Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Jamie Denton as Lyle
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian
Angie Harmon as Ramona
Rebecca de Mornay as Sumi
John Daley as Cam
Vin Diesel as North
Oded Fehr as Namir
George Clooney as Valentine
Katie Fountain as Allegra
Callista Flockhart as Keely
James Marsters as "Him"
Ving Rhames as Daniel Pyne
Marg Helgenberger as Pat duBois
Denzel Washington as Trevor
David Gallagher as Alexander
? as Madame Director (Ms. Hart) [we can't figure out who this woman is]
Sebastian slumped in the chair, his eyes fixed on the images playing on the tiny viewscreen in the DSA player, unable to look away.
The child was beautiful, sweet and innocent. He played with others like him in a large room with no windows, his movements careful for one so young. Ordinary children weren't so precise in their motions. They didn't struggle to stay calm, to avoid getting excited or angry, as this one did.
Someone threw a toy across the room, and it inadvertently struck the little boy in the back. Whirling around, his eyes sought out his attacker, and everyone in the room jerked to a stop, every little head swiveling around to face him. He screamed, and clutched at his clothes. His shirt started to smoke, and he pulled it quickly off, flinging it to the ground and dashing headlong for the water fountain at the back of the room.
Bedlam broke out as the shirt, smoldering on the floor, burst into flames. A young woman rushed across the room and sat down next to the fountain, scooping up handfuls of water and dumping them over the boy's head as he cried, terrified now of what was happening. The woman was obviously afraid as well, her hands shaking as she worked to console the child.
Sebastian watched as the boy quieted and clung to his nurse for emotional succor. The man's eyes burned, unable to weep, as he wrestled with himself for control. The digital file ran its course, and he maneuvered the trackball to start it over again.
He wanted to imprint those scenes on his memory. The more he saw them, the less traumatic they would be when the memories came to haunt him in his sleep. He thought of the risk Mr. Sun had taken in getting the file to him, and was grateful. But it didn't change the fact that Sebastian now knew that he had a son, and that the boy was living in the Centre.
His people had a potential solution to that problem. And soon enough, the last piece of the puzzle he'd been working on for decades would fall right into his lap -- too late for his son, but that couldn't be undone now. Trevor had promised him it wouldn't be much longer.
The psychic came toward him out of the shadows of his darkened office. "Ready to go to New York?" he asked quietly.
Sebastian didn't take his eyes off the viewscreen. "Are you sure it's time?"
Trevor nodded. "CGB has started manufacturing the Aurora patches, per your orders. Our friend will be picking up a supply and waiting for information from his contact. And we'll be waiting for everything else in the Big Apple."
The Australian didn't move.
Trevor's gaze shifted to the screen. "He seems like a great kid."
"You'd know that better than I."
Shaking his head, Trevor moved to turn on a lamp in the otherwise darkened room. "I don't have all the answers, Sebastian. No one does. All I can offer you is little glimpses, here and there. That's how I knew about the boy. That's how I know about our new friend."
"And you're sure about this Pretender? You're sure he's the key?"
"Everything turns on his life, yes. Everything always comes back to him."
Sighing, Sebastian reached for the power switch and shut the device down. He retrieved the disk and slipped it into his trouser pocket. He started to pace nervously. "Who is he? What's he like? Will he help us? God, there's so much we don't know."
"True," Trevor agreed, clasping his hands behind his back. "And I don't know what he'll do. But we have to try. We have to show ourselves to him, and give him the opportunity to make a choice." He watched his boss striding anxiously across the floor. "You need to be turning that anxiety down a few notches, pal. And he's not here to help us. We're here to help him."
Sebastian came to an abrupt halt and raised his head to regard his companion. That was an unsettling thought. "What does he need with us?"
Trevor sighed. "Don't know. But that's how it all starts. We help him. We save his life. From there " He shrugged.
That made sense to Sebastian. Ingratiate themselves with this stranger, and he would be obliged to help them when they needed it. He nodded. "All right, then. Let's pack up and get out of this place." He glanced around the windowless room unhappily. "It's starting to feel like a tomb."
"They're already prepping the jet," Trevor assured him with a smile. "This is going to be quite an adventure."
Sebastian reeled off a stream of orders, and then glanced up at his friend when no reply came.
Trevor stared off into space, his expression slack, eyes unfocused.
"What is it? What did you see?"
"We have to rescue someone else," Trevor mouthed softly. After a moment, his eyes cleared and he moved brusquely toward the door. "We have to move now."
Without question, Sebastian followed him out of the room, palms sweating, wondering what his psychic friend had seen. Trevor was never in a hurry, and this uncharacteristic haste had him worried. Please, God, the Australian prayed silently, don't let them kill the Pretender
* * * * * * * * *
The Chairman frowned at his son, blue eyes frosty and stern. "I want this Namir," he growled, "and I want him here now. I will not accept any excuses on this."
Lyle squirmed in his chair. "But this guy's one of Israel's finest shadow warriors. He won't be easy to catch, and I doubt we'll be able to just coax him here with the promise of a big paycheck. He doesn't seem like that kind of guy, to be swayed by money."
Parker scowled. "You've done your homework and studied the man. That's good." He narrowed his eyes. "But I will not tolerate failure. If you want to redeem yourself in the eyes of the Triumvirate and do something right for a change, you'll get Namir into this country, and you'll do it as fast as you can lay hands on him. Are we clear?"
Lyle fidgeted with his glove. "As crystal, sir." He remembered all too well when the shoe was on the other foot, and it had been Parker on the carpet under the pall of Lyle's displeasure. How he longed for those days. He wasn't at all sure that he'd be able to pull this off with just sweepers, all brawn and no brains. "Mind if I choose my own team of specialists for this?"
Something akin to approval glittered in the Chairman's eyes. "That would be a good start. I'm sure Valentine will be first on the list."
Lyle nodded. "And I'm also taking Allegra. I think she'll be of use, for a variety of reasons." His recent revelation of Project Thor had been well received, as had his suggestions to put the woman to better uses once the opportunity arose.
"I'll let you know." Lyle rose, straightened his suit, and smiled. "I'll get this guy to the good ol' USA, and when I do, he's your responsibility after that. Agreed?"
Parker nodded. "Agreed. I won't lose him. He's too important. We've never had anyone like him here, and I - we -- can't afford to let him slip through our fingers."
Lyle took note of the sudden flash of worry that passed over the Chairman's face and was gone. He smiled, knowing that meant Parker had a personal stake in this mission. That was a sweet enticement, if ever there was one. He would succeed with this one at all costs, no matter who among his crew might have to buy this guy with their lives. Whatever Parker needed Namir for was also important to Lyle. It was the chink in the old man's armor that he needed in order to exploit a weakness.
He left the room at an unhurried pace, eager to get back to his office and take a second look at those biographical files on the Israeli soldier, to try to figure out why the Chairman needed him so badly. He was sure it was something vitally important, and whatever it was, Lyle was going to blackmail his father with it. And by the time the old man got what he wanted, Lyle would have his future in the bag.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker paced her living room, warring with herself as to an appropriate course of action. Broots had delivered the information on the Israeli as soon as he got hands on it. She knew it was important, though the Centre databanks had nothing on the man. All she knew was that a kidnapping plot was afoot, and it would be undertaken with great haste and little planning.
That would work in her favor, but she couldn't risk thwarting it with Centre people. The Chairman's personal bodyguards would be at La Guardia to take possession of the man once Lyle and company got him into the country. Once again, they had left her out of the picture, trying to hide something they didn't want her to know, but she had found out about it anyway.
She had her fingers in everything these days, thanks to Broots. She had uncovered more Centre secrets in the last few months in SIS than she ever wanted to know, and the knowledge was valuable. It was powerful, when used at the right time, on the right people. The company was beginning to tremble when she passed through.
That was a good thing.
Only this time, there was nothing she could do to stop them. This time, the target wasn't a child; instead, he was a citizen of another country who, as far as she could tell, had committed no crime. There was a great deal of mystery regarding this man -- even his profile had been next to impossible to obtain, and there had been very little in it.
Try as she might, she could not come up with a plan to save him herself. Which left her only one option.
She fetched her cell phone, dialed the number from memory, and waited. As soon as Jarod answered, she provided all the information she had, listened for a new phone number to memorize, and followed up with a call to Broots to have her phone records cleaned. She couldn't take the risk of anyone learning what she had just done and the Centre had a way of doing just that. Even though she was no longer being watched, she was careful enough not to leave breadcrumbs of her own behind. There would be no trails that led anywhere or raised suspicions. If anybody looked her way, all they would find was a squeaky-clean Parker doing her job.
* * * * * * * * *
The market was busy as always, with crowds of people shopping for their daily wares. The sunshine was bright and hot, and Namir was grateful for the yarmulka on his head and the sunglasses that shaded his eyes. He scanned the crowd out of habit, looking for suspicious people who might pose a threat, even though he was off duty.
Then he spied the glint of golden hair coming into view, and smiled. The young woman was beautiful, and he relaxed against the warm plaster wall of the restaurant from which he had just emerged. He watched her, saw that she appeared to be looking for someone. That would give him an opening for conversation, and he decided to approach. She wore no wedding ring as she shaded her eyes with her left hand, and that was good.
Her clothes screamed of America, so he spoke to her in lightly accented English. "Pardon me, miss. I am a soldier here, and I patrol this area regularly. Perhaps I could help you find whatever it is you're looking for."
She studied his face for a moment, apparently considering his offer. "You're an Israeli soldier?"
He offered an elegant nod of his head in affirmation, and gave her his name and rank. "How may I assist you?"
She grinned, and swept him up and down in an appraising glance. "Well, I got separated from my tour group, but I think you'll do for a guide. Where the heck am I, anyway?" She glanced around herself, apparently quite lost.
They strolled around the marketplace together, chatting amiably as he discovered where she was staying, what tour company she had been traveling with and where she was supposed to be. He bought her an American soft drink from the restaurant, and after a brief phone conversation with her hotel on his cell phone, he offered to drive her back there.
She seemed uncertain, but eventually got into the car with him. He drove her straight to the hotel, and after thanking him profusely, she invited him up to her room. He gave her a brilliant smile, aware of the effect his good looks had on women, and hoped this American would be interested.
Like the gentleman he was, he opened the door for her, but she led the way in, towing him in by the hand. Once the door shut, she kissed him, that prelude moving quickly to something personal and passionate. She couldn't wait to get his shirt off, and once she had, she laid her palms on either side of his chest and smiled up at him.
"You know," she panted, "I'm going to regret doing this."
"Let there be no regrets," he told her with a blazing smile against his swarthy face. "Who knows where this could lead?"
"How about New York?" she breathed, her eyes gleaming.
The flesh on his chest tingled slightly, as if he had come in contact with some low-level electric current. Then suddenly he was jolted backward, stunned by a violent charge that left him disoriented and weak. He stumbled backward and fell onto the neatly made bed.
"Okay, boys," she called over her shoulder. "Come and get him."
Namir was conscious enough to see men in suits come out of her bathroom. One of them held a syringe in hand, filled with something that could only mean trouble. Try as he might, he could not make his body work after that shock. All his training was useless, and he could only watch helplessly as the needle went into his arm. Whatever they wanted with him, he was unable to resist.
His eyes slid closed, and the young woman's smiling face was the last thing he saw.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod had cut it way too close this time. The tip Miss Parker had given him put him in the right place at the right time to try to save a life. He had been prepared to hijack the plane, but the extra security had been too much for him and he had failed. Sweepers were just a few steps behind, and these guys were fast. He didn't know enough details about the non-public areas of the airport, and he was lost. He had gotten off his intended path, and now he moved strictly by instinct, taking note of details as he raced by and extrapolating the best avenue of escape as he ran. But they were closing in, and he was certain he was going to have to fight his way out of this one.
He rounded the corner between private hangars, trying to decide which way to turn. Lungs burning, he needed to find a place to stand and fight, or a new direction to run. He glanced ahead and spotted a limousine, passenger door open, lights burning, engine at idle.
A man dressed in an expensive black suit stood beside the open door, fingers thrust into trouser pockets, looking right at Jarod.
He motioned the Pretender forward and pointed into the limousine.
"Hurry, mate," he called, his Australian roots evident in his accent. "Come with us if you want to be free."
Jarod skidded to a stop, considering whether this was another Centre tactic or a genuine offer of help.
"They've almost got you. You'll be safe with us." The man opened the door wider. He was offering, not demanding, and there were no weapons in sight. Inside the car, a teenage boy peered out at him, his face intent but not afraid. He offered a smile and a friendly little wave. A woman's shapely legs could be seen, but not the rest of her.
A bullet clipped the nearby hangar, and Jarod ran toward the car without thinking. He dove inside, rolling across the seat and up against the inner door. The man in the suit leaped in nimbly after him and slammed the door closed just as the driver took off. Jarod wondered if he had chosen correctly as the man stretched out his long legs.
This didn't feel like a Centre car, or Centre goons.
"What were you doing there?" Jarod asked him.
In the shaded interior of the limousine, Jarod could see the other man's eyes checking him out. "Waiting for you."
"Are you working for them?"
He gave a short, sharp bark of bitter laughter. "No way, mate. We're the rubbish they threw out. The fish that got away." He gestured toward the others, who stared back at him impassively.
Jarod sat up slowly, looking toward the facing seat and the other two occupants of the vehicle. Muted sunlight through the tinted windows revealed the long blond hair of the woman across from him, and the solemn face of the boy beside her. "Who are you?"
"I'm Cam," said the youth. He pointed at the woman, then at the other man. "This is Sumi, and that's Smokey." The woman gave the boy a light, almost playful slap on the arm. Cam grinned. "Okay, that's not his real name. It's Sebastian. Sumi's the only one who calls him Smokey."
"My name is Jarod."
"We know," Sebastian replied. "We've been waiting for you for a long time."
Jarod had been keeping track of the turns and straight-aways as the limousine motored along. They were headed into the city, far from the airport and the danger the sweepers offered him, but he was stung by his failure to rescue the Israeli man that the Centre had kidnapped. Soon enough the limousine pulled up at a posh hotel that Jarod recognized, and the group got out, apparently expecting him to follow.
"This way," Sebastian told him, gesturing him toward the door. "We have a lot to talk about. Or if you'd rather, you can be on your way." He reached into the pocket of his suit and handed over a card.
Prometheus Productions, Jarod read. There was contact information, but no name.
"Why did you help me?" he asked, pocketing the card.
The man glanced at the hotel staff nearby and shrugged. "Don't worry about your friend at the airport. My pilot is flying him someplace other than where those suits wanted him to go." He smiled and offered a casual salute, then turned and escorted his entourage into the hotel, leaving Jarod to decide his own fate.
Jarod had to know. Something prickled at the back of his neck, but it didn't feel like fear. It felt like anticipation.
Don't be afraid, he heard softly in the back of his mind. The voice sounded -- felt, for he was acutely aware that no one had spoken aloud -- feminine, and the woman called Sumi was smiling at him over her shoulder.
"Who are you people?" Jarod demanded.
"Old friends," said Cam. "Maybe even family, sort of." The boy chuckled, but there wasn't a single note of the ominous to that happy sound.
The Pretender followed obediently, across Elan's posh lobby and into the private elevator that only went to the penthouse. Whoever this guy was, he had money and lots of it. Jarod knew from his previous visit to this hotel that the penthouse was perpetually rented by a wealthy recluse who only stayed there on occasion, but kept the accommodation available 24-7.
The lift doors slid closed, sealing them off from the rest of the world for a few moments. "How about some answers?" Jarod asked bluntly. "How did you know I'd be there? Or are you just in the habit of helping people who look like they're on the run?"
"We know who you are and why you were running," said Sebastian. "We were told to wait for you there."
"I don't understand. I didn't plan to be there. I was supposed to be somewhere else."
"Hijacking a private jet," Sebastian shot back. "Yes, I know. The Centre wants you. That makes you special. That makes it even more important for us to help you."
Jarod felt a thrill of fear shoot up his spine, and stiffened in response. "How do you know about the Centre?"
They stepped out into the penthouse with its elegant view of the city, the rooms filled with expensive furniture and exquisite objects of art.
"In good time," Sebastian answered.
They began to talk softly among themselves except for the woman. She never spoke, but he could see her hands gesturing sometimes, as if in punctuation of a statement he couldn't hear.
The penthouse smelled of fresh flowers and designer perfume, just a hint to make the room fresh without overpowering. A young woman awaited them, dressed in a smart business suit, notepad in hand, ready smile on her lips. She came toward him, hand outstretched.
"We've been expecting you, Jarod," she greeted him warmly. "I hope you'll be comfortable with us. I'm Ramona, and this is North."
She gestured toward a large, muscular man standing beside the windows, his eyes covered by dark glasses, a white cane in his hand.
Cam headed for the bar and poured himself a soft drink. He fetched another one and handed it to Jarod, his pale blue eyes twinkling with pride. "You wanted to know who we are," the boy repeated.
His hand swept the room. "Some of us grew up in the Centre, just like you did. Some of us were rescued by Catherine Parker and others who believed as she did. Some were thrown out 'cause they didn't live up to expectations. Some escaped, but weren't considered important enough to bring back, like Sumi." He indicated the silent blond woman who had ridden with them. "She was Project Vox. She's able to communicate telepathically to a degree, but she doesn't have much range. Her handlers thought it would improve her abilities if that was her only mode of communication, so they severed her vocal chords."
Sumi eyed Jarod coolly, not a hint of emotion at the reminder of the cruelty she had suffered.
Cam pointed to the man by the windows. "North was a remote viewer, kind of a human surveillance device. He wasn't always blind. Ramona was supposed to be psychic." He chuckled softly. "They weren't even close with that. I was lucky, and came here on my own. I never got to be a lab rat." Then he turned to face the Pretender. " But I know how you feel. I know you're curious, and a little scared. You don't have to be with us." He paused, and all trace of humor vanished. "We know who you are. We know why they want you, and we know you don't want to go back. We can help you with that. We can give you a place to hide, where they have less chance of finding you."
Sebastian laid his hand on the boy's shoulder. "But they will find you eventually. And when they do, they'll also find us."
"Then I should leave as soon as possible," Jarod told him. "You don't want them coming here. They'll take you back, or they'll kill you."
"We know what to expect." Sebastian put his arm around Sumi, and she snuggled up against him. "We've been waiting for you to find us. Now that you have, it just means things will be happening faster. We're ready for what lies ahead. But for now, you need to rest. You need to get to know us a little better, before you go out into the world again. You need to know what resources we can offer you, so you'll know who to take with you and who to leave behind."
Sebastian glanced at Sumi, then Ramona and Cam in turn, and smiled sadly. "Whatever you need us for. Consider us your private reserve of limitless resources. If we don't already have it, maybe we can get it for you. But right now, like I said, you need to rest. It's late. Let me show you to your rooms."
* * * * * * * * *
They were gone.
Every file, electronic or paper, every note, every scrap of information on the patch delivery system in the works for Aurora had disappeared. Eve had asked SIS to run a trace on the electronic files, and he hadn't found them. That had led him to a search for the paper records, and he had been in every laboratory, on every floor, in most of the offices and now finally in Archives looking for anything he could find on those records.
There was nothing, not a trace to suggest that any of it had ever existed, though he had seen one of the folders himself while Jarod was imprisoned the last time. He'd even scanned through every DSA he could lay hands on, spending countless hours of overtime searching through the video records for any reference to the research, and those files had been either deleted or corrupted beyond recovery.
Someone had certainly wanted to erase that information, and it would have taken someone of Jarod's brilliance to be able to clean house that well or someone at the top who knew where every record was kept.
"I don't understand how it could have happened," he confessed to his boss. "It had to've been done from within the Centre. Somebody had to physically go to all the places where those records were stored, and take them. They were kept in fairly public areas, so the people who usually handle the research would have noticed if someone unauthorized took the stuff. And as for the electronic records -- man! Even the digital footprints are gone. I couldn't have cleaned them out that well. It's as if they were never there."
Parker frowned. She shot a calculating glance at him. "When did this stuff start to disappear?"
"As far back as I can track, about a month ago," he told her. "Just before Christmas was the last time the research guys had the paperwork in their hands. That was when Eve gave the order to shelve everything temporarily. Some of the information was transferred to Berlin, like the Seraphim data to calculate dosages, and that was all there, but the patch stuff just vanished."
"Didn't I hear some of it had been reassigned to one of our outside contractors?" she asked, remembering a memo she had glimpsed on the Chairman's desk some time ago.
He nodded. "I've managed to find a couple of memos that mention that. I think it was going to CGB." He scratched his head, thinking. "But if the material was transferred, we'd have copies of it here. There's just nothing. It's gone. Poof!" His fingers made a gesture to indicate explosion.
"Call CGB," she suggested. "Have them turn their place upside down and see if they have anything. If they come up empty-handed, I'll send you down to do an audit and you can check everything with a microscope. We have to find that data, or discover where it went and who took it. This isn't the sort of thing that can happen on my watch."
"Yes, ma'am," he murmured quietly. She looked worried as he pivoted on his heel and left her office. Things had gone well for them since she took over as head of SIS, and little glitches like this could indicate that something much more serious was going on. He might need to look for some help, and start assigning regular security sweeps to a few of the techs who worked under him. Whatever was happening had to stop, or things just might get ugly for Miss Parker, and for him by default.
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 long enough."
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 the others."
"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 fast.
"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 me."
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 now?"
"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 the child?"
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 face.
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. Control."
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 to smoke.
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 badly.
"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 English.
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 you in."
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 helpless 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 been difficult. I 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 have been 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 eel?"
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 a touch."
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 some televangelist?"
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 back."
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 the Seraphim?"
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 I remember " 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 control."
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, shall we?"
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 the room.
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 for more.
"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 reviewing it."
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 me. I 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.
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 later.
"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 okay."
"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 passed.
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 you read--"
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 at once?"
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 again?"
"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."
* * * * * * * * * *
"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 he doing?"
"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 again."
"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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 neck.
"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 years "
"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 them both.
"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 simulated--"
"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? Not ever!"
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 way."
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 her.
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 his wife.
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 them.
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 she.
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 each other.
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 Morgan anymore.
"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 him.
"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.
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 about secrecy.
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 again."
"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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 talent.
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 gone.
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 a nooner?"
"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."
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.
* * * * * * * * *
"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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.