Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Valerie Bertinelli as Faith
Caitlin Wachs as Young Faith
Ashley Peldon as Young Miss Parker
Jamie Denton as Mr. Lyle
Eric Johnson as Bobby Bowman
George Clooney as Valentine
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian MacKenzie
Willie Gault as Willie the sweeper
Richard Marcus as William Raines
Vin Diesel as North
Rebecca de Mornay as Sumi MacKenzie
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Oded Fehr as Namir
Denzel Washington as Trevor
Sigrid Thornton as Elizabeth
Meryl Streep as Marnie Radloff
Roxann Dawson as Nancy
Valentine paced the floor of his hideaway, as he had been doing for the past hour. He needed to figure out a way to find Faith, the woman otherwise known as Project Looking Glass. She seemed to have vanished off the face of the planet, in much the same way as the Seraphim. The children were undoubtedly under Jarod's protection, sequestered in some out-of-the-way place where they could remain hidden for years. Quite possibly, Faith was there as well. He needed to flush her out of hiding, but had no way to reach her.
She had shamed him, bested him, when no other woman could make that statement and still be breathing. There had to be something in her past that he could use to track her down. With a sigh, he pulled out all the research materials on the Looking Glass project and started over, from the very beginning.
Back then, it had been called Project Faith. Raines had been the primary, discovering the orphan girl's natural inclination toward empathy. He believed that drugs and isolation would be the keys to jump-starting the development of her talent, that she would reach out in her loneliness and begin to tap into her empathic skills -- and he had been right.
For a while, only their work sessions were recorded. The rest of the time, the little blond girl lay alone in her secret room. Several weeks into the project, though, Raines began to suspect she was receiving visitors, because Faith's mood improved. He started having her monitored constantly, and that hunch was rewarded. Jarod, Miss Parker, and Angelo had appeared on the recordings, both together and separately. That had been the impetus for Faith's staged "death," so the other children would stop looking for her.
Valentine grabbed a DSA randomly from the stack, and inserted it into the player, listening to Faith and Parker talk.
"You're sad," Faith said softly. "I can feel it, inside. Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
"It's my mom," Miss Parker replied. "I really miss her, you know? My dad's always working, and Jarod's nice, but he's got other stuff to do. Sometimes I just wish I could talk to somebody who understands."
"I know what it's like," Faith told her. "I miss my mommy, too. She died in a car accident. Maybe we could both talk about our mommies, and then we'll feel better "
The sweeper didn't need to look any further. He stopped the recording on that vision of the child empath, her eyes sympathetic as she looked into the other girl's troubled face. He retrieved the disk from the machine and stored it with the other materials on the Looking Glass project.
Miss Parker and Faith had been friends. Parker would almost certainly be one of the keys to finding his elusive quarry, and he was going to enjoy figuring out how to push her buttons.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod sat on the overstuffed red sofa, notes and research material strewn about him while he worked on a treatment regimen for Jacob. He watched the little ones move about the playroom, Jacob interacting well with the other children, particularly the eight from the Centre. But the boy rested often, and rarely had the energy to play for more than an hour at a time.
Jacob didn't have long, and Jarod was spending every spare moment working to stabilize him, but the task was daunting and heartbreaking, watching the child's steady and rapid decline.
With a sigh, Jarod turned his attention to others in the room and noticed a few of the toddlers taking turns with a bowling set. Faith sat on the floor behind the pins, setting them up by hand between players. It was an excellent game for teaching hand-eye coordination, and Dominique excelled at it, getting a strike so often that she lost interest and went back to the computer. Gabriel was excited as he knocked down most of the pins, and jumped away gleefully to take his place at the end of the queue. Angelique was more subdued, but seemed happy when she managed to topple three pins. Faith clapped in appreciation, and when Angelique ran to her she swooped her daughter into a hug.
Faith had made great progress since she arrived at Sanctuary, he mused. After a couple of early missteps and with a little prodding, she turned out to be very good with the children. They, in turn, had taught her to loosen up and not take herself quite so seriously. She smiled more often now, and the sound of her laughter made him feel warm inside.
Gabriel came bouncing over as the players all sped off in different directions to pursue other entertainment. The little boy's face was beaming as he climbed up into his father's lap. "I bowled good!" he exclaimed proudly, now enunciating his 'l' sounds more clearly.
"Yes, you did," Jarod assured him with a hug. He started to say something else, but the child wriggled out of his arms and was off toward the rocking horses before a coherent thought could be formed.
Faith rose from her seat on the floor and wandered over to a nearby chair, her attention still on the kids.
"I'm glad you stayed, Faith," he told her warmly. "You're fitting in beautifully." He paused, intending to say more, but was suddenly unable to find the words to express himself properly.
Faith eyed him, waiting, then changed the subject, turning her gaze to the busy denizens of the playroom. "They're magnificent, aren't they?" she observed quietly. Her moment of awe shifted into sadness. "But I can't help wondering what's going to become of them. They have such awesome talents, but they don't have a clue how to handle them."
Jarod's eyes lit on little Gideon, dressed constantly now in swim trunks and a tank top, splashing about in the fountain that was his favorite safe place. "At least they won't be exploited now," he reminded her.
She didn't look at him. Her frown deepened. "Their very existence is exploitation, Jarod. They're beautiful, shining little souls, who will grow up to be incredible people. But they weren't meant for this world. Humanity's evolving at its own pace, with special people like you and Sebastian popping up here and there, but " She sighed, and there were tears in her eyes blinked hastily away. " but these kids with their genetically-manipulated power were never meant to be -- and neither was I. Maybe in a thousand years or so, everyone will be like that. But for now, we're just--"
"Ahead of your time," he finished for her. He didn't need to have any kind of internal radar to know what she was feeling. It was all written right there on her face.
He decided to let the subject drop, and turned his attention back to the research instead.
* * * * * * * * *
Valentine noted with a smile that no security system had been installed, and wondered how Miss Parker could be so foolish. She knew better; he assumed it was her inherent stubbornness that kept her from making that choice. Some part of her still wanted to believe there were safe places in the world, and for her, that was home.
He let himself in without incident, and spent several hours prowling through her things. He was careful to leave everything in exactly the same place he picked it up, leaving no apparent trace of his presence. For this visit, he chose not to use latex gloves to hide his fingerprints, wanting to leave his mark invisibly, like a dog spraying its territory. He was staking a claim, albeit only in his own mind, but that was where it counted.
The discovery he made there surprised him, but it made perfect sense. An old photograph album in the library shelves near the fireplace yielded a single new picture, one that spoke volumes to him. He had seen a similar photograph on her desk at work, featuring herself, the Chairman and little Gabriel, all seated together in a formal pose and smiling. But this photo had been retouched, erasing all trace of Mr. Parker and replacing his image with one of Catherine Parker, aged to what she might have looked like if she were still alive.
Valentine knew in an instant that this wasn't something Miss Parker would have had done on her own. It looked -- and felt -- more like Jarod's handiwork, and he wondered briefly why she hadn't brought it in. But he knew the answer to that. This was personal, something that meant so much to her she couldn't even share it with her father.
Which made it vastly important. Ideas started ticking away in his mind, and he pulled out his digital camera and snapped off a couple of shots of the picture. It would be important to get the details right, if his plan were to succeed. Carefully, he closed the book and slid it back onto the shelf, then let himself out of the house.
Suddenly he had a great deal to do, and wanted it handled as quickly as possible.
* * * * * * * * *
Calendar dates tended to sneak up on Lyle sometimes, especially when he was busy. But this one he always blocked out weeks in advance, the airline tickets purchased months beforehand; no matter what his schedule looked like, he never missed this appointment. He disliked the personal reflection that often accompanied the trip, but it was also part of the ritual. Once the plane set down in Lincoln, he'd rent a car, buy the largest, most elegant bouquet of flowers he could find, and drive back to the place he once called home for his annual pilgrimage.
Jimmy Radloff was impossible to forget. He had been Bobby Bowman's co-conspirator in every bit of mischief he'd ever pulled, growing up. He had been the brother Bobby always wanted, but never had. And Jimmy's mom
He could still recall the lines of her face, the sweetness of her smile, the way the light made her golden hair glow like a halo.
He sighed. He missed her, even now. But Jimmy
Lyle closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat.
They had been walking through the countryside together, as they often did, and Bobby was the one who suggested the climb up Noddy Peak. For weeks, he had been contemplating his future, though he hadn't mentioned it to anyone yet. He knew exactly what had to be done and how to go about it. That was why he suggested the camping trip. This would open the door to freedom, and pay his adoptive father back for all the cruelty ever since he returned from his first visit to the Centre.
He smiled to himself. That "visit" had been a liberating experience. Bobby had been such a cowardly kid, always needing somebody by his side to share his trouble, if the guilt were discovered. But the addition of Lung Li to his personality via Eclipse had been inspiration of the highest order. He no longer needed a partner in crime.
All he needed was a victim.
They had stood at the top of that cliff, breathless and exhilarated after their long trek, in awe of the view stretching out before them. Nebraska didn't boast much in the way of rugged terrain, but that hill stood watch over a deep ravine carved out by an old river now little more than a memory. It wasn't as high as a real mountain, but it was high enough.
Jimmy hadn't been expecting anything. All the way up the hill, Bobby hinted at what had happened to him in Delaware, making it sound enticing without revealing even a shade of the truth. He kept talking, answering Jimmy's eager questions with innuendo, until the other youth stood on the precipice. Only then had Bobby told him the truth. And as Jimmy turned around with disbelieving eyes to confront him, Bobby pushed him over the edge to the rocks below, and leaned over to watch the boy fall.
The plummet hadn't killed him, but Bobby had brought just the thing to resolve that problem. Lyle remembered how Jimmy had pleaded with him, begged him for his life, and how pathetic it sounded. He would never do that, he promised himself. If Death ever stared him in the face, he'd look it right in the eye and fight back.
Butchering the body had been interesting. He spent quite some time hiding the headless corpse and burying the head elsewhere, so it would never be found. He had been patient in waiting for the right moment to spring the trap on Mr. Bowman, and making sure that everybody thought Jimmy had run away.
Those had been the best days, fresh from a kill, spending as much time as he could with Jimmy's mother. He had consoled her beautifully, assuring her that it was her alcoholic husband's fault that her son had disappeared. She had believed him, and the relationship between them deepened.
That was when he had written the first letter, copying the handwriting from an old school paper he and Jimmy had worked on together. The words he had written echoed what Bobby said, and included sincere words of love for his mother, and a promise to return to her one day, a changed man. The handwriting might have been a copy of Jimmy's, but the words were his own. He meant it when he told Marnie Radloff that he loved her. She understood him and cared for him when no one else did. And she would be the one light in his darkness, the one person in his past who would always be with him.
Lyle reached into his trouser pocket for his wallet, and flipped it open to the choice of corporate credit cards, his drivers' license, corporate identification and other necessary cards. In the back, facing the black leather of the wallet's interior, was the only photograph he carried, the only part of his past that remained connected to the present. He stared at the photograph fondly, memories and emotions swirling together in a maelstrom of confusion that he had never quite sorted out.
This time, he promised himself, it would be different. This time, he would free himself from the bondage of his past, of the debt he continued to pay. Somehow, he would find a way to leave Marnie Radloff behind in Townsend, Nebraska.
* * * * * * * * *
The woman smiled, admiring her reflection in the mirror. "This is the easiest job I've ever had!" she beamed, reaching up to touch the latex appliances covering her face. "I can't believe you just want me to walk around like this and spend money. What's the catch?"
Willie shrugged. "No catch." He pulled a photograph out of his jacket pocket and put it into the woman's hands. "Just be seen in public places. Stay on the move, but make sure you can be tracked. Keep this woman on your trail, and when I call you, you can let her catch you."
"Who is she?" The actress smoothed a lock of her gray-streaked hair over her shoulder and studied the photograph.
"That's none of your concern. We're after someone she associates with, and are using one to find the other." He handed over a platinum credit card. "This will keep you wined and dined, and comfortably ensconced in only the best hotels. And there's a car waiting for you out front. Remember, come back here every morning to have your face put on, and make sure you change your clothes when you change your identity. She'll spot that sort of thing, and your cover will be blown."
The woman's blue eyes glittered with excitement. "I can't believe I'm helping the FBI catch a most wanted criminal," she gushed. "Thank you, Agent Raines. This is something really cool to add to my resume."
He nodded, wondering briefly if her acting career would be finished after this job. But that wasn't any of Willie's business. "Not a problem, ma'am. We're glad to have your help. You have the right height and build, the right style and grace, and with this face, from a distance, no one can tell you're not the real thing."
She nodded, and looked at the face in the mirror again. "So who is this woman I'm portraying?"
The sweeper patted her arm. "Her name's Catherine, but that's no concern of yours, ma'am. Just go out and be seen, and we'll take care of the rest. All right?"
"Sure thing." She glanced at the credit card and smiled, her face wrinkling up around the eyes and mouth, as it was intended to do. "Mind if I go shopping, too?"
"Just be aware, there's a five thousand dollar limit on that card," he advised her casually. "Don't get too wild with it. And make sure any clothes you buy are in the best of taste. Anything less would be another tip-off."
The woman leaned forward and kissed his cheek, her eyes sparkling. "It will be my pleasure," she assured him, drawing herself up like a queen.
He watched her stride out of the theater and noted how well Valentine had chosen the actress who would play this part. She even had the right walk. Though Willie had never met the real woman, he had seen her daughter often enough to know a ringer when he saw one.
The sweeper rose, straightened his suit and paid off the makeup artist who would do the woman's face every day until the mission was over. Then he went to meet Valentine to tell him that the first part of the plan was completed. He wished he'd be able to see it when the truth was revealed, and to watch the suffering along the way, but that wasn't what Valentine wanted.
And what Valentine wanted, Willie wanted as well. He touched the clear patch beneath his shirt collar at the back of his neck, and smiled. Aurora was everything, and his need for vengeance was gone, unless it became important to the man who wielded the patches.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod finished drawing the necessary blood from his host, marked the tubes and set them aside for testing.
"Is that it?" Sebastian asked slowly, watching Jarod strip of the latex gloves and toss them in the trash can.
"That's it for the moment," Jarod assured him. "I'll be running all sorts of profiles on your blood to determine your exact chemical composition. I may need some tissue and bone samples later, but those procedures are more involved, and I don't want to have to go there if I get what I need from this information."
Sebastian rolled down his sleeve and flexed his hand. "You sound just like a doctor."
"That's what I am today," the Pretender promised with a smile. "You and Jacob are my number one patients."
Sebastian nodded somberly, obviously thinking of the boy. "Have you had a chance to chat with Keely lately? I was wondering how she was doing you know, with the withdrawal."
Jarod couldn't help grinning. "She's making the transition, Sebastian. Fortunately, the outside world offers plenty of pleasures and distractions the Centre didn't. I think she's going to be just fine, especially when I get this little problem worked out for you both."
"And for my son."
Jarod nodded. Then he remembered that Gideon's unique genetic makeup was a double dose of the burden his father bore. "Are you ever going to tell Keely that Gideon's her son, too?"
Sebastian's mouth opened. It closed again as he lifted his face to make eye contact with the man in the lab coat. Tears sprang into his eyes and were hastily blinked away. Then a portion of his sleeve caught fire.
Jarod reached for a beaker of water he had ready just in case, and doused the flames. "Breathe," he advised the Australian sharply. "Deep breaths, Sebastian. Concentrate on peace."
"Peace," the other man repeated mechanically. "What a concept." A few moments later, he glanced down and watched as Jarod began to treat the burn, cutting off the wet, damaged sleeve. "You do that well, mate. Ever consider a career in medicine for real?"
"Don't have time," Jarod shot back without thinking. "Too much to do now, and I have to sleep sometime."
Sebastian chuckled. "Yeah. But at least we can have that now. Elizabeth was a real find for us."
Jarod smiled. "Yes. I like her."
"Just don't let Trevor hear you say that," the Australian warned with a grin. "He's just starting to mark his territory 'round her, so make sure you don't get too close."
"I wish them both happiness," the Pretender assured his host. "Elizabeth's just a friend."
"You've made a lot of friends here, mate. Can we talk you into staying?" Sebastian flexed his arm beneath the bandage, appreciating the expert patch job.
With a shake of his head, Jarod returned, "I'd love to be able to say yes, but unlike Trevor, I can't see what the future holds for me. If I'm needed elsewhere, I'll have to go. Right now, I'm needed here more than anywhere else." His eyes strayed to the latest data he had tabulated on Jacob, and sighed.
Sebastian noted where the other man was looking. "How long's he got?" he asked gently.
Jarod's expression was grim. "Not long enough, Sebastian. Not nearly long enough."
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker swept into her office and set her briefcase on the floor as she glanced at her blotter. She read through a memo waiting on top, signed it and set it into her OUT tray for pickup, then took her seat and sent for coffee. The morning was hectic, but she sifted through the stack of reports waiting for her attention, and then opened up her computer to check the day's email.
Halfway down the list, she spied a familiar entry that made her eyes widen. Raines' account had been archived, and no one had the password when he died. Only Broots and possibly a couple of other brilliant techs might have the skills to crack that, so the list of who might have hacked into his account was short. Hair standing up on the back of her neck, she opened the email and found the message area blank, but there was an attachment.
It was a photograph, and a big one at that. It took a long time to load, but before it was halfway down the image, she was sitting forward in her chair, hand over her open mouth, eyes spilling over with tears. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe, even after the picture had finished loading, until her screen saver came up and began to scroll across the black field.
"This can't be," she whispered, reaching out to turn off the screensaver. "Oh, my God. It's impossible."
But nobody ever stayed dead at the Centre. Raines had pulled off one faked death already. Had he done it again? The vivid memory of her mother's brains splattering onto the wall in Raines' forest house could simply not have been faked... could it?
She stared at the photograph, certain that whomever had sent it to her knew who the woman was, and how important this discovery would be to Morgan.
Head spinning, she got to her feet and walked next door to her underling's office.
"Broots, come here," she said softly. "There's something I want you to see."
Unable to feel her feet, she went back to her desk and tried to get a grip on reality. Almost as an afterthought, she picked up the phone and called Sydney to join them. When Broots arrived, he took one look at her face and sat down in the chair to wait.
Sydney saw her from the doorway and hurried over. "What is it? What's wrong?"
He pulled her into his arms and held her there as she wept.
Broots got up and shut the door, returning to his seat.
Bonelessly, she eased back into her chair when Sydney let her go. "I can't believe it," she sniffed, and opened a drawer in search of a tissue. "I just can't believe it."
"What, Miss Parker?" Broots asked gently. "How can we help you?"
She turned the computer screen toward them and hit the space bar to deactivate the screen saver. She saw the shock in their faces, and the devastated recognition in Sydney's. His eyes were horrified and hopeful as they turned to meet hers again.
"Do you think it's possible that your mother's still alive? What does your inner sense tell you?"
She smiled, bitter irony squeezing out one more tear. "Right now, it's a whisper in a tornado, Sydney. It doesn't tell me anything, because I'm so torn up inside I can't hear it."
"This says it came from Raines' account," Broots observed, checking the file information on the email. "I'll dig around to see who might have used it to send you this. Somebody knows something. Somebody took this picture and sent it to you."
"We have to find her," Sydney told him anxiously. "Look at everything in the background of that photograph, every shop, every sign. Find out where this place is, and we'll go there. You can track down the sender later."
Broots was already out of the chair and halfway across the office. "I'm on it," he called over his shoulder. The door closed quietly behind him.
Morgan forwarded the email to his account, and turned to her father once more.
"She wouldn't have left me," she said softly. "She wouldn't have let Raines take Ethan and then just walk away."
"Then who is this? Who is this woman who looks just like my mother, right age and everything?"
"I don't know, Mor-- Miss Parker," Sydney assured her. "But we'll damned sure find out."
Her heart felt as if it was on fire. And there was only one way to put it out.
With the truth.
Faith tried to concentrate on her book, but found herself glancing up at the children every other paragraph or so, and finally laid the tome aside. She couldn't believe how caught up in their lives she had become over the past few weeks. They were comfortable for her to be around, their innocence a welcome respite from the emotional assaults of adults. She was learning to enjoy herself with them, and Jarod had been making sure she understood what it was to have fun.
She had gotten used to the peaceful rhythm of life at Sanctuary, enough that her constant wariness began to recede. Now, she hardly thought about monitoring the connections she had with her childhood friends. Her internal radar had been quiet, and for the first time in her life, she began to understand what "normal" felt like.
But as she bent to pick up a ball that had rolled against her feet and toss it back into play, a flash of light flared in her eyes and made her freeze. She could feel it, that jangling of her inner landscape that could only mean one thing. Someone she loved was in trouble, and when she followed it back to the source, she could sense Morgan's upset with a blaze of trembling energy that went straight to her head.
"Oh, boy," she murmured aloud as she sat slowly upright. "Migraine time again." This sort of thing was happening more and more often; whenever she used her ability with any degree of focus, the headaches would come.
Raphael and the other children clustered around her, and the boy snuggled into her lap. "Fay's okay?" he asked worriedly, touching her face with his hands.
"I'm fine," she assured the children. "Just a headache coming. You kids go play and we'll read or something later. I'm going to take some medicine for the headache." She gathered Angelique into a gentle embrace and kissed her. "Mommy's always with you. Remember that, okay?"
"Lub you, mommy," Angelique answered brightly as Faith got to her feet.
Reassured, they all scampered off elsewhere in the playroom under the watchful eyes of their caregivers, and Faith headed for the elevator. In the quiet of her room, she closed her eyes and went tracking the connection too long buried, and found it, fresh and raw with pain.
Morgan wasn't in Delaware; she was closer than that, but still far away. For what seemed like hours Faith paced the floor, monitoring the lead until she was certain something serious was up. This was pain like she had never felt coming from her old friend, and she had to help. This needed more than a phone call or an email. Morgan needed her there in person.
Looking through her things, she located the credit card Jarod had given her, called Ramona and made arrangements to borrow one of the fleet cars, and started packing. By the time she was done, Jarod was knocking at her door, worry in his dark eyes.
"Ramona told me you wanted to borrow one of the cars. I thought you were staying," he said quietly. "The children need you. Angelique needs you."
"I know," she shot back, squeezing past him. "I'm not going for long. Just a short trip, and then I'll be back. A day or two, tops. I promise. I'm going to see someone."
"What will I tell Angelique?"
She could sense his own disquiet, understanding that her hasty departure was hurting him. He thought she was running away, and that he had failed in some way to help her integrate into the community there.
"You don't have to tell her anything unless she asks, Jarod," Faith assured him as she looked in her purse to make sure she had her driver's license. "Annie knows I love her, and that I'll be back."
"You won't tell me what this is about?"
Faith hesitated. If she told him, he would insist on coming with her. In this case, she didn't think that was wise. Jarod was sometimes a source of irritation for Morgan, as much as the other woman cared for him. No, it was best she handle this herself.
A bright shaft of pain made her wince, her fingertips touching her forehead in reflex.
"Are you all right?" he asked, stepping closer.
"I'm fine and in a hurry, but I'll send you an email when I get there."
"Then at least tell me where you're going."
She headed down the corridor toward the elevator, ignoring him.
"Are you sure you can drive with that headache?" he asked, dogging her all the way.
From her purse, she whipped out a packet of Excedrin Migraine Formula and flashed it in his face as she stepped inside the elevator. "I'll be fine, Jarod. Quit being such a mother hen." She flexed a smile that was much braver than she felt. "I'll be back as soon as I can. You can count on that. If I belong anywhere, it's here."
The doors closed on his hurt, anxious face, and she pushed the ground floor button with a sigh. She didn't like hurting Jarod, but sometimes she was left with no choice. It wasn't his place to solve her problems at every turn. She wasn't always brave when it came to herself, but for those whom Faith loved, no price was too high to pay to help them.
Ten minutes later, she was on the highway and following the signal northeast, wondering where the road would end.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle glanced up and down the street, eyeing the quiet neighborhood to make sure no one saw him. He wore a hat pulled down low over his eyes, the collar of his coat flipped up to hide as much of his face as possible. Reaching into the passenger seat, he grabbed the thick bouquet of flowers, tied with a pure white ribbon, and quietly shut the door on his rented car.
He knew the way to the grave even in the darkness washed only by the dim streetlights lining the winding lane. A quarter moon would be rising soon, and he wanted to say his piece and be gone before then. The annual pilgrimage was always the same, undertaken in the dark of night on the same date every year. He had to come. He had no choice. She deserved that much from him.
Walking briskly in the dark, he trudged up the path and went directly to the old grave. He counted the years, and was surprised it had been so many. The memories were still fresh in his mind, and as he placed the flowers in the brass urn between the headstones, he let them come.
Marnie Radloff had been like a mother to him. Somehow, she had understood about the nuthouse he called home, and she had buffered little Bobby from those horrors as much as she could. Bobby loved her, loved that she let him call her Mom when he visited or slept over with Jimmy. And eventually, he began to think of her as exactly that, as the mother he had always wanted and never got.
For years afterward, he had written to her as Jimmy, just to keep in touch. But the loss of the one person in his life that he had truly loved ate away at him, and eventually, it became more than he could bear. He had to see her, to tell her that he was all right, and that he wanted her to come with him into his new life.
He had paced the floor in that seedy motel as he waited for Marnie Radloff to arrive. His heart had been so full of expectation, remembering how he had idolized her and treated her like the mother he had always wanted.
His letters had been so full of need and regret, apologizing for leaving her like he did, and promising to reconnect as soon as he was able. Lyle had just come from the graves of the two co-eds he had killed in college, comfortable now with who and what he was. He'd be able to keep that from Marnie, he was sure. Besides, if she loved him like she said she did, she'd be able to overlook that hunger in his soul.
Sometimes he forgot when he was writing the letters to her that he was writing as her son, Jimmy. He'd have to go back and type them all over again, using the other boy's speech patterns, his way of phrasing things, so she wouldn't see through the ruse. But the underlying messages were all his, all honest. He loved her, and he missed her. He wanted her to be with him, free of her alcoholic husband and the restrictive life of small-town Nebraska.
And now, at last, she was on the way. He had called her house to make sure, and her husband said she packed up her things and left early that morning. She was coming to him, giving up all that lay behind them, and at last Lyle would have her with him. He would be complete. He would be loved.
His head came up at the sound of a car engine shutting off in the parking lot outside. He hurried to the door, stepping behind and unlocking it to allow her to enter. He watched the doorknob turn, saw the door open and her pretty blonde head enter the room.
"Jimmy?" she called uncertainly. "It's Mama, baby. Are you here?"
She stepped fully into the room and closed the door quietly behind herself.
Then she gasped as she looked up, right into his eyes.
For a moment, she was frozen, her hand on the doorknob.
"Bobby? Is that you?"
He embraced her and lifted her off her feet in a powerful, joyous hug. "Yes, it's me, Mom! I'm so glad you came." He kissed her cheek, his heart overflowing with joy, and set her down right next to the bed.
She put her hand to her head. "Forgive me, Bobby. This is all just so much of a shock " Her eyes flicked up to his. "Where have you been all these years? We all thought you were--"
Her eyes widened. Her mouth fell open in a small "o" of surprise.
Horror etched into her features.
"You wrote me those letters, didn't you?"
He felt his joy fading as he read her expression and knew that the truth was dawning in her mind. "Yes. I love you, Mom. I couldn't leave you behind. Don't you see?"
Marnie took a step back and sat down abruptly, unintentionally, on the mattress. "But Bobby, who was it that your daddy went to prison for killing, if it wasn't you?"
Lyle got down on his knees and reached for her waist. One little lie could still save them, if she believed. "Jimmy was standing on the top of the cliff, Mom. It gave way underneath him, and he fell. I tried to save him, but I was too far away."
Tears filled Marnie's cobalt blue eyes, and she grimaced as she tried not to cry. "You killed him, didn't you, Bobby? You killed my son, my Jimmy."
He hung his head and sighed. "Mother's intuition," he moaned. "I guess it's over, then." He looked up at her, pleading with his eyes for her to brush all that aside and take the love he offered her. "I want you with me, Mom. We can have everything we ever wanted! I'll take good care of you, like a son should. You'll be proud of me, I promise."
Fear blossomed in those blue depths as he stared into her eyes. She nodded, but her body was stiff with terror. "Okay, honey. Whatever you say... Are you hungry? Would you like to go out and get something to eat? I saw a Chinese place down the road--"
He struck with the quickness of a snake, his hands wrapping around her throat, pushing her down against the mattress with his body. She struggled, unable to scream, scratching at him with her nails, fighting for her life, but it was useless. He was too well practiced, and too strong. In moments, she was dead.
Lyle sat up and stared down at her, at the ugly marks on her neck that his hands had made. Her bloodshot eyes stared up at the ceiling, and he closed them with his thumbs. He didn't want them to find her like that, in the middle of that messy bed, so he pulled her up onto the middle of the mattress, posed her regally, combed her hair, touched up her makeup from her purse, and smoothed all the wrinkles out of the bedclothes.
She looked so peaceful like that. He bent down and kissed her lightly on the forehead, and once more on the lips, then turned away and began to clean the room of fingerprints. Moments later, he was on the road again, but for the better part of a week, he shadowed Townsend, waiting for her funeral. He watched it from a distance, and when the crowd dispersed and darkness had fallen, he brought flowers to her grave, and wept.
Lyle trembled at the power those memories still held over him. Marnie Radloff had been the only person in his life to hold such sway over him. No one else had touched him like that, no one except
He stopped pacing. There was a certain resemblance between the two women -- same hair and eye color, same elfin beauty to their faces. He wondered why he hadn't seen it before, but answered himself almost immediately. He didn't want to see a resemblance between Marnie Radloff and Faith Parker.
Was his hatred for Faith driven by his love for Marnie? Was this the mirror image of one thrust upon the other? Or was the way he felt about Faith more directly related to their experiences after Eclipse?
It was both, he was sure of that now. But beneath all that was something else, something he hadn't noticed before. Faith and Marnie were alike in many ways, different in others, but they both represented the same thing: an escape from loneliness.
Lung Li was solitary by choice. He preferred to be alone, even at home with his family. But Lyle -- or Bobby, or whoever he was -- preferred to be social. He hated solitude, especially the kind his adoptive father had forced on him. What he had wanted from Marnie and Faith was a soulmate, someone who could share in every facet of his life, embrace his secrets and never leave him.
Time and experience had shown that was not possible for someone like him. The shadow of Lung Li that lived in his soul made commitment impossible. Solitude was his destiny, and he was going to have to alter that remnant of Bobby Bowman who clutched so hungrily at the skirts crossing his path.
He had been pretending for years that he could have a happy ending. But now, his last memory of Marnie returned and brought with it a smile. He had another answer now, and shook his head at how simply it had been programmed into his mind.
"Okay, honey. Whatever you say... Are you hungry? Would you like to go out and get something to eat? I saw a Chinese place down the road--"
Marnie had wakened the hunger in him. Marnie had planted it in a moment of raw suggestibility, and it had stayed with him ever after. None of the women Lyle killed before Marnie had any pieces missing, but all of those who followed her did.
And now his appetite was waking again, brought on by his visit to the past.
It was strange, he reflected, how the mind worked, how it turned in on itself and created new fabric out of old quilt pieces.
Lung Li might have been the biggest leap in the process of Bobby Bowman's evolution, but all the most interesting details belonged exclusively to Mr. Lyle himself.
He squatted down and let his fingers play across the letters carved into the marble headstone that formed her name.
"Why couldn't you have been happy to be with me?" he demanded softly, as he always did. "You said I was your son, too. You said you knew how I suffered, and that I could always find a safe place with you."
He drew out his wallet and looked at the picture again, the one taken just twenty-four hours before he murdered her son. The three of them stood against a backdrop of blue sky, Bobby Bowman in the middle, the other boy folded out of view. He looked down at her face, smiling and beautiful, and remembered how he had loved her.
No one else could have hurt him like she did. When she betrayed him, she took away the last bit of vulnerability in his soul. He had wanted her to be with him always, especially after Eclipse. But he was different now, stronger in ways he couldn't have imagined back then.
"You could have had everything," he told her stiffly, resentment pushing him to his feet. "I wanted to give you back what you lost. I wanted to be your son. But you were afraid." His toe nudged the neatly trimmed grass at the base of the headstone. "You shouldn't have been afraid of me."
He tucked his wallet away, the memory of her face, slack and peaceful in death, bringing him a kind of resolution.
Strolling back to his car, head down, he remembered how she had fought him for her life. He had been so tempted, wondering if he might lock her up in a shed somewhere, and keep her all to himself. That idea had appealed to him momentarily, but there was too much sexual power tied up in that image. That wasn't how he wanted to remember her, though she had been attractive for an older woman.
"Too bad we didn't have Aurora then," he mused softly. "I should have been more patient, I suppose." Then he started the car and pulled away, heading toward Lincoln and his flight back to Wilmington.
* * * * * * * * *
Odd, how the sensations shifted so abruptly between joy and pain, Faith mused. She was close, she knew, but those leaps confused her, and made it hard to follow Morgan's emotional trail. Faith had left her car downtown in a parking lot and started walking the sidewalk, her sensory net cast out for blocks all around her. For several minutes she just stood still, pretending to look into a store window while she traced the connection and waited for it to settle and strengthen again.
There, dipping into depression again. Agony resurfaced, piercing her soul, making her gasp. She bent slightly, pressing her forehead against the cool glass for a moment to absorb the anguish and diffuse it enough to make sense of direction. Her head hurt, the migraine she'd had since leaving Texas merciless in its persistence.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened and lifted her chin, starting resolutely down the sidewalk.
She didn't see the van pull out from the curb as she stepped into the alley. The vehicle stopped, the door slid open and two men in dark suits bolted out, seizing her by the arms and hauling her inside with them before she could draw a breath and let loose a scream. She had been concentrating so hard on Morgan that she had screened out the potential danger of others who might be hunting her, and too late did she realize her error.
It was a trap, and she had fallen right into it.
The door closed on the outside world just as a hand closed over her mouth and nose, the pungent smell of chloroform carrying her speedily into darkness before she could fight them off.
Faith slumped onto the floor of the van, and the vehicle motored off down the street just as a light rain began to fall.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan walked into the dress shop and held out the photograph, flashing it at everyone who looked as though they worked there.
"Have you seen this woman?" she demanded. "I know she was here."
The store manager came up to her with a false, polite smile. "Miss, we told you everything we knew when you came in the first time. The lady hasn't been back."
With a sigh of frustration, Morgan bowed her head, fighting back tears. For two days she had been chasing after the enigmatic woman who looked like her mother, always just a few steps behind, making no progress at all. The stress was beginning to get to her, and she could feel her hold on reality slipping.
She started to cry, and covered her face with her hands.
"Come with me, dear," Sydney murmured into her ear, putting his arm around her shoulders and guiding her out onto the sidewalk. "We'll find her, Morgan. I promise you that."
Suddenly, he stepped away from her, lifting his cane and making a dash toward the street, head up, eyes forward. "There! There she is!"
He stumbled, still unsteady from the stroke, but Morgan had caught a glimpse of the woman in a car, driving past them on the street.
She stepped out of her high heels and raced barefoot down the sidewalk, calling out for the car to stop, but the vehicle disappeared into traffic and the woman never glanced in her direction.
Morgan jogged to a stop, staring down the street after the car, memorizing the license plate number. Whipping out her cell phone, she dialed Broots and gave him the plate number and everything else she could recall about the car. It was a lead, and hopefully it would be a good one.
She didn't dare get her hopes up, but she was already exhilarated from the sighting.
"So close," she breathed as Sydney caught up to her, leaning heavily on his cane.
"Almost caught her," he wheezed. "My God, Morgan, did you see her?"
"Yes, Daddy. I did." She beamed at him. "We'll find her. I'm sure of it now."
But mixed with that wild joy was an undercurrent of wilder pain, afraid this was just some terrible coincidence. She couldn't grasp that thought. It was typical of Centre protocol for secrets not to stay buried, and glimmers of truth to come to light, but this was out of range of the possible, without some kind of confirmation from Raines.
Only Raines was dead. She had made certain of that personally, standing by while the autopsy was performed and the pieces of his body were stuffed back inside, the skin sewn up in ugly, careless stitches that further marred the old man's scarred skin. His corpse had gone to the labs for some kind of experimentation after that, but there was no doubt this time that Raines would not be coming back.
Without him, she'd simply have to find out the truth in her own way.
* * * * * * * * *
Canceling his flight had been a last-minute decision, but Lyle knew it was time he fully explored the memories from his past that called to him, kept him tethered to the place where he grew up. He wanted to put it behind him, cease those stealthy return trips and banish Marnie's ghost forever. That would take a little soul-searching, and for Lyle, that was unfamiliar territory.
He needed some solitude, and road trips were good for that.
Stopping at a gas station to fill up his rented car, he changed into a flannel shirt and jeans to get comfortable for the long trip home. Purchasing enough drinks and snacks to keep himself sated while driving, he climbed behind the wheel and headed onto the interstate, letting his mind drift back to the place where his life took such a drastic turn. So much of his early life was hazy now, but his first sight of Raines was still clear as day.
Bobby walked into the kitchen, and there he was. The creepy-looking man sat at the dinner table with a cup of coffee near his wrist. Martha Bowman sat bolt upright, her eyes wide and blank, staring at the wall beside him, mumbling incoherently to herself. She often did that, and Bobby ignored her.
"Who are you?" the teenager asked, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly.
"My name is William Raines," the old man said, his watery blue eyes staring. "And I hold the key to your future."
That irritated him. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
Raines' eyes shifted lazily to Martha's face, then back to make eye contact with him. "You want out of here?" the old man offered silkily. "You want power beyond your wildest dreams? I can give you that."
Bobby had sneered at him. "So, like, you're the devil? Is that it?"
"Something like that." He reached under the table and picked up a briefcase. It was silver, and gleamed dully in the light from the bare overhead bulb. "Come watch this." He opened the case to reveal a small machine with a screen on it, like a tiny television set. There were several tiny silver discs sitting in racks in the case, and he picked one up and put it into place. The machine started up, and in a moment the screen came to life.
Bobby saw the image of a teenage girl, pretty and blonde. She sat in a wooden chair, her hands bound in her lap. A man stood over her, though his face wasn't in the picture. His voice was recognizable, though.
It belonged to the man sitting at the table.
"This is Faith," he told Bobby. "Do you like her?" The picture stopped on a close-up of the girl's face.
Bobby knew a babe when he saw one. He nodded his head, and wondered what it would be like to kiss that girl. But the memory of her hands made him wonder what was wrong with her, if she had committed some crime. Or, perhaps, if she was a prisoner of this man. That made him wary, unwilling to get himself into a similar position of helplessness.
"I can do anything I want with her," Raines told him. "And if you wanted, you could, too."
That thought shocked the youth. What, exactly, did this man want from him? Was he hurting that girl? Did he like to hurt teenage boys, too?
Raines chuckled. "I know what you're thinking, but I have no intention of hurting you. I need you, if I'm going to carry out my plan, Bobby. I can promise you power, money, girls like this anything your heart desires. And in return, I'll want your loyalty. That's not too high a price, now, is it?"
Bobby took a step back and let his hands drop down to his sides. He wanted to be ready in case this freak came after him. And he knew that, two steps away, was a rack of knives that he could use to cut the guy to ribbons.
"I know you know you're adopted," Raines went on, glancing at Mrs. Bowman.
Bobby couldn't help looking, too.
"You know you're too smart and good-looking to have come from these people." Raines smiled. "You were sent here, to be raised by these nut jobs. And I know who put you in this home. I can help you pay him back, if you want."
That deep, gravelly voice got his attention now. Bobby knew he wasn't supposed to be there, that it had been some terrible cosmic mistake for him to grow up in that asylum. He wanted very much to know who was responsible, and if this man could give him that
"Who is he?"
"His name is Parker, and he works at a place called the Centre."
Bobby needed to put a face to the name. He needed to look that man in the eye, and hurt him the way he had been hurt, every day of his young life. The tiny spark of retribution that burned constantly in his soul flared up into a conflagration. He wanted revenge for what had been done to him.
"What do I have to do?"
"You'll tell people I'm your Uncle Billy," he said, looking at the woman. "Your mother is my sister, and I'll be taking you with me on a few weekend trips, starting next week. I'll pay for your college tuition, and we'll groom you for an administrative position at the Centre. Through me, you'll rise in power until you can look down on Mr. Parker, and when you've gotten to that point, nothing will be out of your reach. You can do whatever you want with him. But it's going to take time. You'll have to be patient."
"Why? Why can't I just go after him now?" Bobby felt his hands clenching so hard they hurt.
"Because you're just a boy," Raines explained patiently. "You need training. He's got an army of bodyguards who would cut you down in an instant, if you looked like you meant to hurt him. So you have to learn how the system works in order to beat it. You have to have more power than Parker if you want to hurt him. And the more power you have, the longer you can make him suffer."
Bobby smiled, thinking of that faceless man suffering at his hands.
"When do we start?"
"I'll send a car for you next Friday, after school. You'll be driven to the airport, and spend the weekend in Delaware, at the Centre. After that, I'll send for you when I need you, until the time is right to make your move."
The teenager nodded. "Okay. My parents -- I mean the Bowmans -- they know about this, right?"
Raines gazed at Martha, and placed his hand on hers as it lay on the table before her. "Martha knows. Lyle won't care, as long as he's rid of you for a while. She knows what to do. Isn't that right, Martha?"
Her eyes shifted to the table, to his hand on hers. Slowly, she withdrew herself from his grasp and laid both hands into her lap. "Yes, Billy," she replied woodenly. "Whatever you say."
The old man rose, packed up the briefcase and placed it into his left hand. He patted the woman on her shoulder, then bent down to kiss her hair.
She flinched away from him.
"Goodbye, Martha," he growled. "I'll see you soon."
Martha bolted from the room, down the hall to her bedroom, and shut the door.
"Wish I could make her do that," Bobby murmured to himself.
"I can teach you," Raines assured him.
Bobby reached out and took the man's hand. It was cold, like death. "Bye, Uncle Billy," he said warily, and watched the man put on his Fedora and leave through the back door.
* * * * * * * * *
The van pulled up to the gate, and the sweepers inside dumped the unconscious woman -- neatly tied in a body bag up to her neck -- on the doorstep of the abandoned warehouse. The door opened, and the man inside handed out patches to each of the men before sending them on their way. Once the van was out of sight and the rusting gate padlocked closed, Valentine lifted the body bag and carried it into the building.
It had taken him days to set this up, finding just the right place for his rendezvous with the hyper-empath. Fantasies of what he would do to her danced in his head, and he welcomed the chance to pit himself against her, one on one. She was special, and deserved careful handling. He respected her talent, though he was all but certain she couldn't hurt him.
Still, he was taking no chances. Checking his watch, he knew that she would be coming around within a half hour or so. Already she was beginning to stir slightly, to react to his touch as he moved her into place, and once she roused he needed to be out of her sight, making it more difficult to manipulate him.
From his pocket he withdrew a small syringe and injected it into her arm.
Then he left the room, locked the door behind himself, and threw the key into
the tall grass past a derelict Ferris wheel so that even he couldn't find
it. Valentine jogged through the drizzle toward the next building and fired
up the surveillance equipment he had installed the previous day. There was
only one way out of that warehouse, and he was going to enjoy watching Faith
try to find it.
Angelique sat on the rocking horse, her doll clutched close to her chest. The child didn't move, staring off into space, sitting perfectly still.
"Whatsa matter, Annie?" asked Raphael, watching her from nearby.
"My mommy's scared."
Raphael nodded gravely, and toddled off in search of Gabriel.
Tempest came up and tried to give her an electronic game to play, but Angelique shook her head. "We help, Annie. Okay?"
"Help my mommy?" she asked solemnly.
The other blonde girl nodded.
"What do we do? We's little." Angelique shuddered as fear shot through her, fear that was not her own. She began to whimper, and then to cry.
"What is it, honey?" asked Nancy, coming quickly to see to the child. "What's wrong?"
"Mommy!" Angelique cried. "My mommy's scared. We got to help her!" She held out her arms, and Nancy picked her up and held her close as she rose and strode off in search of Helen.
Every one of the other children, including little Jacob, followed the pair out of the playroom to the nursery office, standing in the doorway while Nancy and Helen conferred.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod sat in the center of the playroom, the children gathered around him in an irregular circle, all staring up at him intently. Seated around them in chairs were other parents, watching the process as the Pretender guided the children through their problem. He had listened to their frightened explanations, and knew that Faith was in danger, but didn't know where she was.
"Where is your mommy, Angelique?" he asked the little blonde.
"I don' know," she whimpered back.
Jarod looked around at the troubled little faces. Tempest was frowning, obviously concentrating. "She's all mirrors, Unca Jawid."
"All mirrors?" He didn't understand the reference. Faith's project name had been Looking Glass. Might the children have picked up on that as imagery? Had she been captured and returned to the Centre?
"Not the bad place," Tempest assured him after his inquiry. "Another bad place. Fay's everywhere." She looked up at Jarod as if willing him to understand, and slumped when he didn't.
"Who's with her?" he prompted gently. "Are there any smells or sounds? Is it far away?"
"Far away," confirmed Uriel. "Far, far. And raining. Der's a bad man, too."
"Do you know which way?"
As one, the children all pointed northeast, in the direction of the Centre. His heart sinking, he struggled for some way to get the information he needed out of them gently, without upsetting them further.
"That's good. That's a start."
Sumi rose from her chair and sat down behind Gideon, wrapping her arms around him as he trembled. "It's okay, baby," she assured him with a whisper in his ear. Then she turned toward her husband. "Go get North. Let's see if we can help him locate Faith, with the kids as a divining rod."
Sebastian rose and went to the office to use the phone. Minutes later, North stepped out of the elevator, dressed in sweats from a workout he'd been busy with in the gym.
Sumi explained what she wanted to do, and urged him to join the group on the floor. The big man sat in the center of the circle, and Sumi scooted close enough to reach out and hold his hand.
"Everybody hold hands," she advised, holding Gideon close in her lap, "and think about where Faith is. Try to see the room, or maybe the building. Close your eyes, and try to see it."
The little ones obeyed.
North took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Northeast," he said quietly, his deep voice growling softly in the silence. He smiled. "This is cool. The kids are like I can feel their energy, like an electrical current flowing through them into me. Wow."
Michaela let go of the other children's' hands and placed them into her lap, her big dark eyes filled with fear and guilt.
Jarod held out his arms to her, but she shook her head and scooted back a little. He laid his hand on her knee, unwilling to let her suffer alone. It seemed to comfort her a little, and she wriggled hesitantly back into the circle.
"It's an old place, disused and musty," North murmured. "Lots of equipment rusting, like a like a carnival or something. Warehouses Mirrors. I can see her, surrounded by mirrors."
Jarod glanced at Tempest, who nodded and smiled, but did not open her eyes.
Ethan rose from his seat behind Uriel and went to the kids' computer station, logged onto the internet and got ready to search, fingers poised above the keys. "Can you see a sign? Anything with words will help."
North shook his head, moving in slow motion, focusing on his task. "It's a house of mirrors. Old, disused."
"Pull back a little," Sebastian suggested. "What does the building look like?"
"Derelict," North answered after a few moments. "The grounds, too. Nobody's been there for years, till now."
"Who else is there?" Sebastian leaned forward in his chair. "Can you see anyone else?"
"A man in the next building. Dark hair. He's talking to her through a microphone."
"Great work, everyone. You're doing fine," the Australian man assured them.
"Can you hear what he's saying?" Jarod asked.
Sebastian answered for the man he'd worked with for so many years. "Remote viewing is all visual, mate. Nothing else. Let's just sit back and let North tell us what he sees."
It seemed like hours passed as Jarod listened, but he knew it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. When the session was over, they had an area to begin searching and enough details to find the place, but no specific target. Extrasensory perception wasn't an exact science, and no amount of pushing could force more information out of North than he gave. Jarod thanked the man, noting how drained North was after the session, and took a few minutes to offer reassurance to the children that they would all work together to find Angelique's mother.
Ethan logged off the children's computer and accompanied Jarod back to his room, where the two men continued the internet search for properties meeting the description North had given them. Hours later, they had narrowed it down to only a handful of places. The next session they conducted with North was minus the children, and after viewing specific coordinates, he confirmed the location where Faith was being held.
It didn't take Jarod long to put a few things together, but when he arrived at the elevator, Ethan was there waiting for him.
"What are you doing here?" Jarod asked him.
"Going with you, big brother. In case you need someone to give you a hand."
Jarod smiled. "One step ahead of you, little brother," he returned warmly. "Namir's going in case I need muscle, and Trevor to help find Faith. You stay here with your son. And thanks for the help. We make a good team."
Ethan offered an easy smile and waved him off as the elevator doors closed between them.
Jarod drove to the airport and strapped into the cockpit of the Prometheus jet beside Trevor. Kentucky was hours away by plane, and they'd still have to find the carnival grounds and drive out to it once they arrived in Frankfort. The Pretender was glad of the company, and kept his cell phone handy in case anyone from Sanctuary had any other news to offer along the way.
Lyle had put Valentine on Faith's trail some time ago. If he was the one who had caught her, then Jarod wasn't certain they'd be able to get there in time to save her.
In fact, it could already be too late.
* * * * * * * * *
Faith lifted her head, trying to get her eyes to focus. She recognized the haze of drugs in her brain, more than simply the chloroform, and wondered what she had been given. Glancing around, she saw that she was surrounded by mirrors, some flat and others distorted, that changed her reflection into unpleasant shapes. Her first instinct was to get out, as quickly as possible.
But with all the reflections, it was impossible to find the exit. She moved close to the nearest silvery panel and touched it with her fingers, using them to guide her as she walked along the wall.
"Well, you're awake," called a deep, velvety voice from an overhead speaker somewhere. "How are you feeling?"
"What do you want?" she demanded, hurrying along the wall, looking for an opening, anything that might be a way out.
"I want to play," he answered smoothly.
She hesitated, remembering her talent, and cast about with her net to try to locate his emotional pattern, but she couldn't. Whatever drug she had been given must be interfering with her ability. She tried to shake off the effects of the drug on her body, but will alone couldn't do the trick.
"You know, finding me won't do you any good," said the disembodied voice. "You won't find anything useful in my emotional grab bag. I have no regrets, no sympathy, no fear. Nothing you can hold onto or use against me. But I must say, I'm quite impressed with your skills."
Faith went back to looking for the exit, found a narrow passageway, also lined with mirrors, and followed it into another mirrored room. The reflections there disoriented her even further, adding to the alarming sense of being utterly lost, with nothing but her own twisted image for company.
"I can still see you, Looking Glass," the voice told her. "There's no way out, except through me. One of the mirrors is a door that can only be opened from the outside. You tell me what I want to know, and maybe I'll let you out."
"Who are you?"
The voice chuckled softly. It was a pleasant, sensual sound, but it gave her the creeps.
"That's not important at the moment. But at least I've got you talking to me."
Faith kept walking, running her right hand along the mirrored wall until she had come full circle, back to the room with the chair where she had roused. A sense of defeat settled on her, and she knew intuitively that her captor had told the truth. The only way out was through him.
She sat down on the chair to give her body a rest. Maybe if she kept him talking, she'd earn enough time for the drugs to wear off, and give her a better chance of escape. If she could manipulate the man's emotions, she could get away. But under the influence of the medication, she was virtually blind.
"What do you want?"
"Like I said, I want to play. And I want to know all about you."
She shook her head. "You don't really want to know about me," she said aloud, seeking again, looking for that glimmer of interest that statement would elicit.
There! Not far away, she felt him, and clung to the man's curiosity like a life preserver.
"Is that you, digging around inside me, little Faith?" he asked pleasantly. "It tingles. I think I like it."
The connection slipped, and was gone. Faith took a deep breath and closed her eyes, concentrating, trying to locate him again. It was like trying to hold onto a handful of Jell-o, and the effort tired her out.
"I know what you are," he assured her. "I know what you can do. The way you disposed of Raines was truly spectacular, and that finder Lyle put on your trail, what was his name?"
Faith stared at her shoes in shame, remembering. "I never knew his name."
"Then let me solve that mystery for you. His name was Mr. White. But he wasn't the first person you killed. Why don't you tell me about that?"
"You're from the Centre," she guessed. "And you're afraid of me. That's why you're so far away."
"Not really. Cautious, yes. But not afraid. I could never be afraid of a woman."
Faith glanced at her image in the panel straight ahead. It made her face look pear-shaped, her shoulders and hips widely exaggerated, and her waist impossibly narrow. She looked like a caricature, a cartoon creature. Or a monster.
She lowered her gaze back to the floor, and hugged herself against the chill in the room.
"What's the matter, Faith? Don't like what you see?" the voice taunted her.
She kept silent, knowing that her captor was seeking buttons to push, to arouse her to anger or fear. If she was going to survive, she would have to resist. But under the influence of the drug he had given her, it wouldn't be easy. She wanted to respond, wanted to talk with him.
He laughed again, darkly, softly, and the sound made goosebumps rise on her skin.
"Like I said, I know what you are," he assured her. "You're a monster, Faith. Admit it."
Suddenly, the image of a DSA recording flashed onto one of the mirrors beside her, and was immediately reflected on all the others. She froze while it played, remembering with vivid clarity when the event had taken place.
She must have been 12 or 13 years old at the time. Raines had been in charge then, and she knew from previous experience not to attempt to use her talent on anyone in a supervisory capacity. She wasn't yet skilled enough to control it, and had been severely punished whenever she tried and failed.
But neither could she shut out the memory as the recording played on. Mesmerized, she watched in horrified fascination, unable to take her eyes away from the scene. Raines had been an exacting taskmaster, forcing her to reach inside the man they had brought in as her test subject.
"He likes little girls," Raines growled softly. "Can you feel what he wants to do to you?"
Her insides had twisted up. She didn't understand what it was that the man wanted, but she knew it was ugly. She knew it would hurt, and he would take pleasure in her pain. And she knew there was a knife in the room. She had seen it placed there before the experiment began. That frightened her, because she was afraid the man meant to use it on her.
The stranger smiled, something unpleasant gleaming in his eyes.
"The only way to stop him," Raines crooned, "is to make him afraid. Really afraid."
"I can't make him afraid of me," Faith told him, trembling. "I can't make someone feel what isn't there."
Raines stood behind a partition with a window that separated him from the man and the child in the simulation room. "I know he's afraid of me. Can you find that fear and enhance it?"
Faith watched the stranger, felt his growing desire to touch her. If she didn't stop him, he'd lose whatever resistance kept him in that chair, and she wouldn't be able to control him at all, not when her own emotions got out of control.
She closed her eyes and went hunting, delving into that dark, twisted soul until she found what she needed. The amplification was slow at first, then picked up speed. The man began to breathe heavily as his fear increased, backing away from her and toward the table with the knife. She concentrated, trying to control the process as she had been taught.
The flashover came unexpectedly as the mirror inside her flared, and the man cried out in sudden, abject terror. Faith struggled to regain control, but it was too late. He grabbed for the knife, taking refuge in a corner of the room where he plunged the gleaming blade into his own body over and over, mouth open and screaming as he killed himself.
Raines darted out from behind the partition and knelt over the man as he flailed and quickly grew still. And then he turned toward the child she had been, his watery blue eyes glowing with pride. He smiled.
"Very good, Faith," he purred. "He's dead, just as I anticipated."
"You started young," the man behind the speakers told her. "One of the few who can kill with a thought. That's a pretty spectacular talent, if you ask me. You enjoy the power, making people do what you want. Don't you, Faith?"
Tears filled her eyes and spilled over. "What do you want from me?" she cried for the third time, covering her face with her hands.
"Just the game, darlin'," the voice replied with relish. "It's all about the game."
* * * * * * * * *
"Wait!" cried Morgan, running toward the salon doors in pursuit of the enigmatic woman who looked so much like her mother. She heard a phone ringing as she dashed after the woman, scanning the room quickly for that familiar face, but finding it nowhere it sight. The room was full of people, most of them women having their hair done, and Morgan was forced to run to a few chairs and check out the faces of those patrons she couldn't see from the doorway.
A hallway led into other rooms, and the huntress looked in each one, ignoring the startled screams as she slammed the doors and went on to the next one. Out the back door she ran, glancing around the parking lot for the doppelganger, spotting the woman just as she closed the door on a gray sedan. Morgan reached the car just as the woman hung up the phone.
She beat her palms on the window glass and demanded the woman get out and speak to her.
Fear glimmered in the woman's eyes, and Morgan knew instantly that this was not Catherine Parker.
She stepped back and tried to catch her breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you, but you look just like "
"Catherine Parker," the woman finished for her. "I know. I was helping the FBI catch a friend of yours. I'm sorry."
The woman shrugged and took off the gray-streaked wig that covered her own hair, laying it in the car seat beside her. "I don't know her name. A woman who was wanted in connection of the death of a man named White."
"Oh, my God." Morgan backed away, realization dawning on her. "Faith "
She had been bait in a trap to catch her sister. And knowing the Centre as she did, she was sure that they'd have kept this woman on the run unless the mission was accomplished.
"You got a phone call just now," Morgan observed breathlessly, her heart squeezing up inside her chest. "Was that the all-clear?"
The woman pulled off the latex mask and laid it on the wig, breathing a sigh of relief to have it off her skin. "If you mean did they catch her, then yes. I'm sorry, but it's for the best. She's a dangerous woman, from what they told me."
Trying desperately to maintain her composure, Morgan straightened up and glared down into the car window. "This FBI agent. What did he look like? Was he tall, dark and handsome?"
"Yes. An attractive young black man," the woman confirmed. "He said his name was William Raines, but his friends call him Willie."
"Willie!" Morgan repeated, stunned. She'd need time to sort all this out. But for the moment, she needed to find a way to help Faith if she could. And she needed to address this grievous wrong with whomever had given Willie his orders.
She leaned down close to the window and wished for a cigarette, just so she could blow smoke in this woman's face. "Let me tell you something, sister. The man who paid you to do this was the criminal, not the woman he was chasing. You may just have had a hand in the death of an innocent woman. If I were you, I'd be more careful with gigs like this in the future. Check those badge numbers next time. Confirm that ID. You just might save a life." She straightened up, pleased to see the shock and horror on the woman's face. "And if you don't want this guy coming after you so he can clean up the evidence he left behind, I'd take whatever money he gave you and get the hell outta Dodge, while you still can."
She banged on the roof of the car angrily, scowled at the woman a moment longer, and then stomped off to her car.
Of course her mother was dead, she chided herself. She'd have known long ago if Catherine Parker were still alive. Someone at the Centre had used the depth of her love for her mother to track down Faith. Lyle was the best suspect, so she whipped out her phone and called him.
There was no answer on his cell phone, and she didn't want to talk to his voice mail. Her next call was to Jarod.
"Do you know where Faith is?" she asked him without preamble, sliding into the cabin of her rented car and sliding the key into the ignition. "She's in danger."
"She's missing," he reported. "We're looking for her. How did you know?"
Morgan explained about the impostor, and the woman's specific mention of Faith. "My first guess was this sounds like something Lyle would cook up. Him or Valentine."
He sighed into the phone. "I'll find her, Morgan. Are you in Frankfort?"
"Yeah. They must have picked her up here."
"I'll be there shortly. Right now, I'm assuming you've played the part they wanted you to play. Go back to your hotel and sit tight. I'll call you as soon as we know something."
"Thanks. Anything you want me to do? Is there any way I can help?"
"I've got soldiers enough to get her out," he assured her quietly. "If we get there in time. We're just coming in for a landing now. I'll call you back soon."
He disconnected the call without waiting for more dialogue from her, or the wish for good luck she had been about to give him. But she wished it anyway, started the car and pulled out into traffic, heading back for her hotel to wait.
* * * * * * * * *
Faith refused to give up, though she could feel her inner resolve starting to crack beneath the haze of medication, and that persistent, seductive voice. She was certain she had been through the maze at least three times, trying to mark the route with a hair plucked out of her head and broken in pieces, then stuck to the shiny silver surfaces with saliva. There truly was no way out, and she was starting to panic.
She flinched as another DSA appeared, this one a compilation of various scenes. She saw herself being forcibly injected with drug after drug, and remembered with violent ferocity how the more potent ones burned as they traveled through her system. She saw the image of her childhood self screaming, clutching at her head as the chemicals burned through her neural pathways, enhancing her natural gift a thousand fold. Faith had begged for it to stop, begged Raines for mercy, and found none.
The woman tried to turn away from those terrible images, closing her eyes and walking in circles on the concrete floor, hands over her ears to try to shut out her own screams. The faceless man only turned up the volume louder. When the recording ended, there was a moment of blessed silence, and she took a deep breath, holding herself to try to get a grip on her own wildly spinning emotions.
"You don't like being ordered around, do you, Looking Glass?" the voice purred.
She refused to answer.
Another projection started on the mirrored wall, one from her slightly more recent past. Mustering up what courage she had, she turned to face the recording, watching as one of Raines' nameless sweepers beat her when she refused a task, knocking her to the floor and kicking her viscously. She remembered how it felt, how frightened and angry she had been. And she remembered what she had done to the sweeper.
Buried deeply in the man's mind was the memory of a painful injury he'd received in training. She grasped that pain and blew it up until he sank to his knees, gasping for breath, unable to move. Unsteadily, she got to her feet, standing over him with ice in her eyes and whispering, "Never hurt me again."
"Very good, Faith," Raines announced from across the room. "You see how very simple revenge can be? All you need is the right focus, and you can do anything." He smiled at her then. "Except to me, of course. You've always understood that."
Faith had understood, all right. She resented Raines, but knew what would happen if she ever went after him in anger.
"But even Raines wasn't beyond your retribution," the voice reminded her. "Was he? I saw what you did to him. Oh, and by the way, the old ghoul's dead. Thought you'd like to know."
There was no relief in that announcement. "It doesn't matter," she shot back. "For me, he died a long time ago."
"When you turned him into a cauliflower?" The man chuckled. "Apparently, what you did to him wasn't enough. Raines must have ticked off quite a few people in his day. Somebody spiked his punch though it didn't show up on the autopsy."
Faith kept walking aimlessly, not caring where she was going anymore. He was beating her down, and she knew it. If this kept up, he would win, and she would be helpless. But she refused to weep. Not now. And not where her captor could see her.
* * * * * * * * *
The car was late. Jarod checked his watch, fidgeting and considering renting a car himself, if that would get them on the road faster. He glanced at Trevor, pacing on the tarmac a short distance away, head down in thought, waiting on some flash of inspiration to tell them exactly where to go.
Jarod had worked for a carnival supply house before, when he had set up the Yellow Brick Road simulation for Miss Parker, Sydney and Broots. That would be their first stop, since the company had gone out of business the summer of the previous year when the owner retired. He wasn't sure if that was the right place, and both Trevor and North were uncertain as well. The others were still searching, but they had a lot of ground to cover, and not much time.
The Pretender willed himself down from the sense of urgency digging at him, and closed his eyes, concentrating on the task at hand. An image of Faith's face bubbled up in his memory, her eyes concerned as she "convinced" him to leave the Centre while he was under the influence of Aurora. She had always been there for him, even at the hour of his death, when he struggled to survive after that plane crash in the mountains.
She loves you, Jarod.
Sydney and Morgan had both told him that, and he had brushed the idea off at the time. But his own desperate need to find her suggested that, somewhere in the depths of his soul, he also had feelings that bore examination. Why else would he be so frantic? She was an old friend at the mercy of the Centre, but there was something more to this than simple friendship.
That was worth exploring. He had never seen any indication that Faith was attracted to him in any way other than as a childhood friend, a playmate and brother -- but perhaps he hadn't been looking. And when others took the time to comment on her feelings for him, he began to wonder if there might not be something that he wasn't seeing, something right under his nose.
He had never sim'd Faith, not wanting to explore the gift that set her apart from the rest of humanity. He was only just now beginning to find his own way through the emotional minefield that other, ordinary people navigated so easily. He hadn't wanted to try to understand the burden she carried; at least, not yet.
Maybe that was why he couldn't see it because he was always looking away from her. Which meant that it was time to look at her for a change, to see who she was at last.
All he needed was the chance to start over. And for that, Faith would need to be alive when he found her. He lifted his face to the rainy sky and stepped out from under the hangar, letting the cool drops pelt his face and refresh him.
He said a little prayer for her, and sprinted toward the car as it pulled into the hangar bay, calling the others to join him, so they could be on their way.
The disembodied voice took great pleasure in tormenting her. With each recording, he reminded her of all the terrible things she had done in her life. He even had a slide show prepared of crime scene photographs of Mr. White's body. But that wasn't enough for him.
"Tell me about Eclipse," he urged her. "About Bobby."
She shrugged, unable to summon the energy to fight. "There are recordings of that, too. Don't you have them?"
"Of course, I do," he assured her. "But there's so much that's not on the recording. Lyle won't talk about Retrieval, but he's afraid of you, like he's not afraid of any other woman. I want to know why."
"You'll have to ask him," she sighed, and laid down on her side, pillowing her head on her crooked left arm. She was exhausted, and her head was swimming. She couldn't tell any longer if it was the drugs or the weariness. All she wanted was to sleep, but she knew that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. "What's your name? You never told me."
"You can call me Valentine," he purred. "All my ladies do."
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle pulled off the road, heading his rented car into the trees down a narrow dirt track, until he had completely lost sight of the highway. He shut the car off, pocketed the keys and stepped out, trying to compose himself, to catch his breath. The memories were overpowering, shutting out the forest surrounding him, the scent of rich earth and coming rain, and the distant call of birds in the otherwise silent woods.
He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and closed his eyes, willing the memories to come.
He hadn't wanted to clean the blood off, but they made him. Raines insisted on it. He had protested when they took the Asian woman's body away, trying to impress upon them how important it was to finish, to perform the ceremony properly, but they wouldn't listen. They had tried to stop him, but he had guessed they would, and used a chair wedged under the doorknob to keep them out until he had taken the woman's spirit and energy into himself.
He had won, and for a moment, he enjoyed that glory.
But then, they had broken down the door and come in, separating him from her before he had a chance to collect her blood. They had bathed him then, dressed him in some flimsy pajamas, and taken him to a different room, locking him up by himself. For an hour or so they watched him and he stared right back, waiting for someone to come in that door. He was ready for them, ready for whatever they threw at him.
Except for her.
From the moment he saw her, he recognized who she was. This girl had been the one in the movie Raines had shown him in the kitchen of the Nebraska farmhouse. He remembered her, sitting compliantly with her wrists bound, and he wondered if she would fight him or give in and let him do whatever he wanted with her.
But as he stared at the teenage girl on the other side of the glass panel in the door, he sensed something strange inside him, a sense of calmness that soothed the raging tide of his emotions. He felt happy, relaxed satisfied.
Then they opened the door and let her in.
"Hi," he told her. "My name is Bobby. Who are you?"
"Faith," she returned flatly. "Do you know why I'm here?"
This was the girl Raines had promised him. He smiled, reached out and smoothed his fingers over a lock of her long blonde hair. "To please me."
Faith stepped aside and shook her head. "No. To help you find your way back. To be the person you used to be."
He came close and bent down to kiss her, but she dodged away. "You don't want to do that," she snapped.
To his surprise, he found that she was right. He had no interest in her sexually, though that had been all he wanted a moment earlier. He glanced around, noticing for the first time that there was no furniture in the room, just blank walls, floor and ceiling, and that one door with a window in it.
He was tired, and went to sit down, leaning back against the wall. He closed his eyes and remembered the Asian woman, felt the pleasure of her screams
"Don't do that," Faith ordered sternly.
He glanced up at her, the memory suddenly meaningless; he roughly shoved it aside. "I'm not doing anything."
She sat down on the floor, facing him, her legs tucked up on one side, knees discreetly closed. "Let me help you, Bobby," she said quietly. "Let me bring you back."
"I don't understand," he confessed, his brow furrowing.
"Just close your eyes. Let me show you."
* * * * * * * * *
" Just close your eyes. Let me show you."
Needing a vehicle for the retrieval process, Faith decided on an ocean setting, laboriously constructing the emotional landscape. They sat in a small rowboat bobbing in a black sea that represented the evil all around, threatening to swallow him up.
"Your name is Bobby Bowman," she reiterated gently. "You don't belong in this place. Come back with me."
He smiled at her. "I know where I'm going," he assured her. "I like being in control. It makes me feel powerful, in a way I've never felt before."
She started rowing, glancing behind her to get her bearings, the gleaming white sand of the shoreline in the distance beckoning them.
"This is where I want to be," he assured her. "I don't want to leave."
"This isn't you," she shot back, facing him again. "This is someone else's nightmare. They gave it to you. I can help you get out." She rowed harder, putting all her strength into getting them back to shore quickly. She was losing him. She could feel it.
"I'm going to be powerful forever," Bobby vowed. "If you come with me, I'll share it with you." He smiled, desire in his eyes. But not desire for her. "It'll only hurt for a minute, and then we can be together, forever. You'll like it, I promise."
She stared at him, then shook her head. "I don't want to lose my
soul. I just want to go back. Let me take you there, please."
"I'm never going back," he insisted, his voice rising. "But I don't want to be alone. I want you to come. He promised you'd come!"
With a sudden jerk, he pitched sideways, tipping the boat over and throwing both of them into the thick, black water.
Bobby let himself sink into the depths, snagging her by the ankle as she sought to keep her head above the surface. He stroked against the liquid, dragging her down with him, until her face sank beneath the waves as she gulped in a last breath. She could feel the evil pressing all around her, trying to find a way in, to incorporate itself into her.
She fought with all her strength as they sank deeper, wanting to scream but not daring to open her mouth. With a final kick, she managed to free herself from his grasp and surged back toward the surface. Choking on the breath of fresh air, she dogpaddled back to the boat, which she hurriedly righted before flopping inside, and snagged the one oar that had not floated away. Black water clung to her, itching at her, still calling to her, but she ignored it, willed it to roll off and leave her be.
A noise made her turn, and she saw him break the surface like an agile dolphin. He was reaching for her, evil gleaming in his eyes, determined not to let her get away.
"You have to come with me!" he shouted angrily. "I can't be alone. Raines promised you'd be mine!"
"No!" Scrambling for a weapon, Faith grabbed the oar and smashed it against his hands and then his head, propelling him back into the water. He disappeared, this time for good, but she could feel the anger and disappointment he left behind. Exhausted, weeping with effort, she forced herself to sit upright and paddle the boat slowly, inexorably, back to shore. Alone.
Faith pulled herself back from the imaginary landscape, and turned haunted eyes up to Mr. Raines.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, her breath hitching. "I failed."
Raines only smiled. "Not at all," he told her. "You performed exactly as expected. But no one else has to know that, do they?"
Valentine's chuckle drew her back to reality. "So Eclipse was designed to fail? How interesting."
Faith huddled against the cold glass, shivering, and nodded her head, the tears she couldn't hold back streaming silently down her face. "Raines wanted to create a dark Pretender, and Jarod was the last one to undergo Eclipse. He wasn't supposed to come back. None of them were supposed to come back. But Jarod wanted to survive. Bobby didn't."
"He also didn't want to be alone. Thank you for that. It's an interesting facet of his personality that I hadn't quite figured out." Valentine paused. "And now that the game is over, it's time for the real fun to begin. You wanted to know who I am, little Looking Glass. I'll be there shortly, and you can find out for yourself."
Her head came up as she felt something inside him change. He'd had enough talk; now, he was going to kill her. After he was through with the torture.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle was tired. The hotel sign caught his eye, and he pulled off the road at the next exit, registered for a room and requested laundry service from the concierge. He had barely undressed when the bellman arrived at the door, and wrapped a towel around his waist before handing them off to the startled servant.
Once more in the quiet of his room, he turned on the television to unwind, but that was more of a distraction than he wanted. He flicked it off and headed for the bathroom and a long soak to help him stay focused on the task at hand. As he sank up to his neck in the warm water, he leaned his head back against the cool tiles and closed his eyes.
Raines had promised him Faith. He had promised him unlimited power, without repercussion. He had promised him that life and death would be in his hands.
But Raines had lied. He had lied about who sent Bobby to Nebraska, and why he was there in the first place. Lyle was glad the old ghoul was dead. He had stolen into the morgue personally for a last look, then signed the order for experimentation on the cadaver before the autopsy was even finished.
Raines deserved to die. The entire Triumvirate deserved it, for what had been done to him.
Feeling melancholy, frustrated, angry and alone, he looked forward to being on familiar ground again. Maybe then the ghosts would leave him alone.
* * * * * * * * *
Panic surged through Faith, and she heard banging -- the sound of a determined
man pitting himself against a wooden door, and winning. She heard it open
distantly, possibly somewhere else in the building where she was housed. She
could feel him coming closer, the lust and excitement in his heart growing
with each step. The slight haze of drugs interfered with her control, though
their effect was starting to wear off. He had been right about his own psyche
there was nothing inside him that she could use as a weapon: no fear, no shame,
no compassion for anyone or anything.
But there was hatred. Hatred of women. And she was a woman.
Valentine came out of nowhere, stepping into view between two panels of mirror glass, appearing like magic. He was handsome, with an air of unmistakable charm about him. She knew what that was for. Lure the flies in with a little honey, and catch them in the web before they know they're in danger. But she sensed the danger clearly, right along with his psychosis. She knew how he planned to use her, to hurt her. His motivation was not desire, but revulsion and rage.
And then it came to her. If she could amplify that hatred enough, push him until he couldn't stand to be in her presence, maybe she could make him go away. It was her one chance to survive this. But if she failed, things would go badly for her. Very badly.
"You hate me," she began softly, struggling to stay calm, to focus. She could feel it now, like a coal in the palm of her hand, and in her own heart. She reached out to him, her fingers closing on empty space between them, and then flashing outward as she boosted that hatred, making it flare brightly in his soul.
His eyes gleamed with it now, taking away all reason. He struck out at her, and she rolled with the punch, making it a glancing blow to the side of her head. She went down on one knee, both hands halting her fall. She jerked upright just as he lashed out with his foot toward her ribs, and missed.
He grabbed for her, catching hold of her sweater and slamming her against the ground. He pinned her with his body, straddling her while he cupped her chin in his hand. "This is going to be sweet," he breathed. "I really wasn't anticipating getting this close, but since you haven't put up much of a fight "
He ran his hands over her body, deciding where he wanted to start.
Faith stared up at him, ignoring the flashes of light in her peripheral vision, shutting out the pain of the migraine that lately went with such intense uses of her talent. She grunted as she shot everything back at him that she had.
"Hate!" she cried. "You hate me! You can't stand the sight of me! I make you sick. You have to get away!"
Never before had she pushed anyone so hard. The effort seared her, blinded her temporarily, and left her drained and weak. Then the colors faded, and she saw him above her.
Valentine withdrew his hands and stared down at her blankly. He blinked. Then he rose slowly off her and backed away.
"Go away," she ordered between clenched teeth. Her hands came up to her head, holding it to help her concentrate through the pain. Panting, she watched him turn mindlessly and go out, keeping a mental tether on him so she knew where he was.
For a moment she just lay panting on the floor, keeping up the pressure as he got into his car and left the grounds. She was trembling now, horrified at what had happened. Valentine had reminded her of what she was, what she was capable of doing. And now, to save her own life, she had done it again.
Once outside her range, the man would calm down. His normal emotions would return to their twisted perspective, and he would be doubly displeased that she had gotten away from him once more. But for now, she needed to stay focused, pushing him until he was far away, and she was safe.
She sat huddled in the corner, her head pounding so badly it made her nauseated. She could barely see, unable to make sense of her surroundings just yet. There would be time for that later. Now she just needed to pull herself together.
But she had to stay strong. She had to stay in control. Her life depended on it.
She recognized the voice, though she still couldn't see through the flickering lights exploding in her brain. "Jarod?" she called faintly.
Footsteps rushed toward her, and a familiar voice whispered, "Oh, my God." Hands touched her, gentle hands examining her for injury. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"
"Not really," she whispered. "I'll -- I'll be okay."
A new set of hands touched her, on her shoulder and arm, and she instinctively pulled away. "Who's that?"
There was a note of startled surprise in Jarod's voice. "It's Namir. Can't you see him?"
She sighed. "Migraine. It's pretty bad this time."
Jarod held her hands in his, and Namir's lay on her forehead and against the back of her neck.
"Oh, my," said Namir. "Just lie still for a moment. I can help you a little here, but I'll need to work with you more once we leave this place."
"Okay. Sure." Faith was too exhausted to care. She dropped her mental pursuit of Valentine, and let Namir work his own particular brand of magic. After a few minutes, she was feeling a little better; the headache was still there, but reduced to tolerable levels.
Jarod helped her to her feet and walked her outside to the car. Trevor carried a Halliburton he had retrieved from the office as he slid behind the wheel, and Namir took his seat in the front, giving the back seat to the two old friends. Jarod pulled Faith close, his arm around her shoulders, and stroked a lock of hair away from her face as she rested her head on his shoulders.
"It's all right now," he promised her.
She felt the shock recede just a bit as her pent-up emotions began to surface, and she started to cry in earnest. Jarod seemed to understand that she needed the release; he simply held her, whispering platitudes as she slowly let go of the tight emotional reign that had been her way of life for so long.
The worst was over, at least for now. The only place to go from here was up.
* * * * * * * * *
"You sure you're okay?" Jarod asked.
"I'm fine, Jarod," Faith assured him for the umpteenth time. "Just a little shaky. That will go away after I've had some rest." She punched the 12th floor button.
He raised an eyebrow at her in inquiry. "Angelique knows you're okay," he reminded her. "She can wait to see you till morning."
"She needs to see me now," Faith argued gently, wearily. "She needs me to hold her." Pushing past him, she stepped out into the foyer, where an anxious Nancy stood in her pajamas, holding the little girl's hand.
"Mommy!" Angelique called. "Mommymommymommy!" She ran to Faith, who took the toddler in her arms, thanking Nancy and assuring her that they'd be fine for the rest of the night.
Without another word, Faith turned and headed back to the elevator, smiling and kissing her daughter as the child loved her back.
"Why don't you let Angelique stay with Gabriel and me tonight?" Jarod suggested, "You really need to rest, and you'll do it best if you're by yourself."
Faith eyed him grumpily, her expression admitting that he was right. She turned to the child and asked if she'd like to sleep with Gabriel for the night.
Angelique nodded reluctantly. "Sleep wif you tomorrow?" she asked, her eyes big and round and pleading.
"Absolutely. I promise." Faith started to take Angelique into Jarod's room herself, but he gestured her on down the corridor to her own rooms.
Waiting until he was certain she was in bed, he took Angelique to his rooms and bedded the little girl into the bunk with Gabriel. Asking the nanny to stay on duty for just a few more minutes, he made a special trip to Elizabeth's room, knocking quietly on her door and hoping she wasn't sleeping as well.
She answered the door with a book in her hands, her dark curls tumbling over her forehead. "Jarod! Is Faith all right? This place has been in an uproar all evening."
"Yeah. She's fine," he replied grimly. "But she's been through a lot. Could you keep a special watch on her tonight? She's bound to have nightmares, and I'm sure they'll be pretty nasty."
"Yeah, sure, mate," Elizabeth promised him. "I'll take care of her."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
"We'll talk later. Good night, Jarod."
He headed back to his room and pulled out his cellular phone once he was alone. Reporting in to Miss Parker didn't take much time, but he had to let her know that her sister was all right. Faith hadn't spoken about what happened during her ordeal, but he knew it was serious. He'd get her to talk about it later, when she was stronger.
But for now, he wanted her to rest.
* * * * * * * * *
He answered the door shirtless and sweating.
"Valentine! What the hell are you doing here?"
The sweeper stood in the hallway outside the apartment, hands in his trouser pockets, smirking up at him. "Am I interrupting something?" His eyes roved over Lyle's torso provocatively.
Lyle felt distinctly uncomfortable under that intimate scrutiny. "What do you want?" he snapped.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?"
His first instinct was to close the door, or at least block it with his body. "Is this business related?"
Valentine's eyes darkened, and all trace of amusement left his face. "I'd say so, yes. Project Looking Glass is still business, as far as I know."
Lyle opened the door wide and closed it after the man. "Is that what you've been doing for the past three days? Did you kill her?"
The sweeper stiffened, and shook his head. "I tried," he admitted sadly. "But next time you can be sure I'll take your advice and do it long distance, with high velocity lead poisoning, instead of my hands." He sighed and hung his head. "I had her, boss. Had her right in my hands."
"And she got away," Lyle shot back, disgust rising like bile in his throat. "That was a stupid mistake. You knew better--"
Valentine lunged at him, clasping Lyle's face in his hands. "I do things my way, Bobby," he rasped hotly.
Lyle could feel the other man's breath on his lips, he was so close. He froze, not wanting to further antagonize his underling. This was a dangerous man, and Lyle knew it. He just waited, knowing Valentine would let go when he was ready.
He did, and then stomped a few steps away, head down, massaging the back of his neck. "I had my own plans for her, boss. Things I wanted to try. I was careful, and I did have some time with her." He stopped pacing and turned to stroll back toward his host. "I learned a few things from her. Things about Eclipse. Things I'll bet even you don't know."
Lyle didn't like being so close to his guest, and retreated toward his bedroom. But remembering what had been going on in there before the sweeper arrived, he halted beside the doorway. "I know everything I need to know about Eclipse, thanks."
Valentine just stared at him for a moment, then sauntered closer, his eyes dark and gleaming.
The skin on the back of Lyle's neck prickled and his hackles stood on end in warning.
The sweeper came to stand right in front of him, inches away, and placed one hand on the wall beside Lyle's head. He didn't dare step backward, both because it would be seen as a sign of weakness, of retreat, and because he knew Valentine would follow him into the bedroom. He didn't want the other man in there, for a variety of reasons.
"Did you know it was meant to fail?" Valentine murmured, pressing closer until his body pinned Lyle's to the wall. "Did you know you were a guinea pig, a trial run to see if it would work, before they tried it on the one real subject they wanted to change?"
Lyle swallowed hard. "No."
"You smell like sex, Lyle," Valentine observed softly, sniffing at Lyle's chest and face. "Do you have a woman in there?"
"I don't share." Lyle was distinctly uncomfortable, too aware of the hard muscled, well toned body of the other man, a graphic reminder of his physical power.
Valentine grinned. It was a slow, sexy smile, meant to charm, to entice. "I didn't ask to share," he reminded his boss. "But any time you're interested "
He grasped Lyle's face gently in his left hand, making his lips pucker slightly.
"Don't kiss me again," Lyle ordered, anger boiling up inside him now, corroding his fear until it crumbled. He shoved the other man backward. "Don't you ever touch me like that again, Valentine, or I'll sanction you myself! Understood?"
With a chuckle, Valentine straightened his suit. "Understood, boss. But who knows? You might like it."
"I thought you liked women," Lyle spat, rubbing his chest where the other man had touched him, as if he could rub off the contact.
"Women? They like me," he responded coolly.
"So are you gay? Do you have a thing for me? Is that what this is all about?" Lyle was seething now, mind racing to all the places in the room where he had weapons stashed.
"I have no sexual preference," the sweeper answered dispassionately. "It's not about sex, anyway. For me, it's about power, just like it is for you. And power is very, very sexy... But you'll be happy to know you passed the test, boss man. Not everybody I've served has earned my allegiance. You just did." He offered a gracious bow, smiling as he lifted his head. "We can do great things together. All you have to be is strong enough to keep me under you, and the world will be your oyster."
Lyle narrowed his eyes, suspicious of what sounded too much like innuendo. "I don't want you under me, Valentine. I want you as my right arm."
The sweeper laughed, glancing down at Lyle's thumbless left hand. "You're right handed, aren't you?"
Lyle's face flamed as he got the inference, and glared at the man. "That's enough. Got anything more on Looking Glass?"
With a shrug, the sweeper shook his head. "I'll find her again, boss. You can bet the farm on that. And when I do " He held up his right hand in imitation of a cocked pistol, and fired it. "Bam. Seven years bad luck."
"I'll make sure you stay in the proper good graces," Lyle assured him. "As long as you don't touch me again."
"As you wish," Valentine assured him, and let himself out the door.
Lyle breathed a sigh of relief and bolted the door after him. The man alarmed him, and he knew that it would be difficult maintaining control over a maverick like that. He would have to be ready to act, in case Valentine threw his fickle allegiance in with someone else. The only problem was, who else had the capability of taking out such a skilled sweeper? No one came to mind immediately, but he would give it some thought.
After, of course, he finished the floor show and the dinner to follow. He turned and headed back into the bedroom, reaching for the hidden door inside the closet as he licked his lips in anticipation of the meal to come.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod could hear Jordan moving about next door, and asked him to listen for Gabriel or Angelique getting up, even though it was very late. The teenager was up working on his portion of the medical research, and agreed with a brief smile. Jarod wondered if his elder son had gotten any sleep that night, and promised himself to make sure the boy rested some the next day.
Heading out of his suite, Jarod wandered past the MacKenzie's apartment, but decided not to knock. Sebastian's sleep was precious enough, but there were things on the Pretender's mind that left him too restless to sleep. Heading up to the observation deck, he decided to mull over his problems and see if he could come up with his own solutions.
Part of the deck had recently been enclosed with a series of glass panels, turning it into a kind of climate-controlled sun room. He found the others there. Sebastian was reclining on one of the sun loungers, and Trevor stood at one of the windows, a velvet smoking jacket over his satin pajamas. Namir sat on an ottoman nearby, leaning elbows on knees as he pondered the subject of conversation. All heads turned when the Pretender arrived in the room.
"We've been talking about the Centre, mate," Sebastian informed him. "It's a threat to all of us, and this incident with Faith just enhances that." He sighed. "I'm sorry about what happened to her. She'll be okay, won't she?"
"I hope so," Jarod answered with a sad smile. He ran his hands through his dark hair, trying to tone down the memories of what he had seen earlier. Trevor had given him the DSAs found at the carnival supply house, and he had spent most of the night watching them. He was sickened by what he had seen, by what had been done to Faith through the years. "I know she's strong, Sebastian. But she's vulnerable, too. And this guy was really pushing her buttons. I still don't know all of what he did or said, but I can imagine. I'm good at that sort of thing."
"We'll help her," the Australian assured him.
"Yes, we will," Namir agreed. "She's one of us."
"Part of our family." Trevor slipped his hands into his jacket pockets and bowed his head in thought. "Thank God for those kids. If it hadn't been for them "
Jarod flinched away from the memory of watching the Seraphim working together, but forced himself to look back at it, to study what it was that had so disturbed him about it. He strolled up to one of the windows and looked out over the city's twinkling lights. "Sebastian, about the children "
He turned to regard the other man directly. "They all knew Faith was in danger," he said slowly. "They all knew which direction she had gone, but only a few of them are psychic. Have you thought about that?"
The Aussie's brow furrowed. "No. Why would I? They're all gifted kids. Special."
Jarod stared intently. "But they all knew. All of them. As if they had one mind."
For a long time, no one in the room spoke. Sebastian stared back, horror dawning on his face as the implication set in. "You mean, they really do have one mind? Like bees in a hive?"
The Pretender shrugged. "Probably not to that degree. But I do believe there's a connection of some sort between them. Possibly on the order of the link between twins."
"But how " Sebastian shook his head, held it with his hands, refusing to accept such a notion. "That's not possible. Science isn't there yet."
Jarod swallowed the lump forming in his throat. "Maybe not in the rest of the world. But in the Centre, yes. It is."
Shock gleamed in the Aussie's eyes. He got up quickly, patting at his thigh as the cloth began to smolder. "Breathe," he reminded himself. "Deep breaths."
"My God," Trevor whispered. "These people are even worse than we thought."
Jarod watched Sebastian, but he seemed to be under control. When the other man relaxed back onto the chair, he continued. "Faith made a comment before she left that I've been thinking about. She said the Seraphim have more power than their small bodies and minds can handle, and that's very true. The Centre wanted to exploit them, train them to serve the Triumvirate. We can't allow that, but they will need training to keep their gifts under control. They'll have to be handled just right, or they'll grow up with very dangerous minds, capable of anything. And their first allegiance will always be to each other."
Sebastian swallowed hard. "Are you saying we should be afraid of them?"
"No," Jarod assured him. "But each of us will have to be aware of the damage already done to them. They'll need extra compassion, understanding and love. And they'll need to be taught respect for others, for life, so they'll chose to do good things with their skills rather than manipulate others to suit their whims."
"Which they'll certainly be capable of doing," Sebastian added sadly. He buried his face in his hands. "Oh, my God."
Silence descended on the group, and all eyes turned outward to the twinkling city, just beginning to blush in the first rays of dawn.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker flung both doors open and strode through with a glare that could have cut through marble. "I don't like being used," she snarled at the man behind the desk.
"Nice to see you, sis," Lyle replied casually. "To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of this visit?"
"Was this your bright idea, or did your team come up with it on their own?"
He sneered back at her. "Well, if I knew what you were talking about, maybe I could help you. Unfortunately, I have no idea."
"I've been chasing our mother's ghost in Frankfort for the past three days, you moron," she snapped, tossing a printout of the electronic photo onto his desk. "Did you catch Faith or not?"
Low-pitched laughter bubbled into her ear as he studied the print. "No one's reported in to me, so I really don't know. But Valentine has been out of pocket for a couple of days, now that you mention it. Said he had a lead on a Blue file, but didn't tell me which one. I'll be anxious to hear about this myself."
"You want to tell me where you've been, or do I have to dig it out of your expense report?"
He smiled secretively. "Camping," he assured her. "You know how I love the great outdoors."
She curled her lip in disgust, certain she knew what else he had been doing in the backwoods. "Just make sure you keep me informed," she ordered, and turned to leave.
Her chest hurt. This had been the cruelest thing ever done to her, and someone was going to pay. She tended to believe Lyle, transparent as he was, but she couldn't be sure. If Valentine was behind it, she'd handle him herself. But if it really was Lyle's idea, she'd have to be careful in how she exacted her vengeance. To give her that hope, even for an instant, that her mother might still be alive, and then snatch it away
She took a deep breath and swallowed down her tears. At least she had the comfort of knowing that Faith was all right, that she had managed to escape again. That might have to be vengeance enough for the moment. But she wouldn't forget this attack on her heart.
* * * * * * * * * *
Faith still had her shoes in hand as she opened the door to her late morning visitor, slipping them on as she mumbled a morning greeting to her old friend.
Jarod studied her expression. "How's the headache?"
She shot him a startled glance. "How did you know I have a headache?"
"It's written all over your face. I'll take you up to the infirmary in a minute, so Namir can take another look at you."
"I'll be fine," she assured him.
"It's a good thing he was there yesterday," Jarod told her, his voice thick with emotion. "I guess there's no easy way to put this, but -- he said that if you had gone to bed untreated, you would probably have died during the night."
Faith felt as if the floor had suddenly dropped out from beneath her, and she was falling with it. She swallowed hard. "What does that mean? What's wrong with me?"
He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. "Apparently, it's a side effect of the use of your gift," he murmured against the top of her head. "You'll always be able to sense emotion. That's ingrained in you, and the energy required is so small it's hardly any different from breathing. But when you use your mirror talent "
He sighed and squeezed her closer. "You can't do that anymore, Faith. It's causing physical damage. I know you feel it, but You weren't going to tell anyone, were you?"
She struggled out of his embrace, pushing him back far enough to look up into his face. "Tell me," she insisted. "What does it do?"
"The effects seem to be cumulative," he explained, shifting to cool, clinical detachment, as if he were a doctor delivering a diagnosis. "Your neural pathways are worn from the overuse. If you live the rest of your life without boosting anyone else's emotions, you'll be fine. But if you push too hard or once too often, the consequences could be fatal."
She saw the guardedness in his expression, as if he was waiting for her to fall apart. Strangely enough, the news was unsettling, but not a complete surprise. She had known for some time that using her gift had after-effects, like the migraines she'd had lately. The fact that they were the result of trauma to her body wasn't that big a leap.
Faith nodded her head. "Okay. So I live a normal life from now on. I can do that." She smiled, relieved now that she had such a limit imposed on her. "I want to do that. I want to be normal."
Jarod reached out and clasped her face in his hands, his eyes still dark with worry. "You're really sure you're okay?"
She patted his hands fondly. "Yes, I'm sure. I just want to see my daughter, play with her for a while. Thanks, old friend. I'm glad you were watching my back."
"I think you may not be the only one this is happening to," he informed her with a sigh. "Looks like there's more research to do now, on all of our gifted people." He sighed. "And there's more. I know you're going to be angry, but I watched some of your DSAs last night."
She sighed and turned away from him, but remained silent.
"Talk to me, Faith. Tell me about what happened at the warehouse. You need to talk to someone. Let me help you carry the burden. Please?"
You're a monster, Faith. Admit it.
Mr. White wasn't the first person you killed. Why don't you tell me about that?
You enjoy the power, making people do what you want. Don't you, Faith?
Valentine had been right. She did enjoy that power, in some small, dark part of her soul. The Centre, and Raines, had taught her how. She was a monster, and she knew it. She had always known.
The earnestness in Jarod's eyes, the gentleness in the way he reached out to her struck home. "All Valentine did was offer me a reminder of who I really am."
Anger flared in Jarod's dark eyes. "You're not what the Centre made you," he snapped. "That's what I used to think about myself " His voice became very gentle. " until I took some advice offered by a very wise friend of mine."
Faith crossed her arms and started searching aimlessly for something that would distract her from those eyes, filled now with sympathy. She couldn't bear that. "And what would that be?"
"That I'm not a monster, could never be one," he replied. "She told me to put the blame where it belongs, forgive myself, and move on."
Recognizing her own words, she cracked a half smile. "Touché."
"You do want to move on, don't you?" he asked softly.
She felt deflated, worn out by the events of the past 24 hours. "Of course I do, Jarod." She sighed, and risked a glance at his compassionate face. "There was a time not too long ago when I was your teacher, more or less. Now it's your turn. Funny how that happens, isn't it?"
He stepped closer and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. "You're not my teacher, Faith, and you're not my student."
He was so close, so there And so very far away, always just out of reach.
"Then what am I?" she asked slowly.
He paused. The corners of his mouth softened into the beginnings of a smile that never quite materialized. "That's something I thought we might explore, if you're interested."
Faith didn't dare to hope, but her heart fluttered in her chest. She smiled back, aware of how close he stood to her, of the warmth of his hands on her shoulders, sliding now down her arms and leaving goosebumps in their wake. "Yes," she breathed.
He leaned down to her, just touching her lips with his, his breath warm and sweet. She wanted more, but had no clue what to do; this was her first kiss. Faith had never imagined it happening with anyone, or anyone wanting her, and so had not paid attention to the mechanics.
She was sure her eyes were dancing as he pulled away and looked down at her. She felt as if her cheeks were on fire, and ducked beneath his chin to hide her embarrassment and awkwardness, leaning her face against his chest. His arms swept around her gently, and for a moment, just the briefest instant, she felt a flicker of something she had only experienced second-hand.
"You have to stop hiding from the world, Faith," he urged her softly. "I'll help you, if you'll let me. And whatever lies in wait for us, we'll get through it. Together, we can face anything."
She smiled against his shirt. "I know. Monsters and all."