New York City
Jarod pored over the notes he had made, all drawn from memory. He was
sweating profusely, aware of how close he was to a withdrawal system for
the drug that still called to him at unguarded moments. A vial of the
amber liquid sat nearby on the counter, its power palpable enough to taste.
It's right there, he thought. Clenching his teeth, he continued
to resist, haunted by the conversation he'd had the night before with
his host. The man had certainly done his homework; he knew that Aurora
would keep his emotions on an even keel, which would consequently help
him keep his pyrokinetic talent under control. That he would become a
slave to whoever had the drug was almost inconsequential to him. All the
Pretender could do was make life a little easier for the others the Centre
had inside its walls who lived under its influence.
He had seen how much Sebastian needed the release. The man was strung
tight as a piano wire all the time, constantly on edge, afraid of hurting
others or himself. But this was the wrong choice, and he wasn't sure Sebastian
would be able to kick the habit as he had, even with the Naltrexone-based
compound Jarod had created that would allow those already addicted to
Aurora to live more normal lives. Few people could manage to disengage
themselves from Aurora. What he was working on in that lab was a way to
combat the psychological addiction to the drug, to allow victims of it
to live through its absence in their lives. He knew how powerful it was,
how he had to work to control his own yearning for it. The pills he had
developed helped, but even that was not always enough.
At his own request, Ramona stood guard over him, watching to see that
he did not snatch up the vial and bare an arm. He needed that assurance,
that guarantee that his new friends would not let him succumb to his old
habit. He had chosen to trust them, hoping he would not regret that decision
"Do you need a break?" Ramona asked, drifting close behind
him to peer over his shoulder at his notes. "Is it too much for you?"
"No," he snapped, then offered an apologetic smile. "I'm
"Well, I need to go to the ladies' room." She picked up the
bottle, slipped it into her jacket pocket and patted him on the back as
she passed behind him. At the door she stopped and glanced at him over
her shoulder. "Thanks for talking Sebastian out of taking this. None
of us thought it was a good idea, but you can't blame the guy. He just
wants it to stop, even if it's for a little while."
Jarod met her concerned gaze. "Yeah. I know. I want to try to help
him with that."
She smiled warmly. "Thanks. Maybe one day you can."
When she was gone, Jarod heaved a sigh of relief, glad that temptation
was temporarily absent. He delved into the research and forgot about the
bottle out of sight in her pocket, barely noticing when she returned to
the room. He paid no attention when the lab door opened and another watcher
traded places with Ramona, taking the bottle into his possession as well
as the observation task.
Not until Jarod shoved the folder on the Aurora protocols off the counter
in a fit of frustration did he notice his new keeper.
Trevor smiled at him, his perfect teeth bright against his brown skin.
He was well dressed, perfectly groomed, though the bottle in his pocket
made an unsightly bulge that detracted from his otherwise perfect lines.
He extended his hand toward Jarod.
"Hi. Ramona was falling asleep, so I'm taking her place for a while.
You sure you don't want to stop for some dinner, or a nap or something?"
Jarod glanced away from his new guard to the papers on the floor. "Yeah.
I guess this would be a good time to break for food."
Trevor grinned wider. "Great! There's an incredible little sushi
bar just up the street--"
Jarod made a face. "I'm not too keen on sushi."
The other man's smile dimmed slightly. "Okay, then. Raffi's has
the most succulent steak tartare--"
"I don't eat red meat very often, if I can help it," he ventured
hesitantly. "I like cows."
Enthusiasm waning quickly, Trevor suggested other favorites, gourmet
fare that the Pretender politely snubbed. With a sigh of exasperation,
he followed Jarod out of the building and downstairs to a hot dog stand
on the corner. Reluctantly, he ordered one, murmuring something about
hot dogs being meat, and accompanied the other man on a stroll down the
sidewalk. After a few bites, he tossed the remains into a trashcan they
Jarod wiped mustard from the corners of his mouth as he swallowed a bite
of his dinner. "But how did Sebastian find out about Namir? Only
a handful of people at the Centre knew about him, and what they were planning."
Jarod didn't offer to expose his private source of information, or how
he had received the tip that set his thwarted rescue in motion.
Trevor stopped walking for a moment. He smiled. "You'd be surprised."
"Sebastian's records say you're a psychic."
The man caught up with a few swift strides to his companion. "Okay,
maybe you wouldn't be surprised."
Jarod shrugged. "I know one already, plus a few other assorted talented
and gifted people. They're like grains of sand where I come from."
"Yes, I know," Trevor shot back, nonplused. "I was lucky
enough to stay out of there. Heard plenty about it. Seen a few second-hand
glimpses, enough to give me nightmares. Can't imagine living in one."
Jarod thought of the resurrection experiments Mr. Lyle had piloted years
earlier, where Jarod had been repeatedly killed and revived over a period
of several weeks. Gooseflesh rose on his arms and the back of his neck,
but he gave no other outward signs of what was crossing his mind at the
moment. That wasn't the sort of thing for casual conversation.
"What was that?" Trevor asked, skittering to one side on the
sidewalk as if he'd been shoved away. "Felt like
Jeez, I don't
know. Didn't see much of it, but it scared the --" He grabbed at
Jarod's sleeve and drew him to a stop. "Was that you? What did they
do to you?"
Jarod fixed him with a warning glare. He was getting damned tired of
people snooping in his subconscious. He was going to have to find a way
to keep them out.
"How do you do that?" he demanded crossly. He chunked the last
bite of his hot dog, neatly wrapped in its paper boat and napkin, into
the trash can they had passed several feet back.
"Do what?" Trevor saw the hoop shot, nothing but net, and appreciated
it for its singular grace. "Say, you wanna play some basketball?
I know where there's a court--"
"How do you pick up on things other people are thinking about? How
do you know it's not your own random thoughts, imagining things? How do
Trevor held up his hands. "Slow down! It's not that easy. Takes
years of understanding, and it's scary as hell for a little kid, growing
up with this, knowing everybody else can't do it." He frowned, glanced
around at passers-by, and smoothed his suit down. He touched Jarod's elbow
and urged him forward, walking along the sidewalk again.
"You ever stand in a crowded room, where everyone's talking all
Jarod nodded. "Of course."
"Okay, think Grand Central Station. Ten feet away, there's a mom
with her little girl. The kid's wailing, really acting up. Mom's trying
not to make a scene, and she bends over to say something to the girl.
Mom's gotta be loud enough for her kid to hear her over the noise she's
making, but not loud enough anyone else can catch what she says. You tune
in to try to hear just that, filter out everything else that's going on
around you, 'cause if you hear it all, it's going to drive you crazy.
That's what it's like, doing what I do. I'm trying to shut out most of
what's coming in. You're standing there shouting at me, and I'm trying
not to listen. I don't go into your head looking for goodies. That isn't
the way it works."
Chagrinned, Jarod offered a quiet apology. "How can I avoid broadcasting,
then? Can you help me with that?"
Trevor smiled, genuine pleasure twinkling in his eyes. "Yeah. I
think I can turn down your volume a little, if you really want to work
with me. Cause, man, you got some stuff coming off you like you wouldn't
believe. Let's go find that basketball court and run each other ragged
for a little while. You need the exercise."
A smile twitched at the corners of Jarod's mouth. "Am I broadcasting
"Naw, man. You been cooped up in a lab all day. You're losing muscle
tone as I watch." He patted his pocket, remembering what he had in
there. "Let's go drop off this stuff in a secure place, and see what
we can stir up, okay? You up for a game? Can you jump, or is all that
height just for show?"
Jarod grinned. He decided he liked Trevor, despite his taste in food.
"Yeah. Let's go. I like to play games."
* * * * * * * * * *
Sim Lab #3
"I can't do it, Sydney. I can't."
The Belgian studied the teenager's defeated posture, head and shoulders
drooping as he stood. Blue light from the colored overheads shone on the
boy's fair hair and gleamed on the metal filaments imbedded in the skin-tight
mesh suit he wore. A visor covered his eyes, but as Sydney watched, a
tear rolled slowly out from beneath it and down the youth's cheek.
"You've worked with the virtual programs many times before, Alexander.
This suit is your own design. I know there are still problems to work
out, but you've got to concentrate--"
"I can't!" Alexander shouted, raising his head and his fists
in frustrated rage. "I can't do this anymore! I can't! I won't!"
He snarled and launched himself at a nearby worktable, pounding on it
with his fists, flipping it over and scattering the papers and gadgets
that had been on it a moment earlier.
Sydney rose from his chair, dropping his clipboard and pen, and rushed
to the youth's side, trying to catch flailing hands and stop his young
charge before he hurt himself. In his anguish, the boy's strength was
multiplied and he pushed the older man violently away, sending Sydney
careening off to bounce head first against the wall. Momentarily stunned,
he sat on the floor until he could gather his feet under him and hit the
intercom button for the security guard on duty outside the lab.
Only at the last moment did he remember who that was.
Kim bolted into the room just as Sydney started to totter unsteadily
toward Alexander again, using his voice to try to calm the boy. With a
feeling of dread he heard the crunch of something solid breaking as his
newest Pretender smashed his forearm into the sturdy formica countertop
against the far wall. In seconds Kim had grabbed the boy's arm and twisted
it up behind him to force him to his knees, but the limb bent at an unnatural
angle as Alexander screamed.
Kim let go and stepped away, her eyes wide as blood spurted from the
mangled limb, the bone end protruding through muscle, skin and the nylon
mesh virtual suit.
"Jesus, Sydney!" she breathed.
"It's all right," he assured her, stepping between her and
the boy. "I think he broke it himself."
Alexander stood still now, clutching his broken arm to his side, tears
streaming down his cheeks as he sobbed. "I don't want to do it anymore,
Sydney," he whimpered. "I can't. Please
Without thinking, the psychiatrist hurried to his charge and embraced
him, applying pressure at the appropriate nexus to staunch the flow of
blood. "It's all right, Alexander," he murmured quietly. "Let
me help you. I know this has been hard for you. I'll get you some time
to rest. All right? I'll make them understand that you need a break."
That seemed to help Alexander somewhat, and he wilted, leaning heavily
against his handler. "Thank you. Thank you. I just want to rest,
Sydney. Just rest. I'm so tired
Sydney supported his charge as they moved slowly toward the door. He
caught Kim's eye. "Call the Infirmary. Have them send a wheelchair
down here right away."
She reached for the wireless intercom unit at her belt and relayed the
message, helping him move the boy slowly out of the lab and down the corridor
toward the elevators. In minutes they had him in the Infirmary, and Sydney
stood by while the doctors treated the boy's injuries. Once Alexander
had been stabilized, Sydney ordered a regime of tranquilizers and antidepressants
given in addition to other medications, while the boy stayed in the hospital
area. When he was sure Alexander would be all right, he returned to his
office to make out a report on the incident and make his suggestions for
rest and rehabilitation of his newest subject.
Kim was waiting for him there, concern etched into her features. "How's
"Alexander will be fine," he assured her. "The break required
surgical repairs, but he won't suffer any permanent damage." He sighed
as he sat down heavily in his chair. "The boy was given to me after
his previous handler declared him mentally unstable. I diagnosed him with
severe clinical depression. His emotional makeup is too fragile for the
demands of pretender simulation. I told them--" He knotted up his
fists, his voice a deeply passionate growl. "I told them Alexander
would do fine in research. He has an excellent analytical mind, but he
cannot take the pressures--"
He took a deep breath, turning his back on his niece. "I'm sorry,"
he said brusquely. "I should maintain professional distance from
my subjects. It just
It becomes more difficult year after year."
He felt a warm hand touch his shoulder.
"I can see that now," she said softly. "I see how much
you care, how much it hurts you."
Sydney nodded. "You should leave here while you can, Kim. Please,
I beg you." He turned pleading eyes up to her, but she smiled sadly
back at him and shook her head.
"We're in this together," she whispered. "Somebody needs
to have your back."
He reached out to her and pulled her close, burying his face against
her belly. It was so hard to watch so many suffer needlessly in that place.
The grief and guilt were crushing him, and he needed release from it.
He needed to walk out the door and never return. But then there would
be no one to help those like Alexander, who had no choice but to be there.
Kim's arms folded around his shoulders, and she held him close in silence,
until he pulled away.
Daubing at his eyes, embarrassed that he had allowed his professional
demeanor to slip before a witness, he sniffed and tried to give her a
smile. "Thank you, my dear. I suppose we all need comfort, now and
"Some of us more than others," she agreed. Almost as an afterthought,
she bent down and kissed him briefly on the forehead, and gave him a fleeting
smile as she turned to return to her post.
More than anything, he wanted her safe. But her presence was a bright
spot in his life, and, loath as he was to admit it, he did need her. She
was family, and with her he could just be Sydney, rather than doctor or
handler. He would have to be careful if he was to protect her, and maybe
it was time to get a little assistance in that regard. He would think
on it, and hope that he made the right decision.
* * * * * * * * *
New York City
Miss Parker strode purposefully out of the chic dress shop, exclusive
paper bags with the store's logo emblazoned on the sides clutched in both
hands. From there she took a taxi to a spa to spend the rest of her day
being pampered beyond belief. First was a trip to the sauna to relax and
steam, followed by an ice cold bath to tighten her skin. After sitting
in a warm towel to relax afterward, her hair done up in a turban, she
sipped on a delicious iced drink and nibbled at the healthful yet tasty
tray of hors d'oeuvres the attentive staff had brought her.
Last on the list was a full body massage. The receptionist who scheduled
her appointment promised her that their new masseur was a godsend, the
best they'd ever had. Parker hadn't batted an eyelash, and now as she
lay face down on the massage table, she heard him enter the room.
"How are you today, Miss Parker?" he asked casually.
"So far, so good, Jarod," she returned. They had scheduled
this time so they could talk without arousing suspicion. Miss Parker often
went for retreats like this one, shopping at her favorite stores and taking
a little quiet time for herself. No one would suspect she had set up this
trip specifically to meet with the Centre's errant Pretender.
"I think I may have found a way to implement your mother's plan,"
he began, pouring a little almond-scented oil into his palm. He rubbed
his hands together, coating his palms with the oil to reduce friction
while he worked on her, and then applied his hands to her shoulders and
"Are you going to tell me about it, or do you want to try to catch
me off guard?"
His fingers smoothed downward, unwrapped her towel and slid expertly
down to her lower back.
She moaned with pleasure. "Oh, you can stop that in about a hundred
"I'm going to be sending you people that I want you to hire in strategic
places," he told her. "We'll need backup in security for getting
the children out all at once." He told her about the people he had
in mind, gave her names and suggested positions for them in SIS.
"Are they qualified?" she demanded. "I can't be called
on the carpet for hiring incompetent people, if you want me to stay as
head of SIS."
"They'll be qualified by the time I get through with them,"
he assured her. "The hard part will be creating the vacancies and
choosing them over internal candidates who may apply."
"That won't be hard, believe me," she promised.
"They'll keep their mouths shut, and do as they're told until time
to make our move. What's happening with the Aurora research? Have they
come through with a patch system yet, or dosages for the children?"
"Funny thing about that. Eve's not very forthcoming with information
on her intellectual properties, but all the information on the patch system
has vanished. I've got Broots on it now, but whoever took it did it so
well there's no trail. The dosage research was sent to Berlin to finish,
and nothing's come back on it yet." She sighed. "You didn't
take the patch research did you?"
"I'll see if I can find out anything. And no, it wasn't me."
She moaned as Jarod's fingers found a particularly sensitive spot and
began to knead out the tension that had her muscles knotted up. And then
she felt him bend over her, the stroke of his lips gentle, feather-light
against her skin. Something clenched up around her heart and in the pit
of her stomach. She wanted more, but it would only cause heartache for
"Don't, Jarod," she ordered him softly. "We can't go there.
We need to work on friendship, as partners, for Gabriel's sake. Don't
make things harder than they have to be."
His hands withdrew. "I don't want it to be over between us,"
he growled. "We barely got started. You don't know for sure that
it won't work--"
Grasping her towel for modesty's sake, she rolled over onto her side
so she could make eye contact, and sat up on the table, tucking the towel
back around her nakedness. "I do know, Jarod," she argued back.
"There will always be a shadow of Eclipse between us. I want to trust
you. I know in my heart that I can, but somehow I keep thinking -- I keep
remembering -- the monster I believed you were for so long, always at
the wrong moments. I don't think I'll ever get past that."
His eyes pleaded with her. His hands clenched, wanting to touch her,
to hold her and make her change her mind. She could see it in his face,
how much he wanted that intimate relationship between them.
"You can get past it, if you try," he assured her. "I've
"Don't you dare!" she snapped, shaking a finger at him. "Don't
you ever simulate me, do you hear me? Don't pretend to know how
I think or how I feel, Jarod." She jumped off the table. The turban
on her head fell off, spilling her hair down into her face. She was angry
now, imagining him walking inside her psyche to try to figure out a way
to draw her back to him. "You will not manipulate me. Do you understand?
She glared at him, flinging her hair back with an angry toss of her head.
"Don't! I've already told you how I feel. Don't push me. Don't try
to get me to change my mind. I didn't make this decision lightly, and
I won't have you second-guessing me into doubt. You may be a genius boy,
but I've got something you don't and that little voice inside me makes
a whole lot of sense, whether I want it to or not. I'm learning to listen
to it, and where we're concerned, that voice says friendship is the only
She grabbed up the fallen turban, pivoted on her barefoot heel and stormed
back to her private suite. It didn't take her long to dress and head for
the front desk to pay her bill. As she passed the massage room she heard
an awful racket, as if furniture was being tossed around by an angry man.
Parker couldn't blame Jarod for being upset. He was hurting, but he wasn't
the only one. For Gabriel's sake, they had to work out the problems between
them, and she knew that eventually Jarod would come around. In the meantime,
he was giving vent to his frustration and acting like a normal guy for
a change. She had tried to let him down easy, but he refused to comply
with her wishes. Now that she had dropped him like a hot rock, he was
incensed, frustrated, stung by rejection. But he would get over it, in
time. He would move on.
And so would she. An image of Tommy flashed in her mind as she signed
the credit card slip. As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, she took a
deep breath of the city-scented air, closed her eyes and leaned against
the side of the building for a moment.
Tommy had been perfect for her. His kindness, his gentleness were exactly
what she needed to offset her own harshness, when he came into her life.
She was learning to appreciate her own softer side, thanks to him, and
to Jarod, both of whom had shown her that she could still be the strong
woman she was and allow herself to be kind as well. She was learning a
lot about herself from Jarod, but that had always been part of his quest.
She was important to him, and he wanted the best for her, wanted her to
become who she was supposed to be, rather than who the Centre had made
He was important to her as well. No one would ever know her as intimately
as he did. Gabriel needed both of them in his life, and he needed them
on friendly terms with each other. They could do that. They had always
had that between them, that soul-deep affection that kept them connected
even through the worst of their lives. But she couldn't be his lover or
Christmas at Barrow had been beautiful, painfully so. They had been able
to take a step outside reality for a little while, but it wasn't real.
It wasn't how life really was, and didn't include the very real dangers
that the Centre presented to all their lives. She had to be mindful of
that, keep Jarod at a distance while they were still struggling. If she
forgot even for a second, smiled at the mention of his name or got a dreamy
look in her eye, it would all be over, and someone would be discovering
her body in a Centre elevator
if her body was ever found. She couldn't
risk that. She'd had to put a stop to their affair, no matter what it
cost either of them personally.
Images of Jarod in the weather station slithered across her consciousness,
memories of him lying in bed beside her, jerking in his sleep, crying
out in the throes of his nightmares. Not once in the nights they spent
together did he sleep peacefully, and that tore at her heart. He was damaged
beyond repair and always would be, no matter what façade of normality
he put on to fool the rest of the world, and she was riding in that same
boat with him. There was little chance for true happiness for either of
She knew that now. She lived in the eye of the storm while Jarod weathered
the worst of it on the fringes of her world. And until Life took a significant
turn and the threat was gone, she had to play the role the Chairman had
created for her. When that was over, when peace was an actual possibility,
she might reconsider, but she doubted it. What might have been once upon
a time could never be now, not with all that had passed between them.
Jarod just needed to accept that, and get on with his life. And so did
That inner voice had been telling her that it wouldn't work between them,
and she had ignored it at first. Now she understood its message, and as
much as she would like to have chosen otherwise, she knew not to fight
it. Jarod would always be in her life. He would always be close, but not
intimately. That simply wasn't in the cards no matter how they were shuffled.
They had their memories of a fairy tale beneath a snowy landscape. It
would have to be enough.
With a sigh of resignation, she hefted her shopping bags and stepped
out to the curb to hail a taxi.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jarod stared at his reflection in the mirror. Was he unlovable? Would
what happened earlier in the day with Morgan become the standard by which
all his intimate relationships were measured?
He cast back through his memory for all the women who really touched
him. Nia, of course, had been the first. Leaving her was his only choice,
because he knew Miss Parker was on his tail. There were others who had
come close, but no other real romantic companions until Zoe. He felt the
pang of her loss again, less intensely this time, tinged with bittersweetness.
Then there was Kim, who ran away from him as fast as her feet could carry
her. And now the one woman who had been a constant in his life, his best
friend and worst enemy at different stages of the game they played with
Parker was reluctant to break it off with him. He could feel that. She
wanted him, wanted to build a life with him, but it was impossible because
of the Centre. Slowly he reached out and splayed his fingers against the
cool glass, unable to look himself in the eye.
He knew what he was. A monster walked beneath his skin, haunting him,
pushing him toward darkness. He was a freak, something so alien he might
never be able to find what he needed. More and more, since he had come
back to the world from Barrow, he felt his own incompleteness, his emptiness
inside. And more often he dreamed of love, of having someone to hold at
night and tell his secrets to, someone who could appreciate his oddball
sense of humor and joy in small things.
His chest hurt, the pain shooting up into his throat and making it difficult
to swallow. It went down into his belly, making it clench and twist. He
wanted to be loved. More than anything else in the world, he wanted that,
but he was beginning to think it would be forever beyond his reach.
His fingers curled up into a fist as he fought himself for control.
Rage and pain swallowed him up for an instant, and he slammed his fist
into the mirror, shattering the glass and surprising himself with his
own violence. He had barely gotten out of the spa without being arrested,
and he knew that unless he got control of himself, he was going to be
in big trouble.
"Aurora," he whispered tightly.
His head came up. He glanced at the shattered glass, at his bloody knuckles.
And then he turned and made his way, glassy-eyed with intent, back to
the lockup in the lab.
There it was, gleaming golden in the glass vial, sitting alone and unguarded,
right where he had left it. He felt the need pulling at him, the promise
of endless pleasure beckoning him, drawing him across the room toward
it. He snatched it up, put it into the pocket of his jacket and started
opening drawers, looking for a syringe. Panic set in instantly, fear that
someone would come through the door and catch him, fear that he wouldn't
be able to find a syringe, though he knew some were available. He wrestled
with the anxiety, sweat beading up on his forehead and lip.
Heaving a sigh of relief when he found the packet of syringes, he tore
one free and started to open the package.
He stared at it, his mind swirling to a stop as he realized what he was
doing. He watched in horrified amazement as his fingers tore open the
package, slowly removed the instrument and removed the sharps protector
from the needle. He was breathing hard now, struggling like a drowning
man against the overpowering desire for the drug.
It would make me feel better, he heard in his mind. I wouldn't care about
"I wouldn't care about anything," he murmured. He set the syringe
down with trembling fingers and stepped away from the lab counter, staring
at it with revulsion. "No. I can't. I can't. I can't
His whole body shook as he reached for the vial in his pocket, ready
to lock it up somewhere and toss away the key.
His pocket was empty. Glancing around for it, he caught a glimpse of
something moving and turned toward it, just in time to see the vial floating
across the lab, right into Ramona's grasp. Her eyes were sad as she regarded
"I almost let you down, Jarod. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
He sighed with relief, glad it had been removed from his access. "I
almost let myself down. Thanks for being there."
Returning to the bathroom, he washed off and bandaged his hand, splashed
some water on his face and leaned against the cool tile wall to try to
compose himself. Being sober was hard, but he wanted it. He wanted to
erase Aurora from his past, from his mind and body forever, but addicts
never had that luxury. He would never be quite free of its hold, always
promising peace and happiness just beyond his reach. That was only an
illusion, and he knew that he would lose himself completely if he ever
went back to it.
That was unacceptable. He would be no one's slave, not ever again. Not
even for a promise as potent as Aurora.
Jarod took a deep breath and took himself back to the
lab to work on the withdrawal system. He had almost completed a treatment
for others like him, who weren't as strong or as fortunate as he was.
Helping them would help him heal, even if it was just a little. He bent
his head over the protocol papers and applied his intellect to the problem
with a vengeance.
* * * * * * * * *
Hybrid Biotract #43
There were few trees on this point of land overlooking the ocean. A forest
of bushes, tall as a man's head, lined the pathway, winter barren except
for those few that were evergreen. He dressed in a mottled gray and black
camouflage outfit to blend in with the branches and make him hard to see
from a distance, but the woman he was there to meet had no such qualms
She was a tall, handsome black woman, dressed in an expensive red suit
that matched her lipstick. Over that, she wore a sable coat that went
down to her thighs, and an angora scarf that wrapped around her head and
neck to shut out the ever-present wind that always seemed to blow through
that section of the agricultural plots.
"Madame Director," he said with a grin. "Good to see you
"I'm not the director of SIS any more," she snapped at him.
"Or hadn't you heard? They've moved me to the Tower instead. Not
exactly a demotion, but I got the message."
He shrugged. It was cold out there without a coat, but he could handle
such temperature extremes for short periods. The run to the meeting point
left him warm, but he was cooling off rapidly and would need to get started
again soon. "What do you have for me?"
"I have people in place," she told him brusquely. "When
will you be ready to make your move?"
"That depends on those furloughs you've been handing out."
He gave her an elegant half bow. "Thank you for that little gem.
Maybe a few months or so. Does that work for you?"
"As long as Miss Parker is discredited, I'll wait," she hissed.
Then she softened somewhat. "I'm glad you came when I called. I was
beginning to think all the Ghosts were gone."
"Not all of us," he assured her with a wink. "Your ace
in the hole is still active. Just invisible, as we were trained to be."
She sighed, and patted his arm. "And you always were the best. I
just wish you'd been here a few months back when one of their Pretenders
escaped. You could have been a big help to me then. Parker botched that
job, but because she's the chairman's daughter, she didn't even get a
slap on the wrist."
"We'll all get what we've earned, Ms. Hart. I promise you that."
He saluted, then slipped a camouflage cap over his platinum blond hair.
"See you soon. But you may not see me."
"That's the way it's supposed to be," she murmured. "I'll
have my list of operatives to you in a coded e-mail tonight."
With a nod, he started back over the path at a jog, then breezed into
a sprint when he was well away from the point, headed down slope. Soon
enough he was gone, a blur in the trees as he crossed a wide stretch of
forested land on foot. He knew this place like the palm of his hand, and
part of him was glad to be back. Familiar territory was always good, especially
when he was being hunted. He wasn't there yet, but that time would come
soon enough. And when it did, he would enjoy hunting the hunters down
one by one. No one was better at that than him.
* * * * * * * * *
Blue Cove, DE
Pat DuBois glanced in her rearview mirror, window down on the company
car, blowing her hair all around her face.
"I'm free!" she shouted, indulging in a huge grin. It had been
almost two years since she had a furlough from care of the Seraphim, and
her last vacation had been just before the first of them was born. She
was only off for three days, but she was determined to make the best of
what time she had.
Driving away from the Centre as fast as possible, she headed straight
for Dover. After checking into her favorite hotel on that Friday evening,
she went to a new club she had heard about at work and ordered a row of
tequila shots. By the time she called for another round, she was feeling
very good indeed.
"Having a party, are we?" asked a blond man in black leather
who appeared on the barstool next to hers.
She laughed. "I'm on vacation!"
"Well, then, it's party time, ennit?" He extended his hand
to her and nodded toward the dance floor. "Want to?"
He was at least 15 years her junior, but Pat was no slouch. She took
good care of herself, dressed well and groomed with good taste. She wasn't
a young hottie, but she was attractive. Taking in his shockingly platinum
hair, the dangerous look in his eyes and that sexy, come-hither smile,
she decided to take a chance. She hadn't been with a man since her last
trip away from the Centre, and if he was willing, so was she.
But first, she wanted to see how he moved. She loved a man who could
dance well, and if this guy was good on the dance floor, he promised to
be even better in the sack. And that would be the best way in the world
to start her vacation -- relaxed and satisfied, even if the morning brought
a hangover with it.
"What's your name, sweetie?" she asked, hoping he could hear
her over the loud music.
He was already dancing as he strutted away from the bar. She asked him
again as he struck a pose, and he mouthed it for her, but she couldn't
read lips. He leaned close as he swept her into his arms, said it again
and spun her away, moving into an incredible display of terpsichorean
She still didn't know his name, and didn't care. Pat couldn't stop smiling
as she watched him move, mesmerized by his skill and rhythm and pure sensuality.
This guy was going to be just what she needed, but she wanted a few more
drinks under her belt before she asked him back to her hotel room.
* * * * * * * * *
Broots rubbed his eyes as he keyed in additional search parameters in
the mainframe, looking for any trace of the project Miss Parker had sent
him to find. He had people digging through the building top to bottom,
looking for the files on the Aurora patch, but after three days, nothing
had turned up. No one could remember such an assignment coming in, and
the stock of Aurora that the lab was supposed to have locked away was
His boss would not be happy.
She had already told him what to do if the records weren't found, and
he thought the Spanish Inquisition would have been a holiday compared
to what she had in mind. He had already seen the nervous looks on people's
faces, the sweat beading on brows and the trembling hands as they turned
the buildings inside out in search of the missing files. One more sweep,
and he would know intimately every project they were working on at that
firm. And that was far more than he wanted to know.
The clock in the bottom corner of his computer screen reported that it
was just turning 6 am. The door to his borrowed office opened, and Shane
Roberts swept in, carrying a bundle of paper in the crook of his left
arm. He was smiling broadly, obviously happy about something.
"Found it!" he crowed, and dumped the pile of papers on the
desk. "I knew it was here somewhere. Some idiot stuffed these things
in a box marked with a guy's name who left about three months ago. He
was some junior level researcher, and we thought all his projects got
handed out before he left. This hasn't been touched, as far as I can tell."
Broots looked at the cover sheet and verified the project code number.
"Yes, this is what we've been looking for, Shane. I'm sure glad you
found it." He leafed through the notations and chemical formulas
that made no sense to him, flipping through to the back. He recognized
a few sheets of paper with handwritten notes, and recognized the writing
as Jarod's. The date corresponded to the time the missing Pretender had
been in Centre custody, so it appeared that the stack was complete.
"Yeah, FDA inspections are tough enough to survive," Roberts
returned with a satisfied sigh. "Centre audits are a nightmare compared
to those. I'm glad we don't have to
We don't still have to have
that audit, do we?" He looked concerned, hoping the inquest was over.
"Nah, man, you're covered," Broots assured him with a small
salute. "They just wanted to know where this stuff was, and if anything
had been done on it. Now that we know it's still in limbo, I'll just take
it back with me and let them do their thing with it. You want to work
up a receipt or transfer or something I can sign to make it official?"
Shane wilted with relief, and smiled again. "Sure thing, Buddy.
Anything you want, including the dancing girls."
Broots' mouth quirked into a grin. "Dancing girls?"
The scientist chuckled and rubbed his palms together. "Let's get
this disaster put to bed, and I'll take you out to lunch. Some of the
guys in the lab have told me about this bar where they have lunch sometimes.
I think we both deserve a break, so why don't we go check it out, have
"As long as it doesn't show up on my expense report, I'm there!"
Broots giggled. Adrenaline perked him up as he thought about what he'd
be watching while he ate his burger and onion rings for lunch. He didn't
usually go in for that sort of entertainment, but he was sure he'd enjoy
it. In short order he'd have this problem solved, and Miss Parker would
never know how he had capped off his trip.
At least, he hoped she wouldn't. Sometimes he wondered if she could read
minds, and that wasn't the sort of thing he wanted her to know about him.
* * * * * * * * *
Pat sat on the edge of the bed, neatly dressed as always, her hands in
her lap, eyes downcast.
The man she had met in the club three days earlier paced the hotel room
slowly, hands on hips, watching her like a tiger about to pounce on its
prey. His eyes glittered with intent as he studied her. "You understand
what to do now, don't you, Pat, darling?"
"Yes, sir." She lifted her gaze from her lap to meet his steadily.
"When will I see you again?"
"You're going to take up jogging out of doors," he mused thoughtfully.
"I'll meet you in Biotract #57. That's far enough away from the main
building to give us some privacy. I'll make sure you have plenty of this--"
He held up a small, flesh-colored patch of fabric, coated with adhesive
on one side. "--to last you until I see you again." He grinned.
"Can't be without it, now, can we?"
She smiled, her eyes flickering with interest as she stared at the patch.
"No, sir. We can't. I can't." She clenched her hands in her
lap. "You're sure this won't cost me anything? They're free? I can
have all I want, and never have to pay for them?"
He spread his hands wide in a magnanimous gesture and chuckled. "Of
course, darling. Isn't that what I promised you?" He tossed the patch
to her. "All I want from you is a little information here and there.
You let me know when any of the other caregivers are planning a furlough,
and I'll invite them into our little family as well."
She held the package close to her heart, suffused with happiness such
as she had never known before. She was at peace with herself, with her
life, for the first time, and this near stranger had given it to her.
When she woke up with him on Saturday morning, she hadn't remembered meeting
him the previous night. She was afraid at first, for he had her bound
and gagged. He had injected her with a drug, something he called his little
piece of Heaven. It felt great, but she resisted it and him for as long
as she could. He took good care of her, seeing to her needs, making sure
she was fed and rested, though she was sedated much of the time. By Monday
morning she was welcoming the shots, eager to have more of whatever it
was that he was giving her.
That was when he had switched her to the patches. It would be better
that way, he promised, so she wouldn't look like a junkie. She could carry
them in her purse or pocket, step into the bathroom and drop the waste
into the incinerator whenever she went down to that level. No one would
have to know her secret, and if she was careful, no one ever would. If
they did discover what she was doing, he would never come to her again.
The flow of patches would stop, and she would die without them.
She believed that. She had felt the first pangs of withdrawal a little
with the first patch dose. It took longer to deliver the medication into
her system, and she thought, during that first hour after the injection
had worn off, that she would most certainly die. The memory of that filled
her with horror, but it dissipated quickly. After all, she had Heaven
in her body now. That was all that mattered.
Pat DuBois gazed up at her master with adoration. "I'll be happy
to help you any way I can."
He grinned back. "I know you will, love. You're going to go back
to the Centre and take up your duties with no one the wiser, and you're
going to do your job splendidly well, because it will make me happy. And
when I'm happy
She gazed down at the patch in her hands and smiled. "Then I can
be happy, too. Forever."
"Yes," he agreed. "Forever."