Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Janet Hubert as Ms. Hart
George Kennedy as George
Bruce Willis as Jake Cleary
James Marsters as Him
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian MacKenzie
David McCallum as Voorhees
Rutger Hauer as Mr. Kruger
Louise Fletcher as Penfield
Robert Duncan MacNeill as Peter Winston
Valentine Pelka as Mason
Katie Fountain as Allegra
Calista Flockhart as Keely
Oded Fehr as Namir
Susan Gibney as Kim
George Clooney as Valentine
Valerie Bertinelli as Faith
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Ashley Peldon as Merritt
Ben Browder as Kodiak Brown
Jarod walked slowly down the corridor, looking into the cells one by one as he passed them. "Damon," he murmured softly as he glanced into the first room, then moved on to the next in the row. "Kyle " He paused outside Pauley Fishman's cell, looked for similarities to his late brother, and found them. Subtleties in the way they both moved came through loud and clear. Eclipse had left its mark on Kyle, but his brother was dead now. Nothing could be done about what had happened to him. Jarod moved on down the row, glancing at the last cell as he stopped walking just before he reached it. "Lyle... and me."
He peered into the cell where an aging Kodiak Brown stared back at him. He was still strong, obviously keeping in shape even with the limited means his cage gave him, but his face was lined and his long, dark hair was still worn in a ponytail, just now beginning to show some gray at his temples. Those sharp blue eyes had not dulled in intensity from the last time he had seen the man, even though Jarod had been unwilling to look at him for more than the moment it took to identify who he was.
Now, though, he had come specifically to gaze into those eyes, to meet that evil head-on.
"And what can I do for you?" Kodiak drawled, rising slowly to his feet. "Come to figure out what makes me tick, like all the others?"
Jarod resisted his first impulse to simply turn around and leave. He had come here for a reason, one that had to be seen through, no matter how difficult it was. He cocked his head and stared at the other man. And felt himself looking back through the glass. It made his skin prickle with gooseflesh.
"This isn't a zoo," the inmate snapped. "State your business, or move on."
Jarod straightened, clasping his hands loosely behind his back. This man had haunted him, waking and sleeping, for decades. Coming back here and confronting the source of his fear was the only way he knew to finally be rid of the man's influence. "You don't know me, do you?" he asked quietly.
Kodiak smiled. "Well, maybe I do, and maybe I don't. I know I've seen you before. We don't get many visitors down here, besides shrinks. Are you a shrink, son?"
"Not today," the Pretender said quietly. "But you can call me 'Doc' if it makes you feel better."
He suddenly looked smug. "Well, Doc, you're standing pretty far away from the cage. Are you afraid of me?"
Jarod swallowed hard. His hands were perspiring, and his stomach cramped, being this close to the man. He was suddenly reminded of the interviews he had conducted with Douglas Willard several years ago, in a similar environment. He was desperate back then, enduring the taunts and the nickname prodigy in the hopes of saving a young girl's life -- and finding the body of Annie Raines.
But circumstances were different now. There was no one to save, no one to find, except perhaps himself. "I'm no one you know," he assured the killer. "No one you ever knew. But I know you. I have a map of your soul, Kodiak. I was a prisoner there for a long time." He sighed. Kodiak was caged, put away from the rest of the world forever. But part of him lived on in Jarod's soul, and always would.
Frowning, Kodiak strolled closer to the Plexiglas wall that separated them. "You some kind of profiler or something? Is that what this is about?"
"No," Jarod whispered painfully. "Something far worse." He felt his stomach roil. Backing up, he sat heavily on the plastic bench against the far wall and turned his gaze to the smooth, polished stone floor. He wanted to run, but fought back the urge with all his strength. He needed to be here, needed to win but looking into those eyes had a price. The memories were coming now, merciless in their clarity.
A gleam of interest sparked in Kodiak's eyes. "You want to tell me about it? Unburden yourself?" His voice was softer now, seductive. He wanted to hear this tale of horror, wanted to enjoy it. It had been a long time since he'd had that.
But Jarod understood where that path would take him. He'd already unburdened himself, to Sydney and to Faith. He didn't need to relive it; what he needed was to find the core of strength within himself, the strength this alter-ego offered but on his own terms.
Pit Kodiak Brown against Kodiak Jarod, and let the better man win.
He could see that conflict in his mind, watch the two match wits and exchange blows in the arena of his consciousness. There was no contest. As dark as this man was, Jarod's conviction in truth and goodness was stronger. His cunning paled beside Pretender genius. And shadows disappear in the light.
"You didn't win, Kodiak," Jarod said slowly. "Evil never does, in the end."
Anger sparkled in those blue eyes, but the prisoner said nothing.
"The only power you have is what other people give you," Jarod went on, more sure of himself now. "And you can stand there and pretend you have power over me, but you don't, because I won't let you. Not anymore."
Kodiak narrowed his eyes, a sneer of disgust curling his lip. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, Doc, but it sounds pretty screwed up to me."
He's right. I am screwed up, maybe beyond repair. But I've got something he doesn't. I have a conscience. He eased himself gently to his feet, straightened his suit, and made eye contact as he stepped right up to the transparent wall. "Maybe I'm a little crazy. But unlike you, I want to get better. I have people who want to help me. And one day, I'll be free. I don't think you can say the same."
He took a step away, then stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Have a nice rest of your life, Kodiak. I might write you a letter now and then, just to let you know how I'm doing, and how nice it is to be out in the world."
The prisoner frowned. "I didn't get your name."
"That's right," Jarod assured him solemnly. "And you never will." He offered a casual salute in parting and left the facility, certain Kodiak Brown would be stewing over that visit for some time to come. He, on the other hand, would do his best to put it behind him.
As he stepped aboard the ferry that would take him back to shore, his cell phone rang and he pulled it out as he watched the prison fade from view in the chilly mist sweeping up the river.
"How are things, old mate?"
"Well, hello, Sebastian. What can I do for you?" he said into the mouthpiece. He listened for a moment, and checked his wristwatch for the date. "Yes, I think I can meet you in Wilmington by then. What's up?"
"I can't let the cat out of the bag, mate. I just need you to be there," the Australian told him.
His brow wrinkled as he listened. "I'm not sure what that means, but I'll bet the cat didn't like it. Can you be a little less cryptic?"
"Sorry, mate. I'll explain at the airport Monday morning. I hope you like surprises."
He paused and watched the shore looming closer, eager now to get to his car. "Okay, I'll trust you. And yes, I do like surprises. As long as they're not from the Centre."
"You'll like this one, I promise. Four a.m. sharp, Eastern time. I know that's ungodly early, but no tardies. It's important."
The Pretender could hear the smile loud and clear through the earpiece, but it left him a little unsettled, knowing he'd be so close to the Centre and placing his life in someone else's hands, someone he barely knew, who had a history with the Centre. Sebastian had proven his dislike of the place, yet he worked with them hand in hand via his businesses. Jarod had been careful to check all that out when he first met the man. The two didn't quite add up, leaving some blemishes on the man's character that made Jarod wary of him.
He would run through a few simulations over the weekend and make sure he had some planned avenues of escape before he made the rendezvous, just in case.
Jarod rang off and put his phone away, taking a final glimpse of the ghostly building behind him, all but invisible now in the fog. The air was chilly and damp, but Jarod felt warm inside. He felt less lost now, because he recognized the influence this spectre of the Centre had forced on his psyche. He could hope now that one day his soul might take wing and find the freedom he ached to own.
He would move on with his life, and watch for the darkness to rise. He could be on guard against it now, and one day he hoped that the shadow that had covered him since Eclipse might finally be banished into the light. It would be a daily struggle, much like the one that Aurora had left behind, but he was strong. He had people who cared about him, who would support him if he needed it. Kodiak Brown could now be resigned to the past. He had confronted the evil in person, and now it would be easier to do it in his own mind. Once more he turned toward the approaching shore, and knew that this time, he would never look back.
* * * * * * * * *
The blond man laid his left palm on the glass scanner, aware of how his hand was perspiring inside the thin, nearly invisible latex glove that had been made to look like real skin. He presented the fake IDs that could not be distinguished from real ones, and forged the signature he had perfected on the digital pad. Waiting patiently, he met the eyes of the security guard waiting on the far side of the entry station and nodded in silent greeting.
"Welcome to Delaware, Mr. Voorhees," said the receptionist, once the visitor's identity had been verified. "Guest quarters have been prepared for you in the Tower. George, here, will take you there so you can rest before the senior staff arrives tomorrow." The woman smiled and handed back his ID cards.
The blond man tucked the cards into his jacket pocket and followed the guard across the elegant marble foyer and into an elevator. "So it begins," said the visitor, and pushed the button for SL-17. As the car slowed to a stop, he turned to George and handed over a small, flat sealed package. "This patch will get you through the next eight hours. Be sure you're at the rendezvous point at the proper time."
"Yes, sir," said George. The guard remained on the elevator after the visitor stepped into the corridor, punched another button and the doors slid closed again.
The blond strode directly to the first room, placed his left thumb on the scanner and punched in the code. The door opened, and Penfield remained in her seat on the side of the bed. Her expression was blank, her eyes hollow. In her arms, she held the tiny body of a toddler.
The boy roused slightly, eyes heavy lidded, and studied the man. "Go see Jawid?" asked Gabriel.
The man smiled and came close. He squatted down and gently stroked the boy's hair. "Yes, little one. You're going to see Jarod very soon. Won't that be wonderful?"
"Jawid." Gabriel's eyes rolled slightly, and closed at last.
"The medication should have taken effect by now," the man observed quietly. He glanced at Penfield, but did not stop stroking the little boy's hair.
"He's been fighting the sedation," the nurse explained. "He's very excited. All the children are."
"That's understandable, but the clock is ticking," he returned quietly. "Have you got the laundry carts ready?"
"Yes, sir." Penfield rose and carried Gabriel over to a cart nearly filled with bedding and play clothes. She laid the boy gently into it, took an additional blanket from her bed, and laid it over the sleeping child so that no part of him could be seen. Then, she pushed the cart out into the corridor and toward the elevator. Two other carts were already on their way, and the false Mr. Voorhees rounded up the others, heading them in that direction as well.
He paid no attention to the video cameras watching the corridor. He didn't have to worry about that at all.
* * * * * * * * *
"I can't believe they'd hide something like this from us," the Chairman growled. He glared at the woman beside him. "I thought you had a handle on all the projects?"
"Daddy, do you know how many projects I've scanned through so far?" she snapped. "Thousands. Thousands! And you can damn well bet there are thousands more that Die Fakultät and The Pretoriat don't have on the books officially. My guess is, this is one of those."
Parker harrumphed. "Still, this is excellent news. I'm glad Voorhees called."
Morgan sighed and offered her ID packet at the reception desk. Verification took a few minutes, but as she looked around, she noted similarities between the South African building and the one in Delaware. This had been the first one built, she knew from conversations with the Chairman, followed by the American one, and then returning to the roots of the progenitors in Germany. That had tickled her curiosity, knowing as she did that some of the primary scientists heading up the original members of the Triumvirate had been Nazi doctors. But things had changed since the beginning days of the Centre. Projects became benevolent, geared toward the advancement of humanity, before the current regime returned it to its evil roots.
Voorhees himself greeted them in the lobby. He looked tired, but Morgan supposed that was due to the extra time he'd spent on the Nebula series. She hadn't been pleased to hear about this development, but couldn't let that show, especially not since the Chairman was so interested in it.
She followed Voorhees directly to the labs below ground, hanging back as he explained how close they were to development of a patch system for all the drugs in the series. Other developments included a refining of the Nova protocol, and the potential uses of people under the influence made her stomach turn. Another drug in the series had been created, which showed promise in use as a brainwashing tool, allowing complete reprogramming of a subject's mind and memories.
That was the one that had so intrigued the Chairman, and Morgan knew who he had in mind to use it on, as soon as she brought Jarod back.
Voorhees demonstrated with several subjects, showing them DSA footage of before and after the treatments. There were side effects still to be addressed, which included a host of physical problems that would endanger the lives of subjects, but they were close to solving those puzzles. Another six months, he promised, and those problems would be gone.
Mr. Parker was pleased. He wanted the research moved to Delaware.
Voorhees looked oddly relieved.
Morgan wondered why, and decided to look into the project a little more deeply while she was there.
* * * * * * * * *
He watched the last child go into a well-padded cardboard box, oxygen mask covering the little nose and mouth. The box was taped closed and lifted gently onto a cart. Then he turned to the waiting caregivers, and instructed them to get into the larger boxes, also marked FRAGILE - HANDLE WITH CARE. The adults were cramped inside the heavy-duty containers, but they made no protest when he handed them patch packets as comfort for the ride. He sealed the boxes up personally, and made the call to Shipping to retrieve the containers and get them to the dock.
George stood by, watching the boxes being loaded up one by one onto pallets, and escorted them to the freight elevator. Everything was being done now according to Centre protocols, and before the clock struck five, the boxes were loaded into a half full truck for transport to a Centre facility in Boston. Once the doors were closed and locked, George climbed into the cab with the driver, as designated security agent assigned to accompany the shipment of sensitive materials to their destination.
The blond man watched the truck depart, smiled and prepared to vanish before anyone was the wiser. Cox would be checking on the Seraphim in an hour, and by then they would all be long gone. Returning to the guest quarters previously assigned to him, he changed into a waiting security guard's uniform and headed for the elevator to dispose of the evidence of his crime and make his own escape.
The document incinerator was on SL-26. Shifts were getting ready to change, so there would be no one there, but as soon as he stepped off the elevator, he had the sneaking suspicion that he was not alone. Carefully he made his way to the pit, opened the door and tossed the latex appliances and false ID documents into the fire, closing the cast iron door and locking it down.
"Want to tell me what that was?" asked a deep voice from the shadows behind a massive boiler to his right.
The blond put his hand on his gun, released the safety strap and started to lift it out of the holster on his hip. "Who's there?" he demanded.
A figure stepped slowly out from behind the boiler, hands in plain sight, and obviously empty. The dim lighting didn't help with recognition, but the man glanced up at the low-wattage bulb, giving a clearer view of his face. He smiled.
"Valentine, old mate," said the blond. "It's been a long time. I thought you were dead."
The sweeper chuckled. "I am. What's with the British accent? Last I heard, you were from Jersey."
The lower-class British accent abruptly vanished in favor of an East Coast one. "Women like it. I'm thinkin' of changin' it to French next week. Don't like living in one skin too long, y'know."
Valentine nodded. "What brings you back to this place?"
"Yeah. Me, too." He stepped aside and gestured toward the elevator. "I'll catch up with you later. Have fun, whatever the assignment is."
"Don't I always?" The blond didn't waste time with more pointless small talk. He took the opportunity given and ignored the reason that might have brought Valentine down to that level, into that part of the complex. He knew that the only thing of any importance to someone like Valentine in that area was the hatch that led to a place that wasn't supposed to exist. The maintenance crews believed that hatch led into a waste holding tank, and so never opened it. Few other people inside the building knew it existed. SL-27 was a well-kept secret, the burned-out shell of an old nightmare. Whatever Valentine was doing down there was his business, and the visitor left that subject alone.
He stepped into the elevator and went up to the ground floor, preparing to leave at the shift change. This was exactly the kind of thing he was good at, what he had been trained by the Centre to do. But he wasn't the only one, and that made him uneasy as he remembered Valentine's casual smile.
* * * * * * * * *
The man in the suit sat in stony silence as the driver beside him yawned, complaining about the early morning hour.
"I mean, it's not like this stuff couldn't wait till eight or nine to ship out. And it's not like there's that much traffic on the roads to or from here. I don't know why they like sending cargo out at these hours. Jeez, what's the difference, you know?" He stuck out his hand. "By the way, I'm Jake Cleary. It's a long ride to Boston, so we might as well get to know each other."
The other guy obviously wasn't much on conversation, so Jake turned back to the road, committing himself to a long, boring trip. He reached down to turn on the radio, and glanced at the suit when he turned it off immediately afterward. Jake turned his attention back to his job with a sigh.
It was going to be a long trip.
Up ahead, he noticed a road sign indicating an approaching curve. The sign was marked with a stripe of red paint, barely visible in the glare of the headlights. The man beside him moved, and Jake glanced over to see the sweeper reach for his pistol, then turn and aim it at him. "Pull over right here," he instructed flatly.
Cleary was shocked. "What the " Glancing at the muzzle of the gun, he was quick to obey. "Look, pal, I don't know what you think you're doing here, but you won't get away with it. Nobody steals from The Centre and lives. They're worse than the mob." He parked the truck on the shoulder of the road and put his hands in the air.
"Give me your cell phone," the sweeper ordered. When he had the device in hand, he added, "Get out and start walking."
The guard took the keys out of the ignition and pocketed them.
Jake did as he was told. Just as he had gotten to the back of the truck, he heard a noise that made him look up. Two helicopters flew over them, settling on the road with rotors beating as the sweeper opened up the back doors on the trailer. Cleary watched as the guy sliced open the big computer boxes. Jake's jaw dropped open as he saw people start getting out, some dressed in security uniforms, but most were women dressed in white nurse's uniforms. Hardly able to believe what he was seeing, he watched in stunned fascination as the women opened several smaller boxes and took little kids out of them.
"Oh, my God," Jake whispered to himself. He turned away and ran down the road toward The Centre, knowing he was in deep trouble, but eager to let his bosses know he was a victim rather than a willing participant. Before he got a hundred feet down the road, the helicopters lifted off again, leaving the truck empty and wide open. Jake dashed back to the truck, knowing he could make it back to The Centre faster in that vehicle than he could on foot.
But the sweeper had taken the keys, and minutes later he was jogging back toward the building, terrified that he was going to be held responsible for this kidnapping, and wondering if he might be better off just disappearing instead.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod paced down the aisle, barely controlling his fury. "How could you do this?" he demanded of his host. "You put them all in danger. They could have been killed, Sebastian! There were other ways."
"Like what?" the Aussie demanded impatiently. "You've known about these children for months, and they were still in that place. When were you planning to move? When they turned ten? Sorry, but I don't have your patience, mate. I know what happens in the Centre. We had a plan, and it worked. They're free, and they're on the way here. All of them, including your son."
The Pretender held his head in his hands briefly, anxiety welling up inside him. He reached into his pocket for another dose of his medication, and swallowed a pill. It would take about a half hour to have its calming effect on his jangled nerves, but it would help him handle the growing need for Aurora that went along with his disturbed emotional state.
"How much longer?" he demanded.
"Minutes," Sebastian assured him. "Minutes that feel like hours. God, I can't wait to see them."
Trevor bounded into the aircraft with a big grin. "They're here. I'm going to start prepping the plane for takeoff." He hurried to the cockpit and closed the door behind himself.
Sebastian rose quickly from his seat and stood, nervously wiping his hands on his thighs. "Stay calm. Stay calm " He took several slow, deep breaths, and closed his eyes.
Jarod dashed toward the door and stuck his head outside, glancing around for some sign of the arriving passengers. Not far away on the tarmac, a helicopter finished setting down, and people began to spill out of it. Some wore the familiar uniforms of Centre security, others white nurses' outfits, and one young woman was dressed in the black uniform of the unfortunate research subjects. He knew instantly who she was, though her face was obscured by her fair hair, blown wildly about by the rotor wash from the helicopter.
Ducking under the blades, the people came toward the plane on the run. Jarod sprinted out to them, picking Penfield out of the women in white. He had eyes only for the sleeping child in her arms, and held his hands out to her.
"Give him to me," he ordered. Penfield glared at him briefly, and then meekly complied. He paused, holding the toddler close against his body, eyes closed, thankful that his son was safe at last or at least, for the moment. "Gabriel," he whispered, choking on the beloved name. "My son. My baby. You're free now, free to be whoever you want to be."
When he opened his eyes he saw that the others were boarding the plane, and hurried after them. Once they were all inside, Ramona had the stairs moved and the door sealed, and then she directed everyone into their seats. The toddlers were carefully placed in child safety seats, ready and waiting for them on the plane, and the adults strapped themselves in for the ride.
Jarod couldn't stop looking at his son. Sebastian had done a wonderful thing for him, something he hadn't been able to do for himself. And as the plane pulled into place on the runway to prepare for takeoff, he leaned forward to offer his thanks to his host, who sat in front of him. The seat in the middle was filled with a safety seat that Jarod knew held Gideon, and in the window seat was the young woman dressed in black.
"Where are we going?" she asked aloud. "Who are these children?"
"We're going home, Keely," Sebastian answered, his voice husky with emotion. "You're free, all of you. And I'm " His voice cracked, and he started to weep. "I'm your brother, Sebastian." He reached out to touch the child between them. And this is my son, Gideon. We're your family, and we're taking you home."
"Okay," she said passively, her moment of curiosity gone. She turned to look out the window, ignoring her brother and the boy.
Jarod watched them. He knew how Sebastian felt, how crushed and broken his heart was at that moment. The man had intentionally spared his sister the knowledge that the Centre had made her a mother, using her own brother as the sperm donor. Once they rescued her from Aurora and she had her life back on her own terms, he might tell her the truth, but Jarod suspected that secret might never be revealed to her. It wasn't necessary that she know, and would only cause her further pain if she did.
He didn't know where they were going, and didn't care. Sebastian knew what the Centre was capable of, and would be prepared with a safe haven for them all, where they could be protected, yet still have freedoms the Centre would not have allowed them. Jarod would be able to take Gabriel places, let him experience the world he himself had only known for a few years. Gabriel would have a life, albeit sheltered for a while, until the Centre was no longer a threat to his children or anyone else.
It was time for things to start changing.
But just then, as the seatbelt light went off, all he wanted was to hold his son. He pulled the sleeping child out of the seat and into his lap, waiting for the sedation to wear off and those beloved little brown eyes to open and see him. And when Gabriel wakened, Jarod would teach him a new word.
* * * * * * * * *
The telephone rang, and Cox glanced at the clock, instantly and unhappily awake. "This better be good," he groaned, falling back against his pillow. A moment later, he sat bolt upright and flung off the covers. "Impossible. They can't all be gone! Search for them. Search every room. Now!"
He slammed the phone back into the cradle and leaped out of bed. The cool air in the room made gooseflesh rise on his bare skin, and he pulled random clothes out of his closet, stepping into them without benefit of a shower. He didn't care how he looked this time, didn't even reach for his comb on his way out the bedroom door. But as he laid his hand on the keypad to disengage the security system, he had a thought and made a stop in the basement first. Five minutes later, his right hand smarting from the workout he'd given his fists, he left for the drive in to work.
Everyone he passed was wide-eyed and nervous, from the front doors all the way into the bowels of the building. He headed straight for SIS, and found the night shift supervisor up to his eyeballs in security personnel all trying to report to him at once. Cox bellowed for a status report, and people stepped back, making the way to the supervisor clear.
The doctor listened with ice in his veins as he heard the preliminary report. All eight children were missing, along with their nurses and four of the security people who should have been watching them. Vanished, without a trace.
"Call Miss Parker," he hissed. "Call the Chairman. Tell them what happened, but find those children now. Cover every airport, every bus station, every street corner if you have to. But you find those children."
The man was sweating and trembling. He knew what was likely to happen to him because of this fiasco, and Cox would make sure he didn't leave the building. The doctor issued orders and retreated to the Nursery floor to do an examination of his own.
Security people were everywhere. Cox prowled among them for an hour, watching them work, but felt no closer to any answers. This sort of mystery wasn't his forte. But whoever was responsible for this theft of his project would pay. He'd make sure of that all the way down the line, no matter how far up the chain of command he had to go.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney walked into SIS, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, leaning heavily on his cane. The call had come from Broots half an hour earlier, shortly after Miss Parker called and ordered her second in command to take over SIS until her return. Because Sydney was involved with the Seraphim, Broots had called him in for additional support, along with his personal bodyguard, who still did his driving for him.
Sydney felt confident Broots was doing everything necessary to amass the information needed to put the investigation into full swing. Though that sort of thing was out of Sydney's range of expertise, he knew that the security team Miss Parker had assembled were good at their jobs, and would be able to help him do what was necessary until she arrived. That included himself, and his small part of the process.
He went directly to her office in SIS and listened as Broots met with the departmental managers, who had all spoken to their boss by phone and had their orders. The tech gave commands effortlessly, keeping people organized and staying on top of every piece of information that came to him. Sydney intended to report to Miss Parker just how capably things were run in her absence, and planned to commend Broots personally, once things settled down.
During a lull in the action, he went down to the Nursery level to see for himself what had happened. He moved slowly still, and took frequent rest breaks, but he was improving steadily. This would be a taxing day for him, but he promised himself a nap as soon as there was time. He knew not to push himself so soon after such a devastating event in his health, and knew that he wouldn't be chastised for it.
Forensic technicians were dusting the rooms for fingerprints, collecting evidence and taking photographs as if a murder had taken place there. Nothing seemed out of place, and Sydney had no idea how the kidnapping had been accomplished, or by whom. That was disturbing enough, but he was stopped cold by the sight of Angelo sitting in the back corner of one nursery room, rocking back and forth as he clutched a floor pillow to his chest.
Sydney eased closer, waving back the sweepers who had been about to evict the empath from the scene. "I'll handle this," he assured the two men gently. He came close and sat down on a nearby chair, leaning heavily on his cane, observing Angelo to try to get an idea of what had brought the man to that room. To Sydney's knowledge, Angelo knew nothing about the Seraphim, and had never even been seen on that floor.
Tears rolled slowly down the empath's face. He was whispering softly to himself, obviously upset. Sydney leaned closer, trying to hear what the other man was saying.
"Baby's gone. Baby's gone. Baby's gone "
Sydney knew whose room this was. He also had guessed that Angelique was Angelo's child. But the fact that Angelo seemed aware of his connection with this particular child was both startling and frightening. It could put Angelo in a difficult position, one that could get him locked up forever or worse.
"Do you know who took the children, Angelo?" Sydney asked softly. He put his arm around the other man's shoulders, offering what comfort he could.
"Aurora," the empath whispered brokenly. "Aurora took the babies."
Sydney frowned. The only Aurora he knew was the drug the Centre had created. Inanimate objects couldn't kidnap children but people under the influence could. "Are you saying that the caregivers were on Aurora?"
Angelo nodded. He buried his face against Sydney's chest and began to sob. Sydney held the younger man, knowing that any further questioning would have to wait. Angelo couldn't help him any more at the moment. He would have to wait for other means of discovering how the kidnapping had been accomplished, right under the noses of their new, improved security measures.
Jarod stepped out of the elevator with Gabriel in his arms. The boy was alert and excited, ready to see the surprise they had been told was awaiting them there. A bright yellow foyer furnished with soft brown furniture greeted them, and there were cartoon posters on the walls. The foyer let into a large common playroom filled with toys of all kinds, and Gabriel squirmed out of his father's arms and down to the floor, racing to a rocking horse that stood empty in the middle of the room. Without being shown how to work it, he straddled the plush seat, grabbed the handlebars and began to rock.
"Look, Daddy!" he crowed. "Fun!"
Jarod couldn't help smiling. Behind him, he could hear other children arriving and discovering the treasure trove, and soon the noise level was almost unbearable. Wide smiles brightened the faces of the children as they found playthings with no purpose other than amusement, and they embraced the concept wholeheartedly.
"They're something, aren't they?" Sebastian said quietly as he eased up beside the Pretender.
"Looks like you've been planning this for a while." Jarod stuffed his hands into his pants pockets, and watched the kids play. "What are you going to do about their caregivers?"
Sebastian adjusted his coat. "That depends on the ones who came in with them. If they have an emotional investment in their charge, they can stay. If the kid's just a job, we'll find other work for them to do and gradually phase them out of the child's life. Ideally, I'd like to reunite the kids with their parents, if we can find out who they all are." He offered a shy smile. "Barring that, they'll be mine. Except for your son, of course. What you do with him is your business."
"Mind if I stay here a while and observe? I might be able to help with screening new caregivers, and managing withdrawal of the old ones." Jarod knew how the children would react if the women they knew and trusted were taken away from them all at once. They would have to be gradually moved out of their lives, but only after the kids had made an emotional attachment to their new "parents."
"I thought you might also be willing to help me find out who these kids belong to," Sebastian suggested. "We can create DNA records for them, and then all we need is to match them up to their parents. I know which one's mine and you've got yours, so that leaves only six pairs of parents to find."
"That kind of information can only be had from inside the Centre," Jarod informed him. "I can't risk going back there."
"But you do know people inside who could get it to you," Sebastian reminded him. "Just think about it, mate. Right now, the kids are in wonderland. It'll be a while before they notice their lives are changing. We've got time."
Gideon ran up to his father with a cackle of delight, and squirted him with his trusty water gun, filled from a water fountain in the back of the room. Sebastian chased after him with a smile, and Jarod watched him tackle the boy, rolling over with him gently on the floor. It seemed that the child sensed a connection with his father, just as Gabriel had with him.
These were extraordinary children, Jarod mused. They would need a safe place away from the world where they could learn to be as normal as possible. And one day, he just might pilot the research program that would help them live like everyone else, without worrying if they were about to burst into flames, or battered by everyone else's emotional assaults. He looked around for Angelique, and found her sitting in the back corner, curled up around her doll, all alone.
He wandered over to her, careful to monitor his own feelings before he approached her. He calmed himself, meditating on peace, losing himself in that inner sanctum where he retreated when things became too much. Taking a seat nearby, he waited for her to turn and acknowledge him.
"Jawid?" she asked softly. She pointed at him. "You not flat."
She recognized the absence of Aurora, and for a moment he felt the anguish rising again. He closed his eyes and fought it back, aware of how his pain would hurt her. When he was able to maintain calm again, he opened his eyes and found her looking at him.
"No, I'm not flat anymore, Angelique. People aren't flat. They're all noisy inside. Sometimes they hurt." He glanced around. "Sometimes they're loud and happy. And you need to learn to feel all those things, too. It's scary, I know. But I'll help you. Your friends will help you. And maybe soon, your mommy can come and help you even more."
How to explain that concept to a two-year-old, he thought. "Your mommy helped make you. Your daddy did, too. Do you know your daddy? His name is Angelo."
"My angel. I know angel. He lubs me."
That tender understanding brought tears to his eyes. "Yes, Angelique. I'm sorry we had to take you from your daddy, from Angelo. But you'll see him again, as soon as we can arrange it. And maybe soon, you can meet your mommy. Her name is Faith."
Angelique glanced down at the limp cloth doll in her arms. She held it up in front of herself for a good look. "Fay?" Then she poked the doll with one finger. "Dis is Fay."
Jarod smiled and nodded. "You know your mommy deep inside. You knew her name, and gave it to your dolly, so you could have her with you. Your mommy can teach you how to be okay with noisy people all around, so it doesn't hurt so much. Would you like that?"
The little girl held her doll close. "Fay lubs me. But she scared." The 'r' sounds were still beyond her, but she was understandable.
"What is Mommy afraid of?" Jarod leaned closer, interested in this enlightening conversation.
"Scared to hurt people."
"Then we'll help her with that, too," he promised. "This will be a good new place to live, Angelique. You'll get to go outside. You'll get to play. You won't have as many lessons, or have to work if you don't want to. You get to have fun here. Do you think you'll like that?"
Her big blue eyes rolled up to him, and he was touched by the sadness in them. For one so young, she was hardly innocent. It would take a lot of help to make her comfortable in the world, even in such a sheltered one as this. But he would work to ensure that her world was as perfect as possible, and that pleasure far outweighed any pain she might suffer. Angelique's world would always be cast in shadow, thanks to what the Centre had made her. But having a family might give her hope and happiness that she wouldn't otherwise have known.
She tugged at his heart, as she had from the first moment he looked at the DNA scans months earlier. He opened his arms to her, and waited. For a long time, she just looked up at him, considering. And then, she got up, doll clutched close with one arm, and came to him.
"I love you, Angelique," he whispered against her hair. "Do you like how that feels?"
She sighed against his shirt. "Annie lubs Jawid, too. Lub feels good."
Gabriel ran up and wriggled his way into the embrace. He threw his arms around their necks, and the next thing Jarod knew, he was running off with her, hand in hand, toward the rocking horse. She always lagged a little behind Gabriel, but she didn't seem to mind playing with him. And now, with so much joy in the room, he was infecting her with it.
He sat with his back against the wall and just watched them play.
Sebastian had done the right thing, but now Jarod had to try to clean up the mess he left behind. That wouldn't be easy, but it was do-able. And before too much time had passed, he also wanted to reunite these kids with their parents. They belonged with the people who loved them, and he would make that happen as soon as possible, as soon as he found out who they all were.
His eyes fell on a little girl with her black hair in two little ponytails just behind her ears, sitting at a computer console specially set up for tiny operators. The oversized keyboard had brightly colored buttons on it, and in no time she had figured out how it worked. Dominique picked things up fast, particularly physical things.
And if his suspicion was correct, she was Sun-Chai's daughter. He remembered the photos of the Asian dolls he had received a few months earlier. Sun-Chai had wanted him to leave the children alone, to leave them at the Centre. She wouldn't have made good mother material, if that was what she had wanted for her daughter. Dominique would never know her mother, but there was a father somewhere in the Centre's biological banks who would need to be found. The thought finally dawned on Jarod that the biological parents might not always make the best caregivers, and promised himself to keep Sebastian's offer in mind.
The Australian might have quite a few children on hand, if there were very many more like Sun-Chai in the mix. But he would keep his options open, and do his best to convince all the parents to accept their responsibility and offer their children the love and security they needed to develop into healthy adults. For that, he needed information, and went to look up Sebastian to get started on his newest project.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker paced the floor, wiping tears away with her handkerchief as she spoke. "I know exactly who's responsible for this," she growled. "It's got Jarod's name written all over it." She sighed and pushed her hair back from her face as she swung to a stop and snatched a paper out of her assistant's hand. "Security records show that Mr. Voorhees arrived from South Africa just as things started to happen, but we know he was still in the Pretoriat because we were meeting with him."
Broots spoke up. "If it was Jarod engineering this, he had help. I've got a photo of the guy who impersonated Voorhees, taken during the shift change, but he's not in our databases anywhere. We figure he must've been wearing a latex copy of the real Voorhees' fingerprints, so finding out who he is from that source is a bust. We're checking with the Pretoriat to see how he might've gotten hold of those prints." He handed out copies of the picture taken from one of the security cameras of the unidentified blond man.
The Chairman nodded as he blinked at the photo, his eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep. "Go on. What else?"
Morgan sighed and pushed back her hair again. "Apparently, the entire staff of caregivers for the children on SL-17 were hooked on Aurora some time ago, using a patch system Jarod must have finished once he got out. We found some used patches in one of the boxes still on the truck that carried the escapees away from here."
"How did they get in the boxes?" Mr. Parker demanded.
"They were packed into them in one of the drug labs, probably by this mystery guy," Broots answered. "The security staff monitoring those cameras apparently turned them off. We have video that shows the empty boxes stored in the lab beforehand, and an empty lab afterward. Each of the security people involved and now missing reported to their supervisors that they weren't feeling well and would be in the bathroom. They must have gone into their own boxes then. By the time suspicions were raised as to why they hadn't returned to their posts, they were already loaded onto the truck and on their way to Boston. Some may have been genuine defections, but we suspect Aurora may be involved with them as well."
"You're sure it was Jarod pulling the strings?" the Chairman asked. "How could this have happened?"
Morgan stopped pacing and fixed him with an icy glare. "The Centre shot itself in the foot, Daddy," she snarled. "We created the means with the development of Aurora. According to our records, we have two vials missing from our own labs -- taken when Jarod escaped -- and another vial missing from each of the Nebula series drugs, along with formulas and protocols. Those were logged in as stolen from CGB labs, one of our beta testing sites, almost a year ago. Since I wasn't SIS director at that point, I never knew. All this came up after an investigation I launched as part of this inquiry. And we know Jarod knew the formula for Aurora. He got that information while he was working on the patch system here."
The old man sighed. "So Jarod has taken the Seraphim. Where would he have gone with them?"
"He's got--" Her voice broke. Tears spilled anew down her face, and this time she didn't try to wipe them away. "He's got my brother, too, Daddy. And I swear to you, I will get him back. And I'll kill the bastards who took him from us. Every last one of them, including your precious Pretender."
Mr. Parker stood up and held out his arms to her. "There, there, angel. Let's not be too hasty. You know how valuable Jarod is to the Centre--"
She stiffened, held out a hand toward him. "Screw the finances!" she snapped. Then more softly, she added, "I'm not a little girl anymore, Daddy. I can handle this. I'm not going to fall apart." Her eyes narrowed, and her voice turned into a cold growl. "But you can bet Jarod will, once I get my hands on him. In little tiny pieces. Someone's going to have to clean him up with a sponge. And right now I don't care how important he is to the Centre. Once I have those kids back, he'll be visiting a whole other set of little angels."
The Chairman smiled, his blue eyes glinting with angry pride. "That's my girl," he purred. "Go get 'em."
Cox had sat quietly through the meeting, listening to the update with interest. As Mr. Parker resumed his seat, the doctor spoke at last. "Are you sure Jarod engineered this himself, or was he working for someone else?"
Morgan whirled on him. "What are you saying? That someone is still controlling him through Aurora?"
Cox shrugged. "If whoever got him out has been supplying him with the drug, they'd certainly have control of him. Wouldn't they, Miss Parker?" He shot an angry glance at Eve, sitting quietly in a corner, her face pale and drawn.
Morgan daubed at her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. "We have no indication to show that Jarod is still using Aurora," she argued. "There have been no traces of the drug at any of the lairs we've uncovered to date since his last escape. We also don't have any evidence of his completion of the patch delivery system, but you can bet my money's on him for having finished it. The Centre's research on the patch system was transferred to CGB and buried. They never finished the project, which means it has to be Jarod. I think he's the mastermind, all by himself. That he's gotten other people to help him with this is merely incidental in my book."
With a smile, Cox eyed her. "Just because you don't have any evidence that someone else is pulling Jarod's strings doesn't mean it isn't happening."
The Chairman bowed his head, thinking. "Other branches of the Centre have the formula for Aurora," he mused. "What about the possibility that it might be someone at Die Fakultät or the Pretoriat controlling Jarod?"
Morgan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'll certainly be checking that out, Daddy. Starting with Voorhees in South Africa. But I can't be two places at once. I have to finish up the investigation here before I can go back to Boer City to check out the Pretoriat, and then on to Berlin."
"I want your best people on this," Mr. Parker hissed.
"Nothing less," she promised. "And you'll get daily reports of what I find. Meeting adjourned."
Everyone rose and returned to their offices, and Miss Parker sat quivering with rage, staring at her computer screen, trying to figure exactly how Jarod had done this to her, and why. She knew he was behind it, and he hadn't even bothered to warn her or let her know where he'd be taking the children. It was the sort of behavior she expected from him, always thinking only as far as himself.
She finished up her day, working till exhaustion began to set in, and then headed for her car. As soon as she was away from the building, she pulled out her cell phone and made a call to his secret number. The sound of children's laughter was loud in the background when he answered, a smile in his voice.
"You son of a bitch!" she railed at him, pounding on the steering wheel. "You stole my son!" She let loose with a stream of invectives that nearly peeled the paint off her car before she stopped to take a breath, blinking back the tears of rage and anguish so she could see to drive, but it was no use. Driving was beyond her at the moment, so she pulled off the road, slammed the car into park and got out, stomping in the grass along the roadside.
"Hold on, there, Morgan," Jarod commanded. "This wasn't my--"
"You liar!" she shouted into the phone. "I can hear them--"
"I didn't take them," he insisted, anger in his voice. "But some friends of mine did. Calm down. They're safe now."
She didn't believe him, but the fact that he had them and that they were all right was a tiny comfort, allowing her to get hold of herself and speak more rationally. "Tell me what happened. Where the hell are you?" Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she wiped them impatiently away, too furious to care if they showed in her voice.
"Are you all right?" he asked hesitantly.
She almost lost it. A short bark of ironic laughter escaped her. "I've been awake for nearly 48 hours, you moron! My guts are all twisted up inside me. I may damn well lose my job and my life over this, and you want to know if I'm all right? Oh, sure. Just peachy! What the hell do you expect? Of course I'm not all right." She held her arms close to her body, trying desperately to stop shaking, hugging the phone to her face.
"I'm sorry, baby--"
"Don't you 'baby' me!" she screamed, and began to cry. She jerked the phone away from her face, squatted down in the tall grass and let the torrent come. For a moment she forgot about the phone in her hand, still transmitting, but when she regained a measure of control, when she was so drained she could hardly stand, she put the phone back to her ear. "Jarod, just tell me why you didn't warn me."
"Because I didn't know. I wasn't in on this, I swear, Morgan."
His voice was gentle, almost soothing in her ear. Barrow's promise surged up inside her, and she knew he was telling the truth. Relief swelled in her heart painfully, and she collapsed on the seat of her car.
"Okay. I believe you. I'm sorry I--"
"It's okay," he assured her. "You're upset. This was cruel, the way it was handled." He sighed. "But it was the only way it could have been done. I was still searching for ways to get the children out of there without hurting anyone in the process, and kept coming up empty handed. It might have taken me years to accomplish, and by then it would have been too late."
She could feel him reaching out to her through the phone lines, and automatically drew back. "Where are you?"
"Dallas. A place called Sanctuary. I'll be sending you information on what's happening here shortly."
He sounded defeated. She couldn't help that. "Jarod, do you see now?" She signed and blotted her cheek with her jacket sleeve. "Whenever something unexpected happens between us, I automatically leap to the wrong conclusion. Now that you've explained, I know it wasn't your fault. It hardly ever is, really. But I can't get past--"
She could hear the pain in his voice, and knew at last that he understood. "This will be good for Gabriel, being with you again. But make sure he knows I miss him, and I'll come to see him as soon as I can."
"He knows his mommy loves him," Jarod assured her, his voice thick with emotion. He sniffed into the phone. "Here. You talk to him for a minute."
Her heart leaped into her throat as she heard Gabriel's breathing, loud and clear, into the mouthpiece of Jarod's cell phone. "Hi, baby. I love you."
"Mine?" he called uncertainly.
"You can call her that other name we talked about, honey," Jarod advised in the background.
"Mommy! Mine is mommy. Come see me? We got toys! An' a big house. Big!"
"As soon as I can, sweetheart," she promised, fresh tears spilling over her cheeks. "You have fun with Daddy. Okay?"
"Okay. Lub you, Mommy."
Squeals of delighted laughter echoed in the background, and she imagined him running off to play with his friends just as Jarod came back on the line.
"He'll be all right," Jarod promised. "And we'll be together soon, all of us. As a family."
She sighed and nodded, thinking about what the Centre had done to both of them, sharing a brother and now a son. "And what a twisted family tree we'll have," she murmured wearily.
"What?" Her tone was filled with exhaustion. She waited for his final word, but it seemed to take forever. She swung her legs into the car, closed the door and fastened her seatbelt with one hand as she waited.
"A part of me will always love you."
For a moment, she couldn't move. Her eyes filled, and sadness clutched at her heart. Resignation eased the pain somewhat, and she sniffed. "I know. Me, too."
After a moment, the dial tone buzzed in her ear. She folded up her phone, turned on the car and steered it back onto the road, headed for home. Just as she did with her hunt for Jarod, she would make a great, though more emotional show of tracking down the Seraphim and Gabriel. But she would no longer be tearing herself apart over his absence.
Gabriel was safe. All of the children were. And now she was free to begin her mother's plan. Ideas were already forming about how to accomplish that. The world was about to change again. It was time to clean house, and when she finished, the Centre would be sparkling and new.
* * * * * * * * *
Jock Voorhees sat at the conference table, staring at his hands. Miss Parker had grilled him, along with Kruger and the guy from Corporate, for almost seven hours, but he had no answers for her. He was the last to sit at the T-Board, following all the rest of his closest staff, and one by one they had all been released to return to their stations.
Miss Parker was getting impatient. She eyed Kruger, listening as he applied still more pressure with a rapid barrage of questions, to which Voorhees answered perfectly, all innocence. The man was either very good or had no part in the drama that had just unfolded in Blue Cove.
She was tired herself, and with a sigh, she cut them off. "That's enough for today, gentlemen," she announced. "I'm satisfied that Mr. Voorhees is telling us the truth, but there are other records I want to look into." She turned to Kruger and smiled coolly. "I'll be getting a little shut-eye in the guest quarters, and when I get up, I want a full staff at my beck and call. You understand that nothing -- not a single record anywhere in this facility -- is beyond the scope of my investigation. Don't you, Mr. Kruger?"
The other man frowned and narrowed his eyes at her in suspicion. Then he smiled, apparently perfectly affable. "Of course, Miss Parker. Anything you want. We are at your disposal, day or night."
"Good." She snapped her folder shut and rose from the table. "You can go, Mr. Voorhees. You're cleared."
The man rose slowly, a little unsteadily, and nodded, his face sagging with relief.
Something in his demeanor told her that he was hiding something.
"And I'm sure you won't have any problem submitting to a physical examination in the infirmary, along with a tox screen of your blood." She looked pointedly at Kruger. "I'd suggest random testing of all your key personnel, specifically to test for drugs from the Nebula series. Just as a safety precaution, you understand."
Kruger nodded and eyed Voorhees again, suspicion growing into an intense gleam.
Voorhees sighed. "Of course, Miss Parker. I have no problem with that. Would you like the test done in your presence? I'm willing to do it now, or wait under guard until you've had your rest." He met her eyes then, and she knew that the results would be negative.
She smiled at him. "Mr. Kruger can go with you," she offered.
Trust him, said her mother's voice softly.
She nodded to herself in acceptance of the advice. "I'll see you tomorrow. Both of you."
Voorhees excused himself, and Parker gathered up her things, preparing to trudge to the tower guest suite overlooking the restless ocean. Kruger stepped in her way before she made it to the door, and leaned in close to whisper to her, as if they might be overheard in the otherwise empty room. He gave her the creeps.
"My sources tell me to look to Berlin for your missing property," he advised her. "Delius has something up his sleeve, I'm told. He has plans to take the chairmanship away from your father, by any means necessary." He offered a cold smile. "We wouldn't want that to happen, now, would we? Mr. Parker's doing a splendid job."
She eased slightly away from him, putting her briefcase and an armload of files between them. "I'll keep that in mind," she told him quietly. Then, to offer a little intimidation of her own, she leaned closer, and smiled at him. "And you can be sure that, if there are any plots underway to displace the Chairman, I will uncover them." She gave a husky little laugh that she knew was enticing, teasing him with what he couldn't have. "It's what I do best, you know, Mr. Kruger." She let the false expression slip into cold sternness. "I hunt. And I find. And then, I clean up the mess other people leave behind."
She stalked off, aware that his eyes followed her out the door. She had given him warning. He'd be careful with her, but she'd have to watch her own back as long as she was in that place. Next time, she promised herself, she'd bring an escort who could do that for her.
Miss Parker couldn't wait to get home, but Berlin was the next stop on her itinerary, as soon as she finished dissecting the entire organization at the Pretoriat.
* * * * * * * * *
The e-mail had said Dallas, and gave Faith specific directions to a place called Sanctuary, but Jarod had not told her why he wanted her to come. No matter how far away she sought to go, or how she tried to shut the others out, they always tugged at her at odd moments, reminding her that she could never completely cut herself off from humanity. Those three -- Angelo, Morgan and Jarod -- would always command her whenever they were in need.
She felt Morgan's heartbreak strongest, but knew she was too far away to reach, somewhere across the ocean in another country. Angelo was trapped in the depths of Blue Cove, and she couldn't reach him there. Texas was on the way to Delaware, and she fully intended to go there, to find a way to meet with Angelo and her sister to ease their pain. But Jarod's summons had come directly, and though she could feel his joy even half a continent away, she decided to see him first. He might already know what the problem was with the other two, and help her find a solution for them that wouldn't bring her so close to danger.
As the sun rose over Dallas, she rubbed her tired eyes and pulled into the parking lot. Studying the tall building sticking up out of the flat landscape, she wondered exactly where Jarod was in there, and what his latest mission might be. This felt different, somehow, more genuine than his other pretends.
Shrugging off the weariness, she went into the lobby and asked for him at the reception desk.
The man in uniform studied her and dialed the phone. He gave the name she had used and a moment later, he directed her into the elevator with instructions to get off on the twelfth floor. She pinned the VISITOR badge that he had given her to her blouse, and waited to see her old friend.
The doors opened onto a brightly colored nursery, with noisy children scattered everywhere. It looked distinctly like a day care center, and she wondered what might have drawn Jarod there. After a moment, she spied him in the library corner with three toddlers trying to stay balanced in his lap while he juggled a book in front of them, attempting to read it aloud.
"Jarod?" she asked uncertainly, ambling toward him in disbelief.
The little girl seated in the middle glanced up at her with big blue eyes.
"Oh, my God," Faith breathed. No one had to tell her who that child was. From the moment she saw her, she knew.
Her hand stole up softly to cover her mouth, and she stood still. The little dark haired boy beside the girl must be her other little friend, though he was so distracted at the moment that she couldn't be sure. The other one was familiar, too, but she couldn't put names to any of them. These were the project children, all eight of them, plus a few extras.
"Faith!" Jarod called happily. He struggled to get out from under his burden, but the kids wouldn't budge. Instead, he laid the book down on the carpet and motioned her to come to him. "I see you got my message. How are you?"
She bent down to try to find a way to hug him, but stopped at the warning glare from a pair of big brown eyes looking up at her out of a handsome little face.
Gabriel got up, stepped toward her and gave her knees a shove. "No, Bunny! No take my Daddy!" His lower lip stuck out in defiance, though she towered over him.
Faith squatted down to be on eye level with him. "I won't take your daddy away, ever again, sweetie," she promised.
"Bunny?" Jarod asked, confused.
She shrugged. "He must have associated me with one of his nursery toys. My guess is, a stuffed bunny."
The boy ran over to a toy bin, pulled out a stuffed rabbit almost as big as he was, and drop kicked it a few feet away. His eyes were still fierce with baby anger when he looked at her, and then he ran over and threw his arms around Jarod's neck, hugging him possessively and crowding the other kids away.
"I don't get it," Jarod said, shaking his head and cuddling the boy close. He patted Gabriel's back. "I'm not leaving, honey. I promise. Okay? Why don't you and Annie and Raffi go play for a minute, and let me talk to Aunt Faith? We'll be right here."
The three children moved away obediently, but Gabriel and Angelique continued to watch the two adults, glancing up frequently from the miniature merry-go-round bolted to the playroom floor.
"Do you understand now why I asked you to come?" he asked softly, keeping his voice low to prevent the children from listening in.
Faith took a seat on the carpet beside him. "I guess," she shrugged. "Though I'm not sure I'm ready for this."
"None of us are," he said sourly. "But we weren't exactly given a choice."
"Is this what's upsetting Morgan and Angelo?"
For a moment, he looked startled. "How did you know?"
"How did I know when your plane went down and you were on the verge of dying? How did I know you were addicted to Aurora, or when Kodiak Brown came to haunt you?" She sighed and leaned against his shoulder wearily. "Because three kids made friends with a sick little girl a long time ago, and I never forgot your kindness. You and Morgan and Angelo have been the only bright spots in my whole life, Jarod. I take those relationships seriously."
He put his arm around her and hugged her lightly. "You take everything seriously," he observed with a trace of humor. "But I think you're too tired to talk, so I'm going to find you a place to bed down for a while, and then when you're ready, I'm going to teach you to play."
She eyed the children, still watching her suspiciously. "You don't honestly think they're going to let you walk out of here with me, do you?"
He cupped his hand to the side of his mouth and called, "Field trip!"
Instantly, every child in the room came running, lining up in a row right behind Gabriel and Angelique, who stood holding hands right in front of him. He unfolded his long legs and got to his feet, took Faith by the arm and steered her toward the elevator with the children following along behind them like baby ducks on the way to the pond. They all piled into the elevator, squeezing in while Jarod held the door open. He bent down to pick up Angelique and passed her to Faith, then lifted Gabriel in his arms and pushed the button for the residence floor.
Faith stared into the little girl's big blue eyes, her shock of blonde hair thick like her mother's. Angelique clutched a doll in the crook of one arm, and with her free hand she probed her mouth with one finger thoughtfully. "Hi, Annie," Faith ventured softly. "Do you know who I am?"
Angelique nodded. "Mommy," she said simply.
Faith's breath caught. A lump formed instantly in her throat, and tears were quickly blinked away. "Yes. I'm your mommy. It's nice to meet you at last. I hope we'll learn to be great friends."
She thought that was the lamest thing she'd ever said, but had no clue what else to say to the toddler.
"It gets easier," Jarod whispered into her ear, his mouth quirking up into a half-smothered grin. "I promise. They're wonderful kids."
Sighing, Faith hoped it would. This was something she hadn't wanted to face, and now her daughter was looking right at her. This poor child would never have a normal life, cursed as she was by her mother's talent, compounded by her father's. She wanted to cry, but that would only upset Angelique.
The child leaned quickly toward Jarod, grabbing his sleeve and tugging just as the elevator doors opened and the other children started to march out. "Jawid, mommy's flat!" she announced.
"What the heck does that mean?" Faith turned questioning eyes to her adult companion.
The dark-haired man grinned broadly. "It means you're safe for her to be around. She can't feel your emotions." He stepped out of the car, propelling her out with one hand at the small of her back. "My rooms are this way. You can sack out there while I get you some rooms ready. I'm expecting you'll be here a while."
"It's a good thing, really," Jarod continued as he led the way down the hallway, all the children in tow and Faith walking beside him. "Angelique's still pretty shielded from contact with others, outside of the caregivers. She has a hard time being around people--"
"I can understand that," Faith cut in. "I know what she feels, how hard it is."
He glanced at her as he stopped outside a door marked with his name engraved on a brass plate. "So maybe you can help teach her how to deal with it. I can't imagine anyone who would understand the challenges she faces better than you do."
Faith set Angelique on her feet, but the child caught her hand immediately and hung on gently. "I'm not sure I can be a mother, Jarod." That little hand was so warm and soft. She couldn't let go, but didn't want to hold on.
He stepped in front of her and put his free hand on her shoulder, making her look up at him. "This isn't something you can hide from, like you do the rest of the world, Faith. She needs you. She matters."
Nodding, she said softly, "I know." Looking down into those eyes so like her own, she understood better than he knew. "Let me sleep on it. Then we'll talk later. Okay?"
"Sure thing. I'll be here to help with a lot of it, and there's an excellent staff of early childhood educators and caregivers to help with everything else." He smiled at her again, his face filled with boyish playfulness and unbridled joy. "It'll be fun!"
"Right," she agreed, still not convinced. But she was too tired to argue, and wandered toward the bed in the back corner, ignoring the floor strewn with toys and the haphazard stacks of books and papers that littered the floor and every shelf, table and desk in sight. "See you in a few."
"I'll be on 12 with the kids, when you're awake," he assured her. "Come on, Annie. Let's go to the kitchens and see if we can find a snack for everybody. Okay?" He reached for the little girl's hand and led her and the other kids toward the door in a chorus of cheers for the promised snacks.
Faith watched them leave, then slipped off her shoes, turned back the covers and got into his bed, clothes and all.
Peter Winston paced the floor, cellular phone in hand. She hadn't called and he was worried, but he couldn't dial her. He pictured what she must be going through, and knew how it felt. He'd been up to his armpits in alligators before, and nearly been eaten. He knew she was tough, that she could handle herself, but this was the Centre, and whatever flaw had been present in her security system, she'd be the one to pay for it, possibly with her life.
He remembered DC, and shuddered. Fresh out of college and already showing a flair for larceny, he had tackled the wrong project and nearly been killed trying to get out of that jam. He hadn't known then who his target was, but learned quickly to research potential marks before hitting them. In a short time he had earned the money he needed for experimental treatments, but it was too late. The disease took his father after a great deal of suffering, no matter what medical avenues Peter sought out to delay or reverse the inevitable. For nearly a year, everyone he loved began to die, and it took him a while to figure out why.
His family was involved with a small research firm in Pennsylvania, owned by a larger corporation hidden in a mountain of paperwork and dummy companies. It took him years to wade through it all, but eventually he discovered that the people pulling the strings were out of Berlin. He had been horrified to learn that his parents and older sister had been intentionally made ill in the hope of discovering a vaccine for the virus. The choice had not even been theirs -- they were among a group of researchers targeted and infected without their knowledge, then quarantined until it was determined they were not contagious. Some of the researchers stayed on to try to find their own cure, but John, his father, had been too ill to work. Peter had taken him to the best medical facilities all over the world, hoping for a cure, but to no avail.
It wasn't until after his sister died that he found the letter she had left for him, explaining what had happened. When he went to the lab to try to find evidence, he found it in flames, with everyone involved either dead or dying inside. In all, he counted 37 lives lost to Die Fakultät's misuse of power. And the skill he'd developed in getting the money he needed to save his family gave him a clever way to get his vengeance. He'd built himself a suitable personal history, and put himself in a place to get attention from Madame Berkstresser. So far, his plan had worked. It would take time, he knew, to accomplish that goal, but he was close now. Close enough to taste it, but not close enough.
Parker had been an unexpected distraction. From the moment he had seen her in the boardroom at Blue Cove after Madame Berkstresser's untimely demise, he had great difficulty keeping his mind on work. When Delius had been appointed director of the Berlin station and he'd met with the American team, she had ignored him as if he'd been a total stranger. Peter chose to let that pass, communicating with her formally and only in an official capacity since then, understanding that she wanted to keep things strictly business between them. He'd been following her career with interest since she garnered the position as head of SIS, but as always, he hadn't been sure what to expect from her. He'd known her in college, of course, but people changed. Both of them had. He wouldn't even recognize the boy he had once been if he passed himself on the street.
College. His parents had scrimped and saved so they could send him to school in Italy, and he had blown most of it off, doing just enough actual work to get by with a modest average. He had excelled at partying, especially with Laura Trioli and Morgan. They had history together, and as he thought back on his younger days, he remembered how infatuated he'd been with her then. She was a goddess, trapped inside an unbreakable shell. No matter how he had tried to touch her, all he managed was physical. She wasn't ready then, but he had seen the potential promise of the woman she would become one day, and she had more than fulfilled that dream. But her armor was still unbreakable, and he hadn't tried to get through it, even though he wanted to more than ever, especially now that she was in trouble.
He remembered the look on the Chairman's face when Delius introduced him at the meeting in Blue Cove months earlier. There had been the barest flicker of recognition at the mention of his name, but his daughter had sat stone-faced and silent, without a glance in his direction. Afterward, he had intentionally approached her in the corridor for small talk, a smile on his face, ready to reminisce.
She had been all business, looking down her glorious nose at him with ice in her eyes.
He didn't need to be hit over the head to understand. Parker had not come to Laura's funeral. She had put her past behind her, and whatever she had been to him once upon a time was history and nothing more. He had been a plaything. That was all.
He closed his eyes, pressed his fingertips against them, and sighed wearily. He hadn't slept since he heard the news, wearing a hole in the carpet in his apartment as he waited for her to call. It had been days now, and he was painfully close to exhaustion. But he couldn't call. He couldn't tell anyone that they were old friends, or that he was worried about her. If enough suspicion was cast on her, it could bleed over to him as well, and that would ruin everything he had worked so hard for over the last ten years.
A knock on his door made his head jerk up. He padded barefoot to it, and pulled it open. His mouth fell open in surprise, and he just stood there, staring.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" Miss Parker asked, suitcase in hand.
"Uh " He stepped aside, temporarily bereft of conscious thought, and gestured her in, locking up behind her. He put the cell phone on the table by the door where he kept his keys and wallet, and went to take her bag. "What are you doing here?"
"Nice to see you, too, Peter," she growled irritably. "I didn't want to stay at Die Fakultät. Delius fancies himself a ladies' man, and I didn't want to wake up with him in my bed. I'd have to shoot him if he tried that, and with as many losses as we've had lately among the executives, I don't think the Triumvirate would take too kindly to my blowing his brains out."
"Could improve things, though," he said without thinking. Realizing what he'd just said, he glanced up at her, afraid of what she might think of his comment.
She smiled and nodded. "Don't I know it. You look like hell, Peter. Are you sick?"
He shook his head and pulled her into a fond embrace. "Just worried about you. I haven't slept since I heard about the breach." He felt her tense in his arms, and knew he had stepped over the line. A moment later, she pulled away.
"Nicely put," she said stiffly. "The Pretoriat's blaming the kidnapping on you guys."
Peter shook his head. "I'd know about it, and there hasn't been a hint of the Seraphim coming here."
She nodded. "I know. But I still have to look. You understand."
"Of course. I'll help, if you want. But right now, now that I know you're all right, I need to get some shut-eye. Just a couple hours. Are you jet-lagged? Do you need to bunk in now, or later? I can take the couch if you want to catch some Z's." He stumbled on the way to the sofa.
Morgan grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him toward the bedroom door standing open and revealing his neatly made bed. "Go," she ordered. "I'll be a few hours at Die Fakultät, then come back here to sack out. You won't even know I'm around."
He nodded numbly, and staggered toward his bed. She followed him to the door, waited till he had gotten into the bed, then turned out the light and shut the door. Picking up her suitcase, she flipped through the notes she had taken at The Pretoriat, pulled out her cell phone and called Jarod as she kicked off her shoes and reclined wearily on the couch.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan stepped into the office and closed the etched glass doors behind her. She studied the woman behind the desk, taking note of her stylish copper silk suit and the lipstick that perfectly matched it. The color offset Ms. Hart's dark skin beautifully, but did nothing to warm the chilly look in her eyes as she glanced up at her visitor. Parker waited, watching, knowing she should have sent sweepers in to take her, but unable to shut out the voice that commanded her to approach and talk before taking action.
"If you have something to say," Ms. Hart began, "then say it and get out of my sight, Parker."
Morgan strolled toward the guest chair and leaned against it, but did not sit down. "I know about the furloughs," she said softly. "You arranged them for every one of the Seraphim caregivers. You made sure they were long enough to get an addiction to Aurora going. Without your participation, the children would still be here."
Hart's dark eyes rolled up to her face. For a moment, her expression was unreadable. Then she swallowed hard. She sighed. "All right," she said softly. "Why haven't you turned me in?"
"I don't know," Parker answered honestly. "I'm waiting for something. I'm just not sure what yet." She gave a half smile. "Part of my mother's legacy, you know. You remember my mother, don't you? You worked under her in SIS, and took her job when she died."
"That was a long time ago." The woman considered for a moment, then rose and went to her wall safe. Careful to put her body between the lock and her visitor, she opened it and retrieved a small silver disc. "I've noticed your growing affection for Angelo. Maybe this will buy me a little time. Long enough to disappear."
Morgan took the disc and looked at it. She knew it was important, that it had to do with her twin, but what it could be she couldn't fathom. All she knew was that Ms. Hart understood its value completely, and wanted to use it as a bargaining chip. "I'll take a look at it, and tell you later."
Ms. Hart strolled across the room to a worktable, opened up a DSA reader and gestured toward it. "Consider it now, if you don't mind." She smiled. "And I do have other copies, as insurance."
"What becomes of them if I accept your offer?" Parker asked as she approached the machine.
"As long as I'm safe, they will be also. If I should meet an untimely end, they'll be forwarded to the Chairman immediately."
Parker knew she could take Ms. Hart's word. What she was offering sounded like a solid deal, but she wanted to know the contents of the disc before she agreed to it. She placed the disc into the reader, turned the machine on and let the other woman guide the trackball to the appropriate section of the digital recording.
The scene was dated only weeks after Jarod's escape. It showed Angelo sneaking into the Archives room, heading straight for the section that was designated storage for the Pretender's work. Her brother gathered up every one of the DSAs in the storage container and scampered out of the room. The next scene showed him packing the discs into a reader, disguising the device inside another package, and shipping it out.
"I always wondered how Jarod got those," Parker mused, the impact of this discovery sitting in her belly like a hot rock. If the Triumvirate ever found out about this, Angelo would be locked up somewhere permanently, possibly even killed.
"Unlike my peers, I never underestimated Angelo's capability to understand the world around him," Hart proclaimed. "He wanders in and out, certainly. But he gets far more than he's been given credit for. He's dangerous to the Centre, moreso than the Triumvirate believes." She shut the machine off. "And this proves it."
Morgan met the woman's eyes and nodded. "Yes. It does." She held her hand out for the disc. "How long do you need?"
"Three days. It's Friday, so when I don't show up for work tomorrow, no one will really wonder about it until Monday. Two days of travel should get me far enough away to be safe for a little while." She smiled. "But this time, you'll have to cover your own pretty little ass, Miss Parker. You'll have to explain why you let me get away, after I helped free the Seraphim. I'd almost like to stay around to hear your explanation." She gave a soft little laugh. "Almost."
Parker pocketed the disc and watched the other woman pack up her personal belongings, load them into her briefcase, and smile a triumphant farewell as she headed for the door.
For a few moments she gazed out the window, considering how best to deal with this newest problem. She'd find a way out of this mess with her job and her life intact. She had to. But she needed help to do that. She needed something extra.
A soft hum drew her attention to the computer on the desk, still running, still logged in under Ms. Hart's password. She went straight for the password file and changed it so she could access the files again, and began looking through Hart's private documents.
After she read through the Ghost Project file, she knew she'd hit paydirt. Checking through the emails that had been deleted but were still saved on the server, she found an address matching one of the names on the list. After reading through the emails sent and received to that address, she composed one of her own and sent it out, calling for a meeting. Whoever this ghost was, she'd soon have him in her grasp, and that would put her in very good standing with the Chairman, indeed.
* * * * * * * * *
An entire floor had been set up as a hospital ward, in preparation for the detoxification of the Seraphim caregivers. They had waited two weeks, hiring in a complete new staff and letting the children get used to them before they started the withdrawal process. Most of the children accepted the new nannies with delight, easing the process of removing those whose personalities were not suited to the children's emotional needs.
Jarod was part of the panel that chose the new caregivers, and was instrumental in training them, making sure that the children were kept busy and happy, but exposed to gentle discipline and plenty of playtime that would allow them to develop properly. Sebastian and Sumi spent much of their day in the nursery with Gideon, and during the transition period, Jarod spent his every waking hour with Gabriel. He explained that he would be away on occasion, and Gabriel seemed to accept that. He liked his new caregiver, named Sara, and Jarod knew she would take good care of him during his absences.
But he was not emotionally prepared for leaving Gabriel behind when he went to start the withdrawal process. He was the expert in charge during the proceeding, supervising a staff of medical professionals assembled from around the country specifically for that purpose. At first, the work kept his mind busy so that he didn't notice, but once the procedure was underway and his patients were all unconscious during the first part of the detoxification, his heart brought him back to the little boy downstairs, and the bigger boy in Barrow.
This would be a good place for Jordan, too. There were other teenagers here, like Cam, with whom he might relate. Merritt might also be relocated there, since there was plenty of adult supervision under which all of the teenagers might flourish and become young adults. He promised himself to arrange it, and to have Jordan's greenhouse relocated to one of the empty floors or in a nearby facility. Sebastian had good security, but they also had the advantage of secrecy. As long as the Centre didn't know where any of them were, they had a better chance of keeping safe.
Keely had already been through the withdrawal process, and was doing well. Sebastian had been awkward at first with her, but on his wife's suggestion he had pulled out family albums and regaled his sister with tales of family adventures, nicknames and other happy memories, gradually pulling her into a closer relationship. Keely's sadness at the loss of Aurora faded as she accepted her new situation, and at the end of those first two weeks, she was laughing and engaging in play with many of the youngsters in the Sanctuary daycare center. She seemed to have a talent for art, and took up painting.
Jarod knew by watching her progress that she would eventually be all right, but he also promised himself to continue to research into the post-Aurora medication until the after-effects of the drug could be completely reversed. It might take him years to accomplish, but he'd do it eventually. Keely deserved to be completely free of the shackles the Centre had placed on her. So did the others.
As did he. And one day, he promised himself, they would all be free.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan strolled slowly back and forth in the open space near the front of the office while the old man behind the desk read through the reports she had brought him. As promised, she had given him daily updates in person or by telephone, regarding the search for the Seraphim. She also mentioned any leads they discovered on Jarod, just so she could make herself look good in his eyes. But this time, things were different. She had knowingly let a conspirator in the kidnapping go free, and that wasn't going to be easy to cover up. Fortunately, she had timing on her side.
"Ms. Hart didn't show this morning," Morgan mused pensively. "If she had, you can bet she'd be locked up on SL-25 with the psychos."
The Chairman murmured approvingly. "This is good work, angel," he told her gruffly. "You've ferreted out every offender and set up what appears to be a fairly accurate timeline of when things started and exactly how it happened. Impressive." He closed the folder and looked up at her. "But it doesn't tell me where they went."
She stopped pacing, crossed her arms and made eye contact. "I'm working on that." She started pacing again, watching him for reaction. "Kruger says it's Delius. Delius swears Kruger had a hand in it. I still think it was Jarod."
He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Might he be working with Kruger or Delius?" He cocked his head. "Or maybe for them, under Aurora?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. I know Ms. Hart was responsible for part of it, but can't make a connection between her and Jarod or Berlin or Boer City. At least, not yet. It could have been coincidence on her part, trying to undermine my position, but I don't think so. I think she was working with someone on the outside. Namely, your Pretender."
"What makes you think that?"
She shrugged and looked out the window behind him, over his head. "Call it intuition, a hunch. I just know it. Jarod's probably not the only one with an agenda against us, but he's the best candidate. Still, I'm not crossing out other possibilities. I'm following every lead, and right now, there are some good ones working at the Wilmington airport." She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. She was tired, on the verge of exhaustion from all the traveling she'd done in the past several days. "I'll find them, Daddy, don't worry."
"I know you will, angel."
She eyed him, waiting for a criticism that didn't come. "Did you read the other information on Ms. Hart?"
"I did. Too bad you couldn't have put this together before the weekend. Still, this Ghost Project is interesting. Think you can find out who they are?"
"In time, of course I can." She looked back at him, at the droop of his shoulders and head, and felt a flash of sympathy for him. Then she remembered that he wasn't her father, and what he'd done to destroy her life and those whom she loved. Compassion turned into hatred, quickly tamped down as she struggled to hold onto that earlier feeling, to help her act her way through the rest of the interview. "It'll be okay, Daddy," she promised softly. "Our security measures were watertight. We did everything that could have been done, and I know the Triumvirate recognizes that. They won't be asking you to step down, if that's what you're worried about. You won't have to take the fall for this."
She needed him to stay in power, to help her hold onto her own.
He straightened slightly and his eyes grew hopeful. "You really think so?"
She took a seat in the guest chair and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Yes, Daddy. I know so. I've looked at this event from all sides. I've even had some of our younger Pretenders work on it, and the answers always come out the same way. Inside job, just like I said. Without the cooperation of the people under the influence of Aurora and Ms. Hart to get them addicted, this could not have happened. It was the only way such an escape could take place."
"Aurora," he spat, glowering at his desktop. "That drug seems to have caused us more problems than it gave us answers. I wish I'd never heard of it."
"Hindsight," she offered with a benevolent smile. "We'll get through this, Daddy. And I'll find my brother and the other children." She sighed and stood up, smoothing down her skirt. "I just hope he's all right, wherever he is." Tears fell as she encouraged the emotions she'd been keeping buried to surface. She missed Gabriel terribly, and knew he missed her as well.
The Chairman got up and hurried around the desk to her, taking her into his arms to comfort her.
It was all she could do to let him hold her, and not push him away. She reminded herself to play the part of wounded daughter for him. He'd expect that, and if he didn't get it, he'd be suspicious. Morgan concentrated on the gnawing sensation of loss, bringing forth a flood of tears. When she felt him stiffen, announcing through body language that he'd had enough, she pulled them back, sniffed and wiped her eyes on the handkerchief he handed her as he stepped back to his desk.
With a sigh, he sat down and looked back through the folders, pretending to have moved on.
There seemed to have been a lot of pretending in her life, she mused, and not just from Jarod. "Thanks, Daddy," she murmured with a sniff. Holding up the damp hankie, she offered a sad smile. "I'll get this back to you. Laundered, of course."
She let herself out, and turned her thoughts back to work. There was no contact from the ghost she'd tried to summon, so she had to assume that either the operative was dead or she had neglected some kind of code in the message she'd sent out, which would have tipped her hand and driven him underground even further. She could still dig into the project with her research team -- Broots and Sydney -- and see what turned up. Since the Chairman and the Triumvirate bought her timeline, she didn't have to worry about letting Ms. Hart slip away unscathed. All good things.
But the Pretoriat would be packing up their latest version of Starlight and shipping it and the researchers over in the next week. She'd need security ready to receive them, and some kind of protocols in place for tracking the subjects they'd be using in the research. Now that she had spent some time with Voorhees, she thought she understood why he was so reluctant to keep it there. He had a conscience, it seemed, and the project bothered him.
He hadn't even had to admit it to her. She could see it in his eyes whenever he talked about it, how it hurt and horrified him. This project took people's lives away from them, gave them false new ones, and they couldn't tell the difference. It was the ultimate tool for removal of free will. With it, someone could effectively remake another human being into whatever -- or whomever -- they wanted. Voorhees wanted to wash his hands of it.
So did she, but she no longer had that luxury. And in the Centre, a drug like that could be a dangerous weapon, indeed. One that could even be used on her, and she'd never know she had been changed.
She'd have to be careful, and make sure that enough stumbling blocks were put into the way of the researchers that they'd never be able to get it ready for open use. They didn't need another Aurora on their hands.
* * * * * * * * *
He wandered into the hospital ward, gazing down into the sleeping faces, relaxed and peaceful in their drug-induced rest. The Pretender was there, standing guard over them all, lack of sleep showing in the dark circles under his eyes, the hollows in his cheeks, the several days' growth of dark beard shadowing his jaws. Certainly someone must have told Jarod the part he had played in the children's rescue. All the other man needed was to put a face with the identity. This meeting wasn't one he relished, but it was necessary. Guilt drove him to it.
The blond strolled in silently, as he had been trained, and waited until the Pretender noticed him.
"I'm the one," he said softly, looking from bed to bed, and then finally up into Jarod's eyes. "This is my handiwork."
A muscle twitched in the Pretender's jaw. Anger gleamed in those dark eyes. And then he turned away, checking the vital signs of one of his patients.
"I didn't want to do it this way," the blond assured him. "But it was the only plan we could come up with that had any chance of success."
"Do you want me to thank you?" Jarod shot back.
"No, mate. I just want you to understand. This was for the children." He sighed. "This was why Sebastian wanted you to work on a cure, before we started. For them, and for Keely."
Jarod whirled around, launching the clipboard in his hand at his visitor's head. He ducked, just in time, and the clipboard bounced off the wall to the floor. He barely had time to recover before the Pretender was on him, hands wrapped around his throat, pinning him to the floor.
He went for the other man's little fingers, peeling them back quickly, bending them into a tight crook and shoving them toward the backs of the other man's hands. The pain made Jarod let go, and the blond pushed him off, giving him a shove that sent him sliding across the smooth tile floor. He wheezed and touched his throat, coughing to clear his airway.
"I know what it's like," he said hoarsely. "Don't think I did this without considering that."
"How could you know?" Jarod rasped. "Who the hell are you?"
"I came from the same place you did, mate," he assured the other man, getting to his feet and offering a hand up. "I never tasted Aurora, but I had my share of uncountable others."
Some of Jarod's rage cooled slightly, but he refused the assistance and stood under his own power. He stomped over to the clipboard, picked it up, and pretended to read the notes as he returned to his patients. "That doesn't excuse what you did."
"No, man. It doesn't." He glanced around at the beds. "But the way I see it, doing this saved eight more from the same slavery. Did you know Berlin was days away from having the dosages worked out for the children? That in six more months Dominique would be old enough to start the addiction? That's why we did this, Jarod. For that little girl. For your son. For all of them."
Rage in the Pretender's eyes melted into anguish as the full impact of that revelation hit home. He hung his head, and turned his back to the man.
"You couldn't do it," the blond told him. "We knew that. You'd been on Aurora, and you knew what it felt like. I haven't, so I could." He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and remembered. "But I know addiction. I know how hard it is to get through every moment without that sweetness." His voice caught, then grew husky. "Did you ever hear about the Ghost Project, Prodigy?"
Jarod's shoulders hunched. He shook his head.
"I'm one of the last, me and Valentine," the blond admitted. "We were trained to be invisible, to walk through walls if necessary, to do whatever it takes to get the job done." He touched his throat, still feeling his skin burning from the other man's impassioned grip. "You might think that I wouldn't know the value of a life, after what I've been through. We were trained from infancy to kill, to steal, to maim to do whatever to accomplish the mission, and then disappear, erasing all trace of our existence as we left. Do you know what that's like?"
He watched the other man's shoulders, saw his head come up as the simulation began to play in his consciousness. Loneliness twisted up inside him, an aching need to be known, to be remembered to be loved. But it was not in his nature to allow that to happen. He always chose the wrong woman, because it was instinctive to do so. The Centre had done its job well.
"Yeah, you can imagine it," he observed, cocking his head as he watched the Pretender, the play of emotions across the other man's face clear evidence of what was happening in his mind. "But you can't really feel it, not as deeply as I do. Everywhere you go, people remember you. Most think kindly of you, because you've helped them. Some hate you with a passion, because you caught them with their knickers down." He came closer, edged in front of the man and made him meet his eyes. "But they don't remember me, because I can't let them. Everything I do is in the shadows. I take great care to keep people from noticing me, except when I'm not working, only old habits die hard. Once I'm gone, people don't think about me anymore. It's as if I never existed. Feel that, Jarod, if you can. That's what the Centre did to me."
He glanced down at the sleeping woman on the bed beside him, and smoothed his hand over a lock of her strawberry blonde hair. "This one will remember me, because of Aurora."
"Hell of a legacy," Jarod murmured, his mouth twisting up in torment. He shook his head, his grip tightening on the clipboard.
"God, we are so ruined!" the blond moaned, and shoved away from the bed. "All of us. Because of that place "
Jarod caught his sleeve and made him turn. "We can change that," he promised. "I can help you, if you let me. I can give you new programming."
He chuckled softly, and it built to full-blown laughter edged with bitterness. "No, thanks, mate. I've had enough people messing with my head, thank you very much."
He started toward the foyer, but paused a few steps away. "I just wanted you to know why," he said softly over his shoulder. "I I wanted you to know I'm not a monster. Not really. Unlike the Centre's other ghosts I kept my soul." He couldn't quite hold back the tears, but blinked them quickly away. "Fat lot of good it did me. Or them."
He trudged away, remembering the e-mail he had received from Ms. Hart. Someone had discovered her little secret, and wanted to catch him. The message hadn't been coded properly, so he knew the jig was up. That made him a target now, as soon as they found out who he was.
Heading for the 12th floor, he wandered into the nursery just to watch the kids as they played. It surprised him for a second when they all turned at the same instant to look at him. He met each pair of eyes with a steady glance. They didn't move, all staring at him, some sensing his pain, and his joy at their safety. Others weighed his moral compass, measuring how far he could be trusted. They watched him with one mind, and waited.
"Have good lives, little ones," he said softly, and boarded the elevator once more.
They would remember him, too, he knew, but not by choice. The Centre had designed them that way. His heart was a bloody sliver in his chest as he pushed the button for the lobby, wondering how far he'd have to go to really disappear.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod stood in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "All settled?" he asked.
Jordan nodded. "In my room, yeah. But now I need to go unpack the greenhouse before my plants start keeling over."
"I'm sure they can wait another few minutes."
Jordan glanced up at him, dreading what was next. He had dawdled, hoping to put it off. This wasn't something he wanted to do, but it was inevitable. "Okay. I guess I'm ready."
Jarod nodded solemnly. "I'll be right back."
The teen sat down on his bed, newly made up with fresh linens. There were still a few posters to be tacked up on the walls, but he couldn't seem to get motivated to put them up. Instead, he wandered over to the big flat panel viewscreen that served as a window in each of the rooms. The view in this one showed the city of Dallas spread out from the exterior of the western face of the building, with an overcast sky promising rain. He didn't particularly want to see a city just then, and pushed the selection button to change the picture, settling on a prerecorded panorama of a rain forest, complete with ambient sounds.
Upon hearing the approaching noise of a high-pitched voice chattering endlessly, he turned toward the door and waited.
His father stepped inside with a little boy in his arms.
Jordan felt his heart clench, wishing he'd had that when he was that age. He couldn't remember ever being held like that.
"Gabriel, this is--"
"Daddy!" the toddler exclaimed, pointing across the room. He looked at Jarod, tiny brows drawn together in confusion. "Two daddies?"
Jordan knew from the surprised look on his father's face that he hadn't told the little boy their secret, but somehow Gabriel still knew.
"My name is Jordan," the youth announced, pain haunting his every breath. "I'm your big brother, Gabriel."
The boy put his finger in his mouth and thought about that, eyes on the teen, studying him. "Not daddy?"
"No. I'm not your daddy. I'm your brother. Isn't that right, Dad?"
Jarod wandered closer, keeping silent, thinking.
"He's not old enough to understand, Dad."
"But he knows we're the same. We should explain."
"When he's older, maybe. But not now." Jordan didn't want to touch either of them. He wanted to run away. "I should get started in the greenhouse. Nice to meet you, Gabriel."
He started to move away.
"Jo-den mad at me?"
He stopped, closed his eyes and swallowed down his hurt. "No, Gabriel. I'm not angry. Not with you." He looked up into his father's dark eyes, and noticed how close they were in height now. Soon enough, people would begin to confuse them with each other as his face lost its youthful softness and his beard grew in, thick and dark like Jarod's was now, and required daily shaving. He saw the same pain in the older man, and stepped in close as Jarod's arm swept around Jordan's shoulders, pulling him close into a firm hug.
Gabriel's little arm snaked around his neck, and a slobbery baby kiss landed on his cheek, making him smile and wrinkle up his nose in moderate disgust.
"I lub you, Jo-den."
"Catch you later, little guy," the teen responded, and tousled the toddler's hair. He stepped away and wiped his cheek without a backward glance, knowing his father had hoped for more, but unable to offer that promise of love just yet. He knew it would come -- Gabriel was a charmer -- but there was far too much emotion swirling within him at the moment to know for sure how he felt about his expanding family.
Jordan headed for the greenhouse near the top of the tall tower, and started moving the boxes with carefully packed plants into place by the tables. But he couldn't concentrate on unpacking; those feelings he was trying so hard to ignore demanded attention. When he lost the battle, he sat down and leaned back against the wall, resting his arms on his knees, and wept.
He hated that place, those people who had made him and Gabriel. He wanted them all to suffer as he had, as they all had, but he was powerless to affect that vengeance. He was too young to strike out on his own, even with his formidable intellect. There was just too much he didn't know about the world and how it worked. He was learning as fast as he could, but it wasn't enough to allow him the justice he so wanted. He couldn't get out of his mind the fact that the Centre had violated them yet again, in the creation of this new little life. He would never understand the kind of people who could do that, who could treat other human beings as if they were mindless lab rats.
Hours later, Jordan finished setting the last plant in place, washed his hands and rubbed his eyes. His father had been after him to get more sleep, but he was having trouble with that lately. Something was bothering him, something he couldn't pin down. It was easier just to avoid his bed and keep working.
He and his father had that in common.
Of course, he would learn to love Gabriel. Through him, Jordan would see the world anew. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't worked on some project or other. With Gabriel, he could be a kid again, could learn how it should have been for him to have a childhood. And that would be a very good thing.
A week later, Jordan was learning to enjoy himself, to have fun in his new home. He and Cam had bonded, and met in the gym at least once a day for a little one-on-one basketball. There was a new girl in their class in the private school upstairs for the older kids, and Cam was very interested in her. But Jordan had been waiting for the promise Jarod had made him. He just didn't know when she was going to arrive.
He took a deep breath of the earth-scented air, enjoying the richness of the smell. The perfume of flowers filled the air, too, but the smell of soil was stronger. Botany was in his blood, his great passion, and he was going to do great things with it. On his list of things to do was research time in the Amazon, seeking out undiscovered plants and adding to the world's pharmacopoeia. That would be some time in the future, though, before his father would feel safe letting him go. And he needed to build the foundation of family in his own soul before he'd be ready to strike out on his own.
"Whoa, this is huge!"
Jordan turned at the softly breathed comment, uncertain he recognized the voice, but hoping.
"Merritt?" he called, standing on tiptoe to see over a potted orchid.
"Hey, handsome," she called, waving.
He ran to her and swept her up in his arms, planting a hungry kiss right on her lips.
"God, I missed you!" he whispered.
She grinned and pushed him back a little, straightening her clothes from his hurried grope. "I missed you, too, Jordan," she assured him lightly. "But I get to live here, now. We can see each other whenever we want." She kissed his cheek, and draped her arms around his neck. "We can take our time now."
His arms went around her waist again, and as her body contacted his, he felt himself responding. Clearing his throat, he let her go and turned his back to her, embarrassed. "Yeah. That's great."
She giggled. "It's okay," she assured him. "You don't have to be embarrassed. I kinda like affecting you that way."
Jordan glanced down at his jeans, mortified that she had noticed, and willed himself to calm down. "That's good. Glad you're enjoying it." With a sigh, he strolled toward the back of the greenhouse with her chuckles still following him. "Did your Aunt Harriett come with you?"
"Yes, but she won't be staying. She's just here to help me settle in, and then she's going back home. We'll visit back and forth, when it's safe. Till then, she'll come see me here." The girl looked around the huge room. "This is a pretty cool place. Cool people, too." She smiled. "And that includes you."
He couldn't help grinning. She liked to tease him, especially over the phone. Now she'd get to do it in person, every day. He couldn't wait. "Yeah. Wait till you meet everyone. They've got a high school and everything."
"Yeah, Jarod showed me. Is this where you spend all your spare time?"
"Some of the plants needed extra attention. They don't take kindly to being boxed up for long. I'll probably be in here a lot for another couple of days, nursing some of the sick ones, before I can get back to nominal care."
"How about if you have help?" she asked, strolling up behind him. "Would it go faster?"
Her arms slipped around his narrow waist. He closed his eyes and put his hands over hers, relishing the feel of her against his back. One of these days, he promised himself, he'd marry that girl. "Yeah That that would be great."
"What happened to that huge vocabulary you use so easily in emails, genius boy?" she teased, slipping out of his grasp again.
He turned to face her, locking eyes. "I love you, Merritt," he breathed. "I have trouble thinking when I'm with you."
For a moment, she just stared back, her big blue eyes speaking volumes. "Ditto, Jordan. But we have to think. We have to wait till we're ready." She swallowed hard. "And I'm not. Not yet."
He nodded. "I know. I'll wait as long as you need." He blinked. He swallowed and drew a ragged breath, running a hand nervously through his short, dark hair. "Wanna give me a hand with the watering? They're going to install a sprinkler system overhead, so I can mist every night and maintain a constant level of humidity "
Handing her a watering pail, he picked up the other one and headed for the big double sink in the back of the room, describing the necessary steps they needed to take to get the greenhouse stable, all the while thinking about how it would feel to kiss her under a Texas moon.
Mason stared at the photos in the sanction file, the findings from the Centre coroner's report echoing in his mind. Sun-Chai had been raped and tortured before she died, and that didn't sit well with him. He'd heard about the sanction before it was carried out, but had been powerless to change it. He'd expected it to be quick, clean and private, but there was no new grave in the Blue Cove cemetery. That had sent him hunting, and what he'd found played in graphic detail in his vivid imagination.
This was all wrong. This was not how conscientious employees were treated when they erred. The execution was too sloppy, and reflected far too much emotion to have been the impersonal task it should have been. The records didn't show who was responsible for carrying it out, but he had an idea where to look. The information in the sanction folder gave him all the facts he needed for a profile of the killer or killers.
He knew how to figure out who had done this. He knew how to walk in someone else's shoes and learn how they thought. And once he had been a mile down the road in that personality, he'd know who to hunt.
After that, he'd have to come up with the perfect vengeance. It might take him a while, but as long as he pretended to be on Centre business, he could do as he pleased in the background. He would watch, and he would wait. One day soon, Sun-Chai's killer would die in exactly the same way, in the same room of the same hotel where she had met her end. He owed her that.
Mason didn't know exactly what she had stepped in that earned her the sanction, but he'd find that out, too. He'd be more careful than she was -- he was always better at the intellectual things than she was, where she surpassed him with the physical. It was something important, he was sure. The Centre knew how valuable an asset she was, and for her to lose her value completely, it had to be a major error in judgment on her part.
He wouldn't make the same mistake. But he would find the truth. It was what he did best, finding answers. He made a copy of the file and put the original back into place, walked out of the Archives, and pretended to return to work. He had what he had come for, after all, and it would take him where he wanted to go.
* * * * * * * * *
There was no reason for Kim to be on that floor between her shifts, and if she was caught, she had no excuse, no directive from higher up. She had to be careful prowling around down there. It was becoming clearer day by day how difficult it had been for both Sydney and Jacob to continue working there, and her research into her own past brought with it volumes of enlightenment.
Today, now that she had discovered where the Archives were, she was looking up records on her mother. She had dates when Alexis Moore had been at the Centre, but nothing aside from those intermittent appearances. She had a date of death, and had visited her mother's grave knowing she couldn't leave flowers there. She mourned for a little while, but the experience seemed to stiffen her resolve to know who she was.
Jarod had been right to warn her away. He had known from his own experience how powerful one's own past could be, especially when cloaked in mystery. Now, all she wanted was to know her parents, who they had been, what they were like as people. Sydney was helping her with that, sharing information and photographs of her father, telling tales of incidents that had happened to them as boys.
But that had left a hole where memories of her mother should have been. All she had was a name and a photograph, and Kim wanted more. She knew how meticulous the Centre was with its records. Nothing was ever shredded or thrown away. It might not be properly labeled. It could be stored under the name of the person who headed the project, the subject's name, the project name, or simply mis-filed, but wherever the records were on Alexis Moore, she intended to find them.
The door to the DSA archive room opened before she reached it, and quickly she darted around a corner to hide. The man coming out of the door would glance both ways in the hallway before moving on, and she timed it so she leaned out to catch a glimpse of him before he left, moving away from her down the other end of the hallway.
She frowned, recognizing his large shape instantly, familiar with the way he walked, so that his identity was firm.
What would Sam be doing in the archives?
He glanced around nervously, and she knew. He wasn't supposed to be there, either. But what business was he on? What would draw him to the records rooms?
She made a mental note to observe him further, and if he was up to no good, she'd let the appropriate people know. If, on the other hand, he was trying to help someone who needed it, she'd make sure she let him know that he could trust her. But she'd need to be very sure.
Once he was out of sight, she eased into the room. From floor to ceiling in the huge room, metal storage cabinets lined the walls and formed interior walls between walkways. There were rolling ladders mounted on tracks at floor and ceiling so that people could retrieve items from the tallest cabinets with ease. She took note where the ladders were left in case she needed that information later, and then headed straight for the 'M' cabinet to start looking under Moore.
Less than an hour later, she had her pockets and clothing full of DSAs, and quickly retreated back to the locker room to secret them into her gym bag. After that, she commandeered an unused security terminal to hack into the monitors and erase the tape of her theft and Sam's, taking note where he had been in the room, which ladder, which drawer.
He had been looking into the drawer marked 'S,' fetching DSAs on a project called Seraphim.
* * * * * * * * *
Mason stood on the cliff overlooking the building on a point of land jutting out into the ocean. The wind ruffled his hair, but he didn't feel it. He stood with his hands in his pockets, thinking how best to deal with the situation.
It had taken him weeks to discover all the details. He'd been very careful about how he gathered the information, making sure nothing pointed back to him, and he had been surprised at what he found. Apparently, he and Sun-Chai had a daughter through the Centre's biological banks, and it was her knowledge of this project that had gotten her sanctioned.
He didn't know who had raped her, though there were only two candidates available, two possibilities who had been in the location when she died. Simulations indicated which of the two was most likely to have accomplished that, and he was ninety percent sure it was Valentine. The man's reputation with the ladies and the disappearance of certain women he'd shown attention to confirmed those suspicions. The sanction and the unnecessary torture that accompanied it were the wake-up call that Mason had avoided for years. Working for the Centre was a liberating experience, but only when one was assured of their value. Sun-Chai's death illustrated that no one was indispensable, and status could change without notice.
Vengeance for Sun-Chai tempted him to action, but he knew those people. He'd been AWOL from the Asian station since a week after his partner and erstwhile lover hadn't come back from her trip to Triumvirate Station, trying to locate her in the vast international system that was the Centre. He had followed her trail to Blue Cove easily enough since she had been summoned there, but after that she'd been harder to track.
Now that he knew all the details, he had a choice to make. He could return to the fold and take the chance that he had become unnecessary baggage in the last few weeks, or lie in wait for Cox and Valentine to taste his brand of retribution or simply disappear off their radar and try to find something interesting to do with the rest of his life. Sun-Chai's absence in his heart would be reminder enough not to cross paths with Centre people in the future, unless possibly through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle.
And then, of course, there was the issue of his offspring, newly kidnapped from the facility below him.
If he wanted, he was sure he could find her, but he had no interest in being a father. Whoever had the kid could keep her, he decided, and kudos to them for stealing the project from those people in the first place. That thought made him smile.
The Seraphim were Cox's project. Somebody had taken them from him, and unless he had other important cards up his sleeve, the doctor's value had just diminished considerably. That was a plus in Mason's book.
Then, of course, there was Valentine. Hunting down the sweeper could cost him. Mason weighed the possibilities, considering simulation after simulation, and the risk to himself was definitely there, even if he caught the man unaware and unprepared. He'd seen the sweeper in the gym and knew something about his skills.
A memory of Sun-Chai, laughing in his arms in a Hong Kong sunrise, touched his mind. Searing past that was a vision of Valentine with her in the last moments of her life. Heat roiled through his body, heat borne of rage and hatred. But as much fun as Sun-Chai had been, as much as he admired her, she was still dead and Mason was alive.
He wanted to keep it that way.
With a sigh of resignation, he turned away and trudged back through the brush, across the rolling hills of the experimental agricultural projects, and disappeared into the wilderness.
Sun-Chai would have to find a way to get her own vengeance. It was time for Mason the Pretender to become someone new, without The Centre as a net to catch him if he fell.
* * * * * * * * *
"Earth to Allegra " he said with a trace of irritation in his voice.
The woman sat on the sofa, staring at the tribal masks that adorned his walls, all cognitive processes at an apparent halt. Her face was slack, and a drop of spittle leaked from the corner of her pretty mouth and rolled slowly down her chin.
That was the last straw. "Allegra!" he shouted, leaning down into her line of sight.
She jumped, started, and wiped away the drool on her chin. "What? I must have uh " She shook her head. "What were we talking about?"
"We weren't talking," Lyle snapped. "I was talking. You were supposed to be listening. What's the matter with you, anyway? You haven't been able to concentrate on anything lately."
She shrugged, but the movement was jerky, not smooth at all, as if she didn't know how to operate her own body. "I dunno."
"Stop by the infirmary on your way back to your quarters," he ordered. "Tell the docs I said to give you the once-over. And I want it thorough."
She nodded, her eyes vacant, distracted.
"Oh, never mind. I'll tell them myself, and walk you down there. I don't want you getting lost on the way." He shook his head as he called the clinic, and escorted her to the elevator. He hesitated as she reached for the panel, unwilling to touch her for fear of getting zapped.
The control panel got it instead. The doors slid closed. The lights went out and the car dropped just far enough that the doors, when he pried them open with his fingertips, opened to solid wall. They were trapped between floors, because Allegra was losing the ability to control her electrokinetic talent. With a sigh of defeat, Lyle noted that she had shorted out the phone as well. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, and before he could get connected to anyone with a brain in Maintenance, the battery ran out and cut him off. They'd simply have to wait for someone to notice the elevator was inoperable, and send a maintenance team down to repair it.
He sighed and sat down in a corner, ordering her into the one opposite him. He didn't want her anywhere near him. It was bad enough that the elevator car was mostly metal, and would conduct any stray current right into him. He stood up, hoping the rubber soles of his shoes would be enough protection from her, in case she lost it again.
Allegra was fast becoming a liability to his team, rather than an asset. He needed to find out what was wrong with her, and get her fixed. Or else, send her down below and out of sight. As he watched her stare off into space, he liked the latter idea more with each passing second, and hoped for rescue soon.
* * * * * * * * *
It felt like weeks since Jarod had a good workout, his muscles stiff with fatigue. He needed to rest after the grueling ordeal with his Aurora patients, but before he went to bed, he wanted to work off some of the tension that had built up over the past few days. After indulging in some stretching, he hit the treadmill and let his mind drift to other projects in need of his intellect. When he slept these days, it was less traumatic, filled only with vaguely unsettling images that he barely remembered upon waking, rather than the nightmares that tore him out of his slumbers before arriving at Sanctuary with the children.
He hoped making peace with the darkness was responsible for that, but whatever the source, he was grateful for it.
The sounds of violence drew him from his reverie and made him seek out its source. His eyes went to a distant area of the gym where Namir was in the process of attacking a heavy bag hung on a thick chain from the high ceiling. The Israeli had his shirt off, his bronze skin glistening with sweat.
He had seen Namir's amazing work as a healer first hand. Sumi had her voice back. North's vision was restored. Many others who lived in Sanctuary had come away from encounters with the Israeli whole again. But Jarod saw the intensity with which the man practiced his martial arts. This was what he wanted, this power to protect and to serve those who mattered to him. Being a healer was at odds with his warrior nature, and would take some work to help him adjust to who he was.
The Pretender watched, and let simulations play in his mind, stepping into Namir's shoes for a little while. And when he had the answer to the other man's problem, he stepped off the treadmill and strolled over to him. He waited at the perimeter to be acknowledged.
"Greetings, Jarod," Namir called, sparing him only the briefest glance. "You wanted something?"
"How about a little one-on-one?"
Namir dodged the swinging bag and stepped out of range of its mindless arc, giving the other man his full attention. "You want to fight me?" he asked with a trace of doubt, smiling broadly. "Have you had training?"
Jarod grinned. "I picked up a little here and there," he admitted. "I think I can give you a challenge."
"You are taller and heavier than I am," Namir observed. "That gives you a certain advantage." He smiled broadly. "But I think the Israeli army has given me the real advantage here. Come, then, if you dare." He stepped into the center of the open area and bent his knees, waiting in a ready stance for Jarod's attack.
Approaching cautiously, Jarod decided to start with some Savate. His long legs would allow him to get in some good kicks to test Namir's reflexes. The foreigner had no trouble fielding those strikes, and easily deflected Jarod's feet. Next, he used some basic police takedowns, which failed miserably and earned the Pretender several unpleasant blows to his ribs and back. Shifting to karate, he managed to power his way into a few strikes that hit home.
"Okay, so you're great at defensive techniques," Jarod observed sagely. "How are you at offense?"
"Let us see, shall we?" Namir teased, and attacked with a series of punches and kicks.
Jarod instantly adopted Tai Chi Chuan maneuvers to redirect the Israeli's strikes, and was moderately successful in avoiding being beaten senseless.
Winded, he called the practice to a halt, observing his opponent's broad, beaming smile. "You like fighting," he stated, curious.
"It is good to keep the skills honed," Namir returned casually. "One never knows when one will need them."
Jarod picked up his towel from the sidelines and wiped the sweat off his face. "The struggle gives you a sense of purpose."
Namir nodded and went for his water bottle. "Where I was born, the struggle is necessary. One never knows what may lie around the next corner. The more sharply in tune we are to the dangers around us, the longer we survive." He shook his head. "Here, with these people, it seems there are no surprises. There is no need for someone like me as a soldier."
Jarod hesitated. He stared soberly at his companion. "But there is," he said quietly. "You're exactly what I need."
The Israeli cast him a sideways glance. "You are ill, my friend?"
Shaking his head, Jarod reached for his own drink. "Aside from an addiction I don't think you can help me with, I'm in perfect health. What I need is a soldier. Maybe a general."
Namir laughed. "Are you planning a war?"
Jarod's eyes slid away and he took a long draught of the water. "Something like that," he answered without making eye contact. He didn't have to look at his companion to know that interest had been sparked. Without offering further details, he picked up his gear and headed for the showers, knowing that Namir would be at his heels until he had explained everything.
Adjusting to a life of relative peace would be difficult for Namir. He would need some transition time, until he found his place in that community of the gifted. And the job that Jarod had in mind would be right up the Israeli's alley, giving him a familiar framework in which to get to know the people of Sanctuary. Once he felt more at home with them, once he ceased to be amazed or uncomfortable with the psychics and telekinetics and geniuses who surrounded him, he could become comfortable in his own capacity as a healer. But he wasn't ready to go there yet. Namir needed a vehicle to ease him into this extraordinary community.
And Jarod knew just what it was.
The implementation of Catherine Parker's plan.
* * * * * * * * *
He sat at his desk, reviewing the hiccup he'd found in the security monitoring system. Whoever had edited the file was skilled, a true artist at electronic manipulation, which meant that whoever had breached the files posed an incredible danger to the Centre. He knew which terminal had been used; he'd traced it that far. But he still had no idea who the culprit was.
This wasn't an isolated incident, either, if records on that terminal were accurate. A lot of people used it as an extra, when they needed to run scans simultaneously with their own equipment, or traces from another station. The security techs had a system worked out to log time at the station, reserving it so their schedules didn't overlap anyone else's. This was usually done via a system of sticky-notes attached to the monitor, so everybody knew when it would be busy and when it would be free.
The station was in the back of the main security theater, the heartbeat of SIS. It wasn't covered by any direct video camera, so whoever worked on it could do so in complete privacy, but the big downstairs theater had cameras pointed at it from all sorts of angles, and Broots accessed the digital feeds of the stored footage to look for anyone out of place in the area.
He couldn't believe his eyes when he saw who it was, apparently on an innocent mission carrying information to Miss Parker from Sydney, who was barely back at work after his ordeal in the hospital.
Kim, the new security woman working under Sydney, the very one Miss Parker had been so interested in when she first came on, slipped into the alcove for approximately 20 minutes on the date of the event. The time in which she had completed her task was impressive, as well as the skill she displayed in doing the job. Previous investigations into her past had shown nothing remarkable, no trace of a relationship of any kind between her and Sydney, or the Centre. She was clean as a proverbial whistle, and that had laid any misgivings about her to rest. He and Miss Parker had just assumed Sydney was interested in her for personal reasons that neither of them chose to investigate.
But now Broots was giving second thoughts to who she might be, and what she might be doing at the Centre. He'd hardly spoken to her aside from a smile in passing in the gym or the hallways. But there was something about her, something that nudged him toward her, and he began to wonder if he might have some sort of undiscovered gift developing under Miss Parker's crucible of training.
He rubbed his shoulder, still sore from the last thrashing he'd gotten at their regular workout, but lately he was dishing it out pretty well himself. He left the information on his desktop, minimized in case anyone stepped in, and went next door to chat with his boss about his discovery. She was on the phone with Peter Winston in Berlin, inviting him to come and do a thorough check of their security measures to see how they might be improved. When she hung up she was smiling, but he pretended not to notice.
"I think we'd better take a second look at Kim, the new security gal," he began.
Parker's good humor evaporated and she faced him with sudden intent. "I think we'd better not," she shot back.
"But Miss Parker, I found her altering Centre records--"
She leaned forward and lowered her voice, as if sharing a secret with him. "Then you'd better go talk to her about it, Broots," she advised. "Kim may not be part of our inner circle, but we're looking after her just the same."
He leaned forward, getting as close as he dared so he could whisper. "Why? Who is she to us?"
A gleam of bright mischief glimmered in her blue-green eyes, and she almost smiled. There was something gentle about her expression that told Broots the issue of Kim was now suddenly personal. "She's Sydney's niece. And that does not leave this room, period."
A floodlight turned on above his head, and he got it. "Oh!" he gushed. "Now everything makes sense." He grinned, embarrassed for thinking privately that she and Sydney must be having a torrid affair, even though the woman didn't seem like his type. She was way younger than the women who had piqued Sydney's interest in the past. Broots didn't have a problem with May-December romances; it just seemed somehow suspicious. It didn't add up. He usually went for the smart ones, and sweepers and security officers were notoriously short in the brains department.
Then he remembered what she had done at that terminal, and his momentary humor vanished. "Talk to her?"
"Yes, Broots. If she's getting herself in trouble, you've got to warn her off. Don't leave it for anyone else to do. Help her cover her tracks if necessary, but keep her spotless."
"O-okay." He rose stiffly from the chair and walked toward the door, his palms already sweating.
"Oh, and Broots, since you're quite well settled in your new position as my number two, don't you think the tech wardrobe can go now? I'd like to see you in something a little more professional, if you don't mind."
If she'd knocked his feet out from under him, she couldn't have surprised him any more. His stomach dropped into his shoes. "Do I have to wear a suit?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "I've seen you in a suit. It didn't help. I'm thinking, maybe Polo shirts Buy some Ralph Lauren. He's got some fairly classic styles that would be all right."
Head down, shoulders drooping, he whined acquiescence and excused himself from her office. Shutting down all the files he had been checking, he was concentrating so hard on the unpleasant task of the future shopping trip that he almost forgot what he was going to talk to Kim about when he all but ran over her coming out of Sydney's office. She smiled at him and tried to ease away down the hall, but he caught her arm and led her back into the office with him.
"We have to talk," he announced. Glancing around, he noticed Sydney wasn't there, and directed her to the guest chair while he sat on the front of the desk.
"What's up, sir?" she asked conversationally, aware of his position in the hierarchy.
"I know who you are," he began, keeping his voice low. "And I know you've been snooping in places you shouldn't be. You wanna tell me what that was all about?"
The dullness in her brown eyes vanished, and her intelligence gleamed brightly as she studied him, deciding how much to tell him and how much to hold back. "You first. Who am I?"
He glanced over his shoulder at the door, making sure they weren't over heard, then thought better of it and went to shut it. "You're Jacob's daughter, and Miss Parker said I should watch your back. And that's a good thing, 'cause you've stepped in it, and I've been following the tracks you didn't know you left behind."
From the expression on her face, she was obviously impressed. "Well, Mr. Broots, you are every bit as good as Sydney said you were," she breathed, a soft smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Only a handful of people would have been able to figure out what I did with those digital files. My hat's off to your expertise."
He felt himself blushing, and for a moment didn't know what to do with his hands. He stuck them under his arms to keep from fidgeting, and tried hard to wipe the smile off his face. "Gee, thanks, Kim. I'm not used to getting compliments on my work. Miss Parker usually chews me up and spits me out when I miss even the slightest little detail, so I--" He realized he was blathering on mindlessly, and shut up. When he could form coherent thoughts again, he cleared his throat and tried to sound authoritative. "Um, so, whatever it is that you're looking for, I'm authorized to tell you to stop it. If you want to find out something, you should go through me. Understand?"
She nodded and clasped her hands in her lap, looking up at him like he was a bug under a microscope.
"I have a hard time trusting people," she told him honestly. "And that includes Sydney, but I've learned a lot, working with him these past few months. I don't know you, but he's told me some things "
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Like, you belonged to a Monopoly club in school, so I know you like the game," she began. "You have a daughter named Debbie who's about 14, is that right?"
That was a surprise. Sydney had told his niece personal things about him. "Why would he tell you that?"
"Because I asked him." She grinned and winked at him. "You have a nice smile, Mr. Broots. And you don't seem like you belong here, though you're very good at what you do. Surprisingly good, in fact. You might even be able to keep up with me."
His face felt like it was on fire. She was a beautiful woman, she seemed to be interested in him, and she was complimenting him. It was just too much to handle. "Um, Kim, about the security stuff "
"I got the message, sir," she responded, suddenly all business again. "But I already got what I wanted. The missing pieces of my past."
"You wanted to know who your mother was," he guessed. "You raided the archives."
"Right after someone else was there before me, getting information on the Seraphim."
"I'm only telling you this because Sydney said I could trust you. It was Sam, Miss Parker's sweeper, and I'm not sure which side he's on."
"I'll tell her, then, and we'll look into it."
She stood up and clasped her hands behind her back. "Is that all, sir?"
"You don't have to call me that."
She grinned. "What would you like me to call you?" She took a step closer.
For a moment, he couldn't think. Her lips were right there. She was so close, and she smelled soooo good
"Laszlo. My name's Laszlo."
Her smile was blazing. "I don't think I should call you that on the job," she returned warmly. "Do you like Chinese, Laszlo Broots?"
"Oh, mama!" he whispered, connecting the dots to the fact that she was asking him out on a date. "You bet!"
"Since I don't work directly under you, this wouldn't be a breach of protocol, would it? Dinner, I mean."
"N-no. It's fine. Just fine. We can dinner, yes. Eat. Food. Chinese."
She laughed softly. "I'm glad I didn't wait for you to ask me." She leaned close and kissed his cheek, then swept toward the door. "Am I dismissed, sir?"
"Yes, all done now," he panted, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. He tried to control his breathing, his head swimming, his heart pounding. Then he remembered he didn't know when this date was supposed to take place, and ran after her to find out.