Penthouse Guest Room
Jarod stretched out on the satin covered king-sized bed. He was tired,
but never looked forward to sleep. Just relaxing for a while would rest
him enough, and then he would be back on the hunt for Yuri. Jarod knew
his nemesis was back in the States somewhere, but his trail had gone suddenly
cold after South Africa. With luck, the younger Pretender would go underground
and cease his killing spree, giving Jarod some breathing room and time
to find him before he killed again.
Sebastian appeared at the doorway to his room a few moments later, laptop
in hand. "I brought you the stuff you'll need," he said softly.
"We've already entered a roster and personnel files for all the residents
of our hideaway, this one and the one at Sanctuary. Want some company
while you look through it? Someone to answer questions?"
Jarod sat up and smiled. "Yeah. That would be nice. You can fill
me in on what the records don't show."
Sebastian handed the laptop over and took a seat in the overstuffed chair
not far away. "I know you don't like sleeping, but let me know when
you're ready to fight the demons and I'll step out."
"How do you know that about me, Sebastian?" Jarod opened the
lid and booted up the computer, avoiding the other man's eyes.
Sebastian's face was troubled. "Because it's true of all of us who
can remember that place."
"How long have you been out?"
A bitter smile curved Sebastian's mouth. "About 20 years. Not nearly
Jarod located the files and ran through the roster of names. "Where's
your file? I don't see your name in here anywhere."
"And you won't. I'm not part of the grand design." He hesitated,
his gaze sliding guiltily to the floor. "I can't be."
"Why not? Don't you want to help?"
Jarod could feel the pain in those hazel eyes when Sebastian turned them
on him again.
"It... it isn't safe for me to be out in the world. I'd endanger
"You went outside to bring me here. If you could leave then, why
not for other things?"
Sebastian fetched a business card from his pocket, crumpled it into a
ball and held it in his open palm. "In familiar, controlled environments,
I can control how I feel." He smiled bitterly. "Sumi and I are
married. Did you know that?"
Jarod shook his head.
"I can't sleep with her," Sebastian admitted softly. He looked
at the paper in his hand, rather than at his guest. "We can share
a bed while we're awake, but I dare not fall asleep with her next to me.
Because I can't control what happens when my demons come."
The Pretender didn't have to ask for clarification on that statement.
His gaze was drawn to the paper in Sebastian's hand. Tendrils of smoke
began to rise from it, and then suddenly it burst into flame, bright and
hot, and disappeared into a cloud of ashes, like magician's flash paper.
It would take a lot of heat for paper that thick to go up in smoke that
"I have problems controlling it. I have to think about it all the
time, be on guard constantly. If I'm upset
sometimes people get
hurt. I don't want to hurt anyone."
"They made you do that at the Centre, didn't they?" Jarod guessed.
"I was part of Project Prometheus. My parents brought me there as
a baby in search of a cure for my condition, but they couldn't help me.
Since I have such a problem with control, I'm a danger to myself as well
as others." Sebastian stood up, suddenly stiff and agitated. He started
to pace. "I've gotten better with it. There are people in my company
who have helped me a great deal. But it's not enough. I keep thinking
that, one of these days
I'm going to wake up French fried."
"So you sleep alone and naked on a bed of sand or a tank of saline
solution, to keep you from setting anything on fire while you sleep,"
Jarod guessed, glancing around his own room for references. The man would
be wearing clothes imbued with fire retardants, and this expensive penthouse
would have also been refurbished with equally protected materials. "And
someone watches over you while you dream."
Sebastian nodded. "You know how it feels to have someone watching
you constantly. I know. But it's worse when it's
a necessity. When
you can't live a single moment without
There were tears in Sebastian's eyes when he made eye contact again.
Jarod understood, felt the depth of the other man's pain, and stepped
into his shoes for a moment. Images of sudden bursts of flame in a
crib frightened him, and the deeper the fear, the brighter the fire became.
"Don't do that," Sebastian ordered sharply. "Don't simulate
Jarod looked away. "Sorry. It's a habit. It's what they trained
me to do
How did you know I was thinking about that?"
Sebastian strolled about the room again, one hand rubbing at the back
of his neck. "I know it's what they trained you to do. I've seen
your records, Jarod." He sighed. "How long have you been out
"Almost six years, total. Just a few months since the last time
they took me back." Turning his eyes back to the computer screen,
Jarod scanned through the files, read some of the histories, and felt
his heart ache at the cruelties and tortures visited upon the people who
had taken him in. "How did these people find each other?"
Sebastian bowed his head. "Sometimes a failed project isn't really
a failure," he replied enigmatically. "Like with Sumi. She can't
communicate telepathically with someone more than forty feet away, but
she can link up others like herself into a chain of thought that can extend
incredible distances. Naturally, she wasn't going to tell her keepers
she could do something like that, so when she didn't meet project criteria,
they didn't mind when she left. After they mutilated her, of course."
"What about you?" Jarod asked, pulling up another file, but
watching his companion peripherally as he took in the information. "You
can obviously do what they would have wanted. You can start fires, and
you can control the talent. Why would they let you go, without trying
to get you back?"
"My parents were rich and highly visible. To have me go missing
would work against the Centre. I wasn't the only one they had in the project,
though. Rumor had it that one of the little ones started a fire somewhere
down below, and killed everyone on that level, including himself."
Sebastian took a shaky breath, and ran his fingers through his hair, holding
his head at the end of the caress as if he was in pain. "The people
in charge decided we were too dangerous to keep after that and got rid
of all of us. Or so we thought."
Jarod sensed Sebastian's anguish, knew there was more. "Who was
Sebastian sniffed. His voice deepened and grew raspy. "I think he
may have been my brother. I was only 14 at the time. I'm not really sure
about all the details, but they took genetic material from both my parents.
For study, they said, to try to help me."
Jarod thought immediately of Keely, the young woman who had been his
test subject under Aurora. Raines would have known he wouldn't be able
to keep Sebastian, and would have made arrangements shortly after the
boy arrived for Keely's "production." If she had been successful
and controllable, the child on SL-27 might have been an enhanced version,
with unexpected results, moving the project back to Keely.
"Do you have a photograph of your parents?" he asked.
Sebastian glanced up at him. "Of course. Why?"
"May I see it, please?"
After a long, intensely studying look, Sebastian called his wife into
the room. She came bearing her handbag, digging in it for the requested
picture, and handed it over to Jarod. The pretender accepted it and took
note of facial characteristics, applying them to his memory of Keely's
She looked a great deal like Sebastian's mother, down to the way she
wore her hair, the generous mouth and big brown eyes.
"What is it?" Sebastian prodded.
Jarod handed the photo back and turned his gaze once more to the computer
screen, avoiding Sebastian's eyes. He was at war with himself, trying
to decide if he should tell the man that he had a sister, or leave him
blissfully ignorant. He knew that, had the circumstances been reversed,
he would want to be told.
"I can't be sure," he began, his voice husky with emotion,
"but I think you may have a sister in the Centre. Her name is Keely,
and she shares the same talent. She looks like your mother."
Jarod raised his eyes to Sebastian's and saw the shock, the horror that
revelation brought with it. After a moment, he smelled smoke. He glanced
behind the other man, but the table was untouched. Then he noticed a haze
around Sebastian's body, and slowly rose, setting the laptop aside.
"Calm down, Sebastian," he said softly, reaching out with his
hands for the man's shoulders. "I'm not sure. I could be wrong. Concentrate.
But his companion was agitated beyond logic now. He slapped Jarod's hands
away and stepped back, stumbling against the chair. He grasped at the
fabric-covered arm to keep from falling over it, and the material scorched.
"A sister?" he cried. "How could they? How could they
do it again? They knew how dangerous--"
A patch of fabric on the front of Sebastian's shirt blackened and began
Jarod reached forward, grasping the front placket and ripping it open
just as the cloth ignited. His hands were scorched by the heat, but not
"Calm down," he ordered, patting out the flame with the front
of the other man's jacket. "It's done, Sebastian."
Panic gleamed briefly in the man's eyes as he glanced down at his shirt.
He finished stripping it off in a hurry, and balled it up to further smother
the flames. Sebastian glanced at the chair he had grabbed, and saw blackened
finger marks on the arm.
He threw the shirt down, a fine layer of perspiration now covering his
body. "Jesus," he breathed. "I almost -- crap." His
eyes shifted back to meet Jarod's. "I'm sorry, mate. I didn't mean--"
"It's okay," Jarod assured him. "I know how you feel."
Sebastian seemed to wilt a little. "Yeah. I guess you would."
He resumed his seat on the floor, and wiped away the tearstains on his
cheeks. "But now I have a question for you, since you're the first
expert I've been able to contact." He shrugged into his jacket minus
his burnt shirt, torso visible all the way to his waist.
Sebastian wiped his face, ran both hands through his hair as Sumi came
up to embrace him. The woman looked worried as her husband calmly said,
"I'm putting myself on Aurora. I need to know what to expect."
Shouting in the other room brought all three of them back to the main
living area before Jarod could respond. Two men came in, one obviously
upset and speaking in a foreign tongue, and the other, wearing a pilot's
uniform, attempting to placate him in English. Sebastian greeted the pilot,
and shook his hand, while the newcomer continued to shout.
"Well done, Trevor. Thanks for getting him back safely. Now, let's
see if we can get him home."
Jarod understood the foreigner's confusion after a few brief words, and
spoke with him in his native tongue. <"It's all right. These
people are your friends. They want to help you.">
The Israeli glared at him, at each of them in turn. <"What
the hell is going on here? Where am I? Who are you?">
<"Friends,"> Jarod assured him. <"We
want to help you go home.">
That seemed to calm the newcomer, and he nodded with a sigh of relief.
"Who kidnapped me? Am I in America?" he asked in lightly accented
Jarod smiled, and some of the tension lessened in the room. "Yes,
you're in America. Sebastian, here, rescued you from an organization called
The Centre. Do you know what they would want with you?"
"No," he returned angrily. "I am a soldier, nothing more."
Cam sighed and shook his head. "That's a lie. He's hiding something."
The stranger glared at the boy.
"Is your name Namir?" asked Jarod. "I was trying to rescue
you, too, but it didn't work out. Looks like you got lucky."
"I am Namir."
Jarod came slowly forward, hand extended and smiling. "I'm Jarod."
He introduced the others, including Trevor, whose name he had picked up
from Sebastian. "It would help if you'd tell us what the Centre wanted
with you. We're not trying to harm you. I just want to know what makes
you so important that they'd send their best security people to bring
Sebastian angled toward the bar. "There's a telephone here, Namir,
if you'd like to call your people and let them know where you are. Maybe
that'll help you trust us a little. When you're done, we can talk."
Namir nodded. "Yes. That would be good." He went to the phone
and made the call to his headquarters, to assure them he was not AWOL,
and to give them his location, which Sebastian supplied. Afterward, he
seemed relieved, relaxed and more open, and took a seat on the sofa.
"What did they want with you, Namir?" Sebastian asked. "They
don't just grab people without reason, especially not Israeli soldiers.
What is it about you that makes you special?"
The man's face flushed darker than its normal swarthy hue. "I am
a soldier," he reiterated. "In the service of my country, it
is my duty to kill those who would do us harm." He put his head down,
obviously ashamed. "But my God has seen fit to give me the talent
to heal the sick as well
whether I wish it or not." He sighed.
For a moment he buried his face in his hands. "A few months ago,
there was a bombing in a crowded tourist area. My unit was first on the
scene. There was a baby there, her body torn with shrapnel and broken
glass. She was crying
so innocent. I picked up
the child without thinking, and held her close to me. I wanted to help
her, and did not think
When I laid the child down again, she was
no longer crying, and all her wounds were gone. That was when I noticed
that others saw what had happened. I--" Namir straightened up, but
did not meet his hosts' eyes. "People said it was a miracle, that
the child must be special, and did not attribute the healing to me. Still,
I moved to another unit in Tel Aviv to distance myself from it. This has
have seen what happens to others who are
said to be able to heal with a touch. Their lives become circuses. They
are hounded every waking moment, and cannot rest. I am a creature, even
among my own, an alien thing rather than a man, a soldier, as I should
as I was when I was taken."
"Tell us about the kidnapping," Jarod asked. "Describe
the people who took you, and how they did it."
"Her name was Allegra," Namir began, and described what he
could of the events in the hotel room.
Sebastian frowned. "So they've got someone working for them who
can shock people like one of those heart-starting machines? A human electric
Jarod raised his head. "It's not as much of a leap into science
fiction as you might think. The human brain is largely unused and our
nervous system functions on electrical impulses. The body can absorb incredible
amounts of electricity in certain circumstances -- look at survivors of
lightning strikes, for instance. The theory is no more inconceivable than,
say, spontaneous human combustion, and being able to start fires with
The Australian's head whipped around, and he glared at the Pretender.
Then his anger dissipated, and slowly he accepted the impossibility. "A
healer, eh? None of this spiritual mumbo-jumbo and making donations to
Namir grinned. "Not that I understand what you just said, but no.
It's just something I do, something I've always done."
Sebastian put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Can you heal
her?" he asked softly.
"What's the matter with her?"
The Aussie explained, and in a few moments, she and Namir sat down on
the couch together, with the small group gathered around to watch.
* * * * * * * * *
Tower Office #4
The reports were explicit in detail, including testing that had been
done to verify the strength and accuracy of the Centre's new defenses.
Ms. Hart recognized the genius in the improvements, and knew that the
Parker woman was good at her new position, but that didn't please her.
The Directorship of SIS had been pulled right out from under her and given
to that ice queen, and she was determined to find a way to make her pay,
to bring her down in disgrace.
It would be harder to do, now that the building was virtually impregnable,
but she knew the business of security, too, and where there was a wall,
there was a way around it. Hart had tried to get attention focused on
the holes in the net, but no one had been willing to listen to her, not
even after Jarod escaped several times. But there was something even more
important than Jarod in the works now, and only losing that would cause
the proper uproar in management and get Parker canned.
Ms. Hart had copies of the Yellow Files sent to her for review, and after
having a look at them, she understood their purpose. The Seraphim were
the future of the Centre, and without them, both of the Parkers would
fall into disgrace. She could live with that. The hard part would be figuring
a way to get rid of the kids. Simplest would be to kill them all with
some discreet poison or gas pumped into their nursery, but managing that
would be tricky and could leave a trail that pointed back to her. That
wouldn't do at all.
Second on the list would be to somehow smuggle them out of the Centre,
but doing that would take a great many people cooperating, far too many
to have the plot go undiscovered until after it was implemented. What
she needed was someone with the cunning to figure out a way to get in
and get out unobserved, who could come up with the proper plan to get
the job done. What she needed was a ghost.
She locked the files away in her office safe, sat down at her computer
and composed an email to her favorite wraith, hoping he would answer soon.
* * * * * * * * *
Parker glowered at his son. He paced the floor while Lyle sat complacently
fiddling with his glove, as if he didn't have a care in the world. The
old man could feel his blood pressure skyrocketing, but he no longer cared.
The plan was foiled, and now he no longer had his ace in the hole.
Namir was a healer with an unbelievable track record. He was also a soldier,
embarrassed by that talent, which he had tried to keep hidden, but Israeli
intelligence found him out and a leak provided the Centre with the information.
Namir would have been forced to repair the ravages of the ill-fated Fountain
project that tore at the Chairman's psyche. And now that hope was gone.
"You failed," he snapped. "You were supposed to bring
this man to me, without screw-ups, Lyle. I told you how important he was!"
Lyle's blue eyes rolled impatiently and landed on his father's face.
"The deal was, I'd get him to La Guardia and you'd take him from
there." He cleared his throat, a tiny smile playing at the corners
of his mouth. "I did my part. You didn't trust me to get him all
the way here, so his loss is the responsibility of the people you trusted
more than me." He pinned the old man with a self-righteous gaze.
Parker stopped pacing. He glanced at the sweeper strolling at the front
of the room near the door, apparently not listening, though the Chairman
knew he was. His eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back to his
son. "Find out who took Namir. Find out where he went, and get him
Lyle cocked his head. "Isn't that my sister's job as SIS--"
The Chairman's fist slammed down on the desktop. "I told you
to do it, Lyle! Don't second guess my decisions."
The younger man's lips pursed, and he stroked over the glove with his
right hand. "And if I bring him to you, what does that earn me?"
Parker considered. Head down, he thought about what Namir could do for
him, and what that was worth. He barked at the sweeper to leave the room,
and when the doors had closed, he leaned closer to his son and hammered
out the deal. There was always a way out of it, but if Lyle came through
with this, he deserved forgiveness for his past failures, a fresh start,
and the position of power that he had when the young man called the old
one on the carpet, years earlier. As long as the orders didn't have to
be obeyed this time around, that was fine with the old man.
"Don't let me down, son," he growled. "You bring me Namir,
alive and unharmed, and you'll get your old job in the Tower back. From
there, it's not far to where I know you want to be."
Lyle smiled. "He's worth that much to you, eh?" He stood up,
leaning across the far side of the desk toward his father. "Mind
telling me why?"
"That," snapped the Chairman, "is none of your business.
Just do the job, and bring me Namir."
Lyle straightened his suit, smiled and offered a casual salute before
striding confidently out of the room.
The old man slumped wearily into his chair, drained from the encounter
and from the devastating news. He had to have Namir. The healer had to
help him. Things were getting worse, and without Jarod to come up with
a treatment, it wouldn't be long before the others knew that he was affected
by the ravages of Fountain. He had worked too hard and too long to be
denied seeing everything through to the end. He had to be cured, and it
had to be soon.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod stood on the fringes of the celebration, watching as Namir was
accepted as one of the group, welcomed as an equal. North stood by the
windows, his hand on the glass, tears streaming down his face as he saw
the cityscape, his first view of the world around him in years. The sunglasses
he had always worn were tucked into the collar of his shirt, his white
cane folded up and discarded in a nearby wastebasket. Sumi was chattering
excitedly, thanking the Israeli man for his gift of her voice. There was
peace here. There was family.
But the Pretender wasn't part of it. He couldn't be. These people were
gifted as he was, but something kept him apart from them, something he
couldn't quite define.
His watch beeped, and from his pocket he withdrew a small tin printed
with an aspirin label. He opened it up, popped one of the pills into his
mouth, and slipped the closed tin back into his pocket. He was better
now that he had developed this stabilizing drug against the effects of
Aurora. MacCaffrey Enterprises manufactured it for him in small batches,
and he kept a ready supply in his Halliburton, along with several days'
supply in his pocket, just in case he was away from the main cache for
a few days.
But as he watched Sebastian, he saw the other man's grief and fear, and
knew that he was going to have to do some fancy talking to convince the
man that Aurora was not what he needed. His curse was something he'd have
to live with for the rest of his life. Namir had told him as much, since
the healer couldn't change his genetic programming, but was only able
to accomplish repairs of damaged tissues and fluids.
Jarod slipped quietly away to his room, settling on the bed with the
laptop, returning to his perusal of the membership roster in the group
called Sanctuary. A plan began to form in his mind, and he lay back against
the pillows, watching the simulation as if it was a movie only he could
see. It could work, but only if he could rescue the Seraphim first.
He started thinking about that, laid the laptop on the bed beside him,
and stared up at the ceiling, hands clasped behind his head.
Miss Parker had welded many of the air ducts closed, so he could no longer
get in and out by the methods he had previously used. Sensors had been
installed into the ventilation system to enhance the ones already present,
making it impossible for a human being to traverse them undetected. The
checkpoints at every entrance and exit were manned by security personnel
who were familiar with his face. Sophisticated electronic verification
was installed to confirm the identities of visitors. She had made the
Centre into an all but impregnable fortress, and getting eight frightened,
upset children out of that place at once seemed truly impossible. There
had to be a way, but he couldn't see it yet.
"Penny for your thoughts?" asked Sebastian softly from the
doorway. "Anything I can help with?"
Jarod made eye contact briefly. "Why do you want to help me?"
Sebastian shrugged, then seated himself in the scorched chair. "Trevor
says you're the key. I believe him."
"Ah, yes. Trevor the psychic. He's not the first one of those I've
met." He remembered Rebecca, and smiled fondly to himself. "The
key to what?"
"Damned if I know," Sebastian sighed. "I just work here."
He grinned, leaning his head back against the chair cushion and closed
his eyes wearily. "Tell me about the children."
Jarod sat up, glancing at his host sharply. "How do you know about
Grinning, Sebastian jerked his thumb toward the next room, where his
contingent of gifted associates waited. "You have to ask, with that
lot under me?" Then he sobered. "One of them might be related
to me, I'm told."
"Yes. A little boy. Gideon." Jarod sighed. He remembered the
child's face, and could easily see similar features to this man, but a
DNA test would need to be performed before conclusions could be drawn.
Still, the Centre had genetic material from his family. They might have
made him a sister
why not a clone of him, or a nephew who had the
same pyrokinetic gift?
"Gideon." Sebastian's lips curved into a sad smile. "Strong
name. I like it." He sniffed, and sat up, taking deep, calming breaths,
one hand touching the middle of his chest.
"One of the children is my son," Jarod confessed. "I'm
working on a way to get him out. To get all the children out of that place."
"Your son?" Sebastian repeated. He expelled a breath, hung
his head for a moment, then pounced to his feet to pace the room. He rubbed
at the back of his neck. "How could you leave him there?"
"His mother's protecting him," Jarod answered stiffly. "She
has access to him, and can help him until I get him out."
"And when you do, then what?"
Jarod eyed his host suspiciously. "Then we'll see."
Sebastian stopped prodding. He nodded his head and sighed. "All
right, mate. You do whatever it is that you do, and let us know if you
need help. Aside from that
" His hands rubbed together, fidgeting
nervously. He was obviously struggling for words, his eyes on the floor
as he paced up and down the carpet.
Jarod lay back against the pillows, responding to the man's unspoken
need. "You wanted to talk about Aurora," he began. "I'll
tell you straight up. Suicide would be better." He fished in his
pocket for the tin, shook it to get Sebastian to look and held it up for
the other man to see. "I'm still wearing the tether they put on me.
I'll always feel like a slave. I developed this about a month after I
got clean, just so I could function. You don't want Aurora, Sebastian.
I'll do whatever I can to help you, but take my word for it. You have
people who love you. If you do this, you'll break their hearts in a way
they'll never get over. And neither will you."
Sebastian studied him, his eyes moving slowly from the tin of pills to
Jarod's face. He nodded. "I can see that it's still got you, mate.
I'm sorry." He sighed. "I hoped you had something different
to tell me, but I've heard all this before."
Jarod jammed the tin back into his pocket. "Give me some time. Maybe
I can come up with a chemical treatment that will dampen your ability."
"Saltier Labs is at your disposal," Sebastian told him. "Anything
you want or need." He sighed. "I don't like to pry into people's
lives, but I was wondering how you're doing with being sober."
"The medication helps. But it's hard. It's the hardest thing I've
ever done." Jarod swallowed hard, a brightly painful memory of the
pleasure slicing through him.
"And sometimes you just want to scream, to jump out of your skin."
Jarod saw the haunted look in the other man's eyes, and knew he spoke
from experience. "What did they give you?"
The Aussie shook his head. "I don't know. I was just a kid. But
" His breath caught, and he stood up, jamming his
hands into his trouser pockets. "There were so many drugs, Jarod.
And when they finished with me, when they said they couldn't help me,
they dried me out and sent me home to my parents with sincere apologies
that they couldn't do anything for me. It's been hard, staying sober all
these years. Euphoric drugs have such an allure, you know? But I can't
afford to go there. I've had a lot of people working on projects to help
me maintain control. Got some working on a cure, though they always say
the same thing -- that you can't change--"
"--genetic programming without altering the DNA, which we don't
have the technology to do yet," Jarod finished for him. "I'll
do what I can to help. In the meantime, if you'll give me your medical
records and blood samples, I'll get started."
"The research my people have done on Aurora indicates that the effects
would dampen my pyrokinetics, and allow me to maintain an even emotional
plane," Sebastian countered. "I'd be willing to endure the addiction,
Jarod. My wife would manage my medication. I trust her. I want to do this."
Jarod's eyes narrowed. "Do you love Sumi?"
Slightly surprised by that question, Sebastian nodded. "Of course.
More than life."
"Then don't put your own needs above her own." The Pretender
sighed. "Don't turn the man she loves into a soulless, mindless automaton.
She loves who you are, and that Sebastian will disappear when Aurora takes
With a sigh of resignation, Sebastian stared at the floor for a moment.
"All right, the," he said softly. "I've got another project
I'd like you to start on. One that might make your own life easier, as
well as helping others. Why don't you look into reversing the effects
of Aurora addiction? You were the lucky one in a million that survived
withdrawal. Let's see if we can give others a fighting chance as well,
Jarod smiled. "I think that would be a wonderful thing to do, Sebastian.
I'll get right on it."
"Thanks. I appreciate it." He offered a sad smile, and left
It wasn't until he began to turn the problem over in his mind that he
realized he would need samples of Aurora at hand to test the withdrawal
process. And if he had it in his hand, he just might be too close.
* * * * * * * * *
"This dossier is impressive," Miss Parker commented as she
scanned through the list of references contained in the background check.
Glancing back at the Centre's chief of security personnel, she waited
"Kim's equally impressive in action," Daniel Pyne assured her
with a chuckle. "She didn't exactly wipe the floor with Valentine,
but she certainly held her own and gave as good as she got. And you've
seen how good Valentine is."
"Yes," she deadpanned. "Positively frightening. Thanks
for being so thorough, Mr. Pyne. I'll send this back to you when I'm done
Pyne nodded and started to rise from his chair, thought better of it
and settled back in. "Any reason I should be concerned about her?
I've kinda been keeping an eye on her personally, as I like to do with
all the new recruits, and she seems to fit in real well."
Parker knew Pyne was not someone she could trust with her intuition.
"Nothing to be concerned about," she returned casually. "I
wanted to see how well new hires were researched, and since I'd seen Kim
at work, I thought she'd be a good place to start. This looks good, but
I'll let you know what holes need to be plugged after I've had a chance
to review her file. Thank you."
She continued reading, dismissing him without even brief eye contact.
She didn't want to tip the man off that this was a personal survey. It
wouldn't do to have him re-think his own methods and discover something
best left hidden, if there was anything in Kim's past that needed to be
kept under wraps. But she needed to find out what the woman's link was
to Sydney, and she knew he wouldn't tell her.
Pyne rose and ambled out the door to her office, leaving her alone with
the personnel file. She read through all the notes and found nothing out
of place, no reference that would indicate that the woman was anything
other than an experienced security professional. She had trained and taught
at a well-known school for professional bodyguards, worked as a guard
in a high-security women's prison, as a freelance bounty hunter, and had
just been recommended by one of the Centre's more public sub-stations
as a sweeper candidate. All of the references had been verified, and documentation
was enclosed with the final report. She had been thoroughly checked out,
and her record was squeaky clean.
Parker studied the photograph clipped to the inside front cover of the
folder. Kim was young and attractive, of average intelligence by all accounts,
and skilled in physical combat. She knew the business and didn't ask questions.
Why, then, would Sydney show such a special interest in her?
There were answers somewhere. She opened an electronic e-mail form and
started to write Broots a memo, then changed her mind. Someone had cloned
her email recently, and while Broots still didn't have the results of
that investigation yet, she didn't want to take any chances that her outgoing
messages might arrive in unwanted hands. Just as she was about to call
him into her office for a conference, he came in bearing a stack of file
folders, all yellow.
"I got what you asked for, Miss Parker," he reported breathlessly.
"Man, you'd think I was asking for the moon! I showed everybody down
the line your authorization to retrieve these files, and people still--"
"Just hand them over," she snapped impatiently, holding out
her hands to retrieve them. "And pull up a chair. I need to brainstorm
a little, and I want your input."
A huge grin spread over his face as he dragged one of the guest chairs
right up to her desk, barely leaving room for his knees. "Yes, ma'am!
What are we brainstorming about?"
She glanced up at him. "Shut the door and I'll tell you."
He bounced out of the chair and nearly ran back to his seat, his eyes
as bright as a kid at Christmas.
Memories of Barrow brushed across her mind with painful clarity, and
she stiffened, pushing them away. It wouldn't do for anyone to know what
went on between herself and Jarod. And no matter how much it hurt, she
knew she had made the right decision. Swallowing her regret, she handed
over Kim's file and let him have a glance.
"I need to know who this woman is, and why Sydney's so interested
in her. The background check has no holes in it, and her credentials are
as professional as they come. She's in training to become a sweeper, but
right now is working on interior security details under Syd. He asked
for her personally. Mr. Pyne's not too concerned about it, but I want
to know why. Aside from asking him and getting no answers, how can we
find this out?"
Broots read over the report, scratching his shiny head. "Hmmm. I
wonder if anyone actually talked to these people?" He glanced up
at his boss. "Most of the time, these checks are done electronically,
or by secretaries who exchange paper records. It might be a good idea
to talk directly to some of the people she worked with before, and see
if Sydney made any appearances during her tenure there."
"Good idea. You're on it."
He sat back in his chair. "Do I get travel expenses?"
She shot him a frosty look. "As long as it's bare bones."
"I'm not stupid enough to pull that," he assured her. "Bean
counters are worse than lawyers. I'll start with phone calls and see what
I can shake loose."
"Don't spend a lot of time on it. I just want to know what the connection
is between her and Sydney."
Broots sat thoughtfully for a moment, staring at an empty spot on the
top of her desk. "It'd be nice if he'd trust us both a little more.
Sure would be easier if we could just ask him stuff like this, without
having to go behind his back to figure things out."
She sighed, and nodded her head. "Yes, it would. Maybe one day soon
that'll change between us."
He rose and pushed the chair back to where it belonged. Waiting until
she made eye contact, he added, "It's nice that you learned to trust
I want you to know that I appreciate that."
She felt her face relax a little, but held back on a smile. "You
earned it, Broots. Many times over." She watched his hands fidget
for a moment, as if needing something to do. He stroked them over his
shirt front, then one over the top of his head, his own personal gesture
of shy gratitude for her compliment. She was glad that he hadn't gotten
accustomed to her rare praise; though she had become softer in nature
over the last several years, she was still a Parker, if in name only,
and had to behave as one. Too much obvious softening and the Chairman
would know something deeper inside her had changed.
With another sigh, she pulled the stack of yellow folders before her
and separated them into piles. One by one, she read through the data until
she was sure, from whatever vague hints or blatant records were in them,
that she had an idea who all the parents were. A few were listed only
as code numbers, but she could have Broots retrieve that information from
the databanks at Pakor Foods, where she knew all the biological samples
had been stored for transport to NuGenesis, or use at the Centre.
For now, she had a partial list of names she could give to Jarod. The
one that concerned her most, other than Gabriel -- whom she knew was not
among those Yellow Files on her desk -- was Angelique. Now she understood
why she had felt so much sympathy for the lonely little girl. There were
family ties, unmistakable genetic links between herself and Angelique.
Angelo was a father, and her adopted sister was a mother, though she wasn't
sure either of them knew.
Miss Parker promised herself that she would offer extra attention to
the child next time she went to visit Gabriel. Though the little one would
undoubtedly be able to sense her disquiet, she would also feel the love
growing in her aunt's heart. Angelique had little enough that brought
her happiness. Parker hoped that she might be able to give the child some
of that in the future.
With a heavy heart, she closed the last folder and started on a report
that would explain to management what had prompted her to request those
files, as well as the personnel files on the caregivers that she had so
recently gone over. The Seraphim weren't the only important projects she
was exploring. Soon enough, there would be very little that went on in
that place that she didn't know about, and she would make certain that
every one of the children were well protected. She had things to accomplish
from her seat of power, and until she had a way to implement her mother's
plan, she would wield that power with an iron fist.
If the Chairman wanted to know why she was looking into the Seraphim
project, she'd be happy to tell him. Every angle would be covered, so
that no hint of the truth showed through the smokescreen she was building.
But every day, it was harder and harder for her to wear the Parker mask,
and make it through countless meetings and conversations without letting
anything slip. And the tighter she held on, the more she felt her self-control
slipping through her fingers. She was tired of living a lie. More than
anything else in the world, she wanted to be free of the Centre, free
to make her own choices and raise her son as she chose. But until Gabriel
was free, her hands were tied.
She couldn't think about that now. The dream was not a possibility, not
until Jarod came through with a solution to their problem. Her fingers
worked the keyboard expertly, crafting lies that would be watertight
but in her heart she saw the dream she was afraid to touch vanishing without
the possibility of becoming real. She would not cry over dreams. She would
go on, and do her job, and be patient.
It was all she could do.