his feet. "I know everything. I always have." He strolled to the other side of the desk, leaning against the solid piece of furniture with his arms folded, his height meaning that he towered over the seated man. "And, should the day ever come when you get to the highest point of all, I'll be coming back for that little favor you owe me."

"I owe you nothing," Cox protested vehemently, standing up suddenly. "Nothing at all. You repaid yourself a thousand times over, with everything you put me through."

"It's a shame I don't see it that way," the other man told him. "As I see it, your debts are still stacked up, and if there's ever anything you can do to repay that, I'm sure you'll be willing to do everything you can." He took a threatening step forward. "Won't you, Dr. Cox?"

The man retreated a step, his eyes involuntarily widening, as Delius returned to the far side of the desk and bowed his head slightly. "Until we see each other again, my friend. Auf Wiedersehen."

Turning on his heel, the man left the room and Cox sank into his chair with a slight groan, wiping a trembling hand over his forehead to remove the beads of sweat that were sliding down it.

* * * * * * * *

England

Jarod relaxed in the armchair in front of the blazing fire that heated his room and made his jacket, hung on the back of the door, steam, his eyes fixed on the black mask that lay on the table in front of him. He had no further clues as to what move to make next, although he had carefully gone through the books again, to be sure. Even as he thought, however, there was a sharp knock on his door.

"Come in."

"I just brought you some afternoon tea," stated a cheerful female voice and a woman bustled into the room bearing a tray. "I thought you might want something to warm yourself up after being out in that fog."

"Thank you," he replied quietly, moving the objects off the table so that she could place the tray down. The woman then stoked the fire and added some more wood from the basket nearby.

"Oh, and your friend apologized for not being able to wait around for you to come back earlier. They left you a note."

The buxom woman nodded at the tray as she headed for the door and Jarod picked up the square envelope that lay beside the teacup. When he looked up to ask her about his mysterious friend, however, the woman was already gone. Looking down again, he carefully examined the outside of the envelope. The address had been hand-written and hand-delivered, meaning that there was no postcode for him to work with this time. Extracting the other note from his pocket, Jarod closely compared the two styles of handwriting, noting that, although they were somewhat similar, there were sufficient differences to suggest that they came from two different people.

With a sigh, he picked up the knife from the tray and slit the top of the envelope, extracting the small piece of paper that it contained. Before unfolding it, he held the envelope up to the fire but there was nothing that he could see in the light, turning his attention to the letter. His eyes ran over the words as he picked up one of the small cakes from the plate beside the teapot and began to nibble on it. The message itself was so cryptic that he could get no help from it, particularly as he had no idea of his next destination.

Finally, frustrated, Jarod returned the newly arrived letter to the tray and picked up the package that he had received at the Sherlock Holmes Museum. His eye was once again fixed on the postcode and Jarod pulled out his cell phone, getting the number for telephone enquiries in Germany. Maybe, once he knew where the mask had come from, he could get a better idea of what he should do next.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Tower Suite #3
Office of Mr. Sun

Miss Parker sauntered through the chrome doors, remembering the last time she had seen this man. He had been her boss for years, but since she had been put on Jarod's trail, she hadn't even spoken to him. Corporate had been fun under his leadership. Mr. Sun was a dynamic individual, and it seemed that whenever he campaigned for a client, no matter how outrageous the initial terms, he always managed to get the best deal for the Centre and satisfy the customers as well.

He sat at his desk, feet up, chair kicked back, phone in hand. He was chuckling, closing yet another deal, but as he caught sight of her he hurried off the phone and hung up, offering a big smile in greeting. He rose from his chair, stepped around the glass and chrome desk, and gave her a big hug.

"Parker! It's great to see you," he cheered, and offered her a seat on his sofa. He sat down a cushion away, giving her room, yet maintaining warm closeness. He sighed. "I just can't get over it. Every time I look at you, I think…" He paused, his humor melting away, and shook his head. "Never mind. How've you been, kiddo? I heard you got kicked upstairs to SIS. Congratulations."

She smiled. She could never resist his charm. Neither could anyone else. "Yes. I'm global director now, which you knew already. There isn't a whole hell of a lot that happens in this company that you don't know about first."

"You've been in SIS before," he remarked casually, his green eyes studying her, measuring. "But I got the impression you didn't like it. That's why you transferred to Corporate, if I remember right."

She nodded. Her smile faded. "But I was a different person then. I like to think my eyes are more open now."

He sat back a little, and cocked his head slightly. "Oh? In what way?"

"A lot of ways," she assured him. She laid her hand briefly on his knee. "I used to think my mother was weak. I hated it when people told me how much I reminded them of her." Bittersweet memories tugged at her mind, teasing her mouth into a half smile. "But now, I enjoy hearing it. Just now, when I came into your office, I saw that look in your eyes. You were remembering her, but you thought saying so would make me angry."

He smiled. This time, there was genuine warmth in it, and in his eyes. "She was my friend, Parker. I miss her."

Something pulled at her heart as she gazed into his eyes. She knew that her mother and this man had worked together since Catherine first came to the Centre. They knew each other long before she was born. And that he cared deeply for Catherine was evident in his eyes. Might this man be her real father?

"So do I." She sighed. Her eyes held his. "Were you more than friends, Mr. Sun?"

He looked genuinely shocked. "What ever would make you think that?" He composed himself, pulled a little farther away from her, now sitting fully upright. "No. We weren't lovers, Parker. Not that I wouldn't have wanted to be more to her, but there was only room in her heart for one man, and that wasn't me. We were just friends." He leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees, and bowed his head sadly. "She was my hero."

That struck a chord in her. "What do you mean by that?"

He shot her a sidelong glance. "The way she felt about people, always trying to help. She cared about everybody, and it went soul deep. She was such a light in my life. I… I can't explain it any better than that. She was just such an amazing woman. And I'm sorry you had to grow up without her."

"You think I'd have been different, if she had lived," Parker mused. He seemed to be trying to tell her something, but danced around it to keep from saying too much. He was afraid of her, and she felt little whispers inside her, too faint to hear. She closed her eyes for a moment and listened, straining to catch the message.

Tell him. Tell him everything.

She didn't want to resist, but in the Centre, caution was an imperative.

"You're right. I would have been different, if I'd had my mother's counsel to listen to as I grew up." She laid her hand on his shoulder, and left it there. "And I've been learning to do that lately."

He faced her again, hope flickering in his eyes, and curiosity.

She placed her hand over her heart and smiled. "I still have her with me, Mr. Sun. In here. All I had to do was listen."

His mouth tightened. His brows twitched together. For a moment, she thought she saw tears in his eyes that disappeared when he blinked and turned away. He nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

But he didn't, and that was obvious to her. "My mother was special," she told him. "She knew things. It was a gift." She saw his eyes move back to her face, and knew then that he understood. "I have the same gift, Mr. Sun. Only I didn't know it until recently. I never listened to that little voice inside me that was hers." She gave his shoulder a squeeze and drew her hand back to her lap. "Now, I do."

He studied her intently. Emotions flickered over his face, flashing in his eyes. An explosive sigh blew out of him, and he relaxed against the cushions. "Thank God." He buried his face in his hands for a moment, rubbed it wearily as if he had just awakened, and then dropped his hands into his lap again. He turned fully toward her and laid his right arm over the back of the sofa, a touch of excitement gleaming in his eyes. "I want to tell you something about her. She didn't die in that elevator, Parker."

"Please, call me Morgan."

His face split into a beaming smile. "Yes. She loved your name. It was her favorite aunt's."

She nodded. Morgan knew she had chosen her own name, as her brother Ethan had, and that it was simply a happy coincidence that she shared the name with her mother's aunt. Her name was the key to her inner sense, and the reason it had not been used for such a long time. "I know. And I know she faked her death in that elevator."

Light glowed in his eyes. "I keep hoping that, one day, I'll get a postcard or a telephone call, or that maybe I'll see her picking flowers by the roadside in the spring. Did you know why she left?"

Morgan's heart clenched. He doesn't know the truth. "Yes, I know that she was pregnant, and she wanted to keep the baby safe." She sighed. "But you won't be hearing from her again, Mr. Sun. She trusted the wrong person with her life."

The shock was genuine, followed immediately by grief. He bowed his head. "Who?"

"Raines. On the Chairman's orders… And as a part of his own twisted scheme."

"How? When?"

She could see something dark and ugly settling into his attractive features. "I'll bring you the DSA."

"Thank you."

He had closed himself off to her now. She rose. Glancing around his office, she thought it looked more like a record producer's than a corporate mogul's. He had a guitar on a stand in one corner, which she knew he often played when he was thinking. There were vinyl albums from his favorite bands framed and hanging on the walls. Racks of CDs took up space on the credenza, framing a Bose CD player that had music issuing from it almost constantly. Even now, she could hear the soft strains of something New Age and soothing.

"I'm sorry," she told him truthfully.

He rose, standing right in front of her. After a beat, he reached out and took her face in his hands, his eyes hot with pain. His thumbs stroked her cheeks gently. "You can see her every time you look in the mirror, Morgan. You can hear her in your heart. All I have left of her…"

He dropped his hands, stepped back and strode stiffly over to the stereo. He popped out the CD and reached for another. "All I have left of her is memories," he growled, and cranked the volume. The song was dark and filled with pain. She thought it was Pink Floyd, but wasn't sure.

Parker turned and let herself out the door. The reason she had come to see him would wait. She had renewed an old friendship, gained a new ally, and wounded him to the core all in one sitting. Now she needed to give him time to grieve, and then she would help him heal. They had a lot to do, and having the support of one of the American Triad was a definite plus. She'd make good use of him, but carefully. She couldn't afford to get him killed.

* * * * * * * * *

Plane over London, England

Jarod settled himself into the plane seat and pulled out the note again. His eyes ran over the cryptic clue it contained and wondered how best to solve it.

Charlotte 'n' Wilmer's friends await your arrival in the village.
The young circle of political sponsors is ready in the castle.
E.V.
109149/X34

He stared out of the window, planning his first move when he arrived in Berlin. It had taken some time to work out that the postcode he had found was connected to a suburb of that city. Pulling out the notes he'd made, Jarod glanced at a small detail he'd written during the phone call when making his enquiries. The suburb, the woman had told him, was either called Charlottenburg or Wilmersdorf. She hadn't quite been sure which. Looking down at the note again, he had to smother a chuckle.

Charlotte and Wilmer in the village. Jarod took out the map he had bought before his sudden departure from London. Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. 'Burg' translated to castle and 'dorf' was the German word for village. Obviously the rest of the clue was going to lead him to the next piece of the game he seemed to be involved in. He took a pen and notepad out of his shirt pocket, starting to scribble the translations of the words that made up the note.

Young - jung

Circle of political sponsors - politischer Förderkreis

But the signature? E.V.?

And what did the collection of numbers mean?

Jarod stared blankly at the seat in front of him for a moment before the sitting woman in the seat next to him attracted his attention.

"Eh, excuse me?"

He turned with a slight smile. "Can I help you?"

"Well, it seems that you're going to the place I was supposed to visit as well, and I wonder if you would mind delivering something for me."

At his slightly mystified expression, she nodded at the notepad on the tray in front of him. "The Fördererkreis Junge Politik e.V. My friend's son is staying there right now and she asked if I'd give a letter to him, but if it's not too much trouble, would you mind doing it for me?"

"Can you tell me," he asked hesitantly, "what it is? A youth hostel?"

"Not really. It's a student home." She took his notepad and wrote some directions on it. "If you catch the 109 bus from the airport to the railway station and then either the bus 149 or the X34, get off at Amtsgerichtplatz, and you'll be right in front of it." She showed him the place on the map. "The student home is there."

He took the envelope and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "Not a problem. Thanks for your help."

"Are you visiting someone there too?"

"Not exactly." He took out the note and handed it to her. "It's kind of a game."

"A treasure hunt?"

"Something like that."

She read through the words and smiled. "That's almost like the cryptic crossword puzzles I used to enjoy as a girl."

Jarod raised an eyebrow. "Cross…word?"

"Yes." She unfolded out a copy of the Times, turning it to show him the page. "It's a lot of fun."

He eyed the black and white squares before reading through the list of clues printed beside it, pairing up the clues with the few answers she had been able to fill in and using that to work out how the thing was done.

"Fascinating," he murmured before glancing up to see the expression of surprise on the woman's face.

"You've never seen one of those before?"

"It's…not the part of the paper I'm usually interested in," he replied awkwardly.

"Oh, you're probably one of those sports buffs," she commented, laughing as she surreptitiously eyed his figure. "Well, maybe you can use the crossword to work other parts of your brain than those in which the MVPs and all-time best scores are kept."

For a moment, Jarod considered responding, but decided that this was neither the time nor the place to get bogged down in explanations.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, Archives

Broots copied the last DSA, put the original back in the file drawer, and took the copies with him, stuffed into the pockets of his pants and shirt. In his hand he carried a benign folder from the Archives, so that, in case someone stopped him and asked him what he had taken, he could reply with a clear conscience. Even so, he was sweating as he returned to his office, walked in and shut the door. Almost as an afterthought, he locked it as well, and then did a quick scan for surveillance devices that might have been planted in his absence. Even as Miss Parker's Number Two, he couldn't be too careful.

He didn't want anyone walking in on him while he was cataloguing those DSAs. It would be even worse if someone came in while he was viewing any of them. He could feel the danger radiating from them, but Miss Parker had instructed him weeks earlier to amass everything he could on that project, and this was his first chance to follow up on it. He had simply added to the most current mission Miss Parker had sent him to complete.

Each one of the Seraphim caregivers was an expert in early childhood behavior, education and development. They had been hand picked from among the country's finest, and each had been employed at the Centre for a minimum of five years before they had been put in charge of one of the children. Their loyalty was unquestioned - they belonged completely to the Centre, and believed in what they were doing.

That was precisely what made them dangerous. Some of the DSAs contained recordings of the eight women in action, during routine tasks prior to the births of the Seraphim. He had already copied the documents in their personnel files onto the disks, and the information that was contained on them would certainly offer a complete profile of each individual, how they thought, their strengths and weaknesses.

Broots had never met any of them besides Ms. Penfield. She seemed okay, kind of stern in a grandmotherly way. But it wasn't in his job description to second-guess why his boss wanted the scoop on these people. They were among the most trusted employees in the company, responsible for the shaping of fine little minds, including Miss Parker's baby brother. He was sure that, if she suspected some misbehavior on their part, she'd have said something to him.

All she had told him was to dig up everything on the eight women he could find and make portable copies of the information.

That part was easy enough. Terry Camp was their supervisor; Sydney was their manager. Broots didn't like sneaking into Sydney's files, but worried about that less than digging into Lyle's stuff. At least, he didn't worry that Sydney would kill him if he got caught.

What worried him the most, though, was the other errand he had been on, the one that had taken him to the Archives. The Shiva case files had already been examined, but not the DSAs. What he had seen in the paper files was enough to know that Yuri was bad news, but after the report came back from Miss Parker's trip to MacCaffrey Enterprises, something had been bothering him about the guy. He was still on the loose, and nobody seemed to be paying much attention to that fact.

He spent a few minutes cataloguing the dialogue for future reference, and then did a search for a few words at random. Nothing popped on "Jarod" or "Seraphim." When "Artemis" had a hit, he scrolled the trackball to the location, digitally reversed to the beginning of that simulation, and let it play. With sweaty palms and clenched stomach, he plugged in a few more keywords and watched Yuri in action.

When he finished, he locked the Shiva DSAs into the safe Miss Parker had given him for just such sensitive items, and went to the bathroom to wash his face with trembling hands, and try to calm himself down while he decided whether or not he should tell her what he had found. The best person to handle that information was Jarod, but he had no idea how to get it to him without risking his own neck. For that, he was going to have to think like Jarod… or wait for the Pretender to show up on his doorstep again. Broots didn't want to wait on this. He needed to get it in Jarod's hands fast.

It might not mean anything, really. But it could also get Miss Parker killed. He'd show it to Sydney as soon as he could, and have the Belgian relay the message to Jarod next time he called. That was the best he could do, and he hoped it would be good enough to save her life.


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.


Act IV

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Sydney gazed solemnly at the surface of his desk, thoughts of Kim's appearance distracting him from the paperwork he was supposed to be filling out, to be handed to the Chairman the next day about the state of the Seraphim caregivers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the importance of the work, he continued to be irritated that he was unable to work directly with the children. For Jarod's sake, he had tried on a number of other occasions to spend time with them, but such efforts were constantly thwarted by the quick reactions of Cox, until a phone call from Mr. Parker brought all such efforts to a halt. Now, however, he was also thinking of something else, in addition to both these points.

He knew that Broots had gone through his files, looking for some information that Miss Parker obviously felt was necessary. Although it was no longer a concern that she sent Broots on such errands, he was unable to help wishing that she would just come to him, asking for whatever she wanted. It hurt him that she didn't trust him enough to include him in the list of people that she went to for help.

"Sydney?"

The man looked up sharply at the sound of the female voice in the doorway, his brow lowering and his eyes glistening with barely-suppressed anger as he saw the woman standing there.

"What do you want, Eve?" he snapped.

"Your help," the woman returned bluntly. "Can I come in?"

"I'm busy," he told her flatly.

"This is important." She stepped into the room. "It's about Miss Parker. I think she could be in danger."

"Why?" the psychiatrist couldn't resist replying. "Were you planning to use her as one of your guinea pigs for Aurora?"

She eyed him for a moment in silence before continuing to speak. "Listen, Sydney, I know what you think of me, but I also know that you worry about Miss Parker, and I really think that she could be heading into some serious trouble."

There was another moment of silence before Sydney pushed the folders away with a sigh. "Fine. What is it?"

Eve shut the door and then took a seat opposite him. "What do you know about Delius, the new head of the German triad?"

"I met him a few years ago, in 1996," Sydney returned. "I was sent to Germany for a conference and he was part of that as well."

"What sort of a man is he?"

"The way a lot of people who hold higher positions in the Centre are," he replied sharply. "Determined to get and keep their positions, by fair means or foul." Sydney arched an eyebrow. "What does this have to do with Miss Parker?"

"He seemed to be showing interest in her."

"She's an attractive woman," the man responded. "I would have thought it was natural. Equally, she holds an important position in the Centre and is the daughter of the Chairman. For somebody who enjoys power as much as Delius does, that seems a natural step for him to take."

"Look, will you just help me to find out everything we can about him?" Eve demanded impatiently. "If there's nothing that might possibly cause problems, it won't matter. If there is, then she should probably know about it."

"So why come to me? Why not do the research yourself?"

"She wouldn't believe me, if I told her," the woman answered slowly. "She'd just think that I was trying to get in her way or something."

Sydney couldn't help wondering if she was. He remembered Delius well, and knew that many women considered him to be a very attractive man with a magnetic personality. It was impossible for him not to think that a man like Delius wouldn't make an impact on someone like Eve. Leaning back in the chair, he eyed her closely as he responded.

"All right, I'll see what Broots can dig up for me and call you with what I know. If I think there's any sort of risk, then I'll alert Miss Parker to it. She can make up her own mind from there."

* * * * * * * * *

Sydney took the folder that the technician offered, opening it to see the two DSAs tucked into the back of the booklet, and looked up.

"How much was there?"

"Nothing except basic biographical information on the mainframe," the younger man told him. "But when I did a little more research, I found those." Broots' brow furrowed. "He's a bit of a mystery. It's like he's got totally different personalities - he can be a charmer, a real ladies' man one minute, and worse than Cox or Valentine the next."

The psychiatrist arched an eyebrow as he read quickly through the information. "And he was a protégé of Leiden? Interesting." Sydney reached forward and put the first DSA into the player, rolling the track-ball to the start and beginning to play the clip it contained. After a moment, he stopped it and, tucking the machine under one arm, walked around the desk.

"W…where are you going?"

"To show Miss Parker," Sydney told him. "She should see this, too."

Broots stared after the older man for a minute, rubbing the top of his head thoughtfully with one hand, and then, his eyes widening, quickly followed the psychiatrist out of the room.

* * * * * * * * *

Berkstresser House, Berlin

Emily stood near the street, looking toward the house. It was closed up now that the police had finished their investigation, but she was just getting started. Somehow, this one seemed the most significant of the Executioner murders, and she wanted details that had not been in the police reports she had copied. For that, she needed to see the setting where the murder was committed.

Glancing around, she saw that no one was watching her. There was hardly anyone about anyway, and she walked purposefully up the path toward the house, angling off half way there to circle around it through the trees. In the back yard she had a clear view of the woman's office, the position of her desk and chair, and came up close to peer in through the window.

"She thought it was someone she knew," said a deep, familiar voice behind her.

Emily whirled around toward the sound, and saw her brother strolling toward her from the trees farther back in the yard. "Jarod! What are you doing here?"

"Same thing you are, I'll bet," he answered slowly. With a smile he held his arms out to her. "Good to see you again, Em. How are you feeling?"

She hugged him tightly. "Fully recovered from my recent bout with the 'flu, thanks." She stepped back and glanced at the window again. "He walked in right under the noses of the people protecting her. Clever guy."

"He had everything planned out in advance. Everything was simulated, down to the last detail. He knew exactly what to do, how it should be timed. But he's not the only reason I'm here. I needed to see you."

She frowned and glanced at him guiltily. "Okay. What's up?"

"I wanted to talk about mom."

Emily had sworn Jordan to secrecy about where Margaret lived. She knew the boy would keep his word, but she also knew her brother was smart enough that he might have figured things out for himself. "What about mom?"

"Where is she? How is she? I know something's wrong, Em. Please tell me what it is."

She almost sighed aloud with relief, and did her best to hide her emotions from him. "She's fine. That's all you need to know right now."

Something in his expression hardened. "Why won't you tell me? What are you afraid of?"

"This isn't about you, Jarod," Emily assured him. "It's about her. About what's best for her right now. Trust me on this, okay?"

He grasped her by the shoulders, his need clearly revealed on his face. "Let me help. Please, Em. She's my mom, too."

For a moment she wavered. In her mind she could see the shock on his face, followed by grief and despair as he realized what had happened to his mother's mind. She couldn't do that to him. She put her slender hands on his forearms, lightly holding onto him. "I know, Jarod. But there's nothing you can do. Not yet. I'll let you know when it's time."

He swallowed hard, and then pulled away from her, accepting her pronouncement. He stuffed his gloved hands back into his coat pockets. "I trust you, Emily. I'll wait."

She could see the haunted look in his eyes, and her heart clenched inside her. This was hurting him, but she was helpless to change that. It was more merciful than the truth, at least. And one day, when she was ready to bring them together, she knew that he would forgive her.

Still, that knowledge did little to relieve the guilt she felt. It was her fault their mother had slipped so far away from them all. "Thanks, big brother."

"So how come you didn't come to Christmas with the family?" he asked, changing the subject. He started to stroll back toward the trees, then stopped to wait for her.

Emily shrugged. "I had things to do." For a moment, she considered what to say to him. "Jarod, I can't shut myself away from the world. I've been in it all my life, and I like doing what I do. If I went to Barrow like you asked, I might have wanted to stay and I can't do that to myself. Family's important. It's one of the most important things in life, but not the only one. I have to have something to do with my life, some work that accomplishes a greater good. Can you understand that?"

He stared into her eyes with such warmth and love that she could feel it all the way to the roots of her soul. Then he smiled. "Of course, I understand. I know exactly what you mean. But I want you to be safe, too, Emily. One day, I want us all to be able to be together under the same roof, to get to know each other. We're almost there."

She shook her head. "But we could only be together for a few days at most. Then we'd have to split to the four winds, because the Centre would be after us again. It's a dream, Jarod. No matter how much you want it, you can't make it happen by wishing. You can't get to know us all in days. It takes time, and we don't have that right now."

Jarod pulled her into his arms and kissed her hair. "We will, I promise," he said softly, his words puffing out into clouds of steam in the winter air.

She hoped he was right, but wouldn't hold her breath till the dream came true.

* * * * * * * * *

SIM Lab #6
Observation Room

Lyle sat in his chair, watching through the plate glass window as Allegra experimented with her developing skill. He smiled as he listened to the screams muffled through the speaker and the wall, nodding his head with approval. Glancing up at his companion, he chuckled. "This is better than watching the movies, don't you think, Valentine?"

"The girl's got good instincts," the sweeper agreed. "She seems to have a real feel for what causes the most pain. Too bad she doesn't have the voltage to do more than that."

"Maybe we could equip her with some kind of mechanical enhancer," Lyle suggested.

The homeless man she was chasing stumbled and fell, rolling away from her and tucking himself into a corner. He whimpered, though he was a large man, powerfully built, who could easily have beaten her to a pulp, if he'd only been able to hold onto her. Every time he had tried to grab her, she had shocked him enough to make him let go. He had tried valiantly to stay away from her, but he had been hobbled before the observers left the room, making him unable to run.

Now, the shirtless man cowered in a corner, begging her to leave him alone.

Allegra smiled as she stroked his hair, building up another violent charge of static electricity, and discharging it on the sensitive skin on his throat, or the inside of his arm, or the small of his back.

He howled in pain, and Allegra continued her torture, leaving black handprints on his skin.

"I think she likes it," Valentine said with a grin. "How long do you think she can keep it up?"

Lyle glanced at the folder in his lap, and read through the exercise notes from her last handler. "She's usually good for about half an hour, before she gives out. Seems the discharges make her dizzy and weak after a while. Her doctor says he thinks the activity may be wearing out her neural pathways." He closed the folder. "Pity. She might only have a couple of years left, then, if those estimates are correct. But I don't think we should tell her that."

"Should I stop her?"

"Let her have her fun," answered Lyle. "She'll stop when she's had enough." He chuckled again as Allegra squatted down before her victim and slid her hand up his thigh. "Damn! Remind me not to let her get too close to me. Girl's got a wicked sense of humor."

Valentine laughed too. "She'd make a good addition to the team."

"You're right. Let's talk about that. Bounce around some ideas of how she can be most useful."

"As a human taser, she'd be very useful."

Valentine leaned against the wall and shut off the speaker so the screams from the next room wouldn't interfere with their brainstorming session.

* * * * * * * * *

Berlin, Germany

Jarod took the box back to a room he booked for himself at a hotel near the station, hoping that would keep his mysterious opponent off his track for a while. Settling into the room, he ordered a meal to be brought up by room service and turned on the television, trying to distract himself from the thoughts that had circled in mind for the last few days. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the white box lying on top of the jacket that he had thrown onto the bed earlier. It reminded him of his mysterious contact at the aviary, and his brow furrowed as he tried to remember any experience that the two of them might have shared.

The voice had been almost completely unfamiliar. Almost. There was a faint hint, a slight tone that he picked up on at once, his memory struggling to remember where he had heard it before. Even now, almost an hour after seeing her, he was still unable to come up with it. The face, what he had been able to see of it, was not at all known to him, nor was the slender figure, dark hair hanging down around her face.

"It'll take more than that and even more than just you and Miss Parker."

Just the name made his heart ache again, his mind instantly distracted from his mysterious friend. He could remember the time they had spent together in Barrow as accurately as if it was still happening in front of him and, as his eyes filled with tears, Jarod lowered his head.

The knock on his door brought his head up again and Jarod blinked away the hot tears before they could fall as he got up to let in the room service woman, who carried the tray over to the table and put it down, getting his signature before leaving again. He sat down at the table and stared at the food before picking up the roll and beginning to nibble on it. His hunger had evaporated and he hunted about for something to distract his thoughts from Miss Parker.

As he moved in the chair, something crackled in his pocket and Jarod pulled out the note that the mysterious woman had given him. Unfolding it, he looked at the names that were written neatly on the small sheet below the headings of 'Blue Cove', 'Berlin' and 'Pretoriat'. Each list contained about half a dozen names, and he saw immediately that Miss Parker and Sydney were both listed under the 'Centre' section, as was Broots. Unexpectedly, he also saw that Kim's name was listed and wondered how she could be among them. It was a mystery that he hoped Miss Parker would be able to clear up for him, making a mental note to ask her the next time he spoke with her.

He had to wonder how much the woman could really be trusted, remembering her direction that he give it to the right people at the right time. He also had to wonder just how much she knew, or whether she had only been bluffing when she offered her help.

Standing, he rescued the package from the bed and opened it on his lap, staring down at the small wooden mask that lay in the box. Gently taking it out, he turned it around, noting that the eyes had been burned out, but that the ash was still fresh, coming off on his fingers, as if it had been done very recently. Bits of black in the box suggested to him that it had only happened just prior to being packed, and he pulled the black cloth mask out of his pocket, holding it in his free hand and looking from one to the other.

The message was clear enough, but also double-edged. He was not meant to see the person who kept him on the move with this hunt, not until that person was ready to reveal himself. The mask was a link to his own past, as he already knew, similar to that which had been used on him. Jarod stared thoughtfully at the wall. He already knew that he was not the only person who had been brought to the Centre, and it was a fair enough assumption that the methods would still be similar. Therefore his tormenter was possibly also in some way associated with the place. That reduced the list of possible candidates, but not by much.

Turning the box over in his hands, he spotted the small gift tag stuck to the bottom of it, for a shop in Berlin, an importer and gift store. Picking up his computer, he logged onto the internet, hacking into the shop's records. He found a number of stores on the African continent from which they imported their products, dramatically narrowing down his next destination.

He looked back at the mask, noticing the markings on the face. Specific African tribes used individual marks in their rituals and, as Jarod turned the mask from side to side, he also took note of the wood from which it was made and the style in which it had been carved. Everything pointed to a place somewhere in the south of the continent, the timber establishing that it would probably come from South Africa, most likely in the north of the country. Only one exception seemed to dispute this - the color of the lips. Jarod gazed at the shade thoughtfully. It was impossible for natural products to produce this particular hue, and in fact he knew of only one place that he had seen it - on Miss Parker's face.

Jarod let out a long, slow, deep breath, took out his cell phone, booked a ticket for the next plane to South Africa and then quickly ate the dinner in front of him before collecting his things and leaving the room.

* * * * * * * * *

Tegel Airport, Berlin

Jarod strolled outside in the fresh air, scented with airplane fuel. What little luggage he had with him was carry-on, and though boarding took longer these days, he still had a few minutes to spare. Pulling out his cell phone, he couldn't help thinking of Barrow.

He dialed the number, routing the call through a variety of devices he had installed as a security precaution. Though he trusted Miss Parker, he never knew when someone else in the Centre might choose to bug her phone. He was calmer now, but no less cautious.

"What?" she demanded curtly, as always.

"Can you talk?"

Her voice softened. "I'm alone, yes."

He sighed, his heart filling with sadness. He missed her. He wanted to hold her again, but that wasn't possible, not yet. Maybe not ever again, and that hurt. "I just wanted you to know that I thought about what you said. I don't agree, but I won't try to force you to change your mind. If friendship is what you want, then that's what we'll have. For our son's sake."

His free hand formed into a fist and crammed into his jacket pocket.

Her sigh of relief was audible. "That's good, Jarod. You're quite the new-age man, aren't you?"

"I just wanted to make sure this is really what you want."

"It is."

His throat started constricting. "It wasn't something I did or said, was it?"

"No." She hesitated. "If things had been different, we could have had a life. But fantasy doesn't count. You know that. What we had wasn't real, and both of us need to face that. It was a moment out of time, and we're back in the flow now. We have to deal with what is, whether we like it or not." She sighed again. "Jarod, I've spent most of my life not trusting you. It's a habit. Whatever you say or do, I'll automatically jump to conclusions brought about by suspicion. It's going to take time for me to correct that, and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to leave it completely behind. And that's no way to maintain a relationship, not when someone we both love could get hurt in the process."

He inhaled sharply. She was making sense, and as much as he hated it, she was right. That cut him, all the way down to the bone. He wiped away the tears he knew she couldn't see, and swallowed the lump in his throat. "All right, Miss Parker. We're back to where we were, then. I just… I just wanted to make sure."

"I'm sure, Jarod. This is the best thing for all of us. Let's put Gabriel first, and go on from there." She paused. "Is that all?"

He shook his head, trying to clear it of a vision of her wearing nothing but a smile. "I'm going to need some information from you soon. I don't know what it is just yet, but I'll contact you by email as soon as I know what I need."

"I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks." He hung up, slipped the phone back into his pocket and lifted his face to the sky. There would be no more tears, no more looking back at what should have been. But that didn't mean he could shut off the pain her decision had left behind in his heart.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS

"Pull up that database, Broots, and let's look at what we've got so far," Miss Parker ordered, hovering over the tech's shoulder at his desk. His fingers danced over the keys, and the spreadsheet appeared magically on the screen. "Okay, where do we stand with the Blue Files? Have you uncovered anything more on those?"

"Yeah. Project Thor was under Mr. Raines. It was housed at a small facility in rural Pennsylvania, but when I checked on its status through the external network, records showed it was transferred to Blue Cove. Funny thing is, there's no record of it arriving here."

"Keep digging, and see what you can find out. If it's been moved here, there are bound to be people logging into the reception files who don't show up anywhere else in internal records. That will tell us something, at least."

Broots highlighted the project title, and moved on to report on the next one. "Project Pele, also under Mr. Raines. This one's local, though I had a hard time tracking it. Guess who was put in charge of that one last year?"

"Lyle?"

He placed his cursor over the project title and clicked on it. A new screen popped up that outlined the data on project parameters, including a notation at the top made by the subject's new handler. "Nope," Broots returned with a trace of pride in his voice. "Took me a while to find, because Pele was moved from under her normal project heading to one of the test subjects in the Aurora trials."

"Eve," Miss Parker guessed. She read through the data in the appropriated file, and saw a name she recognized. "Okay, Broots. I want you to backtrack to the beginning of this project, probably through NuGenesis, and confirm who Pele's parents are. Look for answers in connection with this name-" She pointed to the screen. "-and see if you can get a DNA match from Pele to any of the Seraphim."

Broots looked a little ill. "That's in Cox's records, Miss Parker. And didn't you say that any information on those kids can get people killed?"

She glared at him, making sure he took notice. "The only people who have to worry about knowledge of the Seraphim are the kids' parents, and you're not one of those. Like I told the Chairman, anything that may have an impact on Centre security is under my jurisdiction. You don't have to sneak around any more, Broots. Just go ask for the records, and go with the file clerks to get the information. If you have them sent to us, they'll be compromised."

"Cox won't be happy about it," he reminded her.

She straightened up, her face firm with distaste. "Cox can go f-"

"I'm on it, Miss Parker," he cut in, and started shutting down the program. "What are you going to do now?"

"Go visit with Pele," she replied. "Meet me there when you've got the records."

"Yes, ma'am."

Project Pele was housed on SL-18 with many of the other adult subjects, in suite #18-27. From the location she assumed that Pele was not one of the more successful projects, since the useful ones were kept closer to the elevator and the simulation rooms at the north end of the floor. To be located so far back in the dormitory area usually meant that this particular subject had value, but was either not dependable or still in the beginning stages of research.

Parker had seen the woman's age - pushing 30 years - and knew that, for the Centre to have held onto her for so long, they had to be using her with some degree of success. She approached the room, slid her personal key card through the door lock and entered her code, which would override any restrictions her handlers might have placed on visitors. The door opened, and she strolled in.

The woman was sitting in a hot tub, humming softly to herself. She looked up and started when she saw that her visitor was a stranger, and slid a little farther down into the water to hide her nakedness. "Who are you?" she asked stiffly.

"Miss Parker. What's your name?"

"Keely. Did Eve send you here? She didn't tell me what she wants me to do. I wasn't expecting visitors."

Parker stopped a few feet away from the tub. "I have authority over Eve," she explained, "and I've got some questions I want answered."

Keely was instantly compliant. "Of course. Just tell me what you want me to do."

The brunette crossed her arms over her chest. "I've read about the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, but had no idea that our research department had progressed as far as this on research. I'd like a demonstration, please."

Keely prepared to stand up, but Parker stopped her. "I'll find something for you to work with. Just stay put."

She wandered over to the desk in the back of the quarters and found a small pad of blank notepaper. Retrieving the pad, she returned to the hot tub and held it out to the blonde. One wet hand emerged from the water, palm up and dripping, and Parker laid the pad on it. She also took note of the needle marks tracking the woman's veins all the way up her arm, and the vacant look in her eyes.

"Burn it," Parker ordered.

"Yes, Miss Parker." Keely turned her attention to the paper, staring at it for a moment. Nothing happened, so she closed her eyes and concentrated. "It's hard. Ever since I started Aurora, I haven't been able to do it on command, unless…"

"Unless what?"

Keely opened her eyes and stared up at her visitor. "Unless I'm scared or something. The drug interferes with my ability." She handed the notepad back. "I'm sorry. Do you want me to do anything else?"

"Get out and get dressed. I want to talk to you about a few other things."

Without hesitation, Keely obeyed. Parker had turned away to fetch a towel from the rack nearby when a gasp at the door made her turn. Broots stood there, folders in hand, staring at the naked, wet woman beside the hot tub.

"Wait outside!" Parker ordered, and flung the towel at Keely.

Broots seemed turned to stone, mouth wide open and eyes bulging.

Parker stomped over to the door and slammed it shut in his face. When the woman was dressed, Parker opened the door again, took the folders from Broots and gave him a look that she hoped would wipe what he had seen right off his gray matter. He wilted beneath her gaze, and when he had cowered sufficiently, she opened the door wide enough to admit him.

"Did you find what I wanted?" she asked him quietly.

He couldn't keep from glancing at the pretty blonde standing like a fragile statue at the far end of the room. "Uh, yeah. The DNA records. They match. They didn't even bother to hide the results here."

She opened the file and began to read. Her stomach clenched. She turned the page, looking for the original DNA donors, and they were listed. Looking back at the chart for Gideon, she checked it three times before admitting to herself what the Centre had done.

Of all the sick, twisted things she had witnessed in that place, this was right up there with the sickest of them all.

She felt her blood settle in her feet and knew that, if she didn't get out of there in a hurry, she was going to lose what little lunch she still had in her.

"No more questions, Keely," she breathed. "I'll see you later."

She left as quickly as she could, leaning up against the wall in the corridor outside to try to regain her equilibrium.

Broots smiled at Keely and waved, then tripped all over his shoes on his way out when the woman waved back and graced him with a bedimpled grin.

He composed himself once more when he got a look at Miss Parker's face after she closed and locked the door to Keely's apartment. "What was that all about?"

"Read the file, Broots," she groaned. "My God, I can't believe they'd do this. That poor baby."

"Yeah, I know. Putting someone as pretty as that on Aurora, making her a drug addict for the rest of her life-"

Parker reached out with a muffled snarl and slapped at his head. He ducked just in time. "Not her, you moron! Her son."

"What about him?" Broots took the folder she shoved back at him, opened it and glanced at the page she indicated. "Oh. That's Keely's son. He's one of the Seraphim. What's so bad about that?"

She snatched the folders back from him with an exasperated sigh. "Never mind, Broots. I've got to get some air." She stomped down the corridors back to the elevator, with her tech in tow. Pacing in the small room, she seemed to grow more distraught and upset the higher they went, until the doors opened on the third floor. She handed the folder to him and told him to put it in her office. Once he had stepped off the car, she punched the button for the ground floor, and as soon as she could, she went outside.

It only took a few minutes in the coatless cold to help her gather her wits about her, but she couldn't help the tears in her eyes or the bitter taste in her mouth as she returned inside. This secret she would never get over, no matter how she tried to put it out of her mind.

All she could do was hope she never saw the woman again. And she found herself thankful that she was no longer in Corporate. There was one Centre client out there in the world who was now a father, and if he ever found out what Cox and the Chairman had done…

She didn't want to think about that. Money was power. And power, in that place, could mean death. She didn't want to be on the list if the news ever got out, and she would see to having those records cleaned personally.

* * * * * * * * *

Seraphim Playroom

Miss Parker sat in the rocking chair with Gabriel in her lap, reading his favorite book to him. She knew it by heart now, and as she recited the passages, she lifted her eyes from the page and watched Gideon playing in the water fountain at the back of the room. That was the boy's favorite spot, and if his nurse wasn't on her toes, he'd start stripping off his clothes and climb right into the water. He loved the water. He felt safe there.

Her heart twisted up inside her as she thought about his genetic background. It was sickening, but there he was, a sweet little boy with a ready smile and a shock of light brown hair who loved waterfalls. What had been done could not be undone.

She turned her eyes back to the page and read the rest of the story to her son, hoping he wouldn't pick up on her emotional turmoil.

Just before she left, she turned for one last look at Gideon. He met her eyes, and all trace of humor vanished, as if he could sense her sadness. Then he turned away, made a beeline for the fountain and climbed into the water, clothes and all.

Parker left as Gideon's nurse rushed to get him out, but she did not look back.

She stepped out of the elevator, strode down the corridor and stopped in her tracks as she spied Sydney standing outside his office, leaning over a young woman dressed in a security uniform. The woman had her back to the wall, and Sydney's hand pressed against the wall just above her head. He looked down at her intently, free hand thrust into his trouser pocket.

Their positions spoke volumes about intimacy. There was a relationship there, and Parker couldn't tell just how personal it was. That was a detail she needed to know.

She continued her approach, letting the click of her heels on the polished floor announce her presence. Both of them glanced her way, and Sydney straightened up immediately. There was a flash of warning in his eyes, and she knew instantly that he was not having an affair with this woman. Protectiveness was there, certainly; that had been evident in his posture a moment earlier, shielding her with his body. But sex wasn't a part of this equation.

"Sydney," she greeted him coolly.

"Miss Parker," he answered with a nod. "This is Kim. She's new in Security."

Morgan knew that was all she was going to get from him. She flexed a polite smile. "Glad to have you with us," she told the woman. Then to Sydney, she added, "We need to talk."

Sydney turned to Kim. "I'll see you later."

"Sure," Kim replied. With a nod toward Miss Parker, she moved away, presumably to return to her rounds.

Parker reminded herself to find out exactly what Kim's assignment was before she grilled Sydney about his relationship to her.

"About what, Miss Parker?" the Belgian asked, and stepped into his office.

"About Gideon," she said softly, following him inside. She closed the door and handed the folder over to him. "And about any of the other Seraphim whose parentage haven't been obscured."

He glanced at her with a gleam of suspicion in his brown eyes, and took a seat in his chair.

* * * * * * * * *

Boer City, South Africa

Jarod picked up the package from General Delivery, and took it back to his lair. The original postmark was from Dover, so he knew who had sent it. The liner notes looked like they had been made on a good quality printer, rather than having been run through a professional press, and that was the first tip-off that things were not what they seemed. After reading through the first one, he knew what they were and slipped one in the MP3 player to listen to while he put another disk into his DSA player.

He watched the hiring interview with Florence Penfield with interest, taking note of her facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language as well as what she said with her words. This was a woman who prized control above all else. She was good at her job, good at keeping order with very small children, but she wasn't warm and cuddly. She was not a loving person, and that hit him where it hurt. Penfield would give Gabriel all the right words and motions. She would hold him when he cried, comfort him with soft words when he was afraid, but she would not love him because she couldn't. And the child would know it.

The pretender put that disk away and chose another one. This one was different from the others, with a plain black cover and a picture of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, standing before a full moon with bow in hand, clinging to the antlers of a deer at her feet. He put the disk inside the DSA player and sat back to watch it.

The Centre, 3/7/1998
Yuri

Raines stood to one side of the simulation room, while the young man stood in the center of the frame. Flashing behind him was a video, only a portion of it visible, revealing a young woman's legs as she walked.

"How do you hunt the huntress?" Raines asked him.

Yuri's eyes were turned upward, watching the film projected on the wall before him. "Who is she?"

"That's not important," the old man growled. "How do you find her? How do you destroy her?"

The younger man shrugged. "She's beautiful. Why would you want to hurt her? What's she done?"

Raines bristled visibly. "She's a failure. She's undermining our success. And she wants to destroy us."

Yuri turned to look at him then. "Me? She wants to destroy me?"

Raines nodded, smiling slightly. "Yes. Both of us. She envies us our success, and wants to take it away. Failing that, she'd kill either of us with little provocation. See how well she uses her gun?"

The young Pretender cocked his head to one side. "What's her name?"

Raines sighed. "Artemis." He clasped his hands behind his back. "How do you destroy her?"

With a short, soft laugh, Yuri turned to his master. "With love. That's her weakness. It's also her strength, but she doesn't know it." He looked back up to the projection and smiled. "I could destroy her for you, Mr. Raines. And I'd enjoy it."

"Not yet, Yuri." Raines was smiling now as well. "But soon." He strolled off camera, leaving the pretender alone with the flickering images of the woman.

The angle of the shot changed. The man wandered up to the wall and placed his fingertips on the woman's face, stroking along the line of her jaw. "Artemis," he whispered softly. "He doesn't know what you are. But I do."

Jarod stared at the scene, recognizing the woman's face instantly.

It was Miss Parker.

He checked each of the disks to see whether they were Seraphim- or Yuri-related, and set the Seraphim ones aside. That would wait. Yuri would not, and Jarod would not stop until he had seen everything on this man. It was necessary, and suddenly the search for Yuri was the most important thing on his agenda.

Hours later, when he had seen everything twice and committed the paperwork to memory, he knew who had been teasing him into this wild goose chase all over Europe and beyond. Yuri was one step ahead of him at every junction, because Jarod didn't know who was on the other end of those clues. Now he did, and they were even.

It was time to get the jump on the other guy for a change.

He got out his computer and started searching through telephone records, beginning with MacCaffrey Enterprises. The hunt took him nearly three days, during which time he continued running down the clues his invisible opponent left him. When he hit pay dirt, he memorized the number, took out his cellular phone and dialed.

"No more games," he said firmly into the mouthpiece.

Yuri laughed into his ear. "But I'm enjoying it so much, Jarod."

"If I can find your phone number under a fictitious name, I can find you," Jarod warned him. "You need to retire, Yuri. Find something constructive to do with your life. Or are you too screwed up to do something positive, that actually helps people instead of kills them?"

"Hey, I only kill those who deserve it," Yuri shot back, irritation showing clearly in his voice.

"How do you know they deserve it? Who made you God? Can you see into their hearts? Do you know they're so evil they don't deserve mercy? That's why we have laws, Yuri. We let the courts decide."

"Who made them God? Besides, if you've got the bank to hire a top-notch lawyer, you don't do a day in jail. The rich get off, Prodigy. The poor go to the gas chamber. Or hadn't you noticed that?"

Jarod clenched his teeth. "No more games," he reiterated. "Or I'll have to hunt you down and stop you myself."

"You don't wanna do that, my man," Yuri assured him. "Just ask Mr. Tshwane. If you can find what's left of him. I heard they had to hose him off the walls."

The depth of this man's disturbed psyche was obvious, and Jarod understood where it originated. Part of him felt a twinge of compassion for him. "Let me help you, Yuri. Meet me somewhere, and we'll talk. I don't want to hurt you."

"And I don't want to hurt you, either, pal. We've been through hell, and as far as I'm concerned, you deserve a break or two. You get ready to come over to my side, you just let me know. After all," Yuri chuckled, "you've got my phone number now."

"I'm not going to kill people I think are above the law. And I'm not going to kill people just because they work for the Centre. They aren't all evil, Yuri. Some of them are… worth saving." He felt the paper with the list of names in his trouser pocket, and remembered those who were mentioned on it.

"I'll believe that when you rub my nose in it, Prodigy. Meantime, I've got work to do. See ya."

Jarod heard the dial tone in his ear, and knew that there would be no more scavenger hunt across the globe. Whatever else Yuri had up his sleeve, Jarod was no longer a part of it. The invitation had been withdrawn and the challenge laid down. If Jarod was going to find him before he hurt anyone else, he was going to have to be quick about it, because Yuri had a long-range plan.

This would be the most difficult simulation of all, because lives were at stake at every turn. The longer he took to find Yuri, the more people would die. It was going to be like hunting himself, and to be successful, he was going to have to go into some places in his own soul that had never seen the light of day, places where evil reigned and hatred was the only currency.

And Jarod wasn't sure he was willing to do that. He wasn't sure if he could.

End of Episode
Necessary Evil