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Saltire Labs
New York City

Jarod went over the computations again and again, checking and rechecking his figures until he was certain of the outcome. Every time, the simulation came out the same way.

He had done it.

The process was complicated. It was painful during certain stages. It would not be pleasant for a good month after an addict started the detoxification, but it would be far more comfortable than the hell he had endured during his own withdrawal.

The first person he notified was Broots. Routing the call through several Centre stations on the east coast, he knew it would be days before they traced the call back to the lab, and by then he would be long gone, along with his research. He listened for Broots to answer, and greeted him warmly.

The tech's terrified whisper let him know that he was not expecting Jarod to call him directly.

"That problem you needed solved," Jarod offered cryptically. "I have your solution."

"What prob-- Oh, that!" Broots sounded excited now. "That's great! Can you get it to me? How do I--"

"You don't," Jarod told him. "You let me handle that. All right?"

"Just tell me what you need."

"You don't need to be involved. I'll take it from here, and I'll keep in touch." Jarod smiled. He wanted to help Keely, and was glad that he had an inside man if he needed one, to get him information if he couldn't get it any other way. Jarod would only use Broots as a last resort, though, aware that any requests might be traceable and get the tech killed. "Be patient, Mr. Broots. Your friend is going to be just fine."

He remembered the email Broots had sent him, describing the young woman he'd seen weeks earlier, hollow-eyed and complacent, quite obviously addicted to the drug, and Jarod had recognized her name. They had corresponded about her, and the tech had done some digging for him into her records. It took Broots some time to admit his first view of her was naked and dripping wet, but the pretender had found it charming that he cared so much for someone he barely knew.

"Thanks, Jarod. You don't know what this means to me." Broots sighed into the phone. "She's just so sweet and fragile and beautiful, you know? I don't understand how people could do that to her, put her on that stuff."

Jarod's voice softened. "I know. I don't understand how they could use Aurora on anyone." He traced his left hand over the words and symbols he had written on the formula page. "But we'll make her better. Thanks for caring."

"Sure. You bet."

Broots' sadness weighed heavy on Jarod's heart, sympathizing with his pain. He gathered up the papers and the samples he had made, along with his personal supply of medication, and prepared to take his findings to Sebastian. The man was articulate but disinterested, agreeable and pleasant, but Jarod could see how pleased and excited his wife and the others were.

Sumi assured him that the process would be put to immediate use, and told him that the group was about to be returning to their home base in Dallas. She invited him to come with them, but he declined. He had other projects in mind and asked for a little more time at the lab before he struck out on his own.

An hour later, he was saying goodbye to them as they got into the limousine that would take them to the airport and away.

He had made friends, but there was still a great deal to do. The first thing on his list was a complete investigation of Prometheus Productions and Sanctuary. He had entrusted them with his life over the last few days, and still knew almost nothing about them. That, he knew, was not a good policy for someone like him. He needed to know who he was dealing with, and before much time passed, he would know everything about everyone associated with the two groups.

The penthouse suite was his until he chose to leave, so he made himself at home and started looking into the lives of the gifted people of Sanctuary.

* * * * * * * * *

DFW Airport
Irving, Texas

"This is great!" Broots cheered enthusiastically as he felt the balmy winter atmosphere in the bright Texas sunshine. "I don't even need a coat!" He shrugged out of his winter parka and draped it over his arm as he followed his boss and Sydney into the baggage claim area at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, and toward the doors to the parking lot outside. "Maybe we should move the Centre to Texas, Miss Parker."

She fixed him with a withering glare. "Have you ever been here in the summer, Broots?" she asked impatiently. "The concrete melts under your feet. People die of sunstroke in the shade. Personally, I'd rather deal with a little snow in the winter than living in hell all summer. We'll stay right where we are, thanks." She turned away, glanced right and left for a taxi stand and sighted a sleek black car pulling up right in front of them.

Assuming it was a Centre car, she got into the back seat with Sydney beside her and Broots in the front seat of the sedan, beside the driver.

"Good afternoon, Miss Parker," said the driver, a woman with long, dark hair and dressed in a neatly tailored business suit. "Jarod sends his good wishes, and has asked me to take you straight to his latest digs. Your bags will be delivered to the downtown Marriott, to the rooms he's reserved for you."

She rolled her eyes. "Jarod sent you. I should have known."

The woman glanced in the rear-view mirror. "Greetings, Sydney." She looked to the left and smiled. "And you must be Mr. Broots. I'm Ramona."

Broots' mouth worked, but no sound came out as he stared at the beautiful woman.

"How do you know Jarod, Ramona?" asked Sydney.

"He's been doing some consulting work for us at one of our labs in New York City. Nice guy. Kind of twitchy lately, though. Must be the addiction thing."

Parker shot a startled glance at Sydney, shocked that the Pretender would have revealed such a personal confidence to this near stranger. "What addiction thing?"

Ramona smiled. "A project he was working on. It's a new treatment for people who are severely addicted to drugs. There's a big market for that these days."

"And he was here, also?" Sydney returned Parker's suspicious glance.

"Yeah, for a while. Checking up on our corporation. Smart guy. It pays to know who you're doing business with." Ramona drove the car down the curved roads that circled around and under several other thoroughfares, which eventually merged into a straightaway that led them onto I-30, toward Dallas. The nearby city skyline was visible through a faint brownish haze of pollution.

The drive to the old landmark Blackstone Hotel took less than half an hour, and Ramona showed them up to the room Jarod had so recently occupied. Small slips of paper clung to the wall at the back, each a different color and size, bearing a few words per slip, written in Jarod's hand. Parker strolled closer and began to read.

"I see Jarod's discovered Post-it Notes," she mused aloud. She squinted to read the note at the top. "Pele Enterprises. Is that the corporation he was investigating?"

"Yes, ma'am, it is," Ramona confirmed. "The division I work for is Prometheus Productions. We film major motion pictures at a nearby studio."

"Movies?" Broots echoed enthusiastically. "Wow, that's cool! Do you think I could get a tour--"

"Broots!" Parker snapped. "Business before pleasure."

Ramona chuckled. "If you're here long enough, sure. Las Colinas Studios offers regular tours. I'll get you some information."

"We won't be here that long," Parker assured her. One of the slips caught her eye, and she reached for it. She read the scribbled note three times before tucking the paper into her jacket pocket. "Do you have any more information to share, Ramona, or is this it?"

The other woman shrugged. "That depends. If you need to ask me any more questions…" She pulled a business card out of a small purse slung over her shoulder and handed it over. "… just call me. The Prometheus building isn't far from here, and I can be back in about ten minutes. Meanwhile, I'll leave you to explore."

She left with a polite smile, and Parker felt the note in her pocket tugging for attention again. "Broots, can you get into the Centre mainframe from here?"

"My laptop's still in the corporate jet, but yeah. What do you need?"

"Call the jet and have one of the sweepers bring the laptop here," she ordered, turning her gaze back to the notes decorating the wall. "I want you to look up any reference to Prometheus in the mainframe. It'll be an old project, maybe 20 years back. Find out everything you can. And check out Pele, too."

"Both deities associated with fire," Sydney mused. "Prometheus was one of the Greco-Roman demigods, whom legend has it brought fire to man from heaven and put them on a higher footing with the gods. Prometheus was tortured for that transgression ever afterward, until being rescued by Hercules. And Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano."

Parker's eyes roved over the notes, tracking them from the parent company all the way down to the smallest subsidiaries. There were names on the list that were familiar, and she was certain that some of them were on the Centre's financial investment rolls as well. "Broots, as soon as you get that laptop here, I want you to enter in all the names of these companies and do searches on them, too. I think we may be looking at some of the company's bedfellows here, and if we are, I need to know what doors to open and which to leave closed."

Broots had his cellular phone up to his ear, already dialing the plane, and nodded to let her know he had received her instruction. He gave her message to the crew, looking around the room on his own while he talked. He strolled close and began to read the notes as well, and when he hung up, he pointed toward one of the slips. "CGB. Isn't that the research firm that was doing beta testing on the Nebula series drugs?"

"Now what would a motion picture company want with a research laboratory that produces drugs?" asked Sydney, who was looking through a file stuffed with printouts of corporate financial transactions.

"Heck if I know," Broots returned. "But I'll bet Jarod's got it all figured out."

A full examination of the room didn't take long, and by the time they were finished the sweeper had arrived with Broots' laptop. He started working on the projects as assigned, while his companions left the hotel in search of their own rooms elsewhere. She and Sydney parted company in the lobby, and as soon as she got to her room, she pulled the business card out of her pocket and dialed the number.

Twenty minutes later, she strode into a meeting room in the Prometheus Building with Ramona leading the way.

"No need for introductions," Parker told her, and the brunette left with a polite nod.

"It's been a long time," said Morgan.

Standing with his back to her, the man at the far end of the room turned to face her at last. "Decades," he responded quietly. "You look as beautiful as ever, Parker."

Her eyes took in his height, his impeccable clothing, and the intensity in those daunting hazel eyes. She smiled broadly. "Well, Sebastian. Didn't you turn into a biscuit! Too bad you were so much younger than me last time we met."

"Still am." He chuckled. "But -- A, we were children then, and B, I'm quite married now, thank you." He waggled the ring finger on his left hand at her for emphasis.

"Lucky woman," Parker purred, enjoying the view. Her smile dimmed, and she sighed. "But you know that's not why I'm here."

Sebastian shook his head. "No, I know why you're here. You're looking up my knickers to see if you can catch a glimpse of the Pretender I'm hiding. Only I'm not hiding him. I have no idea where your Jarod is at the moment."

She crossed her arms over her chest and sauntered closer. "Looks like you own several of our closest business associates, from the breadcrumbs Jarod left us. You want to explain to me what that's all about?"

He shrugged. "My parents had close ties with the Centre, once upon a time. Don't you remember?" He didn't give time for her to answer. "Da was always a smart one when it came to business, really into diversification. Made me a millionaire before I was toilet trained. I've simply carried on the relationships he built, and expanded where possible."

"Did you know who Jarod was when he came to you?" She sat on the edge of the table right beside where he stood and gazed up at him.

"Yes, I did."

"And you didn't think it would be… beneficial for you to turn him in to us?"

"Beneficial for whom? To the Centre? Yeah, I knew that." He leaned close. "But I've been there, remember? I knew it wouldn't be beneficial for him."

She held his steady gaze as he straightened up. "I have to bring him back, Sebastian. It's my job."

He stared at her in silence for a moment. Then he smiled. "Not if you can't catch him." Slowly, he moved even closer, forcing her to lean back against the table on her palms to keep from falling over. "And if you don't tell that we knew who he was, no one will be in the least suspicious. We weren't supposed to be informed, now, were we? Nobody sent us a memo with a mug shot. So your lovely arse is covered quite nicely. Isn't it, sheila?"

"Back off, torch boy," she snarled. "I never said I felt a draft."

He sat down at the table and relaxed into the chair. "I used to like you, you know. When we were kids."

"I thought you were a freak." She eased back to a sitting position and shot him a chilly glance.

"On the bugle," he returned casually, tapping his nose for emphasis. "That's because I am one." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "And if your boy appears on our doorstep again, my lovely, you can bet the ranch I won't be ringing you up to let you know."

"So you'd offer him protection from us?"

"In a heartbeat."

She stared at him, considering all the ramifications of what he had told her. He had the resources to offer protection to Jarod, to protect him from sweepers, assassins, or herself. Apparently, he had the inclination, as well. But what she wasn't clear on was motive.


"You have to ask?" He pushed back in the chair and stood up. "This interview is over, Miss Parker. Anything else you need, you'll have to go through Ramona."

"I think I got enough," she said with a smile. "For the moment, anyway." She rose and paced regally toward the door, almost certain she smelled smoke behind her.

* * * * * * * * *

Bart's Transmission
The Bronx

The room was dimly lit and smelled of machine oil and cardboard. Namir opened his eyes and lifted his head, trying to make out where he was. Ropes bound his arms to the back of the chair where he was seated, his ankles tied to the legs. He vaguely remembered what happened at the airport, when Sebastian and the others had put him on the plane for home. An airport security team took him off the plane and hustled him away, saying something about a terrorist threat, and the next thing he knew he was being hustled into a limousine. He barely caught a glimpse of one of the men who had been on the plane with Allegra, and knew then that he'd been recaptured by The Centre.

His struggle for freedom, however, had been brief. They were ready for him, and put him out again with another injection of some kind of sedative. During that period of unconsciousness, they had brought him to this place. It looked like a garage of some sort, a storage area in the back where auto parts were kept.

Boxes were stacked up against the walls. A drum of oil leaked a thick, greasy brown stain onto the floor beneath it, spreading now to some of the boxes. In the middle of the room was a clear space where his chair sat, with a path leading toward the only door and a small aisle toward the back corner where a small counter and coffeemaker sat. Overhead, a bank of fluorescent lights cast what little illumination there was in the room, since only one of the four bulbs was burning.

He felt the positioning of the ropes and began to flex his hands, arms and legs, hoping to loosen them enough to allow him to slip through them. After a moment, he could hear voices outside, approaching quickly. They sounded excited, and when the door opened, an old man in a gray suit came in, his face beaming, his blue eyes dancing. A fringe of white hair skirted around the back and sides of his head, matched by a thick white mustache over his lips. His voice was gruff but filled with joy.

"You've done it, son!" he crowed. "I can't tell you how excited I am about this." He stepped up close, looking Namir over like he was a piece of prize livestock. "Great job, Valentine. I don't know how you two found him, but I'm grateful."

It made the Israeli angry. He was not a piece of meat, a beast of burden, something to be used like a machine. Whatever they wanted from him, he promised himself they wouldn't get it.

He snarled at them in his native tongue, spouting off a stream of curses that would have curled the old man's hair, if he'd had enough of it.

"Oh, he's a fiery one," the elder observed, even more pleased. "He's strong. That's good." He glanced around for a place to sit and pulled up a sturdy box, planting himself in front of his captive. "Namir, I'm Mr. Parker. This is my son, Mr. Lyle, and the gentleman who brought you to us is Mr. Valentine." He gestured to each of them in turn, making sure Namir saw that Valentine had a gun at rest in his hand.

Parker chuckled. "Oh, don't worry. We're not going to hurt you. That is, not if you cooperate."

Namir loosed another stream of invectives, including generations of the man's family in his insult.

"Want to know what he said, Mr. Parker?" Valentine asked casually, locking the door and crossing his hands in front of his body, keeping that pistol in plain view and ready to be used.

"No, I get the picture." Parker locked eyes with Namir. "And I know you understand English, so let's discuss your situation."

"There is nothing to discuss. Set me free or I will kill you all!" He continued working the ropes, certain he almost had one hand free. Just a little more movement, and he'd be able to get out of the bonds once they gave him a chance. "I have been trained by the finest--"

"I know about your training, my young friend," Parker cut in, his humor evaporating. His eyes grew intense. "And I know what else you can do. I know you're a healer." His gaze slid upward to the faces of his two companions, offering a warning before he returned his attention to his captive. "I want you to heal me."


Parker gave a nod, and Lyle stepped up behind the chair. From his jacket pocket he withdrew a garotte, knotted professionally in the middle, looped it around Namir's neck and twisted it tightly with his inefficient grip. While the missing thumb kept the throttle from completely cutting off Namir's air, it was enough to get the point across.

If he couldn't get his hands free, he'd be completely at their mercy. He'd have to cooperate just a little, and when the man let him go, he agreed, gasping for breath. He coughed and sputtered, trying to inhale deeply. "I'll need my hands free," he told them. "It comes through my hands."

Parker nodded. "Just his hands, son. Valentine, you keep that pistol aimed where it'll do the most good. Take out his knee if you have to. I don't want him killed. He's too valuable."

"I never miss," Valentine assured him, and took aim.

Namir shifted in his chair, glancing around to make sure he had all the details before getting started. As his hands came loose, he collected himself and concentrated on his ankle, trying to feel if his knife was still in the sheath strapped there. He wriggled against the rope, pressing it close until he could just detect the warm brass tip of the handle touching his leg.

"Don't try anything," Lyle warned him. "You won't make it, if you try to escape."

"What is your injury?" Namir asked quietly, still calculating.

"Chemical imbalance," Parker shot back, glancing at his companions again. "It affects the brain."

Namir rubbed his hands together to warm them, and placed them on either side of the man's head. Parker's eyes closed, trusting him. The Israeli felt a little tremor run through him, snatching his attention to his hands for a moment. Curiosity focused him on the sensations pouring into his arms, snaking through his body like snakes of white fire. Whatever was wrong with this man, it was not just a simple chemical imbalance. It was an abomination.

He let go, sitting upright in his chair for an instant. "I can hear screams," he breathed, looking into Parker's eyes as the man opened them. "The screams of infants. It echoes through me like soundwaves from a loudspeaker. What have you done?"

Parker glowered. "Never mind how it happened. Just fix it."

"I'm next," Lyle put in, tightening his glove over his missing digit. "I can't tell you how good it'll feel to be free of those injections."

"I cannot do this," Namir protested. "The damage is too great. It is beyond my ability--"

"It better not be," Lyle threatened, moving a little closer.

Namir saw that the thumbless man did not completely obscure the gunman's line of fire, but he had moved a little into it. Just enough to do the trick. He nodded, and laid his hands on Parker's face once again.

Pain shot into his hands, and he gasped. He would send no energy back through the connection, but the contact took his breath away, numbed his hands slightly. He had to move, and he had to do it now before he lost the use of them.

Like a striking snake, he shoved Parker roughly to one side, unbalancing him so he'd topple to the floor. Using the push as momentum, Namir continued to twist his upper body until his hands made contact with Lyle's midsection. At the same time he pushed the other man at the gunman, he jerked the chair backward, into the area shielded by Lyle's falling body. He reached for his knife, skimming up his pant leg, pulling the blade free and slicing the rope as he continued to scoot the chair backward, behind the shielding wall of stacked boxes.

In seconds he was free. He shoved at the boxes with his shoulder, toppling the upper ones onto the men on the other side. The confusion gave him the seconds he needed to step out into the open, locate the gun and make a grab for it. For an instant the muzzle flash blinded him. The impact of the bullet knocked him backward, but the pistol came away in his hand as he fell. Keeping his composure as he had been taught, he turned the weapon around and aimed it at the men as he struggled to his feet.

"I will not help you," Namir snarled at Parker. "You are a monster!"

With the pistol enforcing his will, he made them move to the back corner of the room, giving him clear access to the door. Holding his free hand over the wound in his side, he staggered out into the empty garage, locking the men into the little storage room. As he limped toward the rear exit of the building, he felt the energy coursing through his hand and into the wound, knitting the damaged tissues back together. He wouldn't get far, but he'd find someplace to hole up until it had closed and he had recovered from the effort of healing himself. He would need extra sleep for days afterward, but until he found sanctuary, he couldn't afford to rest.

He'd do his best to find his way back to the people who had helped him before, and make sure that the Centre came nowhere near him again.

* * * * * * * * *

Centre Limousine
On the way to JFK Airport

Mr. Parker's eyes were bloodshot. There was a bump on his forehead the size of a golf ball and a smudge of dirty oil on his chin. He was devastated enough not to care. "So close," he breathed. "So damned close."

"I wonder if he could've given me a new thumb," Lyle mused casually, glancing at his glove. "Oh, well. We'll find him again. And next time we do, we'll bring him to the Centre. He won't get away there."

"Mmmm." Parker's defeated eyes turned to stare out the window. "Still, you kept your part of the bargain, son. You get your old job back. You earned it."

Lyle nodded, smiling. "I'm glad you see it that way. I was going to hold you to it, you know. It's the Parker way. Our word is our bond." He chuckled, pleased with his own good humor.

"At least you got something you wanted," Parker pouted.

Lyle was merciless in his joy. "So how soon do you go crazy? That was Fountain the guy was talking about back there, wasn't it?"

That hurt as if a knife had just been slipped between his ribs. Parker winced. "It's already happening," he confessed wearily. "I don't know how much longer I've got." He made eye contact with his son. "But whatever happens, you've got to protect me. I can't give you the Chairmanship. You've got to earn it, but I'll do everything I can to help you. I need you to watch my back. Meanwhile, welcome to the Tower."

"Sounds like a deal."

Valentine remained silent, smiling and nodding. "Works for me. I can ride your coattails, boss-man. And I'll enjoy the trip."

Parker turned his gaze to shift between his companions. He knew what they were. He knew what the Centre would become under them, but he had no choice.

The house of shadows that he had helped to engineer was about to darken to such a degree that all light inside it would be lost.

As long as he kept his power and didn't become a victim of it, he thought it was an acceptable evolution.

End of Episode

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