Sebastian slumped in the chair, his eyes fixed on the images playing
on the tiny viewscreen in the DSA player, unable to look away.
The child was beautiful, sweet and innocent. He played with others
like him in a large room with no windows, his movements careful for one
so young. Ordinary children weren't so precise in their motions. They
didn't struggle to stay calm, to avoid getting excited or angry, as this
Someone threw a toy across the room, and it inadvertently struck the
little boy in the back. Whirling around, his eyes sought out his attacker,
and everyone in the room jerked to a stop, every little head swiveling
around to face him. He screamed, and clutched at his clothes. His shirt
started to smoke, and he pulled it quickly off, flinging it to the ground
and dashing headlong for the water fountain at the back of the room.
Bedlam broke out as the shirt, smoldering on the floor, burst into
flames. A young woman rushed across the room and sat down next to the
fountain, scooping up handfuls of water and dumping them over the boy's
head as he cried, terrified now of what was happening. The woman was obviously
afraid as well, her hands shaking as she worked to console the child.
Sebastian watched as the boy quieted and clung to his nurse for emotional
succor. The man's eyes burned, unable to weep, as he wrestled with himself
for control. The digital file ran its course, and he maneuvered the trackball
to start it over again.
He wanted to imprint those scenes on his memory. The more he saw them,
the less traumatic they would be when the memories came to haunt him in
his sleep. He thought of the risk Mr. Sun had taken in getting the file
to him, and was grateful. But it didn't change the fact that Sebastian
now knew that he had a son, and that the boy was living in the Centre.
His people had a potential solution to that problem. And soon enough,
the last piece of the puzzle he'd been working on for decades would fall
right into his lap -- too late for his son, but that couldn't be undone
now. Trevor had promised him it wouldn't be much longer.
The psychic came toward him out of the shadows of his darkened office.
"Ready to go to New York?" he asked quietly.
Sebastian didn't take his eyes off the viewscreen. "Are you sure
Trevor nodded. "CGB has started manufacturing the Aurora patches,
per your orders. Our friend will be picking up a supply and waiting for
information from his contact. And we'll be waiting for everything else
in the Big Apple."
The Australian didn't move.
Trevor's gaze shifted to the screen. "He seems like a great kid."
"You'd know that better than I."
Shaking his head, Trevor moved to turn on a lamp in the otherwise darkened
room. "I don't have all the answers, Sebastian. No one does. All
I can offer you is little glimpses, here and there. That's how I knew
about the boy. That's how I know about our new friend."
"And you're sure about this Pretender? You're sure he's the key?"
"Everything turns on his life, yes. Everything always comes back
Sighing, Sebastian reached for the power switch and shut the device down.
He retrieved the disk and slipped it into his trouser pocket. He started
to pace nervously. "Who is he? What's he like? Will he help us? God,
there's so much we don't know."
"True," Trevor agreed, clasping his hands behind his back.
"And I don't know what he'll do. But we have to try. We have to show
ourselves to him, and give him the opportunity to make a choice."
He watched his boss striding anxiously across the floor. "You need
to be turning that anxiety down a few notches, pal. And he's not here
to help us. We're here to help him."
Sebastian came to an abrupt halt and raised his head to regard his companion.
That was an unsettling thought. "What does he need with us?"
Trevor sighed. "Don't know. But that's how it all starts. We help
him. We save his life. From there
" He shrugged.
That made sense to Sebastian. Ingratiate themselves with this stranger,
and he would be obliged to help them when they needed it. He nodded. "All
right, then. Let's pack up and get out of this place." He glanced
around the windowless room unhappily. "It's starting to feel like
"They're already prepping the jet," Trevor assured him with
a smile. "This is going to be quite an adventure."
Sebastian reeled off a stream of orders, and then glanced up at his friend
when no reply came.
Trevor stared off into space, his expression slack, eyes unfocused.
"What is it? What did you see?"
"We have to rescue someone else," Trevor mouthed softly. After
a moment, his eyes cleared and he moved brusquely toward the door. "We
have to move now."
Without question, Sebastian followed him out of the room, palms sweating,
wondering what his psychic friend had seen. Trevor was never in a hurry,
and this uncharacteristic haste had him worried. Please, God, the
Australian prayed silently, don't let them kill the Pretender
* * * * * * * * *
The Chairman frowned at his son, blue eyes frosty and stern. "I
want this Namir," he growled, "and I want him here now. I will
not accept any excuses on this."
Lyle squirmed in his chair. "But this guy's one of Israel's finest
shadow warriors. He won't be easy to catch, and I doubt we'll be able
to just coax him here with the promise of a big paycheck. He doesn't seem
like that kind of guy, to be swayed by money."
Parker scowled. "You've done your homework and studied the man.
That's good." He narrowed his eyes. "But I will not tolerate
failure. If you want to redeem yourself in the eyes of the Triumvirate
and do something right for a change, you'll get Namir into this country,
and you'll do it as fast as you can lay hands on him. Are we clear?"
Lyle fidgeted with his glove. "As crystal, sir." He remembered
all too well when the shoe was on the other foot, and it had been Parker
on the carpet under the pall of Lyle's displeasure. How he longed for
those days. He wasn't at all sure that he'd be able to pull this off with
just sweepers, all brawn and no brains. "Mind if I choose my own
team of specialists for this?"
Something akin to approval glittered in the Chairman's eyes. "That
would be a good start. I'm sure Valentine will be first on the list."
Lyle nodded. "And I'm also taking Allegra. I think she'll be of
use, for a variety of reasons." His recent revelation of Project
Thor had been well received, as had his suggestions to put the woman to
better uses once the opportunity arose.
"I'll let you know." Lyle rose, straightened his suit, and
smiled. "I'll get this guy to the good ol' USA, and when I do, he's
your responsibility after that. Agreed?"
Parker nodded. "Agreed. I won't lose him. He's too important. We've
never had anyone like him here, and I - we -- can't afford to let him
slip through our fingers."
Lyle took note of the sudden flash of worry that passed over the Chairman's
face and was gone. He smiled, knowing that meant Parker had a personal
stake in this mission. That was a sweet enticement, if ever there was
one. He would succeed with this one at all costs, no matter who among
his crew might have to buy this guy with their lives. Whatever Parker
needed Namir for was also important to Lyle. It was the chink in the old
man's armor that he needed in order to exploit a weakness.
He left the room at an unhurried pace, eager to get back to his office
and take a second look at those biographical files on the Israeli soldier,
to try to figure out why the Chairman needed him so badly. He was sure
it was something vitally important, and whatever it was, Lyle was going
to blackmail his father with it. And by the time the old man got what
he wanted, Lyle would have his future in the bag.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker paced her living room, warring with herself as to an appropriate
course of action. Broots had delivered the information on the Israeli
as soon as he got hands on it. She knew it was important, though the Centre
databanks had nothing on the man. All she knew was that a kidnapping plot
was afoot, and it would be undertaken with great haste and little planning.
That would work in her favor, but she couldn't risk thwarting it with
Centre people. The Chairman's personal bodyguards would be at La Guardia
to take possession of the man once Lyle and company got him into the country.
Once again, they had left her out of the picture, trying to hide something
they didn't want her to know, but she had found out about it anyway.
She had her fingers in everything these days, thanks to Broots. She had
uncovered more Centre secrets in the last few months in SIS than she ever
wanted to know, and the knowledge was valuable. It was powerful, when
used at the right time, on the right people. The company was beginning
to tremble when she passed through.
That was a good thing.
Only this time, there was nothing she could do to stop them. This time,
the target wasn't a child; instead, he was a citizen of another country
who, as far as she could tell, had committed no crime. There was a great
deal of mystery regarding this man -- even his profile had been next to
impossible to obtain, and there had been very little in it.
Try as she might, she could not come up with a plan to save him herself.
Which left her only one option.
She fetched her cell phone, dialed the number from memory, and waited.
As soon as Jarod answered, she provided all the information she had, listened
for a new phone number to memorize, and followed up with a call to Broots
to have her phone records cleaned. She couldn't take the risk of anyone
learning what she had just done
and the Centre had a way of doing
just that. Even though she was no longer being watched, she was careful
enough not to leave breadcrumbs of her own behind. There would be no trails
that led anywhere or raised suspicions. If anybody looked her way, all
they would find was a squeaky-clean Parker doing her job.
* * * * * * * * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
The market was busy as always, with crowds of people shopping for their
daily wares. The sunshine was bright and hot, and Namir was grateful for
the yarmulka on his head and the sunglasses that shaded his eyes. He scanned
the crowd out of habit, looking for suspicious people who might pose a
threat, even though he was off duty.
Then he spied the glint of golden hair coming into view, and smiled.
The young woman was beautiful, and he relaxed against the warm plaster
wall of the restaurant from which he had just emerged. He watched her,
saw that she appeared to be looking for someone. That would give him an
opening for conversation, and he decided to approach. She wore no wedding
ring as she shaded her eyes with her left hand, and that was good.
Her clothes screamed of America, so he spoke to her in lightly accented
English. "Pardon me, miss. I am a soldier here, and I patrol this
area regularly. Perhaps I could help you find whatever it is you're looking
She studied his face for a moment, apparently considering his offer.
"You're an Israeli soldier?"
He offered an elegant nod of his head in affirmation, and gave her his
name and rank. "How may I assist you?"
She grinned, and swept him up and down in an appraising glance. "Well,
I got separated from my tour group, but I think you'll do for a guide.
Where the heck am I, anyway?" She glanced around herself, apparently
They strolled around the marketplace together, chatting amiably as he
discovered where she was staying, what tour company she had been traveling
with and where she was supposed to be. He bought her an American soft
drink from the restaurant, and after a brief phone conversation with her
hotel on his cell phone, he offered to drive her back there.
She seemed uncertain, but eventually got into the car with him. He drove
her straight to the hotel, and after thanking him profusely, she invited
him up to her room. He gave her a brilliant smile, aware of the effect
his good looks had on women, and hoped this American would be interested.
Like the gentleman he was, he opened the door for her, but she led the
way in, towing him in by the hand. Once the door shut, she kissed him,
that prelude moving quickly to something personal and passionate. She
couldn't wait to get his shirt off, and once she had, she laid her palms
on either side of his chest and smiled up at him.
"You know," she panted, "I'm going to regret doing this."
"Let there be no regrets," he told her with a blazing smile
against his swarthy face. "Who knows where this could lead?"
New York?" she breathed, her eyes gleaming.
The flesh on his chest tingled slightly, as if he had come in contact
with some low-level electric current. Then suddenly he was jolted backward,
stunned by a violent charge that left him disoriented and weak. He stumbled
backward and fell onto the neatly made bed.
"Okay, boys," she called over her shoulder. "Come and
Namir was conscious enough to see men in suits come out of her bathroom.
One of them held a syringe in hand, filled with something that could only
mean trouble. Try as he might, he could not make his body work after that
shock. All his training was useless, and he could only watch helplessly
as the needle went into his arm. Whatever they wanted with him, he was
unable to resist.
His eyes slid closed, and the young woman's smiling face was the last
thing he saw.
* * * * * * * * *
New York City
Jarod had cut it way too close this time. The tip Miss Parker had given
him put him in the right place at the right time to try to save a life.
He had been prepared to hijack the plane, but the extra security had been
too much for him and he had failed. Sweepers were just a few steps behind,
and these guys were fast. He didn't know enough details about the non-public
areas of the airport, and he was lost. He had gotten off his intended
path, and now he moved strictly by instinct, taking note of details as
he raced by and extrapolating the best avenue of escape as he ran. But
they were closing in, and he was certain he was going to have to fight
his way out of this one.
He rounded the corner between private hangars, trying to decide which
way to turn. Lungs burning, he needed to find a place to stand and fight,
or a new direction to run. He glanced ahead and spotted a limousine, passenger
door open, lights burning, engine at idle.
A man dressed in an expensive black suit stood beside the open door,
fingers thrust into trouser pockets, looking right at Jarod.
He motioned the Pretender forward and pointed into the limousine.
"Hurry, mate," he called, his Australian roots evident in his
accent. "Come with us if you want to be free."
Jarod skidded to a stop, considering whether this was another Centre
tactic or a genuine offer of help.
"They've almost got you. You'll be safe with us." The man opened
the door wider. He was offering, not demanding, and there were no weapons
in sight. Inside the car, a teenage boy peered out at him, his face intent
but not afraid. He offered a smile and a friendly little wave. A woman's
shapely legs could be seen, but not the rest of her.
A bullet clipped the nearby hangar, and Jarod ran toward the car without
thinking. He dove inside, rolling across the seat and up against the inner
door. The man in the suit leaped in nimbly after him and slammed the door
closed just as the driver took off. Jarod wondered if he had chosen correctly
as the man stretched out his long legs.
This didn't feel like a Centre car, or Centre goons.
"What were you doing there?" Jarod asked him.
In the shaded interior of the limousine, Jarod could see the other man's
eyes checking him out. "Waiting for you."
"Are you working for them?"
He gave a short, sharp bark of bitter laughter. "No way, mate. We're
the rubbish they threw out. The fish that got away." He gestured
toward the others, who stared back at him impassively.
Jarod sat up slowly, looking toward the facing seat and the other two
occupants of the vehicle. Muted sunlight through the tinted windows revealed
the long blond hair of the woman across from him, and the solemn face
of the boy beside her. "Who are you?"
"I'm Cam," said the youth. He pointed at the woman, then at
the other man. "This is Sumi, and that's Smokey." The woman
gave the boy a light, almost playful slap on the arm. Cam grinned. "Okay,
that's not his real name. It's Sebastian. Sumi's the only one who calls
"My name is Jarod."
"We know," Sebastian replied. "We've been waiting for
you for a long time."
Jarod had been keeping track of the turns and straight-aways as the limousine
motored along. They were headed into the city, far from the airport and
the danger the sweepers offered him, but he was stung by his failure to
rescue the Israeli man that the Centre had kidnapped. Soon enough the
limousine pulled up at a posh hotel that Jarod recognized, and the group
got out, apparently expecting him to follow.
"This way," Sebastian told him, gesturing him toward the door.
"We have a lot to talk about. Or if you'd rather, you can be on your
way." He reached into the pocket of his suit and handed over a card.
Prometheus Productions, Jarod read. There was contact information,
but no name.
"Why did you help me?" he asked, pocketing the card.
The man glanced at the hotel staff nearby and shrugged. "Don't worry
about your friend at the airport. My pilot is flying him someplace other
than where those suits wanted him to go." He smiled and offered a
casual salute, then turned and escorted his entourage into the hotel,
leaving Jarod to decide his own fate.
Jarod had to know. Something prickled at the back of his neck, but it
didn't feel like fear. It felt like anticipation.
Don't be afraid, he heard softly in the back of his mind. The
voice sounded -- felt, for he was acutely aware that no one had
spoken aloud -- feminine, and the woman called Sumi was smiling at him
over her shoulder.
"Who are you people?" Jarod demanded.
"Old friends," said Cam. "Maybe even family, sort of."
The boy chuckled, but there wasn't a single note of the ominous to that
The Pretender followed obediently, across Elan's posh lobby and into
the private elevator that only went to the penthouse. Whoever this guy
was, he had money and lots of it. Jarod knew from his previous visit to
this hotel that the penthouse was perpetually rented by a wealthy recluse
who only stayed there on occasion, but kept the accommodation available
The lift doors slid closed, sealing them off from the rest of the world
for a few moments. "How about some answers?" Jarod asked bluntly.
"How did you know I'd be there? Or are you just in the habit of helping
people who look like they're on the run?"
"We know who you are and why you were running," said Sebastian.
"We were told to wait for you there."
"I don't understand. I didn't plan to be there. I was supposed to
be somewhere else."
"Hijacking a private jet," Sebastian shot back. "Yes,
I know. The Centre wants you. That makes you special. That makes it even
more important for us to help you."
Jarod felt a thrill of fear shoot up his spine, and stiffened in response.
"How do you know about the Centre?"
They stepped out into the penthouse with its elegant view of the city,
the rooms filled with expensive furniture and exquisite objects of art.
"In good time," Sebastian answered.
They began to talk softly among themselves
except for the woman.
She never spoke, but he could see her hands gesturing sometimes, as if
in punctuation of a statement he couldn't hear.
The penthouse smelled of fresh flowers and designer perfume, just a hint
to make the room fresh without overpowering. A young woman awaited them,
dressed in a smart business suit, notepad in hand, ready smile on her
lips. She came toward him, hand outstretched.
"We've been expecting you, Jarod," she greeted him warmly.
"I hope you'll be comfortable with us. I'm Ramona, and this is North."
She gestured toward a large, muscular man standing beside the windows,
his eyes covered by dark glasses, a white cane in his hand.
Cam headed for the bar and poured himself a soft drink. He fetched another
one and handed it to Jarod, his pale blue eyes twinkling with pride. "You
wanted to know who we are," the boy repeated.
His hand swept the room. "Some of us grew up in the Centre, just
like you did. Some of us were rescued by Catherine Parker and others who
believed as she did. Some were thrown out 'cause they didn't live up to
expectations. Some escaped, but weren't considered important enough to
bring back, like Sumi." He indicated the silent blond woman who had
ridden with them. "She was Project Vox. She's able to communicate
telepathically to a degree, but she doesn't have much range. Her handlers
thought it would improve her abilities if that was her only mode of communication,
so they severed her vocal chords."
Sumi eyed Jarod coolly, not a hint of emotion at the reminder of the
cruelty she had suffered.
Cam pointed to the man by the windows. "North was a remote viewer,
kind of a human surveillance device. He wasn't always blind. Ramona was
supposed to be psychic." He chuckled softly. "They weren't even
close with that. I was lucky, and came here on my own. I never got to
be a lab rat." Then he turned to face the Pretender. " But I
know how you feel. I know you're curious, and a little scared. You don't
have to be with us." He paused, and all trace of humor vanished.
"We know who you are. We know why they want you, and we know you
don't want to go back. We can help you with that. We can give you a place
to hide, where they have less chance of finding you."
Sebastian laid his hand on the boy's shoulder. "But they will find
you eventually. And when they do, they'll also find us."
"Then I should leave as soon as possible," Jarod told him.
"You don't want them coming here. They'll take you back, or they'll
"We know what to expect." Sebastian put his arm around Sumi,
and she snuggled up against him. "We've been waiting for you to find
us. Now that you have, it just means things will be happening faster.
We're ready for what lies ahead. But for now, you need to rest. You need
to get to know us a little better, before you go out into the world again.
You need to know what resources we can offer you, so you'll know who to
take with you and who to leave behind."
Sebastian glanced at Sumi, then Ramona and Cam in turn, and smiled sadly.
"Whatever you need us for. Consider us your private reserve of limitless
resources. If we don't already have it, maybe we can get it for you. But
right now, like I said, you need to rest. It's late. Let me show you to
* * * * * * * * *
They were gone.
Every file, electronic or paper, every note, every scrap of information
on the patch delivery system in the works for Aurora had disappeared.
Eve had asked SIS to run a trace on the electronic files, and he hadn't
found them. That had led him to a search for the paper records, and he
had been in every laboratory, on every floor, in most of the offices and
now finally in Archives looking for anything he could find on those records.
There was nothing, not a trace to suggest that any of it had ever existed,
though he had seen one of the folders himself while Jarod was imprisoned
the last time. He'd even scanned through every DSA he could lay hands
on, spending countless hours of overtime searching through the video records
for any reference to the research, and those files had been either deleted
or corrupted beyond recovery.
Someone had certainly wanted to erase that information, and it would
have taken someone of Jarod's brilliance to be able to clean house that
or someone at the top who knew where every record was kept.
"I don't understand how it could have happened," he confessed
to his boss. "It had to've been done from within the Centre. Somebody
had to physically go to all the places where those records were stored,
and take them. They were kept in fairly public areas, so the people who
usually handle the research would have noticed if someone unauthorized
took the stuff. And as for the electronic records -- man! Even the digital
footprints are gone. I couldn't have cleaned them out that well. It's
as if they were never there."
Parker frowned. She shot a calculating glance at him. "When did
this stuff start to disappear?"
"As far back as I can track, about a month ago," he told her.
"Just before Christmas was the last time the research guys had the
paperwork in their hands. That was when Eve gave the order to shelve everything
temporarily. Some of the information was transferred to Berlin, like the
Seraphim data to calculate dosages, and that was all there, but the patch
stuff just vanished."
"Didn't I hear some of it had been reassigned to one of our outside
contractors?" she asked, remembering a memo she had glimpsed on the
Chairman's desk some time ago.
He nodded. "I've managed to find a couple of memos that mention
that. I think it was going to CGB." He scratched his head, thinking.
"But if the material was transferred, we'd have copies of it here.
There's just nothing. It's gone. Poof!" His fingers made a gesture
to indicate explosion.
"Call CGB," she suggested. "Have them turn their place
upside down and see if they have anything. If they come up empty-handed,
I'll send you down to do an audit and you can check everything with a
microscope. We have to find that data, or discover where it went and who
took it. This isn't the sort of thing that can happen on my watch."
"Yes, ma'am," he murmured quietly. She looked worried as he
pivoted on his heel and left her office. Things had gone well for them
since she took over as head of SIS, and little glitches like this could
indicate that something much more serious was going on. He might need
to look for some help, and start assigning regular security sweeps to
a few of the techs who worked under him. Whatever was happening had to
stop, or things just might get ugly for Miss Parker, and for him by default.